Business Profiles

Roslyn Dawson Thompson on elevating women in the workforce

Roslyn Dawson Thompson is the CEO of Texas Women’s Foundation (TWF), a nonprofit organization that raises funds to open windows of opportunity for women, girls and their families. We chatted with Roslyn about what she wanted to be when she grew up, her path to Texas Women’s Foundation, and the issues facing women today.

Roslyn is also one of the speakers at Local Profile’s 18th Annual Women in Business Summit on October 11. Click here to register and find out more!

roslyn thompson dawson
Roslyn Thompson Dawson, CEO of Texas Women’s Foundation | Courtesy of Women’s Funding Network

Why did you decide to change the focus of the organization from Dallas Women’s Foundation to Texas Women’s Foundation?

We changed from Dallas to Texas because for over a decade, our research has been focused on the state. When I arrived in 2011, we were already doing a gendered analysis of the Texas state budget that was being provided to girls- and women-serving organizations around the state. Three months after I joined the Foundation, we filed for the trademark for Texas Women’s Foundation because with our statewide research and advocacy, we had the platform that ultimately would help us grow to be statewide.

Once we received the copyright for the trademark, we began using Texas Women’s Foundation in 2014, as the umbrella for our research and advocacy. When we released our Economic Issues for Women in Texas Research, we went door-to-door in eight Texas markets – Amarillo, Austin, Dallas, El Paso, Fort Worth, McAllen, San Antonio and Tyler – to convene partners and present the research. We had statewide media coverage around the research, all under the name of Texas Women’s Foundation, and it really played very well. Three years later, in 2017, we released our statewide research again and presented to multiple markets across the state. 

Following that, we knew it was time for us to claim Texas Women’s Foundation for the organization overall.

But before we made the transition, we first did a market study of a thousand Texans in June of last year to ask, “If there was an organization representing Texas women and the issues affecting them, would you support it? Do you believe that their premise is correct around the importance of women’s economic security and the importance of women’s leadership in the state?” Every demographic – men and women, every race and ethnicity and all ages – came back with a super resounding yes. The results from that study demonstrated that we had market support – through six years of statewide brand building, and building trust around our research – as the go-to source for information on the status of women in the state.  

What’s your elevator pitch for what you want?

Texas Women’s Foundation essentially does four things as an organization supported by the community and a broad base of donors. Our work all centers around our research. We’re the established and trusted voice for the status of women in the state of Texas. Based on our research, we do advocacy for state legislative and public policies, as well as advocate for business practices that are more female- and family-friendly. We support community programs and projects through grantmaking, and we provide innovative programs within our key initiatives of women’s economic security and women’s leadership. 

What did you want to be when you grow up, and how did you get to where you are now? 

Well, I wanted to be a writer. When I went to college and graduate school, I took degrees in English literature and really thought, “I will hopefully be an academic and a writer.” Meanwhile, I was working in television and radio to earn my living while I was going to school.

Then, my ideas of being an academic and a writer kind of got changed after I put my first husband through law school, and then we divorced. I dropped out of a doctoral program, and went to work in positions that ultimately led to my extended career in communications. I worked for the Dallas Regional Chamber in its publications department. And from there, I went to work for an international PR firm, and then, in 1986, opened my own firm in public relations and marketing communications. I continued to be a writer, but not the sort that I thought I would be, like writing the great American novel! 

What led you into Texas Women’s Foundation? 

I was appointed to the board in 1986. The organization was founded in 1985. From my family, I had inherited a deep commitment to doing right by others, and in particular for women and girls. My maternal grandmother was a single mom, and my own mother had to put a lot of her dreams and goals aside to take care of her younger siblings. There were a lot of strong women throughout make life who were making hard choices, to try and take care of themselves and their families. I felt very much akin to the mission of Dallas Women’s Foundation; it was focused on increasing the investment in women and girls, and that really appealed to me. I was privileged to be appointed to the board, all those many years ago, and I continued to be a donor and supporter.

I was always involved in the Foundation at some level, even if simply attending the events and writing checks. But I always believed that it was one of the most important institutions that I did support. So, as I was nearing the 25th anniversary of my business, and over 30+ years in the PR and marketing industry, I kept thinking, “What do I really want to do with this part of my career? In my heart, I really wanted to run Dallas Women’s Foundation! I thought if I could do one thing for the last years of my career, that would really be the thing I would love to do. I just didn’t really see it happening because my predecessor was not much older than me. However, she announced her retirement in 2010, and as chair-elect of the board, I was appointed to the search committee. 

