Kaatscast: the Catskills Podcast
March 15, 2022

Working for Women

Working for Women

Working for Women is a Catskills-based organization working nationwide to connect business dollars and resources with non-profits advocating for women in the workforce and toward financial independence. We sat down with Catskills native Beth Bengtson, CEO and founder of Working for Women, for a discussion on the challenges her organization is addressing, why focusing on women improves everyone's work lives, plus Beth's preference for active outdoor meetings. This episode was co-hosted by Ulster County legislator Megan Sperry and recorded at SUNY New Paltz's Sojourner Truth Library. 

Producer and host: Brett Barry
Audio engineer: Jared Lyman

Sponsors: The Mountain Eagle and the Central Catskills Chamber of Commerce

Kaatscast was named one of the Best 25 New York Podcasts in 2022

--- Support this podcast: https://anchor.fm/kaatscast/support


If we start addressing the needs of women working in the workforce, it will improve everybody's workforce experience because it is not just women. March is Women's History Month, and Beth Bengtson founded Working For Women; a Kingston based organization facilitating partnerships nationwide between businesses, committed to effecting social change, and nonprofits focused on supporting women in the workforce. Beth joined me and co-host Megan Sperry for a conversation at SUNY New Paltz's Sojourner Truth Library. Beth Bengtson is the CEO and founder of Working For Women. She's also the board president of the Wallkill Valley Land Trust conservation organization preserving open space, farms, and trails in Ulster County. Welcome Beth. Thank you for having me. Also with us is Megan Sperry; Ulster County legislator, documentarian and assistant professor of Digital Media Production at SUNY New Paltz. She's also a good friend and co-host of today's podcast. Welcome, Megan. Hey, thanks for having me. Before we get into Working For Women, Beth, you're a Catskills native. Hmmhmm. What is it that drew you back here to work and raise a family? Being a Catskills native and someone that grew up in the area, I actually went Onteora High School and graduated, my goal was to get as far away from here as possible, and I did probably for the first 10 years post high school where I went and lived in Europe and spent time down in New York City. And what I found during that time, was that I started finding ways to come up here on the weekends, and come up to the Hudson Valley. My parents were still up here, and I would find many excuses to come up, and then I hit a point probably when I was close to 30, that I thought, 'Well, is there a way to reverse this?' Because I realized I was spending every weekend coming out in New York City to come up here to get all the benefits of being up here, and then I understood why my parents - because we're now going through this whole cycle of people, you know, relocating out of New York City in Brooklyn - I realized why my parents had come up here from from that standpoint, so. It's a pretty common story, right? A lot of us have left, come back, or known this area as a vacation place and then made it a full time home, especially recently. Yes, I was I was kind of part of that early part of the trend. And interesting, my husband to some extent, the same thing. We both have found ways of being here well before it became commonplace, but learning our income elsewhere, but living here locally. Working for Women is a national organization, but it's based in Kingston. Hmmhmm. In a nutshell, can you explain the purpose of the organization and what motivated you to found it? So Working For Women is based out of I like to say the upper Hudson Valley, but I'm based out of Kingston just primarily because that's where I am located at this point. It is a virtual organization; our board is across the United States, and our work is across the United States. But again, it comes back to this as a great place to live and what better place to then be able to in this world where we can kind of house our business wherever we want to, why not have it here along those lines? And Working For Women, as you introduced in the beginning, is an organization that invests business resources. So we take dollars and skills of our business members and aggregate them and apply them to nonprofits across the US that are working to help women in turn stay in the workforce. Our goal is to fund, and what we do is we fund capacity building projects. And that can be one of two ways. One, in some cases, it's actually providing skill based workshops that enhance the women's skills at the nonprofit's that we're working at. An example of that can be negotiation skills, financial skills. The other side of it is actually to take the resources of our business partners, and we work with the nonprofits to identify organizational projects like marketing, communication plans, other strategic type projects that they normally don't have the access to those business skills, and help them with those projects that help expand that organization, and they're ideally their donor base. Right? So again, our goal is to get more resources to these organizations. What are some of the obstacles that women in particular contend with in the workforce? As a non woman, I'm interested to know. Maybe both can answer that. You know, and I'd love to hear other perspectives on this. But I think it's fascinating to me, because we've come into this time of COVID where there's such a highlight on all of these issues. It was like the world society woke up and was like, 'Oh, we have to deal with childcare. We have to have all these things in place to help women