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Stepping Aside to Step Up: Why Vanessa McDowell-Atlas' Move to BGV's COO Role is a Power Move for Black & Brown Women

Photo credit Hedi Lamarr Photography

Vanessa McDowell-Atlas, former CEO of YWCA Madison, isn't your typical leader. With a deep-seated commitment to her community and a passion for social justice, her path to the top wasn't a linear one. Growing up in Madison, Wisconsin, she witnessed firsthand the challenges many face, fueling her desire to make a difference.

This interview delves into the compelling story of the journey of Black Girl Ventures' newly appointed COO. Her story is a powerful reminder that leadership can take many forms, and true impact starts with a deep-rooted connection to the community you serve.

How do you reflect on your nine years as CEO of YWCA Madison, Wisconsin and what accomplishments are you most proud of during your tenure?

Reflecting on her nine years at YWCA Madison, Vanessa feels particularly introspective as this year, the theme for her and her staff is "reflection." Looking back, she is immensely proud of how the organization has transformed during her tenure.

Vanessa said, “When I first stepped in, YWCA Madison, despite its mission of empowering women and eliminating racism, was unfortunately known within communities of color as the "white woman's organization. They told me this straight up. And I was like, we’re going to have to change that." This stark disconnect fueled her determination to change the narrative through words and intentional action.

Her focus then shifted to fostering an authentic and inclusive internal culture. They hired diversely, actively listened to feedback, and ensured their internal practices embodied their values. Today, YWCA Madison isn't just more diverse; it's a community that deeply reflects its mission, both in its makeup and its actions. Vanessa said, “I'm most proud of the fact that we not only look a lot different, but we feel a lot different.”

But her vision extended beyond YWCA's walls. South Madison, a vibrant community facing the challenges of gentrification, held a special place in her heart. In 2017, they took a bold step, relocating their second location from an inaccessible area to the heart of South Madison. Vanessa wanted to prevent the gentrification that was happening. She said, “When I first came in, I was just like, we're gonna own this building one day. And as of December 2022, we own the building.” To truly serve the community, they knew ownership was crucial.  

However, ownership wasn't enough. Vanessa wanted to empower local businesses. She said, “When I discovered the beloved Mexican restaurant attached to our building was operating as tenants for the past 20 years, I saw an opportunity. We facilitated the sale of the restaurant space to its owner and his wife, securing their future and fostering Black and Brown commercial ownership in South Madison. I saw the owner the other day, and he said, "You made the impossible possible.” For Vanessa, it wasn't just about bricks and mortar; it was about empowering and uplifting the community they served.

What challenges did you face during your time as CEO, and how did you overcome them?

Leading YWCA Madison had its challenges. As Vanessa McDowell-Atlas, the organization's first Black woman CEO, readily admits, her daily reality included confronting racism, sexism, and ageism. One particularly disheartening memory stands out: a meeting with a potential funder who questioned her very right to the position. His final dismissive words, "Well, just so you know, we don't have any money," served as a stark reminder of the obstacles she would face.

But Vanessa refused to let prejudice define her leadership. Instead, she vowed to uphold her integrity and prioritize "trusted philanthropy" – funding that empowered her agency and respected the vision. She actively educated funders about the importance of unrestricted giving, especially for Black and Brown women leaders, highlighting the trust implicit in such support.

Can you share any personal values or principles guiding your leadership and decision-making approach?

When it comes to leadership, Vanessa doesn't mince words. "Be authentic," she declares, her voice radiating genuineness. "You are a gift, and the world needs your unique perspective." This philosophy underpins everything she does, from empowering her staff to using her platform as CEO of YWCA Madison to advocate for truth and justice.

But authenticity isn't just about expressing oneself; it's about leading with integrity. For Vanessa, that means "truth-telling." "My voice matters," she states, "and I have a responsibility to share my own truth and the truths of the people we serve." Leading a non-profit dedicated to empowering women and eliminating racism, she doesn't shy away from difficult conversations, using her platform to shine a light on injustices and inspire change.

