The future is female, but for the members of the Young Women’s Alliance, the future is now.
By Kathryn Freeman
When I graduated from law school and was thrust into the real world, like many twenty-somethings, I had no idea what it meant to be a working professional. Following in the footsteps of my peers, I turned to Google for guidance. This is how I found the Young Women’s Alliance (YWA). Now as a late thirty-something, I can confidently say that YWA helped make me the professional and leader I am today.
Carol Thompson founded the Young Women’s Alliance in 1993 in her living room with 20 women who wanted to network and trade business development strategies. Today, YWA’s mission is to “build a community that supports, empowers and connects women.”
The Young Women’s Alliance Mission
The organization focuses on four areas to achieve its mission: service, leadership, education and networking. The breadth of the organization helps many women find their place professionally and socially.
Growing from 20 women in 1993 to 582 women in 2022, YWA has launched many Austin women. From marketing associates to chief marketing officers, entrepreneurs, state government employees and Austin City council people for District 2. Even for women who have not yet reached the pinnacle of their careers, YWA is a place where they can learn to fight imposter syndrome, cultivate leadership skills, raise money for scholarships and build community.
Austin is the fastest growing metro area in the U.S., with 37,000 people moving to the city a year. So finding footing as a young female leader can feel both daunting and urgent. Creating the networks needed for personal and professional development can be difficult under normal circumstances. But at the height of the pandemic, it was near impossible.
This was the case for Eunice Park. She moved to Austin from San Francisco a few months before the pandemic hit and like many of us spent 2020 stuck inside her apartment. “[YWA] helped me get out of my shell,” she says. “I [needed]to be part of the Austin community.” Park joined in 2021 as part of the “new year, new me” crowd but quickly found her place serving, first as the vice president of membership, then the next year serving as the vice president of strategic planning.
YWA Provides Opportunities for Growth
Young women in the workforce face many barriers: sexism, sexual harassment, discrimination. Add being the primary caregivers to children or aging parents; this means women are consistently underrepresented at every level of corporate America. According to a report by McKinsey and leanin.org, fewer women are hired than men into entry-level positions even though women are 57% of recent college graduates. The disparities increase at every ensuing career milestone. Women are only 20% of C-suite leaders; for women of color the numbers are even more abysmal as they only account for 1 in 30 C-suite leaders. There are systemic barriers to gender parity in corporate America. But YWA helps female leaders acquire skills and networks usually closed off to women who rely solely on their employers.
Park says YWA gave her the opportunity to grow in skills that she has not had an opportunity to explore in professional life yet. “I am really interested in strategic planning, but I haven’t necessarily had as many opportunities to [pursue it].” Fabiana Meléndez Ruiz, a public relations professional, agrees that YWA provides women the opportunity to stretch their professional skills. “[As public relations chair] YWA is my client,” she says. “I was on the hook for developing and executing the program pro bono while providing counsel to the organization.”
YWA Creates Leaders
While these women are strengthening their resumes for future career developments, they are ready to lead now. And YWA is providing them with the opportunity.
Young female professionals are sometimes denied the same opportunities YWA makes available to them. According to Pew Research, women are more likely to be treated as incompetent at work and passed over for important assignments, while also less likely to receive support from senior leaders. In addition to providing the space to grow personally and professionally through leadership projects that might be otherwise out of reach, YWA offers support through mentorship and networking. President-elect Leah Christensen wanted to move from the construction industry to the tech industry. But a YWA-facilitated connection helped her walk through previously closed doors. “[They] were a true advocate for me and made sure I had the opportunity to show my value to the company,” she shares. Christensen is not alone; YWA members and mentors are known to help transform glass ceilings into open doors.
YWA & The Confidence Code
A Wednesday-night YWA speaker series transformed how I approach my career. I had let fear and perfectionism keep me from going for more and was stuck. During that speaker series, attendants learned a startling fact. Women only apply for promotions when they meet 100% of the qualifications while men will apply when they meet 60%. According to The New York Times bestselling book The Confidence Code, the confidence gap between men and women in corporate environments is one of the factors that hamper women’s ability to “lean in.”
