When They Talk, Women Listen

By Timm Herdt
Ventura County Star, Calif.

Last week, the state’s chief financial officer sat down for an intimate lunchtime conversation with some friends.

Controller Betty Yee spoke of personal things that one doesn’t hear in scripted political speeches — how her first exposure to finance came as a child, negotiating vendor contracts for the laundry owned by her Chinese-immigrant father, or how she learned to speak English by watching television game shows.

And how, in her path to political and professional success, she feels she experienced very little discrimination as a Chinese-American, but “a great deal of discrimination as a woman.”

It was the kind of conversation that friends share and absorb and learn from.

And on this day, there were about 130 friends in the room, most of whom had never before met her.

Lee was the most recent guest at a quarterly event launched four years ago by a handful of Sacramento businesswomen who believed there was a hunger among young professional women to hear the personal stories, the vulnerabilities and the wisdom of those who had succeeded before them.

“There had to be a way to bring women together to provide guidance and advice to the next generation of women leaders,” says Karen Breslau, an executive with the communications firm The Dewey Square Group.

That was the genesis for a series called “She Shares: Conversations with Women Leaders.” Based in the capital and led by some of Sacramento’s most influential women in the realm of public affairs, the series has featured California’s most successful public-sector women.

Among them: Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, Attorney General Kamala Harris, Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, and Assembly Republican leader Kristin Olsen.

The idea, Breslau told me, was not to ask them to give a speech, but rather to create “a simulation of having lunch with someone about whom you’re very curious.”

Breslau, a former Newsweek correspondent, conducts these interviews.

“She Shares” has developed into a mentoring program that has now reached about 50 young women who have either just launched or are about to launch their professional careers. They attend the lunches, but also work year-round with their mentors and participate in professional-development workshops.

“It was very important from the beginning that ‘She Shares’ fill some larger purpose,” Breslau said. “It is crucial for women to share their stories in a way that is authentic and expresses some of the vulnerabilities you don’t often hear about.

Through these stories, young women hear about the challenges, the setbacks, the struggles women have.”

The series has had its only-in-California moments, reflecting the grit of determined women who have lived the California Dream.

Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye, for instance, told of being raised by migrant workers and how her first experience with the criminal justice system came when her family was served an eviction notice.

Speaker Atkins told of growing up in Appalachia in a house with no running water, using education as an avenue out of poverty and coming to California to flourish. It was personally liberating as well, she said, noting that as a married lesbian she considered it natural and loving, and not particularly courageous, to kiss her spouse on the Assembly floor after being sworn in as speaker.

There have been lessons that careers can take unexpected turns. Nancy McFadden, the de facto chief of staff to Gov. Jerry Brown, recalled that her first encounter with Brown came in 1992 when as a member of Bill Clinton’s campaign staff it was her assignment to make certain that Brown would not get a speaking slot at the Democratic National Convention.

Breslau says she believes that the “She Shares” model of providing “guidance and advice to the next generation of women leaders” could be easily exported to other communities. They may not be able to land such high-profile guests, but across California there are scores of women — mayors, entrepreneurs, Superior Court judges and the like — with inspiring stories to share.

In the realm of political leadership in California, women still have some catching up to do. Of the 120 members of the Legislature, for instance, 89 are men.

Last week, Yee told her new friends that it takes a little extra for a woman to succeed in politics.

To raise money for a campaign, she said, female candidates have an extra burden.

“As women, we have to ask three, four, five, six times before we’re taken seriously,” Lee said. “It wasn’t the most confidence-boosting experience.”

Boosting the confidence of promising young women is what “She Shares” is designed to do.

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