As I’m sitting in an organizing meeting, I am thinking, “Dang I want the job!” I just wasn’t sure it was time to leave my business. The tipping point came on December 20th, 2010. My darling beloved only sister dropped dead of an aneurysm at the age of 59. She was 18 months older than I and was the light of my life. A week later, I was at her funeral service, and I thought to myself “If not now, then when? If I’m going to make a change and try and do something different in this stage of my life, now would be the time.” So I talked to my family, and they told me to try. And so I’m grateful that the search went on, and I got the job! It’s been a real blessing to have this opportunity. I just love it. I’ve talked in my career about a little bit of my family, my mother’s family and circumstances, her not being able to attend college because there weren’t enough resources for her even though she would have been valedictorian of her class, having to take care of younger siblings, and her mom had to go on the road when the father left the family. Some real life experiences like that, but also being a woman in business. When I went to look for funding to start my business, and the banker looked at me and said, ‘Where’s your husband?’ And I said “Well, if you mean the guy that I’m about to divorce, I don’t think he’s pertinent to this conversation.”

But I literally couldn’t get a loan in 1986 without my father co-signing it. And then I worked for 25 years as a woman in business, witnessing over and over again the disparities impacting women in the workforce, the disparities impacting women in poverty in our state and our community. I became passionate about making change for women and girls – and I believe we all have to be passionate and committed. If we are not going to defend ourselves, who will? I feel so strongly that women have to work in community together, defending our opportunities and standing in allegiance with one another. I lived through the generations where everybody thought one woman was enough – on an executive team or on a board – and the one woman herself wasn’t always helpful in bringing other women to the table with her. But I think we’re in a generation now where women are reaching back and pulling forward other women in much more intentional ways. I think that intentionality is something that we have to do for one another, for women and people of color in every possible way, and to call out disparities when we see them. I guess I’m a crusader at this juncture; and I want women in business, women in community to all become crusaders and be fearless. 

What’s one of the biggest, most concerning issues facing women in Texas right now? 

There are a number of issues that are deeply concerning. Let’s start with health care. The state’s decision is not to take federal funding for Medicaid. Whatever the political ramifications are, the personal ramifications to women have been very problematic. We have a really draconian set of barriers for women living in poverty to have access to health care, and navigating the system is very difficult.

Access to health care is a difficult challenge and one that this most recent legislative session began to take very seriously, acknowledging the fact that Texas has the highest maternal mortality rate in the country.

The second issue is our ability to elevate women in the workforce, which is directly tied to the ability of women to access quality, reliable and affordable child care. For example, when you look at the spectrum of folks that are earning minimum wage, it’s typically 63 to 68 percent women in any community in Texas. And if a woman with children is earning minimum wage, she will end up paying well over 25 percent of her earnings on child care. Plus she likely does not have access to benefits, like paid time off to take care of a sick child or relative. I think those are very critical needs on the healthcare side, on the child care access side, and on leave policies that relate to either having children or caregiving. All three of those are kind of intertwined.

We also are seeing that while the state has a very laudatory goal of having more educational attainment by women across the board, and more women are entering higher education, more women fall out of higher education. And, when they leave, the wage gap affects them profoundly: women in Texas with a four year degree in many cases are earning what a man with a high school education or a two year degree is earning. Those are challenges that are significant. Balancing the wage gap is also something that I think we all need to contemplate, because more than 60 percent of families in Texas depend on a woman’s income, either wholly or in part. Pay equity is not just a woman’s issue; it’s the whole family’s issue. I think those are all things that we have to rally around and see the greater economic benefit that will happen if we enable policies and practices to support women and families, as opposed to seeing these as solely a cost. These things can really increase people’s productivity, increase their ability to participate in the economy and contribute to it.

What progress have we seen recently? 

We’ve been encouraged by a number of aspects, both in policy and practice. Let me talk first not just about public policy, but more about what we’re seeing on corporate and business structures. I am very encouraged by how a more substantive conversation is taking place in business, beyond just having diversity, equity and inclusion in one of the corporate goals to actually driving it into business practice.

And while that is not universal, it is much more conscious than just saying, “Oh, we support women, and we’ve got a women’s employee resource group.” It’s taking the hard look at how many women are making it through the pipeline into true leadership roles. So we are beginning to see more assiduous and conscious decisions by corporations of pulling women forward, even when women themselves might say they’re not ready. That last part if where we need some work! We need to see companies committing to pulling women forward and at the same time, surrounding them with a set of supports to ensure their success. I think we’re moving toward a common understanding that a balance of thinking – men, women, people of color, different generations – makes teams and companies perform better, and all the research has pointed to this reality. 

