By Paul Swiech
The Pantagraph, Bloomington, Ill.
To help today’s girls become tomorrow’s strong women, lead by example.
“Be people of integrity and honesty who show respect for others and value education as vital to success,” Dr. Dara Richardson-Heron, CEO of YWCA USA, advised men and women.
“Women need to strive hard to excel,” Richardson-Heron said. “The reality is the playing field (among women and men) isn’t equal but women shouldn’t be limited by that. They need to exceed expectations so their accomplishments will be noticed.”
Richardson-Heron — a medical doctor with more than 20 years of leadership experience in health care, corporate and nonprofit sectors — spoke Thursday evening with The Pantagraph before her keynote address at the 25th annual YWCA McLean County Women of Distinction awards banquet.
Nearly 600 people attended the event honoring female community leaders at Illinois State University’s Bone Student Center. Among the 600 were more than 50 previous Women of Distinction award recipients.
Richardson-Heron noted that some women may need mentoring not only early in their careers but also if they’re experiencing a mid-career slump.
“The first thing I tell women is ‘Celebrate yourself and embrace who you are,'” Richardson-Heron said. “Then I suggest ‘Find your passion.’
“People get stuck in a rut because they’re not happy with what they’re doing,” observed Richardon-Heron, who was named among “21 Leaders for the 21st Century” by Women’s eNews.
“Determine what is your mission and how to get there. If you’ve always wanted to become a nurse, figure out how to make it happen. Figure out whatever in life will make you happy.”
Along the way, seek out mentors who can advise you and don’t be afraid to challenge yourself, she said.
But is Women of Distinction — an event that honors women exclusively — still relevant after 25 years?
“Yes,” Richardson-Heron said. “I wish it were different.”
YWCA McLean County President/CEO D. Dontae Latson agreed.
Women frequently are paid less than men, it’s more difficult for women to climb the corporate leader and their workplace successes are not celebrated as much as men’s, Latson and Richardson-Heron said. Only 16 percent of corporate boards of directors in the United States have at least one female member, she said.
Furthermore, sometimes women-leaders are “vilified,” Richardson-Heron said.
“Yes, we still need celebrations like this to motivate the next generation of women and to break down any barriers to success,” she said.
Among attendees Thursday night was Mary Campbell, who was among the first six Women of Distinction honored in 1990.
“Twenty-five years ago, there was not a program in place in this community to recognize women’s accomplishments,” said Campbell, who taught social work at ISU for 30 years and whose community involvement has included empowering women through anti-domestic-violence programs and counseling.
The event remains relevant because it continues to allow women to network and share resources and ideas, said Campbell, who is involved with Labyrinth, the program to assist women who are returning to the community from prison or jail.
“I think it’s important for the next generation to see women who work hard and are valued,” Campbell said.