In early 2017, Abigail Skeans, Founder & CEO of Glossator Advising, and Karen Wawrzaszek, Board member and Treasurer of The Washington Area Women’s Foundation, informally discussed issues that have affected communities within Washington D.C., preventing many women in those communities from having the opportunity to flourish.
A year later, at the end of this past March, Wawrzaszek, Skeans and more than fifty other like-minded women – i.e. policy makers, entrepreneurs, wives, artists, community leaders – gathered for the launch of Pomona Society; of which Wawrzaszek and Skeans share the roles and responsibilities as Co-Founders. Pomona Society operates on the principle of advancing change for women and families in D.C. through enterprise, policy and philanthropy through its Four Pillars – Poverty Alleviation, Wellbeing, Enterprise and Accountability.
Leading the transformation in D.C., Wawrzaszek and Skeans continue to gather women of impact in their homes and at their professions with various backstories for issue-specific meetings.
Christopher P. Skroupa: Can you talk about the work that Pomona Society is doing for D.C. and for women?
Karen Wawrzaszek: After launching last month, we are operating around the idea of identifying a deficiency in Washington D.C. and convening women to capably create cases of economic flourishment for these women. Washington is unique in its high poverty rate, as women live in poverty in greater numbers than men. This organization was founded to identify actionable strategies to address the current issues at hand, and at the end of the day improve the lives of women and their families.
Those are the layers on which the pillars are formed in order to impact multiple subsectors. What we hope to accomplish is to reduce poverty in Washington and increase economic prosperity for women and children – ideally translating to improvements in educational outcomes, housing, jobs and overall health and wellness. It was important for us to organize around all aspects of our local economy – leveraging the influence of the private sector with the innovation potential of the nonprofit sector and intertwining policy to affect systems change.
Abigail Skeans: What’s different about the work we’re doing is that the women who are working with us in our city are broadly in the impact sector. Whether that’s through financial work, social impact work through philanthropy or nonprofit, or the government, the contributions made by women in our country aren’t necessarily applicable for women in Washington D.C. specifically.
Historically, the women here haven’t had many opportunities to interact with others from a different socio-economic or geographic location in D.C. alone, something that can make a world of difference in terms of their access to influence and resources. We want to make sure we’re creating a space where, every few months, women are coming into contact with backgrounds different from theirs, allowing them to establish real connections that benefit their lives in a mutual way.
Wawrzaszek: We’re trying to bring a national conversation to a local level. D.C. is uniquely situated to convene these women, and another unique attribute is that we [citizens of D.C.] are multidisciplinary. So our call to action addresses women from all parts of the local economy to contribute to the work. We want Pomona to be a vigorous model for high impact.
Skroupa: How are the four pillars structuring this effort?
Skeans: In short, it’s the combination of how all four of these pillars work together in every one of our impact conversations. Four times a year we address a specific issue under one of those pillars, bringing in panelists that have been or continue to be and/or work within that issue. It may be a policy, academic, or community leader, essentially anyone who can be an influential part of this holistic conversation around each of those pillars.
This June, for example, we’ll be talking about trauma and its effects on early childhood education. The conversation will focus on the interplay between those two issues, which are, of course, important issues in our city, and touch upon a lot of the pillars: i.e. poverty alleviation, enterprise and wellness. Often times the pillars can be compiled together in the issues we’re addressing, but I think it’s important that the structure of our quarterly conversations focus on an issue that is presently challenging to our community. Then, we ask our members to be a part of the solution in a tangible way. Whether that’s social media activism, volunteering with their time, or putting their personal resources towards the issue featured, we want women to really step into the challenge.
Wawrzaszek: In particular, we chose early care and education for June’s meeting because barriers to success in often ill-educated, underserved communities really start between ages zero and five. There’s an education component through the thought leadership panel, and there’s a discussion on how to solve for these particular issues. But I would say that education is the number one subset, and we’re going to focus on that in this first meeting for that reason. It represents a lion’s share of why success doesn’t happen in all of our communities.
Skroupa: Do the intersection of these meetings cascade to the next?
Wawrzaszek: Each meeting will address a pillar that will overlap with an issue that applies to all pillars. The intended outcome for each meeting will be to identify how members relate to the problem, and cultivate a sense of action for each member. This comes from recognizing what each woman can do, and enabling her to create a solution based upon her own community policy, philanthropy, wellness, investment, etc.
Those are the voices we ultimately want to inform because they’ll take that next step in the community. The next meeting is a feedback loop and the presenting of another issue that identifies with our pillars. That’s how I see the pattern going so there’s a predictable structure around it. What we don’t want to have happen is have women show up and there’s a meander around conversation but there’s no connective tissue around what we’re doing to solve for those pillars.
Skeans: We’re being responsive to things that are happening around us. One of the reasons we picked the early childhood conversation is because it’s something that is present in D.C. conversation, and has been for quite a while. It’s particularly being looked at legislatively and by different community organizations in our city.
Another example is in the area of addressing the evolving workforce and strength of women entrepreneurs and not just because we really like the topic. The work requirements of the future and how the future of women at work will fit into that narrative is something that we need to discuss as a culture. So we are responding to timely moments in terms of policy, legislation and cultural conversation of how women’s roles are evolving in society and how we can best be equipped to thrive.
Wawrzaszek: Abby makes an excellent point and that’s the kind of place where policy inclusion matter, it’s about system change at the end of the day.
Skroupa: Where is Pomona going? What’s the vision for the future?
Wawrzaszek: From the point of inception last year, Abby and I had a merged vision originating from slightly different places given our background. For me, the vision I had was very much activating around a place-based solution. I’m involved nationally on impact issues with regard to my day job, and then also the philanthropy work that I do, and to have something like Pomona that helps women in our community access the national conversation in a hands on way is a very important one for me – I believe strongly in proximity for progress and creating a space where women can engage with the issues for the greatest impact.
And if we could create a blueprint for other large cities that are dealing with issues of poverty for women that would be really exciting. Creating chapters around the country is something that has emerged as a vision for both Abby and myself. But from an origin point, for me it has been about creating a best-in-class place based solution.
Skeans: Just to echo that, Karen and I share a really strong vision and I think D.C. is a unique case study because we are such a historically dispersed community; both economically and geographically. In terms of demographics, there is such a distinct divide in our city and I don’t see enough communication and bridges being built to share experiences between women. We really want to inspire volunteerism between our various communities in a way that honors the dignity on both sides, while using these levers of policy, philanthropy and enterprise. I think this makes us unique in the marketplace.
Wawrzaszek: We’re very excited for what’s next and the outpouring of interest from the women in our community validates the need for this engagement model! We encourage readers to learn more at www.pomonasociety.com
Karen Wawrzaszek will be moderating a panel entitled Active Stewardship: A Look at Public Equities and the Integral Nature of Impact Investing at our Impact Investing conference in Washington D.C. on May 3.
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