Member Stories

Member stories

Sheila Mullen

(Learn more about Shelia below based on an interview published in our May 2017 e-newsletter.)

A Women’s Impact Fund (WIF) member since March 2016, Sheila Mullen, the former Director of the Innovation Institute, is now perhaps best known for her Blue Skies: Stories That Heal podcasts, sponsored by OrthoCarolina, which share unique stories of healing from the point of view of patients and their caregivers. For Sheila, health and well-being have always been important, but a life-changing running injury made them her priorities. Chronic pain from that injury and the challenges that pain presented for mental health began a journey that led Sheila to Blue Skies.

Blue Skies is not just podcasts. It’s intended to inspire patients in the medical system and their caregivers as they navigate uncharted waters. Sheila is in the process of writing a book to go along with the podcast teaching patients how to advocate for themselves and how to negotiate a new normal which may be very different form where they were before injury or illness. Sheila also provides coaching and speaks to larger groups, raising awareness for those who have not yet had the experiences which she, and, unfortunately, many patients have had. Blue Skies’ and Sheila’s goal is to empower patients with a better understanding of how to tap into the resources of the healthcare system and to understand its limitations.

Sheila has been an advocate of the Charlotte community for many years and is currently part of Leadership Charlotte’s class 38. She approached the Women’s Impact Fund as she has done with her community experience and with Blue Skies: she researched first. Sheila firmly believes that when women get together they are very powerful, and she quickly observed how WIF positively impacted the lives of those who received its grants. She joined WIF last year and is currently part of the Grants Committee’s Health Care work team.

When asked to describe WIF members as a whole, Sheila reflected, then shared how impressed she has been with the diversity, brilliance and empathy of the group. From her perspective, WIF is the premier women’s leadership opportunity in Charlotte for those who want to make a difference.

Here are some additional excerpts from our interview:
  • What are the top qualities that draw you to a person? Smart, funny, and a good dancer!
  • What’s the best advice you ever received? There are blue skies at the end of this journey. When you are done grieving, you may not be exactly like you were when you started, but you’ll find acceptance of who you are now.
  • What would people be surprised to learn about you? One of my friends from high school is now Kid Rock’s drummer.
  • What book are you reading now? The Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult
  • What is your favorite place to take out-of-town guests? The Whitewater Center
  • Describe a perfect Saturday. The day would start with some sort of exercise, then quality time with close friends and end with a delicious meal.
  • If you could have lunch with anyone (living or dead) who would you chose and why? Oprah Winfrey, because as she matured in her career she became more authentic to herself – which ultimately led to even greater success.
Sonja Nichols
Sonja Nichols: An Authentic Voice for Career Empowerment and the Heart of Community in Charlotte

Sonja Nichols is a character. She enters the room with light and energy; she fills the room with an authenticity and candor that’s both empowering and uplifting.

For Nichols, President and CEO of Nicholant Enterprises, her involvement in the Women’s Impact Fund (WIF) was one of her earliest introductions to the city of Charlotte that allowed her to bring her unique experience and energy to the table. “I really feel like the Women's Impact Fund allowed me to be my authentic self more than every other organization,” she said in an interview recently.

Born in San Francisco and raised in the South, Nichols is the granddaughter of a World War II GI and the Japanese woman he met and married during the war. She says her life journey has played a vital role in her success, especially her relationship with her grandparents. She remembers their warm and welcoming hospitality as one of the defining factors of their home life.

Nichols also recalls her time spent with her aunt and her uncle, an Episcopal priest, and how their home too was frequently overflowing with guests and a center of the community in its own right.

She says that despite being “the cute, sweet girl,” she was always encouraged to speak her own mind growing up. “I was not like Miss So Talkative, but people allowed me to say what I wanted to say.” She describes the dichotomy between being ready to defend herself, prepared for a fight, but also caring for anyone who needed her.

Nichols went on to graduate from A&M University in Florida and was hired by IBM as a marketing representative. After her hiring, she was given an aptitude test, and her superiors were amazed at her intelligence and ability, leading them to hire her as a systems engineer instead.

Throughout her early career, Nichols worked in Tallahassee, Houston, Boston, and Washington D.C. She married Richard Nichols, and the couple had three children. Her perspective shifted as she tried to balance work and parenthood.

For several years, Nichols stayed home with her children, channeling her creative and entrepreneurial energy into involvement in her children’s activities and schools. She and her family moved to Charlotte for her husband’s job.

In Charlotte, Nichols connected with the Women’s Impact Fund almost immediately. She’s been working with them since 2004 and has been on the board of advisers since 2013. “And I tell everybody I meet, it's like if you're for real, if you really want to get involved and learn about who the who's who is in the city you really want to figure out how things are run in this city? Get in the Women’s Impact Fund.”

As her kids got older and started school, she felt an inner drive to work again. Her engaging and powerful voice as a part of WIF had already led to invitations to work on committees and chair various organizations, including the Discovery Place, the Mint Museum, and the Hopeway Foundation. But Nichols felt that sometimes she was being asked to speak as a nod at diversity, rather than being given an authentic voice. In the meantime, she was making important decisions about where her career was headed next.

When Nichols started Nicholant, she knew she wanted to employ military veterans at a livable wage to provide top-notch security. In the beginning, she struggled to get her startup off the ground, and she felt discouraged. She didn’t have to work, but she wanted to.

