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There Wasn’t a Blueprint for These Women’s Success. They Had to Draw One.

Trigger warning for domestic violence.

When Elizabeth Acevedo was growing up with her brothers in New York City, she was raised to be “la niña de la casa,” the girl of the house who was supposed to learn to cook, clean, and be a compliant wife, mother, and daughter. Instead, she played varsity basketball, learned to box, traveled the world at 16, and fought to go to George Washington University in Washington, D.C., instead of staying close to home, like her family wanted her to do.

“I really wasn’t supposed to be here,” Acevedo said as she accepted her 2015 Women of Distinction Award at the National Conference for College Women Student Leaders. “I wasn’t raised pushing toward being a Woman of Distinction.”

Acevedo, a poet who has graced stages internationally and has given a TED Talk, told the 1,000 attendees that she used to struggle to find role models. “I was looking for the blueprint,” she said. “But I realized at a certain point that the woman I wanted to be would be the woman I had to become.”

All of the women onstage that night had to draw their own blueprints for leadership. Amanda R. Simpson, the executive director of the Army Office of Energy Initiatives; Lynn Rosenthal, a former White House adviser and current National Domestic Violence Hotline executive; and Miriam W. Yeung, the executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum also accepted Women of Distinction Awards at NCCWSL. Fellow honorees Marcia Ann Gillespie, former editor-in-chief of Essence and Ms., and Debbie Sterling, CEO of GoldieBlox, were unable to make it to the ceremony.

Yeung spoke to NCCWSL attendees about her own self-doubt. She confessed that “I really like getting awards!” partially because she has to work hard to be more confident and trusting of her inner voice. External validation offers reprieve from the moments of self-doubt that we all have. And how can women not distrust themselves? Yeung asked. “Our world is designed to question our every decision. Even what we do with our own bodies,” she said. Yeung added that the world tells us that women are worth less. But she encouraged women leaders to not be afraid of their own potential. “We are more brilliant than we can imagine … when we stand in our leadership,” she said.

Amanda Simpson has flown nearly 3,000 miles in her career as a pilot and aerospace engineering expert. Photo Credit: Tucson Citizen

Amanda Simpson

But the path to leadership, as Rosenthal shared during her speech, isn’t linear. “There will be times you feel completely lost,” she said. But there will also be times you have to be open to wonderful and unexpected experiences. For the first year she worked in the White House, Rosenthal admitted, she was sure every day that she was going to be fired. “But I did figure it out,” she said. And as a result she got to work on an issue she cared deeply about and had personal experience with: domestic violence. She described her disturbing college experience with partner violence and how she escaped the situation, thanks to her friends. She described her abuser admitting to her that during their last altercation, he was trying to rip out her tongue. “That’s what abuse is all about; it’s trying to silence someone’s voice,” she said. But she said she’s more optimistic than she’s ever been that domestic violence can be stopped. “You are the generation that is going to end violence against women. It’s you all,” she said to loud applause.

There were many standing ovations during the Women of Distinction ceremony, but one happened before the speaker even got a word out. Simpson, the first openly transgender woman presidential appointee, earned raves as she was being introduced. It was an emotional moment, and Simpson opened her speech saying that in her long career working in aerospace and defense, “I never set out to be recognized. I just simply wanted to be recognized as a woman. I simply wanted to be myself,” she said. Her speech focused on authenticity to yourself and credibility in your work with others. Simpson counseled attendees that being untrue to yourself results in either implosion or explosion of the self and shared that when she decided to transition and follow her own path, opportunities opened up that she wasn’t aware of before. Now, she works with the highest levels of military and civilian leaders in her job. “It’s important to honor and respect your past, but it’s never too late to become what you were meant to be,” said Simpson.

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By:    May 29, 2015