Coming Face to Face with a Personal Hero at Women Funded 2019

Rory Shields with former President of Ireland Mary Robinson.
Rory Shields with former President of Ireland Mary Robinson.

Rory Shields, controller for The Asia Foundation, recently found himself among hundreds of attendees at Women Funding Network’s (WFN) biennial conference, Women Funded 2019: Leadership for a Changing World. While he came to hear his personal hero speak—former President of Ireland Mary Robinson—he was also inspired by She the People Founder and President Aimee Allison. Read more about his experience below.

What brought you to WFN’s conference in September?

One morning, we had an all-hands staff meeting at the Asia Foundation and Jane Sloane, senior director of our Women’s Empowerment program, mentioned that former President of Ireland Mary Robinson would be speaking at a conference that the Asia Foundation was participating in. Being Irish, I have always had a deep admiration for her. I told Jane that I really wanted to attend the conference and she said there was an extra ticket for Mary’s keynote speech, so I went on my lunch break.

Why was seeing Mary Robinson so important to you?

Growing up in Ireland, I remember how there was a scandal with the front runner for the presidential elections and Mary who was a very much an outsider and a marginal candidate was suddenly propelled into a contender position and shocked everyone by winning. This was very difficult for many people in a largely patriarchal society like Ireland to accept at the time, but she was ultimately a hugely positive trigger for social change—which allowed Ireland to become a more modern, inclusive, and progressive nation and also to shine on the international stage.

There was a personal element to this meeting since my mother’s name is also Mary and she served as a local politician in Ireland and encountered a lot of the same challenges in breaking through the proverbial glass ceiling. Mary Robinson has always been a champion of people who have been marginalized or ignored and has never shied away from speaking loudly and eloquently to the decision makers and the power brokers of the world. She has been a staunch defender of human rights globally and has spearheaded campaigns on poverty, racism, inequality and many more notable causes including significant recent attention to climate change.

At the conference, I was able to sit up front during her key note speech and I was truly honored to be in her presence. Afterward, I took a selfie with her and thanked her for everything she’s done for my country and for the many other countries that have been impacted by her work at the United Nations and through her foundation. As one of the millions who emigrated from Ireland over the years, I’ve always been particularly grateful to Mary for always being inclusive of the Irish diaspora, a group I am very proud to be part of.

What was your general impression of the conference?

I came a little early and was able to hear Aimee Allison speak about the power that minority groups hold in voting and how that can strategically be leveraged for maximum impact, especially in the upcoming presidential election.

I’m very interested in politics, but not particularly active and hearing someone like Aimee certainly reminded me that we all can still make an impact and ultimately win elections and change our future for the better. I plan to attend the full conference next time and not just swing by on my lunch break.

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