interviews with incredible women

What Makes Incredible Women Incredible?


Interviews with Incredible Women ( is a series of thoughtful interviews with women who inspire me and the women who inspire them. I became interested in talking with incredible women after hearing some of the really cool stories about the lives of women I know, like the woman who owns an art studio or my friend, the geophysicist. At first, I just wanted to throw a giant party and invite all of these cool women, but I realized that they wouldn’t be able to hear each others stories unless it was written out. I had the skills to start the blog, so I did. After conducting and publishing 64+ interviews, I became curious about the themes that thread through the lives of “incredible women.” The research question was, “What makes incredible women incredible?”

I had some ideas about the themes that might emerge through a review of the data gathered through the Incredible Women interviews, but Brene Brown’s work made me wonder about the techniques of qualitative research. It was my good fortune that Dr. Heather Stuckey, from Penn State University, is a qualitative researcher who was willing to work with me to code and analyze the interviews, unearthing the themes that women mention as being intrinsic to an incredible life.

Women’s Studies, The Basics sets a good background for the complexities of the life women. But it’s The Evening Times of Glasgow where we find everyday women characterized as incredible. In the article “Six of the Best Who Inspired Our Voters,” The Evening Times talks about a woman with cancer who overcame long odds, women who wrestled with the death of their children, women who are passionate and compassionate about their work. It’s so interesting to see how the themes that I discovered throughout this research are relevant when you hear unrelated stories from other ordinary but incredible women.

One other inspiration for this project came from Composing A Life by Mary Catharine Bateson. Grove Press writes that this book is a “treatise on the improvisational lives of five extraordinary women. Using their personal stories as her framework, Dr. Bateson delves into the creative potential of the complex lives we live today, where ambitions are constantly refocused on new goals and possibilities. With balanced sympathy and a candid approach to what makes these women inspiring, examples of the newly fluid movement of adaptation–their relationships with spouses, children, and friends, their ever-evolving work, and their gender–Bateson shows us that life itself is a creative process.” (Bateson). For me, this inspired me to ask women about the creativity in their lives and work.


The interview data reported in this project were gathered over most of 2014. The plan is to continue collecting interviews to expand upon the stories of incredible women.

The Participants

The women held occupations that ranged from stay at home moms to Apache helicopter pilots, from attorneys to geophysicists. In line with snowball sampling, each participant was given an opportunity to recommend other incredible women. In general the participants were not limited to any particular demographic although, most of the participants were well-educated, predominantly white American women . The list of participants grow organically, without focusing on creating a representative sample.

The Interviews

Questions were tailored for each participant, based on the information that was available about them. The participants were identified using social media profiles including Facebook and LinkedIn, as well as personal websites to research participants prior to sending them an initial list of five or six questions. Topics centered around participants’ interests/passions, how they maintain balance, the role of pain in their life, and the lessons learned over a lifetime (what advice would you give a younger version of yourself, for example).

As the project progressed, the questions evolved to be more open ended. Instead of asking different questions for every participant, the questions were standardized and often included the following:

  • Q:  You’ve been identified by someone as being incredible.  What do people see in you that is incredible?
  • Q: What advice would you give to an earlier version of yourself?
  • Q: What is the most rewarding thing you’ve done?
  • Q: Life is beauty and pain.  Tell me about pain in your life.
  • Q:  What question did I miss?  What else should I know about you?
  • Q: Finally, can you recommend another incredible woman for me to interview?  Can you facilitate an introduction?

Interview questions were provided to participants via email with some introductory text about Interviews with Incredible Women and links to interviews that had already been published online. It was clear from the email that the interview would be published online and, at that point, some women declined to participate. There was no promise of privacy, since interviews are published under participant’s real names with easily identifiable data.

Some participants preferred to be interviewed orally and in these cases I recorded the interview, transcribed it, and sent it back to them for their approval. This builds credibility through member checking (reference). Most participants wrote their own responses, which I read and lightly edited for clarity, spelling, and grammar, again providing them a version to review prior to publishing.

The social media analytics on most of the interviews showed that the interviewed reached an audience from a few hundred to a few thousand, at least on Facebook. The response that I got from the community was overwhelmingly positive. Many women had never thought of themselves as incredible and expressed that the process of thoughtfully answering the questions was insightful.


