2-Years as EWAAB's CEO: Starting, Scaling, and Stepping Down
By: Kaitlin Gili - Former EWAAB Chief Executive Officer
It wasn’t until I was knee deep into the process of creating EWAAB, that I had a more clear picture of what I was building. To be honest, I’m glad I didn’t know from the beginning. It would have seemed much more daunting; much more far out of reach than my initial goal. At the start, the plan was to build a mentorship program that would connect women across 6 different countries - providing them with the opportunity to share professional advice and make meaningful connections.
At the time, this project alone felt challenging enough. My co-founder and I needed to conduct research and pull from our own experiences to develop a program curriculum as well as recruit 6 women across the world who would be willing to lead this at their universities. With a lot of hard work and passion for the project, we started EWAAB’s first mentorship program in the Fall of 2019 with 8 mentors and 27 students.
About 4 months into our inaugural year, I shifted my role from a program designer, manager, and mentor within EWAAB to its Chief Executive Officer as we incorporated the nonprofit in the state of NJ. Looking back, I know that this role was too big for me. I didn’t know the first thing about non-profit organizations - let alone how to run and manage one. I didn’t step into the role with the confidence that I would always know what to do, but with the confidence that I could attain the right resources to learn.
I loved getting to be a part of every process: programming, branding, budgeting, fundraising. I delivered corporate pitches that resulted in failure and success; collaborated with volunteers virtually who I may have never had the opportunity to meet in person; and felt the joy of meeting students who felt impacted by our programs.
There were definitely bumps in the road, and times where I felt I was way in over my head. Thankfully, I received amazing support and guidance from multiple advisors who pushed me in the right direction and volunteers who were so deeply passionate about the cause that they were willing to put as much time into EWAAB as their full-time position. EWAAB wouldn’t be a success without these individuals. And it is because of one individual in particular, who has been the backbone of our programs for the past year and half, that I feel very confident in the next stage of EWAAB’s sustainability as an organization.
After two amazing years, I will now be stepping down as EWAAB’s Chief Executive Officer, but maintaining my association with EWAAB as the Chair of the Board of Trustees. Samantha Collins will be stepping up as not only our Chief Executive, but also as our organization’s first full-time employee. Sam has grown with EWAAB since its early days, and I am very confident that she will lead the organization to an even greater state of stability with the ability to build a pipeline for change.
In a short Q&A with Sam, I asked a couple of questions regarding her new role at EWAAB and her plans. See the full interview below:
"I want young folks in all professions to feel confident on their path because not only does their supervisor look like them, leadership from the top down is filled with folks just like them. I'm here to make long-lasting, meaningful change in all professions."
What is it that you have loved most about EWAAB and what do you look forward to most about transitioning from your position as the Program Director to the CEO?
The little moments I have with students are what have me falling in love with EWAAB and our mission over and over again. When a student tells me they were so happy to find our mentorship program because they were feeling ostracized on campus, or when a mentor tells me that she's learned just as much from the sessions as her mentees and will be taking her newfound confidence to the various talks she's been invited to give in her field, or even when a student just reaches out to have me review her resume - all of these moments drive me to push our mission forward. I can't wait to continue having these moments as the CEO and have an even greater impact on our growth.
What advice would you give to other women & non-binary students who are just starting in their careers? Advice based from your own journey?
The biggest piece of advice I can give to folks at any part of their professional journey, from first-year student to young professional and beyond is ask questions. As a first-generation student I constantly felt like I needed to figure it out on my own and when I finally decided I needed help I still didn't ask because I had no idea who to talk to. I should have just asked somebody, anybody - even if they didn't know the answer they would have pointed me in the direction of somebody who did. Asking questions will do wonders for your growth and advancement - you'll not only learn more, you'll find more opportunities to take advantage of and you'll show folks that you're willing to work hard to develop.Â
How has being a part of EWAAB's founding story and organizational growth contributed to your own personal and professional growth?
While I didn’t join EWAAB to work on my own growth, I look at the work I produce now, the ideas I bring forth and the changes in what is or is not outside of my comfort zone and I am astounded by my development. Our educational philosophy is to learn through personal experiences and practical application - I am constantly listening to the stories of our anchors, volunteers and students while sharing my own and I always challenge myself to work on and use the practical tools we teach our students. By actively engaging in our own curriculum I have found myself learning and growing right along with our students and I couldn’t be more thrilled.
What do you want other members of our community to know who are looking to get involved or make a contribution to EWAAB?
Go for it! There is never a wrong time to give back to a community of students who are working hard to break into and rise in their field. If you've found success in your profession, learned important lessons or even just look back on your undergraduate experience and wish you had been encouraged more, now is the time to pay it forward for this generation of young women & non-binary students. Reach out, ask questions and we'll find the right opportunity for you.
Why is EWAAB's mission so important to you?
I have been very fortunate in my life that I chose and love a field where I have encountered so many brilliant women who have helped guide me. From my first RA position as an undergraduate to being a Program Manager at Northeastern University, all but one of my direct supervisors were women. It has made me infinitely more confident in my ability to not only do my work but to rise - until I look two levels above my supervisor and see swaths of men. I want young folks in all professions to feel confident on their path because not only does their supervisor look like them, leadership from the top down is filled with folks just like them. I'm here to make long-lasting, meaningful change in all professions.
Internally, we are very enthusiastic about this change - and we are excited to now share this news with our entire community! Thank you to everyone who has helped support us thus far as we enter a new stage of organizational sustainability such that we can support young women and non-binary students in their careers, building a pipeline for years to come.