Nichols says, “What ended up happening, I keep meeting people who also are doing start-ups. Who also have small businesses they want to start. And so now I have become actually a private equity investor.” Taking the knowledge she gained from starting her own company, she invested in other startups, wanting them to succeed.

She’s also a real estate investor, wanting to make a difference in the community by investing in affordable housing, but she recognizes the complexity of the issues between landlords and tenants.

Nichols’ combination of experience, caring, and speaking up fiercely for what she believes in, as well as being attuned to the complexity of public issues, is what makes her such a strong voice in the community.

One of her passion projects is setting up monthly lunches for younger women to hear from more experienced career women, who may not realize how valuable their knowledge can be to career women just starting out.

For Nichols, the most powerful part of the community in Women’s Impact Fund is the way everyone has an equal voice, even the quiet ones. There’s an inclusive, accepting atmosphere, and collective philanthropy based on women coming together regardless of religion and politics. Nichols also values the research process to make sure that WIF grants and giving will have a sustainable impact, creating lasting change in countless ways.

That impact is not only collective, but also personal.

For her, WIF is an opportunity not only to empower, uplift, and give back, but show up entirely herself with her signature style - light, energy, authenticity and candor.

Jhaymee Heinlein

(Learn more about Jhaymee based on a Q&A session with her published in our March 2017 e-newsletter.)

Jhaymee Heinlein joined Women’s Impact Fund in May of 2016 and currently serves on three committees – grants, finance and strategic planning. According to Jhaymee, doing so seemed like the “best way to learn about the organization, see the impact we have and meet people.” Jhaymee moved to Charlotte in 2015 to take on her current role as Strategy Director at Carolinas Healthcare System and the Levine Children’s Hospital where she provides in-house strategy consulting focusing on pediatrics and cancer care. Although a pro when it comes to moving around (her father was in the Air Force, and the family moved frequently), she’d worked for Deloitte Healthcare Consulting for six years and was looking for a job just as exciting but with less travel. She pulled me in with her open smile – and held me with her intelligence and her stories. Here are just a few of her responses to the questions I posed to her over coffee in February.

What have you learned about Charlotte through your involvement with Women’s Impact Fund? As I’ve driven around to nonprofits in the area, whether professionally or as part of the site visits we’ve done through the Grants Committee, I’ve first become aware of just how many nonprofits are here and, more importantly, how much many of them have done in the relatively short period of time that they’ve been around.

What would you tell a friend or colleague who was thinking about joining Women’s Impact Fund? If you have a passion for the community and for leadership, if you want to be able to see how you’ve had an impact in the community, this is a great organization for you. In addition, Women’s Impact Fund is a network of very accomplished women who are well-connected both personally and professionally. I believe being a member is one of the best ways to learn what Charlotte’s women leaders are doing.

What’s the best advice you ever received? One of my former mentors had some very good advice for me at a time when he knew I was anxious to advance in my career: Spend less time auditioning for the job you want. Make sure you are doing your current job well.

What person has had the biggest impact on your life? My mother. She was a nurse, and a lot of people say I look like her, although her real legacy to me was as a role model. She loved to talk about her work and share the impact she had on her patients. She instilled in me the principles of compassion, caring and a commitment to people. Moreover, she initially stayed home with me and my brother and sister, but then had the drive to go back to school to get her nursing degree. That drive is something I admire and emulate.

If you could take a class on anything from anyone, what would it be and who would the teacher be? I’d take a cooking class from Ina Garten (the “Barefoot Contessa”). I have all of her cookbooks – and would be happy to cook anything she selected even though breakfast is my favorite meal of the day.

What would people be surprised to learn about you? I grew up in Italy. My father was stationed in Northern Italy from the time I was 10 until I was 13 and, unlike a lot of military families, we lived in the community instead of on base. It was an amazing time and led to my love of travel.

Where have you never traveled, but would love to visit? Australia or South Africa/Africa.

When or where do you get your best ideas? In the morning, when I’m making coffee. Everyone is asleep; it’s a good quiet time to think and reflect.

What is your favorite place to take out-of-town guests? A Panthers Game!

I live in Belmont, so if we go out to eat there, I take them to The String Bean, a local farm to table spot.

What is the best news you’ve ever received? When my younger sister got pregnant in her early 20’s and called to tell me that she was having a little girl. She had always wanted to have children. For me, as an aunt, I get all the perks of a little girl without the rest of the challenges of parenting!

What is one guilty pleasure you enjoy too much to give up? Thursday night shows. I watch Grey’s Anatomy and 2 others which the stations play back to back.

Stephanie Chen

(Learn more about Stephanie who joined WIF in 2015. This article about her was published in our February 2017 e-newsletter.)

Women’s Impact Fund member Stephanie Chen rarely has a slow or quiet day at work. She is a pediatric dentist who performs oral procedures for children, from babies to teenagers. Stephanie is both a small business woman and a dentist. She grew up in Ohio and received her Doctorate in Dental Surgery from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She joined a dental practice in Charlotte and eventually opened her own independent office. When asked about needs in Charlotte, Stephanie immediately points to a health issue she sees almost every day – untreated early dental decay. She says often parents don’t have the means to get treatment for their children. Several times a year her work takes her to a free dental clinic for needy patients.

“Some of the children we serve have extensive needs, while some need just a cleaning and some dental sealants,” she explained. “It is so rewarding to see these children get dental treatment. My staff volunteers, and there are interpreters at the office. It’s usually a crazy, busy day but so fulfilling.”

