An Interview with Young Women’s Alliance Founder, Carol Thompson
Contributed by: Elena Carey
Carol Thompson, President and founder of The Thompson Group and Founder of Young Women’s Alliance (YWA), spoke with us about the issues facing girls and her experience founding YWA. We are thrilled to work with YWA this year as their nonprofit partner. It was an honor to speak with Carol, without whom so many bonds and supportive channels for women in Austin would not exist. Many thanks to Carol for this interview and to YWA for creating a safe space for women, and helping GEN create safe spaces for girls.
What are the most pressing issues facing girls?
The most pressing issues facing girls don’t seem to change much: girls’ self-esteem and self-worth. You can watch them on the school grounds. You can see the insecurity. I think sports can be one of the cures, because the girls work together on a team. I think [studying girls in sports] would be an interesting research study: were girls more successful, did they start their own business? Because they had supported one another, been there for one another, on a team.
And of course, girls want to be thin. Why does that happen? TV, boys, ridicule from other girls. There are multiple issues facing girls.
What is it about GEN’s mission that speak to you? [GEN’s mission is to support and guide girls to make wise choices as they navigate the unique pressures of girlhood.]
It’s succinct. Guiding them hopefully allows them to empower themselves and help girls from different backgrounds understand each other as girls. Are we healthier women if early on we do more blending, for all of us to be moving forward and watching out for each other? The mission is the perfect mission and it is also a mission that more men need to understand the why’s of.
What advice would you give to a girl who wants to pursue a career in your field?
[laughing] My field! Well, I’ve had many lives. Some of my advice is the voice of my father saying to me at a young age that girls can do anything. He said that enough that it’s deep within me. My dad and I had a great relationship and could talk about anything. When I went to college, you could be a teacher or a nurse and my mother was a teacher. So, I was a nurse.
But, my field: a lot of it I’ve made myself. A lot of it is observing what’s happening around me and seeing where the opportunities are. Along the way I was married and had a very entrepreneurial husband who was also a pilot, so some of the things that I learned were along with him, including a computer business. Then, a pivotal moment was being Chairman of the Board of the Austin Chamber of Commerce in ‘91 and I was the third woman [Chairman] in 117 years. I think at the time I didn’t realize how much impact that would have on me and on others. And in the ’90s men would not make eye contact with you, they’d shuffle papers. That’s changed, thankfully. It got me to the table. Once you’re at the table, it’s up to you to act and react to be the best person at the table both for you and for the table.
The reason I ran was a group of women took me into a room and shut the door and said we want you to run and we’ll support you in anyway. I was the first small-business person that had ever chaired the Austin Chamber of Commerce. That year, ninety-five companies came to Austin to talk about expanding or relocating, so you danced as fast as you can. And that was exciting.
Then, Computer Land was sold and it was the first time a woman’s photo was on the business page of the Austin American-Statesman. So I had calls from people saying “what will you do now, ’cause you know everyone?” And therein began my networking business [The Thompson Group], which I still have today. So I owe a lot to the Chamber of Commerce and those connections.
I have two signs in my closet. One says “If you are on the side of the majority, it’s time to reform.” And the other one speaks to how girls can do anything. Speak up and step out. I had blue-collar parents. My dad sold fishing rods. But you have to have grit. Now you can do anything. There’s hardly anything women can’t do. It takes stick-to-it-iveness and it’s not easy. And we are not going to change the world unless we have women in charge.
What leadership qualities do you admire?
I admire when I’m around the table and when someone asks for a volunteer, the person who raises their hand. Common sense is good because it’s hard to find sometimes. People that are kind and authentic leaders and those who stay true to themselves. The quality of being able to reach back behind you and help someone else. That was big when Ann Richards was Governor. I was Chairman of the Chamber of Commerce when she was Governor, so I was in her office and I can remember when Apple came to town and she and I were the only two women at the table. I also admire people that stay abreast of what’s happening and read.
What successful woman inspires you and why?
Pat Hayes was the President of St. Edwards. Before that she was a nun in upstate New York. I think that’s a pretty big leap. She’s gone on to take a key role at Seton. She is one of the few women that I’ve met that really can deal with left- and right- brain issues. She can read the P&L and she has a creative side and can generate ideas. You feel like a better person when you’re around her.
And my daughter. She’s a stone carver. She sanded the green slate stone for Jackie Kennedy’s memorial. She worked with all males at the business in Newport, Rhode Island. Our journeys have similar threads.
Why are you passionate about girls’ issues?
Because they’re always there. Every day I see something. I can speak to women of any age today and say “is it over?” Because some women feel it is, but not everyone’s there yet. Applauding the ones who are there and supporting the ones who aren’t. Until women are really in charge, I’ll still be passionate
What advice would you give to your 13 year-old self?
I don’t know if I’d give my 13-year old self advice, because I was like, “here I am.” I would say [to 13 year-old girls]: experience it. I think reading is important and not enough reading is being done these days. I don’t what kind of a roadmap you could give to 13 year-olds. It needs to be a template.
What prompted you to found Young Women’s Alliance?
I’ve worked with nine law firms in town as clients. I was working with one at the time and some of the guys thought that I was radical in saying where women are and where women are not and what needs to happen, until their daughters graduated from college and found out that men make the deals. All five told their daughters “go talk to Carol Thompson.” So we had five of them in my home and none of them knew each other. The only common factor was that their fathers knew me. To give a firm handshake and look someone in the eye and give them the elevator pitch of what you did was a huge challenge. It started as volunteers and it still is today.
What do you think that YWA does for women today?
They give really decent scholarships to women. But really, there isn’t anything else like it. They provide education on leadership skills, mentor one another, there are a lot of activities in the community where they volunteer, it’s exposing them to different speakers who they may not hear otherwise. Originally, all of the women were in marketing. Now, there’s more diversity.
There are tipping points [in women’s lifetimes]. You get out of college and you think how can I connect. Now they have a lot of members who just moved to Austin and want to learn about Austin. Helping one another find jobs and some of the women have even gotten board positions. Kate Perez is on the Ballet Austin Board. So that, to me, is a success story of “it’s happening.”
You are an empowered woman and you work to empower other women, formally, like through Young Women’s Alliance, and informally, like through mentoring. Why do you see it as so important to empower young women?
Because we need empowered women to lead, around the world. Without things like GEN, some girls would totally fall through the cracks. We have GEN, GirlStart, programs at UT; can we have Austin be the template for how many programs we have that track women? And then you take it across the country.
My granddaughter loves to play with Barbies. She can spend hours up in her room talking to them. And I said to her, “You could be a consultant for the Barbie company someday.” Y’know, reach high. She’s very imaginative. And you need the “what if” people.