YWCA Leaders: Making Local and Global Change

William Shakespeare’s line “Though she be but little, she is fierce” has no place at the YWCA Metropolitan Chicago chapter’s Leadership Luncheon. The group is not little — as seen by the sea of tables inside the Fairmont Chicago’s banquet hall — but it certainly is fierce in its devotion to promoting women in business both in Chicago and around the world.

Last week the YWCA honored five women who have worked to increase awareness and success for women trying to start careers. The theme, “Local women, global impact,” follows the idea that business leaders looking to make a change in their own neighborhoods can influence the rest of the world by setting an example for other executives and entrepreneurs.

“It's not just in Chicago that women make it happen,” said YWCA CEO Dorri C. McWhorter in her opening address. “It's everywhere.”

And where they are making change is in helping others get past the three obstacles to success that face women around the world: susceptibility to violence, lack of accessible education and the inability to achieve economic sustainability.

This year’s awards went to businesswomen who couple having a stake in the community with a global vision. The Outstanding Leader Award for global citizenship went to Julie Smolyansky, who because the youngest female CEO of a publicly held firm when she took over Lifeway Foods at age 27. Since then, she has boosted annual revenues from $12 million when she took over to $90 million in 2012.

“The fight for women's rights is global, and we must scale it,” Smolyansky said upon receiving the award. “History will judge us whether we support the most vulnerable of the world." Her advice to the group was to act local and think global by using privilege and platform to make the world a better place.

McDonalds Corp.’s global chief diversity officer, Pat Harris, received the Outstanding Leader Award for Business for developing and implementing the fast food company’s diversity practices in more than 120 countries. Under her direction, the company has been named as one of the best places to work for minorities by multiple publications such as Fortune and Black Enterprise Magazines. Women have been key to McDonald’s business success by understanding and respecting everyone “on both sides of the counter,” Harris said.

The other winners included Connie Duckworth, CEO and founder of ARZU Inc., a company that helps Afghan women start their own businesses; Zainab Khan, an artist who uses her craft to start conversations and bring awareness to social justice issues; and Kathleen Wright, founder and CEO of Piece & Co., an organization that looks at providing sustainable employment to women artisans in the developing world by partnering them with large brands like Toms Shoes, J. Crew and Tory Burch.

Although they came from different places, all five winners had the same core idea at the heart of what they do: helping women achieve economic success means not only improving their way of life but also creating a stronger world economy and society. Doing that starts at home in our own businesses and communities.

“It's only through lifting up this side of the world that we can change the rest of it,” Duckworth said. “Through jobs, peace happens."