Skip to main content

Taking the Lead, with Gloria Feldt

Taking the Lead, with Gloria Feldt

Episode 151: Taking the Lead, with Gloria Feldt

In a small town in Texas, Gloria Feldt, NY Times best-selling author and founder of Take the Lead, applied to work for Planned Parenthood, after writing a paper about them. Rising up to become the President of Planned Parenthood, Gloria talks about her learnings as a single mother and as the President inside a highly-disputed organization. Gloria offers her tips on the place of innovation and creation of meaning through organizational leadership, as well as what she is currently doing to give women an equal shot in the world through Take the Lead. She also shares her experiences in creating Planned Parenthood’s new mission, values, and its 25-year vision as a part of reshaping the organization.

Episode Transcript

00:13 Kristy Wallace: Hello, and welcome to the Ellevate Podcast. This is your host, Kristy Wallace, with my co-host, Maricella Herrera. Hi, Maricella.

00:21 Maricella Herrera: Hey, Kristy.

00:22 KW: How's it going? Get your energy up.

00:24 MH: It's going. It's been a long week, and it's only been two days.

00:28 KW: Yes, that is true. It has been a long week. But it's an exciting week, especially for me, because I got to meet the amazing Gloria Feldt for the podcast this week and interview and learn from her, and she's just... I'm inspired, I'm excited.

00:46 MH: That's awesome.

00:47 KW: Yes. She has just a really powerful story from growing up in Texas as a young mom through to leading Planned Parenthood during a time of change, and then now changing women's lives through the work she's doing at Take the Lead. So, it was an honor to have her on the podcast and to learn and be inspired from her. So, maybe that's why I'm so excited this week.

01:11 MH: Yeah. I need some of that energy. I need to get me some of that. So, I'll listen to the podcast and the interview, and get excited as well.

01:21 KW: Yeah, I loved... One of the things that Gloria had talked about and you'll have to... Our listeners will have to stay on for the end of the podcast, 'cause she shares a really poignant story at the end, but she talked about the...

01:31 MH: No spoilers.

01:33 KW: No spoilers, I promise. She talks about just the power of women supporting women. And I've been thinking about that so much lately, especially here at Ellevate, we just launched our next cohort of Ellevate Squads, which are online peer mentoring groups of women committed to supporting each other and reaching that next stage in their career. And we are soon to be launching another great feature on, which is connecting women based on their goals and expertise. And that sounds so straightforward, but it's not, because oftentimes in the way that we network in a digital age, it's so one-dimensional. It's your name, your title, your rank. But really, if you wanna find someone who transitioned industries, who went and started their own company, or who's on a board, or whatever your goal is, you want someone that has that experience, and can really help show you the way and accelerate that path for your success. So, we just launched that on Ellevate ways to connect women in a more intentional way, in a more authentic way.

02:34 KW: And so, everything that Gloria was saying about just that power of network comes full circle for me when I think about the work that we're doing here and the change that Ellevate and Take the Lead and many other organizations are fighting for as we continue to help women succeed in our world. So, it's a good week for me.

02:54 MH: That's a great. That's awesome. I love the idea of flipping the whole expertise on its head because it's not necessarily just what you think you're an expert on, but what experiences you've had that you can share.

03:07 KW: Yeah.

03:08 MH: Like you were saying changing a career, you might not think of yourself as a expert in career change, but if you've done it once, twice, you probably have a bunch of tips to share.

03:18 KW: Absolutely. Absolutely. Give ourselves credit for the votes we've paved and the experiences we've learned. So, yeah, it's exciting. Well, thanks for joining me here this week, Maricella, on the podcast, and thanks to our listeners. It's always great to connect with you, to hear from you at events, when you tweet at us @ellevatentwk. I know that we've taken a few weeks off and shared with you some of the best of Ellevate episodes. Let us know what you thought of it. Did we forget your best, your favorite? We wanna hear it from you, and here's to a 2019 full of many new inspiring stories, unbelievable women, and connections to the Ellevate Podcast.


04:15 KW: Gloria, I'm so honored and excited to have you here with us today. Typically, when I welcome guests to the podcast, we like to share who they are and what they've done. And your story is just amazing, and it's still going, 'cause your impact and influence is pretty phenomenal. So, Gloria Feldt, welcome to the Ellevate Podcast, and I would love for you to share a little bit of how this journey all began.

