Advice to women: Are you ambitious? Talk it up

Cynthia Figueroa

Cynthia Figueroa heads a $25 million nonprofit, and she said, it didn't happen by accident. That's something ambitious young women need to understand, Figueroa, the chief executive at Congreso de Latinos Unidos, told me during our Leadership Agenda interview published in Monday's Philadelphia Inquirer.

As a young woman, she used to modestly talk about how an "opportunity presented itself, like, oh, I was so fortunate to make this happen," she said. But then, she began to study women leadership models while an Eisenhower Fellow. "It was in that fellowship that I learned all the professional opportunities that have happened to me -- they didn’t just happen to me. I wasn’t "lucky" to have them happen. I worked for them."

So, if you are ambitious, act it.

"Part of that was that I was willing to take the risk when the opportunity was a good fit for my skills," she said.

"So what I tell a lot of the young women is that first, you have got to say it out loud. You have to tell people what you are interested in doing. You can’t assume that people are going to know you want to be an executive director or that you want to work in government. People have to know. Then your mentors or your supporters and will look for those opportunities for you or when they know when an opportunity comes up, they'll say, `this is great for you.'

At age 29, Figueroa became the executive director of Women Against Abuse. It was a high-risk job. "They had gone through four executive directors in five years. They had a $200,000 deficit. It was a risk, but I knew that my with my network, with the resources I had and with my skills I could do it. It was right for me to take that risk.

"I stayed there for six years, created a $3 million investment egg, doubled their budget and doubled their resources. I left it in much better shape and felt good about what I had done," she said. Meanwhile, she also joined the board of Congreso, the North Philadelphia social services nonprofit.

After several years at Women Against Abuse, Figueroa realized that most of her experience was in women's issues.

"I didn't want to be defined by that," she said. "I wanted to do something bigger."

So, Figueroa began talking. "I started talking to people about what it would be like to work in the new mayor's administration -- saying that to people I trusted and that I knew would put my name forward," she said. Sure enough, Mayor Nutter appointed her to be deputy commissioner to the city's Department of Human Services.

The lesson: Tell people you trust what you want to do in the future. "Say it out loud," she said.

Tuesday: Measuring outcomes