Editor’s note: This piece is one of an occasional series on nonprofit leaders in Milwaukee. The responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Gerry Howze, who came from a tough upbringing in Chicago, is executive director of PEARLS for Teen Girls, a nonprofit in Milwaukee that works to guide its participants toward a better future. In 2015, the organization served 1,603 girls, 68 percent of whom were in middle school. Ninety percent have graduated high school and are on track for post-secondary success. Howze discussed her leadership journey with Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service.
Q: What led you to this leadership position?
A: My journey has been a series of events, from losing my parents early to becoming a teen parent and making lots of really bad decisions. I have been with PEARLS for 13 years. I went from a PEARLS peer facilitator, a frontline worker, manager and now the executive director. Everything I have experienced has contributed to developing the means to do the work that I do. Before being asked to be interim director, I was happy being behind the scenes. During this transition time, however, I was meeting with donors to explain that we were making great progress with the girls. Talking about our success, and the combination of watching our team come together in the way that we did, and thinking about how many girls we helped, that made me realize I needed to do it.
Q: What are your keys to success as a leader?
A: I treat people the way I want to be treated. I strive to be a woman of my word and operate in integrity. I don’t take myself too seriously, but I am very passionate and serious about ensuring that our girls receive programming of excellence. I realize that this is a journey and I am continuously learning, and though I may be the executive director, I am really here to serve. I never forget that.
Q: What is one of PEARLS’ biggest challenges?
A: We have experienced such tremendous growth, it’s like we are going through growing pains now. From 2012 to 2016, we essentially doubled the number of girls we have served, and grew from 12.5 to 19 full-time employees. We have so many different departments and positions within the organization. We are working on figuring out how we all synchronize. I often have to remind myself that it’s a marathon, not a sprint.
Q: Have you had setbacks as a leader?
A: Absolutely. I learned that people who make it to any level of success actually fail their way to success. You have to be willing to stretch your comfort zone. You very likely may fail, but it’s better to know you tried. Setbacks helped me to realize I possess a certain level of empathy needed for this job. All of them have helped me to understand my capacity. I may not have otherwise believed I could do what I now do without them.
Q: What is the best part about your job, and the toughest part?
A: The best moments are when I get to celebrate a girl on her journey. I get to hear about the impact that the organization has made on her life. Hearing about where they are at now is priceless. They inspire me. The tough part is that I want so badly to morph myself to five or 10 years from now. The financial aspect keeps me up at night. Making sure we make our financial goals is a big weight on my shoulders. It takes a long time to establish relationships with donors. Some donors will want to watch and wait to see how we are doing. We are growing so fast, but making sure we keep our resources is a huge responsibility.
Q: What do you want people to know about PEARLS?
A: I live by the motto: We can be the change we wish to see in the world. PEARLS is an organization that has years of proven outcomes. We have shown that we have the ability to support young women to disrupt and rewrite generational cycles of poverty. We have the toolbox to raise young leaders who can change the world. If there’s anything I would want people to know, it’s that we don’t do that magically. We do it thanks to the support of our community.