For 20 years, the research has shown that companies with more women in management, more women at the board level, outperform their peers. And the same thing happens with more people of color in those kinds of roles. Since the research supports this reality, and the workforce demographic demands it, we have to get real. I’m seeing more companies have very real conversations and setting real policies that are helping move diversity, equity and inclusion forward. I really am excited by that. What we’re all seeking is balance; we do not want to do away with men at the top. We just want to broaden the table, to add women and people of color, so it’s not a take away, it’s an expansion. 

What TWF related story has had the most personal impact on you? 

It’s hard to say one, but I guess one of the ones that truly still chokes me up is when we undertook our Young Women’s Initiative. We’re part of a collaboration of eight women’s foundations, doing this program that really centers young women of color, and they tell us what they need. Our goal is to resource them in a way that their voice is unleashed, power is unleashed, potential is unleashed, but we’re not presuming to know their lived experience. Their lived experience is at the center. We started out with a listening tour of 220 women across North and West Dallas, young women who have been marginalized economically, socially, you name it. 

Many are disconnected from a job, school, and living a life that can be generational in nature of continuing that cycle of poverty. We formed our Young Women’s Advisory Council, from young women that self-nominated out of those 220 from the listening sessions. And I want to add that we weren’t just parachuting into the communities; we worked through grassroots organizations that already owned young women’s trust. The members of our Young Women’s Advisory Council tell us what they need, what we need to know about their lives, their communities and their experiences…not what we think they need! So it really flips traditional white philanthropy on its head, to be honest. These women are African American, mixed race, Latina, and they’re all fabulous. 

At the first meeting of the Young Women’s Advisory Council in January 2018, one of the young women stood up and said, “I have never had anyone ask my opinion of anything. I have never had a voice, I have never been listened to, in my life, in my own home, in my school. And I didn’t believe I had a voice, so when this opportunity arose, I thought, ‘It can’t be me,’ and then I thought, ‘It has to be me.’ I have to speak for all the other voiceless young women.” 

As I cried listening to her, she said, “I’ve never been so courageous, I’ve never spoken out for myself, my community; but I am now here to tell you I will.”

It’s been profound. We took three of our young women and one adult advisor to the United States of Women gathering in Los Angeles in May 2018, and of the three young women that went with us, two had never been on an airplane, never been out of Dallas, and here they go with us, with 8,000 people gathered, and every movement builder in the country was there. And they’re hearing from everybody, from Michelle Obama to Tarana Burke, you name it. The speakers were every kind of political orientation, all just oriented on the future of women, what women need in this country to thrive. Each of the eight of our women’s foundations had selected one young woman to stand on the stage and speak about her leadership was going to bring to the world.

In that moment, I thought, “There’s no better work than this; there’s nothing more important than this.”

To let women like that, who had never been out of their community, stand in front of 8,000 people and say, “This is what my leadership will bring.” That’s it, for me. You cried the whole time.  I did, completely. Completely. It was just so profound. Those are the kind of moments where you go, “There’s so much possible if you believe in one another’s potential, so much possible.”

Tell me a bit more about your work with diversity.

The whole central word is intentionality. In Europe, it’s mandated. We probably won’t ever get there in the United States, but it is not tolerable to say, “I couldn’t find anyone.”

It is completely intentional to say that we must be looking at diversity, equity and inclusion, with that being the filter for everything we do. And if not us, then who? I think it was really that sense of, “We have to intentionally change our board, intentionally change our staff.” I mean our organization – and the women’s foundations everywhere – were founded by diverse populations of women across the world. Our 19 founders were every ethnicity, culture, political persuasion, and today, our board is 47 percent women of color and LGBTQ, and our staff is 50 percent.

In the state of Texas, where our population demographics are such that we are going to be “minority majority” well before 2030, then we’re crazy not to make diversity, equity and inclusion at the center of everything we do. Not in a token way, but in an absolutely intentional, inherent, intrinsic way.

Hear more from Roslyn at Local Profile’s 18th Annual Women in Business Summit!

Aayushi Pramanik
Aayushi Pramanik is a sophomore at Williams College. When not working or studying economics and math, she enjoys dancing, singing, and taking countless photos with her camera.

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