In the last two years the most common question I have received is how does it feel to be the first woman president of Rotary. I will confess that I feel a sense of excitement brewing because this truly opens opportunities for lifting and celebrating each of our diverse perspectives. We’ve all (women members) taken a different path to get here. Some have joined because your father was a Rotarian and some because an employer tapped you on the shoulder, and others because the US Supreme Court ruling permitted women to join Rotary,” said incoming RI President Jennifer Jones at the closing session of the Houston Convention.
But for each entry, the mechanism was the same — an invitation to join the organisation.
“That’s why I am determined to harness diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) to advance this invitation across the Rotary world. Honouring and living our DEI efforts is much more than a trend in popular culture. It’s about fully understanding and celebrating our differences. It’s a profound step in weaving the global mosaic of humanity.”
Reiterating that when it came to DEI, what really mattered were the results, Jones said, “We have two years left to achieve the (RI) Board’s target of 30 per cent women by 2023. We’ve come a long way and already 110 countries have achieved this goal,” she said, to thunderous applause in the auditorium.
But to get to 30 per cent in the entire Rotary world, was still a long way, “and 30 per cent is the next stop on the way to 50 per cent. Do you know that our members in Rotaract have already achieved this distinction?” To achieve greater inclusion Rotary meetings and events would have to be places where “each of us can speak openly and honestly, where our members feel welcome. This means removing barriers for entry and opening doors for inclusion. We need Rotary leaders from every continent, culture and creed… as also young members to take on larger roles and responsibilities.”
Jones said that Rotarians needed to “listen to new Rotary members just as keenly and with immense respect as those with many years of membership. Now more than ever in our shared history we need to be good to one another, to look out for each other, raise each other up, and protect those who are in our care.”
Being the first woman president in Rotary doesn’t mean anything until there is a second and a third. We need to bring leaders into Rotary who open new doors, walk different paths and have so much to offer. It’s a big task.
Houston was an apt city to talk of big goals, she said, recalling that it was from Houston that the then US President John F Kennedy boldly announced in May 1961 about putting the first man on the moon, and bringing him back safely. She also recalled how in the movie Hidden Figures, Dorothy Vaughn, portrayed by Olivia Spencer, was the first African American woman to hold the first managerial position in NASA. “She was a brilliant mathematician who was silently legendary and thanks to her talent for spotting hardworking, capable colleagues and her tireless advocacy for their advancement, entire generations of women from diverse backgrounds owed their careers to her. And hundreds of vital scientific breakthroughs resulted from that influx of talent.”
She added: “That kind of legacy means a great deal because being the first (woman president) in Rotary doesn’t mean anything until there is a second and a third.” To get to that point, Rotary needs leaders with “a different perspective… we need to bring leaders into Rotary who open new doors, walk different paths and have so much to offer. It’s a big task.”
Coming to membership growth, Jones said that several surveys done over the years had shown that the single driving factor of retention and member satisfaction was related to focussing on the comfort and care of new members. “We need to stop the revolving door of recruiting new members and then losing them all too quickly. So let’s help create club experiences that are welcoming, inclusive and enjoyable and extend that warmth and belonging to every participant.”
But all this could not, and should not, be done “by throwing our doors wide open. Our values are our strength and that means that as an organisation of excellence, we expect that same quality from our members as well.” District and club leaders would have to give new members meaningful responsibilities, service opportunities and personal growth, as these create purpose and passion. If we serve our members, we serve our communities. When I say members, it includes both Rotary and Rotaract. I will include Rotaractors on several international commitees, the membership committee and the convention committee for Melbourne,” she announced.
Jones also announced the convening of a Youth Advisory Council to develop programmes that “nurture and define our future leaders. And in my year I will be assigning a group of Rotaractors as president’s representatives to our district conferences. We have so much to learn from each other.”
She also announced that she plans to continue the initiative introduced by President Shekhar Mehta to empower girls, “which has resonated so powerfully across the world. We will continue this bold effort recognising that empowered girls become empowered women.”
To “shine the torch on Rotary projects and display them to the world, Nick and I are embarking on an ‘Imagine Impact’ tour where we plan to visit the high impact projects across our areas of focus to draw attention to the incredible work that all of you are doing.” Each of these stops will have a different media approach; some will have top tier global journalists telling the Rotary story and others will have social media influencers helping Rotary to reach people and communities yet unserved by Rotary.
Urging each and every Rotarian to “dream big”, Jones concluded that these dreams would have to be converted into reality, just as was happening with the Rotary dream to end polio.
Touching upon her theme ‘Imagine Rotary’, she said: “Let’s imagine a world without polio, a world with clean water for everyone, a world free of disease, where every child learns to read, imagine kindness and hope and love and peace, and that is why I am asking you to imagine Rotary.”