Empowering Young Women to Shoot for the Stars

A horizontal head and shoulders shot of three young women in a row looking at camera with focus on the first one.

I have always thought it was important that women in leadership positions invest time and effort in helping other women to advance in their careers.  More and more I have realized the importance of encouraging young women to pursue leadership positions as they plan their education and pursue their careers.  I have made a personal commitment to do more to encourage young women down a leadership path.

Earlier this month I gave a keynote presentation at an event focused on healthcare career pathways. The audience was comprised of high school and college students.  My goal was to encourage the group to pursue their higher education and consider a career in community health centers specifically, but certainly health care more broadly. I wanted to impress upon them the possibility of pursuing a leadership role in whatever health career they chose. I told them about my own personal and professional journey which led me to become a Managing Attorney of a law firm at the age of 28 and the CEO of a nonprofit at the age of 31.  I hoped to strike a balance between encouragement and inspiration to help them realize their potential for a leadership role was within their grasp. 

I was very moved when a young woman came up to me after my presentation – she was in tears as she spoke to me – and she told me it was the first time in her life that an accomplished Mexican-American woman had told her that she could do it. She told me that my presentation made her feel that even though she would have struggles along the way, and it would be hard, that she too could become a CEO one day.  I could tell that she had greatly needed to hear the words of encouragement I spoke that day, and it reaffirmed for me that I, and others like me in leadership roles, need to do more to support young women – particularly Latinas – and help them realize their full potential.  These young women are the future.  We need to do more to reach young women and encourage them to shoot for the stars.

Looking back on my path toward becoming a CEO, I am often reminded of the tremendous support I had along the way. As a child, I was instilled with the confidence and wherewithal that I could do anything I set my mind to. My parents were instrumental in my success from the beginning.  In particular, my mother served as a role model and mentor to me from a very young age.  As an Executive Secretary at San Jose City College, seeing my mother in action professionally during in my youth helped me to understand the importance of professionalism, commitment and high standards. 

She also supported me unconditionally in the high educational goals I set for myself – such as aspiring to attend UC Berkeley and Yale Law School – which are now both my alma maters.  My mom was my first mentor, showing me through her own actions the importance of a strong work ethic and leadership ability. She empowered me through her example that I could do anything or be anything I wanted – but she also showed me I was going to have to work hard to achieve success – just as she did.  It would not be handed to me.  

Later in my professional life, I had the benefit of befriending some amazing women who have helped to guide me with their constant motivation, guidance and constructive feedback. I have been blessed with amazing mentors — women who provided more than just support – they were my constant cheerleaders and they provided critical professional and personal advice to me along my leadership journey — all of them helped to make me who I am today.

There is a glaring need for more women in leadership – both in the nonprofit sector and in corporate America. A 2015 Guidestar report found that women make up less than half – 43 percent – of nonprofit CEOs. A similar study by the University of Denver and The White House Project, found that women constitute only 21 percent of leadership roles among nonprofits, though they make up 75 percent of the workforce.  

As President of the Castellano Family Foundation, I have become much more aware of how these issues are playing out in philanthropy. The latest data from the Council on Foundations Grantmakers’ Salary and Benefits research found that women hold only 31 percent of the CEO positions in the largest foundations and only 41 percent of all surveyed foundation board members are women. This is despite the fact that women represent 73 percent of full-time foundation staff.  When I look around at my fellow association CEOs in Sacramento, I see hardly any women and nearly no women of color. The issue in corporate leadership is even more dire with Forbes reporting that only 23 Fortune 500 companies have women CEOS – that’s less than five percent! This is truly unacceptable! And this doesn’t even get to the issues of pay equity and the fact that women make 80 percent of what men make for the same work according to a 2017 report from the American Association of University Women.  We will save that for another day.

The bottom line is we need to do more – and it starts with us. As women we should look to our daughters, our nieces, our cousins, our friends, our employees, and our peers. We can lead by example, show them and tell them that women can lead. That they are leaders now and they should work to be the leaders of the future. As women we often hold ourselves back – whether it be a promotion or a new job or a new opportunity of some kind. We owe it to ourselves and each other, and more importantly, to those coming up behind us. As women, we all need to take a more proactive role in empowering and challenging the young women in our lives to see themselves in leadership roles. If we don’t let them know of the possibilities and most importantly – that we believe in them – they may never reach their true potential.  

Which is why I am giving back and encourage all of you to do the same. Because we had so much support along the way, we really need to make that investment in each other. As women it’s important that we support each other personally and professionally – as friends and family.  Or in leading by example – something each and every one of us can do as well – showing the young women in our lives what is possible through our own actions.

I’m hoping to take what I have learned from the trailblazing mentors in my life to help to empower our future leaders of tomorrow. We must ensure that women have a seat at the table, as they will have a say in shaping the future. It is up to us to empower future generations, to push them, and to show them that anything is possible.  As I looked into the eyes of the young woman who approached me at the career pathways presentation, I saw the impact of her realization that more was possible for her.  The impact of knowing that there was someone in the world who had achieved a leadership position, and that someone believed in her and knew she could do it, too.  Every young girl can be a CEO – it is possible – and working together we can help make it happen.