Stephanie has been a member of Women’s Impact Fund for a year and a half. She joined after being invited by a friend to learn more about Women’s Impact Fund and says she would like to see more women in the health care field join.

“Several mothers (of my patients) mentioned this group to me, and then when I came to an event, I realized that I knew several members from my practice,” she says. When she’s not working, where does Stephanie’s personal life take her? Out West for fly fishing, to some clear blue water for scuba diving, or just into the backyard for bird photography. She also loves flowers and house plants. “I’m that person who has a live poinsettia in June!” she says. “My home becomes a jungle if I’m not careful because I save every plant.”

Priya Patil

(Learn more about Priya, who joined WIF in 2016. This was a Q&A session with her published in our January 2018 e-newsletter.)

Priya Patil’s career path started with a simple and powerful realization - she wanted to help people.

A native of State College, Pennsylvania, Patil attended high school at Dana Hall, the exclusive, all-girls boarding school outside Boston. With three older brothers, her years at Dana Hall provided her freedom and space to focus without distraction.

She went on to graduate and then to study Biological Psychology and Statistics at the University of Chicago. With such a course of study, the next logical step was for Patil to attend medical school. Yet, she wasn’t convinced.

“I was running clinical trials at the University of Chicago Hospital at the time, and so I had a lot of exposure to hospitals, doctors of various types, surgeons, patients,” she recalls. “And, yet, it was in that experience that I realized that although in medicine I could help people, I realized pursuing medical school wasn’t my passion. My calling was to try to affect larger populations; Large, vulnerable populations.”

In that realization the next steps became clear. Patil chose to pursue and graduate with her Masters and PhD from Johns Hopkins University in Infectious Disease, Epidemiology and Demography. “That’s what I was to do,” she said. It’s been years since she made that strategic choice, and she still speaks of that realization with unwavering certainty and clarity.

Her first job post-graduation? Working as a consultant for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in the refugee camps on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan. She was responsible for supporting the design a reproductive health and family planning program. It was one year before September 11.

When PEPFAR, the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief was signed in 2003, Patil traveled to work in Africa. HIV and STDs was a topic of interest for her; even more so though was the process of identifying the characteristics of villages and communities that were at greater risk to make more strategic giving choices.

She went on to work for think tanks as well as organizations including The World Bank, the Milken Foundation, and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). Although work took her all over the world - from Haiti, Guyana, Asia, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam - her goal was always the same: not only to identify vulnerable populations and get help there, but also prioritize where it was most needed and in the form that could best be received. Little did she realize that it was the beginning of her strategic giving career.

Though she didn’t know it yet, Patil was already developing into a strategic thinker. Her capacity to empathize with vulnerable people helped her to think beyond simply throwing money at a problem and consider more exactly what the needs were, how to connect, and how to best affect change for good.

It was in the midst of this important work that life caught up with Patil. Newly married, Patil was living in Washington D.C and working a dream job for the United Nations; her husband was running a startup in San Francisco. The two saw each other only one weekend a month.

She needed to make a choice.

Patil left the UN and moved to San Francisco. It was there that she started a consulting practice focusing on helping different philanthropic foundations deploy their capital overseas. It was work she was originally exposed to at the Milken Foundation through FasterCures, where she worked to develop a large-scale strategic giving platform.

But for Patil it never was - and never will be - just about writing a check or giving hours, it is about finding purposeful, strategic ways to give. This is philanthropy at a whole different level. It is giving with thought and intentionality behind it.

Today, Patil and her husband live in Charlotte with their twins who are now in kindergarten. Patil tried her hand at teaching at UNC Charlotte long enough to realize her heart was in the field. “But more so than in the field,” she admits, “my heart was at home.”

She leaned into her heart, something she’s been doing her entire career. This time though, she leaned in differently. “I made a choice to move toward my family,” she shares. “And being in Charlotte has afforded me choice to be at home.”

Patil joined the Women’s Impact Fund three years ago, and is currently a member of the Board of Directors. She has served on the Strategic Planning Committee for the past couple of years. Together, they reworked the vision, mission and values; now, they’ll work on the strategic objections, tactics and execution. “That’s my sweet spot,” Patil says confidently. “Thinking through all of that and framing that.”

She calls it creating alignment. We call it the strategic giving that honors her calling.

Kailey and Kathy Izard

A Legacy of Giving Starts at Home with the Izards


“Every single time I hear her speak, I cry. It is just unbelievable, to me, everything she’s done; you can only describe her as Super Woman.” 

That’s 28-year-old Kailey Izard speaking about her mother, Kathy Izard, last fall from a front table at La Belle Helene in Uptown Charlotte.

The elder Izard sits across the table, taking it all in before responding, “Now, you're going to make me cry.”

This mother-daughter connection is truly special. It’s a connection deeply rooted in selflessness — in giving, qualities that started early in the Izard home. 

A hands-on approach to giving by serving the community is something Kathy and her husband, Charlie, instilled in all four of their daughters. Kathy goes so far as to note the girls took on community service in a braver way than she could at the start; the girls were naturally open, wanting to help. Kathy was more hesitant.

“I would stand in the kitchen at the Urban Ministry Center not wanting to cross the line. The girls would run around, hand out drinks and then sit down to tell me about the nice man they met. And I'd be like, ‘Oh, I'm not going to talk to anyone, because they might need help that I can't give. They might need me to solve a problem and I don't know how to solve it.’” 

Despite this early hesitation, Kathy would go on to address a big problem for Charlotte.

