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Diplomacy in Action

What is Your Catalyst for Leadership?

Reta Jo Lewis
Special Representative for Global Intergovernmental Affairs 
Executive Women at State (U.S. Department of State Affinity Group)
Washington, DC
April 18, 2012


Good afternoon. Thank you Lauren for the kind introduction and thank you Executive Women at State for asking me to speak with you today.

I feel honored to be in the presence of such a talented and dynamic group of women who, through their careers, have been and will continue to be role models for women in their fields and communities. 

I applaud you all for your commitment to uniting mid-career women and men passionate about women’s issues to share information regarding career growth and advocate for positive change within this Department.

I am excited today to contribute to this critical dialogue aimed at creating a platform for networking, mentoring, and supporting women at the Department of State.

This year I have had the opportunity to address audiences on these topics on International Women’s Day and in honor of Women’s History Month discussing what the U.S. Department of State is doing to help empower women, particularly women in state and local government, not only through education, but also by helping them to foster and leverage connections with their foreign counterparts around the world.

A question that I have addressed at each of these dialogues is “why are we here in the first place—why do we set aside time to have these conversations and why should all of us care?”

The answer is that these celebrations of women are not only opportunities to commemorate the great women leaders who have paved the way for women’s suffrage and equal rights and opportunities, but also, and perhaps more importantly, to remember that we still have a long way to go.

Let me share some startling statistics with you that I think explain and shed light on why in 2012 we are still talking about why we must work together to build networks, such as this one at the Department of State, that support and empower women:

o Currently, 12 FORTUNE 500 companies are run by women, down from 15 in 2010—that is a problem.

o In 2012, women hold 90, or 16.8%, of the 535 seats in the 112th U.S. Congress.

o And, at the state level, 72 women hold statewide elective executive offices across the country. That is 22.7% of the 317 available positions, including attorney generals and state treasurers and auditors, for example.

These statistics paint a clear picture of the work that remains to empower women to seek leadership positions.

However, instead of focusing on the negative, I say we embrace these figures and recognize those women who have broken barriers and achieved these leadership positions. These women should be celebrated.

These women have embraced obstacles and overcome them. The question is how? I have no doubt that an essential part of their success is relying on a strong network of professional mentors and supporters for inspiration and motivation to pursue their goals.

A key part of their equation for success is building strong networks of women helping women. This is something I am sure everyone in this room can relate to and recognize the importance of.

As women in leadership positions, we have a responsibility to share our professional experiences and mentor women seeking leadership positions.

I am thankful that associations such as this one recognize the value of this work because without these support structures many of us would not be where we are today.

We all have life experiences that propelled us to leadership positions, and we can all think back to those key people along the way whose leadership, guidance, and support served as inspiration to pursue our goals.

Together these form our “catalysts for leadership.” Our mechanisms, channels, and means of accelerating to positions of leadership. And in order to contribute to the great work of this organization and to other women’s networks, I want to share with you today my catalysts for leadership and how they helped me get to where I am today.

Background and Professional Experiences

From a very early age, my parent’s involvement in politics and the civil rights movement engrained within me the importance of civic engagement and public service.

As one of the first black students to integrate my junior high school in Statesboro, Georgia, I experienced significant obstacles in my educational and professional journey.

However, I have had the opportunity to not only grow up in a family pushing me to lead, but to also work with outstanding leaders that have informed my growth.

I have worked under the first African American woman to serve as a United States Ambassador, Patricia Harris, as well as the first African-American Mayor of Chicago Harold Washington.

I also had the opportunity to work on the campaign for Vice President Walter Mondale and provide counsel and advice to ANC Leader Nelson Mandela while directing his eight city U.S. tour.

I interrupted that work to attend law school at Emory University. Understanding that I needed more academic preparation and that a master’s degree from American University was not enough, was a life changing experience.

I was an older student and was fortunate enough to work for a major Washington, DC law firm. During that experience, I was asked to serve as the national trip director for the Nelson Mandela visit.

I was able to use the skills I learned from campaigns and the White House to lead the eight city U.S. tour after he was released from jail.  It was truly a once in a lifetime experience.

After practicing law for a while, I went to work for the first woman mayor of Washington, DC, Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly.  Next, I worked for the campaign of then Governor Bill Clinton.

Going to work for President Clinton during the campaign and living in Arkansas and getting to know Bill and Hillary Clinton in an intimate setting, gave me an opportunity to watch their leadership styles close up in what was a very hectic time.  Observing their leadership styles around the country and around the world now and over the years has truly been an excellent learning experience.

Working at the White House in a senior position, becoming a partner in a large law firm, and being the first African-American officer at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce were also significant life experiences that served as my “catalyst for leadership”.

