Amid #MeToo, MI Women’s Foundation Rebrands to Better Reflect Mission

The Michigan Women’s Foundation has a new name and an energized mission.

Now called Michigan Women Forward (MWF), the rebranding was officially launched earlier this week in front of a crowd of 800 at Detroit’s Cobo Center. Carolyn Cassin, MWF’s CEO, explains that given the big moment women’s issues are currently having on the national stage, the timing was right for a change at the 32-year-old organization.

She says MWF’s leadership is just as frustrated as many other women that, decades after civil rights advances were fought for and won, we’re still debating basic human rights issues such as whether women deserve equal pay for equal work.

“We realized the organization needed a brand that says ‘We are the future of women and girls, that women and girls are the future.’ I behaved as if the issue was settled, and shame on me for thinking if I just went out and proved I could compete, I would be successful, but that is not the case,” Cassin explains. “It reinvigorated my passion for not allowing this to go on for another 30 years. We want to solve gender bias for good with things like access to capital, and put ourselves out of business.”

The other impetus for tweaking the name and mission of the organization, which was founded in 1986 to encourage women to play an active role in philanthropy and governance, was MWF’s acquisition of the Michigan Women’s Historical Center and Hall of Fame and Entrepreneur Institute of Mid-Michigan.

“We had to stop and think of who we are and where we’re going,” Cassin says. “We’re a foundation that’s not really a foundation—we don’t have an endowment. We’ve always been an organization that has had to raise money to reinvest in the community, so the word never seemed to fit for me. We really wanted to change the world for women and girls, and that word was holding us back.”

MWF’s new mission consists of three pillars, each with a corresponding hashtag: accelerating women’s entrepreneurship through access to capital, mentorship, and education to start or grow successful businesses (#womanup); developing the next generation of young leaders (#ugogirls); and advancing a collective agenda of change to ensure social and economic equality for women in Michigan (#behindeverywoman).

“It represents action and collaboration, and it’s impact-focused, because that’s what resonates with our members,” Cassin says of the three pillars. “The younger generations are so committed to the work and our approach: transforming ourselves and the women we come in contact with with resources and tools.”

Greater equality in the tech industry is another area of focus, although Cassin says it’s “not a separate slice” of MWF’s mission.

“To not care about women being woefully underrepresented in tech means we wouldn’t be successful in investing in women-owned businesses,” she adds. “Our youth programs are totally focused on women seeing themselves as part of STEM fields—on providing an understanding of how the world works, and how to navigate it and prosper. We want to make sure they can see themselves in any field they can dream of.”

According to Cassin, MWF’s long-term goal is to go out of business within the next 30 years. “I want to be able to tell my grandchildren there once was a world where gender affected pay and the work we did.” Cassin says she takes the ongoing fight for gender equality very personally, in part because her success as an executive in the healthcare industry masked many of the struggles faced by her female colleagues. In fact, when she first took over as CEO of MWF a few years ago, she says she was prepared to give the organization a “quiet hospice death” if the work wasn’t resonating.

“I didn’t really believe there was gender bias until I got to [MWF] after a long career—I would have said it didn’t exist,” Cassin says. “But then my daughters entered the workforce and I saw it through their eyes. I very proudly thought we had an incredibly sensitive work environment, but then I saw what my daughters were going through. It was still the same bias, people just talked about it differently.”

Sarah Schmid Stevenson is the editor of Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @XconomyDET_AA

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