Never too young to lead

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Never too young
to lead

Six Rotarians reveal the secrets of balancing family and work that allowed them to take on the role of district governor before turning 50

by Kim Lisagor Bisheff
Illustrations by Viktor Miller Gausa

As an active member of the Rotary Club of Hampton Roads (Norfolk) in Virginia, Clenise Platt had been a club president and taken on some leadership roles in her district. Even so, it came as a complete surprise when Mary Landon, the club’s 2016-17 president, approached her at the end of a meeting and asked if it would be OK to nominate her for district governor.

“I thought one day I might place my name in the hat to become a district governor,” says Platt, 48. “But truth be told, I thought ‘one day’ was years away.”

Moved by the request, she asked for a few days to think it over. She consulted with friends and family, researched the job requirements, and did some soul-searching. “I determined that it was important to me that if I agreed to be nominated, it would be because I believed I could bring a fresh perspective to the role,” she says. “Becoming district governor would not be a résumé builder or an item to check off on a to-do list.”

Decision made, Platt accepted the nomination and later learned that she would become the first African American woman to serve as governor in District 7600’s history.

Platt may be part of a growing trend within Rotary. In recent years, an increasing number of young Rotarians have accepted district-level positions that had traditionally been held by older members. On 1 July 2019, Rotary inaugurated 36 district governors under age 50. They are midcareer professionals with demanding jobs in medicine, education, tech, finance, and broadcasting. There’s an architect, an advertising executive, a legislator, a lawyer, a veterinarian, and a soy sauce manufacturer. They all have families and friends; some have young children. Yet each of them managed to find the time to take a top leadership position in their districts. Here’s how six of them make it work.

Shia Smart

District 9810, Australia | 41 clubs; 1,128 members

Shia Smart joined Rotary when her son, Flynn, was four months old. “So effectively he’s only known Rotary,” she says. “He’s been brought up with it.” Now 15, Flynn travels with his mother to district functions and has logged more meeting hours than many adult Rotarians.

During the same period, Smart, who lives about 15 miles east of Melbourne, was developing her career as an IT business analyst. “I’ve always worked for other people,” she says. “I’ve had flexible working arrangements, but I’ve never been in a position where I control what I do or where I’m going.”

So how did a working mom become a Rotary district governor? Club culture played a significant role, says Smart, 49. She’s a charter member of the Rotary Club of Mont Albert & Surrey Hills, which enacted policies that encouraged working parents to rise through the Rotary ranks: They welcomed children at meetings, relaxed attendance requirements, and scheduled board meetings outside business hours.

That culture empowered Smart to shape her year as district governor to accommodate her job and her responsibilities as a parent. Her first move upon learning that she would become DG was to get her son’s school calendar so she could schedule club visits and meetings accordingly. And when she got a new job just before the start of her term, she set her schedule to make it work. “I said, ‘I need all these days off for Rotary,’ ” and her new employer assented. “I have been very lucky that Rotary is so structured and organized.”

Every step of the way, Smart says, she has made an effort to communicate with colleagues, friends, and family about her Rotary life. “It’s amazing how accommodating people can be when you explain things,” she says. “Take people on the journey with you, and you will find they are very supportive.”

Santhana Naidu

District 6580, Indiana | 32 clubs; 1,515 members

Santhana Naidu explains the strategy that helps him manage his roles as husband, father, district governor, and associate vice president of marketing and communications at Indiana State University in Terre Haute. It can be summed up in one word: compartmentalization. “I set aside two workday evenings and weekends for Rotary business,” he says. “I don’t generally take [Rotary-related] calls or emails during workdays unless it’s an emergency.”

Of course, that approach depends on the cooperation of all stakeholders. ISU lets him work remotely when needed, and his wife, Amy, “has been pulling my share at home when I’m away,” Naidu admits. “I couldn’t do this without a supportive employer and family.”

The district’s clubs have also lent their support. About two-thirds of them have held joint meetings or socials so he wouldn’t have to travel on his workdays. “At the social events, several people have told me how much they’ve enjoyed interacting with a DG,” he says. “I see that as a win.”

