Over the past month, we’ve been interviewing some of the women we’ve had the wonderful opportunity to work with, who have developed initiatives that empower women.
One of these women is Cora Neumann, whose experience spans across sectors, but with a focus on positive impact across the board. For nearly 20 years, Cora has collaborated with local and national leaders in over 40 countries to help them develop strategies and programs that improve the lives of women and families, through corporate and policy work, as well as her own initiatives. She holds a doctorate in international development from the University of Oxford, UK., and an MPH in global public health from Columbia University.
Her impressive resume speaks for itself, but it’s just the beginning of why we wanted to share Cora’s story and work with you. It’s difficult, if even possible, to encompass all that Cora is doing to empower, support, and galvanize women on the global level. One of the most important aspects of her work is this: It comes from a place of love and nurturing. While she places a focus on the urgency around changing the world, there’s no pressure tied to it, just motivation.
To better capture Cora’s work, we connected with her to ask a few questions – here’s what she had to say:
Looking at your experience, a lot of your work has been focused on supporting changemakers, specifically women. Has this been your goal from the start, or has it evolved over time?
I actually actively shied away from focusing on women at the beginning of my studies and career. I was working with refugees and rural communities in Asia and people would encourage me to add the ‘women’s perspective.’ I was committed to staying agnostic on gender, and also worried that might pigeon hole and restrict me to a subsector. Then, when I was approached by an acquaintance about assisting a group of First Ladies in Africa, something clicked. I felt suddenly deeply compelled to support these women. Although I had never worked with or even really thought about first ladies, I knew that, generally, the only attention they received was criticism for either doing too much or not enough. Like so many women in positions of power or influence, they were damned if they did, damned if they didn’t. Yet first ladies have so much potential to play a very important role in society.
A maternal instinct of sorts took over, and I felt if I didn’t build something that supported and leveraged their potential, someone else might try to take advantage of them. I am not implying that first ladies aren’t strong or empowered, but I saw a need there, and felt deeply compelled to jump right in with my particular mission to build a platform to empower them.
This past year, you started RESET with the goal of re-connecting changemakers to themselves, each other, and the earth. What inspired you to start RESET?
A major inspiration for RESET is my brother Wyatt. He passed away suddenly last year, and he and I were incredibly close, like twins. Wyatt lived every moment like it could be his last, he lived fully, bravely, loudly and with so much love for life and this world. RESET will honor his ‘lust for life’, and is also borne out of my own awakening through this trauma. I no longer feel we have time to waste. The world needs activated changemakers to stand up and fight for justice, peace, humanity and the planet. RESET Retreats and the Impact Series will bring leaders and changemakers (men and women, although we will have very tailored women-only retreats and programs as well) on journeys into self to connect with purpose, into community to connect with humanity, and into nature to reconnect with the planet. The goal is to awaken and activate, to help people find meaning and opportunities to make real impact during this chaotic and also exciting time. As Wyatt always said (and as he had tattooed broadly across his collarbones), ‘Moments Like This Never Last’. It’s true. They don’t. So let’s make the very most of it, and work our asses off to make the world a better more whole and connected place while we are here.
I also want to shout out to my amazing and totally heart-driven co-founders, Alma Lacour, Wasfia Nazreen and Stash Slionski. I am so excited to build this vision and work with them.
Let’s talk about RESET’s three main initiatives:
Your Impact Series brings world leaders, corporate executives, citizen activists, scientists, and innovators together to reset our collective course towards a healthier planet.
We know you’re in the early stages of building out these Impact Series, but could you share an example of one that is in the works? Who would be participating and what might the discussion and/or potential outcomes be?
One of our first more high profile Impact Series sessions will be ‘Celebrating Glaciers’, hosted in Iceland in Summer 2017. This 5-day event will bring changemakers from across sectors – politics, business, philanthropy, music and the creative industries – together to talk about and make commitments to issues that impact glaciers and climate change. One of the ideal outcomes: partnerships to help people make everyday but significant changes to reduce emissions or invest in renewable energy. President Obama has also announced that he will focus on climate issues once leaving office, so we hope to engage leaders like him, in this or a future event. Stay tuned to @resetlead on Instagram & Twitter for announcements.