working because it's so complicated.' And the truthfully, you know, the the organizations that are working to help women across the US all kind of said, 'Well, nothing's really dramatically changed. All of these problems were already there.' It's just that society has more of an awareness and understanding of the some of those barriers. And truthfully, if we solve some of those paid leave and childcare issues, it's not a women's issue. I think that's the other thing that gets lost in this. It's a gender issue, right, because we have other genders that are staying home, and actually cared taking. So we solve for some of these things that have been holding women back in the workforce at all levels. We're actually helping our society across the board, because that's for anybody that's staying home and taking on those duties and having to manage those duties while trying to work full time. So what were some difficult moments and growing the organization, and can you just talk a little bit about some hurdles along the way? You mean, putting a new model out there that doesn't exist at all into the world? I think that's a daily challenge along those lines. I think, you know, in my career, I've always tended to be a little bit ahead of the time and space. And truthfully, COVID, and the awareness of the plight of women in the US, has done nothing but make us be a good organization at the right time, right. Everybody's kind of said to me, as we were COVID was happening. And here I am launching an organization to help businesses do corporate citizenship or corporate social responsibility better at a time that we're facing all sorts of economic upheaval. And I recount to people that back in 2007, I held the the job of corporate social responsibility for a marketing agency. I was the VP, best title of my career of positive impact, and then we went into a recession, the great recession a year later, and that position was no longer sustainable, because this wasn't baked into how businesses operate. And so the biggest shift I've seen in this time is I we're still around, right. And if anything, we're getting stronger, because there's a real call to action about business and what its role is, and what its responsibility is in society. It's challenging, because I think businesses still see kind of that role as a checkbox, like we had a volunteer day. So we're good. Our employees went off and volunteered or we wrote a check this year. And truthfully, I'm challenging that. I'm saying, 'Well, what is the impact?' Those dollars and those skills, they're important resources, and how are they being best invested. And my background is all business for profit business, and what I always want to know is what's my return on my investment. So in a way, Working For Women is really around to help businesses really understand what their return is on their charitable investment. You're a nonprofit that orchestrates connections between other nonprofits that I guess you have vetted, and businesses. How does that whole process work? So let me be clear, we're only a nonprofit because it's a way of moving resources. So the other big learning I've had since coming into the space and kind of moving out of the business side is that business sits over top of these organizations. And really, we have to look at for profit and nonprofit as just different legal entities in ways to be able to facilitate your business. So I really think we're more of a social enterprise if I really had to couch it. But I need the nonprofit status in order to move the resources and be able to give businesses that tax deduction. But we really sit as a service between the business community and the nonprofit community. Can you give an example of how that works, or what types of services or resources those nonprofits are providing? I used to talk about each nonprofit and who they were working with along those lines. And what I've realized is that across all the nonprofits that we're working with, they do three core things. Their three core efforts are, One; around connecting women to jobs, Two; advancing those women's skill sets, providing kind of those growth and learning opportunities for them to further develop their skills for the workforce, and then the third area, which is really powerful, is providing that community of support where these women get to come together with other people with shared experiences and support each other on their journey to kind of gaining economic independence is where really what our end goal is, right? Because through economic independence or financial independence, whichever word you want to use, that enables people to have choice. I'm interested in knowing like which industry sectors are doing the most work in this area, and which which industry sectors, you know, there's room for growth, and the businesses that you're working with that are making the contributions to help support the nonprofits. Is there any trend; is it like tech companies, or is it just people that are into the social movement of what what you're trying to do? Our membership in Working For Women right now is very varied. So we have large cap corporations, and we have solo entrepreneurs, because Working For Women really was primarily built to aggregate and be the corporate social responsibility or the corporate citizenship arm for whatever size business you are, with more of a focus on small and medium sized businesses to be quite frank. Not that there's not room for the fortune 500 and in supporting them, and we do, but they have the ability to fund their own CSR professionals. You know, when you're a smaller business, and you're looking at where am I going to write a check, or where