Sometimes, You Show Up for Work and Make History
Hattie Kauffman didn’t set out to be the first Native American to file a story for a national evening news broadcast. “All I did was show up for work. Sometimes, that’s all we do. We show up for work and make history,” Kauffman said when she accepted her Women of Distinction award at the 2014 National Conference for College Women Student Leaders.
At the ceremony, Kauffman was the first of five Women of Distinction speakers who gave advice to 900 college women leaders. Kauffman implored attendees to embody the definition of the word “distinction” as literally as possible: to be clearly different in a way that’s apparent to the senses and undeniable. Kauffman — who grew up in poverty and was often left alone with her many siblings — gratefully remembered a “lady of distinction” in her life, her third-grade teacher, who helped wash Kauffman’s face and comb her tangled hair one day before class. “We can be distinct. And when we are, it makes a gigantic influence on those around us,” Kauffman said.
What Does Leadership Mean to You?
The other awardees were Lily Liu, a young entrepreneur; Pam Melroy, one of two women to have commanded a space shuttle; DeRionne Pollard, the president of Montgomery College in Maryland and a college-access advocate; and Judy Smith, a crisis communications expert whose career inspired the ABC show Scandal.
Liu, whose entrepreneurship is dedicated to civic engagement, told NCCWSL attendees that you should think of what you love to do first and think of the cachet of a job title second. “Life is too challenging for external rewards to sustain us. Nothing is better than love to sustain us,” she said. Liu encouraged college women to be bold, to embrace failure as an inevitable part of success, and to take action instead of being passive observers of their circumstances — even if the action is as quotidian as helping someone on the subway.
Melroy, who went to Wellesley College before breaking ground for women astronauts, encouraged the college leaders to seek out a women-only environment at some point in their lives, because her college environment lifted her up and “made it demonstrably clear that anyone who said women aren’t as good at math or science or leading people was ridiculous.” Melroy also emphasized that leadership isn’t static; it’s a lifelong, changing discipline. “People think you’re born a leader or you’re not. I’m here to tell you that’s absolutely not the case,” she said. It’s not about being charismatic, and one approach won’t work in all jobs or even in all situations. Melroy joked that her approach has changed since her days of “making a life-changing decision in 20 seconds or everyone is gonna die” in space.
Pollard, who is one of the first black lesbian women to be a college president, admitted that she tried to drop out of college three times but that her mentors and the love of the men in her life, her father and grandfather, inspired her. She had mentors who pushed, pulled, lifted, and inspired her when she didn’t know how to move forward. “I’m here tonight because of them. You are here tonight because someone believed in you as much as you should believe in yourself,” Pollard said. She implored attendees to figure out what their movement is, “inhabit your own space, and fill it up.”
Smith told everyone how she very nearly became a lawyer instead of a media consultant (she’s gone on to handle communications for nearly every Washington, D.C., scandal you could think of since Iran-Contra). But she was only able to take her first job opportunity because she kept in touch with her friends and wasn’t afraid to say what she thought — to anyone — about current events. She says that preparation and the willingness to pursue what she was good at led to other career opportunities, including being the deputy press secretary for President George H.W. Bush and now having a hit show based on her life. You don’t need to do everything and try to be everything to be successful, she told attendees. “You are good enough,” she said. “You don’t need to be anybody else.”