March 9, 2023

Milgard Women’s Initiative helps leaders grow

Having more women in leadership makes organizations and communities better.

The Milgard Women’s Initiative (MWI), part of the UW Tacoma Milgard School of Business Center for Leadership and Social Responsibility (CLSR), is focused specifically on supporting women in leadership development. Now in its fifth year, the program has grown to offer a robust mentoring program, a community speaker series, and a high school program designed to help girls envision themselves as leaders.

The concept for the MWI was hatched by the late Melanie Dressel, former CEO of Columbia Bank, and  Howard Smith, former dean of the Milgard School of Business. Smith saw the idea to fruition in 2015, and the program found its footing with the unflagging support of the school’s current dean, Altaf Merchant.

“Having the administration’s full backing has made the world of difference in our ability to develop and expand programs,” said Rachel Vaughn, Director of the Center for Leadership and Social Responsibility.

Mentoring matters

One of the earliest recruits to the MWI’s foundational advisory council was retired senior Weyerhaeuser executive Sara Kendall, who now serves as the program’s chair. She agreed to come on board if she could spearhead one thing.

“I wanted to start a really good mentorship program for graduate students,” she said. “Based on my own experiences, I know how important that is for women navigating their careers.

Kendall recruited South Sound female leaders from across sectors with the hope of having 10 mentors and 10 mentees for the pilot launch of the Milgard Women’s Initiative Mentorship Program in 2018. In the end, 22 students applied, and 22 mentors signed on. “Sometimes,” she said, “things are just meant to be.”

The mentorship program initially focused on the Master of Science in Business Analytics program, one of the most popular offerings in the Milgard School of Business. It has since expanded to the school’s other graduate programs: Master of Business Administration, Master of Cybersecurity and Leadership and Master of Science in Accounting.

Each year, cohorts of early to mid-career students are matched with female professionals who share experience and wisdom. Mentors and mentees meet one-on-one and in group sessions throughout the student’s graduate program, and many stay connected beyond.

The pairings align as closely as possible with a student’s specific interests or goals. For example, a mentee may seek guidance around family-career balance, or an international student may want a better understanding of the business culture here. Ultimately, Kendall said, students determine what they want to get out of the program. If they’re not sure, a robust Mentoring Resource Library offers a range of topics as a launchpad.

It’s a much different model than traditional mentorship programs offered within a business or organization someone works for, Kendall said.

“Employees find themselves in a vulnerable position when they’re talking with someone who is their boss or potential future boss,” she said. “The MWI Mentorship Program offers a safe place, especially if someone needs advice about an issue specific to work.”

Training tomorrow’s leaders

While its mentorship program focuses on professionals, the MWI is also reaching out to another important segment.

In the summer of 2022, the MWI launched the Lead Your Way program in the Tacoma Public Schools. This free series of leadership development events is designed for high school sophomores and juniors interested in building leadership skills. Three full-day sessions held during the school year highlight women’s leadership development, successes and challenges.

“The high school program is really about training the community and workforce leaders of tomorrow,” Rachel Vaughn said. “And, of course, we also hope these high school students will see themselves as belonging at UW Tacoma and know that we are here for them in their community.”

Responding to community needs

The MWI is also taking its leadership development messages to the broader community. Its Speaker Series features quarterly programs that offer the opportunity for students, educators and professionals to learn from women leaders from across sectors and walks of life. Past programs covered the ins and outs of salary negotiation, self-branding and self-promotion, and a panel discussion featuring Pierce County elected officials.

Last year, the Milgard School of Business Leadership Awards were expanded to include the Milgard Women’s Initiative Leadership Award, which recognizes women whose leadership has positively impacted the South Sound community. This year’s awardee will be honored May 10.

Now, the group is focused on the “next big thing” based on what the community and students want. Some ideas being discussed include establishing a South Sound women’s leadership conference, creating of a set of profiles on Pierce County women leaders and developing women’s networks.

“The programs offered through the Milgard Women’s Initiative – now and in the future – are designed to position women to do better when they are out there trying to find that job that meets their needs, personal interests and passions,” Vaughn said. “They’re for any woman interested in leadership development, including UW Tacoma students, professionals in the community and high schoolers. And we’re learning from all of them through these programs and processes.”

Programs offered through the Milgard Women’s Initiative are open to all gender identities and expressions, although they are specifically focused on issues women face in the workplace.

To learn more about the Milgard Women’s Initiative and to register to be a mentor, visit the Center for Leadership and Social Responsibility website.


Stay Informed

Interested in learning more about building a business in Pierce County? Our team of economic development professionals are here to help. Sign up for our e-newsletter to stay informed.