40 Under 40 Young Women Professionals League Award Ceremony Highlights
by Ina Ruxandra Bochian
After scavenging for what I had left to eat in my cupboards, I went to sleep hungry last night having eaten only 2 Oreos I took with me from the 40 Under 40 Awards Ceremony Thursday evening, some almonds my coworker gave me and the oatmeal and tuna I found in the cabinet. This feeling of hunger took me back to speech of the young doctor who opened the ceremony, Dr. Janelle Hadley. “I wanted to go to Nigeria to practice medicine there, but after medical school I only had .47 cents in my bank account. Somehow, with the support of strong mentors and a Go Fund Me account I was able to go to the continent. Africa is the first place I practiced medicine as a physician, helping people on the continent they stole us from.” In that moment, I started tearing up because I know first hand what it means to be down to .47 cents or no cents, but have dreams bigger than empty bank accounts can grant. Dr. Hadley was able to achieve her big dreams with the support of a strong fleet of women behind her to cheer her on.
These admirable women of the league stand behind one another in moments of struggle, but also besides each other in moments of victory. The binding force of these women is that they are all women of color whose ancestors indeed were stolen from the continent.
Few white people understand the pain of people of color and the idea of being descendants of a “stolen” people because most white people do not have that in common. Jews can relate to this idea to an extent because Jews have experienced the tragedy of being stolen, killed, and put into concentration camps, a history some prefer to forget. Certain immigrants can also relate to being “stolen” to an degree, but none like people of color, who have been ripped from their mother land, a land where they may have been descendants of Kings and Queens. Powerful black women may be descendants of royalty, but because they were taken against their will and enslaved that history was erased, but the DNA can never be erased. Greatness within cannot be deleted by any obstacle or generational set back that may have occurred, but it does require a unique set of skills and determination to overcome adversity. Fortunately, I have a deep understanding of what it means to be the descendant of a “stolen” people and to have to work twice as hard with hopes of achieving half as much. My immediate family was not stolen from my country, but I have ancestors who were and as an immigrant I understand the pain of having to assimilate to a new place, to fight for a new identity, to seek a place of belonging.
Watching from the designated seats reserved for media, I felt a strong connection to my own roots and thought of my own ancestors as Dr. Hadley spoke. Tears started streaming down my face and I got a vision of Moses telling Pharaoh, “Let my people go.” Though this was not a religious ceremony, I became overwhelmed by the Spirit of God in that room. I could feel the love these women have for each other through the passion of the speeches given.
Love is the catalyst for change and love is what I was greeted with by Serita Love when I first arrived. Ms. Love is the VP of Communication for the League. After her warm greeting, Ms. Love asked me, “How can I be of service to you?” Struck by the genuine spirit of a true Queen, I felt blessed in that moment because I was the one there to serve the organization and cover the event. Pleasantly surprised by the open hands willing to offer me help in return, I saw a spark that spoke to my spirit saying, “The Queen in me recognizes the Queen in you.” To refer to women as Queens in the black community is not a false way of superiority, but rather acknowledging that inside, what connects great women to one another is a character with the traits and qualities royals of antiquity posses. Those of us who study history and understand how a diaspora happens understand that somewhere down the line we all connect to Africa, to the original land that gave birth to all of our ancestors. Some of us feel more connected to that thread of our DNA, while others simply cannot comprehend it.
Sherida V Morrison, the Key Note Speaker for the evening, spoke directly to the spirit of Queens, the new inductees and leaders for the 40 Under 40 Young Women Professionals League. The metaphor she used to express her words of wisdom was that of geese in V formation. Morrison expressed the importance of order within a formation. “The V formation represents order.What most people don’t know is that the geese of the order, or whatever kind of bird it is, that’s in the front, takes the brunt of the wind. Many of you have been trying to get things off the ground and the reason you can’t get it off the ground is because you try to do it by yourself,” Morrison said. Emphasizing the importance of unity and support from other women, Morrison explained that being humble enough to accept help gives leaders an opportunity to soar a lot further together than they can on their own. In this “Me generation,” a lot of times the sense of individuality takes over because this millennial generation is so obsessed with selfies and self elevation, but forget to be humble enough to accept a back seat and learn to follow before being capable of leading. A strong leader does not start at the head of the V formation, but spends years of development, following the order of the formation before moving up. Furthermore, Morrison explained that the reason she was able to make it through difficult times was because, “when my wings were down, their wings were up.”