04:50 Gloria Feldt: Oh, Kristy, thank you so much. I do appreciate that. And yes, the story has been going on for quite a while. It's been a long and interesting journey, and the wonderful thing about life that nobody tells you is that there's always another part of the journey. There's always another direction that you can take. And I think we don't always know that, especially when we're younger and just starting out. So, if I can tell anybody anything useful on this podcast, I think it would be, "You've got a lot of opportunities to do incredible wonderful things in your life." So, I started in small towns in Texas, and I completely bought the messages I was getting from the culture, which was you get married early, you have a lot of babies, you take care of everybody else. Career? Huh, who even thinks of it? You're not... Nice ladies didn't even know anything about money or all that kind of stuff.

05:51 KW: Sure.

05:51 GF: You just... Well, I found out pretty quickly after I'd had my third child, shortly after my 20th birthday, that it wasn't quite as easy as I thought it might be, and I woke up. I literally feel like I woke up. My poor son has heard this story so many times. I say that a light bulb went off and he calls himself "mom's light-bulb."


06:17 GF: But somehow that third child was the light bulb, and I thought, "Holy cow!" I had married my high school sweetheart. He had a job, but it was not particularly remunerative, and I've got these three children and I'm like, "What if I have to support them on my own? There's nothing, I have no employable skills whatsoever, what could I possibly do?" And so I started to community college at that time, I was living in Odessa, Texas. There was not a senior level university there, so I started at a community college and that really got me involved in community service work. I met people, I got involved in the civil rights movement, and that's where I learned you can make social change. And I was hooked on it, I was just hooked on realizing that it doesn't matter where you are, even in Odessa, Texas, you can, if you get together with other like-minded people, you can actually make social change.

07:16 KW: Yeah.

07:17 GF: But the thing I noticed was that the women were doing all the work and the men were always the leaders. And I thought to myself, "Hmm, you know, if there are civil rights, well, I suspect women must have them too." And that was when I started getting active and started... Really decided that I wanted my life to be about advancing women in one way or another. So I had planned to be out of high school... I had planned to be a high school social studies teacher. But I was sort of... I did teach school for a while, and I taught Head Start, and I still love teaching, which is part of the joy of what I'm doing now, which I'll get to in a moment. But I was serendipitously offered a job as the executive director of a small new Planned Parenthood affiliate in west Texas.

08:09 KW: I just wanna cut in very quickly because your story is really powerful in the sense that... In particular, I think, for our listeners who kinda feel that the next step is unclear or even unattainable. And that one connection for you set you... I mean, clearly you already had the interest in civil rights and social change, but that set you on a different trajectory. So how did that connection happen?

08:41 GF: I had learned by then to just say yes when opportunities presented themselves. I don't know how I learned that, but it just had become a part of my life. And in some respects, that's not always such a good idea, because it can take you away from your intentions, but in this case it turned out to be a really good thing. No, honestly, what happened in short form, is that the University of Texas opened a branch after I'd been teaching in Head Start for five years. So I quit my job at Head Start, was the first person in the door, the first person out of the door to finish my bachelor's degree, planning to do my student teaching that fall. The last course I took was ecology. For that course I did a paper on the brand new little Planned Parenthood affiliate in town, interviewed the executive director who was highly qualified. But if you've ever been to Odessa, Texas, I hate to say it, but they would hire these highly qualified people after a national search, they would come to Odessa and they would leave after a year, right? Two weeks later she called and said, "I am leaving. I think you should submit a resume."

09:46 KW: Oh, wow.

09:46 GF: And I thought, "I've never had a job interview before this formal job interview. I never had an actual resume. This would be a really good experience. I don't have to worry about being hired because, what do I know? I've never managed anything. I know nothing about health care administration, I barely know anything about this movement except for the paper I had written about it. So I can just go and I can learn from this opportunity to interview if they choose to interview me." Well, they did interview me, and then they interviewed me again, and they offered me the job on the spot. And I somehow just said yes. I don't know why, I don't know what propelled me to do it. It sounded interesting, and it was in keeping with the value system that I had.

10:34 KW: And so, I mean, honestly, when you've been a teen mom, you understand how important it is to be able to plan your fertility and when you're gonna have children. There's nothing that teaches you better than that. And so I learned the hard way. And so I was very aligned from a value perspective that everybody should have access to birth control and this was the way to do it. But, no, it was not an aspiration. And I thought I would do this for maybe three years, and then I'd go back to teaching, which was my first love. And 30 years later I retired as the national president. So you just never know what's going to happen in your life.

11:17 KW: How old were your children when you started working at Planned Parenthood?

11:19 GF: They were preteens or young teens.

11:24 KW: Okay.