A native of El Paso, Texas, Kathy and her sisters were raised to believe they could change the world. Conversations about service, giving back, and making the world a better place were common. “My dad was always talking about doing good,” she recalls.

After graduating from the University of Texas at Austin with a B.S. in Advertising, she moved to Charlotte to begin a career in art direction and graphic design. She and her husband went on to have four daughters; life was good — and, yet, an inner voice whispered to Kathy that something was missing.

Then, in 2007, that whisper became a reality. Denver Moore, a formerly homeless man turned best-selling author of Same Kind of Different As Me, changed the game for Kathy while they were touring the Urban Ministry Center in Charlotte where she— and her girls— volunteered. 

When touring the soup kitchen, Denver asked an important question: “Where are all the beds?”  Kathy explained they were a day soup kitchen, to which Moore noted that the homeless look for a home. He then wanted to know if Kathy was going to do something about that. And just like that, the whisper became a roar. 

Izard went on to join the staff of the Urban Ministry Center as the first director of Homeless to Homes, developing Charlotte's only Housing First program. A $10,000,000 capital campaign in the midst of the 2008 recession followed; and then, an apartment complex named Moore Place that opened on January 29, 2012. Moore Place was Charlotte’s first permanent supportive housing solution for chronically homeless men and women. Then, from 2013 until 2016, Izard helped to build Charlotte’s first nonprofit mental health treatment center, HopeWay. She chronicled the entire experience in her book, The Hundred Story Home: A Memoir of Finding Faith in Ourselves and Something Bigger.

If you think the book is just about solving homelessness, you’re wrong.

“The book is about solving the homelessness in you, and the idea that maybe we all have something we're meant to do,” says Kathy. “And listening to that inner whisper that says you can do it.”

Listening to the inner voice to make the world a better place— the charge instilled in her since childhood— is a big part of Izard’s life journey which she talked about recently on The TODAY Show.

That life journey is one she shared openly with her daughters.

“Thinking back to the beginning of all this, I wasn't sure what I was going to do to really make the world a better place, but I always knew that I could start with the four girls and teaching them,” she noted.

And she did. 

Kailey, the second of Izard’s four daughters, was just six years old when she started volunteering alongside her mother at the Urban Ministry Center. The experience instilled in her lessons to last a lifetime.  

“I learned early on that I can talk to anyone, and everyone has a story,” she recalls. “I was always learning how to help people and have empathy; and, too, the amount of joy on someone's face when you give them a meal? That feeling makes you want to do it more.”

Today, Kailey lives and works in Charlotte. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Global Studies and Entrepreneurship from the University of North Carolina and an MBA from Wake Forest University; she works as a Web Developer for Barings. Additionally, she manages Operation Sandwich at Barings; in December, the organization made over 800 sandwiches to give to those in need of a meal.

She speaks openly about her experience growing up and giving as a family. 

“I tell people that I grew up going to the soup kitchen every fourth Sunday and how many values that experience taught me,” she shares. “And when they hear that, they want to take their families and do it, too;  It really is something that everyone should do with their families.”

Mother and daughter are both members of the Women’s Impact Fund. They are active in the Charlotte community and champions for giving back. On this day, they’re both wearing their Fashion & Compassion bracelets created to go along with the themes in Kathy’s book. Kailey lights up when she refers to them as power bracelets.

Most importantly though— mother and daughter are fierce advocates for each other.

“You always believe in your child more than they believe in themselves, and so to finally see Kailey blossoming in a way that you always knew she could and seeing her believing in using her gifts is really, really special,” says Kathy.

“She has four kids, then she took on 100 other people as her children and built them an entire place to live. It's incredible,” says Kailey.

If anything, their relationship— and their shared legacy of giving— is proof that a selfless spirit is not only passed down through the generations, but also a unique way to access joy.  

“If you grow up not helping people,” says Kailey, “then you don't know the joy it brings to your heart as well as theirs.”

Erica Fenlon

(Learn more about Erica, who joined WIF in 2014. This was a Q&A session with her published in our January 2017 e-newsletter.)

Erica Fenlon is the owner and founder of CycleSouth, uptown Charlotte’s first boutique indoor cycling (“Spin”) studio which was recently named ‘Best New Workout’ in Charlotte Magazine’s 2016 BOB awards. Erica moved to Charlotte in 2014 following 15 years in New York as an investment banker.

Why did you decide to join the Women’s Impact Fund? When I moved to Charlotte, my sister, who had lived in Charlotte for years said, “You MUST join Women’s Impact Fund. Period.” She knew that Women’s Impact Fund would introduce me to an amazing network of women, help me plug into the community and allow me to give back through a leading nonprofit. I reviewed the website for 5 minutes at most and signed up. She was right! WIF is amazing.

What would you tell a friend or colleague who was thinking about joining Women’s Impact Fund? Sign up immediately! It’s flexible, welcoming, educational, effective and fun. It is a great opportunity to surround yourself with a diverse group of strong women. Joining was one of the BEST decisions I made (or my sister made for me)!

Why did you decide to open your own business? I moved to Charlotte to be closer to family and planned to find an investment banking position. At the time, I was also turning 40, which seemed like a good time to step back and really think about my options. Once the thought of opening a small business (and the prospect of great cycling classes and living my life in Lululemon!) entered my head, I couldn’t get it out. My family rallied around me, and one thing after another fell into place. Before I knew it, I had a lease, a general contractor, 35 bikes, 6 instructors and really no idea what I was doing. It’s fun, scary and incredibly rewarding. I would NOT be able to do it without my family though – everyone helps out! What do you do to release stress? Wine is always a great go to, and amazing, but not always the most effective. I used to run in Central Park to release stress, but after several years, my knees would no longer allow it. I started indoor cycling to get my cardio fix and was instantly hooked. A good cycling class is my reset – the therapeutic benefits are unreal. A good sweat goes a long way!

