Role of women in revitalizing the economy in Detroit’s “come back” is still undermined.An exclusive interview with Carolyn Cassin, CEO and President of Michigan Women Forward: sharing her journey & insight about redefining the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Detroit through MWF
People say that when women participate in the economy, everyone benefits. This is what Michigan Women Forward is striving to achieve in Michigan by providing a hospitable and inclusive environment for women through philanthropy and investment. In the last 30 years MWF has been able to make a huge impact in strengthening the economic development of Michigan’s women. MWF invokes a clear vision for transforming Michigan to achieve equality and empowerment for women and girls by eliminating economic & social barriers. To support this mission MWF focuses on three pillars accelerating the women’s entrepreneurship through access to capital, education, and mentorship to start or grow successful businesses.
Under the visionary leadership of Carolyn Cassin and with the support of her competitive team, MWF has been able to change the lives of thousands of women in Michigan. In an exclusive interview with Carolyn Cassin shared her journey with MWF and her insight on the challenges that women are facing in their quest for economic, social, and professional empowerment. She also highlighted the role of MWF in creating the enabling environment for women to achieve their goals and making their dreams come true.
Carolyn accepted the leadership of “The Michigan Women’s Foundation” now Michigan Women’s Forward (MWF) in 2009. She commenced with its mission to helping women and girls accomplish economic self-sufficiency and advancing equality. Carolyn created an innovative strategic direction by developing a microloan fund for women-owned and managed businesses in Michigan. In 2010, Carolyn and a group of 28 other Michigan women founded BELLE Capital/Michigan, of which she is a general partner. Under her visionary leadership, Michigan’s first female venture fund was created to invest in women-owned companies in the state and other undeserved communities in the US. In January 2018, she founded BELLE Michigan Impact Fund, a $20 million impact investment fund to make early stage investments in high-growth, women-owned businesses. To date the fund has made three investments and has 47 limited partners.
What stage was MWF at when you started working with it?
It has been around nine or so years since I began with this organization. It was the time when Detroit was going through economic and political turmoil. So initially, it was a little challenging as there was not enough money in the bank, and the organization was not able to produce the activities that would attract young women. Even though it was a highly respected organization that people felt strongly positive about, donations stopped coming in due to changing political, economic conditions of the country. At that time I was looking for something to give back to the community and to do something that would produce a huge impact. I believed in the mission of Michigan Women Forward and I thought this would be good thing to do rather than going back to working for hospice. I took the position with an open mind, and without any emotional attachment. This worked in that I could be more objective and rational in my decision making.
What were the Challenges that you faced initially when you joined this organization?
When I joined this organization back in 2009 it had no resources, no money, no staff, no real understanding of mission and no clear direction. Upon taking over, my initial strategy focused on how to improve the economic status of women and how to attract young women. Looking back in history you would realize that all movements come from young people, so, if you don’t appeal to young people you can’t make 50 or 60 year old woman do it. So it was important for us to encourage young people and empower them to bring the change in the society.
Did you face any challenges in getting grants from the donors especially in the beginning when it was a time of great economic crisis in the country?
Well, going back to that time there were too many organizations, and too few dollars, so it was really challenging. In order to get money from donors you need to be very aggressive, tenacious, constantly driving, transparent and accountable. It was long process and it took us a long time to get where we are today. We went from losing money in 2011 to growing our staff from 2 to 21 staff in three different cities by 2018. We contacted donor organizations and gave them the flexibility to decide what MWF program they would like to spend their money on.
What are the major challenges that women face in the society?
In United States business is always about men. Men get the opportunity to start with nothing and move to the top. For women it is not easy to start a business, because they have to think about their family and children. It is a challenge to do both and that is why it is important that both men and women share the responsibilities. At Michigan Women Forward women come to us with a lot of insecurities; many are not prepared, have no financial resources, no confidence and with a conditioned mindset that they are not good in numbers, etc. MWF will wrap arms around them, lift them up and provide an enabling environment for their professional, personal and social growth.
What is your vision for MWF for next ten years and what is the way forward?
It is an honor for me to lead this organization. In next five years I envisage MWF as an organization to which government and corporate sector organizations will turn to when they want to know what women think, and how things can be improved for the betterment of women, although not the only organization that people think about when they are working on women’s agenda.
In the long run I envision a world where people don’t need this organization anymore because there is no gender bias- a world where there is no difference between men and women. Women might need something different from men. But it does not mean that women cannot be in business and that men cannot share the responsibilities in the home.
What motivates you and what are you passionate about?
I am passionate about life and this is the reason that I carefully select things where I can put my energy, time, and focus. On the flip side, I firmly believe that if you are doing something that you don’t love, see what you can get out of it and if you still cannot get a decent answer then leave it. I am passionate about women’s empowerment, their economic development, and I like to give back to society through empowering women. This is something that I will do even if I did not get paid for it.
What do you think of the importance of self-awareness?
Self-awareness is important to the extent that if you know who you are it’s easier to find the right person to date, the right person to marry and the right job to do. On the other hand, if you are aware of yourself but you don’t find the right job where you can put your heart, mind and soul, you can try something else. For example, at some point in my career I took a job where I was not in leading position, and where I was second to someone else. I was aware enough of myself that I knew I would do a much better job working in a small organization where I was the leader, rather than a large organization where I was the number two. So I quit that job.
In addition to self-awareness, I would encourage you to ask yourself another important question: what I can get out of any particular work experience and what I can learn from it? This will also help you to get closer to what you really want in life.
What are your thoughts on Work/Life balance?
There is no such thing as a work/life balance. You have to choose, and sometimes you have to sacrifice one thing or another. But, in the end, you want to make sure you are doing your work and your children feel they are being loved and cherished. Additionally, you need the support of your family in order to create some sort of harmony in your work and family life. When your family realizes that work is really exciting and important to you, and when your children see their mother is doing something that she loves—then, most of the time they will be willing to understand.
What is your message to young leaders of the world?
Take this life seriously, and play your role in building a better world. This is all that we have. We all are connected. Do whatever you can to make this world a better place. There is some piece of it that you and only you can do to make this world more harmonious: “one world “as opposed to “those countries”. Do it in the spirit of making this world a better place.