Nike Irvin, Roxanne Wilson ’76, and Lisa Watson Talk Leadership for the 21st Century

We invited LASPA Center for Leadership Director Lisa Watson to moderate a conversation between former Scripps Board of Trustees Chair Roxanne Wilson ’76 and Los Angeles community leader Nike Irvin about the changing definition of leadership for women. Their conversation took place in downtown Los Angeles on July 21, 2015.


LISA WATSON: I want to start with a brief introduction to the LASPA Center for Leadership, which is a newly established vehicle to help prepare Scripps students to be leaders in the 21st century. Right now, I’m working to develop the center’s mission, vision, and programming. We will be looking at global issues as well as local issues, organizing programs like the Next Generation speaker series, which will invite young leaders to campus to meet with students. We’re also starting a series called Up For Discussion, a sort of TED Talks for successful leaders. And we will be running a social enterprise academy that equips students with business and communications skills.

With LASPA, Scripps wants to instill the skills and attributes that are going to be necessary assets for our next generation of leaders to have. So the question I would love to start with is: What does successful leadership look like to you, and how has that definition changed from when you were students to now?


ROXANNE WILSON ’76: I am the product of Scripps, and I also I went to an all-girls high school. Actually, I had 10 years of all-girls/all-women’s education, and I always believed that was a huge advantage to me, because at Scripps, certainly, we had to lead ourselves. And we lived in the best of all possible worlds, where men were across the street so we could date them, and men were in most of our classes, but when it came to running student government, it was just us. And the net of that has been that I have never been afraid to walk into a room and be the only woman there.

Some very wise person once said 80 percent of leadership is showing up. And I think there’s a lot of truth in that. Get involved, do the heavy lifting, and you’ll rise to the top. And I think that’s still true.


NIKE IRVIN: Without the benefit of a Scripps education, or even an all-women’s education, I think I drew on a lot of wisdom from my mother, who is an only girl. She had four brothers and, like her, I was an only girl who grew up with three brothers. I think I developed a real adaptive capacity living in a world with lots of men around.

Going back to my grandma’s day, there were so many rights and privileges her generation never had. My grandmother did laundry for white families in Texas, and she didn’t want her daughter to be limited to the same few options as she had. So she enrolled my mom in a boarding school in New Orleans in the mid-1940s, which was a very unusual thing to do. And that was a big inflection point, not only for my mom, but also for my brothers and me, because I ended up going to a coed boarding school in Connecticut. So for our family, education was always the lever for change and for opportunity.

When I reflect on women whom I’ve worked with who’ve gone to all-women’s high schools or colleges, they are always the most outgoing, confident, smart, and daring people that I knew. And I knew that had a lot to do with not having to make some of the compromises that women in a coed environment seemed to have to make—not appearing as smart, having to deal with all the externalities of being popular or being attractive or whatever those things meant. I’m glad I went to coed schools, but I later observed differences in women from single-sex environments.

LW: Nike, one of the things that you say in your online bio is, “No matter the sector, smart, ethical, authentic leadership matters.” What qualities do you think are important to cultivate in order to achieve that kind of leadership?

NI: Well, that’s a very well-timed question. I just had breakfast with an intern in my office, a junior at UCLA, the first in her family to go to college, a Latina who grew up in Southgate [a suburb of Los Angeles]. She was asking what was important to becoming a leader. And I told her that the best that I could figure out is leaders are people whom other people trust. And they are able to add value in a way that’s selfless; they work in a way that goes beyond their own agenda or their own course.

I’m not imagining that successful leaders never have their own personal goals or objectives. But over time, and certainly in the philanthropic sector, we occupy ourselves with hoping to change life outcomes for others, whether it’s homeless women, or high school dropouts, or people who are coming out of prison. And I admire leaders who find a way to see around the corner and anticipate the future—anticipate changed environments in a way that may seem impossible. At the California Community Foundation, we have an initiative for first-time college students in low-income families who, based on statistics, would probably drop out. We try to find ways to support them, whether financial or otherwise, through graduation. And I think the leadership role there is one of helping not just generate the resources, but the faith that those students and families need to be successful.

LW: Roxanne, what skills do you think are important for good leaders to have?

RW: I’m in a profession where the ability to articulate ideas and to advocate for people is very important. But I think true leaders are visionary. They’re able to see something beyond where we are and then persuade everybody else how easy it’s going to be to get there—they can confidently say, “No problem, we can raise the money to do that,” or whatever it is that needs to be done.

Another important quality that leaders I admire share is the ability to build consensus, and the strength, once they get there, or get as close as they’re going to get, to move forward.

LW: In the legal field, men still dominate. I’m wondering, do you build relationships the same way your male counterparts do? Is there a difference?

RW: I guess there are always going to be differences, in part because you tend to invite people to sit around your professional table that are like you. So when I’m dealing with clients, no, I don’t take them golfing, because I don’t golf. We have to connect in other ways—through common interests or values. And I think women have a better capacity sometimes for developing those deeper relationships.

NI: I agree. I think women, whether it’s the way we’ve been socialized or the way we’re wired, are more comfortable being vulnerable with people, particularly other women. I mean sharing stories or being able to show up in a way that maybe is less than perfect, or even fragile, and that generates trust. I think men haven’t had the permission to be as vulnerable, and therefore the process of building trust manifests in different ways for them.

LW: How critical do you think a liberal arts education is to shaping successful leaders?

