“Personal transformation is the key to social transformation”: An Interview with Kristina Leonardi
Career/life coach, motivational speaker and founder of The Women’s Mosaic® Kristina Leonardi talks to Paradigm Shift NYC about women’s empowerment, creating a nonprofit and the experience of being a personal coach..
The Women’s Mosaic® (TWM) is a nonprofit organization that provides opportunities for women to connect to themselves, each other and the world around them through programs that promote intercultural understanding and personal growth. Since January 2001, TWM has inspired, motivated and educated women with over 100 unique activities and events that “build bridges, expand horizons, and improve the lives of women both here and abroad.”
As a coach and speaker, Kristina has a down-to-earth approach that provides a practical framework for each individual to make the most of their personal and professional lives, allowing them to recognize, connect to, and fulfill their role in the world at large and live with clarity, balance and direction. She has a proven record of getting “stuck” clients empowered to make lasting changes aligned with their true passions and talents in a short time.
You can learn more about Kristina’s coaching and speaking at kristinaleonardi.com where you can also check out her weekly blog posts which have garnered quite the following through her weekly Personal Growth Gab eblasts. Follow her on Twitter @clearlykristina.
What inspired you to create The Women’s Mosaic®?
I really wanted to use all of my talents, skills, abilities, and passions in one place and combine my interest in intercultural understanding, women’s empowerment, and personal growth. But I couldn’t find it out there, so I created it. All the programs contain one or more components of those aspects…TWM was a way to share my knowledge of different cultures and express myself in a variety of ways, which has inspired and educated other women in the process. This is what I try to explain in my speaking and coaching–if everyone just shared who they are, other folks will automatically benefit!
Can you tell us about some of the earliest programs that TWM offered?
Initially, The Women’s Mosaic was about having ethnic dinners with guest speakers and highlighting a women’s issue in that particular culture. The goal was to have women learn in an informal, but structured way. Instead of having to go to a lecture in some big auditorium, we were having an intimate authentic experience in a relaxed environment, with food being one of the main attractions – something that everyone can automatically connect and relate to!
How has The Women’s Mosaic® evolved since its inception?
TWM grew from small ethnic dinners to include more comprehensive panel discussions, film screenings and workshops. For instance, we hosted a discussion with women from all branches of the military in “My Life as a Female Soldier in Iraq.” Other examples of panels were “Girls, Gods & Goddesses: Women’s Relationship to Religion & Spirituality,” “Politics Schmolitics” (where it was very hard to find a Republican woman in NYC!), and “Health & Nutrition: Perspectives from Around the World,” all of which brought together diverse voices to educate attendees about the topic from a variety of viewpoints and experiences. It’s always about bringing a human face and stories to a variety of issues so that we can all learn from, connect to and be inspired by one another. You can see a list of all past events on our website. We’ve been in transition the past two years and are evolving yet again, so stay tuned for what’s next…
What was your favorite TWM program?
In 2002, just a year after 9/11, we did a program called “My Life as a Muslim Woman.” We had nine ethnically diverse, mostly American, Muslim women represented. They were phenomenal. You have to remember the ignorance of your average American at that time—most knew very little or nothing about Islam except for the most extreme fundamentalist version of it, so the intent was to dispel the prejudice and myths that existed (and unfortunately, still do in many respects). Even just walking into that room, a lot of people arrived thinking they were going to see all of these submissive, weak women covered from head to toe— but only three of the nine women were covered—in varying degrees—and they could not have been more accomplished and articulate about their identity and understanding of their faith. They absolutely shattered so many stereotypes and misconceptions that were particularly pervasive at that time.
The most surprising thing, though, was that we had about fifty people there—half the attendees were non-Muslim, and the other half were Muslim. Because there is so much diversity within the religion itself, they had never really come together like this. It was fascinating and significant to help unite that community at such a pivotal time. To me, I think that was the far greater benefit: that the Muslim women got to talk to and connect with each other and share their individual and collective experiences. In my life, it’s one of the things that I’m most proud of.
What is the role of The Women’s Mosaic® in the feminist movement?
The funny thing is that I never considered myself a feminist per se—this organization was completely born out of my own desire to be who I am and empower myself, to educate women about different cultures and balance out all the testosterone that had run amok in the world. We’re at a tipping point now that acknowledges the fact that the empowerment of women and girls leads to a better life for everyone, but twelve years ago, no one was talking about that so directly. At the time we started most women’s organizations were profession-specific and issue-specific; there was nothing out there that was just for women to continue to develop themselves on a personal level. The women that we appealed to are the majority, regular working woman who is still looking to learn and grow and be exposed to unique ideas and people. The Women’s Mosaic provided a very palatable way for women to continue to expand their horizons and interact with women they might not have the chance to otherwise.
Have you encountered any negativity or difficulties along the way?