The Analysis

We developed an initial code book with recognizable themes from about 20% of the interviews and then used NVivo software to assist in coding. Saturation was reached when no new data was emerging, such as there were no new codes being added to the codebook. Initial codes included:

  • Approach to life (gratitude, learning and openness, passion, mindfulness)
  • Collaboration/Group Work (creative solutions)
  • Internal locus of control (trust your instincts)
  • Outward focused (work that benefits others)
  • Overcoming challenges (hard work, creativity
  • Self care (travel)

After an initial round of coding, we cleaned our codes to eliminate unnecessary ones and to merge codes that demonstrated the main themes.

Please note, we used the edited, published interviews as the source data, which may provide a limitation to our study. Although it would have been standard to use original transcripts of the interviews for the analysis, especially in cases where deeper, more revealing details had been removed, the summarized text were available. The study is also limited in generalizability based on the composition of white women who were mostly well educated.



We found several themes that women repeatedly mentioned in Interviews with Incredible Women. These themes included:

  • Incredible women are valued and supported by their family or their loved ones and they in turn value and support themselves.
  • This self care gives them resources to focus outward, working to benefit others.
  • These women respond to life with gratitude, mindfulness, learning/openness, and passion.


Theme: Incredible women are valued and supported by their family or their loved ones and they in turn value and support themselves.

Family/ Loved One Support

Participants reported that the support of their family and loved ones was essential to their success. These participants tended to have a support network of people that includes friends, family, and colleagues. For example, Anna Crider Sharp said, “my family and loved ones have supported me throughout my life both professionally and personally. I would be nowhere without them.”

This theme closely ties to Approach to Life – Participants expressed gratitude for the support of others: “my colleagues were really supportive and respected my ability to do this job in a flexible way, even if it wasn’t the way everyone else does it.” Although gratitude isn’t overtly expressed, the tenor throughout the interviews was that these women deeply appreciated the opportunities and support that came through the people they love.


Theme: This self care gives them resources to focus outward, working to benefit others.

Self Care

Many participants discussed self care in their response to “what advice would you give to a younger version of yourself?” One participant put it pretty clearly in her response: “Do not forget to take care of yourself.” But others talked about being an introvert and needing time to “decompress and relax.” Taking care of yourself is “the real secret of getting things done; you have to nourish yourself to take care of others.”

Self care, according to these interviews, includes yoga, rest, meditation, backpacking, exercise, caring for animals, climbing, hiking. It’s worth noting that many of these activities are solo ventures. These women express a need for spending time with themselves, to refresh their spirits.

Outwardly Focused

Although incredible women take time for themselves, they are also focused on work that benefits others. They are deeply passionate about empowering others – whether it’s first-graders or inspiring those around them. For example, a theater professor wrote that she’s “in theater because we all need to take all these tools from theater so that women can step into authorship. Somebody needs to write the story. If we can use theater to get women to step into that authorship role, those qualities will carry over into life and leadership.”

Participants volunteer, teach, work in orphanages, prisons, with prostitutes, as shamans, as environmental activists. Participants champion causes like infertility and mental illness, giving a compassionate face for people who struggle. And they express wonder and gratitude at these roles: “I still love every one of my students, flaws and all…I often learn more from my kids than they learn from me.”

One of the women was the co-founder of Haiti Babi, a non-profit that teaches Haitian women to knit and crochet baby blankets for an online webshop here in the States. Haiti Babi pays fair wages and gives the women a means to support their family, a win-win in social entrepreneurship. She said, ”The most inspiring part of working on Haiti Babi is watching the women and their children’s lives change. We have watched as their lives have transformed. We have witnessed their personalities begin to shine in a way that simply can’t come through when [they’re] living in extreme poverty.”

Finally, when asked what her message would be to the world, Amanda Oliver responded, that people “have value, self-worth. People don’t realize their worth, what they bring to the table. Everybody has something unique and special that they bring. That’s part of the point of people-who-matter. Yes, YOU have purpose and value.” Incredible women deeply believe in the value and worth of both themselves and others and are passionate about helping others see their value.


Theme: These women respond to life with gratitude, mindfulness, learning/openness, and passion.

 Approach to Life

How do incredible women approach their life? They do it mindfully, with a ton of gratitude and a willingness to learn. Incredible women approach their life with passion, figuring out creative ways to do that they love. Mindfulness, gratitude, passion, curiosity are all facets of an incredible life. To understand your passions, you have to be curious and mindful. Curiosity and mindfulness lead to gratitude.

