CWLI experiences growth; looks to increase diversity, programming

Authored By chloe.morrison

Before applying to be the executive director of the Chattanooga Women’s Leadership Institute, Holly Ashley wasn’t exactly sure what the organization did or if she’d fit in. 

But she soon fell in love with CWLI, which aims to boost leadership, engagement and advancement opportunities for women. And she’s working to improve it and attract members who might be as uncertain as she was before taking the helm. 

The organization’s leaders want to increase diversity, add programming, utilize technology and develop new fundraising opportunities for its nearly 700 members. 

A recent CWLI survey found that women are in need of resources and opportunities that can help them overcome societal inequities. 

Women remain underrepresented at every level of the corporate chain, and corporate America promotes men at 30 percent higher rates than women during early career states. 

Females face more pushback when asking for raises, get less informal feedback and receive less face time with senior-level leaders, also according to the study. 

Through the organization, women can learn about a range of topics that can benefit their business ventures and careers, and they can connect with other women who can provide perspective and guidance.


-A regular annual membership costs $100.

-A student membership is $10.

-A sustaining membership is $250. That comes with perks, such as VIP access to some events. 

“Mentoring is so critical to a woman’s career success and community leadership success,” Ashley said. 

To accommodate the organization’s ballooning membership, its core group-which is currently two full-time employees, including Ashley-moved to the Edney Innovation Center’s Society of Work.

The former location didn’t have enough room for the group’s meetings and events, and lugging supplies to other spaces wasn’t practical, Ashley said. 

During the organization’s growth, it’s important to stay “laser-focused” on its mission. To do that, the organization needs to offer robust programming for its members to help them reach their individual leadership aspirations, she said.

“CWLI requires a workspace that can allow our employees and members to collaborate most effectively, and relocating to Society of Work in the Edney offers just that,” she said. “We are thrilled to be around a strong community of innovators and entrepreneurs.”

Program manager Marlena Palmer will be taking on greater responsibilities, and CWLI is in the process of hiring a new staff member to provide administrative support so the existing two-member team can focus on achieving strategic goals.

CWLI has members that represent four generations. The nonpartisan organization is made up of women of all political persuasions from a variety of industries and a range of career stages.

CWLI’s members include women leaders in fields such as engineering, government, law enforcement, finance, hospitality and more-spanning more than 200 unique organizations in the Greater Chattanooga area. 

But Ashley wants even more variety. One of the organization’s strategic priorities is to improve racial and ethnic diversity of its membership and leadership so that it matches that of the Chattanooga service area by 2022. 

“We want to increase other means of diversity,” Ashley said. “[We want] people of different races and ethnic backgrounds-that’s the diversity I’m really craving so we get a wide variety of perspectives.”

Younger women are joining more now, Ashley said. 

Six or seven years ago, the organization’s numbers hovered between 150 and 200 members. It was mainly made up of women in executive positions and was thought of as a powerful club, Ashley said. 

“Over time, more and more younger women have joined, and that really excites me,” she said. “[We’re creating] a leadership development pipeline for the city.”

The organization hosts more than 80 events a year.

For example, there are monthly networking events and functions with speakers who talk about a variety of topics, from finance to well-being.

Programming also includes women-mentoring-women sessions. 

“We don’t want programming that just addresses surface-level issues,” Ashley said. “You’ve got to ask yourself the hard questions, and you’ve got to have a network.”

Adding different programming might be a way to reach new audiences.

Earlier this year, CWLI conducted a survey that affirmed that programming is benefiting its members. 

Research showed that CWLI members achieved individual growth, felt a sense of empowerment and confidence as leaders in their careers, developed awareness of new opportunities to enhance leadership capabilities, and honed in on skills to strengthen leadership effectiveness and influence, according to a news release. 

The survey also showed that women have a thirst for mentors and information about how to overcome challenges they face in the workplace. 

CWLI board chair Stefanie Crowe said:

Almost half of the CWLI members that participated in January’s survey acknowledged that leadership obstacles they face most commonly include a lack of professional and personal development opportunities, as well as missing more women in existing leadership roles who can inspire, mentor and sponsor younger leaders. Additionally, heightening awareness and providing companies with tools to address systemic issues will help reduce instances of discrimination and bias. Studies continue to surface with evidence that gender diversity leads to a higher level of performance; the companies that don’t invest in this effort will not thrive.

New fundraising 
The organization has a solid business model that keeps it self-sustaining, Ashley said. 

Most funding comes from earned revenue-for example, from ticket sales to its annual luncheon.

But leaders are looking into fundraising opportunities outside of that. 

Corporate partnerships are one possibility, Ashley said.

“We have a highly desirable group of women who most companies would love to be in front of,” she said. “We do have a lot of marketing value.”