can I go invest and do things, it's very hard to figure that out, and I lived that firsthand in my last business. It took me away from growing the business, to figure out how to do our community involvement. But our community involvement was really important to the business because it really tied the employees to feeling like not only were they using their skill set on the client projects, which is really important to growing, but that they're able to take that same skill set out in the community. And truthfully, it is one of the best experiential growth opportunities for an employee, and I think we've lost that people always think, 'Oh, well, we're going to go off and volunteer over here.' Well, that volunteer experience actually is a great way to enhance your skills and apply them to different problems on those lines. In terms of industries, we've had consumer product companies, I've got a global consulting firm, I have financial services people. I would say, we probably been heavier on more service providers coming in. Our core pieces; you have to care about women, you have to want to invest in women as a company, and then it lines up values wise, and I think that can be with any, any company along those lines. And from those companies, you're encouraging either financial contributions or some type of volunteerism? So the larger companies tend to be more interested in employee engagement, so that's where I talk about kind of service. We actually curate those experiences, to make sure that when those employees aren't volunteering, they're actually working on projects that are helping that nonprofit grow its capacity. When I saw when we were building the business model for Working For Women, we went out and we talked to businesses, and we said, 'Okay, so you're giving back. How does that look?' And I heard again, and again, they were doing some great pro bono work, but they weren't really sure what happened with it at the nonprofit and whether it was really having an impact on the other side. And we sat with the nonprofit leaders and said, 'Well, great, you've got these companies that come in,' and they said, 'Yeah, they all want to come in and volunteer, that's great. But we are always getting pulled away from our mission, trying to create programs so that they can participate in the way that they want to participate. But it doesn't always translate into things that actually help us with our mission.' And to me, that says the model is broken, right, of what is going on out there between the business community, and the nonprofits and volunteering to some extent, but you have to have the time. And so if you're not working with an organization like ours, you're then taking staff time to really sit there and curate that experience, to be able to sit and listen to that nonprofit leader hear where their pain points are, what are they holding back from in terms of developing their programming, and you have to be able to sit with that business and then pull the right resources in that's going to help support that. So we talk about it as being a mutually beneficial experience for both the business and the nonprofit partners, and our testimonials show that these are things that actually really did help move the needle on the other side. Does that answer your question? Yes. How is Working For Women funded? Is it a portion of the greater financial contributions that the business are making toward the other nonprofits? Yeah, member contributions come into Working For Women. Part of that goes to fund the skill base volunteering and help us with the administrative curation of that process, and the other part goes into the invest for women fund. Because the other piece that we heard from nonprofits was, sometimes I just need access to the right business resources. A well run nonprofit is a well run business, and a lot of times you have a lot of people with a lot of passion. But they don't always have the access to all those things that we have in the business world, right, and they could use the access of those types of skills. Marketing Communications is probably one of the biggest gap areas that we've found, that those organizations need in order to tell their story. And everybody kind of goes, 'Well, should we be spending money on marketing, comms and kind of, you know, should we be investing in there?' But if you're not, how is anybody hearing the stories of the impact and what your organization's doing, and that's a hard place to then be your behind the ball in terms of fundraising. Can you give an example case study of how a particular business came in, helped a nonprofit, and how that in turn helped women in the workplace? One of our first projects was between our founding partners, the US, and an organization in New York City called New Women, New Yorkers that focus on helping immigrant women in the United States apply their skills to the US job market. And we sat with the ED there and said, in terms of your programming content, actually, you know, that you have for the women, what is one of the topic areas that you're unable to cover, and we identified a negotiation skills workshop. We did that the first time in January 2019. We now do it biannually every year for that organization. Not only that, and this is the piece that I want people understand about the Working For Women model, it's not a one and done right. So a lot of times business, going in there and doing volunteers like we'll go in, we'll do one project and we kind of went away, we made a commitment to the nonprofit partners also that we were there to build a relationship with them, right, We were going to be there to help them grow, and making that investment in