What Was it Like? The White House Champions of Change Event Experience

As I fly home tonight physically restrained in my airline seat, no longer moving, walking, networking, or engaged in an event in our nation’s capital city, I can FINALLY be still and reflect on what just happened this week. I can begin to process it all and let it begin to sink in. Two weeks ago as I walked into the Skyway Cafe at the San Carlos Airport with my BFF, I received a call from Washington D.C. that was echoed minutes later in this email:

“Congratulations for being selected by The White House as a Women Veteran Leader Champion of Change! As part of the Champions of Change program, the White House recognizes every day Americans who are making positive changes in their communities. This Champions event will honor women Veteran leaders who have contributed to our nation’s business, public, and community service sectors. You were selected because of your tremendous work and leadership, and we hope to honor you at an event at The White House on Tuesday, March 25, 2014.”

Two weeks before that, on February 27th, a fellow woman veteran had informed members of a Facebook group that nominations were open for this and that the deadline was the next day. I read the criteria and because I know a woman veteran who received this honor last year in the Renewable Energy category, I asked her, another veteran/author, my sister and my BFF to please consider submitting a nomination for me. With a tight deadline of one day, the adage of “if you want something done, ask a busy person,” proved true once again. All four completed nominations!

So with that call as I walked into the airport cafe, I learned I’d been selected as one of ten veteran Champions of Change. I immediately began to feel the exciting disruption of a call like that, in my “momtrepreneur” life that’s already filled to the brim. Let me provide a little insight for those who may one day be nominated and selected for this initiative. The deadlines come fast – I was told that my bio, names of my two guests and all required security information was due the following day; a 600-word blog post that would be hosted on the White House site, was due the following Monday. Whew! But when the White House and Department of Veterans Affairs want to shine a bright spotlight on your military service and current professional endeavors, you just somehow make time to do all that. In addition, there was the need to buy airline tickets and secure lodging. The days following were a blur.

Fast forward to the morning of the event, March 25th. After planting radishes in our garden in California on Sunday wearing shorts, I found myself in a thick winter coat, with scarf, wool hat, boots, walking toward the White House in light snow flurries, arm-in-arm with my beloved sister Selina who had flown in from Colorado. It was a beautiful, wintery snow scape….we were like children again, off to a grand adventure together!
We arrived at the security gate and met up with my BFF Sonya Sigler who had been with me when I got the call. We cleared the multiple levels of security required to enter the White House grounds. Soon, we were networking in the ladies room with members of the audience that were coming to witness the event. I enjoyed listening to my sister do her natural conversationalist thing, introducing my work and literature to the women in the room who asked questions about our travels.

No sooner had I stuffed a breakfast bar into my mouth and brushed my teeth when I was suddenly whisked away to join the other nine veteran honorees. The officials from the Department of Veteran Affairs and the White House took their official photographs of our group of women veterans.

WHCoC Group Photo

10 Honorees at the White House Champions of Change: Women Veteran Leaders event 3/25/14

By now several faces looked familiar, having already connected on LinkedIn and Twitter. We were briefed on event logistics, joined by Army Colonel Morales representing the office of the First Lady, smiled for many pictures and eventually took our seats. But before we separated, I pulled the colonel aside and handed him a copy of my bilingual children’s book, Good Night Captain Mama that I had just signed to the First Lady. I told Colonel Morales that I appreciated the work Mrs. Obama is doing with military families and children and I wanted to say thank you with this unique children’s book. He looked at it, said “Wow, this is fantastic. I’ll be sure she gets it.” Then I took my seat.

The women on the first panel blew us away with their work, initiative and continued service to others. They were the following leaders:

Honorees, left to right:  Stacey Young-McCaughan, Dana L. Niemela, Sonia Jo Kendrick, Mary Johanna Forbes, Erica Borggren

Honorees, left to right: Stacey Young-McCaughan, Dana L. Niemela, Sonia Jo Kendrick, Mary Johanna Forbes, Erica Borggren

• Erica Borggren, Director of the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs
• Mary Johanna Forbes, Assistant Director for Veterans Services, Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs
• Sonia Jo Kendrick, Founder of Feed Iowa First
• Stacey Young-McCaughan, Director of Research for the STRONG STAR Consortium
• Dana L. Niemela, MSW, Coordinator of the Homeless Veterans’ Reintegration Program

The work each is doing is truly important and in Sonia’s case, groundbreaking. The story that struck me the most was Erica’s tale, which includes attending the U.S. Army’s West Point Military Academy and graduating as valedictorian of her class – that’s different. Then, she became a Rhodes Scholar after graduation.

Then it was our turn to take the stage. I had the tremendous honor of joining these women on our panel:

Second panel at the Champions of Change: Women Veteran Leaders event 3/25/. Honorees from left to right: Ellen Houlihan, the Honorable Coral Wong Pietsch, Martha Daniel, Deborah Scott Thomas, Graciela Tiscareño-Sato

Second panel at the Champions of Change: Women Veteran Leaders event 3/25/. Honorees from left to right: Ellen Houlihan, the Honorable Coral Wong Pietsch, Martha Daniel, Deborah Scott Thomas, Graciela Tiscareño-Sato

• Ellen Houlihan, Vice-Chair, Board of Directors, West Point Association of Graduates
• Coral Wong Pietsch, Judge, United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims (the first woman to reach the rank of general in the Army Judge Advocate General Corps and the first woman of Asian ancestry to be promoted to general officer in the Army)
and two fellow entrepreneurs leading their own businesses:
• Martha Daniel, President and CEO Information Management Resources, Inc.
• Deborah Scott Thomas, Founder, President & Chief Executive Officer of Data Solutions & Technology, Inc.

