Melissa Reiff, president and chief operating officer of the Container Store, learned so much about communicating from this 93-year-old Dallas organization, she wound up adding “communication” to the retail chain’s founding principles. Debbie Taylor, director of U.S. Markets for Citi Community Development, says the venerable organization taught her the keys to running effective meetings. And Jennifer Sampson, president and CEO of the United Way of Metropolitan Dallas, says she learned from the group about the power of developing long-term relationships in the corporate world.
These successful top executives aren’t talking about the Dallas Regional Chamber or the Citizens Council or the local Rotary, but about their membership in the Junior League of Dallas, or JLD. Long stereotyped as an elite group of pampered housewives clad in pearls and white gloves, looking for “good works” to perform in their spare time, in reality the Junior League has quietly become a serious training and proving ground for some of the most powerful female executives in North Texas.
In addition to Reiff, Taylor, and Sampson, the women’s organization has produced a long list of influential Dallas leaders in the for-profit and nonprofit sectors alike. The list ranges from Jeanne Phillips, Lynn McBee, Kathleen Gibson, and Jan Langbein to Gretchen Minyard Williams, Jennifer Chandler, Dawn Enoch Moore, Lyda Hill, and many more. Indeed, says Crayton Webb, vice president for corporate communications and corporate social responsibility at Mary Kay Inc.: “The Junior League of Dallas is the premiere training organization for the next generation of women who will lead Dallas. The women of JLD know how to get it done.”
When women join “The Sisterhood,” as civic leader Caren Prothro refers to the JLD—she signed on in 1971—they’re not only trained to head up organizations, but they also become part of a close-knit clan that’s the female equivalent of Dallas’ all-male Salesmanship Club or St. Mark’s “mafia.” You might call it a sisterhood of steel magnolias: women who combine “traditional femininity” with fortitude and unwavering determination. Says one Dallas businessman who’s worked with a number of JLD members: “There’s nobody better at training volunteers. But it’s not only a training organization—it’s a union. They protect their sisterhood. They stick together. It’s an incredible network.”
How the “union” accomplishes this has evolved over the years since the Junior League was founded in New York in 1901 by debutante Mary Harriman, daughter of railroad magnate E.H. Harriman. Mary Harriman stated that the league’s purpose would be “to put to good use the opportunities afforded … by the advantages of time and means.” For example, she and her friends in the fledgling organization set out to improve housing for new immigrants on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
The Junior League of Dallas was started 21 years later with 40 charter members. Today the JLD is the largest of the Association of Junior Leagues International’s nearly 300 member-leagues in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and the United Kingdom. There are now more than 5,000 North Texas members, including about 480 “provisional” members—or women in their first year in the league—2,091 so-called “actives,” and nearly 3,000 “sustainers,” or women past the age of 49 who’ve been in the league for at least a decade.
In contrast to many organizations, one can’t merely volunteer to join the Junior League of Dallas. A prospective JLD member needs to be sponsored by three active or sustaining members in good standing, at least one of whom must be an active member. Next, the league’s New Member Committee submits the nominee’s name to the group’s board of directors, which votes whether to approve it. The three sponsors then serve as the fledgling member’s support system during her first year.
After being exposed to the league’s various processes and programs during that initial 12 months, provisional members advance to full-time active status and are required to donate 60 hours of their time to league service each year. In total, Dallas members give 130,000 hours of uncompensated services to the community annually, mainly to support about 40 nonprofit agencies, which also receive funding from the league. Among the agencies: Dallas Area Habitat for Humanity, The Family Place, Methodist Dallas Medical Center, Communities in Schools, and the Dallas Museum of Art. Since 1922, the JLD has given $41 million—and more than 7 million volunteer hours—to benefit the North Texas community.
