Interview with Leslie Stiles by Inspirational Women Series
Leslie Stiles is currently Board President of the Pennsylvania Conference for Women, an event that attracts over 8,000 women to a day of personal and professional development in Pennsylvania. Previously, Leslie served as the Executive Director for the Pennsylvania Commission for Women, Director of Marketing for the National Constitution Center, and President of Stiles and Co. Marketing. She is a Board Member of Girl Scouts of Eastern Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Breast Cancer Coalition. A breast cancer survivor, she has received significant recognition as an honoree for her work with the Thomas Jefferson University Hospital Buddy Program, the 2006 PA Breast Cancer Coalition’s Pink Tie Award and Komen’s 2010 Woman of Power award.
What were some of your biggest challenges with leading the Pennsylvania Conference for Women?
The Pennsylvania Conference for Women is a non-profit, non-partisan, one-day professional and personal development event, featuring renowned speakers sharing inspirational stories and leading seminars on the issues that matter most to women. The Conference offers incredible opportunities for business networking, professional development, and personal growth. As a non-profit, to accomplish all this we enlist corporate support, so fund-raising is an essential component. Though the corporate community has embraced this Conference, most especially our presenting sponsor, Beneficial Bank, maintaining a level of excitement, staying new and current after 14 years is always challenging. In terms of keynote speakers and breakout session programming, I believe we have achieved that goal, yet implementation is a continuous cycle. While working on one Conference we are simultaneously looking toward the following year. It is a work intensive process to be sure, yet, the Conference has maintained a level of excellence that I am incredibly proud of. Finally, we continually work hard to make this Conference a diverse forum. Knowledge and empowerment for women know no racial, ethnic or age boundaries.
What does the planning and organization process of the PA Conference for Women typically look like?
The Conference Board works together with HK Strategies to review and assess the previous Conference while planning the current one. We learn from our mistakes, we survey our attendees, we work to stay fiscally sound. We also listen to suggestions, both internal and external, then rely on our immensely creative program directors to format and book the keynote choices and breakout sessions. Our speakers discuss a range of issues impacting women, including health, personal finance, executive leadership, small business and entrepreneurship, work/life balance, branding and social media marketing, and more. Our keynote speakers share their personal stories about overcoming some of life’s biggest obstacles and finding the courage to pursue professional and personal goals.
We are master jugglers, balancing fund-raising, marketing, programming, a vibrant expo floor, food preparation, audio visuals and atmosphere with true dexterity. It is a challenging process but one that this board is committed to because the emotional rewards are tremendous. Women are a majority of the population of this State. It is critical that they are aware of the power they hold, and understand how to use it. That is what this Conference is all about. That is why it takes a year to plan it.
Can you tell us about some of your work related to breast cancer awareness, including serving on the Board of the Pennsylvania Breast Cancer Coalition?
During my time working for the Governor, I served as Honorary Chair of the PA Breast Cancer Coalition. After 8 years, I left my position as ED of the PA Commission for Women and became a PBCC Board Member. It is a privilege to be a part of this extraordinarily effective and productive organization.
We all deal with a diagnosis of breast cancer differently. For me, the most healing antidote to fear was reaching out to other women who had been newly diagnosed. I was able to do this through Jefferson Hospital’s Buddy Program.
Breast cancer is an equal opportunity disease. It really doesn’t care where you live, what your ethnicity is, whether you are a Republican or Democrat. Folks talk about breast cancer as a woman’s disease. But we know it’s not. It strikes a disproportionate number of women- yes… but it also strikes men, and families, and communities – it’s everyone’s disease and we must never forget that.
I talk about being better and stronger for this disease and I truly believe that. The people we meet, the journey we take, the reinvention of our lives are all incredibly positive things. Nevertheless, I know that however brave, strong and resilient we are, survivors are still terribly fragile and that vulnerability lies right below the surface. The PA Breast Cancer Coalition has created a fabulous exhibit picturing women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer in all 67 counties of the State. This exhibit helps show us we are not alone- there is tremendous heartache in the numbers, but there is also tremendous power.
There are many risk factors for breast cancer, but the greatest risk is ignorance. The PBCC has done an impressive job educating and advocating for women across the State. Their advocacy is responsible for some of our most valuable breast cancer legislation: The Breast Density Notification Act, Breast and Cervical Cancer Research Act, PA Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Treatment Screening Act to name just a few successes. I am proud to be in the forefront of educating women about breast cancer. The more women know about the newest diagnostic techniques, dietary risks, environmental risks and genetic risks the healthier we will be. A wonderful survivor told me not to talk about fighting breast cancer, rather dancing with it. I love that image; it takes so much less out of you.
