Since taking the helm as CEO of YWCA Metropolitan Chicago in 2013, Dorri McWhorter has embarked on a mission to move the organization into the 21st century by embracing the digital age and crafting a sustainable business model. McWhorter recently sat down with FW: Chicago to talk about empowering women and why our communities thrive when women are given the tools they need to succeed.
Spend a significant amount of time living in a city like Chicago and you will likely develop some sort of impenetrable veneer—something that serves to protect you from any number of real and perceived threats. Dorri McWhorter seems to have missed that memo.
I first met McWhorter at the YWCA Annual Luncheon this past fall and found her to be as warm and immediately welcoming as someone I already knew for years. When we connected again several weeks later at the Uber Chicago headquarters for this story, we picked up right where we left off, with McWhorter eager to talk about her role at the YWCA Metropolitan Chicago and why it is important that businesses operate in concert with making the world a better place.
Born in Englewood and raised in Racine, Wisconsin, McWhorter recalls a happy childhood marked by a genuine concern for the welfare of others (a letter to Santa that she still has and read aloud during the interview asked, in part, “to make everyone alive be ok”), as well as being a bit of a social butterfly. Well-liked in school, she remembers being “a very, very social person. For my senior class, I was voted ‘Most School Spirit’ and ‘Most Likely to Succeed.’” She also had an aptitude for math and, by middle school, knew she wanted to be an accountant. When she achieved her goal of becoming a CPA, she found people often had a difficult time reconciling her gregarious personality with the stereotypical notion of what an accountant should be. Throw in an unabashed love of fashion (she is a fan of local designer Maria Pinto), and you can see how McWhorter would be quite the standout in CPA circles.
McWhorter’s professional background—which included a stint as a partner at Crowe Horwath, LLP—coupled with her interest in civic duty led to her current role as CEO at YWCA Metropolitan Chicago. She is steadfast in her opinion that business should have a mission to serve a greater good. “I do have this very personal philosophy that all businesses serve humanity,” she says, “and the only role of business is to move society forward.”
While we would normally consider an organization like YWCA a nonprofit, McWhorter bristles at that idea. “I actually hate the term ‘not-for-profit’ because no business—I don’t care what your strategy is—can operate without profit.” When she took the reins at YWCA, McWhorter recognized a need to shake up the business model and look for opportunities that could make the organization more sustainable while upholding its original purpose. She explains, “The Y clearly knows how it impacts society. But what it didn’t have a good grip on, in my opinion, was how to operate it to actually be profitable.” This past spring under McWhorter’s direction, the YWCA launched YShop.org, an e-commerce site selling a curated selection of goods and services from businesses that support the mission of the YWCA.
Developing mutually beneficial partnerships with businesses is McWhorter’s strong suit—one that underpins a core part of its mission. The Y focuses on three areas central to empowering
women: freedom from violence, access to quality education and training, and economic stability. Historically, helping women become self-sufficient has been a constant thread for the organization, and that has not changed even as the YWCA Metropolitan Chicago celebrates its 140th anniversary in 2016.
McWhorter recalls seeing a copy of a vintage magazine called Chicago Girl published by the YWCA in the 1930s. The issue featured a section telling young women about setting up their own checking accounts. The same publication also listed classes that were available for “colored girls,” demonstrating the organization was integrated long before it was required by law. “The YWCA has always sort of been on the leading edge, the forward-thinking voice of its time,” McWhorter says.
Now, helping women find their footing professionally in the 21st century is a challenge that McWhorter gladly takes on with full force. Recently, the YWCA has partnered with the Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau to place women in high-growth and high-paying jobs that lead to rewarding careers. Of course, a primary focus is placing women in information technology positions. One initiative called Developing Digital Diversity (3D) is focused on web and mobile app development, a program that the YWCA runs out of tech incubator 1871. Another important program is Construct, a partnership with ComEd that brings women into the utility construction field. Most recently, YWCA has connected with Uber, which has been actively recruiting more women drivers. This is a collaboration that McWhorter is especially excited about, as it allows for the flexibility that many women need in order to take care of their children. “What’s great about this is we are recruiting women to drive for Uber because that can have an immediate, direct financial impact in their homes.”
YWCA has been proactive in recognizing that a major barrier many women face when looking for employment is finding quality, affordable childcare. “We see childcare providers as instrumental to the entire ecosystem of women in the workplace.” McWhorter says. “Clearly, women who have children cannot work if they do not have appropriate care or educational opportunities for their children, right?” YWCA not only connects women with childcare providers, the Y also helps these providers turn their love of children into profitable businesses that can thrive. This month, a program called Mrytle’s Club will launch with the goal of helping childcare providers optimize their businesses by offering referral services and classes and helping them buy supplies at deep discounts.
With her dynamic personality, passion for humanity, and exceptional understanding of what it takes for a business to get positive results, Dorri McWhorter is not just furthering the work of the YWCA Metropolitan Chicago as it tackles the issues facing the women of this city. She’s also using her collaborative talents to bring on other businesses to help shoulder the load.
Learn more about YWCA Metropolitan Chicago at ywcachicago.org.