Why CEO Carolyn Cassin Says Women Are Key To Detroit’s Resurgence

By Frank Witsil
Detroit Free Press

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Great Q&A with Carolyn Cassin, the CEO of the Michigan Women’s Foundation. The foundation helps women get into — and get ahead in — business.

Detroit Free Press

For Carolyn Cassin, the CEO of the Michigan Women’s Foundation, women are essential to the state’s success.

“Women hold the key to economic recovery — certainly here in the city of Detroit, which is, by the way, a woman’s city,” she said. “About 80% of the households in Detroit are headed by a woman. So if you don’t invest in women — and you don’t help them learn to support their families and become financially stable — you are never going to see the revitalization of Detroit.”

And that, she said, is where the Detroit-based foundation comes in. Its aim is to help women get into — and get ahead in — business.

Next month, the foundation is to hold entrepreneur conferences for women in Grand Rapids, Troy and Lansing.

The foundation has a staff of 21, a $2.5-million budget, and another office in Grand Rapids.

“We’ve started 85 new, women-owned businesses,” Cassin, 64, said. “Just think in six to eight more years from now when we’re at full scale, we may have started maybe 1,000 women-owned businesses. That will change the landscape of Detroit’s neighborhoods. We will have given the neighborhoods the kind of economic development they need.”

In a conversation, edited here for clarity and brevity, Cassin talked about what she considers a resurgence of the women’s movement and offered advice on how women can succeed in business.

QUESTION: What is the Michigan Women’s Foundation?

ANSWER: The Michigan Women’s Foundation invests in women to try to create economic and social equality for women in Michigan. That’s our mission. How we do that is by focusing on three areas: The first one is to invest in women entrepreneurs. That’s very near and dear to my heart because I was an entrepreneur for 30 years, and so I love helping women and using all the resources of the foundation to invest in women through education, giving them access to capital and maybe most importantly, giving them access to a network of incredible women in the state to help them succeed in business. That’s one of the most important things we do.

Q: You said there were three areas. What are the other two?

A: The second area is developing the next generation of women leaders. We have a middle-school girl program and a high-school girl program that we do year-round that invests in these young women, over 200 a year, that helps them become young leaders. These are young women who don’t have any other opportunities. We have a series of programs. We end up graduating all those girls. They go on to college and bypass the things that could happen to girls that didn’t have this support. The third area is our leadership in helping to keep women safe by raising funds to test and investigate and prosecute the rape kits that sat on the shelf, some for 30 years, in a Detroit warehouse. We’ve raised international awareness about this issue and over $8 million to put people behind bars who raped women.

Q: The conversation about women — gender equality, the role of women in the workplace and home, and women’s safety — is especially acute now. What are your thoughts on this?

A: It’s an important topic. It’s nice to have lived long enough to see people talking about it again. When I was growing up and new to the workforce it was a big topic. The women’s movement was very important in my development, and I went on to start four different companies that all ended up being women-led. That was important to me to lead in that way. I think young people thought that what we did in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s was over. That there weren’t gender disparities. What I’ve learned through the foundation and what the young women coming up is that there are many things left to do, and that’s why you see the revitalization of the Michigan Women’s Foundation. People are starting to talk about it again.

Q: What needs to happen to help women use the keys to the economy you said they hold?

A: I think we are doing it. But, it needs to be scaled. What women need to unlock their potential is support, financial supports. When we started our microloan program, women were getting 5% of the investment in their businesses while men were getting the other 95%. We’ve now changed that number to women are getting about 20%, even though they start about half — 45% — of the businesses. We’ll get out of this business when women get their equal share of the capital they need.

We’re working our way to that. Women need capital, and equal access to it. They need education and support. Most people don’t know how to start a business. It’s becoming more of something you can take in a classroom, but it didn’t used to be. We’re helping women get the skills they need. Then, it’s about seeing other people who have done it.

Q: As a woman who is an executive, what are the biggest challenges you face?

A: The challenges in the past were not being taken seriously or not thinking that really women could do this job. I had to fight constantly for my seat at the table and to be taken seriously. There’s an old adage that women have to work twice as hard to be taken half as seriously as men. Fortunately, it’s not that difficult. But, that is how it felt all the time. A man who had less experience than I did was taken more seriously. That was always frustrating. I don’t think that’s so true anymore. Now, there are more seats at the table, and that’s a good thing. We just want to keep adding seats until it becomes equal.

Q: What advice can you offer other women?

A: Ask for help. Always look for a group of women — and men. Look for mentors who will bring you into the circle, at the table where the decisions are being made. That’s what we all want. I don’t want you to make decisions for me. I want to know what’s going on. I want to change the course of it, if I think we’re headed in the wrong direction. My advice always has been do something that you are passionate about. Do something that matters to you. Do something that you believe in, that doesn’t seem like hard work.

Q: What is the best advice you can offer men — to support women?

A: Help us out here. Pay attention. Honestly, I don’t think men get up in the morning and think, “What can I do to thwart women.” I just believe that men have been in charge for so long they don’t think, if we added different kinds of people, we’d get better results. Just keep that in the back of your mind — and find ways to give bright, competent young women — and not-so-young women occasionally — and ask them to join you. Ask them to sit at your table.

Title: President, CEO
Age: 64
Education: Miami University, bachelor’s degree; Western Michigan University, master’s degree in public administration
Family: Husband, Bader Cassin; children, Julianne Cassin Sharp, 40, Brad Cassin, 39, Laura Cassin Miller, 36
Hobbies: Skiing, travel
Car: 2016 Lincoln MKZ

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