Skip to content

Q&A: Phyllis James, President & CEO of Foundation for Women’s Leadership & Empowerment

The 2023 Women's Leadership Conference will be held at MGM Grand on September 18 & 19 in Las Vegas

Phyllis James, President & CEO of Foundation for Women’s Leadership & Empowerment (Courtesy of FWLE)

Phyllis A. James is the President and CEO of Foundation for Women's Leadership and Empowerment (FWLE), a 501(c)3 nonprofit seeking to advance America’s quest for gender and racial equity through production of affordable, high-quality leadership education and development programs primarily for women and people of color, as well as men.

She is a former C-suite executive with more than a decade of service as Chief Diversity & Corporate Responsibility Officer reporting to the Chairman & CEO at MGM Resorts International. Phyllis founded FWLE in 2019 with founding sponsorship from MGM Resorts International.

1) What motivated you to start the Foundation for Women’s Leadership and Empowerment (“FWLE”)?

FWLE was founded in 2019 as an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit with the express mission to empower and equip women (primarily) to excel as leaders at all levels of their workplaces, communities, and all spheres of society. Despite decades of modest at best strides in gender equity, women still occupy a drastically smaller percentage of leadership roles than men in every arena of America – although women comprise half of the U.S. labor force and outnumber men in earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and mountains of data have proven the value of women leaders to the economic performance, productivity, governance and long-term sustainability of their organizations and society overall. Nevertheless, whether in academia, business, government, science, healthcare, law, communications, media, energy, etc., men are still more likely than women to rise to the top-level and highest paying positions. Every year America says “[t]he need for more women leaders has never been more critical,” and every year there seems to be incremental, if any, progress on the issue. In fact, as we move toward the third decade of the 21st century, many believe our gender equity progress has stalled.

The roots of FWLE trace to its remarkable signature program, the Women’s Leadership Conference (“WLC”), which debuted in 2007 as a special project of the MGM Resorts Corporate Diversity & Inclusion Team to push gender equity as a company, industry, and societal priority. WLC was founded as a forum for women and women of color (inextricably intertwined) to connect and uplift each other for greater success by sharing their life experiences and career challenges, finding mutual inspiration, and cultivating networks. As the conference expanded to an organized leadership-focused development program with wider display of accomplished diverse women leaders and broader audience appeal, WLC evolved into the No. 1 women’s conference in Las Vegas and one of the leading western U.S. women’s conferences – since its inception reaching thousands of women aspiring to higher leadership achievement.

Building on this momentum FWLE is dedicated to magnifying the impact of WLC nationwide and spearheading other accessible, high-quality leadership developmental programs, thereby expanding the pipeline of women leaders and contributing to the elimination of the American gender/racial leadership gap.

2) What unique challenges or barriers do women face in leadership positions, and how does your nonprofit address those challenges?

Many systemic reasons combine to hinder the advancement of women leaders, including persistent regressive stereotypes across society casting women in subordinate roles; failure to prioritize women’s leadership development and representation as crucial; lack of appreciation of the economic value of women leaders; lack of organized systems of affordable childcare alleviating the disproportionate burden women bear for child rearing and family management; and discriminatory workplace patterns and practices that adversely impact women’s upward mobility in many ways, not the least of which is access to leadership education and development opportunities that qualify them for growth and advancement. Not only do these macro dynamics retard women’s progress structurally, but they have other detrimental impacts on women as individuals ‒ undermining their leadership aspirations, self-confidence, and proficiency in forming professional networks.

While FWLE cannot directly remedy the macro structural issues, it can and is serving as a potent advocate for gender equality/equity, and WLC demonstrates the conference model as a powerful antidote to the esteem-defeating “isms” women encounter in their workplaces and elsewhere. Most importantly, WLC squarely addresses two of the prime inequities facing women documented by McKinsey/LeanIn’s Women in the Workplace studies – unequal access to leadership developmental tools and disparate encouragement of leadership aspiration. WLC provides a tremendously empowering immersive experience – through main stage presentations by successful, relatable women leaders who exemplify courage and resilience • reinforcement of women’s self-confidence through exposure to hundreds of capable, high-aspiring peer women • first-rate educational sessions on core leadership competencies taught by highly experienced coaches and experts • practical career-building tips • a safe space to practice and foster networking relationships. 97% of last year’s WLC attendees rated it as above average or excellent, underscoring it as the #1 ranked women’s leadership conference in Las Vegas for high-achieving women, women of color (and men) who want to elevate themselves personally and professionally.

