A Legacy Born

Thanks to people like Sharon Kelly Hake, women are supporting each other in profoundly meaningful ways.

Sharon Kelly Hake, president of Great Dames, Inc., presented “Unleashing Your Inner Leader” as part of WilmU’s Speaker Series on Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2016. The interactive presentation provided participants with a process to discover their leadership power and purpose. 

Sharon Kelly Hake was at a crossroads.

During the late ‘80s and ‘90s, as she piloted the bumpy flight to her senior-level destination at DuPont, she’d finally found clear sky. She scored one promotion after the next, working in finance, communication, corporate social responsibility, public affairs, then as a global marketing leader. She’d earned the privilege of working alongside former Chair and CEO Ellen Kullman.

Hake was flying high. The indefatigable executive put in 70 hours a week for a job she loved. She was traversing the globe, meeting accomplished women who had the kinds of experiences, credentials and backgrounds that any professional would envy.

But as time went on, something started to nag at her.

“These women had all this success,” says Hake, “yet they still struggled to find their voices.” .

Women were running companies. They were doctors, teachers, scientists, corporate and nonprofit leaders, yet were overly polite, stooping to the societal expectation that females should never interrupt, even when someone took credit for their ideas or silenced them before completing their presentations. Their adherence to corporate etiquette meant allowing masculine voices to quiet theirs. Even Hake experienced it, and her voice can fill a room without amplification.

In her 28-year career in corporate America, Hake could not find one professional woman who wasn’t exhausted in some way by the constant fight to be heard. Even Madeleine Albright confirmed that observation, Hake recalls. To paraphrase the first female U.S. Secretary of State, women have to learn to interrupt with powerful voices. And when they do, they’d better have something important to say.

Hake had a lot to say. She rejected fiercely the notion that softer voices meant fewer brain cells. As she traveled globally — including several years living in Spain — she started asking women about their leadership aspirations and strategies for success. She backed up her findings with extensive research and grew intent on discovering what truly mattered to women.

“I learned that while they valued their successes around their families and careers, what motivated women was purposeful work and leaving a legacy,” she says. “They wanted to create their impact on the world. They wanted to make a mark.”

Hake was determined to make that happen.

Call it Destiny

Hake didn’t know when she started at DuPont that her international travel would eventually land her back in Delaware, where she would establish a nonprofit that changed people’s lives. She didn’t know that her hard work would render more than a generous corporate paycheck. What she did know from interviewing hundreds of professional women was that despite their accomplishments, they were personally unfulfilled. They were screaming on the inside. Somebody needed to help them escape their existential prisons and free themselves from the limits society had placed on them.

COEL Dean Dr. Eileen Donnelly chats with WilmU alumna Dr. Bernice Whaley during a “Dames” event.

In 2009, Hake left DuPont at the height of her career to fill that role. She and her daughter Heather Cassey founded Great Dames. Hake’s other daughter, Deirdre Hake, served as principal and project manager. Great Dames is a nonprofit that offers one-on-one coaching, mentoring, high-impact interviewing training, personal branding workshops and an inspirational speaker series. Its services are designed to help people achieve their leadership potential, explore their passions and honor their personal and professional commitments. About 3,000 women globally have embraced Great Dames initiatives since its launch and membership is growing steadily. The nonprofit turned seven last month.

GD_logo2Its Inspirational Speaker Series happens on Monday evenings throughout the year at Pizza by Elizabeths in Greenville, Del., which is also a sponsor. The room is abuzz with diverse women (and men) networking, hugging, sharing stories, eating gourmet pizza and exchanging business cards, but they become silent as Hake’s voice fills the room. She announces the itinerary but mostly praises sponsors, her marketing team, volunteers, photographers, guests and social media gurus. After panelists have been interviewed, she announces that Great Dames makes contributions in each panelist’s name to her favorite charity, an expression of goodwill from one nonprofit to another. Throughout the evening, Hake never loses her intensity. Every sentence is nuanced with definitive timbre.

Wilmington University Executive Vice President Dr. LaVerne Harmon has attended Great Dames events.

“I found Sharon to be an inspiring leader of a vital organization that serves women from diverse backgrounds,” she says. “I was also thrilled to see so many Wilmington University staff and students support its mission.”

Dr. Regina Allen-Sharpe, assistant professor and senior director of career services and student life, is the primary reason those WilmU colleagues have attended. She’s been a Great Dame for four years and regularly champions WilmU students and staffers who wish to attend. “It provides support for anyone who needs to define and refine their leadership abilities,” says Allen-Sharpe. “Great Dames offers mentoring opportunities and workshops led by influential and accomplished leaders, and it encourages us to give and volunteer in our communities.”

Student Government Association President Gabrielle (Gigi) Gaul is a “Dames” regular.
Student Government Association President Gabrielle (Gigi) Gaul is a “Dames” regular.

Senior-level WilmU student Gabrielle (Gigi) Gaul is also a “dame.” “I attend Great Dames events because they encourage me to strive toward developing new ideas, building new connections and seeking new opportunities,” she says. “I’ve been provided the opportunity to meet and network with such profound female leaders that have remarkable experiences to share.”

