Eighteen years after stepping into the top leadership role of the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota, Lee Roper-Batker is enthusiastically stepping back. “I love the foundation,” said Roper-Batker, 58, whose tenure as president and CEO ends in January. “I also know that I want to lead by example by making room for a new leader, hopefully a leader of color, to bring new insights and wisdom to the foundation.” Whoever that is will inherit a robust and respected organization that has seen a massive increase in grantmaking, a permanently endowed fund for girls, and an anti-human trafficking campaign, MN Girls Are Not For Sale, that has led to changes in laws and police training. Here, she shares her hopes and plans.
Q: Your first job was an unfortunate eye-opener. You handled it … uniquely.
A: I was 14 and the “popover girl” for a country club. My uniform was a really short dress with poofy blue bloomers and I had my first experience with sexual harassment. A male member pinched my bottom. A couple of weeks later, he came back and did the same thing. I poured my whole pitcher of water on him.
Q: I’m guessing you were fired, the times being as they were.
A: No, I kept my job. The staff and managers lined up on each side of the kitchen doors and they all clapped for me. I thought, OK, I can stand up for myself and I won’t be punished.
Q: You say working at the foundation was a calling. What made it so?
A: My dad played a large role. He was a Lutheran minister at Mount Olivet church in Minneapolis and a church in Excelsior. My dad told me three things. One, you’re a girl so people will tell you that you can’t do things, but they’re wrong. Two, fight for what you believe in life. And three, you have a lot of privilege, so it’s your responsibility to give back.
Q: Are you really retiring, or just refocusing your boundless energy?
A: I hope I’m not going to ever retire from making an impact. I do want to downshift. My private fantasy is to write cozy mysteries with a kick-ass female protagonist. I’m 58. My grandfather retired at 62 from a company and built his dream home in Florida. He died two months later. I have this incredible marriage. I want to play and age well.
Q: Contrast challenges today for women and girls with challenges when you began.
A: Sadly, I don’t know that the challenges are that different: economic well-being, safety, leadership. We’ve seen slight progress for some but not all; we know we’re in this for the long haul and to win.
Q: What gives you hope?
A: One example is in our work to end domestic violence. Many years ago, we were becoming more survivor-centered, but we were still funding programs to better train police and increase their response times after violence had occurred. Today, domestic violence is becoming more about prevention and public awareness. We’re giving grants to teach healthy relationships to teens, both girls and boys, and eliminate harmful gender norms.
Q: So men are also at your table?
A: They are absolutely partners in our mission to create a world of gender equity. There’s a real call to men to step up and change their behavior and be part of the solution. But not allowing boys to express emotion puts a lot of burden on them. Early on, there was no way we would have funded groups working with boys and men. Now we do.
Q: The foundation just announced its 2019 cohort of 33 young female “innovators,” each receiving a $2,500 grant to break down barriers for other women in Minnesota. But you don’t want me to call them future leaders.
A: They’re leaders now. We’re clearing pathways for them and partnering with them. They are young (ages 16 to 24), diverse and are leading while living. Their projects include exploring how urban planning impacts the daily lives of Somalis, creating spaces for black people with disabilities, and promoting healthy eating in the Latino community, to name just a few. They exemplify what diverse leadership looks like across the state.
Q: You studied in Russia and Central America. Did you have another career in mind early on?
A: I was interested in politics. I worked for [DFL] congressman [Martin “Olav”] Sabo for four months in Washington, D.C., and realized it wasn’t for me. I was more drawn to community organizing.
Q: Your thoughts on different leadership styles by women and men?
A: We can learn from women and from men. I don’t know if I would generalize. The leadership I respect the most is collaborative, where values are aligned internally and externally and there’s a culture of learning, boldness and fun.
Q: What’s the best advice you’ve received over the years?
A: About 10 years ago, I was starting to get national job offers. [Former president of the General Mills Foundation] Dr. Reatha Clark King said, “Lee, you can lead nationally from the position you’re already in.” I didn’t have to move to have a national voice. That spurred me to have collaborations with other women’s foundations. And I still was able to work with the White House during the Obama administration.
Q: Worst advice?
A: Someone told me I couldn’t wear Birkenstocks. I got a $2 million “ask” wearing Birkenstocks.