Sixty percent of the current members of the Dallas league are married, and more than 70 percent work full-time. That’s in stark contrast to the JLD’s earliest years, when most members did not work outside the home. As recently as the late 1970s, the split between working women and homemakers was 50/50. In those days, according to writer Priscilla Mackintosh, the Dallas league had a reputation as a group of upper-middle-class women whose JLD membership was “as inevitable as living in Highland Park or going to the country club.” Members of the league heard first from their peers about all the best schools, hairdressers, orthodontists, and Colorado condos, Mackintosh wrote in Texas Monthly. And being voted into the organization provided a significant ego boost, as just 90 were selected out of the 200 proposed for membership each year.
Dallas community leader Ruth Sharp Altshuler, 91, who was first “put up” for Junior League membership at the age of 25, recalls that because she was pregnant when the March provisional class started, her membership had to be postponed. “It hurt my feelings that I didn’t get in, but I was having my first baby in March, so they scratched me,” Altshuler recalls. “I had to wait a year, until the following March, to get in.”
In those days, just 10 percent of the members worked full-time, Altshuler says. So for many, the league was an eye-opening experience. “I was a sheltered little girl without realizing it. I had never even seen a poor person,” she says. “When I was at SMU, all I did was work on a float. That was the only great thing I did in college. I wasn’t mean or anything, but in those days you thought of yourself and your family.”
Altshuler was assigned during her provisional year to work at Parkland Hospital, where one day she befriended a young woman who had been paralyzed from the neck down in an automobile accident. “We kept up with her until she died,” Altshuler says. “We’d go on Sundays and put her in the front seat of our car and bring along her wheelchair, and she’d come over to our house and have lunch. Then we’d take her to the fair, because she loved a corn dog, and I’d hold the corn dog for her. That kind of started us visiting people like that.
“For the first time, my mind started clicking with other people,” she goes on. “Junior League changed me for my lifetime. It gave me a sense of purpose and direction that I wouldn’t have had otherwise.
“My talent is I can organize and delegate; I can be a leader if I have to be. It was always in my mind and heart, but I learned how to make a difference through the Junior League,” says Altshuler, who served as the group’s president in 1961-62. “What it did was show me the other world. If I hadn’t had the Junior League, I wouldn’t have seen how an organization runs. Now I’ve run everything in town for 60 or 70 years! All of this stemmed from that day at Parkland. Everybody has a turning point, and that was mine.”
Like Altshuler, Lynn McBee joined the Junior League in her 20s, in part to become better acquainted with the city of Dallas. A native of Freeport in south Texas, McBee moved here after joining the marketing department of a Boston-based biotech company in the mid-1990s. “I wanted to meet people,” recalls McBee, who’s now the CEO of a public-private educational partnership in Dallas called the Young Women’s Preparatory Network. “It was meeting friends and making friends and getting established in a new community and the philanthropic side. I grew up watching my mother and grandmother do this, so it was kind of all those things.”
After working in West Dallas with the Voice of Hope Ministries during her provisional year, McBee was “drafted” to serve on the underwriting committee for the league’s annual fundraising ball. (The balls raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for JLD activities.) The ball chair that year, Cynthia Beaird, “called me and said, ‘I want you to be my on my underwriting committee,’ and I’m like, ‘What?’” McBee remembers. “I didn’t even know what that was. But I liked Cynthia and I said, ‘Well, what’s involved?’ And she said, ‘Well, you basically raise money and sponsorships for the ball, and you’ll meet a lot of people and I think you’ll have a good time.’ She’s a very talented saleswoman, so I said OK.
“I was like a greenhorn, and I remember them giving me this notebook and I’m like, ‘Oh my God. I’m going to be calling asking people to sponsor the league,’” McBee says. “But I felt good about what we were doing, so it wasn’t like calling them to buy some widget. I thought, I can do this! We would have weekly check-ins and report back on what we had accomplished. I would sit down, get out the notebook, take a deep breath, and then pick up the phone. The files had the history of what people had given before, what they enjoyed, what they wanted to give. Just because someone has the resources doesn’t mean they have the interest. So, I did my work like they trained me to. But, I had no idea I was being trained. I was just doing right by my team. I didn’t want to let Cynthia down.”
