Hundreds of women filled the Forsyth Conference Center to hear chairwomen from counties across the Atlanta Regional Commission talk about how to be a female leader.
The main theme of the panel during the Women Connect in Leadership event on Thursday, Aug. 26, was “servant leadership” and how women can find effective strategies for leading peers, colleagues, families and communities without sacrificing their personalities, dreams or morals.
About 80 high school-aged girls from eight Forsyth County high schools were in attendance alongside business professionals, all representing different clubs including DECA and Future Business Leaders of America, or FBLA.
Four “dynamic women” were the event’s speakers: Cobb County Chairwoman Lisa Cupid, Henry County Chairwoman Carlotta Harrell, Gwinnett County Chairwoman Nicole Love Hendrickson and Forsyth County’s own Chairwoman Cindy Jones Mills. The panel was moderated by Dr. Malika Reed Wilkins, senior director for the Center for Strategic Relations for the Atlanta Regional Commission.
The four chairwomen currently represent over 2,000,000 residents in the Atlanta region, and it is the first year that four women have been appointed chairwomen of metro-Atlanta counties.
To start off the panel, Dr. Wilkins asked each of the chairwomen about their backgrounds and how past experiences have helped them in current elected positions.
“Growing up here in Forsyth County, I never thought as a young person that [Forsyth County] would be [part of] metro Atlanta,” Mills said.
Mills said that oftentimes, county chairs can easily “become overwhelmed” and start thinking of issues “in a box” instead of as a part of a bigger whole.
Mills said she remembered a long time ago, a developer wanted to build a parkway in Forsyth County that would have connected to Gwinnett County, and they came before the board to work out the kinks of such a project.
“I remember a commissioner that represented the south end of the county sitting there saying, ‘…If we accept [the road], people from other counties will drive on that road,’” Mills said. “And I was like, ‘Yeah? Don’t we drive on their roads, too?’”
Mills credited her success to having a “vision” for the whole, instead of focusing on putting issues inside specifically labeled boxes. Mills also recognized that there were rules that had to be followed, but she said that being an effective leader, especially an effective female leader, is about sticking to a vision, purpose and inner moral compass.
“When it comes down to the end of the day and you’re about to push that button, you’ve got to know in your heart that you’ve done your homework,” Mills said.
Mills said that she believed “ladies have to do more homework” than male counterparts to prove that they know what they’re talking about. Cupid agreed, saying she will personally “research things to death” so that she can be confidently educated for every decision she makes.
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When Dr. Wilkins dove into the discrepancies between men and women in the workplace, like the current pay gap, a limited number of women in elected seats, etc., all the chairwomen said they have personally witnessed differences in the treatment between men and women.
Before Mills shared her personal accounts, she gave all the young high school girls a piece of advice: “You better have a tough hide to enter this world.”
“In order to get things done for your district… or for your county or for your state, you’ve got to be a go-getter,” Mills said. “It’s no place for the idle. That’s why the vision is so important.”
Mills recounted a personal experience where she had met with a male constituent about a zoning. She said that the two of them had shared “a pleasant conversation” about the issues and gone their respective ways without what Mills thought was any ill will between them.
“Immediately after he was kind and nice to me in the meeting, because people are way bolder behind their keyboard, … when we finished the meeting, he must have from his car put up a post … that a Korean study [showed] that fat women are slow thinkers,” Mills said. “He would not have done that to a man. He would not have.”
Mills said that while she was prepared for backlash from the public, she was also – in a way – not prepared.
Hendrickson agreed that “women are held to a higher standard,” are not allowed to make mistakes at work and have to fight a “constant battle to just prove why you are where you are.”
She said that as a woman, she was told to “take the high road, kill them with kindness and smile,” but she felt that doing those things downplayed her competence, education, background and personal experiences.
Instead, what Hendrickson encouraged the women in the audience to do was to lead with experiences, focusing on the things that they have done well and their accomplishments.