Together, these experiences helped me become a leader. It was a combination of education, work, and great mentoring and coaching. And, it continues to be the development of working with senior counterparts both male and female.

I have no doubt that many of you in this room have similar experiences and people who have helped shape you and get you to where you are today.

Therefore, no matter the position or level at which we serve, we all have advice we can share with others about how to find and utilize their own unique “catalyst for leadership.”

How To Find and Utilize Your Catalyst for Leadership

The advice that I want to impart upon you today is to take the lead, motivate, and inspire to bring the best out of yourself and everyone around you.  You have to think of your experiences and opportunities as investments in your future.

Building a leadership model from a business perspective will help you think more about the return on your investment in these opportunities.  Treat your constituents like clients and customers.  No matter how big or how small the opportunity, do not make the mistake of not investing in yourself and your experiences.

I always work with young people and women. When working with young people, you are working with the next generation of leaders, innovators, and decision makers.  And working with women you are able to share a commonality of experience, challenges, and solutions allowing you to continue to learn from each other. Your female colleagues have key insights that you can and should be learning from.  As a woman of color, I believe I can also offer some valuable advice from this specific lens.

There is a significant need for mentoring and coaching of women of color, as well as networking.  Women of color need to form their own regular networking opportunities. Men are playing golf on the weekends and women should be planning similar engagements over coffee or tea.  With busy lives between family, technology, traffic, etc. networking does not always stay a priority. But we must make it one. I even make it a priority while traveling.

Women need to be more spontaneous and ready for engagement and new opportunities as they arise.  Women need to stay current, beyond fashion, with market and global trends, as well as with technology.  Women need to form more partnerships, intergenerational, multiracial, and bipartisan, because we cannot be everything and everywhere.  For example, from working on the Mandela tour, I had a chance to work with all walks of life; people of different ages, genders, and nationalities who were bonded together through a historic event bigger than us.

Traditionally, the advancing of a trip tends to be a white male dominated cottage industry, like political fundraising, and when I was working at the Chamber of Commerce being at the helm changed perceptions and gave a different image of what positions women could serve in.  To this day, I meet women who were grateful to have been hired and included to travel with me, who send me pictures and truly appreciated the opportunity.

Empowerment at the Global Level

The theme of my remarks has been “catalysts for leadership,” and in a world that faces a unique set of challenges—economic, social, and political— this theme is both timely and significant. These challenges will require strong leadership of ALL our world’s best minds, before they can be tackled.

A lot has happened in the last year which has highlighted both the challenges and opportunities that women face around the world, from revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa, to renewed debates over social issues in the United States the past few months.

These challenges and dialogues have only reinforced this Administration’s conviction of the need to seize this moment, meet this challenge, and lay the foundation for inclusive global leadership for decades to come by working with new and diverse partners. Chief among these partners are women.

Integrating gender dimensions into policy dialogues can reduce gender barriers, unleash the productive potential of women, and broaden both the economic impact and sustainability of policy interventions.

As Secretary Clinton and officials across this Administration have stated repeatedly, the major security, governance, environmental, and economic challenges of the 21st century cannot be solved without the participation of women at all levels of society. That is because when women are at the table much more can be accomplished.

Over the past decade, much attention has been brought to the role of women in conflict prevention and peace building. A growing body of evidence shows that women bring a range of unique experiences and contributions in decision-making on matters of peace and security that lead to improved outcomes in conflict prevention and resolution.

And, engaging women as political and social actors alter policy choices and make institutions more representative and better performing.

The U.S. National Security Strategy recognizes that “countries are more peaceful and prosperous when women are accorded full and equal rights and opportunity.”  Research indicates that investments in women’s employment, health, and education, are correlated with a range of positive outcomes, including greater economic growth and children’s health and survival.

As women progress, everyone in society benefits, including men. Tapping into the limitless potential of women is not only the right thing to do but it is the smart thing.  Organizations such as The White House Project have been committed to this mission for over a decade working to advance women’s leadership in all communities and sectors by filling the leadership pipeline with a richly diverse, critical mass of women with the goal of making American institutions, businesses, and government truly representative.

Yes, increasing the number of women in leadership positions will require every single woman in this room to make a commitment to support their peers and seek new opportunities, but it is possible. To invoke the motto of The White House Project, “Add women, change everything.”  As a woman who has worked extensively in both the private sector and in government, I understand how important it is to promote inclusive policy dialogues.

I also understand that many times the first step is to empower women to become voices in their communities– and to invest in their futures and the futures of their families through higher education.

