November 18, 2020
Author: Heather Lowey
SET THE EXPECTATION
“We made a vow that we would not rely on a partner to survive economically. Never let the bar lower. We held each other accountable.” Elyssa on the vow she and her sister made to each other as young girls. I think we can all agree they lived up to this in an amazing way!
What a wrap up to 2020 of Linking Indy Women. Elyssa’s talk was both awe inspiring, motivating and in general moved us all to a place of wanting to take action. She’s clearly a perfect leader for Girls, Inc. and their mission to support all girls in being STRONG, SMART, and BOLD.
Elyssa began by sharing stories of her grandmother, who she lovingly called Ita. Ita was from a small town in Panama with very little education, but she left a ripple effect of being the social change in a time where women leading the way was relatively unheard of.
From her humble roots in Panama, all the way to the first female Consulate General in Chicago, Ita set the expectation for herself and her family to reach high. Planting the seeds and visioning were all part of Ita’s plan for Elyssa, who Ita called a future lawyer, and her sister, who she called a future doctor. Both seeds manifested.
THE GREAT EQUALIZER
While Ita remained a strong influence for Elyssa, her childhood was not void of challenges. In fact, Elyssa grew up in a single parent home with her mother battling mental health challenges and unhealthy relationships. Elyssa is all too familiar with food insecurity. On her mother, “she couldn’t give us everything, all at the same time. But she still did so much for us.”
Elyssa’s sister, JJ, was her strong constant.
As children, they attended a public school and the girls began getting into trouble. A caring teacher called their mother and recommended she look into a Fine Arts Magnet school for the girls. She suggested the girls were bored with the education being provided and needed to get out of this school.
They THRIVED in the magnet school. The opportunity then came for them to attend a private high school in Fort Wayne through scholarship. While they received an amazing education, it quickly became apparent to Elyssa how much her family stuck out in this environment. This is the first time in her life where Elyssa saw real generational wealth and the benefits of privilege firsthand.
This is also where some tried to lower the bar for Elyssa and her sister. A standard they were not willing to be reduced to. Elyssa cautioned the audience about this. We want to set the bar high for kids. Always. They will rise to the occasion.
REFUGE IN BLOOMINGTON
Elyssa found her place as an undergrad at Indiana University in Bloomington. A true sense of belonging she had longed for somewhat unknowingly suddenly was a part of her life. She loved the professors, friends, and all of the experiences she had while in Bloomington.
Her experiences while growing up led to a passion and purpose for supporting women globally. Upon graduating, Elyssa began to see the tentacles of what happens when you invest in women and girls. THIS is what she wanted to be a part of. She took her first position in Chile with the Ministry of Education/UNDP.
She then decided to go to Law School and also obtained her master’s degree simultaneously. From there she worked in India, Tanzania, and New York all with the UN working specifically on economic empowerment and equity for women.
She LOVED her experiences. Even so, along the way she started to feel colonial. Feeling the impact women made in their own communities was starting to outweigh what she and the UN were doing to support. She described this time in her life as a bit of an identity crisis.
But now what?
SEAT AT THE TABLE
After passing the bar, she met one of her most influential mentors, in the form of her boss Dave. He continued to set the expectations high for Elyssa and she worked on Title IX in the Counsels office in the Indiana office of Vice President and General Counsel. This led to a role nowhere on her identity plan. However, through the power of her network and being open to something new, she became the Chief of Staff at the BMV of Indiana.
As the first woman, first Latina, and youngest by about 30 years serving as the Chief of Staff, Elyssa felt extremely out of place with feelings of imposter syndrome. In the beginning, she wasn’t sure how to make an impact. Then the voice of Ita came to her, “I didn’t create and pave all this way for you to sit at the table and not speak up.” This transformative thought pushed Elyssa to have a voice.
At the BMV, she also began volunteering with Girls, Inc. This opportunity felt like coming home.
When the CEO of Girls, Inc. retired, friends pushed her to apply for this role. “This is why you came home. This is it! This is your moment to step into working with women and girls and making an impact in your home state and community.”
More imposter syndrome over applying for this role but she did it anyway. And while she’s the youngest CEO of any Girls, Inc. in the country, she wears this as a badge of honor.
The mission is so personal. She feels very lucky to have an amazing group of other CEOs, mentors, friends, and a sisterhood of support.
Elyssa then shared some of the statistics that are the foundation for why Girls, Inc. of Greater Indianapolis works tirelessly to end gender economic and social barriers.
- 62% of girls live in households earning $30,000 a year or less.
- 1 in 4 girls experiences sexual abuse or assault by age 18.
- 1 in 6 girls won’t finish high school.
- Over 1 in 20 teen girls becomes pregnant each year.
- Over two-thirds of teenagers taking antidepressants are girls.
- 52% of high school girls report being unhappy with their bodies.
We can make the difference for these girls locally. Volunteering for the Girls, Inc. programs. Being an advocate for girls. Setting the expectations high.
The stakes are high. Women are still underpaid and under-represented. In fact, Indiana is ranked #49 out of 50 in the gender pay gap. We have to do better.
How do we do this? High expectations. Championing. Being mentors. We need to go further than just taking a seat at the table, but also having a voice at that table.
Consistency matters. We can be a trusted resource for young women battling things most of us would never dream of. The mission of Girls, Inc. is to inspire all girls to be strong, smart, and bold.
What are you doing today to be strong, smart, and bold? Growth and comfort do not co-exist. When your mental gymnastics are off the charts, you are growing. You are learning and evolving. You are of value and can be the change we, as women, want to see in the world. Want to connect with Elyssa or the Girls, Inc. of Greater Indianapolis mission? Find more at www.girlsincindy.org.