EMpower's Next Chapter

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Meet EMpower’s New President and CEO, Cynthia Steele!

An interview with Cynthia Steele

Here are a few questions that we recently asked Cynthia as EMpower’s Next Chapter begins:

What are you most excited about?

EMpower is positioned to create quantum change. I’m excited to work with our phenomenal team, Directors, and partner organizations to shape and put into action our practice-based insights and approaches. I want to advance recent strides for young people’s decision-making, where they prioritize and advise on the issues that matter, and propose and lead solutions. There is so much collective learning at EMpower and we’re poised to propel significant change for and with youth.

I’m eager to see how we can capitalize on the energy around good global citizenship among our supporters in the finance sector. Connecting them with our partners and youth leaders, and leveraging their multiple resources (intellect, talent, commitment, networks) to benefit young people is a win-win as it also deepens their learning and sense of purpose.

Our partnerships with grantees and colleague organizations show the advantages of solidarity, and multiple perspectives and skill sets. I am keen to go after the potential of power in numbers and shared wisdom.

What challenges lie ahead?

Many of the challenges are about how to most effectively reconcile polarities. For example,

  • How do we capitalize on global learnings and synergies, while being responsive to local realities and contexts?
  • As a global organization with teams across multiple time zones, how do we grow and strengthen systems, while maintaining the culture and team spirit that so many of us love about EMpower?
  • Opportunities for donor involvement in grants decisions, based on staff recommendations, have been integral to EMpower’s DNA. How do we allow for such engagement while opening space for young people to engage more on decisions that affect them?

The world is fast moving and increasingly complex. We need to avoid binary choices (“this” or “that”) and spark new thinking on rising issues.

What values do you hold dear?

First principles are integrity, fairness, and openness – to new ideas, different perspectives, and to being wrong. Trust is fundamental – the ability to trust others’ intentions, abilities, and commitments – and for people (staff, grantee partners, Directors, colleagues) to trust mine. I think I have a healthy dose of humility; I sure know the value of surrounding myself with smart people. Finally, striving for excellence each and every day. I love the JFK quote attributed to Aristotle, “The ancient Greek definition of happiness was the full use of your powers along lines of excellence.”

And while humor is not a value, it is in my bloodstream. I so appreciate levity and it is an important stress reliever!

What issues do you see young people facing today that weren’t so apparent a generation ago?

The world has changed dramatically for this generation. On the bright side: absolute poverty has declined, many health indicators have improved, and far greater numbers of young people are completing primary and, increasingly, secondary education.

But young people today face and speak about challenges that simply weren’t on the radar at the beginning of the millennium. Climate change is having demonstrable effects, and will throughout their lifetimes – less water, more extreme temperatures, and more climatic-related catastrophes. Technology is already having a huge impact – from how young people communicate with each other and receive information, to how artificial intelligence and automation will radically disrupt labor markets and their future jobs. I’d also lift up young people’s mental health. As a positive, there is more awareness about the importance of mental health and reducing stigma about it. Yet the issues are serious – World Health Organization data shows that suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death globally among adolescents 15-19. Half of all mental health issues begin by the age of 14. Building resilience, core life skills, and safety nets are essential building blocks of the programs we support and we intend to explore what more we can do.

What is your vision for EMpower going forward?

We are embarking on strategic planning in the summer of 2019 that will create a blueprint for the next five years. What I am clear about right now is having young people drive more decisions in programs, organizations, and communities. This is so sensible and right – young people are the experts on their own lives. We need to imagine the world in 2025, and focus our energies on how we can help young people prepare for the issues they will face in the near and distant future.

I foresee a greater focus of our grantmaking, learning, and sharing on how our partners can best help young people be adaptive, prepared, and resilient. Today and tomorrow’s youth need 21st century skills, including abilities to capture the best uses of technology and to avoid the worst, to know how to advocate for themselves, and to problem-solve and plan ahead. And in a world that is increasingly fractured and sown with division, it’s vital to foster tolerance, an appreciation for difference, and a commitment to ideals and practices of equality. EMpower should fund, support, and cross-pollinate more work in this space.

Lastly, we intend to exert more leadership in the philanthropic space on smart, strategic practices to give money wisely and to support strong approaches to youth development.

In your travels, you must see a lot of tough situations. What gives you hope?

Without question, it is the remarkable leaders of the groups we support. They, and especially young people, stand down daily hardships and challenges and are relentless in their pursuit of a more just, fair, and humane world. They are unstoppable – their courage and perseverance is a wellspring of inspiration.

You take a lot of long plane trips – what’s your survival strategy?

  • Bose noise-cancelling headphones.
  • Having loads of serious and fun reading, and a bunch of crossword puzzles, on my iPad.
  • A small stash of sweet-sour penny candy.
  • A bonus is if I can watch a TV series I have heard about but haven’t seen, like “Killing Eve”.

People talk about legacy a lot – what would you want to have achieved at EMpower?

I invest a lot in finding and supporting talented people. I see leadership every day in every corner of EMpower and I only want that to take stronger root and grow.

I have led the program work at EMpower for 14 years, from the focus on young people to strategies to center adolescent girls, alongside brilliant colleagues who will take this forward. I will be thrilled beyond measure to have helped shaped a world with more opportunity for girls especially, and more recognition of their vast worth and potential.

And, I think it’s important to have some FUN! Working on our issues can be tough – it’s important to celebrate victories small and big.

WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT CYNTHIA? CLICK HERE!


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