One participant said that “I want my life to be daring, ambitious, and impactful. There’s a sweet spot of inspiration when I feel a little bit afraid of where I am headed. If I feel entirely comfortable, I’m not in the right spot.” Being passionate doesn’t always mean being comfortable. Sometimes it involves overcoming huge challenges or getting comfortable with pain, being so mindful that you even come to be grateful for the uncomfortable moments.

Because of this mindful approach, participants are always learning; “I was constantly learning about myself – My abilities, my faults, my strengths, my weaknesses.” Another participant mentioned, “I have always been wiling to grow and learn as a leader, a woman, a mom, and a friend.” And from Judy Dillon, “education is the key for advancement and a successful future.” Learning is one of the key approaches that incredible women have towards their life and those around them.

What do incredible women mean by mindfulness? The traditional definition from John Kabat-Zinn is that mindfulness is “the awareness that arises by paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment with openness, curiosity, and acceptance.” (reference). To sum it up in three words, one of the participants said, “LOVE. ACCEPTANCE. DISCIPLINE.” Participants often talked about enjoying the small things, because “nothing lasts, which makes it precious each and every moment. And that life is impermanence and change, and we must learn to accept the incredible gift of time and not waste it in pettiness and fear. Live with your heart set on love.”

What is more incredible than living with your heart set on love?

A yoga teacher in Richmond wrote, “in the moment, if I really pause and just hover in the moment, I find that the bliss is right there. I know that sounds really simple and, perhaps a little cliché, but I really, really have found it to be true. Trying to get into the moment can be full of effort, but when you arrive in the moment, it is effortless, struggle-less, bliss.” Incredible women keep working towards the present moment, where they only response is one of gratitude and love. Like one participant said, “I have learned that there is no greater moment than the present, because in that moment you have it all.” Another echoed her, “I fill my heart, soul and mind with awareness by paying attention. Truly paying attention, to whomever I am with, to whatever I am doing, to what I am feeling.”

How does mindfulness lead to gratitude? “There is no guarantee of another day, let alone another moment, so that moment you find yourself should be embraced and celebrated.” When you’re settled in the present, you have the opportunity for gratitude about the extreme blessings in your life.



It has been such an honor to work on Interviews With Incredible Women. I feel like I’ve learned some secrets to how to live an incredible life, like to take care of yourself so that you have an apply ample supply to give to others, like that mindfulness leads to gratitude leads to joy. I’ve seen that over and over in my own life.

I started this project from the premise that everyone is incredible, but I’m realizing that some women handle life with a grace that is really incredible. It’s been so inspiring to conduct these interviews and to hear the unique stories that each woman told, but it’s been incredibly interesting to see the themes that run through the data – and interesting to see how those trends apply to my own life.



Bateson, Mary Catherine. Composing A Life. Grove Press, 2001.

SIX OF THE BEST;The incredible women whose bravery and courage inspired our voters. Evening Times of Glasgow. June 4, 2004.

Smith, B. G. (2013). Women’s studies: The basics. Abingdon, Oxon; New York, NY: Routledge.


Liz Laribee

Liz Laribee

Liz Laribee is the Director of the MakeSpace, a collaborative arts organization she spearheaded the founding of in 2012. Through that position, she has helped mobilize a series of creative projects in the city of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  She is a freelance artist, specializing in reuse and alternative materials in the creation process. Liz has exhibited her work in Harrisburg, in national and international print media, and at the Philadelphia Mausoleum of Contemporary Art. For the past six years, she has taught reuse methods of art-making in classrooms at the University level, in public and private schools, and in after-school programs. Some of her current collaborations include Sprocket Mural Works, a citywide initiative to generate and document public art, a children’s book series with poet July Westhale, and DCBA Lawyers for the Arts, a program to enable lawyers to assist fledgling artists with stabilizing their projects.

Born in Kansas, Liz’s father was an Episcopal priest and interim pastor at churches who were struggling. Because of his work, she moved 17 times before attending Messiah College in Harrisburg. Though she had been accepted into Savannah College of Art and Design, she focused instead of creative writing and graduated from Messiah College with an English degree.

Q: You are involved in some creative, community-oriented projects like MakeSpace and Saint Stephen’s Episcopal Cathedral.  What is your vision and how has that evolved?

