Early in her career, Megan Brown-Saldana M.A.’17, was encouraged by a mentor to have confidence in who she was and what she brought to the table. “Who you are is great and you have the skills and abilities to learn and figure out what you need to be successful,” her mentor told her.
Now, the Online Campus graduate is helping other women realize the same in her work as the Executive Director of Lead(h)er in Davenport, Iowa, a non-profit mentorship organization. Lead(h)er supports women in the Quad Cities through direct and personalized mentorship, personal and professional development, and networking events.
After graduating from Western University and completing a year with AmeriCorps, working with the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, Brown-Saldana spent six years working with high school students on career and college readiness. She worked with the students on interview skills and resume writing. In that time, she dreamed of going back to school herself, as she wanted to build her skills to become an executive director of a nonprofit organization.
“It was really important for me to not just go back to school, I really needed the experience, and I really needed to focus my work from an equitable lens.” Brown-Saldana said. “Had I not been taught in that way, I’m not sure I would be as successful as I am in my position now, because everything I do is laced with equitable best practices.”
After completing a Master of Arts degree in nonprofit management from Adler University in 2016, she was unsure if she could compete with other executive directors that have years of experience ahead of her. She applied for Lead(h)er and was matched in their mentorship program where she worked with her mentor on her confidence. “She taught me that if you are always going to look at what’s next, there is never going to be a what’s next,” Brown-Saldana said. “Stop holding your own self back because you have done everything you need to be successful.”
In January 2020, Brown-Saldana was hired as the Executive Director of Lead(h)er. The organization was started in 2016 and has since matched 850 women with personalized mentors based on similarities, and sometimes differences, based on what the mentee needs. Brown-Saldana says that women self-report coming to Lead(h)er for three reasons: access to personal and professional development, including trainings like LGBTQ Safe Space training; volunteerism and networking, and economic benefits, such as a pay raise or a new job.
“Networking and connection are so important, I call them the magic of mentorship,” Brown-Saldana said. “You get in a room with 30 women who are so focused on what they can gain from everybody else in a room, it’s like electricity. The room buzzes and it’s amazing!”
One of Brown-Saldana’s most important tasks of her job as Executive Director is helping bring equity to the table. One of social issues they are looking to solve in their community is the wage gap and inequity in the workplace for women.
“We talk a lot about how we no longer should be living off of ‘treat others like I want to be treated.’ That is outdated. We are treating others as they want to be treated,” Brown-Saldana said. “How another group, how another individual wants to be treated could be totally different than how I want to be treated. I shouldn’t speak on behalf of those groups, and so bringing those voices forward and allowing it to lead our strategic initiatives, because I am someone who has been privileged.”
Lead(h)er’s commitment to addressing inequity means looking at the organization itself. In her time at Lead(h)er their Board of Directors grew by four seats, all women and three of whom who had gone through the program. Additionally, Brown-Saldana is committed to reducing another barrier by working to match women as much as she can, so the applicants are not on a long waitlist.
“As an agent of change, it is my job to have the hard conversations. It is my job to make sure we are moving forward in a strategic way,” Brown-Saldana said. “It’s not about taking away from anyone else; it’s about uplifting everyone else to the same level. We are a nation that stands for justice, and we do not provide it to all citizens.”
In addition to her work at Lead(h)er, Brown-Saldana works within her community by registering people to vote, getting involved in her local Black Lives Matter movement, conducting trauma informed care training, and continuing her work in the classroom of offering career and college readiness to youth.
Brown-Saldana shares that her leadership style must come from a place of vulnerability. She often shares her own struggles with mental health to women in the organization to lead by example. “No success story goes from A to B in a straight line. It is very much peaks and valleys, and then a volcano, a tornado, and unexpected stuff,” Brown-Saldana said.
She credits her success not only on her experience of working with students and mentees, but also from her experience at Adler University. “I was molded into a community leader and Adler University was a part of that,” she said.