Focusing on money, instead of what makes you happy, is the worst mistake women professionals can make, says LaShunda Leslie-Smith, executive director of a nonprofit that seeks to break the cycle of poverty in Rochester’s EMMA and Beechwood neighborhoods.
Leslie-Smith, one of the Rochester Business Journal’s past 40 under 40 honorees and executive director of Connected Communities, says “the worst thing a young professional can do at the beginning of their career is chase money. There’s only limited joy offered in a salary. You really want to pursue a career that will allow you to wake up and be excited about going into the field.”
Leslie-Smith says she grew up in poverty with no expectation that she would go to college. But St. John Fisher College took a chance and admitted her despite her teenage pregnancy and her resulting spotty high school grades.
Leslie-Smith majored in psychology and turned toward a career in human services and helping families and children, including founding her own nonprofit to provide services to teenage mothers.
By accident, Leslie-Smith learned that she was skilled at building capacity in nonprofits. She has led three nonprofit startups and led the turnaround of another.
“It’s important as a leader to work yourself out of a job and move on to the next thing,” Leslie-Smith says.
It was her grandmother who first modeled leadership for Leslie-Smith, she says.
Her grandmother owned multiple beauty salons and “didn’t allow adversity to stop her from pursuing her dreams,” she says.
‘Constantly say yes’
Lauren Gallina initially didn’t think she would work for the family company.
After spending a few years in the advertising industry, Gallina faced a layoff at the same time as the family company, Gallina Development, was beginning to invest more in downtown Rochester and be more public facing.
Gallina, now the marketing director for Gallina Development and a past RBJ 40 under 40 honoree, was drawn to join the business when there was a role for her to handle brand awareness, public relations and governmental relations, and to work with tenants to make sure the company develops space that fits their workplace and living-space needs.
“As a woman at a construction company and real estate company, it wasn’t as clear of a path,” Gallina says.
Gallina has been overseeing all of the residential spaces at the Metropolitan, Rochester’s third tallest skyscraper, as it is being converted from all commercial space to mixed-use. She has had an operational role, too, in how the building functions and how people use the spaces Gallina Development owns and manages.
Gallina’s advice for young professionals “is constantly say yes. You never know where an opportunity will take you on a career path or bring out a passion in an area that you didn’t know you had before.”
Gallina says she is often the only woman in the room in the world of real estate development. “The biggest thing for women is to find our voices and make sure we’re not pushing that down for someone else’s comfort,” Gallina says.
‘Shut those voices down’
It was Tashanda Thomas’ mentor who saw that she had the ability to lead when she couldn’t see it for herself.
When Thomas worked at the Urban League of Rochester, the then-human resources director was getting ready to retire. The league’s CEO at the time thought Thomas was ready to be promoted and had more confidence in her ability to run the office than Thomas did, she says.
“I didn’t have the clutch of that director to lean on,” Thomas says. “I trusted his feedback that, ‘You got this’ ” and accepted that position.
Thomas, who is now a human resources professional with Rochester Regional Health and a past recipient of RBJ’s 40 under 40 award, says that women still get intimidated from asking for what they want.
“We allow those outside voices or internal voices to tell us no,” Thomas says. “My advice is to shut all of those voices down and go for what you know that you’re worth.”
Thomas says mentorship is everything to her, whether she is being mentored or she is doing the mentoring.
While Thomas describes herself as a people person who is easy to talk to, she says she found networking while job hunting excruciatingly uncomfortable. But “push yourself to do things that are not comfortable and the end of it, it might actually be a rainbow,” Thomas says.
‘Do all the things’
When Kate Torok was 12, her sister died of cancer. As an adult, Torok is on the board of 13Thirty Cancer Connect, a nonprofit providing support for children and teenagers battling cancer.
It is already awkward enough being a teenager, but “because of 13Thirty you meet other teenagers who have to go get radiation or chemotherapy when they really only want to go to prom,” Torok says.
Torok, director of marketing and communications at St. John Fisher College and a past RBJ 40 under 40 honoree, says she has been lucky to have very strong female mentors, including her mother.
Torok’s mother not only weathered the death of her daughter but went back to school to become a nurse after her children started school.
Torok never saw her mother sleep as she studied during the day to become a nurse, cooked dinner for her children every night, got them off to school in the morning and worked a part-time job at night.
Like her mother, Torok has had “strong female mentors show me you can do all the things you want to do. You can grow as a professional, you can be a good mom and be a good member of our community and make an impact,” she says.
Torok advises the students on campus that persistence and communication are key as they embark on job-hunting for the first time.
“This generation is going to do big things,” Torok promises.
Amaris Elliott-Engel is a Rochester-area freelance writer.