Inside Track: Female empowerment is Gaddy’s mission
Women’s Resource Center CEO uses diverse background to help women renew their lives.
Sandra Gaddy spent years in banking before transitioning to nonprofits, and now she’s in a place that “fits her heart.”
As CEO of the Women’s Resource Center (WRC) since last March, Gaddy brings her experience helping organizations restructure, strengthen and grow — financially and strategically — to a place with a mission she cares about.
WRC, 678 Front Ave. NW, Suite 180, in Grand Rapids, helps women who face barriers to employment become economically self-sufficient through career development, employment and personal growth.
The nonprofit offers career coaching, skills training and certifications, access to job-search tools, wardrobe assistance via the Working Women’s Clothing Closet and a workforce re-entry program for incarcerated women and former inmates called New Beginnings.
Gaddy — the second eldest of six children — grew up seeing the impact of generous parents on the people they helped: her dad as a pastor and Detroit auto worker, and her mom as the owner of a home-based, education-focused child care center.
Although both parents were instrumental in Gaddy’s development, her mom’s work as a small business owner with a social conscience set an example of female empowerment.
“She took a chance without a college degree and opened a business,” Gaddy said of her mom, Hazel. “It was very successful and very loving to all the families she served, but especially single moms needing affordable child care.”
Gaddy said she internalized her mother’s model of “care and service,” demonstrated through a willingness to look after children even if their parents couldn’t pay the fees.
Over the years, Gaddy’s mother became known as “Hazel mommy,” and clients often leaned on her as a member of their “village,” calling on her to instruct their misbehaving kids.
“She would say on the phone, ‘You go to bed,’ or, ‘Eat your dinner,’ and they did,” Gaddy said. “Hispanic kids, black kids and Asian kids, they all loved and respected my mom.”
That example of social involvement stuck with Gaddy throughout her education and work history.
After high school, she began studying advertising and marketing at Ferris State University — where she was “heavily involved” in student activities — before meeting and marrying her husband, Arlen Dean Gaddy.
Gaddy took a break from school for about five years while having children and working, then finished her bachelor’s degree in business management with an emphasis in human resources at Cornerstone University in 1999.
“At Cornerstone, I loved the fact I was able to integrate faith with learning. That was such a crucial dynamic for me,” she said.
By the time she earned her degree, she was several years into a career in banking, having worked at Comerica Bank, then First Chicago, which through a series of mergers and acquisitions became National Bank of Detroit, then Bank One, then Chase.
In 2004, Gaddy had worked her way up to vice president of private banking at National City Bank, where she stayed until 2007.
Two female mentors in her banking career reinforced her belief in woman power — Endia Weekly, who retired when Chase Bank was Bank One, and Michelle Shangraw, at Chase Bank, who now works at Mercantile Bank.
“They were very instrumental in my development because they were very honest with me,” Gaddy said. “What I learned was not to doubt myself, to push forward. Endia always used to tell me, ‘Don’t sit in the back; move toward the front.’ She taught me and other women of color there that it’s important that your voice is heard as a black woman.”
Weekly “had this look,” where she would stare across the room at someone if she thought they needed to say something, and Gaddy said it was often directed her way.
In addition to being challenged to speak up, Gaddy learned when to slow down.
“When I wanted to seek out promotions, (Weekly) would share, ‘This is not the best time. You have great things going as you’re leading this team, so why don’t you fulfill what you’re doing here, why don’t you hit those targets, and you’ll better position yourself and your team for future opportunities.’
“She was always right,” Gaddy said.
Shangraw was next in line to spur Gaddy toward growth.
“Michelle encouraged me to apply for the business banker position, VP level (at Chase). That was a little scary to do that because I had found comfort in the branches. But I applied and got the position,” she said.
In 2007, Gaddy felt a need to take time off from her career to be with her children, as her son was about to enter high school and her daughter was in middle school.
Toward the end of that year, a former client put her in touch with the CEO of Mel Trotter Ministries — which serves those experiencing homelessness — and in 2008, she accepted the role of donor relations officer.
“Within a year of my time at Mel Trotter, the position I had originally turned down, I was promoted to. They had originally asked me to apply for the chief development officer, but I said, ‘No, I wasn’t ready.’ Women often feel they aren’t. After a year, I was able to lead our donor relations team because I had experienced what they experienced.”
Gaddy worked at Mel Trotter for five years and then took a job as vice president of advancement at Inner City Christian Federation, where she stayed until getting the call to work at WRC.
Her head for business helps, but Gaddy believes her skills “facilitating and cultivating relationships” is her greatest asset in leading a nonprofit.
“You can learn the numbers, but building trust and the ability to cultivate relationships, that’s not everyone’s sweet spot,” she said. “But that’s extremely important to me.”
Gaddy said life came full circle when several female friends encouraged her to apply for the CEO role at WRC when they heard about the opening.
She had been introduced to the organization years earlier by her mentor, Shangraw, who was the board president at the time.
“In digging in and researching the work here, I said, ‘OK, I need to do this. This fits my heart.’ I took their advice and applied,” Gaddy said.
Being at a place with a long history of helping women has been fulfilling for Gaddy.
“I’ll be in a meeting and someone will say, ‘When I moved here in 1980, the first place I went to for help getting a job was the Women’s Resource Center.’ Or, ‘I couldn’t get acclimated to the community, and someone said, “You should volunteer at the Women’s Resource Center.”’
“It’s almost like a story of sisterhood, and that’s what I’m proud of,” Gaddy said.
Now in its 45th year, the organization is working on a three-year strategic plan to be unveiled in July.
Gaddy’s personal goal is to increase the number of women of color the WRC serves.
She also hopes to reinstate sexual harassment training for companies, so the women WRC prepares for employment can enter safe environments with a clear understanding of their rights and the policies for reporting harassment.
“Sexual harassment has never ended,” she said. “How do we better ensure that our companies and our women are best prepared for those types of encounters, and how do we prevent it?”
Gaddy said she is proud of the “synergy” among her team.
“They all have a tremendous heart for the women we serve, and we are ever more committed to serving the women that come through our doors and looking at ways to increase capacity of serving their needs.”