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The Interview: Nichole Dunn

The last time I interviewed someone at Pistacia Vera, it was Andrea Cambern for the 2012 Interview issue. This time around, I sat in the cozy German Village confection shop with Nichole Dunn, President and CEO of the The Women’s Fund of Central Ohio. Both amazing, vibrant women who add so much to the Columbus community landscape. With one big difference, though: One is well known, the other, not so much. Hopefully, this feature will change that.

Cambern was a hothouse flower in Columbus—her love for the city and supporting its myriad causes was out on Technicolor display. Dunn, on the other hand, is more the behind-the-scenes mover and shaker. The gardener, of a sort. Through her work at the Women’s Fund of Central Ohio, she tills the soil of philanthropy, planting goals and objectives that thrive through the programs of the Women’s Fund of Central Ohio.

The general public knows the Women’s Fund of Central Ohio, founded in 2001, mostly for its annual Keyholder event that has featured speakers such as Whoopi Goldberg, Diane Keaton, America Ferrera, and Melissa Etheridge. This year’s gathering, “Changing the Game” May 4, will host Billie Jean King and Lisa Ling. And while this past election cycle has proven the need for women’s issues front and center, it is not everyone who believes such an organization should exist. Which is where we begin.

“Why do we need the Women’s Fund? Does it continue to perpetuate that there is something “less than” about women?” Dunn asks rhetorically, before answering her own question. It’s clear that she’s been faced with such a query often enough that she jumps right into it, instinctively.

“Everything we’re doing at the Women’s Fund now is grounded in research—we want to get to what we refer to as the ‘fifth why?’  We want there to be equality, yes, but why does it matter? Because we recognize that women are two-thirds of minimum wage workers, and yet when we want to address poverty in the community, we’re not looking at an opportunity for solution if we are not looking at this data. When we recognize that more than half of the five-year-old girls entering kindergarten in Ohio are living in poverty…that’s not okay. When self-esteem is falling at age eight for our girls, they are not going to survive and thrive. When we’ve got eighth grade girls being told it’s okay that you’re not good in math and being encouraged not to take math in high school, we are predetermining their career track; and when companies say we don’t have gender equity because we don’t have a pool of candidates, it’s that culture of society which has raised these girls with those media messages…the playground message, ‘you throw like a girl,’ to a boy, he immediately thinks that’s a bad thing; ‘I guess being a girl isn’t good enough. I’m supposed to be bigger better stronger faster.’ The girl who’s hearing that message is thinking the same thing, ‘oh, I’m not valued as much as the boy.’”

While marches and issues of choice make the headlines, data and research has the power to create change as well. It was through research that Dunn and the Women’s Fund discovered that the largest gender discrepancy in employment in Ohio was in the legal field. William Nolan, a partner in the prestigious firm of Barnes & Thornburg, took it upon himself to email firms and acknowledge that there was a conversation that needed to be happening. Before finding herself at the Women’s Fund, Dunn was working with addicted teenagers in her home state of Minnesota. Making her way down to Columbus, via a 90-day stop in Winnebago County, Dunn landed here through the all-so-common trope—a job transfer with the idea that it was a temporary destination on the way to returning north.

“It was right after 9/11 and my husband of 90 days was being relocated for his job, so we came here with the intention that after five years we would actively make efforts to get back to Minnesota. Instead, after five years, we had the dog, we were building our little house, and I was pregnant. Now, 15 years after that plan started, we’re still here and we call it home. I have the two kids, and they’re in school and it’s our place. Columbus just kept working for us. It was me acknowledging that my husband grew up in a family that relocated every three-to-five years and I said, ‘I’m not into that—I’d like to put down roots.’ I’m really into community, and the work that I do and believe in requires that to be part of it. Then, he took a part-time job at Anheuser Busch on the weekends as a brewer—he was working for International Paper, he’s a chemical engineer– he did that hobby job on the weekends. At the point in time when we moved into our house, I’m thinking like, okay, this is where we’re going to stay. Then my husband said, what if I make a job change? I thought…what? You’re going to clock in/clock out, be a teamster and you’re not going to have this big career? He said, if you love what you do, one of us should be stable and have a steady income. It’s awesome…it actually works out incredibly well. I took the job at the Women’s Fund 8 ½ years ago and it’s what I’ve loved and been committed to. It works really well when you’re children are small because he was working third shift, which meant I didn’t have to be the frantic mom and change my workday because he was actually home…we made it work. By default of career choice, we made family dynamics balanced and equal.”

