Redefining Leadership: Q&A with Center For Resilience’s Vanessa Weiner

**This ongoing series profiles female powerhouses who are making their mark in their leadership roles. In the spirit of paying it forward, each profiled woman is asked to nominate another peer to fuel the series.**

Before Vanessa Weiner and I ever connect, I am waiting eagerly to learn more about her nonprofit, Center For Resilience. Just a quick scroll through the organization’s website and words like “empowerment,” “mindfulness” and “self-aware” jump off the page—words that evidence Center for Resilience’s commitment to a better way for today’s youth and adults.

When I get the chance to hear more about the work Vanessa is doing to enhance emotional intelligence, social-emotional skills and stress management within our community, I am humbled. Vanessa is someone committed to bringing out the best in those around her and finding holistic solutions to complex challenges.

What follows is a glimpse into our conversation…

Me: Vanessa, I am so glad we were able to connect—even amidst the crazy holiday season! You were nominated for this series by Kris Brander, a fellow Women in Leadership nominee. How did you two connect?

Vanessa: I have been teaching an early morning exercise class twice a week for the past eight years or so, and Kris has been with us since the class first started. Our group has the most organic conversations about anything and everything, and it totally takes the pain out of the workout! What’s special is we get these really compassionate and knowledgeable women supporting each other across many different ages, careers and stages of parenting. It’s a lovely mix, and Kris is a loyal and dedicated member of the group.

Me: You’ll have to sign me up for a class!

Vanessa: You are welcome any time!

Me: So you have been the Executive Director at Center for Resilience, formerly ResilientKids, for the past five years, a nonprofit organization committed to fostering success in the classroom, community and workplace through the practice of mindfulness. Can you tell me about your work there?

Vanessa: Absolutely! Kids are stressed. Our education system is constantly innovating to offer our next generation the most promise for their future. But as a recent article said, “It doesn’t matter how good the curriculum is if the kids aren’t present and ready to learn.” Also concerning is that for the first time last year, the American Stress Survey reported that teens are more stressed than adults. This stress impacts the brain making it very hard to learn academic skills, social skills and the ability to manage emotions—all things we need as adults as well.

So, we began as a program for students in 2011. And then the teachers and administrators began asking for these tools for themselves as well. It became clear that these really helpful strategies could also benefit adults. Hence last year’s rebranding, which now allows us to address the needs of the classroom, the community and the workplace.

Me: How do mindfulness-based strategies help kids at school?

Vanessa: Kids hear statements like “pay attention” or “calm down” on a regular basis, but are never explicitly taught how to do those things.

In classes with our instructors, a child might experience an activity that is challenging, and then extrapolate that to handling difficult situations outside of our sessions together. I remember when the mayor joined us at one of our classes last month. He was one of the first ones to take a popsicle stick and pompom and figure out how to adjust his gait so that the pompom didn’t fall off the end. That was really helpful for this particular exercise, but then the first graders shared other times it can be helpful—walking in the hallway so you don’t bump into anyone, in the cafeteria so you don’t spill your lunch, in the classroom so you don’t drop your blocks. Hands-on activities like these show students how to persevere and build resilience, and those behaviors and mindsets get transferred to the classroom.

Me: What a unique way to teach such valuable lessons! How did the organization evolve from there?

Vanessa: Over the past five years, teachers would often ask if we could train them directly. So in 2015 we put together a training program to educate teachers about mindfulness as a form of self-care, and help them translate that knowledge into their classroom setting. At the first program over the summer of 2015, we filled all spaces almost immediately, and not only with educators, but also with executives and other community professionals, physicians and parents.  As a result, we started to explore the potential to grow our work beyond the classroom and doing workplace and community-based programs. In the spring of 2016, we used that momentum to rebrand and become Center for Resilience. We still facilitate the year-long ResilientKids curriculum in the classroom, and now also have an adult-focused curriculum for emotional intelligence, stress management, increased self- and social-awareness and resilience.

Me: Can you give me an example of how the curriculum would apply in the business context?

Vanessa: We have all been in workplaces that have that toxic person who can’t manage his or her emotions or stress. Or you have hiring managers that can certainly pick up on basic skills of a candidate but how do they measure emotional intelligence skills? How do they know if that person can communicate effectively and contribute meaningfully in a team environment? These are the types of challenges that face today’s workplaces, and Center for Resilience helps businesses help their employees reduce stress, increase productivity and focus, and work better as a team.

Me: Your work has perhaps never been more important as professionals place greater emphasis on healthy workplace culture, empowerment and next-gen leadership. To that end, what inspires you most about your work?

Vanessa: There are a lot of pieces of this work that I love to sinking my teeth into, but what I enjoy most is when I can sit in the classroom with kids or lead a workshop with college students or parents or executives. It’s easy for me to get out of bed each day knowing that our organization has the ability to pass on life-affirming tools that have fueled me since my dad taught them to me when I was 8 and I know all our instructors are equally passionate.

I’ve also really enjoyed getting to expand deeper into the community to raise awareness about these practices that are helping to make our world a better place.

Me: With a windowpane into so many companies and workplace environments, what strikes you most about the current business landscape?

Vanessa: There’s definitely a push in the workplace to do more with fewer resources, but the stress and strain it puts on the people trying to do more is really challenging. And I think as a culture we compound this issue. We try to balance too many things, and end up putting an added level of pressure on ourselves. The good news is there are also workplaces investing a tremendous amount in employee wellness and responding to the rising stress levels.

Me: What’s really remarkable about your path is that you saw a hole in the marketplace, experienced it first hand and did something about it. Where do you think that drive came from?

Vanessa: I was a competitive gymnast as a child and spent a great deal of time training for the Olympics. That taught me about how to handle setbacks and becoming resilient. It’s about those times you don’t perform well, or are sick, drop a piece of equipment or don’t make the national team. The times when you don’t show up as your best self are the prime opportunities to dust yourself off. There is such a valuable life lesson in getting back up, and reflecting back to do something better next time. Knowing that failure is OK has allowed me to pursue passions.

Me: I couldn’t agree more that we have to embrace failure and create safe space to make mistakes, learn and move forward. It develops strong characteristics like tenacity and perseverance. And it’s incumbent upon those in leadership to create those environments and support the free exchange of ideas in the spirit of arriving at an even better outcome.

Vanessa: Absolutely. Leadership is all about helping others live up to their fullest potential and identifying what gets in the way. We all have these beautiful qualities we can cultivate and share with those around us. But if we don’t see them in ourselves first, then we will never be able to see them in others.

Me: So well said! OK, final question… what’s the best piece of advice you have received?

Vanessa: Two for you. The first, stay true to your values. And if you haven’t yet figured out what those are, take the opportunity to reflect, to discover who you are, and understand what makes you get out of bed every day. Keeping two feet on the ground and being really centered in everything you do helps.

And secondly, speak your truth. That is something I work on every day. It doesn’t always come easily for me, but each time I practice, it gets a little bit easier.

Carrie Majewski is committed to affecting change. As Founder of the Women in Leadership Nexus, Carrie is fueled by a desire to create safe space for female luminaries to convene to redefine the notion of leadership. She has forged a career around strategic writing and storytelling, having led a digital marketing agency for almost three years and today working as VP of Marketing for Trilix. Carrie is a 2017 Rhode Island “40 Under 40” honoree and a 2016 Rhode Island Tech10 Winner. In her spare time you'll find her trying out a local hip-hop class, exploring parks with her rescue dog Tori, and sipping coffee with other powerhouse women.