Born of two educators, Sharon K. Roberson comes by her desire to learn and educate honestly. As the YWCA Nashville & Middle Tennessee‘s president and chief executive officer, she is acting on her belief that we can lift everyone through education. The YWCA has been servicing Nashville and Middle Tennessee through their programs designed to help women, girls and families by eliminating racism and empowering women. Sharon joined the 119-year-old organization after working as Senior Vice President and General Counsel & Secretary for Direct General Corporation. She assumed her post at the YWCA in November of 2016. We welcome winner of the Academy for Women of Achievement Award, former YWCA board member, graduate of Vanderbilt University and Vanderbilt University Law School, YWCA President and Chief Executive Officer, Sharon K. Roberson.
What distinguishes the YWCA from all other opportunities you have had professionally?
The mission, hands down. The YWCA Nashville & Middle Tennessee is dedicated to eliminating racism, empowering women and promoting peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all. This women- and girls-focused mission is so powerful and necessary. Being a woman, and having been a girl, I do what I can to make things better for these people.
It is important for business people to stay engaged in the community. I always did that — as a volunteer and board member at the YWCA — and it has made the transition into my current position easier.
Briefly explain how the YWCA operates and describe the challenges the organization faces in helping women, girls and families in Nashville and Middle Tennessee.
The YWCA carries out its mission via several core programs and services. These include Girls Inc., MEND, just keep livin, Family Literacy Center, Re-New, Dress for Success and Domestic Violence Services. Each of these programs fits into the buckets of prevention, safety, self-sufficiency and, hopefully, success. We also have a social enterprise in the form of 2616, a resale women’s clothing boutique on Gallatin Pike.
The challenges facing the YWCA are that the needs of the community, especially for domestic violence shelter services, exceed our resources. This is one of the reasons the MEND program was created. The program is designed to engage men in the conversation around violence against women. The goal of the program is to establish a culture that we hope will prevent domestic violence — and all forms of violence — against women.
How is the YWCA working to give women a voice who otherwise don’t have one? In what ways is the organization working to raise awareness and diminish incidents of violence and racism?
Violence and racism are heavy topics. I believe that addressing these two issues is a smart business imperative for the 21st century. Changing attitudes is difficult, but not changing them can have devastating consequences. At the YWCA, we work hard to bring various diverse populations of our city together with the common goal of making this the best city it can be. All of our programs promote this work. We are working to get women out of the cycle of domestic violence.
What are three top priorities you hope to accomplish in your tenure?
I have short-, medium- and long-term goals, each with a vision and a concrete step towards the vision. My short-term vision goal is to promote the mission of the YWCA in its entirety. My short-term real world goal is to have a sustainable trauma-informed children’s program at the shelter. Usually, they come to us hungry, or tired, or sick. We must take care of their human needs before we begin the paperwork.
My medium-term vision goal is to take each of the YWCA programs and tie them strategically to our mission. There is so much need to remain focused with our limited resources. My medium-term real work goal is to have a pet program for pets that belong to victims of domestic violence.
My long-term vision goal is to continue the positive momentum of the YWCA’s MEND program and potentially move this to a national program. My long-term real world goal is to create an endowed giving program for the YWCA. This will hopefully provide long-term sustainability of our programs.
Locally, you have served on the boards of The Nashville Symphony, YMCA, Girl Scouts of Middle Tennessee and the Nashville Chapter of The Links, Incorporated. What about the Nashville community and organizations do you find so attractive?
I have always been passionate about using whatever position I am in to give back to the community. Nashville makes it easy because of all the wonderful charitable organizations that exist. Also, some of the great gifts that Nashville has are the wonderful educational institutions, and these are often overlooked. They allow for diverse people to come together for the good of the community.
Together, as an educated and faith-based community (from Islamic Center to Church of Christ) we can solve the ills of society. In a political climate that is very divisive, there are people who want to come together in a positive movement. The best thing to do is to help those around you. You can always call the YWCA for that. Spending time with our girls is the best medicine you can take. Creating positive change within your community makes society better. Nashville has a rich history of giving, and there is an understanding of the need for strong charitable organizations in the city.
What is an important piece of advice you have been given?
My father told me, learn how to type. I didn’t want to learn because I believed I was going to be greater than that. But now I realize this was one of the single best gifts my father gave me. It was a good lesson for a number of reasons. If you have the opportunity to learn something, take advantage of it.
What advice do you have for young women starting their careers?
Get the best education you can and stay optimistic. Always be willing to take on additional responsibility and have enough confidence in yourself to succeed. And, don’t equate effort with compensation. Not working hard when you are not getting paid as much is a huge mistake. Learn as much as possible to prepare yourself for the more lucrative positions.
Where can we find you when you aren’t working?
Exercising, at the movies, reading or watching sports — usually with my husband of 35 years (in May). Also, I love to travel.
What books are on your bedside table?
My husband was an English major at Columbia, and he has always wanted me to read The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler, so I am finally going to read it after all of these years. I have read the The Good Earth more than I have read any other book. It is timeless. Periodically, I pick it up to read it again. Also, I typically have a David Baldacci handy when I just want to have fun reading.
Excluding friends, family and faith, what are three things you can’t live without?
My ASICS running shoes, Nike running clothes and music
Thank you, Sharon, for taking the time to answer our questions. Click here to learn more about YWCA Nashville & Middle Tennessee and their programs.
And a special thanks to Ashley Hylbert for today’s gorgeous pictures!
Less than a week after graduating from high school, Haley Grizzell underwent heart surgery at TriStar Centennial Heart & Vascular Center. In our latest FACES of TriStar feature, this heart survivor, along with her mother, shares her story and how the physicians of TriStar made all the difference in getting this now-thriving young woman ready to take on college and the rest of her life. Click here to read her inspiring story.