By Julia Battishill
When former first lady Michelle Obama was asked what she would do differently if she could go back to her younger self and start over, she confidently responded with, “I would have used my voice.”
This one sentence by Obama, presented in a video clip, was the theme of the evening at the Women4Women conference on Thursday night in the Emerson lounge, entitled “Using Your Voice to Make a Change.”
There, the speakers, female SPU alumni, told their stories of contributing to changes in their fields after leaving SPU.
The life of Megan Chao, the U.S. executive director and co-founder of Hope for Life and SPU’s 2018 GOLD Alumna of the Year, was changed during her senior year at SPU, on a service trip in Rwanda, East Africa, when she met a group of 11 homeless children living on the streets of Kigali.
The way the children supported and loved one another was remarkable to her, and she and a colleague quickly befriended the group. Over time, they returned again and again to wash the boys’ clothes and bring them food, the boys took hold of her heart.
She was crushed when she learned that the whole group, which included a 5-year-old toddler, had been arrested for simply being homeless.
Her response: “I came back and just couldn’t not do something”
She set to work right away to fight for the boys’ release. Her passion for the cause proved to be more than enough.
“I didn’t set out to start an organization,” Chao said, “but I just couldn’t not do anything. So we advocated for their release and got this group of kids out of prison, and pooled our minimal college savings to rent a house they could live in.”
Once they had achieved their primary goal, making sure the boys had somewhere off the streets to sleep that was not the local prison, Chao knew she had to keep going. There were more children being treated the same way, and she could not leave the situation alone.
She had no idea at the time that this passion and determination would lead her to where she is today: becoming the executive director of her foundation, Hope for Life.
“One of my favorite things about [Chao]’s story is that when we first started talking about her story, she told me ‘If you had told me what the next nine years would be, when I was standing outside that jail, I would have said “never mind. Someone else do it,”’” said Amanda Stubbart, SPU director of alumni and parent relations and the presenter of the event.
“I think we can all say that about something in our lives. So the question is, when we are standing on that doorstep, and we do know what it’s going to take, how do we say yes anyways?” Stubbart said.
Chao nodded along in agreement with every word.
She had no idea the project would snowball into what it is today; all she knew was that each goal, each child’s life, was deeply important to her and she was willing to do all she could to make her short-term goals happen.
And they did happen, again and again and again. Children found safety and a new start through Chao’s work.
According to the foundation’s website, www.hopeforlife.us, Hope for Life has improved the lives of 752 Rwandan children and counting. They have enabled 85 children to escape street life and 189 to enroll in school.
In the beginning, Chao’s motivation was: “Well, if I don’t do this, I don’t think anyone else will.”
Shauna Causey, the other speaker at the event, had a similar approach in the beginning of what would turn into what she deems a successful career. Again it began with a choice to use her voice for what she knew was right.
Causey, also an SPU alumna, has a career in technology and marketing. She has been on MSNBC, NBC and more to talk about her advancements and achievements in her field. Just like Chao, she began with what felt like little voice to use.
Once she graduated from SPU in 2006, she started her career working in marketing and finance for the Mariners. After working her way up with the Mariners, she transitioned to Comcast.
“I got this great offer to work for Comcast, which gets voted every year as one of the most hated companies in the world,” Causey said, laughing.
She often found herself, a young woman, in meetings full of 50 to 60-year-old men, an environment that did not necessarily feel welcoming or geared towards her. The company was receiving constant dissent from its consumers about how quickly they responded to calls, and Causey knew something needed to change.
She used her voice and pitched a risky idea to fix the problem, and received a tentative green light.
“I was working there when social media was just coming out … and I started telling them that we needed to start investing in the new digital media space. It was something we need to look into, because people didn’t like our company very much,” Causey remembered.
Causey, by far the youngest person in almost every room as well as the only woman, found herself spearheading a huge idea alone.
She was worried that she might be fired if she did not perform well and improve her company’s response time, but she knew what she was doing was the right thing for the company.
“Instead of firing me, they ended up giving me a team,” Causey said.
The project soon started getting media attention for the way it changed how Comcast interacted with its customers. Only then did her coworkers, far out of the loop on modern media related issues, start to ask her what she was really doing and how it worked.
Comcast response time dropped from 30 minutes to about 10, and an increased in approval ratings followed.
Causey eventually moved on to Nordstrom, then Starbucks and other places before moving to her current position as the vice president of marketing for Simple Finance.
When both Causey and Chao were asked what they would tell their former selves, just as Obama was asked in her interview, they both said similar things.
Chao stressed the importance of self-care in the midst of breaking one’s comfort zone and using one’s voice.
“I would tell myself to invest more in myself,” she said. “I know that sounds weird, but it’s really important. I used to not do that very well. I would be doing so much, so fast, and always hovering on the brink of burnout.”
She emphasized that her goal was to help others, and when she was younger it was hard to see how self-care could be helpful. She learned that taking care of herself, often the only person in her office and the sole driving force behind her mission, was vital.
Causey also emphasized being kind to yourself, saying, “I wish I had been more comfortable with failure.”
When a student asked her how she deals with the fact that the stakes always feel higher when you are the only woman in the room.
“I had to realize that the stakes are the same for me as for everyone else in the room, and I’m going to act like they are. I have to care less what everyone else thinks,” Causey answered.
Chao agrees. She emphasized the importance of using her voice even when it is frightening or hard.
“I tell myself ‘I’m going to ask a question after this point. I don’t know what it’s going to be yet, but I’m going to put myself out there and ask a question,’” she said.
Causey agrees, saying that pushing oneself through the things that we feel like we cannot do is always an empowering experience.
Her mentor, the man she says was the best mentor she ever had, only ever had two pieces of advice for Causey.
First, when she was afraid, asking him whether she could or should do something, he consistently asked her, “Why wouldn’t you do it?”
This reminded her that she had every right and capability to try anything she wanted to, that she was the only person in her way.
Second, right before she did anything, he advised her “Don’t mess up,” a comical piece of advice that reminded her that she was perfectly capable.
“There’s nothing better than being able to say ‘I thought it was going to kill me, but it didn’t,’” Causey said.