“We were able to soar,” Morrison went on to explain. As the flock soars together, all learn from one another and respect the order and the wisdom passed down, but as they do, they also prepare to shift in position. Sometimes the leaders leading the V formation retire to the back and change order to make room for a new leader to lead, but always remain in formation. Leadership is built on a foundation of old wisdom and new opportunities for others to shift around and fulfill new roles. “In that formation, your life, where you are in the front, you can fly, you can fly,” she spoke with conviction. She explained that leaders have been “chosen, not for an award, not for some recognition,but this is a call.” This call to action, to lead, to shift position is something special that allows inductees to nurture other young women and teach them to get into formation, accept order, and learn how to develop skills, gifts, and opportunities for themselves in a world where they may have felt unable to fly alone.
“Who wants to help you become a better you? When there is no money involved, who will journey with you to make sure you’re a better you?” Cheeresa (Reese) LaFrances Purnell, the President of 40 Under 40 League, asked when she took the stage to close out the evening. “You can’t do this alone. It takes community. Be a father to the fatherless,” she said addressing the men in the audience, asking them to support the young women in the room. Strong men, just like strong women, are called to lead by example and to step in when there is a void. Women are as strong as they can be individually and together, but sometimes women are too strong out of necessity because they do not have the support of a strong man to encourage their dreams and lift them up when the world knocks them down. Men are just as responsible for the success of women, mothers, wives, sisters, and future mothers. Those men who recognize this call to walk next to a woman, not behind her, not in front of her, are men who are worthy of the call to lead. A man need not be a father to be a mentor and a bother, but he does need to have integrity, character, and a strong willingness to stand up for women and show qualities of a King.
Queens need Kings and Kings need Queens to be leaders. Therefore men with foresight and a desire to serve are called to fulfill such roles. Rendel Solomon, the founder of the non-for profit One Stock One Future, an organization created to expand access and opportunity to one million underserved youth throughout Chicago and across the county by turning them into public company shareholders, cohosted this ceremony and showed qualities of a true King. Solomon, not only carries the name of one of the wisest kings in history, but he also showed admiration for the ladies of the league, hosting this ceremony with a sense of responsibility. Solomon carried himself with a demeanor of a man who understands the need in society for strong men in leadership, but he did not host as someone above these women, but rather as a partner and a brother, a true co-leader. The elegance Solomon showed is a testimony that there are strong men willing to step up in society. Men like Solomon are needed today because lately the reports on the news are so disheartening and women seem to have been mistreated and abused for way too long. However, women can rest assured that there are still a lot of good men who stand with us and help us maintain our altitude when we soar.
The 40 Under 40 Young Women Professional League is an organization where women position themselves appropriately to be respected, valued, and honored as they develop into Queens worthy of Kings. I chose to use this terminology because it goes beyond an attitude and calls upon the deep rooted excellence women hold inside when uniting in their spirit to their roots and to the destiny that goes far back many generations, inside a DNA that comes from historical Kings and Queens. Inside each woman, there is greatness, but leadership, service and philanthropy are choices some women make to activate that greatness within. After hard work and being part of the V formation, as Morrison so eloquently described, young professional women were awarded a metal, acknowledging them as leaders.
Closing the ceremony, the 40 medallions that were awarded to the 40 women inductees were medallions that had been prayed upon by other leaders, calling God’s divine blessing and guidance for these women. While the organization is not a religious one, the authority the speakers used when speaking about God showed great dependence on faith. As someone who grew up in faith filled household, a verse came to mind from Matthew 10:32 that says, “Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven.” The women of the 40 Under 40 League are not ashamed to call upon the name of God and to include Him in their journey, and because they make Him great before the world, God is faithful to His geese and is the wind behind the wings that help them soar. United by love, service to the community and each other, these amazing women are a true inspiration for today’s society.
The 40 awardees for 2017 are: Adeola Pollard, Amber Travis, Andrea Lyn Dixon, Archana Liggins, Ashley White, Bianca Robinson, Candace Edwards, DeLisha Williams, Gabrielle Wells, Inez Woody, Jacki Holbrook, Jamila Parham, Jennifer Beckham, Jeri Toliver, Kamela Fulbright, Karyn Lee, Kenya Thomas, Kenyatta Scott, LaGena Cain, LaToya Hunter, Lauren Cole, Leslie Nicole Smith, Lisa Lyons, LuToya M. Lang, Marva Hall, Melanie Brown, Menia Johnson, Meshon Chase, Monique Shelton, Myaisha Harvey, Nicole Bynum, Rachel Holmes, Siekeia Collins, Stephanie Collins, Tai Sawyer, Tameika Hinton, Tammera Holmes, Tonie Robinson, Tonya Weatherly, and Vanessa Abron.