Sharon Harrington

(Learn more about Sharon from this article about her published in our July 2016 e-newsletter.)

A passion for education has shaped Sharon Harrington’s life, from her book-loving childhood to a successful career in development at Davidson College, UNC Charlotte, and Johnson C. Smith University. Now, after 12 years in higher education, Sharon is focused on childhood literacy. As Executive Director of Charlotte’s Reading Partners, she leads a non-profit that helps children become lifelong readers by providing individualized instruction with measurable results. Reading Partners envisions a future where all children will have the reading skills to reach their full potential.

A new board member of Women’s Impact Fund, Sharon has served on the boards of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, Charlotte Chapter; Lillian’s List of NC; the Community Advisory Board of Dress For Success, Charlotte; and Duke University School of Law’s Alumni Association. Sharon also volunteers as a reading partner herself, spending several hours each week with a second-grade boy. “He never fails to brighten my day,” she says.

What have you enjoyed most about being a member of WIF? Getting to know such remarkable women. I’ve enjoyed working with members, learning from them, and growing alongside them as we served on various committees. I joined WIF in 2003 as a charter member, so I’ve had the time to learn quite a bit! Through the comprehensive grants process I also discovered how some outstanding non-profits operate. Being able to apply some of their best practices to my own work life has been another great gift. How would you describe our members? WIF members are creative, transformational, caring, catalytic, efficient and wicked smart.

What people have had the biggest impact on your life? My grandmother and my parents were significant influences. My grandmother, who had just a grade-school education, would ask me to read to her whenever we were together. And I did: Books, magazines, newspapers, and whatever she had around. She turned me into quite a reader. Intentionally, I believe. My parents, who did not attend college, emphasized the value of education. They sent me to an outstanding Catholic grade school that gave me a strong start. I went on to a public high school that prepared me well for college and I received a full scholarship to the University of Delaware – becoming a “Fighting Blue Hen.” Next was Duke Law School, where I became a Blue Devil and met my future husband. None of those things would have happened without the encouragement and support of my parents.

If you could take a class on anything from anyone, what would it be? I love history and have become especially interested in the life of James B. Duke, who created The Duke Endowment. I have worked at several institutions that are beneficiaries of this foundation. I would love to study America’s great philanthropists, in the broadest sense. The course would focus on how these ordinary people used their resources for the public good, exploring the intersection of public policy, advocacy and philanthropy. Actually, I would love to teach a course like that!

What would people be surprised to learn about you? I didn’t grow up in the South. People assume I grew up in the Carolinas, but I spent most of my childhood in Delaware. When I arrived at Duke Law School, I talked with a fast cadence and was more impatient than your average Southerner. Over time, my Northern accent softened and so did some of my sharp Northern edges. At least I don’t use my car horn any more!

How have the various places you’ve lived shape you? I was born in the one-stoplight town of Burgaw, North Carolina, but we moved to Delaware when I was three. We frequently visited family members in Virginia and North Carolina. So I was part Southerner, part Northerner. After college my husband and I spent almost ten years in New Orleans. We still treasure New Orleans’ culture – the music and food and especially its people. We have family and friends there and visit often.

What books have you recently enjoyed? Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, Robert Durden’s Bold Entrepreneur: A Life of James B. Duke, and President Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. I am inspired by biographies and autobiographies that show how even setbacks and tragedies can help fuel an individual’s drive for success.

Describe a perfect Saturday. I love gardening, and I’d spend my perfect Saturday there. I enjoy the feel of grass under my feet, digging in the soil — and relishing every minute! Spending time alone allows me to reset, since I’m a bit of an introvert. I’d complete the evening having dinner with my husband. We’d listen to some jazz while he cooked us a great dinner of jambalaya.

If you could have one super power, what would it be? I would be fluent in every language, which would enable me to readily travel and communicate with just about anyone. I don’t know whether this is a super power, but it would be a special quality. No limits on understanding. No barriers. And no rote courses required – yet achieving ultimate language fluency.

What place would you love to visit? South Africa is definitely on our bucket list. My husband and I would love to have a month to really experience it. I think we will make that happen at some juncture. (I believe in the power of positive thinking.)

If you could have lunch with anyone, who would you chose and why? It would be heavenly to lunch with a couple of brilliant women writers. I’d pick Nikki Giovanni and Maya Angelou. Just imagine!

Laura Maniec

(Learn more about Laura based on a Q&A session with her published in our October 2016 e-newsletter.)

Laura Maniec is co-founder of Corkbuzz restaurant and wine bar, a Master Sommelier and a WIF Member since 2015. Gigi Egge caught up with Laura in advance of Women’s Impact Fund October 24 member recruitment event at Corkbuzz.

Q: Why did you decide to join the Women’s Impact Fund? I learned about the Women’s Impact Fund through Deborah Majewski who is the incoming board chair and a mentor to me. I was looking for a way to become more involved in the Charlotte community, and also looking for ways to get to know great women in the area. I joined in the fall of 2015, and am currently on the Member Engagement Committee.