There were many, many nuggets of wisdom uttered (and tweeted) that morning. These are ones I remember weeks later:

“Use your scraps of time wisely.”-Ellen Houlihan

“Not all of us who are veterans have been victimized.” – Dana Niemela

“Keep your sense of humor.” – Honorable Judge Wong Pietsch

“I remember acting way more confident than I actually felt. I’ve grown and learned by being in situations that made me feel very uncomfortable.” – Erica Borggren

Martha had the audience in stitches when she told story about a corporate golfing event where the playing field was suddenly leveled for all the participants. Her one-liner?
“Remember that the women, just like the men, were looking for their balls.” Unforgettable.

The recording of the event that was streamed live that day is here. I’d encourage ALL professional women to spend the hour watching it, and to share with a younger women (or student) you mentor.  The specific stories of leadership and self determination, of tenacity and of standing tall and confident when feeling otherwise, will help anyone who is ready to hear those examples. Women can learn much about what leadership FEELS like from those of us who have worn the uniform and been “the only whatever in the room” as Ericca described it.

I had given a great deal of thought to what I would say up there during this event that was being live streamed across the country. What I wanted to do first was salute my parents. I wanted the fact that I am the daughter of immigrants to be prominent in my storyline on this momentous day because that’s where my story starts – like so many other Mexican citizens, my parents left their home country to come here and contribute their work ethic, skills and talents to the USA. Aware of the fact that of the ten veteran honorees on stage I was the only Latina, I knew I was representing so many other proud Latinas, daughters of immigrants, who have worn the uniform. Several of them were watching the event live.

I had written my key messages on index cards, to answer the questions we were told we’d be asked. I had thought about how I wanted to position my name, personal brand and company brand to a live national audience. I happily listened to my fellow veterans tell their stories, free of nerves that might have been present had I not prepared. I’d been coached well by Elizabeth Perez, the women veteran who was previously honored. This experience reminded me of the need to ask those who have walked ahead of us, to help us do it better, to avoid their mistakes and to make our moment in the spotlight as positive and enjoyable as possible. What I hadn’t prepared for was what happened on the way to our lunch.

I received an email from a woman named Karly, working for my congressman Eric Swalwell. She said he had seen a news story during his morning reading about the event I was attending at the White House. He wanted to meet me in his office. How crazy is that? So after lunch, the three of us took a cab up the Hill to the Cannon House building and were greeted like has never happened before in all my previous visits to our lawmakers.

We were welcomed into his office and he began to ask questions about my business, my family, my story, my books. He asked for my ideas for two issues on his mind and I shared what has been on my mind for months. Photos were taken with five different cameras  and the staff invited us to return the next morning for an escorted tour of the U.S. Capitol, oddly something I had never done.

Outside snowy Capitol

Outside snowy Capitol

Snowy daffodil

Snowy daffodil

Then we walked to Union Station for a late lunch to warm up, snapping photographs of daffodils and crocus flowers blooming through the snow. My sister caught a train north to visit my brother and his family; Sonya and I joined the Board members of National Resource Defense Council for dinner and networking, at the invitation of my friend and NRDC attorney Adrianna Quintero. It had been a uniquely full and amazing day.

When we arrived the next morning, Karly gleefully said, “I have a surprise for you!” and led us into the Congressman’s office. She turned on the TV and said, “This is from this morning.” I turned to the TV and saw my Congressman paying tribute to my work on the floor of the House of Representatives. I was stunned and speechless. I couldn’t believe it. I felt my life flashing before my eyes. He held up my beloved bilingual children’s book and emphasized the work we do to create this unique literature.

Moving Tribute On Floor of House of Representatives

Moving Tribute On Floor of House of Representatives

He summarized perfectly why the White House chose to honor me. I was deeply moved at this emotional tribute. Wow. Click here to watch the two and a half-minute recording of his speech from the floor of House of Representatives.

We were led on a fantastic and leisurely tour of the Capitol by staffer Alana.




Sonya and Graciela at Lady Liberty in the US Capitol

Sonya and Graciela at Lady Liberty in the US Capitol

As we entered the gift shop for a few minutes, she took a call and informed us that we needed to hurry back because the Congressman wanted to see us one more time before going to the floor for afternoon voting. We rushed back there and he greeted us. I thanked him from the bottom of my grateful heart for honoring my life and work in this most profound way.

Congressional Record copy of tribute speech by Congressman Swalwell

Congressional Record copy of tribute speech by Congressman Swalwell

Then, he pulled out the final surprise – a printed copy of his speech that has been entered into the Congressional Record.

With my Congressman Eric Swalwell, receiving copy  of his tribute speech entered into the Congressional Record

With my Congressman Eric Swalwell, receiving copy of his tribute speech entered into the Congressional Record

Again, I was left speechless and humbled. All I could do was hug him and his entire staff.


I don’t know what’s ahead. I don’t know what all of this will lead to, what new doors will open, but I do know that it was a miraculous week to me – completely surreal, completely full of unforgettable people and unforgettable moments. I’ll never have a week like this again; now I understand what is meant by this saying “When you’re doing the right things for the right reasons, the entire universe conspires to help you.” Coming within a year of the violent mugging I suffered last spring, this week of being honored by two of our three branches of federal government felt even more special, more gratifying, a vindication of sorts. I’m truly blessed in this life. Thank you universe. Thank you.

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