Following Their Lead

As YWCA O‘ahu turns 120 years old, CEO Noriko Namiki (center) invites the community to celebrate its 2020 LeaderLuncheon honorees: Jill Shimokawa Higa, Shelley Cramer, Judy Bishop and Catherine Betts.

These days, it isn’t difficult to think of community organizations where diversity and growth are celebrated, and where encouragement and mentor-ship form a necessary part of personal and professional development. But more than a century ago, these places were few and far between — and even more so for women.

In the case of YWCA O‘ahu, it’s survived everything from the Great Depression and both World Wars to financial turmoil and economic hardships. Yet although the landscape in Hawai‘i has changed much, the nonprofit’s mission — to eliminate racism and empower women while promoting peace, justice, freedom and dignity — remains the same.

“Each time, it wasn’t easy for us to continue, but we did,” says CEO Noriko Namiki. “We survived and continue to thrive, and this will be the case for us going forward.”

Now, in its 120th year, there’s much the organization has to look forward to. Still, it’s important that YWCA’s leadership not forget the past.

“I have been going through historical documents and photos, preparing for this year,” says Namiki.

YWCA O‘ahu members celebrate 2020’s LeaderLuncheon honorees Shelley Cramer (second from left) and Catherine Betts (second from right).

“Our board back then in 1900 had a clear vision of helping women. Sometimes, you go back 100 years ago, and you think it was so old-fashioned, but our mission, what we do, still stands. It amazes me the foresight our sisters had,” she adds.

YWCA originated during a time when women had little to no rights. (The ability to vote, for example, wouldn’t come for another two decades.) Yet the nonprofit consistently encouraged women to be self-sufficient and unfettered in their careers and personal lives.

Today, YWCA O‘ahu operates with the same basic principles of supporting women to better their lives through career advancement, employment, civic-mindedness and even physical education.

In fact, in addition to forming an employment bureau early on, a group from YWCA became the first in the state to take organized swim lessons (during the early 1910s, women had to “swim” in wading pools).

“Reading about all this and the hardships they went through really motivates me,” adds Namiki, “and we are still cutting-edge in helping women achieve their goals and dreams.”

While the organization recognizes and supports the career accomplishments of hundreds of women on the island, there is a select handful who have gone above and beyond by leading well in their executive roles. Yet, what sets this year’s YWCA O‘ahu Leader-Luncheon honorees apart is their personal dedication to the advancement of women in the community.

Indeed, 2020’s four YWCA O‘ahu trendsetters — Jill Shimokawa Higa, Shelley Cramer, Judy Bishop and Catherine Betts — are not only shining in their chosen career fields, but are paving the way for the island’s next generation of leaders to emerge and make a difference.

Jill Shimokawa Higa

She started as a management trainee with Bank of Hawaii nearly three decades ago, and through the years — and a brief stint on the mainland — Shimokawa Higa has worked her way up to senior executive vice president, branch banking with the financial institution.

“Jill is a great example of a patient and goal-oriented woman who has climbed the corporate ladder during her career,” lauds Namiki.

As one of this year’s honoree, Shimokawa Higa brings to her professional table positive energy, personal resiliency, curiosity, authenticity and an open mind — all necessary traits for effective leadership.

“A great leader is one who ‘walks the talk’ and sets high standards for themselves while genuinely caring for each teammate and every stakeholder,” explains Shimokawa Higa.

Shelley Cramer

That sentiment is echoed by Cramer, vice president and general manager of Saks Fifth Avenue, who says that a good leader “is a resilient and transparent visionary who can inspire and motivate others to pursue a common goal with integrity and humility and understands the true meaning of work life balance.”

Aside from her work with Saks, Cramer also gives of her time to nonprofits like Hawaiian Humane Society and Teach for America, as well as Sacred Hearts Academy, where she was instrumental in developing its Girls Got Grit internship program.

To be honored by an organization like YWCA O‘ahu is humbling for the luxury retail maven, whose personal mission falls in line so perfectly with the nonprofits.

“While leading one of the nation’s finest retail stores, she continues to invest her time to help create and develop Hawai‘i’s future women leaders,” adds Namiki.

Judy Bishop

As owner and president of Bishop & Co., Bishop has been a trailblazer in the staffing and hiring industry for years — basically ever since she started her company at the age of 25. But, according to Namiki, it’s not just on the professional level that Bishop lends aid.

In addition, Bishop sits on the board for Women’s Fund of Hawai‘i and has been a true friend of YWCA O‘ahu for many years.

“She’s definitely exemplified what it means to (serve others) in terms of advancement and empowering women,” Namiki says. “The way she lives her personal and career life shows her commitment to help women and girls achieve their life dreams.”

Catherine Betts

There’s no doubt that Betts, deputy director of the state Department of Human Services, has a lot on her plate. From overseeing financial and food assistance to housing, child-care and medical plans, she and her teams make sure that Hawai‘i’s people continue to thrive, even in the midst of COVID-19.

“Cathy makes sure everyone’s voice is heard; she is very intelligent and also very community-minded,” says Namiki. “We are very happy to see all the work she’s done, as well as what she’s currently doing for the community as we speak.”

A big part of that is Betts’ unwavering capacity for empathy and making sure that she does her best to understand where everyone is coming from. And, she has words of wisdom for the state’s emerging female leaders: “Be brave and take risks. You’re only going to succeed if you try.”

Although the 43rd annual Lead-erLuncheon has been cancelled, Namiki and the rest of YWCA O‘ahu’s leadership team will be recognizing its 2020 honorees throughout the year and plans to include them at 2021’s in-person event.

“We want the community to know that we still have women leaders to be celebrated, even without the event,” adds Namiki.

That’s not to say 2020’s Leader-Luncheon won’t be missed.

The fundraising event single-handedly powers the nonprofit’s operations for at least six months, but YWCA O‘ahu is pressing forward, though it does need the public’s help to provide much-needed services like transitional housing and professional help for small-business owners through Patsy T. Mink Center for Business & Leadership, as well as funding its Laniākea, Fernhurst and Kokokahi properties.

“We’re not stopping,” says Namiki. “Even with social distancing, we are serving.”

To learn more about YWCA O‘ahu and its programs and to make a donation, visit ywcaoahu.org.

In addition, those in need of small-business assistance can email Patsy T. Mink Center for Business & Leadership at mcbl@ywcaoahu.org or visit mcblhawaii.org.

In celebration of its 120th anniversary, YWCA O‘ahu is hosting its #YWCAWomen120 virtual campaign to honor female leaders. Individuals can applaud the women who have inspired them — or dress up as their favorite female leader.

Photos and basic information (submitter’s name, nominee’s name, why the nominee is an inspiration, etc.) can be sent to mktg@ywcaoahu.org, or via Facebook or Instagram (use the hashtag #YWCAWomen120).

Submissions will be posted online at ywcaoahu.org/ywcawomen120.