Women United

United Women for a United Way

By Lorna Oppedisano | Photography by Alice G. Patterson

“Does $250 by itself make a difference?” queried Nancy Eaton, president of United Way of Central New York. “Well, not as much as if it’s invested with 100 other people, right? Then, all of the sudden, you actually have some money that you can make a difference with.”

United Way of CNY recently announced the launch of Women United, a group of local women across for-profit and not-for-profit sectors who want to connect virtually and in person, all while supporting United Way with a yearly contribution of $250 or more.

Among those helping United Way in these efforts are Eric Mower + Associates senior vice president and managing director, Stephanie Crockett, who serves on United Way’s board of directors as co-chair of resource development; Wegmans Food Markets director of community relations, Evelyn Carter, who also serves on United Way’s board of directors; and Laci’s Tapas Bar co-owner and Women United collaborator, Laura Serway.

“This is a way to invite people to invest $250 a year or more into United Way’s work addressing poverty,” Nancy explained. “We’re working together with others in the community. The private sector, the public sector — we’re all coming together to say, ‘We can only build this puzzle if we’re building it on the same table.’”

The work of United Way

The mission of United Way is simple: “to improve lives by mobilizing the caring power of our community.”

The organization currently does that by providing funding for 88 programs offered by 33 partner agencies. Money from donors supports various organizations across the region fighting Syracuse’s poverty epidemic. According to the Census Bureau, the city’s 2016 poverty rate was the 13th worst in the country, up from 29th a year prior.

“Not the right direction, clearly,” Nancy said. “Much of the work United Way is doing in the community is to think about, ‘How do we help people rise out of poverty?’ And most of the people living in poverty in our community are women, and most of the women have children.”

United Way is the fiscal agent for and supports collaborative initiatives like Work Train, Early Childhood Alliance, Literacy Coalition of Onondaga County, Greater Syracuse H.O.P.E. and 2-1-1, all of which help to give women a pathway out of poverty, Nancy explained. When you change the life of a mother, you change the lives of her family, she added.

In terms of partner agencies and programs supported by United Way, the organization vets each of them. They do “the homework,” Stephanie explained.

“I don’t have time to research all these organizations,” she said. “I want to know that I can trust a source like United Way, that they are addressing the real specific needs in our community. I have confidence that the money I’m giving is going to the most critical areas.”

Uniting women

This will not be the first Women United program in the country, but could be the archetype going forward, due to the business resource directory component.

“This will be the new model for all Women United chapters across the country,” Laura said, explaining that the collaboration between female-led for-profit and not-for-profit organizations that support women is meant to explore opportunities for collective impact.

The goal of United Way of CNY’s Women United is two-fold: to support United Way, and to develop an online directory of women in the area, so registered members might connect with each other virtually, as well as in person at quarterly educational networking opportunities.

“The goal was to identify a mechanism to be a resource to women,” Evelyn explained. “We wanted to ensure our scope included professional women, entrepreneurs, women that work in all sectors [and] women of all ages.”

The idea for Women United began with a discussion about women coming together through United Way to make a difference in the area. The group was searching for the “why” — what would drive women from different industries and sectors of the community to get involved with this particular Women United?

Around the country, many Women United groups tend to focus on certain “women’s issues,” Stephanie said. The team behind United Way of CNY’s Women United aim to take a more broad approach. Stephanie explained that women’s issues are everybody’s issues, and the group wanted to focus on those fundamental issues.

Evelyn explained it simply.

“Women play a key and critical role in society,” she said. “We always have and we always will.”

In the brainstorming process for Women United, Laura brought up the fact that the Central New York area is home to many women’s networks and organizations — Women Business Opportunities Connections, WISE Women’s Business Center, Women TIES and Women Presidents’ Organization, just to name a few.

“Women, we work better in numbers,” Laura said. “And if we can collaborate on this underneath the guidance and the umbrella of the United Way portfolio, we’re golden.”

The goal of Women United is to bring together women from across these groups and others, just as United Way does with various not-for-profits in the area already. This is just another example of that, Stephanie said.

“There are so many amazing organizations that are providing services for women, and we don’t want to do anything that’s going to cannibalize their efforts,” she said. “It’s, ‘How can we come together, bring this together and all sort of rise together?’ It’s very exciting.”

Growing connections

As Evelyn stated, one of the main goals for Women United is to offer accessibility to women across the board.

“It was really important to us that we were looking at an opportunity that wasn’t going to be super cost-prohibitive for people,” Stephanie said. “$4.80 a week. We selected that for a reason. We really want Women United to be representative of our community.”

With their investment, members are added to the online directory, as well as to the guest list for quarterly educational networking programs.

The directory — a “clearing house for women in business,” Nancy described — is aimed to connect women across sectors and fields with others they might not cross paths with.

When she’s searching for a new person to do business with, Laura typically seeks out a woman.

“But does every female think that way? Probably not,” she said. “And as most things in life, my guess is at least 80 percent of the female entrepreneurs will want to do business with another woman.”

With the option of a catch-all directory, more women will think about doing business with another woman, she said.

Along with virtual connections, the group is planning quarterly meetings for members, featuring networking opportunities and educational programming. The events’ locations will vary from meeting to meeting, Nancy said. They’re still in planning stages, but hope to offer topics ranging from financial and legal planning to health to marketing, she said.

Nancy added that at each educational session, members will have the opportunity to connect with women helped by United Way.

“A single mom on public assistance [who] starts working at Loretto as an aid, studies to become an LPN with [United Way] support, gets the LPN and is now studying to be an RN,” she said. “That’s a pathway to a future, right?”

Members will also be able to “have direct access to some of the most influential women in this area,” Evelyn said, adding that that opportunity is priceless. In striving to include the millennial generation in Women United, and give them the opportunity to connect with established, successful women in the area, organically-grown mentorship is inherent in the structure of Women United, the group agreed. The mission is congruent with that generation’s values of living lives of purpose, Stephanie said.

“When they’re taking jobs, when they’re buying products, when they’re doing what they’re doing, they’re thinking about the aspect of impact that that company has,” she explained.

Along with the organic mentor relationships Women United could foster, the group is considering asking women when they sign up if they would be willing to be a resource and mentor to others just beginning their careers.

“The things [members of the millennial generation] will have access to and be able to learn at such an early stage in their careers will provide great benefits for their future success,” Evelyn said.

The future

While the team is still putting the finishing touches on the plan for Women United, they do have the framework for the directory and first year of programming set.

In terms of membership dues, women have the option of either a one-time $250 investment or a monthly recurring gift to United Way.

The first meeting is set for Tuesday, Feb. 6, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at Eric Mower + Associates, 211 W. Jefferson St., Syracuse. The slated topic is The Role of Women in Philanthropy and the Economy.

“I don’t see any reason why a woman wouldn’t want to join,” Evelyn said. “To be part of a network of accomplished and high potential women. Join. Today.” SWM