LL: My avenue into Harrisburg was an intentional community called The Sycamore House. I helped start that when I was a Junior in college through The Episcopal Cathedral. The model back then was that people would live in community together, with a commitment to the surrounding city. Your rent and utilities were paid for in exchange for community service and teaching the youth group. I moved into the community and stayed for 2 years. It was impactful and informative. I entered the city with eyes open and the intention to learn about the City and to impact it positively.

Experiments around the idea of community and grassroots efforts to make things happen was really hammered into my head in college and so, when I moved into Harrisburg, it continued that way. In 2012, five years after graduation, it was a strange time in Harrisburg history—there was Occupy Harrisburg, David Unkovic had been appointed as the receiver and had a really quick turn around and then resigned. When that happened it was sort of like Batman quit.

My temperament is that when I get discouraged, I redirect my energy into making something. I was invited around that time to a community meeting at the Pancake Mansion and I met this vibrant community of people who were trying to establish the “next thing” in Harrisburg and trying to pool our diverse resources and talents to create something more constructive in Harrisburg.

Around the same time I was often coming to Little Amps, sketching a business plan for an arts collective. My art was selling better and I needed an established workspace, but I was really broke. I knew that to move forward, I needed to share space and share resources with other people. The people and process I encountered in those meetings really helped percolate the plan I was forming with a few others, and that boomeranged us into honing our vision statement

We became aware of the property that MakeSpace is now in when I called my landlord who had the property. The philosophy was to use what we had available to us, which was very little money, but a lot of resourcefulness and a lack of inhibition. It lends itself to the whole thing being an evolving art project.

As far as a larger vision that I have…this is a strange time of life to be talking about my vision! I feel like this is the year that I’m slowing down, in a good way, a purposeful, mindful way, but my vision is just trying to love where I live. Trying to figure out a way to make that possible for myself and the others around me.

Q: Can you explore that a little more. Do you love where you live? What are a few of the things you need to be happy?

LL: I DO love where I live. What I mean by trying to love where I live means trying to piece together the elements that go into a life that I can thrive with. I need friends, coffee, a means to make and sell what I love to make and sell, and I need to be in community with the people around me. If those elements are in place then that, to me, will equal a happy life.

I think my language has gotten more personal the longer I’ve done this. At the very beginning, it was about “saving Harrisburg”, but over time it has become a little less…arrogant. It’s more about living a mindful life and liking who I am and those around me.

Q: Has that always been possible for you? To lead a mindful life? How has that idea changed over your life?

LL: I think one of the biggest changes I’ve see in myself is trying to learn how to hone in on the most practical and most joyful way to lead a mindful life. You start off really unfocused and think you can do anything, like we all write that in each other’s yearbooks, but over time, that becomes less interesting. You become less interested in trying to be absurdly prolific—you start to focus on quality and quantifiable, measurable results.

Q: I cannot wait to check out MakeSpace (and to bring my tinker boyfriend over).  Tell me some of the stories from MakeSpace.

LL: There have been so many stories. I had met this guy once, maybe 15 years ago, and because of Facebook, he messaged me and said that “I met this Klezmer band while I was in Europe and they’re in the states and they want to play at MakeSpace.” It was one of the most incredible live performances I’ve ever seen and it was so emotional for me that it was happening in the MakeSpace. They performed and their stomping nearly brought the floor down. The next day I had to sweep a bunch of euros off the floor. They left euros in their wake!

We renovated the space with our own sweat equity and elbow grease. There was a room off the kitchen that was totally not insulated—you could almost see through the walls, so we left it vacant as a meanwhile space until a neighborhood artist named Stephen Michael Haas asked to experiment with an installation in that room. He spent three days with primer and India ink and turned it into this incredible piece of installation art. He did a mural on every bit of space. It’s this imitate autobiographical statement of his life and it’s become one of the staples of the experience at MakeSpace. It was an incredible way to redeem the space with nothing but a person’s resources, spirit, and time.

Q: How do you make time for yourself?  What gives you balance?

LL: What I love to do to get time away is to go away. I travel a lot—I take two big trips each year. It’s necessary for me; I have wanderlust. I like reminding myself of a larger world and contexts that are totally separate from my daily to-do list.. I don’t owe anyone in the Turkish airport any emails.

I also really love going to the River and sitting on the steps and not bringing my cell phone with me. And m y new house has a balcony off of my bedroom, so I spend a lot of time there.