“When you lead with that, you tend to gain the respect,” Hendrickson said. “And it’s constant. You have to constantly lead with your value and what the proposition is and what you bring to the table. And we all have something that we can bring to the table.”
Harrell spoke about her personal experiences being a young woman of color in her 20s working in law enforcement in the 1980s. She said that men in her profession told her that she shouldn’t be working in law enforcement, but she was determined to prove them wrong.
Harrell said that she became the first female lieutenant ever promoted in Henry County, but still she said that people made it difficult for her in the role.
“If we’re kind, then we’re soft,” Harrell said. “If we’re harsh, then we’re … you know.”
Harrell was hesitant to say the word, but Cupid helpfully supplied, “riding on a broomstick.”
“Stand strong, stand firm, … and prove them wrong,” Harrell said. “Don’t let people get in your ear and tell you that just because you’re a woman that you can’t … perform that role.”
Cupid agreed and said that as women, they “carry so much of the perception that people … hurl upon us every day,” but as she has worked and gotten older and wiser, she said she “doesn’t even have the time for it” anymore.
“If you are in the room, you’re supposed to be there,” Cupid said. “I don’t care what anybody has to say. If you’re there, you’re supposed to be there…. You don’t have to qualify yourself to anyone.”
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While Cupid preached a story of confidence, she admitted that she still has to qualify herself to people, specifically men, in order to be taken seriously. While she said that her worth comes from the “quiet confidence” she has of who she is, she knows that the “harsh reality” of the world sometimes requires her to “over qualify” herself.
“I don’t want someone’s perception that I may not know [something] to become a hurdle for me getting things done,” Cupid said. “And it’s a weary road for us women. I’m not saying it’s right. It’s a weary road to have to constantly show up and feel like you have to be overqualified. Oh, and you have children, too, that you’re taking care of.”
Dr. Wilkins switched gears halfway through the panel to speak about the futures of the four counties represented at the event. Mills spoke about her background growing up in Forsyth County and how diverse the county is now.
Mills said that she could remember a time sitting in her fourth-grade class at Sawnee Elementary School and learning that a girl in her class and her family were Catholic.
“I can remember vividly saying to her, ‘Everybody’s saying you’re Catholic, but you don’t look any different. What does that mean?’” Mills said.
Fast forward to 1987, Mills said she remembered the day that Oprah Winfrey came to Forsyth County, which historically had no Black residents living in the county for 75 years.
“I went to the Oprah Show because I wanted to be able to speak and say, ‘We’re not all like this, and we’re being portrayed as a bad county,’” Mills said.
“We’re in a very unique time in Forsyth County,” she said. “We have changed for the good of a lot [in terms of] diversity.”
While Mills said that she has experienced a learning curve, she is thankful for the opportunities to learn about other cultures and about ways to be creative to help residents be set up for success.
“To me that is how you have a vibrant community,” Mills said. “You understand it, you understand who lives in it and you try to bring them together.”
Mills said that she was excited about the direction of OneForsyth, an initiative launched by the Forsyth County Chamber of Commerce “to position and foster Forsyth County as an inclusive, thriving community for all” through celebrating differences, championing “inclusive prosperity” and uniting through education and awareness.
As discussion winded down, Charel Palmer, owner of Popbar Alpharetta at Halcyon, said that originally, she did not know what the Women Connect on Leadership event was all about, but as she was sitting and listening, she thought it was “dynamic” and wished that she had brought along her high school-aged daughter.
Palmer said that she hoped each of the high school girls in the audience could “win and believe in yourselves,” stating that the new generation of children was “getting it right.”
“I look at my daughter and I’m like, ‘Girl, you got it. You are dynamic,’” Palmer said. “The things that you guys think and the things that you guys say and the stuff you just don’t stand for. It was different for us, and we dealt with things we should not have.”
As the audience thanked the chairwomen and moderator for their words and time with a round of applause, Palmer’s words echoed in their minds: “Girl, you got this.”