In an era of Queens—Bey, Elizabeth—the Queen City has her own. Three influential women share their insights on female leadership in Charlotte.
Mayor, City of Charlotte
When we’re little girls, we have dreams. We press plastic stethoscopes to teddy bear hearts or tack shiny sheriff’s badges to our chests. And some of us, those with the strongest imaginations, dream of being a mayor.
Mayor Jennifer Roberts is the symbolic representation of such dreams. A native of Charlotte, Roberts grew up in a family that valued serving the community. That hereditary dedication to the community would prove to be the foundation of her career, and her life.
Roberts’ accolades started early, when she attended Chapel Hill on a Morehead Scholarship, then pursued two masters degrees in international affairs. Though international affairs first caught the bright glint of her eyes, Roberts soon realized her true passion lay where it had begun, in her community.
“My local interest started when my oldest child started public school here in Charlotte,” she remembers. “There was a mismatch between what was happening in schools and what politicians were saying was happening. I found it strange that there weren’t any moms on the County Commission, which, along with the state and federal governments, is responsible for the education budget, so I thought it was a good idea to offer that perspective and work hard for education.”
Though it was education that initially brought wick to flame for Roberts’ local interests, it was much more than that which kept her engaged. “I quickly became interested in local politics when I saw the difference it makes in peoples lives,” she says.
Mayor Roberts’ platform is one of strength, resiliency and honesty, characteristics easily ascribed to the mayor herself. “I think we still struggle with women in leadership, though we’re certainly better off now than 20 to 30 years ago,” she says with candor. “There are a lot more women role models and women who have achieved that executive status. There were always women in the workforce, the difference is there were not as many at the heads of organizations until recently.”
Though she certainly recognizes the strides the city has made—after all, she is a female mayor—she encourages all women to continue to strive for more. “Be ready for a tough road. It’s still bumpy and competitive, and there are still people who aren’t used to seeing women in certain roles.”
Chief Executive Officer, Crisis Assistance Ministry
Carol Hardison always knew her path. “I was raised in a justice-oriented household in a family that was dedicated to equal rights and justice, and I believe service is in my DNA,” she says emphatically. It really does seem to be a familial trait for Hardison, whose mother founded the first clothing bank and food pantry in her small hometown. “As we were growing up, it was so important that we heard stories of how she gave voice and power to people who were marginalized or even forgotten,” she remembers.
So it’s no surprise that Hardison is the longtime CEO of Crisis Assistance Ministry, a nonprofit that’s leading the charge in changing the socioeconomic plights of Charlotte from the ground up. But how Hardison ended up here, and at Crisis Assistance Ministry, was somewhat a coincidence. The Florida native never imagined herself far enough north to shelve her flip-flops, but when Duke Energy offered her an opportunity thirty years ago, she ventured to Charlotte.
Even then, she never imagined herself staying. “Because I knew in my heart that I would end up in a service-related job, I always thought Charlotte would be a temporary stop,” she says. “But as the city kept growing and presenting more opportunities personally and professionally, ultimately now it presents professionally the biggest challenge in my life. The fact that I live in a city that’s 50th in the nation in economic mobility? I’ve got some work to do. I’m not leaving anytime soon.”
Charlotte is definitely home for Hardison, and as a woman, it’s a home she’s proud to call her own. “In the 30-plus years that I’ve lived here, I have seen us elect our first female mayor (in the ‘80s), the company that brought me to Charlotte now has its first female CEO, and all this has been in parallel to an era of increased opportunities for women. Moving here and growing up in this era has given me opportunities to be part of a conversation that I would not have been part of before.”
As a female leader in Charlotte, Hardison is pointedly changing the conversations of our city. “What I see is we are living in a city that was largely planned, designed and created by men who are white,” she points out. “What’s interesting and challenging is that they helped create a city that’s diverse (in color, sex, age, etcetera). I am proud to ensure that all these new voices, of this great city that our forefathers planned, are heard at the table.”
Dianne Chipps Bailey
Dianne Bailey isn’t from here, but you’d never guess it from the way she talks about our city. Charlotte has seeped into her soul.
Her arrival in Charlotte was practically accidental. After moving with her husband Brian three times in the first five years of their marriage, they finally settled in our Southern city and his hometown. “Within six weeks, I realized this was where I was meant to be,” she remembers. “People here are so gracious and welcoming, so eager to support and encourage each other.”
It’s this same bright optimism that colors the days of the incredibly accomplished lawyer, who seems to walk in those perfectly practiced footsteps to which we all aspire. For one thing, she landed her dream job and is unerringly passionate about the work she does every day. “To work at Robinson Bradshaw is such a gift professionally and personally; the firm has given me the ability to live out my passion with authenticity,” she says of her position, in which she’s able to focus solely on helping nonprofits locally and across the country. “The firm provides me with a highly respected platform to be entrepreneurial and creative in a specialized niche. It’s such a benefit to our clients.”
Bailey’s impact echoes through Charlotte, including local women’s organizations like Women’s Executives (she currently serves as president) and the Women Impact Fund, which advances women as leaders in philanthropy and our city. “Over the years, women’s leadership in Charlotte has become much more inclusive and increasingly grassroots,” she says. “You don’t need a big title with a Fortune 50 company, and you don’t need a name that comes from multiple generations in this community. There’s a place at the table for many different voices and women.”
It’s this same generous spirit that marks Bailey’s perspective on our community. When asked what advice she would offer to an aspiring woman, or man, her answer is simple. “Start from a place of gratitude,” Bailey says with a smile. “It’s so deep in the DNA in Charlotte, which is why I love it here. I can finally exhale, this is home, because we are willing and eager to extend beyond our own skin.”