11:25 GF: Yeah, they were... Yes. And they were a really good sounding board. I could take educational materials home and play like I was just asking for their opinion on it so that they could get a little of the sex education that they needed that every parent has a hard time doing.

11:39 KW: I ask in part, and we'll get more into this later but just kind of what are these untruths we tell ourselves that sabotage us professionally. But I ask because I do believe just that we... The taking the next step and the fear of failure and a lot of what we've already alluded to, but there's also this notion around being a working mom. And it's still 2019 and the conversation still happens and it's still typically the first question I get whenever I'm speaking at an event is, "How do you do it all?" And your story is just really powerful in that respect of showing how you went to school and started this amazing, impactful, powerful career, got really involved in community and social justice and continued to grow as an individual, but also be a great parent.

12:36 GF: I think we lay too much on ourselves. We lay too much need for perfection on ourselves. And I fortunately never had that proclivity, especially when it came to... There's a cartoon that I use, that says, "I understand the concepts of cooking and cleaning, but not as they apply to me." And so I actually... I do like to cook, but cleaning that's another thing. So...

13:01 KW: Yeah.

13:01 GF: There were certain things that I just never learned to love or to spend my time doing and... Necessity is the mother of invention. I did need to work for economic reasons. So that was one thing propelling me, but it was never the only thing, I mean, obviously I wouldn't have spent my life in non-profits, if it had been the only thing propelling me. But I think the whole trope of having it all is one of those narratives that our culture has created to help keep women in our place. Nobody has it all, every day of everybody's life is a series of choices.

13:42 KW: Sure.

13:42 GF: We make choices when we have little kids, our choice may be we're going to take some time out because they're gonna grow up, and we wanna spend time with them, we wanna know who they are, we wanna shape them. And I guess I was lucky in that sense, in that by the time I started to work, my children were in school.

14:01 KW: Yeah.

14:01 GF: So they were at least in kindergarten, the youngest was in kindergarten when I started to work. Full-time at least, yeah.

14:08 KW: You left Planned Parenthood during a really, I would say fascinating, interesting, powerful time and still is, I mean, there's just such a discourse around women's health and bodies and access to that and a lot of that discourse has been tied, of course, to Planned Parenthood, but during your tenure there, and thank you for all the work that you did, but what is the biggest lesson learned? And I know that's a pretty broad question, but I think when you, one are a woman leading a business, and particularly one that is so much in the spotlight and going through so much change.

15:01 GF: It would be hard for me to boil it down to one. So...

15:04 KW: Okay.

15:04 GF: If I can beg your...

15:05 KW: Sure, please.

15:06 GF: Beg your indulgence here, I'll do a few and you can always cut out anything you wanna cut out, alright.

15:08 KW: Please, we all... No, we all... I wanna learn. Our listeners wanna learn.

15:12 GF: From the political perspective, what I learned was exactly what the founding fathers said, which was eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. In a democracy nothing is ever won forever. You always have to... You'll always have to either protect it, but you also always need it to be successful. And this is... This is one of my biggest lessons that I often think the movement does not adhere to, which is that it's important always to be putting forth a proactive agenda and not just defending what you have already won. Because you will get your fingers eaten off one at a time if you're just defending. You always need to have something new, something important, something that really resonates with people to expand their access to healthcare, to expand their reproductive rights. And so that is a huge lesson that I learned over time.

16:09 KW: Sure.

16:10 GF: From a leadership perspective, from an organizational leadership perspective. I learned... One of my favorite sayings is Warren Beniss's "The first... " I'm probably gonna botch this, but something like, "The first and most important responsibility of a leader is in the creation of meaning." And when you're leading an organization, creating meaning in a way that people can see themselves in that story and see how they fit and how whatever work they're doing advances that organization's mission and purpose in the world, that just makes all the difference. And sometimes it's hard to keep your eye on that on that because you can get mired easily in the daily activities. And we all do that, but I do believe that that was one of the biggest lessons that I learned. When I became CEO of Planned Parenthood Federation of America it was in an extremely difficult time for the organization, and most of it was self-inflicted, it had been looking internally, instead of externally and not doing those external big agenda items for the public.

