Women’s History Month Spotlight: Tiffany Dufu

“My life’s work is advancing women and girls,” states Tiffany Dufu, chief leadership officer for Levo League, an organization that helps women achieve career success. “I already know what’s on my tombstone,” shares the motivational speaker. “I am just project managing my life backward.”

Dufu is also a launch team member for Lean In, the online community that supports women and is behind the controversial Ban Bossy campaign. The campaign continues to garner attention by advocating for discontinued usage of the word “bossy” while also receiving some backlash from Black women who feel it does not apply to them. But the 39-year-old mother of two still sees it as relevant and recommends African-American girls “embrace their leadership aspirations” instead of suppressing them.

The Tacoma, WA native has already raised over $20 million for women’s causes, launched a girls’ middle school and led The White House Project, an organization that sought to increase women in leadership positions across the country. “I may not know what my next project or initiative is,” she says. “But I know I’m on track to do what I’m on the planet to do and that keeps me very motivated.”

Below we talk to her in-depth about the importance of mentorship, advice for single moms and how everyone can get involved in helping women to succeed.

JET: What first inspired you to make a difference in the lives of women and girls?

Tiffany Dufu: For me it started very early. I grew up in the church. My father was the pastor of two different churches. We had a very clear church doctrine that really communicated the roles of men and women and there were lots of things women couldn’t do that I was really good at. One of them was public speaking. Women were not allowed to preach. I think I have always had this dichotomy between what I really felt I was called to do and where I felt my talents were, but I was constantly told by this very important group of people in my life that I couldn’t do certain things because I was a girl. That resonated with me for a time.

JET: Black girls and women are often called aggressive, angry and combative, not bossy. How can the Ban Bossy initiative apply to them?

TD: In the Black community women have powerful voices. A girl being called “bossy” is often a term of endearment. A recent Girls Scout study showed that compared with Caucasian girls a higher percentage of Black girls aspire to leadership, in large part due to the strength of the women they see in our community. We should be asking our girls “What does ‘bossy’ mean to you?” in order to help them embrace their leadership aspirations and ensure they are affirmed by them.

JET: Black women have been leaning in since before the feminist movement. What does the Lean In movement have to offer Black women that we don’t already know about or already do?

TD: Black women have been leaning in by putting a premium on performance and work ethic. We were taught that to be successful we have to be better than our White and male counterparts. This strategy gets us to middle management, but often not the corner office. Plus, we’re exhausted as a result. Black women can lean in more efficiently by identifying sponsors who can help us navigate the complex political environments that often leave us in the margins. We’re experts at achieving results. We need to become experts at ensuring that when decisions are being made about who is going to advance, someone at the table is saying our name.

JET: What advice can you give Black women about being ambitious?

TD: A lot of times we look outside of ourselves to acquire the things we want and think we need to be successful. Most of my work centers around helping women understand that they already have everything they need to be successful; it is just a matter of shifting your mindset and your consciousness to understand. Men tend not to have this problem. I would advise women to first round up and understand that you are valuable and qualified; we’re probably more qualified to lead than we think we are.

Also, read Anna Fels’ book, Necessary Dreams. She defines ambition as the desire to achieve mastery of your craft combined with the desire to receive recognition. The second part of her definition often leaves women ambivalent because we are socially conditioned to shy away from the limelight, but taking credit is key to fueling our ambition.

JET: What specific advice can you give to help single mothers lean in and excel professionally? And what resources can they use to do this?

TD: Black working mothers, especially when they are single, must tap into the power of our communal heritage. Your leadership advancement is a team sport and you are the coach responsible for assembling an all-star lineup. If you’re in a major city, technology solutions like TaskRabbit are priceless. And as rare as they are in our community, stay-at-home moms can be the most rewarding members of your support system. Black women already know that children are best raised by villages, so creating your own is critical to excelling professionally.

JET: How are you preparing your daughter to excel as an ambitious Black professional?

TD: My daughter is on her own leadership journey and I feel blessed that she chose me to guide her in this lifetime. I figured out a long time ago that children are sophisticated sponges, so I spend most of my energy just trying to be the kind of empowered leader I’d want her to grow up to be. As Marian Wright Edelman said, “You can’t be what you can’t see.”

JET: What practical lessons do you teach her even at a young age?

TD: Every day when I drop her off at school I tell her, “Create a wonderful day.” I want her to understand that she is the most powerful change agent in her own journey.

JET: Why are you invested in helping Gen Y specifically?

TD: I love this next generation of leaders because it is the first generation of women who expect that their career should be in full alignment with how they create impact in the world. It is a generation of young women who’s been told, you can be anything and you can do anything. All you have to do is work hard and follow your passion, and they did that. Sometimes when they get into the workplace some people use the word “entitled” to describe them. That’s just because they got into their first job and they are making photo copies and we forgot to tell them that creating impact in the world might involve making photo copies. They don’t want to be the CEO just because they want power and authority, they want to be CEO because that’s what they feel will create the most impact and they really do want to change the world. I think that’s a position of power to come from. They have so many choices and they are courageous enough to exercise those choices and not apologize for them. Now, of course, they have all of these choices because of previous generations. The Baby Boomers and the generation after that fought really hard but didn’t have them. I think millennials have an enormous amount of responsibility because when you have choices you have privilege and when you have privilege you have more responsibility and sometimes that can be very overwhelming. But I have a lot of hope because they are so passionate and they really care. It is not about a paycheck, it’s not about a big brand, it is about how can I create meaning. There is a lot for us to learn from them.

JET: Why is it important for women to mentor other women?

TD: In order for anyone to be successful you have to have a level of self-awareness; you have to be clear about what your strengths and weaknesses are, what are your best talents and abilities and, more importantly, what are your patterns of behavior that either help you manifest the life and the reality you want or that get in the way of you manifesting the life and the reality you want. Mentors help you achieve clarity through guidance and encouragement and over time those are people who know you and can help you identify your pattern.

Mentors and sponsors are also people who can help you get access that you didn’t otherwise have. The value of a mentor, primarily, is in what they say to you when you are in a room with them. The primary value of a sponsor is in what they say about you to other people when you are not in the room. Sponsors usually are further ahead of you professionally, but mentors can be all across the board.

JET: What is your hope for the future of women and girls?

TD: My hope is that in the future there will be more women at the highest level of leadership. Across all sectors of our society women are leading at about 18 percent even though we are more than half of the population. That makes a big difference because we know that research shows that a diverse group of people sitting around the table making decisions are likely to come up with a more creative and innovative solution to a problem than a homogeneous group of people. Until the group of people making decisions has more people of color, more people from the LGBT community, more people with disabilities and more women, then the biggest crisis we face is the crisis of leadership.

The second hope is that we will evolve our expectations of the role of men in society, particularly the role they play in the private sphere. We now have women who have entered the public sphere, who are in the workforce. We are, in some cases, leading. The challenge is that in the private sphere, in our homes, women are still doing the vast majority of what they used to do. We haven’t evolved our expectations of what men can do in the private sphere, the kind of impact that they can make on children, families and homes when they are meaningfully engaged. And I think until we get there, we have a long way to go.

JET: How can people get involved in helping women be successful?

TD: Everyone should invite a woman to lead. One of the things we learned at the White House Project is that women often need to be nudged for them to think they can do it. Also, advocate for public policy that would really support and help women, whether it’s equal pay or affordable childcare.

JET: Anything you would like to add?

TD: My parents always taught me, if you want something you’ve never had before, you have to do something you’ve never done before in order to get it. That’s really another one of my messages to women: Take risks and never expect that you are going to get something new from doing the same thing. Women are not socially conditioned to take big risks and yet taking risks is exactly what we need to do in order to succeed and excel.