Five Questions with Sheena Wright

January 09, 2020
Sheena Wright, the first female CEO of United Way of New York City, shares how she leads her teams to enact measurable impact across the city.

1. As the first female CEO of an 80-year-old organization, what do you do to help other woman achieve their goals?

I am so proud to lead this dynamic organization; our Executive Team is made up of a diverse and driven group who are primarily women. I am surrounded by leaders who are passionate about the impact we can make through the caring power of our donors. Bringing other women into important conversations creates a learning environment where we aren't afraid to fail, where we collaborate on how to improve and support each other. I believe this all starts with listening carefully to the people around me and making sure that everyone has a space for their voice to be heard. Throughout my career, I dedicate time outside of my “day job” to talk with other women who want support and mentorship on their own leadership journey. I am grateful that many strong women continue to do this for me, and supporting other women is an act of gratitude to all those who have done the same for me.

2. Who in your life inspires you?

My mother is one of my very greatest inspirations. She was a teenage single parent, raising us in the South Bronx while working, going to school and trying to make ends meet. She fought hard to make sure we had everything that we deserved, while at the same time growing up herself. The obstacles that she overcame define so much of my life, and how she never gave up is truly incredible to me. What became my mother’s illustrious career includes founding a national organization and receiving numerous national recognitions for her contributions to community. Her commitment to her family, her community and her education is a testament to the power of determination and inspires me every day.

3. How has your childhood personal experience shaped your leadership style?

Women create incredibly powerful communities, and this very often happens outside the workplace walls. When I was a little girl, there were many times when a family in my neighborhood had a problem and needed help. I distinctly remember those moments of need and how the women I knew so well would respond: they all came together. In a neighborhood that didn’t have anything to spare, they pulled whatever resources they could and helped the family in need. This experience helped me appreciate the power that women so often choose to use: the power to help each other. At an early age, this instilled in me a belief in distributed leadership: everyone comes together to solve problems. As a leader today, I see this experience in our powerful Women United Affinity Network. The 700+ members of Women United come together regularly to support our community and truly embody the idea that empowered women empower other women.

Women create incredibly powerful communities, and this very often happens outside the workplace walls.  



4. With community needs being vast and diverse, how do you work to solve such complex challenges?

We must start with the belief that problems can be solved. We appreciate that complex problems are interconnected: there is no “one solution” to solving any issue. Our approach is about understanding the complexity of problems. We design interventions that address the root causes, not just the symptoms, and coordinate interconnected solutions using the resources of the entire community. Our job is to knit solutions together and bring to life a coordinated response. This model is why we are proud to have outsized impact across the city: our ReadNYC Program in Mott Haven changed the trajectory for that community, within 5 years going from 9% of our third-grade students reading on grade level to now over 48%. Just as important, we see a mindset shift across this community about what is possible. There is still so much more to be done: our job now is to make these results city-wide, scaling impact and the belief of what is possible when we work together.

5. What advice would you give your younger self?

Don’t be in such a hurry, change takes time! And you must celebrate your successes along the way.

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