The goal of the “Living in Your Top 1%” interview series is to break down the qualities of people who excel and to show that you can be successful and achieve personal greatness from any starting point in your life. The interview series looks at people from all different careers and industries. Some names will be familiar and others may not. The purpose is to understand and borrow from the “best practices” of winners to develop a roadmap to YOUR TOP 1%. We will share a new story each month.
This month’s guest is Jenni Luke, CEO of Step Up Women’s Network, a nonprofit, professional membership organization based in Los Angeles. In this role, she leads one of the most sought-after women’s groups in the country in its second decade of service. Overseeing Step Up’s offices in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York, Jenni directs the organization’s objective of helping women and girls reach their potential.
Jenni and Step Up have been featured in numerous media outlets, including Inc., Real Simple, W, CBS Moneywatch, Yahoo! and The Huffington Post. She is also a regular workplace contributor to MariaShriver.com. She was selected as one of 2012’s 100 Remarkable Women by ClaudiaChan.com. I met Jenni at a breakfast in LA at the Viceroy Hotel and was impressed with her focus, passion, and authenticity. This is a woman and organization that is truly making a difference.
Alissa Finerman: What’s the most important strength you possess that allows you to excel in your role?
Jenni Luke: Building consensus through open and honest communication. I may not get a unanimous endorsement of a direction I want to lead us in, but I always try to include all of the voices that want to be heard. I want to understand the full picture before making decisions.
AF: What does success mean to you?
JL: When I align everything in my life around my core values it makes everything I do have meaning, which makes me feel very successful!
AF: What motivates you on a daily basis to keep going?
JL: Back in college my sister sent me one of those ‘you must fill this out and send it to 10 friends immediately or you will have bad luck for life’ emails. The one question that struck me was ‘What is the worst thing that could happen to you?’ The answer that came immediately to me was ‘Not living up to my potential.’ I’m motivated to live up to my own potential and help others recognize theirs.
AF: Step Up is a unique organization in that it has a very clear and passionate vision and implements these powerful ideas into action. You make change happen. What role do goals play for the organization and can you share a few sentences about the goal setting process?
JL: Whenever you are trying to create impact – whether getting underserved teen girls to graduate high school and go on to college or by growing the number of women taking advantage of our member programs – you have to measure your efforts to determine if you’re reaching your goals. As an organization that is moving from start-up to growth, we tend to set aggressive goals and are very focused on reporting progress against them. Our goal-setting process includes input from our board of directors on down to every staff member. It is always a balance between what we need to achieve and what we hope to achieve. Given that our mission is so motivating, we set high goals and stretch to do all we can to meet them. If we don’t meet a goal, we assess why and apply it back to our work. If we do meet a goal, we assess why and try to duplicate it. We always share practices across our organization to make sure we’re supporting all efforts. Goals, progress and impact are a constant conversation.
AF: What are some of the challenges you have overcome in building Step Up Women’s Network?
JL: I think what makes Step Up’s story so remarkable is that we were a volunteer- run organization from 1998-2006. Our volunteer board members devoted hours and hours of their time to keep the mission moving forward. Since 2006, we’ve grown tremendously and inevitably, that evolution has meant change. With professional staff and programs for women and girls running in three cities, maintaining a grassroots feel is sometimes a challenge. We strive to maintain the core values of Step Up while continuing to grow to serve more women and girls.
AF: Step Up truly makes a difference in the lives of so many underserved girls (not women). How do you do this?
JL: Step Up is dedicated to igniting women and girls to fulfill their potential. Step Up creates and implements impactful after-school and weekend programs that empower teen girls from under-resourced communities to be confident, college-bound, and career-ready; propels professional women through connections, collaborations, and continuous development; and inspires its network to invest in the future success of girls through mentorship and financial support. It is this combination of the women and girls that differentiates us from other organizations and is having tremendous impact.
AF: What are some of the most meaningful accomplishments for Step Up?
JL: We are incredibly proud that in 2010 and 2011, 100% of Step Up seniors graduated high school and were accepted to college. The vast majority of these girls were the first in their family to go to college and often were the first in their family to graduate high school. The key to achieving this is by first giving the girls a foundation of confidence and then turning that motivation into action around college and career exploration. You can’t be what you can’t see. Introducing our Step Up teens to our Step Up women is like watching magic happen.
AF: You meet so many women during the year from women who hold senior level positions to teenagers in need, what are some of the themes you see for people who excel?
JL: We did a study of our teen programs with pro bono support from Deloitte. After interviewing educators and our alumnae alike, the number one common trait they highlighted as necessary to success was resilience. This is specific to our group of girls from underserved communities who have a lot to overcome. But I think it applies to everyone. Resilience is built from confidence. You can’t be effective at anything without belief in yourself.
To learn more about Jenni Luke and Step Up Women’s Network, please visit their website.
The “Living in Your Top 1%” interview series is presented by Alissa Finerman, a Business/Life Coach, motivational speaker, and author of the book, “Living in Your Top 1%: Nine Essential Rituals to Achieve Your Ultimate Life Goals” which is available on Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble. She has an MBA from the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania and a BA from the University of California, Berkeley. To learn more please visit, AlissaFinerman.com and Facebook.com/AlissaFinermantop1.com.