Phyllis James at Women's Leadership Conference (Courtesy of FWLE)

3) What advice would you give to individuals or organizations looking to make a positive impact in advancing women’s leadership?

Systematic advancement in the representation of women leaders across all segments of America requires a multi-dimensional approach. First and foremost, we must galvanize our collective will to make gender/racial equality/equity “must have” survival imperatives, rather than the traditional vague and distant “nice to have” notions. We must make the same, if not greater, investment in equality/equity of top-level ownership, resources, and rigorous discipline as the engagement accorded other vital strategic initiatives. Also fundamental to changing our basic mindset is active promotion of a true culture of inclusion and equity that values and respects the humanity and contributions of all. Likewise indispensable measures include 1) equitable distribution to women as well as men of career development opportunities for education, learning, mentorship, coaching and sponsorship, as well as 2) vigilant management and human resources practices that: control for intentional or systemic bias and EEO compliance • promote diversity in career-determinative job decisions (such as promotions and succession planning) • ensure pay equity at every level • support flexible work/life scheduling, childcare, eldercare, and adequate mental health benefits. Finally, it goes without saying that none of this will happen unless there is organizational and individual accountability at all levels. Bottom-line, achieving gender/racial equality and equity will take sustained mission-driven commitment. Our future depends on it.

4) Can you share any memorable or impactful moments from past conferences, and what can we look forward to for the 2023 conference?

Over the years WLC has distinguished itself by a stellar roster of awesome, tremendously diverse women speakers. Amazing presentations at past WLCs include: controlling your money to control your destiny, by financial guru Suze Orman • the genesis of the MeToo movement by founder Tarana Burke in her work supporting sexual assault survivors • navigating the banking industry’s leadership matrix, by Sharon Miller, Bank of America President of Small Business and Head of Specialty Bank & Lending • achieving success as an Asian American woman in the male-dominated media industry, by Lisa Ling, award-winning American journalist, TV personality and author • becoming a self-made success, by Latina immigrant and women’s empowerment advocate Nely Galán, the first Latina U.S. TV network entertainment president (Telemundo), Emmy-award winning TV producer, real estate entrepreneur, and author of New York Times best seller SELF MADE: Becoming Empowered, Self-Reliant, and Rich in Every Way • becoming the first woman president of the NAACP in its 100+-year history, by Rosalind Brock • climbing the summits of Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Everest, by Alison Levine, mountain climber and author • surviving and transcending the 1994 Rwandan genocide, by Immaculée Ilibagiza, former U.N. human rights ambassador, speaker and author (who hid with seven other women for 91 days in a 3 x 4 foot bathroom at a local pastor’s home and emerged only to find almost her entire family brutally murdered).

At our 2023 WLC we are excited to present our first-ever roundtable of women business presidents, from a cross-section of industries – manufacturing (Susan Gambardella, President of North America, Kimberly-Clark Professional™), consumer retail (Julie Rosen, Bath & Body Works Brand President), gaming & hospitality (Melonie Johnson, President & COO, MGM National Harbor) and professional sports (Sandra Douglass Morgan, President, Las Vegas Raiders). In a separate fireside chat we will highlight another woman president, who leads four of the world’s nine leading cruise lines (Jan Swartz, Group President, Princess Cruises, Holland America Line, Seabourn and P&O Cruises Australia). These presidents will discuss their leadership rise; keys and challenges to their career success; and guidance for our audience. In addition, our main stage will feature a sensational roster of keynote speakers, including Col. Nicole Malachowski, Ret. ‒ a jet fighter pilot, combat veteran and flight commander, and first woman pilot on the Thunderbirds Air Demonstration Squadron – on peak performance when it counts; Ryan Leak – best-selling author, executive coach and motivational speaker – on inclusive leadership; and Dethra Giles ‒ a four-time TEDx speaker and coach ‒ on how to prepare for and manifest success.