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Illana Raia

Illana Raia

Introduce yourself to our audience. Tell us who you are and what you are currently focused on.

My name is Illana Raia and I am a lawyer and the founder of Être - a free mentorship platform for middle school girls. Throughout my career I had tremendous female mentors, from professors at Smith College and The University of Chicago Law School to legends at the law firm Skadden Arps. Add to these the accomplished women I have met over the years through world-class communities like Ellevate, and I feel doubly blessed. I'm focused on paying that mentorship luck forward.

My goal in founding Être in 2016 was to provide curated resources and role models to girls approaching high school. Être means "To Be," and my idea was to help girls figure out - at an early and important age - who they wanted to be. Three years later, Être has expanded from a small resource site into an experience-driven platform: We bring girls, ten at a time, into companies (think Spotify, Google, YouTube, NYSE, Morgan Stanley, Viacom, Goldman Sachs...) to meet female leaders face to face. The impact so far is unmistakable: girls with varying backgrounds and interests ask unvarnished questions to rockstars who remember exactly what it feels like to be in middle school. The anecdotes, candor and hard-core advice offered will last a lifetime. And I am watching a network of extraordinary women mentor today's girls like they were born to do it. Because, we all were.

Tell us about your favorite Ellevate Network memory or success story. Why are you a member?

I became an Ellevate member while still practicing law, and instantly loved the community I found. Then when I launched Être, Ellevate took on a whole new meaning. The smart, accomplished women sharing expertise and encouragement with each other generously offered the same to our girls. Ellevate's inspirational quotes and articles routinely find their way into our after-school clubs for discussion, and Être has proudly covered both #MobilizeWomen Summits for HuffPost and Thrive Global - summarizing topics and panelists' remarks for the younger set. My favorite thing about Ellevate is that they recognize the power of pipelines and the value of shared voices. Whether I sit in a board room or a class room, Ellevate's message resonates.

How would you define your professional mission?

My mission is to encourage girls to think hard about who they want to be, and then to put them squarely in front of luminaries who can help them visualize that future. I don't know yet where Être will lead, but I believe middle school is not too early to talk to girls about big topics and bigger futures. It's exactly the right time.

What is one of your most memorable career accomplishments?

The day our Board of Advisors - which is made up entirely of middle and high school-age girls - reached 50 girls, that was a memorable day. I knew then we had a strong base of engaged girls who wanted to help drive Être's direction and next steps. We now have 70 on the Board, and with every new member we add diversity of thought and experience. Not only does this enrich Être's future - it's good practice for when these girls ultimately assume their Board seats in the workforce!

What project have you worked on that you’re most proud of? Why?

When I was first asked to write for HuffPost, I began breaking down substantive topics of the day - financial confidence, political awareness, equal pay, young entrepreneurship and more - for middle school girls. I wasn't sure middle schoolers were necessarily reading HuffPost, but I figured a savvy mom or cool aunt would pass them on. When I added Thrive Global, Ellevate and Medium as outlets, I decided the articles needed to exist in one place. So, Être is compiling a book! Many of the leaders and girls we've met or interviewed are featured, and it comes out Fall 2019. It's been such a joyous and collaborative process - I'm ridiculously excited.

We’d love to hear more about your career path. What led you to where you are today?

I am an unlikely founder, but I can see the dotted lines when I look back at my career. I was a Mergers & Acquisitions lawyer when I first started at Skadden in 1993, and loved every minute. I stepped out for six years when my children were small, though, and when I wanted to return to work Skadden asked me to build an M&A website that would track pertinent resources and deal data for internal use. I had no tech background, but over the next 10 years and with with significant help from the firm's IT wizards, we build curated knowledge sites for 30 different practice areas and a new department emerged called Knowledge Strategy. I was the first Knowledge Counsel the Firm ever made.

When I retired in 2014, I looked for a way to give back. While working, I had tried to introduce my daughter to as many role models in fascinating fields as I could. Creating Être for other motivated girls seemed a solid next step, and I began to curate resources for a website. When I mentioned it to my husband, he immediately responded "Sure - knowledge strategy for girls." And he was right. Être is a logical - if unexpected - turn on my career path.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

Watching girls' eyes light up when a role model sparks an idea is rewarding. Listening to excited chatter on the bus after a company visit - what struck them as inspiring or surprising - is doubly rewarding. Hearing girls whisper that someday they will be the ones answering the questions is, well...humbling.

What legacy do you hope to leave through your work?

If I can harness the power of girls' mentorship to a network of dynamic, engaged women, and bring it directly to girls from all backgrounds, maybe they will pass it on. Maybe they will mentor the next girl while they make their own mentors proud. It doesn't feel like a legacy I'm leaving, as much as one that was handed to me and I'm simply passing it forward.

Who are your role models?

So many to name - I'll give my Top 3: My grandmother was a lawyer when most women were not - she was one of the only women in the Brooklyn Law class of 1936. My mother has been a role model since she took me to my first protest and taught me to swear - I was four. And my first mentor at Skadden, Nancy Lieberman. She was the youngest partner the firm ever made and a person who, to this day, keeps me fearless.

What is one piece of advice you’d offer working moms?

Your children are watching and it's a reason to be proud. You will have days you feel they have no idea what you do...or maybe even that they resent you doing it. Shake it off. You are showing them what is possible and what passion and work ethic look like up close. You are their first female mentor and that's powerful. No, it's game-changing.

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