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Advancing Access to Women’s Achievements: An Interview with Frédérique Irwin

As part of the University of Utah David Eccles School of Business, Sorenson Impact Institute’s greatest impact is through empowering tomorrow’s leaders with transformative, experiential learning, real-world training, and mentorship. This series revisits Sorenson Impact Institute alumni — both former students and staff — who are leading successful careers in impact.

Visit the online exhibits at the National Women’s History Museum and you can explore a diverse range of topics that define U.S. women’s history: The critical role of African American women in the Civil Rights movement; the women of NASA; the cultural, economic, social and political barriers women have overcome to play competitive sports; Latinas in the fight for women’s suffrage; the history of nursing.

“This new generation believes deeply in equity and fairness,” says Frédérique Irwin, the Museum’s President and CEO. “I believe that if we can get to them early enough to educate them on what women have done, are doing, and can do (which is always vastly underrepresented in textbooks around them), we can truly change the paradigm of how they see — and can help build — a more inclusive and equitable future.”

Irwin has dedicated her career to driving impact. In her former role as Managing Director of Impact Strategy and Measurement at Sorenson Impact Institute, Irwin helped drive systems-level change through projects focused on major social and impact issues that integrated organizations at the local, state, and federal level with the private and philanthropic sectors. Before that, she ran Her Corner, a consultancy working with thousands of women business owners to help them scale their businesses.

Today, Irwin sees her leadership at the National Women’s History Museum as the natural progression of a career focused on driving impact around equality and equity. “My desire for women to achieve equality and equitable opportunities is a common thread that has run through all elements of my professional life,” she says. “My journey has been a reflection of my own drive to see where and how I could personally make the most impact.”

In this Q&A, Sorenson Impact Institute chats with Irwin about what’s next for the National Women’s History Museum and how she hopes to carry forward the lessons she’s learned in collaboration and leadership to help further a shared national knowledge of the remarkable achievements and infinite capabilities of women.

Sorenson Impact Institute: How has your passion for women’s equity guided your career trajectory across sectors?

Frédérique Irwin: When I ran Her Corner, we worked with thousands of individual women to help them scale their businesses. As fulfilling as that was, it was a very point-to-point model, and after 10 years I realized that in that role I would never reach the volume of women and level of impact I wanted to see. Working on systems-level changes at Sorenson inspired me by imagining what change could be possible if key stakeholders came together, but I also realized that these systems are so deeply ingrained into the fabric of our culture that they would take years to change — perhaps more years than I would live to see.

And so I made a pivot to the National Women’s History Museum, where we focus on two audiences: K-12 educators (and the children in their classrooms) as well as 5- to 30-year-olds outside the classroom. This new generation believes deeply in equity and fairness. I believe that if we can get to them early enough to educate them on what women have done, are doing, and can do (which is always vastly underrepresented in textbooks around them), we can truly change the paradigm of how they see — and can help build — a more inclusive and equitable future.

SII: Can you share a standout success story you’ve seen in your career? How did it shape your approach to fostering equity in entrepreneurship?

FI: One of the most common and meaningful successes I have seen repeatedly is what women can achieve once they believe they can.

Ask yourself for a moment at what age little boys start thinking they are physically stronger than girls, and girls start thinking boys are less vulnerable than girls — it starts around age 9 or 10. Now play that forward and see how those messages are reinforced in every other gender stereotype, cultural norm, story, and lesson we are told growing up.

When a young woman goes out into the world to do anything — run for office, launch a business, enter a STEM field, negotiate a job offer — all of that messaging surrounds not only her, but everyone else around her. And it holds her down.

When I have witnessed women overcome these stereotypes or their own prescribed limitations, it is incredible. And it has deeply influenced my path to find out how to amplify that experience as broadly as possible.

SII: Tell us about a recent project you’re excited about.

FI: I want to see the Museum lean into the use of technology at such a level that anywhere our demographic (ages 5 to 30) finds themselves, they have access to women’s history and stories of accomplishment. I call it making our work not only technology enabled but technology accessible.
For example, we plan to partner with leading digital design agencies to enhance our classroom programs and leverage platforms like Twitch and Snapchat to create immersive experiences that overlay history within community spaces and embed into the cultural conversation.
New physical exhibitions will feature 3D immersive experiences that allow visitors to be part of the narrative no matter where they are and a digital activation plan to amplify content across various social media channels and platforms.
Over the Museum’s nearly 30-year history, we have become best in class in featuring live and virtual programs, online exhibits, digital educational content, and a vibrant online presence, drawing 5 million website visitors each year. Our offerings are freely available 24/7, 365 days a year. Today we are positioned at the forefront of a museum renaissance for the 21st century, and we are poised to meet the escalating demands of a tech-literate generation. It is absolutely thrilling!

SII: What keeps you inspired in your work?

FI: We all have days when we wonder if the work we do will actually achieve the impact we seek. But in my heart, I genuinely believe that I can contribute to a better future for all of us by working every day to advance access to what women have already achieved, are achieving today, and can achieve tomorrow.

I see a future for our country where all people who identify as women, regardless of race, class, age or cultural background, can achieve collective advancement and be equally visible and represented in areas of economic parity, political engagement, healthcare and education. And this keeps me inspired and motivated no matter what the day brings.

SII: What advice would you give someone interested in pursuing a career in impact?

FI: One of my favorite things the Sorenson Impact Institute is working on is developing a curriculum to educate students about the impact industry, both at the University of Utah and more broadly, including through student fellowship programs and incredible experiences like SOCAP. For those who are new to their professional careers or looking to make a change, I always say that step one is to learn. See what’s going on, meet people already in the space. Then get in the pool — the world needs more people focused on impact careers, so please don’t take too long!

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Photo: Courtesy of the National Women’s History Museum