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Women's History Month: Leaders in Philanthropy

Updated: Jun 10, 2022

This Women’s History Month, we’re excited to highlight women leaders in the community. It’s often difficult for women in leadership to overcome stereotypes and stigmas in order to lead. We are very excited to honor these women and share their perspectives and their suggestions for young women hoping to lead one day. With the example of women like these breaking through glass ceilings, anything is possible for our future female leaders.

Marty Hartman is the Executive Director at Mary’s Place, a nonprofit organization in Seattle that provides safe, inclusive shelter and services for women, children, and families on their journey out of homelessness.

What brought you to the position you find yourself in today? What sparked your passion for this cause?

My family moved frequently when I was a child. We moved 16 times before [I was in] the 5th grade. I really didn't like the first day of school or moving into a new neighborhood and I was scared to make new friends. My mother would always encourage us to go outside and be a friend to someone new, but it never got [easier]. Those feelings of being scared, feeling alone, and wanting a friend have stuck with me.

I got involved with a shelter that my church had organized for women who were experiencing homelessness and I saw how invisible they felt, how their voices were unheard, and I knew I needed to help. Mary’s Place began as the Church of Mary Magdalene, founded by the Rev Jean Kim. They didn’t have a permanent location: she met with homeless women in parks, on ferry boats, wherever they could gather. When they found a permanent location in a church basement [in 1999], they hired [me as the] director for their new women’s day center. I’ve been honored and so grateful to continue to work with women and families to help them find their voices, get their needs met, and move into housing.

What are some of the challenges you face in your day-to-day work? How do you overcome those challenges?

The greatest challenge and something that drives me every day is how we ensure that no child, no family, sleeps outside in our community. Identifying the gaps in service, the most effective ways to help families be safe inside, ideally in their own homes. I want to be sure that we’re getting the best information from nationwide resources on best practices, that we have an excellent staff that are implementing those ideas and programs, and, most importantly, that we’re gathering and using good data to drive decisions and share those results with policymakers, other homeless service providers, and our community.

What would you say to inspire young women considering leadership roles?

  • You don’t have to prove that you can do it all. Sometimes it is not easy or smooth. I like to say that I will “fumble, bumble, stumble imperfectly through life embracing it and not avoiding it.”

  • You can ask for help, and that's a good thing.

  • You don’t have to be perfect to be a successful leader.

  • Build a strong team around you, seek feedback from others at all levels, share your gratitude and be your authentic self!

Support Marty's nonprofit here.

Cheryl Roe is the President of InterConnection, an organization that refurbishes and ships computers nationwide to make information and communication technology accessible to underserved communities around the world.

What brought you to the position you find yourself in today? What sparked your passion for this cause?

I have been working in the nonprofit sector for almost 25 years. Most of my experience has been concentrated in social enterprise, creating pathways [for] underserved individuals with barriers to education and employment, promoting inclusive workplace practices, developing programs, leading workforce initiatives, process improvement, change management, and business development. After working in the aerospace industry for almost nineteen years I made a change to focus my energy and time on understanding and supporting women in transition. This was a transformational experience. Transitions are inevitable, sometimes planned and welcome, sometimes not. I learned to step back so I could step into my purpose: leading others. When the opportunity to become the President at InterConnection came up, I knew it was meant to be. [This position is] the intersection of my passions in a mission-centric environment, providing access to technology using frameworks in social equanimity. The mission drew me in but the staff’s commitment to the mission fueled my interest.

As a woman in your position of leadership, what are some of the challenges you face? How do you overcome those challenges?

As the first woman President at InterConnection, I felt both honor and responsibility in leading and propelling the organization forward. Some of the challenges were in deepening my knowledge of the industry, growing and diversifying revenue streams to increase our impact. COVID-19 has shined a light on the digital divide and social inequities. I have been able to overcome the challenges I face by working closely with my team, having support from the board, my family, colleagues, and friends. I have access to an amazing network of trailblazers. I have also learned to lead with grace and humility which helps in maintaining a calm, deliberate and strategic approach. I also practice mindfulness and self-care.

What would you say to inspire young women considering leadership roles?

  • Believe in yourself, be yourself, be authentic, read, stay curious, hone your skills and superpowers, trust your gut, be strong, and not afraid to have a shadow of vulnerability.

  • Be kind and respectful to others while being strong and fierce.

  • Lastly, go for it!

Support Cheryl's nonprofit here.

Melissa Arias is the President and CEO of the Pacific Northwest's corner of the Make-A-Wish foundation, which helps fulfill the wishes of children with critical illnesses.

What sparked your passion for this cause?