17:29 GF: And as a consequence, it had shrunk, it was bleeding red ink, it was emotionally, the whole organization was emotionally in a difficult place, because it was the era when there were probably... There was a lot of violence against reproductive health providers at that time. And so that was the point at which I became the national president, and fortunately, having had 22 years on the ground, on the front lines in local affiliates, I was well prepared for dealing with most of those challenges, but the biggest challenge I had to deal with was figuring out how to turn that big bulky old bureaucratic ship around and get it thinking in a positive, proactive way. And so I was super fortunate to have to connect with a futurist, who volunteered his time to work with us and help us create a 25-year out vision. And by doing that, we were able to get people to let go of what was bothering them that day. And they could stop worrying about that, because all we were asking them to do was to think about, "Twenty-five years from now, when you look back, what do you want to be able to say you have accomplished?" Well, all of a sudden that just releases you...

19:00 KW: Sure.

19:00 GF: To start thinking expensively again and creatively. And so that was a wonderful process. It took a year and a half, but we ended up with a whole new mission statement, a whole new set of values, a whole new 10 point agenda. And so that was, to me, that was fun.

19:21 KW: So I agree that is fun, and oftentimes, because when it's a journey, it's a journey to think on an individual level, as a leader level, "Where am I gonna be in five years, 10 years, 25 years," and giving yourself the freedom to think of that, you can think outside of the constraints you put on yourself today and you can think big and you can think big dreams. And then it breaks down to, "Okay, and how are we gonna get there, and what is your role in getting there?" And so to mobilize the troops to get everyone on board, to get everyone excited about their contribution, I can see how that really shifts an organization's mindset and gets everyone excited about the future and how they're driving that. You're doing a lot of amazing things and I'm in awe and inspired by the work you're doing and I think hearing your story, it all comes together with just the impact you're looking to have and how your story has led you to where you are today.

20:26 GF: For me, it's always been about giving women an equal shot in the world. Just to have an equal chance in the world to be who they wanna be, to be what... And be able to do whatever they wanna do. I decided... I attempted to semi-retire. Well, that didn't work very well. I was writing books and I was speaking, which was great. That's what I wanted to do, 'cause I could be in control of my time and my life and play with the grandkids and do whatever I wanted to do. But the last book that I wrote, No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think about Power, had taken me into a study of why for 20 years women had been stuck at under 20% of the top leadership positions across every single sector in the economy. And I was shocked because as somebody who had been an advocate for women already for decades, it seemed to me logically, that if you had changed laws and you had opened doors, which we had done, why were the door... Why were women not walking through those doors? And it wasn't just that the doors were shut. 'Cause we had seen a woman first almost everything by that time.

21:38 GF: And I had to face the fact, it was so shocking to me, that you can open a door but that doesn't mean somebody's gonna walk through it, because there are risks involved to women when they start walking through those doors, to power. And I think the same is true when it comes to money because in our culture money and power are pretty much synonymous with each other. And so, I think that's why Ellevate's mission and Take The Lead's mission are so closely aligned and mutually supportive here because it's... If a woman is not maximizing her financial capability, she's going to lose, as we know by the data, half a million to over a million dollars in her lifetime. Well, you could do a lot with that million dollars. You've got children, you wanna send them to college, that's probably about what you're gonna need. Yeah. So, I started being asked to teach workshops using this book, what was in this book. And I started seeing women have breakthroughs in their thinking about themselves, when I did a workshop.

22:47 GF: The core of what I found was that we are socially acculturated. This is not hard wired, it's not like men are from Mars and women are from Venus. It's culturally learned ambivalence about power, which means money as well. And when women assume what has been traditionally the paradigm of power in our culture, we're not treated very well. And so we back off. And then when we back off, nothing can change. So I decided I had to make it my mission to get that specific piece into leadership development for women. Not that I needed to do everything, but to get that specific piece, how we change the power paradigm in a way that women embrace it. So we shift it from the old oppressive idea of power over to an expansive, innovative, creative power to make life better for your family, do something for yourself, whatever it might be, and I would see masks fall off of women's faces when I taught that.

24:04 GF: And so then I added in the nine leadership power tools which are in the book, so that there are specific actionable techniques and tools. And then to that then over time I added... Actually, it's part of the curriculum, the women make their own strategic leadership action plans and we follow up to see if they are doing them and I... And they do, and they do. And that's what's exciting. 'Cause I'll hear from women later, three months, a year, sometimes three years later now, that they wanna let me know that they made this plan and it all happened. They got that job. Or they would have never considered applying for that job. But because of what they had learned and how they could see themselves differently, they had set their intentions higher.

24:56 KW: Yeah.