Dr. Eileen Donnelly, assistant vice president of technology and dean of the College of Online and Experiential Learning, attended a jam-packed event in March that featured an interview with Delaware Economic Development Director and WilmU alumna Dr. Bernice Whaley, in addition to an ideation session that prepared applicants for the second Remarkable Ideas Competition. (The winner received $25,000 in seed money and services.) Last year, WilmU alumna Tanya Whye won for her proposal of Delaware Green Mattress Disassembling and Recycling, a company that dismantles used mattresses and box springs to recover recyclables.

“The Great Dames event was an excellent way to learn about how the Delaware Economic Development Office supports organizational needs in the state,” says Donnelly. “It was also so inspiring to hear about the extraordinary ways that women are striving to start or build their businesses. Sharon provides such a wonderful environment for people to meet and share ideas. She’s an outstanding contributor to our community.”

Whaley, who earned her DBA in April, agrees. “My experience with Great Dames has been energizing,” she says. “What a remarkable effort to bring together a diverse group of innovative, entrepreneurial and inspiring women (and men) who not only help each other to believe in themselves, but in just a couple hours helped me as well.”

Hake also offers keynotes and workshops in the area. She won raves recently for her TEDxWilmington talk at Baylor Women’s Correctional Institute, where she focused on second chances. “Her talk was inspiring,” says Government Relations Director Simone George. “It was delivered with such an air of humility. I hung on her every word.”

The Genesis

Hake’s erudition came through hard work. She hired an executive coach who helped her face her leadership strengths and weaknesses. Glenn Hake, her best friend and husband of 35 years, and their daughters also were influential. Each offered distinct viewpoints, leading Hake to the realization that perspective from people who care is almost always right. Without it we’re lost, left to roam aimlessly in our myopia.

Her tipping point came in 2008, when she read an article that reported findings from an American Sociological Review study. It revealed that on average, people have fewer than two close friends in their lives. (Facebook friends don’t count.) “These are the people we can count on in our hour of need — and that includes spouses,” says Hake. “I made up my mind then and there to start a company that addresses these deep issues that women face: not only finding their voices but also discovering their passions. But they were also going to forge friendships. They would be kindred spirits.” (Thus the company tagline, “Kindred Spirits with Purpose.”)

“I’m very proud to say that over the past seven years,” Hake says, “I have seen powerful friendships being forged, and I forged friendships I never had while working in corporate America.”

WilmU Graduate Admissions Associate Kelli Stranahan is one of those dear friends. As Great Dames’ operations/administrative assistant, she works behind the scenes to support the growth of its social venture, which engages a community of women leaders and entrepreneurs who are passionate about making a difference. “Not only does Sharon connect this group of women,” says Stranahan, “but she is the pure essence of a Great Dame.”

Inherited Sensibilities

Hake’s mother, Jacqueline Revie Kelly, was an artist who struggled to find her artistic voice her entire life. She designed and made clothing, furniture and art. But she was born in 1928. “If she had been born in 1958 or 1998,” says Hake, “she’d be running a successful company. In a lot of ways, my mother was an important inspiration for Great Dames.”

As was her father, The Honorable James McGirr Kelly, who was nominated by President Ronald Reagan as a judge on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. Hake describes him as a gentle, deeply religious man who had an extraordinary presence. He felt that his seven children were lucky to be born to the family and reminded them that others were not as fortunate. Accordingly, the siblings had to justify their existence — every night at the dinner table.

“He saw every day as an opportunity,” Hake says.

Kelly earned a bachelor’s in economics from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and after serving as a Navy gunnery officer during the Korean War on the USS Belle Grove and being discharged in 1953, received his law degree from Temple University. He encouraged his children to do their undergraduate work in philosophy, literature, arts or economics. “He said we needed to learn how to learn,” says Hake. “Graduate school was for getting a job.” (Hake earned a bachelor’s in art education and art history from Pennsylvania State University then an MBA from Temple.)

“My father wanted us to follow our bliss as long as it had purpose,” she says.  “He never defined it for us. He wanted us to find it out for ourselves.”

Kelly died in 2005. “When he was told at 70 that he had terminal lung cancer and six months to live, he refused any treatment and said he was very satisfied with the life he had lived and was prepared to meet his maker,” says Hake. “Of course, he lived another six years. And he did not die from lung cancer.”

At his funeral, many said that Kelly made them feel special. “He cared about everyone, regardless of their positions or status,” says Hake. It explains why hundreds attended, and why his presence still guides Hake in a spiritually enriching way.

“I made up my mind that I was going to make him proud of me,” she says.

Most daughters would wish the same of their fathers. But in the Kelly family, pride is complicated. It’s not about promotions or salaries or titles. It’s about legacy. James Kelly planted in his daughter the seeds of an altruistic idea that would one day become Great Dames. She would create her legacy. And she’d help others create theirs as well. WU

To see Sharon Kelly Hake’s TEDxWilmington talk at Baylor Women’s Correctional Institute, visit http://great-dames.com/discover-your-inner-leader.