The Leaders in of 40 Under 40 are as follows: Cheresa (Reese) LaFrances Purnell, the Founder and President, who also gave the closing remarks, Serita Love, the VP of Communication, one of the co-hosts, Chair Tiffany Fincher, Vice Chair Kristen R. Harris, Treasurer Rashauna Scott, Secretary Dr. Janelle Hadley, Leadership and Personal Development Co-Chairs Tot Jones and Laisha Ish LaJeaune Fox, Outreach Programs Co-Chairs Kisha Roberts-Tabb and Listiner Martinez, Social Media Director Lauran Elle Smith, Marketing/PR Co-Directors China Panion and Dequiana Brooks Jackson and Special Events Affirm Her Greatness Campaign (AHG) Glori Bond Rachael Turner Director Of Programming and member of the year..
The award ceremony was held at Harold Washington Cultural Center and the after party was at Renaissance Brownsville, where I got to socialize and talk to a few of the awardees more personally. Though time was of the essence and I did not get to talk to everyone individually, I did run into a fellow actress I met on the set of Empire, Melanie Brown. She recognized me before I recognized her because her hair was different, but once we figured it out we started laughing about good times on the show and joking about how long it takes to shift formation in the entertainment business. Sometimes, it takes a long time to shift from the back of the fleet towards the front, but being humble enough to have love for the process allows for new opportunities in other ares. Seeing Melanie being awarded gave me hope that my time will come and also that obedience and service do not go unrecognized for long. Besides Melanie, one young lady that got my attention was Andrea Lyn Dixon, also known as Fuzzy. I knew who she was because her mother squeezed next to me earlier that night to get some pictures of her from a good angle. Her mom said, “That’s my daughter, Fuzzy. I’m so proud of her.” To see a mother’s enthusiasm for her daughter’s achievement really tugged at the strings of my heart because I hope one day my mother will be at an award ceremony next to a reporter saying the same thing, as she was when I graduated Cum Laude from college.
“How can I help you achieve what your heart wants?” Ms. Love asked me again at the end of the night. I wanted to cry again because I haven’t been asked that question in a long time and especially not by a woman. Too many times it seems women are so quick to compete against one another and put others down as they try to get ahead, but very few times do women pause and look at another woman asking, “How can I help you?” For me, I’m blessed to have my mother, who is one of my biggest supporters and heroes, but it would be nice to have more peers asking me that question. The only other friend who asks me this is my bestie, Kelly Vaughan, who I also met on the set of Empire. Outside of that, I often feel marginalized and alone, sometimes even ridiculed and bullied, by those who feel so bad about themselves that they have to hurt me as a way to make themselves feel important. As Morrison noted, “This is a Me generation,” but there is hope. Inspired and humbled tonight, I found hope in that room and my spirit was lifted by the wonderful women of the league. If a doctor who had only .47 cents in her bank account was able to gather the resources to travel to Nigeria and practice medicine there and come back to testify about the experience, there surely is hope for me. Success is not about being “cash rich,” but rather about willing to make sacrifices, provide service, be humble and willing to take very low paid positions or volunteer until bigger opportunities open up. The ladies of the league did not have to tell me about the times their own bank account was zero, like mine is sometimes, but I am sure a lot of them have hit rock bottom some days only to rise up. No journey to success is a straight vertical line, but rather a set of hills and valleys, but with the right support there will always be opportunities when you chose to live a life of integrity.
I have no shame to say that some days I struggle because inside I know who I am and I know that there were also been times in my life where I was soaring high and my wings were up. Not all highlights last forever, but not all low points last forever either. So full of the soul food this award ceremony filled the void from physical hunger and longing for community. I am not alone after all. No woman is ever truly alone once she focuses on how to serve other women and empower others through acts of service and words of encouragement Another way of helping is through donating to this great organization so that women who strive for greatness can have the resources and tools they need to achieve success. You can send your checks to: Demoiselle 2 Femme, NFP 7159 S. Peoria, Chicago IL, 60621. On Facebook you can follow them at 40 Under 40 Young Women Professionals League and on Instagram at 40Under40 YWPL. If you want more information, you can sign up for the league’s newsletter and keep informed of future events or service opportunities. Please support this wonderful organization and give back to women who are true gems in their communities and in society as a whole. Your support will go towards developing programs, hosting events, and also scholarships for young women. No one can achieve greatness alone, but as a community everyone has the opportunity to fall into order as part of a V formation and members of a great fleet.