Free Enterprise Staff  | October 6, 2015

Q&A With YWCA CEO Dr. Dara Richardson-Heron

Beginning yesterday and continuing through tomorrow, October 7th, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s 2015 Corporate Citizenship Conference highlights some of the world’s leading global companies, and shows how they’re solving some of the world’s biggest problems—starting at the local level. To spotlight the event, we’re running some of the interviews we conducted at last year’s conference, including this sit down we had with YWCA CEO Dr. Dara Richardson-Heron.

Some organizations are lucky enough to survive for a year. Yet even after more than 150 years, the YWCA remains a powerful force in the U.S., operating in 46 states to eliminate racism, empower women, and promote peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all. Though many factors have contributed to its longevity, its leadership team has played a significant role in ensuring its continued success, with Dr. Dara Richardson-Heron the latest in a long line of distinguished professionals to have served as its head.

A physician by training, Richardson-Heron arrived at the YWCA in 2012 after a four-year stint running the Susan G. Komen for the Cure organization. Her academic and professional training has informed nearly every aspect of her career, she says, enabling her to more effectively navigate the nonprofit world. “My background is a little interesting,” says Richardson-Heron, who spoke with during the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Corporate Citizenship Center Conference in September.

“I’m a physician by profession, but I think I’m an advocate by choice. I have always known that I wanted to impact the lives of others in some way. I’ve certainly committed to that through my work as a physician and as CEO of the YWCA, one of the world’s oldest and largest multicultural institutions dedicated to eliminating racism and empowering women. It just gives me a tremendous opportunity to use my skills, my experience, and my expertise to make a difference in the lives of others.”

Leading a venerated nonprofit like the YWCA is not without its challenges. But Richardson-Heron routinely draws on her medical training as she looks toward the future. Her internal medicine residency at New York University, she explains in the following clip, was one of the defining formative experiences of her adult life. NYU’s program is notoriously rigorous and exposes residents to a singularly diverse patient population across its three hospital systems, including the Bellevue Hospital Center, the oldest public hospital in the U.S.

There are, of course, plenty of organizations that function in this sphere of the nonprofit sector. But the YWCA, Richardson-Heron says, has managed to remain one of its most respected and effective because of the unique way it operates. The YWCA takes a varied approach to addressing societal problems such as poverty and racism, enabling it to better craft programs and initiatives that promote its mission. “The YWCA’s competitive advantage is that we combine direct services and advocacy,” she says.

“In other words, we have over 1,200 locations across the country in 46 states and we see every day the trials and tribulations that many women and families face as they’re trying to make a life for themselves. We use that knowledge and information to advocate for a better life for them. I think that’s really unique to us. Many organizations are advocates, but we see every day what’s happening in the lives of these women, and based upon what we see we go to Capitol Hill and we go elsewhere to advocate for a better life for the women and families that we serve.”

The YWCA does not try to confront these systemic issues on its own. It has, Richardson-Heron says, partnered with other organizations over the course of its long history, working directly with nonprofits, private businesses, and government agencies. In the following video clip, she explains how collaborating with outside groups has been fundamental to its success since its inception and especially over the past few years.

As the YWCA inches closer to its 200th birthday, the nonprofit is actively engaging young women that it hopes will become its future leaders. It also continues to organize job training, financial literacy, women’s health, and domestic violence programs that act as resources for women in need. The strength and success of these kinds of initiatives, Richardson-Heron stresses, is dependent on the people and organizations that it chooses to work with.

“The YWCA is such an iconic organization that I’m just so proud to be leading,” she says. “As the landscape changes, we know that it’s important to partner with other nonprofits to demonstrate our collective impact. We want to be able to demonstrate to everyone how collectively powerful we are as an organization, and I think other nonprofits are going to have to do similarly if they want to remain relevant and sustained in this environment.”