The Most

Woman in the World

Ana Oliveira

President and CEO of the New York Women’s Foundation,
coffee aficionado, licensed acupuncturist

The Most

Woman in the World

Born and raised in Brazil, Ana Oliveira began her career as a substance-abuse counselor in the South Bronx in 1982. She went on to become the first female executive director of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, where she combated the AIDS epidemic for over a decade. Since 2006, she has been the president and CEO of the New York Women’s Foundation, dedicated to funding research and initiatives that help achieve sustained economic security and justice for women and girls.

On Passion: People are always talking about work-life balance and self-care. Personally, that calibration is about ending my day with more than I began with. Can I look back and feel that I was present? Did I pay attention? Did I keep my sense of humor? I take care of myself by doing something that I love—and that way, my job actually takes care of me. But when you have passion, you also have to be self-aware. If you’re not, that passion can be overbearing and alienating to others. These are my lessons after making mistakes. You have to have a sense of fun, a little bit of lightness.

On Change: When I was younger, I thought that change could happen much faster than it actually does, and that led to doubt. But it undermines your relevance to ask, “Does it make a difference? Is this significant enough?” The trick is to understand the power of incremental change. Change is accumulating individuals towards a tipping point. That doesn’t happen with one person, or six people, or any amount of money. To understand that the scope of change is far beyond us is humbling, and in a way, freeing.

On Leadership: Anybody that thinks leadership is a one-person thing is not aware of how it happens on a daily basis. No doubt, there are times when I say, “Here’s what we’re going to do.” But that moment was preceded by many, many more moments in which I have listened, sensed the mood, seen what’s needed, checked with people, and done the invisible work behind the scenes. Then you do have your “ahas” and you move forward. But there are no leaders without followers. Followers are very underrated. I follow just as much as I lead, but it just doesn’t get called the same thing.

On Fixing Problems: I believe in the idea of win-win solutions. We don’t need to leave others behind to move forward. We don’t need to take away from one person to give to another. Most people think, “If I change, what am I going to lose?” And it’s fine to look at that. But also ask, “What could I gain?” That’s part of the equation. At the New York Women’s Foundation, we understand that we’re not saving anybody. On a good day, maybe I’m trying to save myself! But we’re not in the business of “fixing” people. I’m not superior to any woman. I don’t know life better. I can only partner with her. It’s about engagement—how do we start something together?

I hang around people who are very simpatico. Everyone has a contribution to make, but there are certain people in life that contribute extra because they really see you and allow you to see them. I’m not naive, and I don’t believe that everything’s peachy, but I do believe in the energy of exchange.

But there are no leaders without followers. Followers are very underrated. I follow just as much as I lead, but it just doesn’t get called the same thing.

On Daily Rituals: I am Brazilian, and good coffee is a very important part my day. It provides moments when I take stock. Then, at the end of each day, I have a transition time when I disconnect from work. I do not continue work tasks at home in the evening; I do them the next day. I didn’t always have those boundaries, but one of the benefits of aging is reflection and perspective. All that I do is just a little speck in the universe, and you have to leave room—for others, for regrouping, for having a little bit of “Yes!”

On Career: I first came to New York in 1982 to study medical anthropology, and I got an internship in the South Bronx, which was pretty burnt-out back then. I worked at a detox center that used acupuncture to help people with substance addiction. When I was there, women started pouring in at a higher rate than anyone had seen before, and it was because of crack. The “aha” moment in my life was when we realized that we needed to tailor detox programs differently to men and to women, and I developed an awareness of gender and how it could shape different approaches.

I was running programs at the Gay Men’s Health Crisis when the board asked me to become the executive director. The organization was in crisis, literally—we were in deep financial debt. My best friend said, “Are you crazy? Don’t do it! Too much debt, too much work. You’re a woman, and this is a gay men’s crisis.” No woman had ever been the executive director before, and it went against the grain. But then I talked to the staff, and they convinced me to take the leap. One of my peers said, “I would work for you any day. Let’s do this.” We had no assets except for the people, but we did it: We paid the debt, and we grew the organization again. But what I’m most proud of is that I was able to listen. I wasn’t shy about doing my part, because I knew that the staff would do theirs.


On Style: Part of how you express yourself is how you present yourself. If a person can be authentic in their expression on the inside and the outside, I think that’s excellence. The thing is, you have to be good at it—and if you’re not, like me, then you need assistance. It takes too much time to think about getting dressed, and it’s not my strength. I want to be focusing on the areas where I can excel.

On Her Current Work: Gender is important in how social stereotypes both promote and limit people, and that’s true for all genders. Here at the Women’s Foundation, we fund organizations that work with men, too, because we need to change the full picture of gender-based problems. For example, we know that most violence against women is perpetrated by men. However, most men who resort to violence have either witnessed or been victims of it themselves. So it’s a cycle, and we can’t just work with one side. We need to work with both sides. Transformation is needed for everybody.

I have found that human beings really crave respect. I know I do. Seeing somebody is a fundamental level of acknowledging them as a human being. Tell them when you notice things about them. Make notes. And then check those notes before the next time you see them. Prepare. It’s something I have learned—to have discipline with relationships.

All that I do is just a little speck in the universe, and you have to leave room—for others, for regrouping, for having a little bit of a ‘Yes!’

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