In honor of Women’s History Month, we are continuing to recognize and celebrate women through our Top Ten Most Inspiring Women Series. We’ve interviewed many amazing women and we’re excited to introduce you to Sharon Kelly Hake, President & CEO of Great Dames.
Tell us a little bit about your background.
I’m Sharon Kelly Hake, Founder of Great Dames. We’re a community of women who believe in our power to create change. We do that by supporting one another to discover that power, to discover our value, and discover our purpose. So I love what I do. I’ve been doing this for the last 12 years that followed a 30 year career in corporate America, but the dames that I’ve met worldwide as a result of this experience has been such an enriching experience. So that’s really my intro is that I’m surrounded by dames, and it’s a great way to live.
“Women want to connect so badly that they are connecting at deep levels, even in a virtual environment. I never thought it would have been possible.”
How did Great Dames make the jump to the point where it’s now international?
That’s a great question because that was sort of always in the game plan. It was one of those things we were always going to do someday. We did start local, we actually launched in Delaware. We quickly added a Philadelphia chapter because we tend to draw immediately from about six states: Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, Maryland, DC, and New York. So we were kind of a Mid-Atlantic organization with a strong footing in Delaware and Philadelphia. We were getting a lot of requests from people because our database was always global. What about a chapter here? We want a chapter in Singapore, or India. We always believed we were a high touch high impact organization. So therefore, we had this mindset that it needed to be in person. I was getting a lot of requests from people who were interviewing us for podcasts and stuff, ‘why don’t you create content for other people to use in other time zones? In other countries?’ No, it needs to be a high touch, high impact. So it was a mindset thing, and our board was kind of on the same wavelength, and then guess what happened? COVID hit. We had a whole year’s worth of programming that turned out to be global with a conference and everything that we had planned. And we said ‘how are we going to do all this in a high touch high impact way?’
We had sold out a meeting that was in person, and we said ‘what are we going to do with all those people that have tickets?’ So we just converted the whole thing into a virtual event, and I could see it and feel it, the high touching and the high impacting was going on. That’s what women do. Women want to reach. Even if it’s across the screen, women want to support each other so badly that they are connecting at deep levels, even in a virtual environment. I never thought it would have been possible. So from there, we got the courage, and we started adding more events. Again, they were mostly locally-based speakers, and most of the draw was from the Mid-Atlantic region, but then we started to get requests for chapters. We had the national virtual chapter and the global virtual chapter, I think we’re up to seven now. And people came, we have a whole cluster of young women from Bangladesh, from Nepal, from Haiti, from Nigeria, from several European countries. I think they’re clustered, and they hope to see each other in person someday, but right now we’re doing everything virtually. We’re changing our events to different times to accommodate different people. In the last year, our community tripled in size, and in fact by the end of the year, we think we’ll be quadrupled in size.
“Don’t underestimate the power of a single conversation.”
How do you stay motivated to keep moving forward every day?
I’m going to be brutally honest, fear of failure. I am not going to fail because of all those people that said you’re crazy. That was the best thing they could have done to me because I am not crazy, and I am not going to fail. There are days where it can be very exhausting and lonely. When I feel low, I say to myself ‘okay, what’s the most important thing that I need to focus on right now?’ Any of the stuff that doesn’t bring me a lot of joy and fun, I say, ‘I’m not doing that today, I’m focusing on the highest impact thing I can do.’ When that happens, the energy that comes from that is unbelievable. The energy is fabulous. That’s what feeds my soul. It gives me the adrenaline push I need to get myself out of my place of ‘oh god, I just can’t do this.’
I got a note the other day from a young woman who I talked to 10 years ago, and she said ‘I just want you to know that I still think about that conversation. I’m at work and I’m having a tough time, but I’m digging deeply, and you gave me the confidence in myself that I didn’t have at the time. I had no confidence. I was so beaten down by stuff that had happened in my life.’ She’d had a really tough time, you know, and she said ‘you helped me find it. Today, I’m doing really well. I have a really great career going, the family situation is great. I have confidence, and I just want to say thank you.’ I printed that note out, this is my tip, you print those out, okay? Because when you’re having a bad day, you read that.