Leadership by example lies at the heart of Vanessa's approach. "I don't ask my team to do anything I wouldn't do," she emphasizes. This philosophy was truly tested during the COVID-19 pandemic. YWCA Madison, an essential service provider, remained open 24/7. "I was right there with them," Vanessa recalls, "cleaning rooms, taking overnight shifts, whatever needed to be done." Her visibility wasn't just about practicality but about fostering solidarity and shared struggle.

This dedication to being present extends beyond crisis moments. Vanessa believes in "modeling empathy." It's not just about understanding people's challenges; it's about demonstrating genuine care and connection. "I'm not a leader you won't see," she says. "I'm with the people I serve, shoulder to shoulder."

What lessons have you learned about leadership and organizational management throughout your career?

Nine years at the helm of YWCA Madison have undoubtedly equipped Vanessa with a wealth of leadership wisdom. But when asked about crucial takeaways, she chuckles, "Narrow it down? That's tough!" One lesson that stands out, etched in the fires of experience, is navigating the unexpected.

"Early on, every curveball sent me reeling," she admits. "Each unforeseen challenge felt like a personal failure. But over time, I learned to expect the unexpected, to remain calm in the storm." This newfound resilience wasn't just about personal growth but about leading by example.

"As a leader," Vanessa explains, "people look to you for composure, even when the ground is shifting. Especially during COVID, when everything changed overnight, I became the anchor, the steady presence amidst the chaos." The lesson resonated: leadership lies not in controlling the tides but in weathering them with grace and unwavering resolve.

Beyond the unexpected, Vanessa emphasizes the importance of understanding individual needs. "There's no one-size-fits-all approach to leadership," she asserts. "Each person responds differently and needs different kinds of support. Building genuine relationships becomes crucial." This mantra fueled her journey, allowing her to connect with each team member deeper, tailoring her leadership style to empower each individual's unique potential.

What advice do you have for aspiring Black women leaders looking to make an impact in their communities?

Vanessa, the powerhouse former CEO of YWCA Madison, is known for her unwavering commitment to social justice and community empowerment. Today, she offers invaluable advice to aspiring Black and brown women leaders: do it scared, and don't be afraid to use your voice.

Vanessa speaks candidly about her own struggles with anxiety, acknowledging that the path to leadership is often paved with fear. Yet, she urges aspiring leaders to embrace this fear, framing it as a signpost indicating the very things they're called to do. "Do it scared," she emphasizes, "because that's what courage really is."

This rallying cry extends beyond personal trepidation. Vanessa highlights the power of truth-telling, reminding us that sharing our unique perspectives, even when daunting, is a gift to the world. "Taking this role on was extremely scary," she admits, "but I had to do it scared." Facing her fears head-on empowered her to lead with authenticity and purpose.

But the journey doesn't end there. Vanessa emphasizes the importance of using our voices, amplified by the richness of our diverse experiences. "We all come from different backgrounds," she says, "and we all have something to offer." This call to action is a powerful reminder to step out of silence and contribute our unique stories to the world's tapestry.

What excites you most about this new chapter in your career, and what goals do you hope to accomplish as COO of Black Girl Ventures?

After nine impactful years at YWCA Madison, Vanessa embarks on a new adventure as COO of Black Girl Ventures (BGV). Excitement dances in her voice as she describes what fuels her enthusiasm for this transition:

1. Empowering Sisterhood: "Supporting another Black woman's vision," she declares. "Having experienced leading an organization myself, I understand the invaluable support needed to translate vision into reality. I'm here to do just!"

2. Amplifying Untapped Potential: "Being in a space where my identity is valued as a Black woman excites me," Vanessa asserts. "I'm thrilled to champion Black and brown women entrepreneurs across the nation. Brilliant ideas often lack access to resources, and I'm eager to hear these women's dreams and help them soar!"

3. Building Bridges and Recognizing Hearts: "I love getting to know people and supporting them in any way I can," Vanessa beams. "Building relationships with the BGV team and using my gift of deep listening and connecting bridges, even in moments of disconnect, fills me with anticipation."

This transition isn't just about a new role; it's about personal growth. Vanessa seeks to learn from BGV's mission and contribute her unique talents to its expansion. Her focus on fostering collaboration and amplifying voices is a testament to her leadership style – one that builds upon individual strengths and fosters collective impact.

