Poetry Foundation President Michelle Boone and YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago President Dorri McWhorter Talk Leadership Lessons in Founder’s Fireside

Make It Better Media Group recently hosted “Leadership Lessons,” a virtual Founder’s Fireside Chat moderated by Susan Noyes, founder of Make It Better Media Group, featuring Dorri McWhorter, president of the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago and Michelle T. Boone, president of the Poetry Foundation. During this fireside, the two speakers gave insightful career advice and discussed what it means to be an effective leader in 2022. 

founders fireside chat

To start, the two women detailed their respective career paths, and while they differ greatly, both Boone and McWhorter felt called to make a difference. 

Before transitioning to the nonprofit sector, McWhorter had a very linear path as a CPA, ultimately serving as partner at the accounting firm Crowe Horwath. Prior to her current role at the YMCA, McWhorter served as the CEO of YWCA, where she grew the annual operating budget to $10.5 million to $38 million. 

“For me it was how do I work in the business of making the world a better place?” McWhorter recalled when reflecting on her career shift. 

Boone’s early career experiences included working as a television engineer and in record sales, before becoming involved in arts administration and advocacy work across Chicago. In 2021, she was named president of the Poetry Foundation, the first woman and African-American to assume the role. 

“I didn’t even have an awareness of what non-profit meant,” Boone said. “I just wanted to feel good about my work. I wanted to be proud in the way I earned a paycheck.”

founders fireside chat

Noyes asked both speakers about how they’ve built confidence over their careers. Boone discussed the importance of mentorship, while McWhorter emphasized the value of authenticity. 

“The way I learned to have more confidence was surrounding myself by people that I admired,” Boone said. ”If they endorsed the path that I was taking, that gave me more confidence to move forward.”

“It’s not actually that I have confidence, I’m just not afraid to mess up more than the next guy,” McWhorter said with a chuckle. “Show up in your authenticity because everyone is struggling to figure it out so you might as well be yourself.”

Additionally, Boone and McWhorter discussed the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their leadership decisions and organizations. 

“There was already a slow decline that the YMCA was experiencing and then COVID just accelerated the decline,” McWhorter said. “Now, we’re on the ‘Okay how do we rebuild this?’”

“That shutdown of the world really revealed to people how important access to the arts are.” Boone said. “We found that people were really looking to the expressions of poetry as a way to give meaning to what was happening in the world.”

Before ending the fireside with a reading of their favorite poems, both women shared what they’re most looking forward to as their organizations begin to transition to in-person operations and programming. 

“I want the Y to be an example of how we can do business better,” McWhorter said. “Our business is to improve communities, that is the core of what we do and who we are.”

“Right now I’m more focused on internal healing,” Boone said. “Let’s make sure that we are healthy and sound. Then the light that emanates from our team will begin to attract others in.”

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Melissa Perry is a senior journalism and international studies major from Northwestern University. Raised in Mt. Sterling, Illinois, Melissa is a proud Midwest girl through and through with a lifelong love for dance and the arts!

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