For Necole Ezell, launching a career in information technology in 1996 as a woman was not the easiest thing to do.
Back then, as a recent graduate of the University of Alabama, Necole saw very few women, and fewer who looked like her (a woman of color) in her chosen field. But now as Protective’s Enterprise IT Planning & Analysis Manager, Second Vice President, she sees more women launching and flourishing in careers across many technical fields — a welcomed development.
“Although the tech industry is still male-dominated, it has been exciting to see more women enter the field and become leaders at all levels,” Necole says. For her, it’s important to share stories of her professional successes and challenges with the next generation and to continue to learn from those who came before. As part of that, Necole has become involved with Lean On: Alabama, a new nonprofit dedicated to bringing women together to build an innovative statewide platform that promotes collaboration, development, and investment in each other and the community.
The Protective Life Foundation is a supporter of Lean On: Alabama, including sponsoring the organization’s inaugural event, the Women’s Lifestyle and Leadership Conference held March 4 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The conference featured more than 30 sessions on topics including work/life balance, entrepreneurship, and professional advancement, with speakers including New York Times bestselling author Peggy Orenstein, who spoke about young women, self-esteem and the confidence gap; and Carolyn Rush, an Auburn graduate and head of strategy for the mission-based creative agency, Worn, and who played a pivotal role in the development of Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign.
Necole says she left inspired by these keynote speakers and the breakout sessions, and felt motivated to get more involved in giving back to the next generation of women. “Lean On: Alabama fosters a real sense of empowerment, with a focus on providing the opportunity to help women improve their skill sets, and connect with other women to share their stories,” Necole says.
But at the heart of Lean On: Alabama is a chance for women to build relationships as they share their stories — and goals — to become leaders in their families, communities, churches, government, and business.
The organization recognizes that women in Alabama are leaders across organizations of all types, in homes, and amongst their peers. “As women in Alabama, we’ve made so much progress, but there’s always room for improvement,” says Lean On: Alabama President and co-founder Mary Lee Caldwell. “As a state, our greatest resource is our people, and it’s our goal to bring women together to build collaborations across the state.”
The March event kicked off a network of year-round activities, Mary Lee says. “We’ve all been to conferences where you learn during the event, but the big question is, ‘How do you build on that momentum’?” As a result, Mary Lee and Vice President and co-founder Marsha Grady, along with a team of advisors, have launched an organization to support Alabama women at all stages of life and career.
The cornerstone of Lean On: Alabama is “Iris Circles” — small groups of women across the state, which will encourage women to meet regularly to discuss issues most important to them. Mary Lee says they chose to build this model, opposed to a more traditional mentorship program, because many Alabama women are familiar with small group models through their churches as a place to connect relationally. They’re called Iris Circles because the Iris stands for wisdom, hope, faith, and friendship — key values to living a life with integrity and building meaningful relationships.
Mary Lee says it’s that spirit of friendship that has helped her grow. Today she is the Director of Student Governance and Citizenship at the University of Alabama. “Friendships with women have helped me grow personally and professionally, so I started thinking how I could serve women in the state. It’s important that we get out of our comfort zone and meet women outside of our profession, home and social environments.”
“As an organization, Lean On: Alabama is just beginning,” Mary Lee says. “In many ways, what it becomes will be dependent on the feedback that we get from women across the state, starting with the conference.” She says that the organization is actively looking for volunteers who can lend their voices and stories to the development of Iris Circles and future events. She says the goal for the end of 2017 is to have successful Iris Circles in operation, and for Lean On: Alabama to have a sustained dialogue with other organizations that support women’s leadership.
“We’re practicing what we preach — we’re listening to and learning from women to learn how to best serve them. And we’re inviting everyone to the table,” Mary Lee says.