Jelena McWilliams, chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, addressed a crowd of 600, including 60 young women leaders, at the fifth annual Olympia Snowe Women’s Leadership Institute luncheon Dec. 10 at Portland’s Holiday Inn by the Bay.

“It is the hustle of being hungry, the strength of believing in yourself and the gift for thinking that nothing is impossible that can get you from a penniless immigrant to chairman of the FDIC,” said McWilliams, who emigrated from the former Yugoslavia at age 18. “If you can meet someone like Olympia Snowe, who is willing to invest her time, energy and brand in you, you are blessed.”

McWilliams began serving on the U.S. Senate Small Business Subcommittee in 2010, while Snowe was its ranking member. Snowe retired from the Senate in 2013, then established the institute that has since mentored hundreds of young women, called Olympia’s Leaders, from high schools statewide.

“Where there are opportunities, you can seize them through networking and mentoring; that is the heart and soul of what the institute is all about,” Snowe said. “Hundreds of women volunteers serve as Olympia’s Leaders advisers. They build a network that provides opportunities for the 180 girls who are graduating every year, and they are living examples of what is possible in their personal and professional lives.”

The network includes Unum Senior Vice President Andrea Gordon, who volunteers as an adviser at Portland High School and was emcee of the luncheon.

“The target audience is the 525 Olympia’s Leaders across the state of Maine, but this program is having a much broader reach,” she said. “I know I speak on behalf all of the (advisers) when I say we have leaned into the content to make adjustments in our personal and professional lives.”

Megan McLaughlin, a senior at Piscataquis Community High School in Guilford, tugged at heartstrings with the story of her family’s eviction and her moving in with a friend’s family last year.

“Not only have I found support through them but through my school and the Olympia Snowe Leadership Institute,” McLaughlin said. “When I compare the institute to the 12 other groups I am part of, I can immediately see where it is different. No other program has asked about my values. No other group has taught me how to appropriately use my voice to advocate for the things I need.”

She is working to establish a sensory calming room at her school.

Another Olympia’s Leader, Bangor High School senior Amara Ifeji, is two years into research inspired by drinking fountains being shut down at her school because of elevated concentrations of lead.

“I wanted to do my part to remedy the issue of heavy metal pollution by devising a natural, cost-effective filter consisting of plants and a certain fungi,” Ifeji said.

In 2019, her project was named best in category for plant sciences at the International Science and Engineering Fair, the highest award a Mainer has ever received in the competition. The honor came with an $8,000 scholarship plus $2,000 each for her school and for Maine State Science Fair, the sending competition.

“I hope to be the change that I want to see in the world and pursue a career in environmental engineering, where only 0.5 percent of those employed are black women like myself,” said Ifeji, who immigrated from Nigeria 15 years ago at age 3.

Amy Paradysz is a freelance writer and photographer based in Scarborough. She can be reached at [email protected]

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