What are some lesser known or often overlooked issues related to breast cancer?
Women should know that 3D screening mammograms are the newest and most comprehensive mammograms. Thanks to the efforts of the PA Breast Cancer Coalition, they are now covered for all women, insured under Pennsylvania law.
The Breast Density Notification Act mandates that mammography facilities tell women with dense breasts that they can benefit from additional screening after a mammogram. For instance, an ultrasound or MRI can find more cancers than mammography alone.
Breast cancer is not about dying it’s about living. It’s about strength, humor, hope, caring and unbelievable resilience.
On a personal level, why does women’s empowerment matter to you?
I have seen first hand the difference empowerment makes. It gives women the ability to understand the nature of life-balance and tackle a career while having a family. It is the cornerstone of running for political office, staying healthy, professional success and personal happiness. It fosters self-esteem in our young adults and teaches them to dream big, but more importantly live those dreams. We women are a majority of the population of this State. When we work together, we can build better more productive lives for one another. There is a wonderful saying that says one snowflake will melt, but many snowflakes together can stop traffic. For me, the rewards in encouraging women to find empowerment are incalculable
Can you talk about one woman who has impacted your life?
There have been so many women and men who have influenced my life that it is impossible to name one. I’ll trim it to three.
Isabelle Simons, my mother. She was a woman ahead of her time, focusing on things like natural foods and preventive medicine long before it was popular to do so. My father died when I was ten years old. The loss rocked our world, yet our lives never missed a beat. My mother, who was a fulltime wife and mother, got a job to finance our schooling and the magical childhood that my sister and I enjoyed. My sister continued to dance at the American School of Ballet in New York, later joining The New York City Ballet. She was doubtlessly one of the only ballet dancers who graduated from Barnard – echoes of my mother’s mantra, “Education first.”
I graduated from the small, private school that I had attended from kindergarten and went on to Penn. An incredibly powerful woman, my mom was adamant that her children pursue their dreams. She was selfless in her love for her family, but empowered in her strong will and commitment to take control of her life and encourage us to pursue ours.
Gloria Steinem- I had the privilege of meeting her when she was the keynote speaker at our Conference and was struck by her humility, her genuine caring nature and her stunning natural beauty both outward and inward. She was an activist and feminist before it was in vogue to be so and helped spearhead the women’s movement. She bridged generations and continues to teach us that “equality is about culture not biology and that self-respecting rebellion is a life-long possibility.”
Linda Cliatt-Wayman, Principal of Philadelphia’s Strawberry Mansion High School – she gave an incredibly moving speech at our Conference. It focused on her dedication to the students of Strawberry Mansion and her determination to transform one of the most troubled high schools in Philadelphia, if not the country. She single handedly saved both students and school, At the end of the day, the last words students heard on the PA system was, “If you think no one loves you today, I do.”
What are your favorite books, websites, films and resources about women’s empowerment and business leadership?
I love so many movies, but four of my all-time favorites are:
- The Rabbit Proof Fence – an Australian film about, Aboriginal girls who escape after being plucked from their homes to be trained as domestic staff and set off on a trek across the Outback
- Winter’s Bone – an independent film about a teenaged girl in the rural Ozarks. This is a powerful drama about self-sufficiency and poverty
- Working Girl – a movie that is 25 years old but still holds up today. The clothes and hairstyles are dated but the theme of an ambitious young woman moving beyond stereotypes and climbing that corporate latter to executive stardom is still a journey fraught with impediments
Some favorite books are:
- A Thousand Splendid Sons by Khaled Hosseini
- The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
- Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions by Gloria Steinem
- Thrive by Arianna Huffington
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the PA Conference for Women website (http://www.paconferenceforwomen.org). It offers a wealth of information focusing on personal and professional development. The site is a great resource enhanced with webinars from expert speakers. It gives the Conference legs, allowing a one-day event to have far-reaching, year-long impact.
Another excellent website/resource for women with political aspirations or an interest in the status of women is the Center for American Women in Politics: http://www.Cawp.rutgers.edu/
http://www.thriveglobal.com/, the website based on Arianna Huffington’s book, redefines success for women and suggests how we can live more balanced, centered lives