Well, not really negativity but more that it has been a challenge sustaining and funding the organization through foundations, partly because we’re offering something so intangible. How do you quantify changing someone’s perception about Muslim women? We didn’t easily fit into any traditional funding category because, for instance, we weren’t serving women with survival needs—yet these ‘average’ women are the ones who could actually have the best chance to make change in their lives and the lives of those around them. A lot of the women who went to events got involved in the issues we talk about…but to quantify and measure inspiration, motivation, dispelling of prejudice, identity and personal growth… it’s something invaluable that wasn’t as recognized in that sense. The good news is that there are other sources to tap into, and in recent years new funders are starting to support more transformational programs like ours.
How did you find out about and become involved with Paradigm Shift NYC?
I met Lisa [the Co-Founder of Paradigm Shift NYC] at a presentation about website design and she introduced me to Meredith. I dig Meredith. I’m really impressed with what she does with her programming and outreach. She’s really collaborative, which is great.
Can you tell us a little bit about your coaching?
It happened very organically. Because of my own journey and mentoring many interns and volunteers, I realized I have a natural ability to get through people’s massive blocks and issues, heal any work/life imbalance and help them figure out their true calling. I’m really compassionate, understanding and loving in the way that I do my coaching, but I tell it like it is, which can sometimes be shocking to people! I have my own style and structure for how I work with folks— initial sessions are two hours in person with a forty-five minute follow-up phone call. I get to the essence of who you are very quickly and understand exactly where you’re at right now. Then I connect the dots of where you’ve been and determine what you truly want to do, where you really want to go – and ultimately who you want to be – and provide the tools and resources for how best to get there. After that initial session you have to do the work, but I am here to help guide and support you as much or as little as you want along the way. I also offer group coaching twice a month.
What are some of the issues that women, in particular, come to you with?
An epidemic I see for a lot of people, but especially women, is lack of self-worth and self-esteem. It might present itself as bad relationships, not earning enough money, a variety of health issues, but it’s always the root of the problem and has to do with not honoring and taking care of yourself. On some level we’re taught, as women, to take care of everyone and be selfless to a certain extent, but when you do that to the detriment of your own mental, physical and emotional health, you’re no good to anybody, and you can’t fulfill your own potential.
The biggest thing I try to do as a speaker and coach is to get people to know, accept and love who they are, and then make the effort and have the patience and persistence to become the best versions of themselves they can be. Another issue I find is that I often have to give my clients “permission” to rest. Especially living in New York City, it’s always about work work work, go go go: but you have to be able to relax, be still, have fun, and know that pleasure in and of itself is productive. You need to let your body be able to heal, and give yourself the time and space to think and feel.
What would you say is the most pressing issue facing women today?
Motherhood. The women’s movement gave us the opportunity to certainly be and do a lot more than we were able to before, but the workplace hasn’t really changed until recently, and only incrementally. So yes, you can have a career, but with kids you have at least two jobs—you’re trying to please everyone, you’re overcompensating and/or feeling guilty about both, and what’s left over for you? I think about and observe this a lot with friends and clients, but there’s no easy answer right now. Until the workplace radically changes, and the societal norm is such that women feel completely fine about and encouraged to take care of and put themselves first—you’re trying to be a good wife, mother, lover, friend, and employee? There are not enough hours in the day unless you are super-disciplined to carve out that time for yourself to recharge and do things that energize you.
And if you’re a stay at home mom, there are often identity issues, conflicted feelings about income generation and spending, whether you want a new career or to go back to your old job….I think motherhood is at least the American women’s issue of our time. And then there are fertility problems, when is the best time to have children in relation to your career, and how do you raise kids in this crazy world or make the conscious decision not to have them?!
Men are helping out more, but the natural default is always with the mother. It’s very complex; but at the end of the day each woman has to make choices that are best for her particular situation and create a structure that supports her own well-being.
As a career coach, are there any mistakes that you made early in your career that you regret now, or advice you would give?
It’s important to understand that you need to pace yourself and find a balance between pursuing your dream at any cost, which requires a certain amount of risk, sacrifice and belief in oneself and the process, and being too cautious. Early on I experienced some burn out because of how much of myself I invested with my time, energy and finances in TWM, but I might not have even tried if I knew what it would really require to bring my idea to life – so you always have to take that first step and see where it takes you. Being able to literally create something out of nothing is incredibly rewarding, and the fact that we what we did based on sheer will and chutzpah is pretty amazing, and I couldn’t be more proud.
All of the challenges – which are expected when you decide to really stretch yourself and step into the unknown – have taught me so much about myself, contributed to my own personal growth and profoundly informed me in my coaching and speaking work, so I wouldn’t be here now had I not gone that route and am very grateful for what I have and continue to learn. It’s been quite the journey and it gets more interesting every day, that’s for sure! So I guess you could say my advice is to always do the thing that you most want to do because you will surprise yourself with every success, and any problems or ‘mistakes’ will just be opportunities to grow.
Any words of wisdom to leave us with?
Personal transformation is the key to social transformation. I’m always connecting the individual to the whole. If you don’t have a peaceful, happy, fulfilled world in and of yourself, how can we expect world peace?