Q: What is something that the world should know?  Maybe the best piece of advice that you ever received or the message you have for others.

LL: Be excellent to each other. I think that’s my best advice—it’s dependent on no resources other than yourself.

Q: What do you think is the capacity of someone’s internal resources?

LL: People are limited by expenditures of their own time and energy and the disadvantages that come from larger systems, but how you treat people is your choice.

Q: How has the way you treat people changed based on your experience?

LL: Well, I’m more interested in listening than speaking these days. Some arrogance is wearing off. I’m trying to be more cautious about what it is that I put into the world and how that happens.

Q: What question did I miss?

LL: It’s probably what is your name an anagram for! And the answer is LIBERALIZE.

Jessyca Jackson

Jessyca Jackson

Jessyca Jackson is an insurance sales person and also a very good friend. Her daughter is close in age to my son. We met through the MBA program at Penn State University where I first noticed her fantastic taste in shoes, but soon came to appreciate her for her diplomacy, intellect, and great humor. Jessy is and engineer, a record holding pole vaulter, a single mom, an explorer and a dreamer. She also fosters older children, giving them a helping hand before they start out on their own. If there’s a woman who embodies the definition of incredible, it might be Jessy, even though she would laugh and change the subject if you asked her.

Q: Tell me about your experience with Teach for America, especially any stories that illustrate your time with them.

JJ: Teach For America (TFA) was one of the hardest and most rewarding experiences of my life. I knew I wanted to work with children who were under-served in some capacity since I was a young girl. I had no idea how to pursue that career option, however, since my parents were sales people and there were no ‘formal’ educators in my family. So I finished grade school and headed off to Syracuse to study civil engineering – still having a blast when working with youth, but knowing for sure that I did not want to earn an education degree. During the fall semester of senior year when everyone is taking their Fundamentals of Engineering exams, GREs, and committing to employers and graduate school (all of which I was doing), I came across a TFA poster. I knew nothing about this amazing organization at the time, but I did know a lot about Dinosaur Bar-B-Que (the locally renowned restaurant that was catering the event), so I went. After a ’96 corps member (that’s what TFA-ers are called) named Kwame shared his story, I knew to my very core that I would join the organization. Several interviews later (that included designing lessons and teaching to the interview panel), I was accepted as a corps member to the DC Metro region – very urban, very academically disadvantaged – exactly what I envisioned myself doing at least 15 years before!

I have countless stories worth sharing some good and some not-so-good, but I’ll limit it to one. The student’s name has been changed to protect the former adolescent from embarrassment now that he’s older and has a fully developed brain! Side note: Some studies have shown that a person’s brain doesn’t stop growing until 21 and sometimes longer for a child who experienced trauma in earlier years – a potential explanation for why some of my kids did what they did.

So, Jacob was one of the most respectful, reserved and charming students ever – I don’t have memories of him ever being loud or crass. I was an Algebra I teacher to 9th graders (I’m sure you can already pick up on the achievement gap with that fact alone. Many of my kids were taking Algebra I for the first time as 9th graders and many were older than the traditional 9th grade age – their ages spanned from 13 to 16). Jacob could not stand math, in fact, he HATED math – or so he’d say time and time again. Well, after several months of frustration and reminding myself to ‘stay within my locus of control’ and ‘to be flexible like the branches of willow trees’ (popular TFA mantras), I decided to take a concentrated and more holistic approach with Jacob. He showed so much initiative and potential in the classroom, but something was not clicking when left to complete algebraic steps on his own. It wasn’t until after he returned from a 2-month stint in a juvenile detention center (I don’t recall what he did to serve that time) and until I was literally spending most of my time by his side during his class period to catch him up on missed work that I figured out one of his problems.

Most kids have multiple factors that contribute to their less-than-desired academic achievement and one fine day, we discovered something big with Jacob that ended up dramatically improving his grades not only in my class, but in other classes as well – and it had nothing to do with his numeracy skills! So let’s say Jacob was reading from his math or science book – a paragraph with 15 lines of text. Well, after having him read aloud to me, I learned that Jacob was inadvertently skipping entire lines of text. He’d read line 1, then line 3, then line 4, then line 6… Of course, he couldn’t understand concepts in my class or any other classes since he was missing entire chunks of theories and principles when he read this way. I excited shared the news with my team teachers and we gave him steps to reduce and eventually eliminate the ‘conceptual loss’ that occurred when he accidentally skipped lines.