As the café gets busy, with mothers and children enjoying a macaron treat, and Nichole’s friends popping by our table to say hello, Nichole talked about how she found her calling at the Women’s Fund, a very different place then where she thought she’d land when she was busy daydreaming about the future as a young woman.

“I thought I was going to be a pediatrician—I’m gonna be a doctor! And then I realized, I’ll marry an engineer instead of suffer through organic chemistry [laughs]. I transferred all that knowledge to pharmacology and pediatrics and then was drawn to the adolescent behavior model and that led to studying chemical dependency and addiction. I had interned at the best sober high school program in the state of Minnesota and [at a job interview] they asked where did I see myself in five years and I said, well, I have ideas about how I would run a school. Three months later, I’m 23-years-old and I am opening my own school program and it was the most magnificent experience of leadership, trust and being able to provide for students the education that met their needs through the public school system. With my background and thinking, it was going to be direct counseling or medicine, and really I was loving the concept of systems and how can we do systems change, stigma addressing. Every student was required to do service learning in the community—with young people, with old people—and they were in the community where others saw them as teenagers that weren’t the bad kids … they’re great, they’re fantastic. If you’re a teenager, you know what the boundaries are, it’s your job to test them, it’s your job to ask questions, it’s your job to know what do you think or care about versus being told what it’s supposed to be, finding your voice.”

Upon arriving in Columbus, Dunn worked for a spell on social cause marketing for the United Way, overseeing a project go from local to statewide. After that success, she found herself wondering about her next step. And putting into motion the idea of “women helping women,” she did just that.

“I met Cindy Lazarus and she had just taken the position at the YWCA and she was a mentor of mine, as was Dr. Theresa Long at Columbus Public Health, and I had an opportunity to do what I went to school for: public health education. Makes sense, it’s stable… or really I can do everything I love—coalition building, community development, campaign messaging for a populace that I represent—women. I had just had my daughter, so I went to the YWCA and I was there for about two years and than got the call for the Women’s Fund and realized that’s where I needed to go—that was my calling. I liked the social change framework. I needed to be out of direct service and into the bigger message that has a larger platform, where you mobilize the community around something that can become sustainable.”

At the Women’s Fund, Dunn helps people find their niche in the world of women’s issues: A veritable tour guide through the needs of Central Ohio women and girls.

“We refer to the Women’s Fund as “philanthropy a la carte.” We get to be the concierge for the individual to say what matters to you because you matter. That’s my anecdote, it’s not in our brand anywhere, but to be able to say to the individual, you matter so for me to be able to reciprocate that same question back to you, why do women and girls matter? You get to define it. Is it about advocacy? Is it that you want equal rights? So, what do we have to do to engage you in a Statehouse day? Or is it ‘I’ve always cared about these issues, but I don’t know what it is about it and I just want to be around other individuals that think maybe a little differently than me, have different life experiences but are like-minded in values?’ It’s when people can walk away inspired, compelled to make change, to know that they can make a difference wherever they are, at work, or their place of faith, or in their neighborhoods—that’s what they get with the Women’s Fund. It’s not a sign up from nine to noon every Saturday and volunteer and then you walk away—you can take the belief of gender equality anywhere throughout your day.”

Putting her beliefs front and center in her life, Dunn’s advocacy through her work benefits not only the women and girls of our community, but benefits us all as a whole and strengthens not just the foundation of our city, but its hearts and minds as well. For more information on the Women’s Fund, visit womensfundofcentralohio.org.

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