Authors Katty Kay and Claire Shipman write, “Underqualified and underprepared men do not think twice about leaning in; [in contrast]overqualified and overprepared women still hold back.”
But YWA is changing the confidence calculus for many young female leaders by giving them opportunities to lead high-profile projects, like the Austin Under 40 awards. Lauren Kaufman, finance professional and the current YWA president, says, “Leading YWA gave me the confidence to know that I can and will be a CEO one day.”
Some young women need the confidence to remember that “perfect” is not a legitimate job qualification. YWA has helped many former and current members ask for more—money, mentorship, time off and responsibility.
Vice President of Development Brianna Fuller says, “[YWA] helped me overcome any feelings of self-doubt, or imposter syndrome…[it]allowed me the room to grow comfortable in taking up space as a leader among our 500+ members.”
When imposter syndrome deceives so many young women into thinking they do not belong or do not have what it takes, YWA helps remind the future of Austin what is true about themselves.
YWA has changed how young women think about themselves and their careers. They are no longer passive participants in the workplace. If they want more responsibility, they ask for it. If they want to be challenged and grow in their careers, they can leave a place where they are not thriving. Ruiz learned a similar lesson. “YWA has really pushed me to develop as a leader, both in my industry and overall. First, I had to decide to leave a job that I loved to continue growing as a leader and a professional. I was matched with an official mentor who provided guidance and advice.”
Ruiz offers this same advice to fellow young leaders. “Don’t be afraid to fail. Failure is essential to growth, and it’s a very human experience. Without failure there is no learning, pivoting, reframing and challenging of your own mindset and biases. Once you remove that fear, there’s a lot of freedom in reframing your own mindset and focusing on what you think success is.”
It is amazing how many of their members share similar advice for their peers. “Go for it,” Christensen encourages. “Show up and always be open to learning new things. The small things can lead to a big impact.”
Says Kaufman, “Do the things that scare you. [YWA] helped me realize that in order to have the life I wanted, I was going to have to push myself to get out of my comfort zone.” The world needs more unafraid female leaders. The women of YWA are women to watch, but they are not waiting to make their mark on Austin. They are making their mark now.
Since 2011, YWA has awarded almost $200,000 to young women in and around Austin for college scholarships and has awarded over $50,000 in grants to organizations powering the next generation of female leaders like Girls Empowerment Network and GirlStart. The women of YWA recognize that Austin is changing and like any good leader; they are preparing now to meet the opportunity. According to the 2020 census, Austin is now a majority-minority city; future leaders need to prepared to lead both today’s workforce and the workforce of the future.
Last year, disheartened by the lack of ethnic and racial diversity in the organization—even as the leadership has diversified over the last few years, the organization remains 67% white—the leaders decided to create a Diversity, Equity and Belonging (DEB) plan to address the disparity. “YWA has served as a place that facilitates networking opportunities and supports Austin’s next generation of women leaders,” says Ruiz. “It was time to elevate and expand on that impact from a diversity and inclusion lens to improve representation at all levels.”
Kaufman sees the value of diverse perspectives when it comes to her future as a CEO. “YWA has exposed me to working with all different types of backgrounds, industries, skill sets and personalities. I think about ‘managing’ people in a completely different way than I used to and try to create a culture where people feel safe to bring their true selves and where differences are celebrated.”
Being named “a leader to watch” can make one feel like they are only a success once they have achieved their personal and professional goals. When they are the CEO, CMO or an elected official. But the women of YWA have so much to offer Austin right now. It is inspiring to watch a young woman with a fear of public speaking get up and speak at the Austin Under 40 awards, or a woman who is not in a STEM field gives hours of her time to GirlStart because she knows it is important for young girls to know the STEM field is for them. These small steps forward are shaping our future leaders in imperceptible but important ways.