Alumni Profile / Lisa Witter: Speaking her truth

Lisa Witter
Lisa Witter (Stevenson '95, politics) 

Lisa Witter (Stevenson '95, politics) has five choice words for women who have something to say but haven't quite worked up the nerve to say it:

"Be brave. Go for it."

She encourages "the strategic suspension of humility for the sake of humanity."

A firm believer in the power of communications to advance social issues, Witter is partner and chief change officer of Fenton, the biggest public interest communications firm in the country. She focuses on behavior change, innovation, women's issues, and global affairs for clients including Desmond Tutu's The Elders and The Ford Foundation. She was named by the World Economic Forum as a Young Global Leader in 2010.

As an expert on politics, philanthropy, and women's issues; an activist; and a commentator on Fox News, MSNBC, and Fast Company, among many others, Witter clearly embodies her own philosophy.

"If you've been doing great things, if you have given a philanthropic gift, if you have a TED talk to give, then be brave up there, step in front of the loudspeaker and go for it."

"It might be a little bit scary," she added, "But this is for a wider cause. It is not just for you. This is your opportunity to be more public, and create change."

Consider that she once ran for the president of the United States. It was only a stunt for a Showtime reality series, but she shook hands with countless little girls and asked if they'd consider running for president for real. "Yes!" they replied in droves.

Born in Everett, Wash., Witter grew up in a household where neither parent went to college.

Her mother worked for 45 years in a paper mill. Her father grew up in North Dakota and served in Vietnam. Apparently his intense fear of public speaking did not get passed down to young Lisa, who sometimes got lost on purpose just to say her own name over the P.A. system. Even now she recalls that experience as "exhilarating."

Her time at UCSC honed her leadership philosophy and her attitude toward activism and social change, which emphasizes good humor, fun, and "engagement through the point of agreement" instead of brinkmanship.

"You have less conflict if you start with universal truths, such as, 'We all want to live in communities where there isn't violence,' not, 'The NRA is bad,'" she said. "To make people listen deeply, and for other reasons, I use humor, I have fun. Why does everything have to be so serious all the time?"

Witter is co-author with Lisa Chen of the cheekily titled book, The She Spot: Why Women are the Market for Changing the World and How to Reach Them. The book blows up the popular thinking that women are a "special interest" niche by showing that they make 83 percent of consumer decisions, were an essential determining factor in the last several presidential elections, and give the most to nonprofits.

"We're not a niche," she said. "We're the majority. The only place where we're missing is in positions of power."

Her work sends her all over the world, including Dubai, where she serves as a member of the Global Agenda Council on Neuroscience and Behavior Change—and, to her surprise, where she ran into a fellow Banana Slug.

It just goes to show, she said, that UCSC alumni "are in the highest places doing the most interesting work grounded in a passion for making the world a better place."