What opportunities do you see for future growth and expansion for Black Girl Ventures?

The future of Black Girl Ventures (BGV) buzzes with potential, and newly appointed COO Vanessa is brimming with ideas. Her vision extends far beyond borders, fueled by a deep desire to empower Black and brown women entrepreneurs across the globe. Vanessa acknowledges BGV's established footprint but sees immense potential for expansion: "There are other spaces we can venture into," she declares, excitement evident in her voice. "People are already reaching out – even before I started! – eager to see BGV in their communities."

This enthusiasm stems from Vanessa's personal connections and her unwavering commitment to her community. "I want to leverage my network and bring BGV to new areas," she emphasizes, visualizing a map teeming with opportunities. "Supporting even more Black and Brown women, nationally and internationally, excites me to my core."

But Vanessa's approach is grounded in humility and respect. "I have a lot to learn," she readily admits. "I don't want to presume, but judging by what BGV has achieved in such a short time, the potential feels limitless."

Vanessa's excitement isn't just contagious; it's strategic. She envisions collaborative growth, leveraging existing initiatives, and fostering new connections. "How can we expand internationally?" she wonders, already seeking solutions. 

What message would you like to convey to the Black Girl Ventures community and supporters as you step into this new role?

As Vanessa steps into the COO role at BGV, a collective "Who's that?" might echo amidst the vibrant community. Yet, her message is clear and resounding: "I'm here as an open vessel, ready to be used in support of BGV's mission." Her enthusiasm transcends a new job; it speaks to a deep alignment with BGV's purpose. "Joining such an amazing organization isn't a coincidence," Vanessa declares, her voice filled with conviction. "I believe in destiny, and I'm thrilled to live mine out with BGV."

This open vessel metaphor is more than just an expression; it's a call to action. Vanessa seeks to be filled with the needs, aspirations, and voices of the BGV community. She doesn't come in with a rigid agenda; instead, she offers her experience, skills, and connections as tools to be molded and shaped by the collective good.

This collaborative spirit isn't just a preference; it's a strategic choice. BGV thrives on community, and Vanessa recognizes that actual growth stems from shared vision and collective action. Her message doesn't just reassure skeptics; it invites the entire BGV community to co-create the future.

How do you prioritize self-care and maintain resilience while navigating the demands of leadership roles?

Leadership can be a demanding dance, a constant push and pull between responsibility and self-care. With Vanessa’s infectious energy and dedication to Black and brown women's empowerment, she navigates this dance gracefully and resiliently. But how does she do it?

"Breaks are crucial," Vanessa emphasizes, reflecting on lessons learned. "I used to push myself too hard, ignoring my body and mental health. Then, at a Black Women's Wellness conference, a CEO's words resonated deeply: 'Being a strong Black woman is killing us.' We forget ourselves while caring for others."

For her, music is the escape valve. "I'm a DJ," she declares with a grin, "spinning tunes becomes my outlet, a chance to release and recharge." Whether DJing or taking real breaks – like her recent honeymoon in Jamaica – she prioritizes experiences that rejuvenate and reconnect her to her core.

But self-care extends beyond relaxation. "Massages help ease the daily tension," Vanessa says, "and therapy has been essential. I’ve had therapists on and off to help me manage my mental health, to have a resource and get me outside of my own thoughts."

What is your favorite mantra?

Vanessa recites softly, quoting a scripture close to her heart. She says, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you were faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things.” Striving to please God becomes a driving force, ensuring her actions stem from integrity and compassion.

But leadership isn't just about internal motivation; it's about impact. This is where Maya Angelou's words resonate deeply: "People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel." 

For Vanessa, this translates into a commitment to leaving a lasting positive impression. It's not about self-promotion; it's about connecting authentically, creating space for others to be heard and empowered, and leaving a mark on their hearts long after interactions have ended.

What food do you have a hard time saying no to?


As Vanessa embarks on this new chapter, her story serves as a beacon of hope and possibility. It reminds us that even the most ordinary individuals can create extraordinary impact. So, let her journey be a catalyst, inspiring you to step into your own power, embrace your community, and rewrite the narrative of what leadership can indeed be. The future is unwritten, and together, we have the power to shape it into something beautiful.

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