them. So think about that, that negotiation workshop didn't just happen once. I've also taken it to a two other organizations now. We will probably take it to a third organization this year, you know, different nonprofit, because once you find out one nonprofit in the space needs it, they all could utilize. So now you think about that business's investment. They invested with us in building that first workshop, we've now been able to take it out across multiple organizations and involve multiple different groups of people in the company. And I will tell you, every one of those workshops, the employees benefit, just as much from the conversation, as the women that were we're bringing it out there too. So it's a win-win-win. In this case, it's a win for the women, it's a win for the nonprofits, they're expanding their programming, and it's a win for the businesses, because their employees not only are engaged, but they're also enhancing their skill sets. That's great. Just wondering if you could talk a little bit about how companies are evolving to support the single mom or the working family. From a company standpoint, what I can say is there's a lot of work to be done, and I think there's more of a focus on that now. In terms of what is required in that, I think there is still a big gap in understanding that, and what I have had in the last year when COVID hit, we had a lot of recruiting firms come to Working For Women and say, 'Hey, can you help us?' Because now all of these large businesses want to change their DEI numbers, and they want to recruit from a different population. The only thing I can say to you on those lines is it's not easy either, because those large corporations in their hiring practices are set up to exclude certain populations on the basis and I know we're at New Paltz. But in some of those entry level jobs, having the requirement of a four year degree, excludes a lot of the people that you were just talking about there of getting that first entry point in the hallway. So you can say, 'Yeah, we compare you with a nonprofit partner, and we can bring more women in,' but if your internal policies and procedures and how you are set up as a company, aren't there to welcome them and support them in that, it's not a good match. So we would say to those organizations and those recruiting firms, like we've got work to do, to start changing some things to pave the way along those lines. There's a lot more awareness now and a lot of people are starting to question a lot of those things from an entry level standpoint and what they can do and put in place to support because you can't get to a more diverse population if you don't have the policies and the support structure in place to support those populations. After the break what it means to be a business with purpose, Beth's preference for active outdoor meetings, and a famous woman inspiration for both Beth and Megan. This episode is sponsored by the Central Catskills Chamber of Commerce; providing services to businesses, community organizations and local governments in the central Catskills region. Follow the Central Catskills Chamber of Commerce on Facebook. You can sign up as a business member and subscribe to a weekly email of local events at centralcatskills.org. Kaatscast is also supported by the Mountain Eagle with several publications in one newspaper, including the Mountain Eagle, the Schoharie News, the Windham Weekly, the Catskills Chronicle, and the Cobleskill Herald. For more information call 518-763-6854 or email mountaineaglenews@gmail.com. Can you talk about business's embracing purpose, and what that means in a more general sense? So, sorry, I have to laugh at this, because when I started when I was talking about that, like back in 2007, before that, everybody was focused on green marketing, right? Everything was about environment, and we had in the marketing world terms like earth friendly, environmentally friendly, and there is no product that is any of those things, right, and everybody came out there with, 'Oh, every company's greenwashing, right, they're just putting up these statements,' and now I see every company talking about purpose. One; I don't think anybody really knows what purpose is or what that means, right? So it's a term that's out there, that kind of has a different definition, depending on who's kind of utilizing it. Two; now there's a lot of accusations of companies purpose washing. So it just feels like we've gone from the environmental side of it, to the social side of it, and we're still having the same things. Because fundamentally, business has to change how they're operating. And we have to rethink business's role in society. And I'm encouraged on that, because before COVID, I think it was in August of 2019, the Business Roundtable came out and redefine the purpose of a corporation; it was the first time and, remember, my background is all business training, and I was taught the Milton Friedman world that we have 50 years of business leaders being taught that the purpose of a business and a corporation is to maximize shareholder profit, right? That does not allow that opportunity to talk about business's role in society and how they should be helping support society. Now we have a definition of a corporation that is about supporting all stakeholders, right? The communities in which they work, the employees, and maximizing that shareholder profit is the last piece in that list of the stakeholders that business needs to be considerate of. That said, we have 50 years of operating business one way. It's going to take time to redefine that, right? And that's why I think organizations like mine, are needed and need to