Creating History: Self-Image and Women in Leadership

When I set out to write this post, I thought I simply wanted to culminate the awesome set of experiences I have had over the last 30 days or so throughout Women's History Month. As a social entrepreneur celebrating women by both seeking to inspire and to be inspired, I found that this March provided great variety in empowering women and girls to lead, create and stand for what we believe in, three attributes that have a long history of being frowned upon in women. Fortunately, many of our foremothers who made it possible for this generation of women and girls to lead, create and stand fought against these notions and have taught us that going against the grain of our cultural norms creates history. From engaging with the formidable young women currently attending my alma mater to celebrating women who are rising stars in their respective industries, recognizing National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day to #BanBossy this Women's History Month has a lot to recap.

I kicked off our celebration of Woman's History Month by participating as an alum on the Entrepreneurship Panel of Cornell University's inaugural Dyson Symposium on Women in Leadership. While I am always excited to return to the Big Red to interact with students, this trip for the symposium carried with it a unique feeling of distinction to be among this specially selected group of women. With packed rooms for each of the sessions, I was enthused to see that these young women and girls have dreams. More girls are rapidly expressing an interest in becoming entrepreneurs, owners and change agents today than in my time as a student eight years ago. While I found that the vast majority of students believed in their capabilities to lead, create and stand in business, the question remained whether young women are carrying this positive self-image into their personal lives?

For me, it is about women being fearless in a 360° way, understanding how self-image affects women and girls both personally and professionally. My drive, as March is also home to National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, is to advocate for how critical it is to have the same gumption, sense of esteem and positive self-image that we promote for women in leadership apply to women and girls making positive personal choices, particularly relating to HIV/AIDS prevention, testing, and treatment. Although it has yet to be quantified, all women have known or will know that moment when their stance has waived because of a lack of confidence in their self-image.

Melyssa Ford gets it... agreeing in a recent sit-down with me that there is a direct correlation between a woman's self-image and her decision to both protect herself and to pursue her dreams. Coming off the first season of Bravo TV's "Blood, Sweat, & Heels," and an avid HIV/AIDS advocate, Melyssa represents in the media a large contingent of women, especially women of color who are creating their own careers while navigating the trials and triumphs of life, relationships, and a world that will tear down your self-image if you do not build it up in yourself. Melyssa's story, which is no stranger to public scrutiny, is one of a woman who has learned to walk in confidence. "[Confidence] is rooted in intellect... if you have a true belief in who you are, and your gifts, and your cultivated attributes, and your sense of character and how strong it is... you know you will be able to weather any storm," Melyssa said. I find these words to ring true for the personal and professional lives of all women and girls. We must start to encourage our girls at an early age to be confident in who they are, to form a positive self-image, to be the curators of the next big idea, to try and fail and stand again, and to require their partner(s) to use a condom each and every time.

I look forward to seeing what steps several of the amazing young women I met this month take next in their lives, and there is more to come from big sister Melyssa and a great number of women who inspired me this month to continue on my journey from the venerable Audrey Smaltz to Deborah Streeter, Gail Monroe-Perry, Marilyn Laverty, Lala Anthony and Po Johnson, Claire Simon and Kymsha Henry, Dr. Aletha Maybank, Zanetta Addams-Pilgrim, Hydeia Broadbent, Akua Soadwa, Beverly Bond, Erica Nicole, the 2014 Heroines of Excellence, Mrs. Elizabeth Simms, my Sorors, and while there are many more, most certainly included are my grandmothers and my mom, Dr. Darlene Riggins White, who has been my example of a woman leader long before I had my own dreams.

My mom is a woman of firsts, as both the first African-American woman to enroll and graduate from the University of Buffalo School of Dental Medicine and the first African-American woman to establish a private dental practice in Western New York. My mom is a successful entrepreneur, community activist and I am awestruck as I watched her continue to challenge herself this month in pursuing her next leadership dream. Mom has always encouraged me to make good choices, to create my own career, and to love smartly, while always being there to catch and support me when my decisions were not so great. So this Women's History Month, with all the women I admire and the next generation, I hope to inspire in tow, I thank my mom for being a woman who leads, creates and stands, who embraces her bossy, and who understands that "well-behaved women rarely make history." I am proud to be able to say the apple does not fall far from the tree.