I also learned that even though he hated going to the juvenile detention center, he appreciated the structure that existed at the facility. They were required to rise at 4 AM every morning, but that was comforting to Jacob because he knew that a nice hot shower and meals would follow. He never had to wonder whether he’d have enough to eat at the center. That’s very comforting for a child stuck in a man-sized body. Most of my students were just little kids with tough exteriors. I still love every one of my students, flaws and all. Though I’m no longer a teacher in the classroom, I’m a proud foster parent to older youth. Since so many people blame under-performance on the home life of children, I’m now working with the same under-served population but from the other side – the home life side and it’s just as rewarding and fulfilling as being in the classroom. I often learn more from my kids than they learn from me.

Q: Do you feel like you are treated fairly as a black woman?  Do you feel like there are more opportunities (or limitations) that come with race and/or gender?  Tell me about your vision for gender and race equanimity. How will your vision come about?

JJ: This is a good question and you probably already know I can only speak about my experiences. I can only count a few times when I’ve overtly been marginalized by my brown skin – a couple times by kids when I was a child and once by an adult when I was an adolescent. If I was treated unfairly at other times because of my skin and/or gender, it was much more covert. One example is how a guy I knew in undergrad (he was a fellow civil engineering major) would insist on using ‘broken’ English and slang whenever he would talk to me. It was much more bothersome than inhibiting, but it’s something that definitely stands out in my mind when I think back.

My vision for such topics would be for the world to see color, but then quickly become colorblind – to remember that an overwhelming bulk of who we are falls into our ‘human’ category rather than in our subcategories like gender and ethnicity. The full spectrum of our experiences – from true love to detestation – have more to do with the fact that we are people and very, very little to do with our anatomical make up and skin tone. In my opinion, that would make the scale of this beautiful and broken world tip more on of the end of beautiful.

If I’m understanding your final question correctly, in addition to indefinitely working with youth who are underserved, underprivileged, and under exposed to positive experiences, I feel a personal obligation to do my part to dispel the myths and stereotypes associated with Black American women and families. Whatever ideas immediately pop into a person’s head who is not a Black female, that’s what I try to counter with my disposition and interactions with others. Hopefully, I’m not too obnoxious about it, but I’ve literally had folks yell at me for being too pleasant, as well as being so intrigued that I’m asked where I grew up and then told that I’m not like the other Black people they know – literally.

Q: How do you make time for yourself?  What gives you balance?

JJ: During this season of my life, I value true rest. In addition to sleeping (a usual favorite, though I don’t get as many hours as I’d like), there are amazing regenerative powers in just being. Sometimes that involves just sitting and intentionally breathing, sometimes it’s catching a power nap, sometimes it’s meditating/mindfulness, and sometimes it’s being in great company (my daughter, my family, a love interest). Rest comes in a variety of forms for me now and I get it where I can. Sometimes I even use it as a reward during particularly mentally strenuous days. The balance comes when I accept whatever circumstances are in the present, evaluate all my options and select one – the balance is typically acted upon when I use some form of rest – even if its brief. Does that make sense or just sound mystical?

Q: What is something that the world should know?  Maybe the best piece of advice that you ever received or the message you have for others.

JJ: My mentor often says ‘everyone has a story and we don’t what that story is.’ I always take that to mean that no matter what a person does – good or not-at-all-good – a person’s actions are justified in their minds, it usually makes sense to them, even when it may look and sound senseless to us. That understanding has given me more patience in every single relationship in my life (significant other, my biological child, my  family members), but especially with the children I invite into my home through foster care. It literally helps me live out not sweating the small stuff because it’s a constant reminder to deal with the person, not the action, and that honey is sweeter than vinegar when it comes to addressing the root of the matter. We’re all kids in bodies of various sizes and, without excusing bad behavior (or not acknowledging good behavior), I’d like to say that when those times arise when I must have healthy confrontations with folks, I’m well-received because I’ve been respectful to them in the past, regardless of what they might’ve done.

Q:  Who is your role model and why?

