WE ARE WOMEN UNITED.
SPOTLIGHT: LAURA GILLIAM.
Tell us about yourself.
I was raised in North Carolina and moved to Huntington, West Virginia in 1990. My husband’s job took us there, and it is where our two children were born and raised. It is also where I began my nearly 22-year career in the non-profit sector. Improving our communities, advocating for struggling individuals and families, and engaging people in problem-solving are very important to me, which is why I love my work with United Way. Years ago, I was told to “bloom where you’re planted” which is what I try to do no matter where I live.
When and how did you first become involved with United Way?
I’ve worked in the United Way system since 2005, starting as the Executive Director of United Way of the River Cities. I had worked for another non-profit in Huntington for 9 years, and after I left I was approached by a search committee member to apply for the UWRC position. It’s been a great organization with which to work!
What do you love most about United Way?
Helping people find ways to improve the lives of their neighbors, colleagues, friends, and family is one of the things I love about United Way. I also believe that it is absolutely necessary to collaborate to solve the greatest issues faced by our communities, which is an approach United Way embraces.
What is your favorite memory or event with Women United?
The equivalent to Women United at United Way of the River Cities in Huntington was called Power of the Purse. One of my favorite events was helping lower-income high school girls get ready for prom. We donated dresses, gave them makeovers and manicures, and did their hair. It was a great way to help them feel more involved with their school and boost their self-esteem. We also conducted an annual fundraising event around the Kentucky Derby called “Hats Off for the Derby.” It was a great excuse to wear a big hat!
What compelled you to join Women United?
I believe in the power of women in philanthropy.
What is the best advice you can offer to young women and men as they start their careers?
Give yourself time to figure out what you enjoy doing. I worked for 11 years before I found the work I knew I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Although my other jobs ultimately weren’t as satisfying, I learned a lot from each of them which helped shape me as an employee, manager, and leader.
What accomplishment are you most proud of? Or What is your greatest achievement and how has it shaped you?
Personally, my greatest achievement – in partnership with my husband – is raising two kind and compassionate children who are committed to service. Professionally, I am most proud of successfully moving United Way of the River Cities in Huntington from a traditional United Way to an organization that is collaborative, a convener, and one that focuses on finding long-term solutions to the community’s most critical issues. Both have taught me to be a better listener; to communicate more; to persevere; and to be patient.
What aspect of your work are you most passionate about?
Looking for root-causes to our community’s problems, and working with a variety of organizations to solve them. It is also critical that we engage in community conversations around these issues. When people talk to each other, it helps them better understand their neighbor and helps them have a different perspective.
What is something you think everyone should do at least once in their lives?
I think everyone should do at least one thing that scares them. Last year I conquered two fears – I rode on a very tall and fast roller coaster at Universal Studios; and, I free-rappelled down a 200-foot building in Huntington. To successfully do something that normally strikes fear in your heart gives you an incredible sense of accomplishment and power!
If you could trade places with any other person for a week, famous or not, living or dead, real or fictional, with whom would it be and why?
Wow, that’s a hard one for some reason! Maybe J.K. Rowling. Her perseverance, persistence, and belief in herself at a time when her world seemed to be crumbling are lessons for all of us. I marvel at her imagination in creating the Harry Potter series and am so grateful for the overarching message that love triumphs. She came through a rough time with grace and found a creative and magical way to communicate this very basic lesson.