By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)
“Right now the United States is ranked 72nd in terms of women in political leadership,” said Tiffany Dufu, the newly inaugurated President of The White House Project. Recently Marie Wilson, founder of the WHP, handed over the reins of leadership to Dufu, who says she has big plans for the organization.
“My goal is to take us to number one,” she said.
Making an Impact
Originally from the Pacific Northwest, Dufu got her bachelors and masters degrees from the University of Washington. “I was actually on my way to a career in academia, but then my mentor asked me a question about the kind of impact I wanted to make in the world,” she explained.
Dufu realized she wanted a different path. She began volunteering for a program that provided mentorship opportunities for girls. Then she took a fundraising role at Seattle Girls School – a math, science, and technology middle school with an ambitious commitment to diversity. In fact, Dufu said her proudest professional achievement so far has been helping to raise $1 million for the school in order to secure a matching grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – in only a year – “because they’ve been able to maintain that commitment to diversity to this day.”
Bringing Your Full Self to Work
Dufu said the most powerful lesson she has learned throughout her career is a simple one – to “bring your full self to the table.”
“When I first started my career, I tried to adapt to every culture I was a part of. I felt I was leveraging my talents and skills, but the values and culture I fully felt weren’t there. I didn’t make the epiphany on my own. I remember a woman commented that one of the things she loved about working with me was that I was quirky. And I was appalled! I thought I had been bringing the utmost professionalism to work.”
She continued, “But as I developed, both for my own benefit and for other people – and for better problem solving – I realized that everyone needs the full Tiffany. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m quirky.”
“Part of success is allowing all of yourself to come into the environment. So I thought, ‘I’m going to do it intentionally.’” Dufu says bringing her full self to work every day has enabled her to grow and succeed, and to be a better leader.
What’s Next for The White House Project?
The White House Project is embarking on a project to leverage technology and social media. “It’s a new movement for women’s leadership across the country and across the globe. Right now thousands of women in the United States have benefited from The White House Project’s messages and programs. The new project will take our message to millions of women in the leadership pipeline around the globe.”
And TWHP is not just about politics, she said. “To say that women across all sectors are underrepresented is an understatement. Women represent only about 15% of corporate leadership. We have a wealth of resources that show that more diversity around the leadership table produces better outcomes.”
She continued, “The fact that the corporate table is not as diverse as the people within the organization, and in the country, is negatively inhibiting the ability to innovate.”
Advice for Female Leaders
“The first piece of advice I have for young women is to seek sages,” Dufu said. “Seek wise women – and go deeper than mentor relationships. Seek a group of women more experienced than you who you can bring in when it is time to make a decision about your next step. Factor that in when you make a big decision.”
She continued, “The second piece of advice is harder and bigger – but it’s so important. Figure out why you are on the planet as soon as possible. It will make your trajectory so much easier.”
Women moving up the ladder should make an effort to seek out sponsors, Dufu advised. “It’s not just about personal support – it’s people who will expend their capital on your behalf when you’re not in the room. They’re putting your name forward.”
As far as the challenges that come along with balancing work and home responsibilities, Dufu said the main lesson she has learned is to “bring your stellar management skills into your home.”
She continued, with a laugh, “I realized that while I may be an excellent manager in the workplace, I was not as excellent at home. I would delegate tasks to my husband but I’d take them back and do them myself.”
“You can never really thrive when you’re doing both jobs full time,” she added.
In her personal life, Dufu said she is making a concerted effort this year to strengthen connections with her extended family. She explained that her husband had recently run into her cousin at a gathering in Ghana – and she had no idea her cousin had moved there. On top of that, her cousin had opened a school in the country and named it after their grandmother. She explained, “For the sake of our kids, I want to strengthen those family connections.”