As a student, I worked as hard as I could to excel—affording me opportunities that eventually paved the way for other women to know that they too have equal opportunities to pursue what they put their minds to.  And as a professional, I have had the opportunity to bring women’s issues to the forefront of policy conversations while serving as chair of the District of Columbia’s Commission for Women and as a member of the International Women’s Forum.

It is essential that women leaders in communities, industry, and government not only support each other but also support young women and emerging women leaders by working to create a support system through professional women’s networks such as the Organization of Women in International Trade and the Women in Logistics and Delivery Services.

I had the pleasure of moderating a panel discussion on this very subject, “Leveraging the Power of Women’s Networks to Affect Change,” recently in Geneva, Switzerland in honor of International Women’s Day.  From that experience, I again saw how effective these networks and support systems have been in empowering women to reach their goals and have a voice and influence in their organizations and industries.

The Role of the Office of the Special Representative for Global Intergovernmental Affairs

Building these peer-to-peer relationships can be invaluable. I am sure that many of the women in this room can attest to its benefits.  Unfortunately, this value is often ignored within government and in foreign policy when in fact peer-to-peer relationships between state and local elected officials have a tremendous effect on foreign policy.

To put it simply, not enough work is being done in this area, and this is why, as Secretary Clinton’s Special Representative for Global Intergovernmental Affairs, I have been tasked with serving the global needs of U.S. intergovernmental officials, their subnational counterparts, and the entities they represent.  Building these relationships and encouraging this engagement at the subnational level has limitless potential as a public diplomacy tool.

Peer-to-peer relationships give state and local leaders around the globe an intimate glance into the American way of life, and more importantly, into our democratic institutions and system of governance. Even at a more basic but equally important level, these interactions develop trust—an attribute essential to developing strong bilateral ties.

Secretary Clinton has made it a priority to engage our subnational leaders and utilize them as an extraordinary source of innovation, talent, resources, and knowledge. After all, it is the states and cities that are the engines of growth at the ground level where the transition from policy to practice becomes most visible.

Therefore, a little over two years ago, Secretary Clinton created the Office of Global Intergovernmental Affairs emphasizing the utilization of our local leaders as a key component in the much needed widespread and deep-rooted efforts to take on our world’s greatest challenges—a key part of that charge is empowering women to lead their states and communities.

If we take a step back once again to look at the data on women leaders at the state level, it is clear that much work remains.

However, I encourage you all today to celebrate the women in these positions. They are setting the example and we can learn valuable lessons from their leadership:

o In 2012, six U.S. Governors are women;

o There are 11 women serving as Lieutenant Governor;

o And the position of secretary of state is also held by 11 women.

These statistics point to a number of obstacles women face to reaching high-level statewide elective executive offices.  However, the success of women in these positions gives us all hope and inspiration for furthering their work.

We must all work together to ensure women have access to more educational opportunities and strong support networks, as well as have the ability to participate in entrepreneurial activities.

Together, we can make this happen by providing women with the tools to overcome and eliminate barriers and in the process empower a new generation of business contributors, community leaders, and policy makers.


Secretary Clinton has said that “in the 21st century, the most important players in international affairs will be the ones who make things happen, who get results” –state and local officials are the leaders in policy implementation and thus we view them as partners in addressing our global challenges.

But even more important than their role is their make-up. It is essential for government around the globe to be inclusive and representative. To put it simply, women around the world must be a voice for their communities, states, and nations.

I challenge you all here today to leverage your networks and play an active role in empowering women to have their voices heard, to pursue leadership positions in their workplaces, and to seek higher education, so that they have an equal place at the table whether that is in the public or private sectors.

Each of you here today has a role to play in empowering women not only in the United States but also around the world.  You can share the message I have shared with you today with your friends and colleagues.  You can become a mentor to young women seeking careers in public service and leadership positions in your fields.  And, you can become involved with one of the amazing organizations committed to this cause which I’ve shared with you today.

I cannot say enough about the incredible work of The Women in Public Service Project, which is an amazing organization uniting government and universities to empower women. Their goals not only echo today’s program but are essential steps for us all to take in order to empower women globally:

o Challenge the world community to identify, create, and advance a new generation of women committed to public service;

o Bring together thought leaders, educators, and public servants from around the world, as well as members of the private and nonprofit sectors, who wish to take up this challenge;

o Identify and address the obstacles that prevent more women from committing to a life of public service and political leadership;

o Explore creative solutions that will increase the number of young women who aspire and are empowered to pursue a career in public service; and

o Make recommendations for implementing those solutions at all levels of political involvement around the world.

Let this be a call to action for us to join together recognizing the work that needs to be done and moving forward together to tackle the challenges ahead of us.

Thank you once again for the honor of addressing you today—now let’s get to work!

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