Conversations on COVID-19: Interview with Nancy Mansfield

StartingUpGood
StartingUpGood Magazine
4 min readJun 2, 2020

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Written by Connette Blake and Deborah Ryan

StartingUpGood recently spoke to Nancy Mansfield, the Director of WomenLead and a Professor of Legal Studies at the J. Mack Robinson College of Business at Georgia State University (GSU).

Nancy helped to found WomenLead in 2015. Its mission is to empower female students to aspire to and achieve leadership roles — one of Nancy’s passions that she’s been committed throughout her successful career.

A program of Georgia State University, WomenLead is shared across the course sections of Business, Science, Policy & Politics and Entrepreneurship & Innovation. The curriculum supports the program’s vision as a national model of excellence for accelerating women’s leadership and success by providing signature course sections, experiential learning, and growth opportunities at pivotal junctures in the student life cycle.

The program was created after an angel investor stepped forward with seed funding. Nancy worked with a colleague to design a program that equips female students with the skills, experience, and networking opportunities needed to get a seat at the table among leaders in all industry sectors.

WomenLead is a small and growing program with a big impact. Over the past five years WomenLead has educated 840 students which represent eight colleges and 66 majors. A key component to WomenLead is the involvement of community leaders. To date, 550 have participated with the students through power networking sessions, one-on-one mentoring, keynote speeches, panel discussions and corporate visits.

We spoke to Nancy about the impact of COVID-19 on the program and what the future looks like not only for the WomenLead program, but also higher education and women entrepreneurship.

Immediate Response: Taking Care of Students

“The first seven weeks of our highly experiential program had already been completed before COVID-19 hit,” Nancy shared. The program was able to quickly switch to virtual, but huge hurdles now existed for participants.

Beyond dealing with the issues of online connectivity and platform access, many students faced the bigger challenges of secure housing and job loss. 85% of the students in the program have one or even two jobs, mostly in the retail and restaurant industries. Many of these jobs had disappeared in a flash. With dorms and dining halls closed, these jobs were even more necessary for meeting basic needs.

Nancy’s first step was to virtually connect with her students. “I was able to connect with all the women in my section. I wanted to see how they were doing.” Through these personal interactions, she ensured that participants could meet their basic needs to continue their learning.

The semester finished with students meeting for virtual discussions, face-timing and building relationships. Unfortunately, of the graduating seniors in WomenLead, more than a few who had been offered jobs and internships have now lost them as a result of COVID-19.

During this time, GSU pivoted its fundraising to focus on emergency assistance for all of its students, 60% of whom receive needs-based financial aid through federal Pell Grants. The university also anticipates receiving as much as $22 million from the federal government to continue to provide student support. However, fundraising going forward is a concern for all educational institutions, including GSU.

Recovery: Addressing Longer-Term Needs

Nancy shared that many of the topics that WomenLead focused on this semester — including food insecurity and voting impediments — are things that have been magnified as issues that must be addressed as society moves forward after COVID-19. 40% of college students in the US suffer from food insecurity so this was an issue before the pandemic struck. We have seen how food banks across the nation have been stretched to provide for hundreds of thousands of new clients as a result of job reductions and losses.

WomenLead also focused on topics that can be seen as answers to problems as we emerge from COVID-19, including building empathy through design thinking workshops and women’s entrepreneurship. Nancy noted the “importance of entrepreneurs in coming up with solutions to COVID-19 realities — not just in health but also food security.”

Startups can help to fill in the gaps and address these community-based issues. “The startup ecosystem will make a big difference — that’s where the new ideas will be. That’s where the innovation occurs more so than in big corporations. The start-ups know how to nurture and support — it’s easier to fail and then retool.”

Future Planning: The Importance of Investing in Women Leadership

Planning for the future during these times is a challenge. Investing the time and resources into developing a go-forward strategy can seem impossible when there are so many unknowns. “There’s just so much uncertainty right now. We’re all in this together, but we’re all in different ships.” Even with this uncertainty, Nancy still believes “any investment in education is worth it.”

But how do you convince the world that now is the time to invest in women? Especially when COVID-19 has highlighted and exacerbated so many pressing needs locally and globally.

WomenLead has an endowed chair and two endowed professorships, eight endowed scholarships and has been the recipient of generous gifts from alumni and friends and significant foundation funding to run the program. Even with these resources and the program’s record of success, future funding is not guaranteed.

While no one has all the answers, Nancy is surely a great spokesperson for making the case that young women leaders are key to creating the solutions. And WomenLead should continue to play a key role in empowering students to be leaders in their community by educating them about the important issues of our time and their ability to change the world.

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StartingUpGood
StartingUpGood Magazine

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