I have always been attracted to organizations that have a strong mission and a focus on health and education. When I was not working in this field, I was volunteering. I was struck by the importance of Make-A-Wish Alaska & Washington’s work and how it provides profound impacts to children facing critical illnesses and their families. The mission, the highly reputable brand, and the opportunity to expand its impact in an equitable, inclusive, and scalable way was an exciting challenge.

As a woman in a position of leadership, what are some of the challenges you face? How do you overcome those challenges?

In my early years of leadership, I was at organizations that were run by women. So I saw confident and capable women leaders all around me. That made some of the barriers I faced later in my career more of a rude awakening. Those challenges included being told that I was abrasive, that I needed to learn how to be quieter and smaller to be accepted in leadership, or having senior male leaders look past me to talk to my male junior colleagues for an answer I had already provided. Fortunately, I had developed strong female mentors to help me deal with those moments of adversity, and they provided tools and sometimes the confidence to leave and find a better opportunity. Having mentors and a network of female (and male) colleagues who were committed to my success and the success of other women was a huge benefit. I strongly advocate for mentor relationships because I have benefited so much, and I have always tried to reach back and bring others up with me. Knowing I had someone in my corner was huge for me and I hope I can be one of those people for other women.

What would you say to inspire young women considering leadership roles?

  • Speak up!

  • Trust your voice!

  • There are always people who want to help you succeed, so seek them out.

  • Know there are solutions when you face adversity.

Support Melissa's nonprofit here.

Lauri Hennessey serves as the CEO of LEV Foundation, an organization that works to ensure that every student in Washington state has access to an excellent public education.

What brought you to the position you find yourself in today? What sparked your passion for this cause?

I have been in nonprofits for most of my career, though my journey appears very random if you look at it. I had stints in government, PR agencies, running my own PR firm, and various other stops along the way. But my passion was always around kids, most importantly those who do not have the same privilege as others. I always volunteered on boards and in my own life but wanted to someday lead an organization that helps youth. I also have long been passionate about politics and using communications as a tool for advocacy. When I found out League of Education Voters was searching for a CEO, it felt like a perfect opportunity to do what I love best: help youth through advocacy, policy and communications. I am grateful every day I get to do what I love. And I also still volunteer on boards and do what I can in the community. As I look back over my long career, the trajectory may appear random, but I actually feel it has been a wonderful opportunity to try many different things.

I was enormously blessed to spend a period of time earlier at home with my kids, running a business consulting with nonprofits while taking care of the kids. This is perhaps my greatest blessing, the memory of that choice and of how right it was for me. My kids are all adults now and I could not be prouder of them and of all the memories I was able to create being there when they were young.

As a woman in your position of leadership, what are some of the challenges you face? How do you overcome those challenges?

One of my greatest challenges has always been that I am utterly transparent. Throughout my career, this came up as a challenge, particularly when I worked for people who did not share that value. [Now,] as a leader, I am finally able to truly create and live in a culture that I believe can be transparent, kind, and NOT toxic. I feel like society is finally catching up with this value. Some of those old presumptions of corporate intrigue are being found to not work, particularly with today’s younger workers. So I am happy to say my transparency is not a liability as a CEO in today’s workplace. Another challenge was around being a mom and finding a way to have a career and children, something women have struggled with forever. I overcame it and am blessed that I survived with a great career, but I feel tremendous compassion for so many peers/women friends who have not had the same experience. That’s why I meet with people and mentor whenever I can. Women need to support one another and pass on the kindness if they find success.

What would you say to inspire young women considering leadership roles?

  • Women can lead and be powerful. We need to not be afraid of feeling emotion and sharing it. That’s okay, even though my generation was taught it was not. We need to push for transparency and kindness.

  • Today we really, really need to dig deep and push ourselves around equity and privilege and do better with BIPOC women in the workplace.

  • Young women can advocate for themselves around their own parenting choices and ask the partners in their lives to make sacrifices, also.

  • I would create a pool of friends and mentors, support systems. It is hard to lead and you need to have people to talk to who are not in the workplace with you. I am so blessed that I have many of these colleagues and I come to them often!

Support Lauri's nonprofit here.

Laura Cancel is the CEO and Founder of NEDDIE, a tech company that partners with nonprofits and helps them to achieve their missions through providing tools and resources.

What brought you to the position you find yourself in today?

