Laspa Center for Leadership Redefines Women’s Leadership for the Twenty-First Century

By Brittany King

Since the 1990s, women have steadily, if slowly, made their way into more leadership roles across industries. According to Pew Research data on women leaders, more than 50 percent of Congress is made up of women; 7.4 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women, up from less than one percent in the ’90s; and 30 percent of university presidents are women today, versus just under 10 percent 30 years ago. Why does this matter? Beyond sheer representation, data collected by Peakon, an HR insights platform, found that women-led companies and teams tend to perform better, be more innovative, and have higher reported employee job satisfaction.


Through a variety of on-campus centers and programs, especially the Laspa Center for Leadership, Scripps is well equipped to prepare its graduates for a world where more women than ever before are rising through the ranks, shaping and leading award-winning teams. The Laspa Center, founded in 2015 after a keystone donation from Eileen Schock Laspa (’67, P’95) and Jude Laspa (HMC ’65, P’95), focuses on the values of leadership, creativity, integrity, service, and inclusivity. The center seeks to advance gender equity through programming, networking opportunities, and mentorship support, positioning it to play a crucial role in the development of future corporate, nonprofit, and political leaders.


Working to Bridge the Gender Gap


Led by Executive Director Vicki Klopsch, the Laspa Center takes a unique approach, acknowledging that good leadership doesn’t happen in a homogenous environment: it requires that diverse voices and experiences be valued and included.


“Leading the efforts in bridging the gender leadership gap feels massive, but it is also quite exciting. I don’t think we’re anywhere near where we need to be with that,” Klopsch says. “Our work right now is  looking at what bridging the gap even means, because there are intersectional identities that we want to respond to and make sure we’re addressing. So, in all that we do, it’s really about how we redefine leadership. How do we push the boundaries of the existing definitions and expectations to make it an accessible space for everybody?”


The center has identified six core competencies to target in developing leaders that represent a balance of hard and soft skills, including effective management, empathy, mindfulness, organizational dynamics, social skills, and strategic thinking.


Throughout the year, the Laspa Center hosts a series of events and training opportunities to support students in their future leadership endeavors. Programs include the Linda Davis Taylor Financial Literacy Program, which covers everything from basic budgeting to salary negotiations; the Millennial Leaders Program, a four-day experience that brings early-career professional women from across the globe to campus to develop the skills necessary to take their careers to the next level; and a strategic partnership with the Public Leadership Education Network (PLEN), a nonprofit aimed at increasing the number of women in top leadership positions in order to influence public policy.


Klopsch wants students who are wondering how to navigate certain aspects of their career or are concerned about how to accomplish their goals to know that they are not alone. These programs and opportunities are designed to equip them to meet those challenges—and to foster community and build a strong network of connected leaders. “I want our students to trust in the community at Scripps that they are part of and ask for support when they need it. Nobody should have to do this alone,” Klopsch says.


Doing the Inner Work


Having more women in power isn’t just about representation, and it doesn’t automatically mean that teams and organizations will function better. Rather, women in leadership positions can be the catalysts for change in flawed systems that are still pervasive in business. For this to happen, women who are poised to be leaders need the opportunity to reflect on their own identities and unique experiences and how the valuable perspective shaped by those forces can be brought to bear on systemic challenges. This requires deep reflection and processing time. The Millennial Leaders Program provides a space for emerging leaders to do just that.


The program, which launched in 2019, is an intensive four-day conference in which a cohort of young women gather to learn effective leadership strategies and find fellowship with a diverse set of peers as they share their career successes, challenges, and growth opportunities. It is facilitated by Sara Thompson and Dr. Sumi Pendakur, who each have more than 20 years of experience in teaching and research work that centers on race and gender.


“On the first day of the program, a few women asked, ‘Why do we need a program like this?’ That’s an important question. There is value in being in a space targeted toward the specificity of women’s experiences, choices, and journeys,” Pendakur says. “Being in this space allowed us to talk through the leadership labyrinth that women have to navigate and how that intersects with class, culture, community, and identity, and even how it affects the choices we make in the workplace. Having this really intentional container was fascinating and allowed people to be fully vulnerable in the space versus more traditional leadership development models.”


Important as it is for any leader to master tactics for handling conflict and negotiation, the first portion of the program focuses on helping participants understand how what they believe about themselves can shape how they show up in professional spaces. The second half focuses on values-based leadership and gives participants a chance to reflect on what a more diverse, equitable workplace could look like. Pendakur and Thompson want participants to leave the program with an understanding of the systems that are in place that make it difficult for women to become leaders in the workplace and what can be done about them. They especially want women to reject the status quo. “It’s not enough for us to get power if we’re going to revert to the patterns of old, because if we don’t know how to transform systems, all gaining power does is reinforce hierarchy, exclusion, and violence,” Pendakur says.


Start from Where You Are

Women leaders are not just those with executive positions and power, like Vice President Kamala Harris, media mogul Oprah Winfrey, or Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. Leadership is a quality that anyone can possess, and being a leader can happen from any position: that’s the lesson Lucia Nunez ’15 learned at Scripps and in her post-grad life.
Nunez has worked on five winning political campaigns since graduating in 2015. Her time with each campaign has helped her better understand what it means to lead in today’s world in specific ways, but she has arrived at an overarching lesson: leadership is being able to work collaboratively with those around you and honoring the unique voices, perspectives, and experiences they bring to the table.

You can’t do this work by keeping all the power in your hands. You have to let people’s skills shine. To me, that’s the mark of a good leader.

“I’m always mindful when I am in a community that I’m not from that I have to respect the expertise that others have and honor the people that live there and have been organizing there,” says Nunez. “Empowering other people is foundational to [political] field work. You can’t do this work by keeping all the power in your hands. You have to let people’s skills shine. To me, that’s the mark of a good leader.”
Nunez says that one of the highlights of her career so far has been working as a political organizer in California’s 10th District on Rep. Josh Harder’s campaign. Her job was to collaborate with the grassroots organizers in District 10 to garner support for Harder.
“It was key for me to look for the knowledge in the room, because I didn’t know the community as well as local activists did,” Nunez explains. “Almost every week we’d do some sort of action to hold the Republican incumbent accountable. A lot of those creative ideas didn’t come from me. I’d share my goal with the group of volunteers and organizers I was working with, and together we’d create a solution. Investing in someone else, giving them the space and support to bring their vision to life—that’s true power.”

Power for me is about influence, and leadership is about vulnerability. We have to claim our power.

This way of thinking is embedded in the programming at the Laspa Center for Leadership and is especially central to the Millennial Leaders Program. Creating environments that foster creativity and inclusivity and allow co-creation to happen between leadership and the rest of the team is the defining feature of leadership in the twenty-first century. And the goal of having more women in positions of power is to challenge the status quo across industries and promote a broad shift toward that kind of generative, inclusive culture.
“Power for me is about influence, and leadership is about vulnerability. We have to claim our power,” says Klopsch. “I am a woman in power, and I have a sphere of influence. I want to support my students so that they are skilled to claim their power regardless of their title or position. There’s so much data that shows us that [women in leadership] is a good thing, so we need to step into it. I want our students to realize they have a platform and the opportunity to use that to speak up and combat the status quo.”