JJ: I have so many, must I choose? I admire anyone who lives with intention and according to what they profess – so long as others are not put in danger. I have my amazing parents and grandparents, of course, but the person who’s had the most influence on my life as a working professional is a dear woman named Viola. She lives a very unassuming life in a Maryland town minutes from both DC and Virginia. She is the most sprightly 70-something I’ve ever met and I usually tell her I want to be like her when I grow up. Every encounter with her, whether over the phone or in person or in writing, is oozing with brilliant practicality. She has a gentle way of reminding anyone not to take themselves too seriously, while reminding them of their exclusive talents. I love her and that reminds me that I’m due for a visit..

Q:  What is the most rewarding thing you’ve ever done?

JJ: Being a teacher and parenting. Now I’m immersed in both for life and I’m thankful for regular opportunities to become greater at both.

Tawnya Horton

Tawnya Horton

Tawnya Horton is an officer in the U.S. Military stationed overseas.  She has spent significant portions of the last two decades stationed in Asia and Europe as part of the U.S. Army Signal Corps. She has held jobs ranging from the tactical infantry (Stryker brigade), to the operational satellite communications, up to joint strategic level. She currently works with foreign partners in Europe to develop and maintain communications interoperability – while balancing life as a military spouse. Besides being an incredible woman, she is also my cousin.

Q: Tell me about moving around and the work you do with the military.  What are some of your favorite places?  Where do you feel most at home?

TH: Moving around is a skill I’ve honed over the last 14 years I’ve been with the military.  I have also discovered it’s a marketable skill, as one of my graduate professors stated, “90% of ex-pats sent overseas can’t hack it, and resign their job to move home.”

You give up a lot of the luxuries in life i.e. remaining in the same area for a long period of time and seeing your family on holidays. When you’re stationed in different parts of the world you learn to accept what is around you and appreciate what is available in different cultures. As with anything in life there are no absolutes so every place has its advantages and disadvantages.  I wouldn’t trade this military life for anything!

Q: How do you make time for yourself?  What gives you balance?

TH: Yoga of course.  I love that my husband, Sean, has demanded we go to hot yoga three times a week.  It makes it easier to make it when we’re both committed to blocking that time out.

Q: What is something that the world should know?  Maybe the best piece of advice that you ever received or the message you have for others.

TH: I feel like it’s not my place to tell people what they should know.  However, one of the principles I live by is best summed up by Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk, in his TED talk:

“If you are grateful, you are enjoying the differences between people, and you are respectful to everybody, and that changes this power pyramid under which we live.” It has proven to be an immensely successful credo, even in the military.  I don’t just treat my peers and subordinates with respect; it’s amazing how my leaders appreciate being treated as a normal person too!

Q:  Who is your role model and why?

TH: I have two – my Mom and Colonel Steve Elle.  My mom is because she taught me to fight for women in the work place.  COL Elle because he has shown me how to be a good leader and a mentor.  I hope I can do the same for others in the future.

Q:  What is it like being in the military?

TH: I LOVE my job; I work with the Finnish, Swedish and Austrian Defence forces, and other NATO nations, who want to be interoperable with the U.S.  Meaning their radios, on the ground, in the air, or at sea, can communicate with those of the U.S. and U.S. coalitions.  The enjoyable part is actually being able to make a tangible difference in enabling our coalition partners the ability to fight along side of us.  It’s a pretty big deal knowing when they fire a rocket or fly an airplane along side of us – they are able to have situational awareness of all the other troops (US or otherwise) on the ground and contributed to the coalition team.

I think in the large scheme of things I provide a service to this country as anyone else does. I have signed up to defend our nation and have been honoring that commitment since. At some point I will transition back to what people call “the normal life” and continue to support our nation through other means.

Melanie Hamburger

Melanie Hamburger

Melanie Hamburger is passionate about making philanthropy accessible at any dollar level, and helping women leverage their intellectual and financial resources for social impact. She is an in-demand speaker on the influential role that women now play as majority asset owners in the U.S. At Catalytic Women, Melanie works with a talented team to engage women who are influencing their wealth.

Melanie’s career spans two decades of working with leaders in business and philanthropy, and helping them impact local, regional and global issues. Her expertise spans major gift fundraising for leading nonprofits including The Nature Conservancy, brand management for Procter and Gamble, and corporate finance for Levi Strauss and Co.

Her own children are a reminder of the legacy she wishes to create. Melanie holds a BA cum laude from the University of Colorado, Boulder. She and her family live in Mill Valley, California.

Q: You have significant experience in fundraising and it looks like Catalytic Women is changing the model of fundraising for non-profits – how did you come to be such a connector?  How did Catalytic Women start?  What’s your goal for Catalytic Women?