NI: I think of a liberal arts education as a great laboratory, where students have a chance to test ideas and learn the art of critical thinking. But it also affords things like experiential internships, externships, and job experiences that allow students to test their ideas in a workplace, or environment where they may not have the freedom they have on campus. In the workplace, you are limited by time and money and compromise, and I think it’s important to learn that along with the college education.

RW: I would add that Scripps’ interdisciplinary approach to the liberal arts education is really, really valuable. And maybe I just say that because I can feel it every day in my job, but I think being able to look at a context and understand its politics, literature, economics, and history, and knit that all together gives you a leg up in whatever you do. I know it’s an expensive educational process, but it gives you this just fabulous granite-andgold base on which to build everything.


LW: Are there other ways you think Scripps is uniquely positioned to nurture leadership qualities in women?

NI: I think one of the things that LASPA will do is give students opportunities to take those analytical skills that are part of the academic side on the road, whether through volunteering, or internships, or study abroad.

It will also help establish mentor-mentee relationships, which are so important. Again, I think that’s where women have an advantage in their capacity to share and swap stories, and ask for help and offer help, in ways that may not be as easy or familiar for men. I think that’s one of the ways we become really good adaptive leaders—by being mentored and by mentoring others.

LW: Roxanne, have mentors been important to you in your career?

RW: Yes. Because there weren’t a lot of women trial lawyers, a lot of my professional mentors have been men. And they’re pretty good at it, too. And yes, it is important to give back as a mentor. I find, as I get older, people will now pick up the phone or come by my office, asking, “Can I talk to you about this?” or “I think I want to transition to something else. Can I get your thoughts?” And part of my job is to try to make connections for them or be responsive to having a discussion or being a sounding board.

LW: Here is a question my students wanted me to ask: Has there been a time when you stepped up as a leader, even though you weren’t officially designated as the leader of an initiative or project?

NI: I think there is positional power and then there’s personal power, which is not a function of job title or authority. I’m reminded of when I moved to Silver Lake [a Los Angeles neighborhood] in the early 1990s, when people thought it was still a dangerous place to live. I thought, “Silver Lake is dangerous? Are you kidding me? I grew up in West Adams!” And yet I remember every Saturday night we would hear local gangs shooting at each other, and then someone broke into our garage. We asked the police officer, “Can you give us advice about how we prevent this from happening again?” And he said, “You move.” And I thought, “That’s not an option.”

So we decided we would try and organize ourselves. I started our own little block watch with a group of neighbors, and that was my first experience with organizing. We had an opportunity to really help turn our few blocks around and make people feel a little safer at home, and then demographically things started to shift. Not just in L.A., but in the nation, when crime rates started coming down. I often think about that as an experience of self-empowerment— those little neighbor-to-neighbor connections that, regardless of income, regardless of title, helped me remember what power and leadership really look like.

RW: That’s so true. Part of it is recognizing your own worth and what you can contribute. Certainly in what I do, litigation is always staffed with teams of people—we may have somebody who’s an expert on discovery, or somebody who’s an expert on the science, if it’s a pharmaceutical case. And they’re all leaders in their fields. I think any good leader recognizes they need to pay attention to the other expert voices in the room. And often the people who you value are the behind-the-scenes leaders— the people who are there for you to talk to, who are always going to give you honest advice, and who are going to stand up for you in public when you need them.

LW: What about our local community of women leaders? What can Scripps students learn from them?

RW: I would harken back to the idea that people in this community are dealing with specific social justice issues. That’s the kind of real-world stuff to learn about, because that’s going to influence what you decide to do, whether professionally or philanthropically or voluntarily in your spare time. Engaging with that vast community has the potential to open our students up to all different styles of leadership. I was from Los Angeles when I attended Scripps, but for the students who aren’t, they have an opportunity to experience a unique place with complex problems.

LW: I agree. Two of my interns are going to be juniors this year, and they hadn’t been to Los Angeles yet. So I took them to a business networking forum. It was such an eye-opening experience for them to meet people from outside of their community. And it’s just a short train ride away.

NI: You often hear about how most of the world lives on two dollars a day or less; well, there are parts of Los Angeles where that’s true too, right? The world is here. We can help students appreciate that. It’s wonderful to go abroad—everyone should have that experience—but it’s also important to see how many people who scratch to get a day’s comfort, a meal, or a bed are living right next to our office.

LW: Yes, it’s not that we don’t want to think and act globally, but we also need to be aware of what’s happening in our own communities. This will help us lead more effectively in any field.


is the founding director of Scripps College’s LASPA Center for Leadership, which provides opportunities and resources to help students transform knowledge, passion, and ideas into action. She was formerly chief executive officer of the Downtown Women’s Center, a nonprofit that serves homeless women in Los Angeles. Watson’s accolades include recognition as one of the Annenberg Foundation’s Top 25 Vision Leaders in 2014, one of Los Angeles magazine’s Top 50 Women Changemakers in 2012, and a KCET Local Hero in 2011.




is a partner and attorney with the international law firm Reed Smith. After graduating from Scripps, Wilson earned her MA in public policy from Claremont Graduate University and her JD from Loyola University of Los Angeles. She has a long history of strong leadership and active participation in the governance of Scripps, including serving as the chair of the Board of Trustees, president of the Scripps College Alumnae Association, and chair of the Ellen Browning Scripps Association Committee.





serves as vice president, programs, at the California Community Foundation (CCF) in Los Angeles. She provides strategic leadership in priority program areas for the foundation such as arts, education, and health. Before joining CCF, Irvin served as president of the Riordan Foundation for seven years and as a consultant and coach for nonprofits and foundations. She is a graduate of Yale and the UCLA Anderson School of Management.


« »