I love that WIF provides unique opportunities to give back to the community, and also to learn from others. I like to surround myself with entrepreneurial people who are successful, and at the top of their industries. I appreciate opportunities to learn from successful people whose skill sets differ from mine, and I like to pass along my own knowledge and skills to others in turn, whether that’s through events, wine, or entertaining.

Q: Where did you grow up and how did it shape you? I grew up in Bayside, Queens, one of the boroughs of New York. I have two sisters and a brother, and my dad took care of us, while working two jobs after my mom passed away. I had to grow up fast, and in many ways my siblings and I raised ourselves, with our grandmother’s influence, while our dad worked. I am very much an “old soul,” having been on my own since I was 17. We put ourselves through college, and nothing was handed to us. We all learned the value and importance of hard work, because that was our reality.

Q: What person had the biggest impact of your life? Definitely my grandmother Rose, who was my mom’s mom. She basically raised my siblings and me. We did not live with her, but she taught me so much about life, hospitality, kindness, and how to take care of people – how to make people feel very special! She didn’t own restaurants, but her home was like a restaurant in many ways, since she loved to entertain, and share her values and morals. Most importantly she taught us to be loving, and helped us understand unconditional love.

Q: What’s the best advice you ever received? Choose a great partner – and this is applicable professionally, personally, and socially. It’s much more difficult to succeed alone. Choose a partner who balances your skill set, whether you are serving on a committee, getting married, or working on a nonprofit. It’s so much nicer and easier to do anything with the RIGHT person by your side!

Q: If you could have one super power, what would it be and why? I would want my super power to be the ability to create happiness and joy, and to help ease people’s minds. The world today is so chaotic and anxiety ridden. I would love to have the ability to make people’s worries go away, and find happiness in the midst of it all.

Q: If you could have lunch with anyone, who would you choose and why? I am fascinated by entrepreneurial women, and enjoy learning about and meeting strong, creative business leaders. I would love to have lunch with Sheryl Sandberg, and talk to her about her career-driven balance, as well as her experiences with Facebook and other technology companies.

I am also a huge fan of the 13th century poet Rumi. His readings and poetry have greatly influenced the way I live my life. When my mom died, someone gave me a copy of his poem “Birdwings,” which is so beautiful. It’s all about how grief and joy coexist, and of course in life there is going to be pain, but feeling pain makes you recognize and appreciate joy. It’s incredibly powerful. I even named my dog Rumi because these writings have been so influential to me.

Q: What is your favorite kind of book? Of course I’m always reading books about wine, and I especially love to find books about history as it relates to wine. I’ve just come back from a trip to Italy, and am really enjoying a book about the day in the life of an ancient Roman. I’m also currently reading “My Brilliant Friend” by Elena Ferrante, which I am dying to finish!

Q: What would people be surprised to learn about you? Although I am a wine connoisseur, I also like beer! I love a good craft beer, cocktails, or spirits. Also, I’m a pretty cheap date. I don’t drink only super expensive bottles of wine. I really love finding the best value, whatever the price point.

Q: What is your favorite place to take out of town guests? Corkbuzz! Although many people think of Corkbuzz as a wine bar, wine is only part of the story. We also have an unbelievable mixologist, who makes incredible drinks. He pays attention to every detail, down to the ice cubes that are used. He makes several drinks that include smoke-infused ice cubes, which impart that smoky flavor throughout the cocktail and are just delicious. Many people also don’t realize that our chef is amazing, and creates unbelievable meals. All of our food is locally sourced, our pastas are handmade, our cheeses are produced by artisans – it’s a fantastic dining destination! Our philosophy is that eating at a restaurant should feel like you are in someone’s home and being taken care of, so we really pay careful attention to the entire food and wine experience.

I love Dogwood as well, and am really proud to be part of the mini “restaurant row” at Sharon Square. We share our outside patio with Dogwood, and together are able to bring great live music to our guests and really elevate the dining options in the South Park area. I’m also a big fan of Del Frisco’s. I actually helped open a Del Frisco’s in New York when I was 19 and was responsible for the cigar lounge there. It was an amazing experience to have at a relatively young age, and I love how they are able to make it feel so personal and intimate, even though it’s a big steakhouse.

Q: What is the one guilty pleasure that you enjoy too much to give up? I do not eat any gluten or dairy, and I will go months without eating any bread, pasta, or cheese, but then I reach a point where I MUST have pizza! I love basically every kind of pizza, and love to try different styles. There is a place in Connecticut called Frank Pepe’s that has the most incredible clam pizza! It doesn’t matter how out of the way it is, or if there is a lot of traffic – when I am craving that pizza I will find a way to get there!

Q: What have you learned about Charlotte through your involvement with Women’s Impact Fund? I’ve learned that Charlotte is a close knit community of people that is really warm, and willing and able to help one another. It’s very inspiring and exciting to see the openness to creating, and giving back. As an outsider coming into a new city, it could easily be difficult to assimilate, and easy to feel out of place. But, Women’s Impact Fund has helped me to connect with such an amazing group of people. It’s great to be able to pick each other’s brains and learn from each other, and together make such a powerful impact.

Q: What would you tell a friend or colleague who was thinking about joining Women’s Impact Fund? If you want to get involved and be a part of the best women’s philanthropy organization in Charlotte, then you should definitely consider joining! It’s so easy to get involved right away, and there are no barriers to being as engaged as you want to be.

Karen Keatley

(Learn more about Karen from this article about her published in our January 2016 e-newsletter.)

