14 years ago I represented my home state in the Miss America pageant.
It was a dream I’d had since I was a little girl; alongside becoming a United States Senator (something you couldn’t pay me to do now) and graduating college, becoming my state’s title holder and walking the Miss America stage was something I always knew I wanted and as a third-grader was the pinnacle on my list of life’s accomplishments.
Achieving that goal was the culmination of years spent developing myself into a confident, well-spoken, talented, determined and focused woman, who at 22 became the first Hispanic Miss Kentucky whose father was an immigrant from Argentina. My time spent in the Miss America Organization (MAO) spanned five years including the year I was crowned the second Miss Kentucky Teen.
Aside from scholarships earned from the School of Music for Vocal Performance (my major) as well as monies earned for maintaining a high GPA and extensive community involvement through volunteering, the rest of my college education was paid for with scholarships earned from my year’s competing and the amount won from the MAO totaled $50,000.
I owe a lot to the Miss Kentucky and Miss America Organization.
When I reflect back on my year as Miss Kentucky, I am grateful for all of the opportunities and experiences because it was a full-time job. Miss Kentucky earns a salary, is provided a vehicle and residence during her year representing the state and she is also an employee of the Department of Agriculture serving as the spokesperson for their Kentucky Proud* program. There were early mornings, late evenings, lots of hours and miles logged on the Ford Explorer provided to me during my year and countless speaking engagements, hosting gigs and galas to attend and be seen at, but the exposure and life lessons learned were invaluable.
Now, as a Mom of three, a wife, and an officer for a Fortune 500 company, there are many instances when the confidence, tenacity, determination and persistence experienced while competing have helped me navigate the tough waters of raising children, balancing work with my personal life as a wife, who still very much enjoys date nights with her husband, and the day-to-day grind of coaching and developing a group of people, while also being managed as a member of our regional leadership team.
It’s in these moments that I draw upon my past and the foundation for which I learned to be strong in the face of adversity in the workplace, tough-minded in times of frustration or insecurity about my future and determined to be successful at everything I seek to achieve; whether it be a small goal like being on time to nailing a presentation for a large customer and landing a deal, the grit and moxie to push through and accomplish my goals is something I owe to the MAO for helping to teach me how to be a more productive member of our society.
However, as of late the Miss America Organization has been on shaky ground. The once rich-in-tradition, iconic American standard of beauty, poise and grace under pressure is becoming unrecognizable by those who love her so dearly and who hold a special place for her in their heart. Recent changes to the structure of the program have caused a lot of state Executive Directors, former contestants, local directors and spectators who have adored the ideal of Miss America for years and supported her mission, to question their loyalty to the organization.
In a nutshell – swimsuit was removed, evening gown was augmented and the contestants are now called candidates. While Miss America began as a bathing (suit) beauty contest as a way to extend the summer season on the beaches of Atlantic City, over the years she became the litmus test for intelligence, talent, and passion for philanthropic and civic causes in the pageant industry. She was the pinnacle.
We have this saying in our company that sets the tone and the standard for how we operate in every aspect and level of our approach and process to the business; do the basics brilliantly. If we cannot do the very basics of our role brilliantly then how are we expected to be able to operate at effective levels of leadership and productivity if there is no foundation for being successful at even the smallest task or at the bottom level?
So, in relation to the MAO; if we remove two of the basic foundational aspects of the competition, swimsuit and evening gown, then how is the organization expected to be able to continue to garner support, sponsors, new fans, find relevance in the social media era and move past 100 years as a program if the very program itself cannot do or be what is intended? How can we expect the organization to be successful on the state and national level when we cannot even agree on the basics of what Miss America stands for?
When news of these changes started making their way out into the open for public consumption, that is the first thing that came to my mind. And while I have tried to embrace the understanding behind why the swimsuit change was made, the new information around the validity of the original claim made by the Chairman and CEO; that the MAO would lose sponsors if it were continued, now have me reeling with confusion, because that statement has been said to be false. And a majority of state directors who originally voted to keep swimsuit have now started an additional petition, a vote of no confidence for the current leadership, that now includes 46 states.
On August 16th, our current Miss America, Cara Mund, penned a letter to her Miss America sisters alluding to a hostile work environment in which she was being bullied by the current leadership of the organization, Gretchen Carlson, a former Miss America herself, and Regina Hopper, a former Miss Arkansas.
My guttural reaction was one of frustration and disgust because this is the second time in the past year that the organization has come under fire. Eight months ago, former Chairman and CEO, Sam Haskell, resigned amid allegations and emails that surfaced proving he slut and fat shamed former Miss Americas and contestants. Needless to say, Cara’s revelations were not the additional type of publicity the organization needed at the time, but the fact that they have come to light proves that no organization is exempt of HR issues.
