Q&A: Red Cross Board Member Daniella Levitt On ‘Transformational Change,’ Taking Smart Risks and Leading Women Executives

Daniella Levitt has spent her career elevating others in and throughout various levels of the corporate workforce. She is the Executive Director of Leading Women Executives — a program that equips women leaders with expanded leadership capabilities and increases advancement of women, among other things — with a 30-year corporate reputation with companies the likes of Deloitte, and a drive for success hinged on her ability to take risks in stride and always see them through.

She serves on the Board of Directors for the Red Cross, after having professionally crossed paths during a podcast interview with the CEO of Red Cross of Greater Chicago, Celena Roldán.

“By the time I was finished doing the interview with Celena, I said, ‘This is it. This is the next non-profit board that I want to be involved with.’ I reached back out to Celena and she was super excited that I was interested. I joined the board not too long after that.”

Levitt has also previously served as a board member to organizations like Chicago Sinfonietta and Access Community Health Network. Levitt hails from South Africa — having not moved to the states until age 26 — and attended the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. 

Daniella Levitt, Executive Director of Leading Women Executives


Read on for her words on inclusion in the workplace, tips for the next generation and the necessity of risk taking.

Better: Empowering women in leadership is such an integral part of your career, how has that landscape changed over the years? Can you see the inclusion that you’ve worked toward?

Daniella Levitt: We do have some good news here because it’s true to say that women have made gains in the workplace. But, unfortunately, the reality is that we still see for women, and especially for women of color, they are still very much underrepresented in corporate America. This really plays out at all levels. You see the starkest numbers at the most senior levels, where only one in four C-suite leaders is a woman and only one in 20 is a woman of color.

The pipeline that feeds that C-suite is really where the problem begins, because all the way from their very first career inflection point, where you see women being promoted to manager, you already see men being promoted at a higher rate than women. … As those women move up the ladder, you see a drop off at that first inflection point of promotion to manager. Then that just continues as you go higher and higher up the organization.

We’re definitely in a different environment post-pandemic. It’s a known fact at this point that women are leaving companies at the highest rates that we’ve seen in a very, very long time. They’re leaving because they’re looking for those companies where they feel they can get a better opportunity. We are also seeing a number of women who are saying, “I’m actually going to consider leaving the workforce altogether” — which is a huge loss. So, we’re going to have to keep tackling all of those issues which contribute to a woman being able to stay in the workforce and keep moving up.

With regards to inclusion … a good example of that is, you hear a lot more companies now talking about, “We’re doing a training on unconscious bias. We’re really building awareness around these issues.” That’s great and that’s really important, but companies have to recognize that just doing training, just building awareness around issues such as unconscious bias doesn’t mean that people immediately embrace that. We all fall into these traps; these are things that we all need to focus on as leaders.

I also see that there’s a lot more widening of the conversation. It used to be just a conversation about diversity. Now it’s really about equity. It’s about inclusion. … You can have a lot of different people that make up your workforce or your set of leaders, but if all of your [people] don’t feel that they’re being equitably treated, that they don’t have equal voices at the table, and if they don’t feel truly included in decision making and the things that really drive where the organization is headed, then you might have diversity, but you don’t necessarily have equity and inclusion.

How does your career overlap with the work you do with the Red Cross?

I am somebody that’s always been passionate about transformational change, about giving back in the community. I am really lucky that I was raised that way. So, it’s just part of who and how I am.

I’ve always found that if you want to give back to the community, if you want to get involved with a non-profit, be on a board, whatever it might be, you need to align with the things that you’re most passionate about. My whole career, my passion has been driving transformational change and all the different facets of people, process, strategy and technology. In the last 10 years, I’ve been laser focused on executive leadership development, advancement of women and underrepresented groups, also focusing on intergenerational leadership.

My ability to meld my expertise with my passion, in terms of the boards that I’m involved in, is really key. I don’t think you really find anything that’s more transformational than saving lives. The reality of it is, that’s what we do at the Red Cross.

I serve on a couple of committees: the Biomedical Committee and the Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Committee, and also on a special committee to help Celena and her executive team deal with the same post-COVID remote work, return to work, talent development, talent recruitment and retention issues that every organization is facing.

It’s been exciting for me that my vision of bringing my expertise around executive leadership, around what’s happening with organizations and cultivating the next generation of leaders to the Red Cross is indeed coming to fruition.

A few years back you published a book, Ready, Set…Risk! — I’m curious how the undertaking of publishing impacted your career or outlook?

I wrote that book at a time in my career where I was really pivoting and almost reinventing myself, my focus, my positioning out to the marketplace and my own brand. So up until that time, I had really spent the entirety of my career working on transformational change issues for organizations. But now I wanted to make advancement of women more of the entirety of what I was doing. I also firmly believed that I had a lot of innovative ideas and thoughts to bring to organizations, to help make inroads on those issues.

So, there were a number of different things that I did as part of making that pivot and that shift — it was in that window that I also wrote my book. I am somebody who, by nature, is a risk taker myself and that’s very much underpinned how I’ve lived my life, both personally and professionally. I found that as I spoke to many other people, the frameworks that I used, how I thought about women in risk-taking careers, ended up being incredibly helpful to a lot of other people. I’d always wanted to write a book, so I said, “You know what? This is a conversation that I feel I have a lot to contribute to.”

It was a fascinating process to go through: interviewing people for the book, writing the book, getting an agent, getting picked up by a publisher, speaking about the book. It was wonderful and really important in terms of the pivot that I was making at that point in time … it was a marvelous experience.

What’s a piece of advice you would hand down to young professionals who are thinking about taking risks in their career?

I’ve always held this belief that without taking significant risk, one cannot drive change, either for oneself or for others. It doesn’t mean it should be uninformed risks — you certainly want to take smart risks.The other piece to this is, when you’re thinking about taking a risk there’s a concept called loss aversion bias — which fundamentally is that human beings hate to lose. Often, the decisions that we make, the actions we take, are driven by that fear of loss. So, when you’re thinking about taking a risk, if all you think about are the things you might lose if you take that risk, you really need to shift your frame of reference. Instead, you need to think about all the things you might lose out on if you don’t take that risk … then, all of a sudden, it makes it seem more appealing. If that’s your top priority, then it seems a little less disconcerting, a little less terrifying to think about. I can take that step because that’s what I really, really want. When you do that, you’ll be very surprised about what you gain the confidence and courage to do.

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Margaret Smith is a Chicago-based writer and editor with a passion for socio-political storytelling about their community. They are a graduate of Columbia College Chicago.

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