The Islands Society is pleased to recognize Nicole Forrester as our next Local Female Leader. As the President and CEO of Pacific Resources for Education and Learning (PREL), she is working hard to enhance community well-being in the Pacific Islands through partnerships in education. Previously, she also directed the Young Leaders Program at Pacific Forum Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and served as consul for economic and political affairs at the Australian Consulate-General in Los Angeles. For these efforts, she was awarded the East-West Center’s Asia-Pacific Leadership Program Fellowship and the Amanda and Natalie Ellis Women Leaders Scholarship Award. The Managing Director of Local Female Leaders, Keiko Ono, therefore took a moment to sit down and speak with Forrester about the ways in which she thinks that the health and well-being of girls and women in the Pacific Islands could be improved through non-profit initiatives.

What made you choose a career in the non-profit sector?
I was at a career juncture-point and I was looking for a place that I could better get a sense of the impact of my contributions. It sounds trite to say that I wanted to make a difference. But, my Mum’s words about “giving back to community” rang often in my ears as I made the transition to the non-profit sector.

In what ways has being a female CEO and President of a non-profit organization been an advantage in your community?
Women bring great value to all work environments – be they for profit or not. This fact has been accepted in the education and community development sectors for some time now. As a female leader, I bring different perspectives, analysis, and ways of knowing to the organization and our stakeholders. I’ve been encouraged that, for the most part, co-creation, inclusive and consultative approaches (which some would argue as being feminine strengths) are accepted as being more than just “process” now. Rather, they are seen as an integral means to delivering positive impacts alongside community partners. For sustainable development to occur, organizations must support communities to drive their own change. That means as agents of change, non-profit leaders (regardless of gender) must listen more than we speak.

In contrast, has your gender been a disadvantage in your career?
Earlier in my career, I felt I had to work harder and smarter than “the boys” to be taken seriously. The greater the difference in age, and the more male dominated the domain, the longer it took for my advice and knowledge to be accepted for its value. My apparent disadvantage was my refusal to “fake it” and provide inaccurate advice because I didn’t know an answer to a question – a habit I had witnessed in several male colleagues. Some bosses thought it made me look hesitant or lacking confidence. In the end, it turned out that my refusal to bluster was my greatest strength. I became known as someone whose commentary could be trusted to be both accurate and insightful.

As a woman, how have your professional experiences in academia, diplomacy, and global think tanks differed from one another?
Although those opportunities varied greatly, it was the support (or backing) of a senior male leader in each organization that made the difference in my experience. It was in diplomacy that I found the most support from the male leadership, who took an interest in my professional development and were willing to use their own political capital to help me grow and succeed. In 2015, there remains a proverbial glass ceiling in academia, global think tanks and diplomacy. For women to break through it, we need not only the support of women leaders but also men to act as champions for women to lead as well.

Tell us about the ways in which you have been able to improve the health and well-being of girls and women in your current field?
Pacific Resources for Education and Learning (PREL) is committed to supporting community’s enhance their well-being through the co-creation of culturally-sensitive, placed-based and project-based learning strategies. PREL envisions a future of strong schools, healthy communities, and thriving cultures with Pacific hearts and global minds. Embedded across all our initiatives are two key priorities, gender and sustainability in a changing climate, so that all girls and boys can grow and thrive at home, while also prospering in a globalized world.

In the most recent Forbes ranking of top charities and non-profits in the United States, only thirteen of the fifty listed organisations were led by women. What do you think needs to be done to increase the number of women leading major charities and non-profits?
The labor force participation rate of women declined globally from 2005 to 2013 (according to the World Development Indicators). In each context across the globe, women face very different barriers to professional success ­however we may define it. To increase women’s leadership of major charities and non-profits, we may need to first recognize the similarities of those barriers. Be they exclusion from informal networks, stereotypes about women’s abilities, lack of male champions and female role-models, lack of leadership opportunities, or meeting family responsibilities. There is one similarity across those barriers, and it’s the role men are willing (or not) to play to remove them.

As a successful President and CEO of a major non-profit, what advice would you give to girls and women in your community who want to pursue a similar career?
Take a diversified approach to your career development! Don’t be afraid to roll up your sleeves and get dirty alongside those you serve and lead to ensure you understand their experiences as best you can. There is no “one path” to success, the more varied professional exposure you have the richer the experiences you have to draw upon. And finally, don’t self-select out of opportunities because you don’t feel you’re 110% qualified. Take a chance and reach for the next challenge. Growth comes not from crossing the finish line but the big stretch you had to make in order to get there.

The views expressed are those of the respective author. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed. Please send any responses to Our editors will consider any and all responses for future publication.