In recent years, the district has developed a culture of supporting young leaders, Naidu says. “Past district governors have been instrumental in resetting expectations for younger Rotarians and working professionals.” That included hiring a district administrator to help with day-to-day office duties. The result: At 42, Naidu, a member of the Rotary Club of Terre Haute, is the district’s youngest-ever DG, and the next in line is a working mother of four.

“I truly believe Rotary leadership is possible while working full time,” Naidu says, “and you can do a good job on both fronts.”

“I truly believe Rotary leadership is possible while working full time.”

Anna Tumanova

District 2223, Russian Federation | 77 clubs; 1,107 members

When your district spans all of Russia, visiting each of its clubs can be a challenge. Consider this: Flying east from St. Petersburg on the Gulf of Finland to Vladivostok on the Sea of Japan — more than 4,000 miles — takes about 12 hours. That’s why Russia’s District 2223 has initiated a six-year pilot program that divides the district into five regions, each of which has its own director. “I hope that all these regions in six years can be separate districts,” Anna Tumanova says. “We have huge potential here. Of course, we still have a lot of work to do.” Tumanova, 43, is no stranger to work. She has been an active Rotarian and full-time financial consultant since 2005, when she and her husband, Vladimir Rtishchev, chartered the Rotary Club of Ulyanovsk, a city on the Volga River about 500 miles east of Moscow. When Rtishchev died of liver cancer in 2015, Tumanova didn’t step back from Rotary. She leaned in. Rtishchev had hoped to become a district governor one day. In taking on that role, Tumanova has fulfilled his dream. “It helped that I had Rotary friends all across Russia,” she says. Everywhere Rotary takes Tumanova, her daughter, Varvara, goes as well. “Now she also has friends all over the country,” Tumanova says. “Rotary kids.” Varvara, 12, plans to launch an Interact club with her Rotary friends from across the region so they can more easily keep in touch. She gets straight A’s in school, where she is allowed to do homework via the internet when she is on the road. And she and her friends have learned to enjoy one of the perks of Rotary trips: “Rotarians travel not like tourists but like real guests,” Tumanova says. “I hope that Varvara and her friends will grow up as people of the world. They have no borders in their minds, and that’s very important.” 

“It helped that I had Rotary friends all across Russia.”

Igor Lenin Peniche Ruiz

District 4195, Mexico | 78 clubs; 1,170 members

In a typical workday, Igor Lenin Peniche Ruiz drives an hour from his home to his family’s 3,000-acre ranch in the Yucatán jungle, where he and his 10 employees are raising about 500 beef cattle. As general manager, he observes the animals, talks with his team, takes notes on the cows, bulls, and calves, and monitors their feed, which they grow on-site. It’s a demanding job, and the only one he has ever known: The ranch belongs to his 79-year-old father, who has worked alongside him for years.

That routine changed significantly when Peniche Ruiz became a Rotary district governor. At the start of his term, he was traveling for Rotary five or six days a week. His father, his sister, and his workers — some of whom have been with the ranch for 30 years — picked up the slack. “My Rotary team is really good, but my work team is even better,” he says. “I trust in my team, I trust in my family, and they allowed me to do this work.”

Peniche Ruiz, 49, says his employees are happy to pitch in because they’ve seen how Rotary has helped people in their communities. “They already live the magic of Rotary,” he says. In one instance, his club, the Rotary Club of Mérida-Itzaes, sponsored a medical clinic in a nearby town. Doctors diagnosed life-threatening conditions in time to save two patients’ lives.

At home, that magic has spread to each of his five daughters. Four have participated in Rotary Youth Exchange, three have been Rotaractors, one was a Rotaract club president and district representative, and one was an Interact club president. “My wife, Norma, is the main key to keeping every-thing in balance,” he says.

When Peniche Ruiz joined Rotary 20 years ago, his oldest daughter was 10. His youngest is now 18, so he and his wife decided that this was the right time for him to take on the role of DG. As always, he has Norma’s full support. “That’s the only way you’re going to be a successful person,” he says. “Family is the most important thing.”

