Singing COO Sees Stars, Gives Back In Mentoring Leadership Program

Gillian Downey sings a different tune now as chief operating officer of i.c.stars, than she did early on in her career. And the world is better for it.Singing since she was 8 years old as part of the Chicago Children’s Choir, followed by training in classical music with a degree from Roosevelt University, the Chicago-based leader of a digital entrepreneur training workforce development initiative, Downey moved to the corporate life in 2000.[bctt tweet=“Gillian Downey, COO of i.c.stars, says #mentoring is about transformation” username=“takeleadwomen”]As an opera singer in the U.S., Canada and Europe in the 1980s and 90s, Downey says, “The classical music world is the same as it was 300 years ago. People open doors for you, but it was a hard life.”The digital product development world moves way faster and that, she says, “is all fun.”Downey’s shift from musical performance to Bank of America was first in Trade Technologies where Downey says she learned systems thinking. From there she moved at BOA to Architecture Standards where she was leading in digital product development, business leader coaching and operations. She also helped to create a Women in Technology mentoring leadership program at the bank.Gaining experience in program management at Ubiquiti Networks; a Silicon Valley hardware manufacturer, then later building data warehouse and master data management products at Abbvie, Downey moved to Leapfrog Online to lead technology teams in new product development. She began volunteering with i.c.stars in 2004, and became COO in 2016.Created in 1998 by Sandee Kastrul and Leslie Beller,  i.c.stars became a reality in 1999 and “has been identifying, training, and jump-starting technology careers for Chicago-area low-income young adults who, although lacking access to education and employment, demonstrate extraordinary potential for success in the business world and for impact in their communities,” according to the site.“Our alums earn more money, continue to increase expertise in information technology-based platforms and join a supportive network that provides the resources necessary to help make the changes they seek in their own life and in their community,” according to the site.More than 400 participants ages 20-30 are alums of the two-year leadership program, with i.c.stars cohorts now in Chicago and Columbus, Ohio, with a program beginning next year in Milwaukee. Participants must have a high school diploma and have completed at least six months of full-time employment. Some have a few years of college perhaps.“Our core mission is to teach transformation,” Downey says. The workforce development program “helps them transform themselves, develop critical thinking, empathy and identify passion to make them move forward.”New research shows that women founders of startups help more women into the pipeline.“Technology start-ups with at least one female founder have more women employees than major technology companies and twice as many women employees as start-ups with no female founders, according to a study by online venture capital firm FundersClub,” writes Rachel Sandler in USA Today.“The results underscore research that shows women in leadership positions are crucial for the advancement of other women. It’s also a signal that more women are pursuing entrepreneurial paths and that young companies may be more becoming more open to recruiting diverse workforces in an industry widely criticized for being a boys club and for having a widening gender gap,” Sandler writes.Clearly a strong advocate for women in technology and women mentoring in leadership programs to advance others not as lucky, Downey is also WorldChicago fellow, chosen by the U.S. State Department to aid in entrepreneurship training in Croatia and Bosnia. She also gives back to the Chicago theater community as a member of the Joseph Jefferson Awards team.“Mentoring is so rewarding for women,” Downey says. “It is both an opportunity to watch someone grow, learn new skills and new habits and also a huge opportunity to learn. Every time you mentor someone else,  it opens you up to build empathy, understanding and a chance to learn and build your world view. I love talking to people who are not like me. It’s a fantastic experience.”[bctt tweet=“At i.c.stars, graduates of the program see measurable outcomes in average income #WomenLeaders” username=“takeleadwomen”]At i.c.stars, the measurable outcomes are that graduates of the leadership program increase their average 12-month incomes from $10,790 before the program to $44,070 after completion. The placement rate for alums is 90 percent, with an industry retention rate of 81 percent. More than 72 percent of alums are actively participating in leadership roles in their communities.Applicants are offered admission to the 4-month extensive training program and 20-month residency by staff measuring their flexibility, adaptability, resilience and readiness, Downey says. Her staff addresses issues of stable housing, child care, elder care, all along very clear that they “serve underserved not under-represented people.”In addition to the technology training, the transformation evolves to understanding biases and overcoming and changing behaviors, Downey says.“They learn about business and technology, but also about trust, building teams and storytelling.” Downey explains that each participant delivers a “dream speech” at graduation defining what their award is for 20 years down the road.The leadership skills most critical to the program, Downey explains, are “confidence, empathy and the understanding of the big picture, or systematic thinking.”[bctt tweet=“Confidence, empathy, and understanding of the big picture are key skills for any leader #WomenInBusiness” username=“takeleadwomen”]These are key skills for any leader to acquire.Project work is a key component of the program as teams create a project for a real client, so they have to listen to the client’s needs, keep the idea doable within the scope of three months, offer a product that is manageable and build the digital product that works.One group built a financial literacy game for children 6-8 years old and it was developed by a bank and offered in public schools.As a high school student with a difficult family situation, Downey says she earned money by cleaning people’s houses. She attended an elite pubic high school in a northern Chicago suburb, but quickly learned about the social and economic differences of her peers. She also learned deeper lessons.“I learned everybody has their own set of secrets,” Downey says. “No one is immune to challenges even if it appears you have everything.”