24:57 GF: And by golly, they ended up getting that position that they would have never thought of themselves doing. So if I can just add one thing which is, now we're doing this in a very much more immersive way, not just a workshop. We do workshops, we do short workshops, we do corporate training, we do whatever people want, but the really exciting thing that we're doing right now is called 50 Women Can Change the World, and we do that by sector. So, we've just... We've done three for non-profits. We've done healthcare, we've done media and entertainment, we just launched journalism. And we'll be doing another healthcare and a... One for women in finance in the next few months. So that's what's really cool right now.

25:45 KW: So when you talk about 50 Women Can Change the World, I know journalism is one of the newer ones that you just launched, which I'm really excited about and it's exciting to see the Ford Foundation and the Democracy Fund have supported that and so really, I always love to call that out, because I think when we see the whole ecosystem around supporting women, how powerful and important that is. But why journalism?

26:10 GF: Because who tells the story gets to decide what we think about ourselves. Who tells the story decides what the framework is. From which the story will be told, they decide even what stories will get told and when you... When you don't have equal gender representation in any media entity, you're not likely to get a balance of what those stories are, and what the lens will be through which that story is told. The narrative of history has been war and fighting and finite pies. It would be interesting to think about what would the narrative of history be if women had been in charge of it from the beginning. I suspect there would be a lot more about how to feed the world and how to actually bring more resources, so you don't have wars. That's just a guess, but that's what I think would have happened.

27:04 KW: Yeah. Gloria, you're talking about your connection... Going back to school and connection to Planned Parenthood, and then changing the shape and direction of that company to what you're doing now, it's all of these little instances that have such catastrophic change in our lives. And if we are not moving, then we're not changing. And so, it's continue that movement of taking action.

27:35 KW: One of the really secret sauces of the 50 Women programs that I had to watch it in action before I realized how important this part of it was, is that the women form a cohort. And they not only help each other during the course of the program, but they stay in touch, and they keep support... They hire each other, or they sponsor each other. They would serve on each other's boards. They do all kinds of things. And that has been incredibly exciting to me. Nobody gets where they are going on their own. We all need our sisters and brothers. We all need our colleagues. And if we ever forget that, we're cooked.

28:15 KW: Yeah. Who have been some of the colleagues or peers or sponsors for you that you wanna shout out right now?

28:24 GF: Oh, my goodness gracious. There had been so many. You know, I'm gonna shout out this one woman who is no longer with us, but she was my first boss. Her name was Mildred. She was the founder of the Head Start program in west Texas where I worked. And I had started as a volunteer, and then when I told her I was gonna have to go to work, she offered me a job teaching there, and that was how I started doing that. The two things that Mildred did, number one, she was not easy to get along with, but she would get me to do things. She would assign me to do things that I would not have put my hand up and said I want to do. And she obviously saw more in me than I saw in myself, and she pushed me to do things that were way beyond my comfort zone.

29:16 GF: And the second thing she did was a good example of how sometimes it's one small thing you can do for another person that does change their life. And sadly, she had terminal cancer and I went to visit her in the hospital. And as I left, she handed me an envelope. And by the way, she had her typewriter, it was typewriters then. She had her typewriter on her bed. This was like how she worked. She was a retired journalist. So, that wasn't surprising to me that she was typing things, but she handed me this envelope. I opened it when I got home and it was a letter of recommendation. Now, I hadn't asked for that, but she had been my only boss. And when I did go for the interview at Planned Parenthood, that was the only recommendation that I had, and that was my work history. That she took the time to do that when she knew she was ill and wasn't going to be able to serve in another capacity to help the people that she had mentored along the way is to me, it has stayed with me forever. And so, just take five minutes a day and do something for somebody else that may help them along on their path, and you never know when it will change their life. You never know.

30:42 KW: Take The Lead and 50 Women can change the world is a legacy of Mildred's and her impact on you.

30:49 GF: You just gave me goosebumps.


30:50 KW: You brought it full circle, so thank you. Thank you, Gloria, for everything that you're doing, for being such a change maker. It's been an honor to have you on the podcast.

30:58 GF: Thank you, Kristy. And thank you for the work that you're doing, because this is the next wave.


31:07 KW: Thanks so much for listening to Ellevate. If you like what you hear, help a girl out, subscribe to the Ellevate Podcast on iTunes. Give us five stars and share your review. Also, don't forget to follow us on Twitter @ellevatentwk, that's Ellevate Network. And become a member, you can learn all about membership and all the great things that Ellevate Network is doing at our website,, that's E-L-L-E-V-A-T-E And special thanks to our producer, Catherine Heller. She rocks. And to our voice-over artist, Rachel Griesinger, thanks so much, and join us next week.


Continue learning with this Ellevate Playbook: