A conversation with Spitfire President Kristen Grimm on the historic achievements of women — past, present and future.
It is well worth celebrating the accomplishments of women during Women’s History Month, but the fact is that women are making history every single day.
That’s how Kristen Grimm sees it. Amy Lynn Smith, a frequent Spitfire collaborator and good friend, spoke to Kristen about what it was like to start a woman-owned business 15 years ago, the current landscape of women in leadership and what it will take to achieve true equity for women.
Amy: You’ve written about launching Spitfire and your advice to other women entrepreneurs before, but tell me more about why you decided to start your own firm.
Kristen: I was already pushing for companies to put the values in place we say we want in society, so business can be a force for good. I was telling other people how they should run their businesses, and realized maybe I should try to run a business that way myself — a business built on the very values I was advocating for on a daily basis.
Spitfire has been able to support an incredibly diverse group of women leaders from all walks of life over the course of our 15 years. Indeed, part of my personal mission is to develop women leaders of tomorrow – not only our clients, but also our staff. I am proud that the Spitfire family has included so many talented, brilliant women over the past 15 years, and that so many of them have gone on to accomplish great things.
Amy: How did it feel going out on your own 15 years ago, when many of the gains women have made by now were yet to be realized?
Kristen: Nerve-racking, because you’re taking on commitments and the conventional wisdom tells you to do the opposite of what your moral compass tells you to do. Everybody was telling me not to hire employees, just make them contractors to avoid paying benefits. Don’t offer leave. Don’t offer flex-scheduling. Don’t do anything not required by the federal government. When I ignored this advice and made having a fair, family-friendly workplace a priority, I was considered a very poor businessperson, like I wasn’t willing to make the tough calls.
But I said, “Look, I’m going to run my workplace like I think a workplace should be run.” If you want to change the system, the first thing to do is not play by its rules. The current game is set up for others to win.
Amy: Obviously, your instincts were excellent, because Spitfire has grown, attracted impressive talent and works on front-line issues every day.
Kristen: It remains a nail-biter for me. When Trump was elected I knew it was going to take a lot of energy and commitment to get through the next four years. Luckily, the day after the inauguration I looked around and thought, “I am in very good company.” Seeing all the women and men who took to the streets to say they were going to stand up for American ideals gave me energy and still does. I have a picture from the Women’s March near my desk to remind me how many people said they will be the light out of this darkness.
Amy: These are challenging times for advancing progressive issues, including women’s equity. How do you remain optimistic?
Kristen: When you look back, it is times like these when things change dramatically because it is all on the line. Look at feminism. It never went away, but it’s really come roaring back in the last year and a half — it’s front and center in the national dialogue now. When the moment comes, if you happen to be in a position where your voice can really make a difference, you need to stand up and say, “Me, too” or “Yes, I will run.” You can’t miss the window because it may not be open in six to eight years when you are ready.
Women often have to step up when they are at a disadvantage. They aren’t allowed to vote but they go to the state houses anyway to right injustice. They don’t sit on the boards that decide whether a company will have a safe workplace for women, but they risk their jobs to stop a culture that makes assault part of the job. They don’t give out the money that decides who can start companies and who can’t, but they take their ideas and work against all the bias that is out there and break through. They take and make their moment. You can’t let any of these moments go by without making as much noise and putting as much pressure on as you can, because it might be that this is the moment when it actually turns forever. And that’s what we’re really looking for: changing things forever, so discrimination and inequity are permanently in the rearview mirror.
Amy: It sounds like you’re encouraging women to take advantage of those moments.
Kristen: Yes. You have to be brave enough to be the first woman or the loudest woman. Being the first woman in a particular position is like climbing a tall mountain, because you’re signing up for a significant quest. Getting the job is just the start, because then you have to keep the job — and, as the first woman, you are role modeling for so many other people, so the pressure is on.
Amy: The last couple of years feel significant, in terms of women stepping up in a variety of ways. Do you think we’re seeing increased momentum for women in leadership?
Kristen: In a country where women make up a vast majority of the population in a supposedly merit-based society, the fact that we’re still seeing so many firsts — like my good friend LaToya Cantrell, who just got elected as the first woman mayor of New Orleans — tells me we have work left to do. Many brave women have come before us, and today I see many women building on that to post more pages in the annals of history. I see it at the community level where mothers are telling leaders to take climate more seriously for the sake of our children. I see it with Jody Kent Lavy of The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, and Sarah Comeau and Claire Nilsen Blumenson of School Justice Project, who are dismantling the over-incarceration of youth. And I see it with leaders like Yael Lehmann of The Food Trust and Alice Rolls of Georgia Organics who are creating good food systems.
Each of these women is challenging the status quo and not only saying change is possible but demanding it. And anyone who shows an inkling of being willing to make the sacrifices to step into these roles needs encouragement.
Amy: What more do you think other women and men can do to encourage women to lead?
Kristen: Ask yourself, “Am I reaching out on a regular basis to the women leaders in my life who have stepped forward?” They are on the front lines. It is lonely there, with few perks and long hours. Send a note telling them how important what they’re doing is, how you admire them and that you are rooting for them. Don’t do this on the easy days when the victory happened. Do it on the dark days, when it seems the cause may be lost. But it won’t be because of these brave people who choose to shine.
Recognize that women are making history every day. Maybe they are leading the fight for our next generation of civil rights laws like Sherrilyn Ifill of NAACP Legal Defense Fund or fighting for immigrant rights like Kica Matos of the Center for Community Change. Maybe they’re ensuring that the full spectrum of black voices are heard, as Opal Tometi has done through her work with Black Lives Matter and now the Black Alliance for Just Immigration.
Perhaps they are writing THE book, like Heather McGhee did, that will finally get people to see the costs of racism not just to people of color, but to our entire society. Maybe they are exemplifying philanthropic leadership on issues such as gun violence like Judy Belk of the California Wellness Foundation. Maybe they are ending gender discrimination in pay like Joi Chaney with Equal Pay Today!. Or perhaps they are creating inclusive economies, like Sharon Alpert of the Nathan Cummings Foundation, who together with her board just committed to investing their entire endowment in companies and strategies that advance their mission, making them the largest foundation to do so to date.
If you know any leaders who are making history before our very eyes, find a way to make it easier for them by getting out of the way, following their lead, and telling them REGULARLY that we have no idea how we are so lucky to have them on the side of good, but we sure do appreciate it.