What Can Leaders Do to Improve Economic Mobility

Speech at the 2022 Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber’s “Welcome to Leadership Celebration” event

What does it mean to be a leader? More than anything, I think being a leader means you’re given opportunities: the opportunity to shape your community, the opportunity to shine a light on problems and be part of the solution, the opportunity to invest your time, talent and treasure in people and ideas that build a better region.

Being a leader also means that people are watching you. They are looking to you for inspiration, for ideas, for change. How you spend your time, where you donate your energy – people are watching. In many ways, as leaders you are representing your companies or your civic organizations everywhere you go. That is a big responsibility. It also is an opportunity. It is true influence.

The real question here is: how do you use your influence? I believe THIS is the question we should all ask ourselves because there is so much work to be done in so many important areas. Most of us probably don’t ask ourselves “What Does it mean to be a leader”? Instead, we ask what TYPE of leader do we want to be? We are aware of our influence – but deciding where and how we should use this influence is challenging. I’d like to suggest an area that is a core focus at Greater Cincinnati Foundation and, in fact, one of our three key community leadership pillars: economic mobility. Economic Mobility is the ability of individuals and families to improve their financial picture over time and it is foundational to building a stronger community for everyone.

In fact, at GCF we have embraced a strategy of investing in the economic mobility of Black women because research shows that Black women have the least access to opportunity. We have historically been paid the lowest wages and educational attainment hasn’t closed the large income gap between Black women and other demographics. We participate in the workforce at much higher rates than other women, but we are also underrepresented in leadership and executive positions. Significant studies by The Women’s Fund of the Greater Cincinnati Foundation, the Economics Center of the University of Cincinnati and Goldman Sachs have shown that improving economic mobility of Black women is the smartest path to creating a more thriving economy and ensuring access to opportunity is expanded for all – especially our most disenfranchised residents. When this happens, the entire community will benefit from a stronger, more cohesive region.

As leaders in your organizations, you can use your influence to extend opportunities that elevate the economic mobility of the entire region. To do so, I invite you to tap some powerful resources: The Women’s Fund of the Greater Cincinnati Foundation offers a free, searchable employer toolkit to help you evaluate and elevate your policies and practices. And the Chamber’s Workforce Innovation Center offers a variety of tools to help you create more representative – and effective – workforces.

There’s something else we as leaders can do to create a more dynamic Greater Cincinnati: We can be more intentional about how we encourage the next wave of community and business leaders. Let me explain what I mean here.

I don’t know about you, but for me, it took a while to think of myself as a leader. I saw myself as passionate about my work to help build a better community. But I didn’t see myself as a leader –in part because there were simply no other leaders who looked like me, and I didn’t have a mentor like many of my colleagues. I also felt like an ‘outsider’ because I’m not a native of Cincinnati (to the surprise of many) – and believe that’s tough in a city where it’s common to ask “what high school did you go to?” In many ways, when I began my professional career, I was reminded of my start in middle school. In sixth grade, I had an eye-opening experience that had forever changed my outlook, and in some ways lit my passion for my career today. Up until sixth grade, I attended a predominately Black school in a small neighborhood in Cleveland and so, I shared similar backgrounds, experiences, and interests with most of my classmates. I will never forget the day my teacher (her name was Ms. Jackson) held a conference with my mom and I to tell me that I’ve been identified as “gifted & talented” and she recommended that I attend a “better” school. I didn’t know what she meant by “better”. I adored my teachers and my friends, made excellent grades, and felt like I was thriving in the school I was in. Shortly thereafter, I was transferred to a prep school, which was affluent and predominately white, and learned exactly what my teacher meant by “better” – they had better technology and better, newer books; tutors for additional support; extracurricular enrichment opportunities, and tons of other resources.

This was eye-opening because as a young person, I never imagined that all students didn’t have the same resources. After all, we all took the same tests. At the age of 12, I learned first-hand about inequities in education, and I saw first-hand the impact it had on those who grew up just a few doors down from me (or on my same block) versus the outcomes of myself and my new classmates. It was then that I made up my mind and committed to this idea that we all deserve “better”. We should all have access to great opportunities.

From that experience, to the start of my career, to even now, I learned to push myself to be a little braver. I learned that being a leader meant stretching outside my comfort zone. It meant using my voice to create influence and to take a seat to the table even when I wasn’t invited. I learned to use that voice to advocate for others, and speak up for my neighbor who had the same talents I did, but just didn’t have the same access. And I learned quickly that you can’t make progress alone, and shouldn’t do it alone because there are other leaders who are willing to help me open these doors. I encourage you to step outside your comfort zone. Look for ways to have authentic connections with people from different backgrounds, people who may not look like you. Be thoughtful in your company’s policies and practices. As you mentor and sponsor people in your field, look for opportunities to include those you might have unintentionally overlooked.

As leaders in Greater Cincinnati, we have the opportunity to create an equitable, thriving region. After all, people are watching us. Let’s show them what we can do!