Spotlight on Michigan Women Forward

Julie Bitely

| 4 min read

While women have made progress when it comes to equality with men, by many measures, there’s still a long way to go. Women earn 78.3 cents for every dollar a man earns, which means equal pay would be achieved in 2058 if the current rate holds. Men are also 2.2 times more likely to work in STEM occupations than women. Additionally, women are disproportionately the victims of domestic and sexual violence. To address these issues and more, Michigan Women Forward, formerly the Michigan Women’s Foundation, was formed in 1986 to accelerate Michigan’s progress by advancing equality and opportunity for the state’s women and girls. Since then, the organization has affected the lives of young women, entrepreneurs and victims of violence in countless ways. We talked to Judy Welch, executive director of Michigan Women Forward, West Michigan region, to see how the mission plays out in the lives of Michigan’s women and girls through three primary initiatives.

Accelerating Women’s Entrepreneurship

Through microloans and business plan pitch competitions, the foundation puts funding in the hands of budding women entrepreneurs through their #WomanUp initiatives. Support doesn’t stop at money though. Affordable WomanUp & Learn conferences held in Detroit, Grand Rapids and Lansing offer women the chance to learn more about what it takes to start and grow a business with information about marketing, finance, legal issues and more. A wraparound network of more than 500 volunteers provide additional support to women starting businesses. To date, those volunteers have provided more than 9,000 hours of support, helping women break through barriers holding them back when it comes to sustaining a successful business. Supporting and cultivating women entrepreneurs builds up individuals and their communities. “It’s about women supporting families and helping them rise and be the best they can be,” Welch said.

Developing the Next Generation of Women Leaders

Focusing on developing the minds and hearts of middle and high school girls will ensure strong women leadership for generations to come. Through their #UGOGirls efforts, Michigan Women Forward create and support programs to develop leadership and empower girls to pursue college and higher-paying careers. Financial literacy and social responsibility are also focus areas. Welch said many girls have a tendency to “dumb themselves down” by the time they get to high school. The organization’s UGO STEMGirls camp focuses on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers for middle school girls, opening their eyes to jobs in engineering, robotics and health care. It also exposes young women to concepts of financial literacy and helps them experience life at a university. “Most of these girls have never been on a college campus,” Welch said. Additional programs such as a UGO Girls on Campus leadership experience for high school girls and UGOGirls for Change, which is designed to assist high school girls with decision-making skills and to understand social change as it relates to community problems for women and girls. Scholarships are provided to ensure that the programs for girls are accessible to those who might not otherwise be able to afford them. Welch said many past participants have gone on to have successful careers, with some entering fields they hadn’t considered before the experiences they had through MWF. “We’re hearing a lot of success stories,” she said.

Advancing Michigan Women’s Agenda

The third pillar the group focuses on is to identify issues that disproportionately affect women and girls and to develop a collective change agenda to address them. Their #BehindEveryWoman pillar sets an agenda that focuses on equitable change. An example of the important work happening is the organization’s Enough Said initiative, which worked with the Detroit Crime Commission and the Wayne County Prosecutor’s office to raise money in an effort to eliminate the backlog of more than 11,000 untested rape kits found in police department storage in Detroit. Those efforts are ongoing. “We can make a real difference in the prosecution of many individuals who probably would have not been caught because of those kits,” she said. Welch said she had the honor of hearing a woman’s account of finally having her rapist brought to justice 25 years after the initial attack. Welch said she told her “because of the foundation, I have my life back.” Making sure women’s contributions aren’t forgotten, the group’s #HERStory efforts focus on the Michigan Women’s Historical Center and Hall of Fame, which recognizes the contributions of women throughout Michigan’s history and continues to promote the hard work that women across the state engage in. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan and Blue Care Network are proud to sponsor Michigan Women Forward events. To learn more about MWF and upcoming events, visit their website. If you enjoyed this post, you might also like:
Photo credit: WOCinTech Chat
MI Blues Perspectives is sponsored by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, a nonprofit, independent licensee of the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association