How I'm Skirting the Rules

I’m Fighting to Make Women’s Issues an Equal Priority in the Presidential Race

Change-agent Johanna Zeilstra is pushing our candidates to address issues that disproportionately affect women, but whose solutions benefit us all.

Women’s issues are everybody’s issues, but they’re not being fairly represented in some of our culture’s most important discussions of late: The presidential debates. With only six questions addressing women’s issues that did not mention ‘abortion’ or ‘Planned Parenthood’ out of the more than 700 asked, Johanna Zeilstra, co-founder of the Women’s Debate, is fighting to change that. An immigrant from the Netherlands who navigated her way into successful positions as a senior executive at PricewaterhouseCoopers and JPMorgan Chase, she left a safe career path to follow her calling by launching the popular corporate charity tool GiveBack. Now she’s taking another big risk by attempting to change the status quo and give women an equal voice in the current political race. She told us at a recent Skirting the Rules and Chantelle “Art of Being” salon that, despite a cycle seemingly obsessed with candidates’ scandals, she’s trying to reframe some of the dialogue in the current race with a singular mission: Launching a nonpartisan campaign to get the candidates to commit to answering questions related to women’s economic, health, and safety policies. You can submit questions you’d like to ask the candidates at womensdebate.org. Here’s how she’s making headway despite the cards stacked against her.

I’m Skirting the Rules by disrupting the way questions are curated and polled for the presidential debates. Right now questions are being developed by the moderators—with of course some input—but I think the public and concerned citizens also need to have a say in the questions posed. Otherwise we’re just getting answers that the moderators are interested in.

A time when I found the possible (a creative solution) within the impossible (against incredible odds) is when I co-founded a company called GiveBack. Before we launched, companies traditionally offered match programs through United Way. It’s a great program, but it was limiting because it offered only certain vetted charity partners. I wanted control over where my personal money went so I could give to charities that aligned with personal interests.

Some companies were initially nervous about aligning with charities that didn’t match their values, such as Planned Parenthood. However, our platform allowed people to give in their own name, absolving the companies of responsibility. In the end, it was a success for two big reasons. First,  it’s interesting for companies to learn where their employees really wanted to give, such as to animal rights charities. Secondly, most people were giving to little-known charities that were doing amazing work but that weren’t getting out there because they didn’t have the budgets to promote themselves. For example, local parks or food programs. Oprah got behind it and we launched on her show.

I believe my most powerful feminine strengths that help me get ahead are just being open to the universe. In general, I think many women are in touch both vertically and horizontally, meaning we’re connected to our spiritual side and also connected to each other. I believe women are good at reaching across to others to help fulfill their personal destiny.

An example of how listening to my intuition has helped me is in working through challenges with GiveBack. We went in with the idea that companies are very philanthropic because they donate a lot of money. Peeling off the layers, we found that, a lot of times, they were using it as positive PR. So I thought, ‘Okay, that’s fine, but let’s build something where companies do get the recognition and also use it as an employee engagement and retention program.’

My secret talent is not to be intimated by anyone regardless of their success, looks, talent, money. Sure, it was intimidating to meet Oprah. But I thought to myself, we all have to use the bathroom. (Laughs). It makes anyone real again.

My biggest rebel move (or my biggest risk) was leaving a very safe corporate job with a big paycheck that supported my family in order to follow my calling.

A woman is most powerful when she is financially independent. I think it’s so important and it goes back to the Women’s Debate. One in four women are victims of domestic violence and stay in unhealthy relationships in part because they don’t have the money to leave. But it’s not healthy for them or their children. My dad always said, “Make sure you have ‘f*** you!’ money so you can leave a relationship or a job or any other situation and still be okay.

A time I wish I’d listened to my inner knowing more was when I had a great career with financial security working on Wall Street but had this gut feeling that there was more to life. I wish I had left earlier. I didn’t act on it because I was very comfortable living that life rather than pursuing what I felt was my calling. Then 9/11 happened across the street from my offices, and it was a turning point for me. Still, it took another five years of that inner turmoil. I wasn’t a risk taker, but I was pregnant with my second child and I wanted to be a role model for my kids. I have one life and I wanted to make a difference. I finally had to ask myself, “Was it worth the price of admission?” For me, the answer was no.

The female disruptor who most inspires me and why is Oprah Winfrey. She didn’t come from a family like I did. We were immigrants from the Netherlands but we had a family where we were always loved, went to private school, had great vacations. Oprah was born into poverty in Mississippi to an unwed teenage mother. She could have taken the easy way and focused on making money, such as by paying her guests or selling her name. She has always been more interested in spiritual growth than in profits. As a result of her authenticity, she has built tremendous trust and has had a positive impact on millions of lives.

My advice to my younger self would be to tell myself that one of the most important decisions of your life is going to be who you marry—if you decide to get married—because you are stronger together. It’s really hard for single moms to do what they’re called to do and still try to support their families. Also, we are living in a time where 40 percent of moms are the primary or sole breadwinner and that’s tough. It’s important to find that partner in life that will help you succeed.

My favorite ‘mini-skirt’ is to set my intention each morning. I say, ‘God, what is your priority for me today?’ I’m open to new possibilities, but I also like to acknowledge my priority for the day. Setting that intention first thing helps me accomplish more because I’m mindful of where I’m trying to go. I have three boys, 5, 8, and 10, so its not easy! My intention for today was taking some time from a busy work day to really enjoy my kids and stay in the present moment with them.