Workplace harassment and bullying and the fear surrounding what speaking out can cause (retaliation) are concerns of anyone who has worked in a corporate environment. If you’ve ever had to deal with an HR issue involving this type of situation, they are not easy to navigate, and the amount of time, energy and focus spent working to get to the bottom of the issue and come to a resolution is not simple, it is intense and laborious and consists of copious amounts of notes and documentation.
When Cara’s letter surfaced, what she wrote resonated with me. I immediately felt her pain and understood the guts it took to stand up to the organization she loves so dearly and I supported her 100%. I continue to support her because the organization means so much to me, as well. And the fact that she is trying to ensure that the woman she crowns has a year that is filled with a lifetime of memories is something she should be given a ton of credit for – because she could have easily stayed silent and just let the next young woman find this out on her own. But she didn’t. She spoke up. Anytime we stand up for what we believe in or for what is right, we are putting ourselves in a position to potentially be scrutinized, chastised and publicly called out – but it’s still the right thing to do. It always will be.
Several years ago, I took a risk by standing up for myself in an organization that made a lot of assumptions about my abilities to do my job at the level of performance they deemed as effective. I had done nothing wrong – and up to this point there was no indication that my job performance was anything other than on par and acceptable based on the company’s standards.
I sacrificed time away from my family for work travel, energy and focus away from my children so I could get up to speed faster and be more productive, pursued additional training and learning opportunities to be the best and developed myself as a leader as much as I could in order to become the best manager for my team. I spent an entire year doing all of the things I thought would make me successful in my role only to be told I wasn’t the ‘right fit’. And it stung.
It hurt in ways that still affect me and the environment in which I had to work over the next several months as I crawled my way out of the deepest professional hole I’d ever been in, put me through the emotional wringer. But every criticism, every instance where I was knocked down again and told that my missteps were just further validation for the leadership team that I wasn’t right for the job – only made me work that much harder. I used every ounce of feedback as an opportunity to be impactful and intentional towards the business; to be the creator of my own change, which was to survive the improvement plan process and stay employed.
I also spoke out about what I felt was an incorrect assertion about my perceived lack of skill set for the job I was promoted to do – and I challenged the leadership who put me there to show me how and why they came to that conclusion. Four, very long, months later, I successfully came through the process to become one of the top ranking managers in the organization a year after everything initially began. So to say that what Cara is going through hit home for me, is an understatement and by her speaking out, hopefully the next young woman will have a drama-free reign.
This Sunday, 51
contestants, candidates, will walk the Miss America stage representing their states, competing for the title of Miss America 2019. These women have worked extremely hard and dedicated years to the process and months in preparation for this moment, for their shot at the opportunity to be Miss America. I will watch in support, not of the current leadership, but of the 51 intelligent, talented, beautiful and service-minded women who will grace that stage, nerves and all, and compete for a job that many of them have dreamt of since they were little girls, just like I did.
The format is different and there will, yet again, be changes to the way in which the candidates will compete, i.e., swimsuit will not be televised although they have competed in swimsuit in their state competitions, the judges are no longer on the ground level to the side of the stage and they have removed the runway that was synonymous with Miss America, Atlantic City and Boardwalk Hall.
These changes are tough – they’re difficult to process, and I’m a proponent of change, when it is the right change. But there is hope they’ll bring about another change; that they’ll be so terrible it’ll prompt the resignation of the organization’s leadership! (ha!)
All kidding aside, my desire for viewers of tomorrow’s pageant is that everyone rallies behind these young women who have worked so hard; that their light not be overshadowed by the issues, grievances, and concerns about the future of the organization and that for the length of tomorrow’s pageant and once the winner is crowned, that we rally behind her in support of ensuring she has a fantastic year as our Miss America.
By standing with Cara, and the 51 state representatives, we are supporting what this organization needs to go back and reevaluate, the basics. They need to work to do them brilliantly so that the next generation of Miss America hopefuls, like my daughter might be one day, can look back at the hard work, the fight to stand up for what is right, and the ‘changes’ that #StandwithCara helped to create which impacted the organization for the better, and be proud to compete.
I’ll #StandwithCara any day if it means standing your ground and making your voice heard for the betterment and the future success of the organization. I hope you will too.
-Confessions of a Corporate Mom
*(at the time I was Miss Kentucky it was a different program called ‘No Ifs Ands or Butts’; a campaign designed to encourage the youth of KY not to smoke, especially before they were of the legal age of 18)
Email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org to share your thoughts on the Miss America organization, the changes made to the competition this year, your experience in the program or your thoughts on the current leadership and the campaign #StandwithCara.
#missamerica #mao #misskentucky #empowerment #standwithcara #workplaceharassment #hostileworkenvironment #bullying #strongfemales #dothebasicsbrilliantly