MH: My background is in fundraising, although I think a big part of what we do is to change how people think about giving.  Women are financial drivers for social impact funding, including philanthropic giving and investment.

I became a connector because I have a great role model in my mother.  She had a huge network of friends and acquaintances.  I remember how she would introduce people.  She’d provide context so they had something to talk about; she’d find common connectors.  She made people feel very comfortable, which is important to me.  It’s simple to make people feel comfortable, but you so rarely see people really smiling and listening.  She was my role model.

Catalytic Women started with my mom as inspiration.  I had the opportunity to care for her after cancer diagnosis, before her death.  We had a tough relationship as I was growing up, but as she came nearer to her death, I got to spend some wonderful time with her.  During this time she lived in Hawaii and her dynamic of connecting turned her house into a gathering place.  People in the community said they never saw a place where everyone was welcome.  Everyone, regardless of culture mixed together and all felt welcome at my mom’s house.  Her inspiration made me think about things that I could do to make women feel welcome and confident within the area of financial giving.

Q: What mistakes do non-profits make in their approach to fundraising?  If you have a message for people seeking funding, what would it be?

MH: The goal for Catalytic Women is to build women’s financial stability and ability to give.  Charitable giving is a positive way to engage women – and not just engage them as legacy donors, but engage them NOW. There is always an opportunity to make an impact.  Small gifts over a lifetime would net millions more dollars into non-profits.  But we have found that women want to be very educated about non-profits before they donate.  Catalytic Women gives women a way to learn more about the work of non-profits,  and to connect to great organizations and with other donors.

Non-profits make two key mistakes in fundraising, which I observed when I was responsible major gifts fundraising for the Nature Conservancy.  The first mistake I saw was that non-profits don’t focus on the wife in couples, although it’s almost always the wife who drives the decision.  The second is that many people forget lower level donors can make an impact. Many nonprofits focus on that “big gift,” yet it’s the steady smaller donations that provide stable, year-to-year financial support for an organization. Balancing major gifts and steady smaller gifts is a difficult line to walk.  Ignoring people who give at lower levels is a very large missed opportunity for organization to engage donors over long term.

Q: What is your passion? How do you find balance?

MH: My passion is helping others cross the divide between I wish and I can.  This passion plays out for me personally in being the kind of person that Does instead of Hopes.  It plays out for me as a mother raising children who are confident but humble.  I’ve learned that the best way to engage is to get out there and make mistakes.  I’ve found incredibly smart, successful people from all walks of life who don’t necessarily know a lot about charitable giving. Legacy gifts are less fun than participating NOW.  My passion is getting people to leap across that divide, that chasm of fear that holds us back from participating fully.

To find balance, I need to cultivate my own eco-system to thrive as a person and professional.  For me, balance is two-fold:

  • Being present in nature, like running with my dog. I make that a priority for health and mental well-being and it gives me time to reflect. I’m a student of Buddhist philosophy and cultivating awareness and being in the moment. Appreciating what we have provides a lot of perspective.
  • Making time for my girlfriends, getting together to see a movie, having a drink, or just catching up.  I get so much satisfaction and delight from spending time with my friends.

Q:  What is the most rewarding thing you’ve ever done?

MH: Being a really good parent to my two teenagers.  I’m not a natural mother.  I never babysat as a kid and I was an only child, so I didn’t have experience with kids.  I always wanted to be a mother, but I didn’t have a ton of confidence.  I really struggled with the baby years, when everyone else made it look easy. Now I’ve made changes to carve out time to be present with my teens.  It’s challenging and exciting, difficult and rewarding.  I have an especially close relationship with my daughter and I’m deeply grateful for that.  I’m really present with my son and understand the difficulties in his life.  I’m raising really good human being who are not entitled or spoiled, but want to give back and solve the world’s problems.  My children are my legacy  – raising people who make the world a better place is the gift I give the world.  I treasure this precious time before they go away to college.

Q:  What is one essential ingredient that makes you who you are?

MH:  Fearlessness.  There’s not much in the world that I’m afraid of.  And I believe that the universe is a benevolent place – that if I stumble and fall there will be a net that catches me or there will be a hand that reaches out to me.  That’s so empowering.  I’m not afraid of what could go wrong, because I can manage.  There’s always support when you need it, even though you sometimes have to ask.