The Ultimate Advocate
Simmons Trustee Tiffany Dufu’s multichannel mission is to empower as many women as she can.
When Tiffany Dufu was 11 years old, her Sunday school teacher asked for a volunteer to lead the children in a prayer. Dufu stepped forward right away, but her enthusiasm soon faded after the teacher explained that she hadn’t wanted a girl to volunteer, since boys were the leaders. She ran to the bathroom crying, and another woman at the church stopped to ask what was wrong. She consoled Dufu by saying that in heaven there weren’t boys and girls—only souls. “I remember thinking, ‘Then I want to create heaven on earth. I want to create a world where it doesn’t matter whether we’re girls or boys,’” says Dufu.
Since then, she’s spent her entire career trying to do just that. Over the last 15-plus years, Dufu has helped launch a girls’ middle school, assisted Sheryl Sandberg in getting her Lean In campaign off the ground, run a nonprofit that promotes female leadership in politics and other fields, and been an executive at a digital start-up that elevates young women in the workforce. She’s the author of a well-received 2017 memoir that encourages women to achieve by accepting imperfection (Gloria Steinem called it “path-breaking, intimate and brave”). Dufu is also a sought-after public speaker on women’s leadership; she’s spoken at top conferences like TEDWomen and at Fortune 500 companies such as Google and Deloitte. She’s an entrepreneur, too, having founded a peer coaching company for women called The Cru. And following a stint fundraising for Simmons years ago, she’s now serving as a trustee of the University, a role she fiercely embraces as part of her life’s goal to educate and empower women.
It’s a wide-ranging resume, and Dufu’s schedule is busy as a result: On a chilly March morning, she’s at a co-working space a subway ride from the Harlem apartment she shares with her husband, Kojo, and their two children, going over items on her crowded to-do list. There’s an interview for a podcast, meetings with potential investors in her company, and speeches to deliver in Boston and Atlanta later that week. “On any given day, I’m doing something different,” she says. “But on any given day, it’s all in the interest of advancing women and girls.”
Dufu was raised in the Pacific Northwest, the oldest daughter of a minister and a homemaker who escaped the tough neighborhood of Watts in Los Angeles. Her mother was 19 years old and planned to attend UCLA when she discovered she was pregnant. Her father, one of 11 kids born into a housing project, was struggling with drugs at the time. Dufu’s mother urged him to join the Army to break free of his addiction and create a better life. They married in 1973, and Dufu was born nine months later at a military base in Tacoma, Wash. Her dad went to college on the GI Bill, and later got a Ph.D. in theology. Meanwhile, Dufu excelled as a student. Her mother, in particular, always urged her to make her voice heard. “That gave me a really early foundation in being able to walk into a room and have an enormous amount of confidence,” she says.
Dufu’s world shifted dramatically at 16. Her parents divorced and her mother spiraled into a cycle of poverty, addiction and abuse with her second husband. Witnessing her mother’s suffering sparked Dufu’s desire to be self-sufficient, and she achieved her dream of attending Spelman College, the historically Black women’s college in Atlanta. By the end of her freshman year, however, her father could no longer afford the tuition. She transferred to the University of Washington, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English, with the intent of becoming a college professor. Then one day a mentor asked why she’d chosen that path. Dufu didn’t have a good answer. “I’ll never forget—she said, ‘Tiffany, you could be anything.’ That opened my eyes,” she says. “I didn’t understand women could do anything professionally other than to be a teacher, a social worker, a nurse or a homemaker.”
“On any given day, I’m doing something different. But on any given day, it’s all in the interest of advancing women and girls,” says Tiffany Dufu, Trustee.
After a career workshop suggested she’d be well suited to event planning, Dufu started work at a local company. Yet she spent all her free time volunteering for women’s groups, and soon realized that was her passion. She joined the Seattle Girls’ School as an associate director of development in 2002, although she knew little about fundraising. A board member offered to teach Dufu, and she learned fast; she brought in $2 million in less than a year. Dufu loved that job, but after two years, her husband got into business school in Boston. That led her to Simmons, where she was hired as a major gifts officer. She enjoyed going from city to city raising money from alumnae/i, but the birth of her son, Kofi, in 2006 made her reprioritize. Like many working mothers, she wondered how she would juggle travel and other work responsibilities with caring for a newborn. “I was having a bit of an existential crisis,” she says.
At the same time, her husband had graduated and was fielding job offers in New York. A colleague referred Dufu to Marie C. Wilson, who ran the Ms. Foundation for Women for nearly two decades and co-created Take Our Daughters to Work Day. Wilson had also founded the Manhattan-based White House Project, a group dedicated to increasing the number of women in positions of power, a cause Dufu was eager to support. The two immediately clicked, and Wilson took Dufu on as a fundraiser. “There’s nothing I wouldn’t have done to get her to come work there,” says Wilson. “Tiffany is intelligent and incredibly charming— somebody who could win anyone over in a minute. It was also obvious she believed in the work.” Dufu was quickly promoted to vice president and took on other roles; for instance, she developed partnerships that fueled the expansion of VoteRunLead, a program that trains women to run for public office. When Wilson decided to retire in 2011, Dufu succeeded her as president. “Tiffany can find a way to do anything,” says Wilson. “She’s a powerhouse.”
While at the White House Project, Dufu met Sandberg and joined the launch team of the Facebook COO’s Lean In organization, a nonprofit aimed at creating a global community to help women achieve their ambitions. Sandberg also suggested that Dufu meet with the heads of Levo, a company that provided professional resources for young women. In 2013, Dufu joined Levo as their chief leadership officer. As a Gen Xer working at a place run by millennials, she says it was a culture shock at first; Dufu laughs that she was the only “dinosaur” employee with a landline. Levo’s CEO also pushed her to develop side ventures like public speaking and consulting, which no boss had encouraged her to do before. “I always thought I had to work 24/7 for one brand,” she says. “It completely redefined what a career was for me.”
Those side projects swiftly took off, and the experience motivated Dufu to write her first book, too. Garnering praise from Lena Dunham and Arianna Huffington, Dropping the Ball is about the lessons she learned as a working parent struggling to do it all—until she realized she’d achieve more if she actually did less. With women more often shouldering the burden of household tasks, Dufu recommends figuring out which ones are really important, and then insisting on equal help from your partner. “The bottom line is that you’re more successful when you expect less from yourself and more from other people than you normally do,” she says.
Along the way, Dufu also had been meeting every week with women who reached out to her for advice. She knew she’d thrived partly because she’d cultivated a deep network of colleagues and mentors. Yet she noticed that most of her counterparts—especially women of color—didn’t have a similar group of associates, or the time to develop such relationships. That inspired The Cru, a peer coaching service that links women from different backgrounds and industries. Members pay an annual fee, and each “Cru” of 10 women engages regularly online and meets in person once a quarter. “It’s eHarmony for professional women,” she says.
Given Dufu’s background, drive and strong connection to Simmons, she was a perfect addition to the University’s board in 2017, according to Laura Brink Pisinski, chief of staff in President Helen Drinan’s office. Pisinski describes Dufu as a tireless champion, raising the institution’s profile through speeches and her social media platforms, and promoting Simmons’ mission among other high-profile women. “She’s so positive and laser-focused on women and girls. That focus and passion is a huge asset for us.” For Dufu, her trustee role is yet another way to forward her lifelong purpose and help others succeed. “I want my tombstone to say: She got to as many women as she could,” she says. “Every day, I’m just project managing my life backwards from there.”