In 2017 I co-founded Puerto Rico We Care, a nonprofit based in Seattle that was providing aid to communities in Puerto Rico after the devastation of Hurricane Maria. We had over 100 volunteers and partnered with companies such as Microsoft and Costco to deliver aid. We were a “pop-up” nonprofit whose only goal was to help during that specific humanitarian crisis and then disband. Our success got the attention of other nonprofits that have been established for many years and yet had no such success as ours. While talking to these nonprofits I came to realize there was a big gap between technology and the nonprofit industry, a gap I wanted to close. After 2 years of research and many sleepless nights, I created NEDDIE.

As a woman in your position of leadership, what are some of the challenges you face? How do you overcome those challenges?

Being a Latina woman in the tech industry comes with its challenges. The tech industry still has a long way to go to have more diversity and inclusivity. Bringing more women to the tech industry has been one of my goals. I’ve been challenged for “thinking big” and because of it I’ve been called “a dreamer.” I never consider any task too big to accomplish. When I set my mind to do something, I strive to accomplish it. Even when the odds are not in my favor, I continue pushing forward and, even if things don’t go as planned, I always get the results I was looking for and see it as a success. When I started the idea of creating a system to provide aid to all of the 78 towns in Puerto Rico, I remember entering a meeting room at Amazon where I used to work and showing my vision to a group. I was challenged by someone who asked, “Do you know anything about how logistics work?” I responded that I didn’t work in logistics, to which their response was, “Then you don’t know what you are talking about, this will never work.”

This could have been the end of my idea. Instead, I moved forward, did my research, asked for help, and I put my design to the test. I recruited volunteers and set my plan in motion. The results? Thanks to my design, over 4,000 families in all 78 towns received aid. You won’t always get the support you seek, but I use this as a motivation. You have the power to continue moving forward and accomplish what you set your mind to do. There will be “dreamers” along the way that will join you.

Heather Jones is the Executive Director at Toys for Kids, a nonprofit that gives the gift of toys, scholarships, back-to-school supplies, and more to unhoused and disadvantaged children and families in Washington state.

What brought you to the position you find yourself in today? What sparked your passion for this cause?

When I moved back to Seattle from Los Angeles in 2010, I was having dinner with Rick and he had asked me if myself and my family would like to volunteer with Toys for Kids. At this point Toys for Kids was only volunteers. Two years into volunteering Rick asked if I would take over putting on their yearly Gala. I said yes of course. At this point, I was working a full-time job and volunteering with Toys for Kids. The first year I took over running their Gala I took them from raising $125K to $325K. I continued volunteering for 6 more years. In 2018 Toys for Kids had grown so much that I saw the need for them to have an official Executive Director. I put together a whole presentation on the pros and cons of why Toys for Kids needs an Executive Direction. I asked Rick to lunch and presented the idea to him. He immediately agreed to put me on a trial basis of 6 months to see how it goes. At the end of the year, Rick had me come to the Quarterly Board meeting. At this meeting, the board voted and made the decision to bring me on as the permanent Executive Director. Three years in and I am still in love with my job and can’t imagine myself anywhere else.

My passion for this cause is being able to help the kids that are less fortunate. I love being able to give these kids a chance to feel like every kid out there and not the kid that is needed. My background is in the sports and music industry. So, I am able to take my love for sports and music and bring it into the nonprofit world.

As a woman in your position of leadership, what are some of the challenges you face? How do you overcome those challenges?

[People often question] if I can actually do the job and am I too emotional for this position. [Many people say that women are too emotional]. However, I feel our emotions are what makes us passionate about what we love. My mother has been my strength behind the scenes. She taught me to never let anyone tell me I can’t do something, and that if someone says you can’t do it, then prove to them you can. So, I have always had that pushing me forward. I always have to remember that if I want something, go for it and ask. If they say no then let it drive you, learn from it, and then go after it again.

What would you say to inspire young women considering leadership roles?

  • Find a mentor. One of the greatest things I have done was finding a mentor to help me with paving the way. Your mentor can be a man or woman. My mentor is a man and I have learned a great deal in how he runs businesses and how to be a great leader.

  • Be a mentor to someone. I’ve always had the thought that the person that either works for me or I mentor that I hope one day I will be working for them.

  • If you want it, take it. You will never get anywhere without asking for it. This is something that I still question. But every time I did ask, I got the position I wanted.

  • Know your strengths and weaknesses. Continue to nurture your strengths but really dive into what your weaknesses are and learn from them. As you learn your weaknesses and focus on making them stronger you become an even better leader.

Support Heather's nonprofit here.

Women who lead have to endure countless challenges, and it's so inspiring to see them rise up despite the difficulties they face. This month and always, support the women around you, and don't forget to take the advice of these wise leaders. If you want to tell us about the strong women leaders you know, send us an email at!


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