exist, because nobody really knows how to do purpose. How do you bring values in? How do you walk those values? What does it look like to contribute back to your community? What does it mean to be an environmentally responsible organization? So I'm optimistic, but it's also been a long road. We've had topics like environmental, social, and governance and ESG has been around for over 20 years of trying to do that. You're just starting to see it come into mainstream financial institutions and their analysis of companies. So I think we're at the beginning of kind of redefining this and figuring out what it means to be a good business. For, you know, many, many years, women had to choose between having a family and having a career, and there's always been this kind of saying you can't have it all. But can women have it all? That's a loaded question. You know, I am the generation that grew up that was told you could have it all, and I have watched my peers struggle exactly with that question. And it goes back to a question you asked me in the beginning; like, what do we need to do? You know, when I started my career, it was you need to have childcare, you need to have paid leave, you need to have all these things. They're still all the same challenges for women to quote unquote, have it all. And I don't know that you can have it all. I think we are redefining roles and responsibilities in, I'll say marriages, but in partnerships. I think it has to be a redistribution of work in terms of looking at it. But I also think we have to have systems in place. One of the biggest and largest hold back for women in the workforce is good quality childcare. If you're making enough money, you can afford it. But look at how many women start looking at how much they're paying for childcare, and then decide to opt out of the workforce. And now I think you have more, you know, they've shown women have more advanced degrees than men do at this point coming out of college. Again, I'll say it's not a woman's issue. It's families taking a look at and figuring out who's going to step back, right. Why are we still in a time where we are taking look at people raising kids and deciding who's going to step back on their journey, then helping figure out how do we put the support structures in place to allow both those parties to thrive? The other piece that I'm optimist about with this place, with COVID, and as I watch some of our partners tried to figure out how to bring people back into the workforce, is I don't think we're going to lose this flexibility piece in the in the end. We've had two years of people having to change behavior; there's no reason to have to go back to we have to be nine to five sitting in the office five days a week. But that working environment isn't just for women. It's for everybody that's involved in parenting and raising families. And as you said, maybe in, you know, the literature for your organization, that investing in women isn't just an ethical imperative, it's also smart business, and that that also probably goes for a lot of other things in terms of flexibility and inclusion. If we start addressing the needs of women working in the workforce, it will improve everybody's workforce experience, because it is not just women that need access to these things, and it allows families to have more of that flexible discussion and allow for shared duties and raising families in our communities. Where do you find your inspiration? What inspires you going for a ride on the on the bike trail? So I have learned and I've fallen off my journey every now and then. But I will say over the last couple years, there are three things that I hold core to keeping myself going on a daily basis. One is journaling, morning meditation, and you'll find more and more business leaders talking about that, and exercise and access to nature. Nature has always been critical to my mental health and to my finding inspiration. We don't ever solve the problem sitting at our computer screen going from ZOOM meeting to ZOOM meeting. Every organization that I have led and run, I have found my answers outside of my daily work of being on something like the rail trail, or going for a hike, or doing walking meetings. I'm a big fan of 'get out of the office, and let's go have a discussion outside someplace.' That's what keeps me going; and when on those days that are harder, that's where I go and and find the solace and take that time to kind of recharge. Which circles back to having established this business in Kingston and living in the Catskills and being able to take advantage of that nice balance of the outdoors and doing what you want to do from the location you want to do it. Yeah. What's the future look like? For Working For Women itself or for society overall? Both. So Working For Women, I, you know, I've always believed, I'd love to always build things that just are no longer needed. So to me, the greatest success would be not needing an organization like Working For Women to bridge the gap and that these nonprofits, or maybe these nonprofits weren't even needed anymore to help more women enter and stay in the workforce across the US, except when I look at the dollars and what's going there, we have a long way of going of changing that. From a societal standpoint, that any woman who wants to work at any level has the opportunity to do that, but not just to work but to be able to build wealth, and I say that because my other big learning in the last couple years of coming into this space was we started Working For Women, and it was about workforce and investing in the workforce and helping more women be able to enter. That is one component of and the other piece