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Benerd leadership program helps women rise

Rebecca Franklin

Rebecca Franklin `20

While sitting through work meetings recently, Rebecca Franklin ’20 couldn’t help notice something. “I was the only female in 99% of (the meetings),” she said. 

It’s something she’s working to change. Franklin is teaching leadership skills in “Women Empowered to Rise,” a program she created as a doctoral student in University of the Pacific’s Benerd College. 

“Women tend to hold themselves back,” said Franklin, an executive with California Housing Finance Agency. “How do we get women to feel comfortable?” 

The graduate level, credit-bearing program is a collaboration between Benerd and Junior League of Sacramento and is intended for any woman who wants to advance in leadership roles.

Addressing the need 

While the number of women in leadership positions is growing, it still lags behind men.  

According to research by McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.Org, 41% of managers in the U.S. are women and only 24% in senior executive roles are women.

Franklin wants to “flood the candidate pool” by making women feel more confident and qualified to take on leadership positions.

“We're multitaskers, we have really good interpersonal skills, we're caring. Not to say that men aren’t, but I think women naturally excel in those things, and I think those are qualities of a great leader,” said Franklin.

The course is already working.

Heather Beckner, a senior environmental scientist at CalRecycle, directly attributes her recent promotion to being part of the first cohort of Women Empowered to Rise. 

“One thing I struggled with is imposter syndrome,” Beckner said, an experience in which people doubt their achievements and ability. “There were skills I learned from each of the modules, but for me, the most important thing was it built my confidence.”

“I think that that's a very clear indicator of exactly the type of skills that we hope to build over the course of the nine modules,” said Robyn Stiles, executive vice president-elect for Junior League of Sacramento, which aims to develop women’s potential. “Having these conversations in a facilitated, small-group setting, you're able to really more richly learn from each other.”

A new perspective

When designing the course, Franklin wanted to approach it from a different angle that considers the female perspective and focuses on each person’s strengths. 

“You are naturally gifted at certain things, and you're not as naturally gifted at other things, so how do we promote your talents?” Franklin said. 

Each module focuses on a different topic such as budgeting, innovation and diversity. 

They’re taught with what Franklin calls a “Benerd-unique” approach, presenting real-life problems and having participants actively work through them. 

Despite having years of leadership experience, Georgette Hunefeld ’90, senior director of strategic philanthropic initiatives at Pacific, says she’s found immense value looking at leadership through a new lens.

“I learned so much because our community is evolving. The way in which we look at leadership is evolving,” said Hunefeld. The module that covered diversity, equity, and inclusion especially had an impact. “It was just so incredibly powerful because it allowed us to take a perspective that we might not have looked at before.”

That new perspective is leading to new opportunities.

“The transformation that the women have is really incredible,” said Rod Githens, an associate professor in Benerd. He co-teaches the first module with Franklin. “One person said they were inspired to run for the school board. Another person who is in a statewide leadership position wants to expand her role because she felt more confident about her capability as a leader.”

The benefits go beyond leadership skills; the women are building a network.

“Having a support system and having women leaders to look up to is really important,” said Franklin, “especially now when we’re so dispersed and virtual.” 

“In my cohort we had women from Southern California all the way to New Orleans, and we have already set up a network where we will continue to work together,” Hunefeld said. 

Making it accessible

There are two classes a month from January to November with a break in the summer. 

The course is held virtually on nights and weekends to make it accessible, something that was important to Franklin.

“We did a lot of research when building the program on what the barriers of access would be, and it was time and money,” she said.  “It’s a nice way

for somebody to come back and study in a university setting without committing to a full degree,” added Githens.

Stiles said women should feel comfortable no matter what their background. 

“There's no such thing as having a wrong perspective or wrong experience that you're bringing to the table,” said Stiles. “It’s definitely formatted to be very accessible.”

Women who go through the course receive a certificate of completion as well as three units of credit that can be applied to a program within Benerd College if they want to further their education. 

It’s now enrolling its third cohort.

Applications for the 2022 session are being accepted through Dec. 20.