Deirdre Joy Smith’s Fight for Gender Equality

Deirdre Joy Smith is the founder and CEO of POWER: Opening Doors for Women®, an organization based in Chicago that aims to promote and develop women leaders by providing opportunities for senior-level leaders and high-potential talent to interact and exchange ideas with thought leaders, industry experts, and peers.  

I found that there were all these dynamic women in the city, so I thought that we could pull together women who are well established in their careers to provide advice on how they did it.

POWER held a single conference in Chicago at the outset. Now in its twelfth year, the organization is on three continents—North America, Europe and Asia. This fall, there will be conferences in Dallas, Detroit, and Shanghai, China. Earlier this year, there was one in London. The Chicago program was in early June.

“I was always running into really talented women who were looking to either change careers or figure out what they should do to move up the ladder,” Smith says of her decision to found POWER. “I found that there were all these dynamic women in the city, so I thought that we could pull together women who are well established in their careers to provide advice on how they did it. It’s important to highlight the success stories. And it’s important for people to know that you’ll have challenges."

The conferences are small, typically ranging from 50 to 100 attendees, so that participants “have a chance to really engage with other participants and speakers.”

Smith is also part of the leadership structure of several other local and national organizations. For example, she is on the board of trustees of WTTW, Chicago’s PBS station and is a board member of the national Thirty Percent Coalition, which aims to increase women’s presence in corporate boardrooms. Its specific goal is for women to hold 30 percent of board seats across public companies.

One of her favorite pursuits outside of work is boxing, a sport she took up around 2000 and has pursued, off and on, ever since. “I went to the Muhammad Ali exhibit in London,” she says. “It was an amazing collection of artifacts and film footage.”

Highlights from a recent conversation with Smith about POWER, politics, leadership, and boxing:

We have a lot more males now who are very much interested and engaged. Achieving gender equality and diversity is a shared responsibility. We find that like-minded men are also passionate about this issue. For most, it's about fairness, they talk about their daughters, and how they would want their daughters to be treated in the workplace.

When women vote, women win. It’s unfortunate that the U.S. has not had a woman president. You look at Germany and other places where women have led the government--we just have not reached that milestone. We need women running for public office--and in the pipeline to positions that will lead to the Oval Office, governorships, the Senate. Find a woman you believe in and support her campaign with your financial support. Women's campaigns are always underfunded.

Leadership may be different for each person. But it involves doing things that are outside of your comfort zone that will allow you to grow, and to be able to motivate and inspire others and allow them to reach their full potential.

Boxing has taught me that you need to be nimble. That’s really important for any type of leader. You’re always amazed at what people’s perspectives add. My mind has been changed so many times, for the positive. A part of it is being open to different ideas and not being stuck in the idea that it has to be done this way. 

As a leader, you always have to have that nimbleness, and be agile and receptive to new ideas. My boxing coach teaches me a new move probably once a week. There are things that I don’t necessarily like and that feel awkward. And that’s part of leadership. You go through awkward times, and you have to fight your way through those times. And be resilient—that’s so important.