“To me, anything can be done.”
– Gertrude Matemba-Mutasa
I had the pleasure of speaking with Gertrude Matemba-Mutasa about leadership. Gertrude is the President and CEO of Lifeworks, a twin cities-based non-profit dedicated to the mission to “partner with people with disabilities to drive change by increasing opportunity and access in the community.”
As I was speaking with Gertrude, one word kept coming to my mind: driven. Gertrude is a force. Her energy is palpable, as is her drive for excellence and commitment to change the world.
Gertrude credits her father with inspiring her to achieve excellence. She describes her father as a “girl dad”. He was quite different from other African fathers in terms of how he treated his girls. Simply put, he held Gertrude to higher expectations. One day Gertrude came home with a less-than-stellar report card. Her father looked at Gertrude and said, “This doesn’t look like you!” So, Gertrude turned her grades around. As Gertrude tells it: “Excellence had to be what I did. I couldn’t disappoint my dad.” She was driven to be at the top of her class because that’s what her dad told her she could do. “He tapped into those parts of me that would come alive when he talked.”
Her drive for excellence went beyond school. On Sunday mornings as Gertrude and her family walked to church, Gertrude saw people with disabilities sitting on the street with collection baskets in their hands. Gertrude had already broken down her allowance into coins, so she put some of her allowance in each person’s basket. But Gertrude wasn’t content to be charitable. She wanted change. After seeing people with disabilities that clearly needed help, Gertrude asked the challenging question: “Why is it like this? Why can’t we do better than this? Why isn’t the government taking care of people who can’t take care of themselves.” Her mother occasionally responded with “You ask too many questions.” But Gertrude never accepted the status quo, and never stopped asking questions.
Gertrude’s drive to raise standards has been evident throughout her career. As a working mother, Gertrude looked for daycare centers to care for her daughter, and she was disappointed by what she found. Kids were eating food out of a can. They weren’t being challenged, and there was little cultural education. So, what did she do? She opened Bright Beginnings Preschool, where children were given the opportunity to learn to read by age 4. To provide this level of support, Gertrude needed to charge double the going rate for preschool, and yet she still had a waiting list. As a preschool owner and operator, Gertrude learned that many people would make personal sacrifices to achieve excellence if the vision is clear, and she learned how to have caring and challenging conversations with people.
Gertrude continued to have a transformative effect on diverse organizations:
- As Director of the Women’s Business Center at WomenVenture, Gertrude encouraged women to develop and define their business dreams, and then achieve them. At one point, Gertrude attended a business networking event, with most of the organizations represented by men. She noticed that most of the informal conversations were taking place didn’t include any women. She decided to speak up. “Why is that it seems like there are no women included in this conversation that is happening?” One male participant was so inspired by her courage and candor that he took her aside and offered a job on the spot.
- As Executive Director of the Phyllis Wheatley Community Center, she arrived at an organization that was in deep financial trouble and the staff were discouraged. One day she called the staff together and told them she was going to “pound the pavement” and raise money, but this required each of them to take full responsibility for their roles and keep the Center running. And they stepped up. This freed up Gertrude to raise funds. A lot of funds. Gertrude took the Center from $700k in philanthropy when she arrived to over $2.5M when she left.
In January 2020, Gertrude accepted a position as Assistant Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) where she was charged with leading a team of 400 staff committed to addressing disparities in housing, behavioral health, disability services, deaf and heard and hearing and care integration.
Then the pandemic hit the US (United States), and this gave Gertrude the opportunity to learn a lot from DHS Commissioner Jodi Harpstead. She learned how leadership can be a lot of demanding work. Commissioner Harpstead, Gertrude, and the other assistant commissioners regularly worked 20-hour days, providing the best possible support to the most vulnerable Minnesotans. She also learned about resolve. Commissioner Harpstead and her team consistently made decisions that were challenging. “Jodi had resolve to say, “this is the right thing to do”, and that it doesn’t matter how many are saying it’s wrong, we’ll still do the right thing.” Commissioner Harpstead taught Gertrude the power of empathy, and the importance of giving people a space to share their concerns, worries, and dreams so that they feel like they have been heard. This was particularly important when George Floyd was murdered, and staff and clients needed spaces to say that they aren’t ok.
Today, as President and CEO of Lifeworks, Gertrude is taking all she has learned about leadership and applying it to support and empower people with disabilities and their families. She regularly checks with her employees to see how she can better support them and encourages them to achieve ever greater levels of impact for diverse clients across the state. Under Gertrude’s leadership, Lifeworks is expanding its reach to include people with disabilities who are BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) and people with disabilities who live in rural Minnesota.
Towards the end of our conversation, I asked her if she had any advice for young women who want to be leaders. After first acknowledging that giving advice is not her style, Gertrude offered two thoughts.
- Be willing to challenge the status quo. Always ask “What else can we do?” and “Why are we doing things this way?”
- Be willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done. Recognize that there is little glamour in leadership. It’s about hard work.
I then asked Gertrude if she ever found being a leader to be lonely or isolating. She said it can be at times, but that the Lifeworks board has surrounded her with lots of support. When asked what kind of support has been particularly helpful, her answer was simple: “Leigh Bailey, need I say more?” (Leigh is The Bailey Group’s founder and Chief Executive Officer.)
Gertrude is a shining example of a leader committed to achieving excellence and in doing so, changing the world.