McBee, who was the Dallas league’s president in 2006-07, says she learned to deal with organizational bureaucracies and other leadership skills in the league without even realizing it. “I was about the friends and the giving back to the community,” she says. “And then, all of a sudden, it’s like I would be be sitting in a meeting and I’m like, ‘How is this coming out of my mouth?’”
Similarly, Citi’s Debbie Taylor says she learned how to plan and run good meetings at the JLD, picking up on the importance of preparation and facilitating discussion among people with diverse viewpoints. “It’s amazing how, in the corporate world, people ascend to high ranks who’ve never learned how to run meetings,” Taylor says. “You see it all the time.”
For The Container Store’s Melissa Reiff, few things she absorbed in the Junior League were more important than the value of “clear, consistent, compassionate, and thoughtful” communication. And, she says, it’s something she brought with her to the storage-products retailer: “Nothing makes an individual feel more like part of the team than effective communication. It results in greater productivity, execution with excellence, and loyal and happy employees.”
The United Way’s Jennifer Sampson, whose mother had been a member of the Junior League in Arlington, followed in her footsteps after graduating from Baylor University and moving to Dallas. Like McBee and Altshuler, Sampson joined the JLD in her mid-20s—she was working at the time as an accountant here for Arthur Andersen LLP—as a way to connect with the community. For her provisional project, she sang for the residents of nursing homes (“musical therapy,” it was called) before learning other tasks and realizing how much the experience helped her in business.
“From a leadership standpoint, watching strong women take the role of president of the league was impressive to me,” Sampson says. “They were role models. I made many friends that I still talk to and work on projects with. I also learned from the league that [organizations] have to have compelling missions, and you have to demonstrate that you are making a difference.
“True development in life comes from the quality of our relationships,” Sampson goes on. “I learned so much about the power of developing long-term relationships in Junior League, not only with fellow league members, but also with agencies and corporations. It’s the opposite of a transactional business relationship; it’s about connecting people to what they care about, and in order to do that, you have to understand what people believe in. At Junior League, I learned how to work with teams and to be flexible and adaptable, as well.”
For the last six years, the Dallas Junior League has offered more specialized leadership training through its T. Boone Pickens Leadership Institute. Established in 2009 with a $250,000 grant from the Dallas-based T. Boone Pickens Foundation, the institute, which also received $100,000 from U.S. Trust and the Dallas Women’s Foundation, has graduated nearly 180 members so far. The institute includes a so-called Advanced Leadership Track, a nine-month-long program for up to 40 members each year.
The leadership track exposes women to top local business and philanthropic leaders through a series of seminars, similar to the Dallas Regional Chamber’s Leadership Dallas program. One recent Friday afternoon, the advanced leadership speaker in a room at downtown’s UNT Dallas College of Law building was Caren Prothro, a JLD “sustainer” and a longtime supporter of Dallas’ Letot Center for sex-trafficking victims.
Advising the two dozen women participating in the program on leadership in general, Prothro, a former board chair for Southern Methodist University, said that they would need a combination of “personal humility and professional will” to accomplish things. “You’ve got to know when to speak up, and when to keep your mouth shut,” she said. And, as former Dallas Mayor Annette Strauss used to say, Prothro went on, “You can get a lot further ahead using honey than vinegar.”
Indeed, The Sisterhood’s trademark blend of focused will and honeyed charm seems to have served its members well for more than nine decades. Former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach, now executive chairman of JLL, noted as much recently, wryly telling a United Way fundraising group that “you can’t say ‘no’” to women like Jennifer Sampson. As more and more members of the Junior League of Dallas move into the C-suite as top business executives—or assume the leadership of nonprofit agencies—others are likely to come to agree.