Don’t underestimate the power of a single conversation. I had one conversation with that woman. One. Don’t underestimate your power to change somebody’s life in a single conversation. So that’s what I do when I’m low, is I remind myself why I’m doing it. When I got that note, my confidence went up. There’s a reason for us to be doing all this stuff. So write it down, you get a note from somebody, print that thing out, put that on your bulletin board, or keep a folder. Sometimes we do need reminding of why we do what we’re doing, and it’s rarely the paycheck quite frankly. You know that helps, you gotta pay the bills, but it’s the ‘oh my god, you really helped my company, you really helped me personally, I’m now able to grow and expand in ways that I never thought.’ That’s really important to remind yourself.
What change do you want to see in the world and how are you aiding that cause?
Great Dames has everything to do with the change I want to see. I want to see a world where there’s complete unequivocal gender equity. I want to see a world where all women have the same opportunities as men, to get an education, advance their career, receive promotions, personal and professional power in relationships, and access to wealth and resources. But the most important thing I want to see is a world where women are valued for their ideas, and they’re supported in ways that enable them to advance their ideas to create powerful change.
I love the African proverb that says ‘when you educate a boy you’re educating an individual, but when you educate a girl you educate a community, a village.’ And that is how I feel about Great Dames. We’re a village, and we are here to support one another. I’m a big reader of Nicholas Kristof, and he and his wife have done tremendous amounts of research, and when a woman gains their voice in society, there is actual evidence of less violence. We know all the stats about how businesses are fun more effectively, and they’re more profitable, but when you think about that, you’re talking about respect and value. And that’s from the voice of women. We see it over and over and again, in terms of handling the pandemic, just women’s leadership styles are so powerful, and so needed. So I want that for men, as well as women, and for the children of the next generation and future generations. So that’s the change I want to see in the world. Because I know it’s good for everybody. I believe that, and I see it every day in the Great Dames community.
“I want to see a world where there’s complete unequivocal gender equity.”
What challenges do you see women facing in their work and in society that men may not be aware of?
Well, many. I think the simple way to just boil it down for men would be to simply take the time to listen and ask their women colleagues, friends, women in their lives, to say ‘tell me what you’re thinking, tell me what’s going on in your life,’ and really listen to the response. ‘What ideas do you have that you would like to advance?’ And this is a really important one, ‘how can I help you? How can I help you with this?’
There’s a study that I often refer to that says 88% of men want to help women in the workplace, their women colleagues, but less than 20% have bothered to sit down with a woman colleague to ask how they could be helpful. So therefore, they really don’t know how, and so what I’m suggesting is that men and women enter into co-mentoring relationships. Because I think there’s a lot that men can learn from women that they just don’t realize. The reason there are so many issues and challenges in the workplace, that men and others are not aware of, is because they haven’t bothered to ask for any kind of input, or ask their women colleagues at a deeper level, ‘what’s going on with you? How can I be supportive? What ideas do you have that I could support?’ Amplify their ideas in the room, as opposed to disagreeing or overspeaking. It’s not a question of, oh, we all have to agree, it’s a question of how do we actually spark each other’s imagination? How do we show enough respect to enable that to happen? If somebody sat back and just really was a third eye and looked in on the exchange inside a typical meeting room, they might be shocked to see that it’s just not happening. Those conversations are not happening.
We had an event recently, at Great Dames, all about male allies, and we had men on the panel, women on the panel, in the room, a ton of men showed up for that. We asked this question, ‘how many of you have actually sat down with a female colleague, to meet with them in a mentoring situation, or just a colleague to colleague conversation about helpfulness?’ And very few of them, these are men that showed up to a Great Dames event, we’re talking single digit number of hands went up. So just simple strategies, like listening, talking, connecting, and engaging on an equal level about how we can help each other be successful would go such a long way towards creating a much more productive and effective workplace for both men and women, and frankly, in the community.
Tell us about a project or accomplishment that you consider to be the most significant in your career.
Well, I think it has to be that we launched Great Dames. When I did this with my daughter, Heather, she was our co-founder, then we brought my other daughter, Deirdre, into the organization, and we launched Great Dames with the understanding that we felt like this was really going to be something very important, and very powerful. But we really had no idea for sure because we didn’t know of any other organization quite like it. The reason we launched this, we were looking for something that was missing, and I’m very proud of it because this followed a rather successful career that I could have continued. I looked in the mirror one day, and I said, ‘there’s virtually no social value to what I’m doing right now.’ You know, I’m making the shareholders of this company wealthier with what I’m doing, but I’m not helping anyone else. And I said, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ Frankly, if it weren’t for the encouragement of my daughters, who basically held my feet to the fire and said, ‘Mom, you’ve been talking about doing this for a long time.’ I had the business plan. I had the name. I had the URLs. I had the trademark. And I still couldn’t leave until they said ‘alright, if you do this, we’ll help you. We’ll help you do this with you.’ And what can I say? I’m a mother, I couldn’t say ‘well, I didn’t really mean any of that.’ Because of course, I’m asking them to pursue what they know they need to pursue.
So we launched Great Dames during the middle of a major recession in 2009, and it turned out to be the single most important thing I’ve ever done in my life, other than have children. I am so proud of how we evolved, and I know it’s because of the women in the community. We didn’t do this on our own, we did this with the other dames. They supported us and carried us through this whole process, and embraced other women, brought other women into the community. So I’m really proud of the work of the Great Dames, and our ability to help facilitate that because in the end, you need someone who’s facilitating, not leading so much, but facilitating and enabling the connective tissue, you know, but it was all about the women in the community. I’m so proud of what those women and the women continue to accomplish, and that’s my greatest point of pride.
“What did I do today to create an impact on someone? How did I help someone find that spark of confidence that they needed? We all need that.”
How do you Define Success?
Every morning, I look at my to do list. What do I need to accomplish today? And then what am I going to accomplish this week? What’s going on, you know, further out in the next month or two? So when you’re running a company, you’re always looking over a year out. But the most important thing to do every single day, at the end of the day, I say to myself ‘alright, what did I actually do today to create an impact on someone?’ How did I make life better for someone? How did I help someone find that spark of confidence that they so desperately needed?’ We all need that, by the way. How did I help someone see their value? Who did I reach out to that didn’t expect to have that experience? Or maybe if they did, was I successful? Was I successful in sparking her imagination? And you could see it in their eyes, you could see it, even if it’s a Zoom call, right? You can see the person go, ‘okay, I can do this. I can do this. I was feeling really discouraged. I was feeling really low, or I was just feeling confused. And now I see what I need to do.’ Not that I would ever provide the answers because I don’t have the answers. She has the answers, right? So success means that I do that, every single day. I ask myself that question at the end of every day, and if I don’t have a good answer, I need to rethink that to do list. I need to rethink how I spend my time. So it’s the impetus for the next day, you know, or it’s not too late, maybe if it’s 10 o’clock at night, can you send a text or an email to somebody saying ‘I’ve been thinking about, how’s that project going? How’s that relationship going? Do you want to talk about it? And to me, that’s what women do really well. By the way, I’ve learned all this from the other dames. So I get inspired because I know people are reaching out to me, and I’m like ‘wow, I think I just had a little mentoring experience that I wasn’t expecting to have. That feels good. You know, I’m not so alone on this.’ It’s so important because we don’t want to do this alone. It’s not fun. It’s harder. You know, if we do it together, it’s a much richer outcome. It’s more fun, and you know, I’m in a better place. So that’s kind of how I define success.
If you want to get involved in Great Dames…
We would love for whoever’s listening to jump on our website, come to some of our events. If you’re a member they’re free, if you’re not it’s like $10, or something like that or a donation. More importantly, we want to create access. We do have scholarships and membership scholarships for people, particularly during COVID, things are tough and we really want to embrace you. If you want to be a part of what we’re doing, we would love to have you in our community. So jump in, give us a taste, and if you like it stay, but more importantly we want to hear your ideas. That’s why we’d like to welcome you into our community.
Why sharon kelly hake is On this List
“Sharon was the perfect interview to end our inspiring women series on because in addition to being an inspiring woman herself, Sharon’s whole mission is to seek out and empower other women and to help us inspire each other! Great Dames has been an inspiration to us and helped us shape our own careers and ideas for the business we wanted to build.”
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