Chicago’s South Side Bronzeville neighborhood, a center of African-American life and culture, hosted the 2019 Obama Foundation Summit at the Illinois Institute of Technology on October 29, 2019. The Advancing Women in Product (AWIP) team was invited to cover the Summit as press, and from the perspective of a female empowerment and advocacy NGO. (Kira Alvarez from the AWIP team covered the Summit.)

The South Side of Chicago was a deliberate choice. This region boasts a visionary past that has witnessed Ida B. Wells, President Obama, and Michelle Obama among others working toward social change. The Summit aptly chose the phrase “Places Reveal Our Purpose” as the conference theme, and touched on a number of pressing societal issues such as racism, poverty, and gender inequality. It showed that the South Side of Chicago is full of hope, love and energy that can inspire other places throughout the world. The critical role that communities and networks can play in supporting and promoting social advancement and opportunity was a powerful message from the 2019 Obama Foundation Summit.

Women leaders including Michelle Obama and Academy award nominee filmmaker Ava Duvernay spoke about their personal and professional journeys. These women showed that ambition and drive alone are not enough in pursuing a successful and fulfilling career. Support networks are key to achieving broader social change, especially for female advancement. This is in line with what researchers like Herminia Ibarra have remarked on the topic, that sponsors (both within and outside an organization) can help to accelerate careers and create opportunities. For Michelle Obama, support came from her family and a strong belief in self, which helped her overcome the prejudice she experienced growing up. For those who are looking to create their own support networks, search within your current social and professional networks – optimizing for those that will generate new opportunities.

An example of community engagement from the Obama Foundation is the Girls Opportunity Alliance (GOA), a program that seeks to empower girls and their respective communities through education. AWIP was invited to the intimate GOA roundtable with Michelle Obama, which featured international educators from countries including Cambodia, Guatemala, and Malawi who tirelessly work on the front lines to improve girls’ lives. According to Michelle, the lack of investment in female education is an international emergency: “What a waste. What a waste for society, what a waste for a family. What a waste for that girl’s soul to be trapped by her fate and not by her ability.”

The Girls Opportunity Alliance (GOA) empowers young girls in three dimensions: By growing an online network of grassroots leaders, by providing financial support for individual projects through GoFundMe, and by encouraging young people throughout the developed world to join the cause of promoting greater educational opportunities for women. GOA sees its work as not limited to a local or national context and therefore requires a transnational approach.  Creating an alliance of young women’s opportunities is ultimately about human rights. Investment in a network of girls’ education programs is key not just for the advancement of individual women, but also for the long-term advancement of societies. Being aware of opportunities outside one’s immediate surroundings, especially if those surroundings are limited by lack of resources, can be extremely freeing. According to the Gates Foundation 2019 Goalkeepers report, “the lack of access to education and jobs is destructive for everyone. It keeps women disempowered, limits their children’s life chances, and slows down economic growth.”

The Summit also featured other Chicago leaders who stressed the creation of strong networks and equality in education. Among them, Obama Foundation Scholars, Aimée Eubanks Davis and Dominique Jordan Turner, are founders of organizations that promote education and network creation. Ms. Davis, a 2018 Obama Fellow, is the CEO of Braven, an organization that works with universities and businesses to assist low-income, first-generation university students find employment post-graduation. Ms. Turner, a 2019 Obama Fellow, is the CEO of Chicago Scholars, a seven-year mentorship program that assists underprivileged Chicago youth in the college application process and subsequent employment search. Both Braven and Chicago Scholars are exemplary models of how organizations can provide disadvantaged students greater opportunities in the American educational system.  

Many of the students that participate in the Chicago Scholars or Braven program have the talent and ambition to succeed, but lack networks to help them create and sustain a career and might otherwise fall through the cracks. The programs therefore closely mentor underprivileged students by leveraging a large network of support including college counselors, potential employers, and alumni. Ms. Davis stressed, “referral networks are important in order to achieve career success.” Simply having a college degree and talent is no longer fully sufficient for gainful employment in the American workforce – that is the important lesson that these students are learning. Having the right skills through education is the first step but is much more effective when combined with a powerful support network. 

We find a similar root cause with the lack of women representation in tech leadership and executive ranks: many women already have their foot in the door and are often highly educated – but are often encountered with a glass ceiling. Organizations like Advancing Women in Product, Pink Innov, and the Operator Collective serve to stack the cards in the other direction: by creating opportunities where senior women can take a high-potential, rising leader under their wing. In a similar vein, these organizations are also creating communities and networks that encourage women to stay in the workforce and also introduce them to open leadership roles within the company as well as board seats for other companies. 

The 2019 Obama Foundation Summit ultimately demonstrated that social change requires not just hard work, but also the creation and sustainment of networks. Girls Opportunity Alliance, Braven, and Chicago Scholars are important models that utilize networks to help women and minorities achieve their goals. Let’s bridge the gap by building strong networks for ourselves and take our destiny into our own hands.

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