Karen Keatley, Incoming Finance Chair of WIF, describes herself as a rational, rather than blind, optimist and offers this favorite quote from POW Admiral James Stockdale: “Retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, and at the same time, confront the most brutal facts of your current realities, whatever they might be.” Plainspoken and positive, Karen has a strong belief in peoples’ abilities to solve problems and overcome challenges, which informs her work with her financial advisory clients.

Her career began more than 20 years ago in the Economic Research Department at CSX Transportation. Later completing her MBA at Duke University, she joined Prudential Insurance Company and helped manage a multi-billion dollar portfolio of fixed-income and private equity investments.

Karen stepped off the professional track in 1995 to raise her two young children after moving to Charlotte with husband Randy. Unable to sit idle, she volunteered regularly at school, which included serving as prop master for school plays – her finest creations in this regard being a huge eyeball and rotten tooth. Seven years later, Karen decided to return to work citing many factors, including a humorous exchange with her then 5-year-old. After protesting the need for kindergarten, her daughter asked, “Why can’t I just go to the gym everyday like you do, mommy?” It was time, she thought.

Rather than go back to the familiar, she transitioned to financial planning for individuals. She structured her business as fee-only because she strongly believes in the importance of separating financial advice from financial product sales. Her business grew organically and almost completely without marketing. Her experience has been that “if you offer something people need and want, they will find you.” Her firm, which she launched in 2007, now has more than $70 million in assets under management and continues to grow.

Recognizing a natural fit between her rational optimism and WIF’s support of innovative grassroots solutions to community problems, Karen joined WIF in 2012. She chose to be an active participant because she found WIF’s members were not simply talented women, but extraordinary in their willingness to put their gifts to work on behalf of the greater good. She now sits on WIF’s Board of Directors as the incoming chair of the Finance Committee.

In addition to her professional accomplishments, Karen is a lifelong singer and former member of the Charlotte Symphony Chorus Oratorio Singers. In her college days, she also held the coveted title of “Miss Lehigh Tavern,” having accepted her roommate’s dare to sing the National Anthem at the local college watering hole. “Worth it!” she says, given the prize was a year’s worth of free drinks! She says she would tell her 21-year-old self, “You’ll never be this skinny again, so enjoy it!”

WIF is fortunate to have such a genuine, talented and seasoned financial mind at work on our behalf. Thank you, Karen and….Cheers!

Jane Ratteree

(Learn more about Jane, WIF member since 2006. She was interviewed for our March 2016 e-newsletter.)

Few members exemplify the passion and dedication WIF is known for more than Jane Ratteree. I had the pleasure of interviewing her recently about her decade-long involvement and the impact WIF has made on our community.

Q: You’ve had multiple leadership roles within WIF. What are some things you’ve learned? Like anything else in life, the more you put into WIF, the more you get out of it. Our members’ ability to participate varies over time, and that’s fine. But if you have time to join a committee or serve on a Grants work team, membership is much more meaningful. You will meet other involved and committed women who share your interests, and who will become your friends.

Q: For members who may be interested in a WIF committee or other leadership position, could you suggest how to get more involved? Just jump in. Once I joined WIF, I signed up for the arts work team of the Grants Committee, and I served on that for a few years, eventually becoming the work team leader. I then chaired the Grants Committee and served on the Board of Directors for a few years. But that is just one example of the many ways our members can get involved. If you have time and energy to offer, WIF can put your talents to work!

Q: One thing many WIF members value about their involvement with the organization is the opportunity to be influential and participate in women’s leadership. Can you give us some personal perspective on this? I’ve had the opportunity to work with and observe many of WIF’s wonderful leaders, and I believe that the most effective leaders are those who focus more on getting the job done than on being visible or influential. WIF is an organization with ambitious goals, and it takes a lot of effort and dedication to achieve them. Those who work hard and share the credit are the kinds of leaders that WIF values and admires.

Q: You are passionate about the arts. How has WIF impacted our community’s cultural life over the years? I’m very proud of the arts grants we’ve made, and I think that arts and culture is an important focus area for WIF. One of my personal favorites is our grant to Actors Theatre of Charlotte for creation of the nuVoices new play festival. This festival presents new plays in staged readings and gives the winning play a full production at ATC. Hundreds of new plays are submitted each year, and the festival has become an important way for new work to gain exposure. nuVoices enriches our local theatre community and supports the work of playwrights nationwide. I’ve attended the festival a number of times, and each time I go, I am proud of what our grant has made possible.

Q: What is the meaning of philanthropy to you, Jane? I think of Howard’s End, where E.M. Forster wrote, “Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon.” Philanthropy connects us to our fellow men and women. It directs our focus outward and leads us to think beyond our own circumstances and self-interest. Once we have connected, we understand the importance of making our world a more just and civilized place for all of us to live. And when we understand that, we are inspired to offer our time and our resources to achieve the goal.

Pam Jefsen

(Learn more about Pam, WIF member since 2017. She was interviewed for our November 2018 e-newsletter.)

We are the artists of our lives - artists seeking opportunities that let us be ourselves, show our strengths, make a difference in the lives others.

Pam Jefsen knows both that journey - and destination. “The best thing that can happen to you in work is for you to find a job that really shines a light on your strengths,” she noted recently.

Jefsen serves as the CEO at Supportive Housing Communities (SHC), a Charlotte-focused nonprofit in Charlotte with a clear objective: bridge the gap of homelessness with real, effective, four-walled solutions. For most of Charlotte’s homeless families it is the first step toward stability. “We have residents who have never had a lease in their names before. And it can be a pretty big deal when they go in there for that first apartment; we want to, as much as we can, make it a good experience both in helping them find something and then helping them with the move-in and moving forward,” she says.