that come through very strongly for me is we have to be able to provide those women with the financial skills and knowledge. It's one thing getting into a job, it's another thing to know then how to generate wealth, and my definition of wealth has been redefined in the last couple years, because I think we all think wealth is being able to do extravagant things and have all the money that we need to do. Wealth comes down to four levers that I've seen; it's one access to financial knowledge, knowing how to budget, it's being able to have savings, it's be able to generate and have a credit score, and have access to retirement. You saw women get hit so hard during COVID and still recovering from it, and it's not just the women that were in companies that left their jobs. It's the people that were in these lower end jobs. If you're living paycheck to paycheck, and you haven't been able to generate any of those levers that I talked about, you have nothing to fall back on during that time. So when we talk about economic independence, it's not just an access to job to me, it's be able to help these women actually be able to start putting those levers in place so that they have the ability to have choice they have something to fall back on. Your organization is national and just happens to be based here in the region. But are there any suggestions for local businesses? In Ulster County, there is the Raising Hope program that is out of the United Way, which is about mentoring women; and truthfully at the core of it was I've gotten to be a mentor in the program and have been involved with them over a number of years. It's really about pairing women with another woman who believes in them. You know, how do you find the inspiration? How do you keep yourself going while who's that person that unconditionally believes in you and is that supportive place? And that's what the Raising Hope program does. They are currently looking for women. They have a reverse problem right now. They have a lot of mentors, we've done a great job of raising awareness and getting more people involved in it, they need to bring more women in the community, and then I know they're out there, it's getting the access to them. And then the other program is out of Ulster County Community College called New Start For Women; and what they do is they work to help women in our community get access to business certification. They put them into jobs in particular areas that they want to go. So it could be banking, it could be food service, different industries, and get them into an internship with the idea of getting them the training and the support that they need to enter and stay in the workforce. You know, really, in both of those programs, these women just haven't had somebody believe in them, or take the time to invest in them, and that's what I've seen again and again, across the US when we get in there, and we do direct programming with the clients of these organizations. It is mind boggling, because these women are not used to anybody saying, 'Hey, I'm here for you today. I'm here to invest in you,' and especially not having business people come in and say, 'Hey, I'm taking my time to actually invest in you today,' and you see them sit taller, and then you get to hear the stories on the other side of what happens when you invest in a woman, and it's mind boggling. The research has shown but I've heard the stories firsthand; when you make that investment in that woman they turn around not only invest in their families, they invest back and become community leaders, and every one of the nonprofits we work with has women that have that story, and that, you know, at the end of the day is good for our society. I have one more question. It is Women's History Month. So a question for both of you, if you could name a woman from history that has been an inspiration to you. Eleanor Roosevelt; not just because we're in the area and we're not that far from Vallkill and all, but when you look at what she was doing, and the advancements and the things that she was fighting for, and trying to move ahead. But you know, from the human rights agenda, they're all things that we're still trying to put in place for women. She was so far ahead of her time; in that time of looking at equity and making sure that all these conversations about diversity that we we're paving the way more for that. So that's the place that I always kind of go for inspiration. I would, a little side note, I always have a monthly meeting normally with another female CEO and we go do walking, walk around Vallkill is kind of our place of going back to that nature and getting inspiration. Nice to have that in our backyard. So funny because one of my major inspirations is also Eleanor Roosevelt, and when I was running for Ulster County legislator, I actually got endorsed by Eleanor's Legacy, which is a tribute and an honor to her. But one of my favorite quotes by her is 'Nothing has ever been achieved by the person who says it can't be done,' and that is totally my mantra. So, so happy we share that. Thank you, Megan. Thank you Beth. Appreciate it. Thank you. Thanks, Brett. For more on Beth Bengtson and Working For Women, head over to workingforwomen.org. Megan Sperry is at meghansperry.com. Audio engineer Jared Lyman. Kaatscast is a production of Silver Hollow Audio. Please be sure to subscribe for free and automatic delivery every two weeks and give us a rating while you're at it so other listeners can find us. If you'd like to contribute, just click Support at kaatscast.com. Until next time, I'm Brett Berry. Thanks for listening, and we'll see you again in two weeks. 

Transcribed by https://otter.ai / JL