Clenise Platt

District 7600, Virginia | 62 clubs; 2,508 members

Clenise Platt’s first Rotary leadership role was chairing her club’s dictionary project, a fitting assignment for someone who had written a children’s book. When club members found out about the book, Keep Your Chin Up, they asked her to read it to local third graders when she delivered the dictionaries. A few years later, the club began donating copies of the book along with the dictionaries; since then, about 2,000 students have received her book.

“I am so appreciative of the way my club engaged me as a young leader,” Platt says. “I think their willingness to make space for me to be a leader in the club, and the way they asked to include my book in the program for the third graders, helped me to feel engaged and an important part of the club.”

The experience led her to pursue increasingly influential roles within her club and her district. Along the way, she learned to integrate her service life with her job by being clear about her priorities. On her first day as the staff development coordinator at the Virginia Beach Public Library, Platt told her co-workers that she was a Rotarian and hoped to become a district governor one day. “I had no idea that I would be on the pathway to governor less than a year later,” she says.

To maximize time with friends and family, Platt has looked for opportunities to include them in Rotary functions. Her parents, Clinton and Hattie, have attended meetings, fundraisers, club visits, installation ceremonies, and international conventions, and they have volunteered at a district conference. “They have fans who ask about them when they aren’t at an event,” she says. “I made my parents Paul Harris Fellows because they were the first people who taught me the meaning of Service Above Self.” Her brother, Gabriel, will soon become a Paul Harris Fellow as well.

“Rotary has been a complement to my family,” she says. “I have found that incorporating my personal and professional life with Rotary has enriched my experience as a district governor in a number of ways.”

Jaco Stander

District 9370, South Africa and Lesotho | 88 clubs; 1,446 members

Jaco Stander may be one of the oldest of the 36 younger DGs — he turned 50 about halfway into his term — but like others in his cohort, he has embraced Rotary as a family affair. His wife, Lisa, a pharmacist, is also a Rotarian. In the year leading up to his term, she traveled with him to all of his training sessions so, he explains, “we could share our Rotary journey together.” They planned their visits to the district’s clubs in a way that allowed them to keep tabs on Stander’s two gas stations and block out time for family and friends.

“Both my wife and I planned our working environment to commit to the DG year,” he says. Stander trained two managers to oversee his business. (He adds, “I’m also fortunate to still have my parents, who are able to assist where needed.”) So she could have more flexibility, Lisa became a locum pharmacist, which means she’s employed on a contractual rather than full-time basis. It helped that their children — Christopher, 24, and Brigitte, 22 — had finished or were about to finish college. “The timing made sense at that stage,” he says.

The process that led to Stander taking on the DG position started years earlier, when he became a Rotarian. “My club encourages young and new members to play an active role in club leadership,” he says. “I had the opportunity to lead a wide range of portfolios.” (Stander is a member of the Rotary Club of Klerksdorp, a city about 100 miles southwest of Johannesburg.) His district took the same approach, pulling him into a district youth committee, a term as assistant governor, and various training events early in his Rotary career. And when he completes his term as governor, he will lead his district’s 2020-21 youth services committee.

Those experiences encouraged him to aim higher. “I wanted to be part of district leadership and be more involved in the management of Rotary,” he says. The final nudge was a phone call from Bruce Steele-Gray, a past district governor, who asked him to apply. Stander also received support and encouragement from what he calls his “close group of PDG friends.”

“Becoming a district governor is an amazing opportunity to experience Rotary at a totally different level,” he says. Stander also recommends diving into district activities early and often. “It’s a way to acquire knowledge and experience,” he says, “as well as an opportunity to contribute new energy and views that will help bring Rotary into the modern era.”

“My club encourages young and new members to play an active role.”

In our February issue, Kim Lisagor Bisheff wrote about how to spot fake news.

• This story originally appeared in the May 2020 issue of The Rotarian magazine.