In 2017, SHC was one of six organizations to receive a grant from the Women’s Impact Fund (WIF). A leading women’s group for philanthropy, education and engagement in the Charlotte Mecklenburg region, WIF awards grants to community programs in the areas of arts and culture, education, environment, health, and human services.

SHC’s drive to end homelessness is a worthwhile effort in Charlotte, one which Jefsen has been passionately pursuing since she joined the organization eight years ago. Her dynamic career, diverse interests, creative outlets, and on-the-job training that makes her uniquely suited for this job at this time and for this purpose.

Born and raised in the suburbs of Chicago, Jefsen graduated from high school early. She found herself a young and curious college student at Northern Illinois University, pursuing medical technology, when she had a realization. Her roommates - who were art majors - were having way more fun. A saxophone player since the age of 10, Jefsen immediately saw the connection between musician and artist - it was not only about creativity, but also, and more importantly, sharing a strength, or gift, with the world. One year later, Jefsen entered the Portland School of Art. She went on to graduate with a second bachelor's degree - this time, a Bachelors of Science in Art Education from the University of Maine.

Over the course of her career, she worked almost exclusively in the nonprofit sector for the American Red Cross from 1985 to 2010. The work moved her from Bangor, Maine to Cleveland, Ohio to Charlotte.

By her 25th anniversary working with the organization, things began to change. “The organization really changed its whole structure,” she says. “I had always considered myself a community organizer kind of person. I just didn’t feel like that was the work anymore.The work had changed to be something different.” A transition in structure from community to corporate left Jefsen feeling unsuited to do the job.

By the summer 2010, the artist in Jefsen was ready for a new picture. She started to ask herself hard questions about what was next in her career. It was during this same summer that the CEO position for SHC opened up. It’s a position many thought her uniquely qualified to do. “I had two people that were connected with the organization, a resident and a board member say, ‘There’s this position open. It’s perfect for you. You need to apply for this job.’”

Jefsen joined SHC as CEO that same year.

If you’re wondering about Jefsen’s technique, it’s simple, yet refined after years of experience. Her passion for people and her ability to solve problems have become parts of her professional process. Both skills empowered that which she’s known for - a collaborative spirit. “I like to collaborate with others, bring ideas together, take risks, try new ideas, develop those ideas,” she says.“Organize in the community, raise funds, tell people why it’s important… I love to contribute new ideas and possibilities to the community.”

It’s also had a powerful impact on SHC.

Adept at fundraising, she has grown the organization’s budget from $670,000 in 2010 to approximately $3.2 million this year. “I’ve had a great opportunity to work with some wonderful people and to really be able to take advantage of growth, and really develop an organization.”

For Jefsen, success is all about seeing people and allowing each to shine in a special and unique way. It becomes art when she experiences how people and communities grow together.

Juanita Wade

(Learn more about Juanita, who joined WIF in 2014. This article about her was published in our March 2016 e-newsletter.)

Juanita Wade is new to sharing the lead of WIF’s environmental work team, but she knows about non-profits and the importance of community partnerships. Prior to her recent retirement, she worked in public and private sector roles in Washington and Boston — as Community Relations Director with Fannie Mae, ED of the DC Education Compact and elected member of the Boston School Committee, among many other significant positions. Against the backdrop of her life’s work, joining WIF and serving on the Grants Committee were easy decisions.

In talking with Juanita, several things become clear: First, no expertise is needed to serve on a grants work team. Neither she nor many of her seven team members have any background in environmental issues. Second, the time commitment is not onerous; a majority of members work full time. And third, it’s not a passive exercise in reading or listening, but rather an engaging process involving lively exchange of ideas, applicant site visits and deep dives into public policy and private solutions. All this combines to make a membership on the grants committee a highly rewarding experience.

As a team co-leader, Juanita believes her first responsibility is to ensure team members are engaged and informed about the issues and potential solutions. Through community conversations with local thought leaders and experts, all develop a better understanding of local needs.

This process entails robust debate and thorough input from all members of the committee. For example, until serving on the environmental team, Juanita assumed that living in a smaller suburban community such as Charlotte must mean cleaner air and water than what she’d experienced in the urban Northeast. Community conversations proved this assumption false. Many were surprised to learn that those resources are often in greater peril here than in inner-city Boston. Charlotte’s rapid development and accompanying sprawl have resulted in widespread loss of developed trees, soil erosion and significant disruptions in water flow. Importantly, however, the committee received a number of grant applications dealing in the environment focus area.

Juanita says a team leader’s role is more to serve than to supervise. Members of WIF’s grants team have a duty to their fellow committee members in general and the membership of WIF as a whole to give unbiased, accurate analyses and listen carefully to the thoughts of all involved, she said.

She likened this to her previous position as an elected member of the Boston Schools Committee. She believed it was her duty as a public servant to represent the interests of others rather than promote her own. To that end, she regularly held town hall meetings to hear out all sides, but then she reported back to those she represented. Consequently, she was elected three times.

One difference she found between her current role and previous professional positions is the collective power of the group. Rather than take direction from superiors or be captive to political interests, membership in WIF “allows women to put money on the table and then sit with others to decide who gets it.”

To her, this model offers the clearest possible path between one’s resources and a desire to benefit the community in a significant way.

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