Given the different agendas of the two presidential nominees, do you think that this series will be affected by the outcome of the election? If so, how?
I believe that regardless of who wins, this election cycle has been a major wake up call for many across this country, and across the world. We’ve seen an incredibly positive response to RESET already, and I think it correlates with how disoriented people are by the fact that Trump has made it this far, and about the misogyny and blatant racism that has emerged through the process. There is huge disillusionment and distress, and people are looking for meaning, connection, purpose, answers, hope. We will explore all of this through our series, with the goal of helping people feel more empowered to create change in their own lives and in the world. There really is a lot to be hopeful and excited about, and each of us has more influence than we realize.
RESET also puts on Women’s Retreats for female leaders who are looking to reconnect with themselves and the world around them. How are these different from other retreats for women?
I am applying the curriculum I developed for First Ladies, as well as the work I’ve done with more than 100 women CEOs, entrepreneurs and political leaders around the world to help women connect to and act on their purpose. There are many wonderful women’s retreats out there, and I am so happy to see a rising focus on self-care and empowerment for women. Our series will add an element of purpose and meaning, will cultivate community among the participants, and will match women to causes if they feel moved to activate on or deepen their purpose. Participants may also move on to participate in the Impact Series, which focuses more specifically on impact.
Finally, you facilitate the Global First Ladies Alliance, which was started as its own entity in 2008 to support first ladies, individually and collectively, in their efforts to advance women’s leadership in all sectors of society. What was the problem you were aiming to solve when you first started the Global First Ladies Alliance?
As noted before, when I started this work in 2008, first ladies were largely neglected by the international community. Although many were engaged in powerful work, they weren’t highlighted as leaders, and when they were invited to participate in events or summits, they were generally asked to speak on behalf of someone else’s agenda. I wanted to create a program that focused on and promoted the work of first ladies themselves. To date, we have worked with all of the US first ladies, many first ladies from Africa and Europe – a total of 42 first ladies offices so far.
How has the Global First Ladies Alliance evolved over time?
We were extremely committed to co-creating this program together with first ladies (including financially – they sponsored their own participation entirely). They requested workshops for themselves and training for their staff. The program evolved into a leadership program of sorts, focused on helping first ladies and their senior advisors design and use their platform to impact the most change – mainly on issues related to women and girls. We are in the process of finalizing a ‘First Ladies Handbook’, co-authored by First Ladies and their offices, on how to develop and run an effective office.
What role does the Alliance play in regard to RESET’s mission?
It exists as a foundation for our continued focus on women’s leadership. We also aim to engage First Ladies and government agencies, like National Forest Service and relevant ministries, in our Impact Series where and when relevant.
We love your focus on wellness and connection. What advice do you have for women and leaders in regards to self-care and community?
Number 1: Do your best to fully unplug, ideally through sitting or moving meditation, for at least 10 minutes/day. I have been practicing transcendental meditation since I was 26 and have seen such profound transformation in myself and in people who practice regularly. The fact that it can be so hard to sit still for a brief time each day is evidence in and of itself of how powerful this practice is.
Number 2: Get yourself a ‘Fight Club’ or small group of women ready to stand by you through any possible up or down. We need each other. And you may be surprised how much support floods in when you finally ask for help and/or open yourself up to love and nurturing in this way. One of my mottos is: nurturing is a superpower. Accept it, give it, support it…you’ll be surprised how powerful it can be.
hat has been the most rewarding part of your work to connect and support individuals, especially women, in their efforts to make an impact and maintain balance in their personal and professional lives? Is there a particular moment or story that stands out to you?
I have been truly stunned by the power of empowerment. Taking a new tack with leaders like First Ladies – asking them what they need instead of telling them what the world needs from them – has been a game changer. Supporting leaders, and especially women leaders, to see, own and use their strengths is transformative.
One of my favorite quotes is from the former First Lady of Kenya, who said, “When we met Cora, we were on a train… now we are on a plane and the possibilities are endless!” The First Lady of Sierra Leone has also told me, “You have amongst your strengths the gift of telling me whom I am.” Through the process of helping the First Ladies feel seen, heard, and empowered, we were able to help them step onto the global stage with more confidence and determination, and to launch and/or scale major national programs and strategies that have impacted millions.
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