Community service helps women make connections, find balance

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Michelle Wright

Certus Consulting President Michelle Wright is busy all week providing human capital and management consulting, primarily in the health care industry. But early in the morning or during her lunch break she will squeeze in a philanthropic meeting. On a recent weekend, she wanted to volunteer at a United Way event and spend time with family, her 27-year old son volunteered alongside her.

Women who rise to the top of their fields have to intentionally cultivate relationships outside the day-to-day to make time for philanthropy and friendships.

For Wright, she curates how she spends her time based on her interests and passions — supporting the development of women and the needs of those with developmental disabilities. This has created lasting friendships that are supportive both professionally and personally, she said.

“It’s easier to set aside the time for something you personally prioritize,” said Wright, who is the chair of Women United, an executive council of the United Way, consisting of over 1,100 women in central Maryland that provide support to the local community. “You build lasting relationships with people that are similarly passionate. You lift each other up.”

Wright also values her connections supporting women through Women Business Leaders in Healthcare, and on the Governor’s Workforce Development Board, which allows her to use her HR background toward local workforce development. She is also on another board for an autism service provider that supports children with autism, and is a previous vice chair of a board to help adults with developmental disabilities. All of these are close to her heart, especially because her adult son has severe autism.

“Bottom line, you try to lean into areas that you feel passionately about, which makes it easier to manage from a time perspective,” Wright said.

When personal and professional passions are the same

Joan Plisko

This has also been the case for Joan Plisko, president of Plisko Sustainable Solutions, LLC, a small business primarily working with non-profits. Plisko, who has a Ph.D. in Environmental Systems Engineering, has found that her priorities carry over.

“My personal and professional passions are the same — to weave environmental health and sustainability into the fabric of people’s lives and the organizations for which they work,” Plisko said. “My sustainable solutions inherently include human well-being as an integral component.”

That weaves into her volunteer time too — she serves on the board of directors of the Baltimore Tree Trust, on the Baltimore County Commission for Environmental Quality and was on the advisory board of the Neighbor Space of Baltimore and Hazon Seal of Sustainability.

She has a small number of long-term clients and values her relationships with each one — she doesn’t define them as professional or personal, she said, just relationships.

When her children were small, she took time off, valuing the relationship with her children and family first and foremost. She reentered the workforce working three days a week, and did that for a decade. When she was ready to launch her own business, she had all those relationships to carry her forward, and she always kept balance as a priority.

“I’m in relationships with people, clients. I’m also in relationships with our planet, Earth, and myself, and my husband/partner,” Plisko said. “Those are all really important fundamental, foundational relationships that keep me energized and enthusiastic about the work that I do.”

Finding the right organization for personal and professional development

Aubreana Stephenson Holder

Aubreana Stephenson Holder had recently been named Chief Operating Officer of Federal Management Systems Inc. when she fulfilled a lifelong dream by joining Alpha Kappa Alpha, a leadership sorority for college-educated women who get together for service projects and personal and professional development. It was something she’d always wanted to do after seeing her mom’s friends from college involved in AKA.

Then, in 2012, newly named COO at the government contracting firm, she was connecting with a former colleague from a law firm and talking about being around more like-minded women. She confided that she’d always wanted to be part of AKA, and the friend helped her get involved and obtain an invitation.

In 2014, Holder joined AKA and soon took on leadership roles within the sorority, serving as the vice chairman of the technology committee, designing the chapter website, and ascending to the regional level.

Holder found that the sorority honed her skills as a leader and she ended up seeing AKA sisters on government contracting sites and in the school carpool line. It augmented her professional career, rather than taking time away.

“It hit so many levels of sisterhood, which is very important for me,” Holder said. “I am the oldest of my siblings, but in it I have sorority sisters who look out for me as big sisters. They open doors for me, if they have a seat at the table they will say my name for me to also have a seat at the table.”

The United Way has found that helping women find these types of meaningful relationships is so important, that Women United’s chair Wright helped launch a program specifically to pair female philanthropic leaders with women looking to grow their impact in the community. This fall, Women’s Philanthropic Leadership Development Program will launch its third cohort.

“There are so many things that women are asked to do every day and we just do,” said Wright, who was a mentor for the 2021-2022 cohort. “It is way easier when you’re doing something that you care about and you see that you’re making a difference.”

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