Dawn Forbes DiStefano
President and CEO, Square One
Inspired by Others, She Displays the Awesome Power of One Woman
Dawn Forbes DiStefano never had to be told about how a single woman could be a life-changing force for someone and an influential role model.
She could see for herself starting at a very young age, with her maternal grandmother, Phyllis Arnold Pilbin, who saw her role change in profound ways when her daughter, Forbes DiStefano’s mother, was killed by a drunk driver when she was just 26 years old and Dawn, her first child, was only 3.
“My grandmother somehow had the resiliency and spirit to lend a hand to a very grieving father; she left her day job to care for my sister and me so that my father could work during the day — while she was still raising four other children,” said Forbes DiStefano, adding that she started working nights selling Stanley Home Products. “She changed her life to care for the two of us. As a woman growing up with a woman who persevered through losing her daughter and had the strength to then change her career so she could raise her two young granddaughters to get through this — that had a profound impact on me.”
But there have been plenty of other examples of the power and influence of a single woman, she said, citing the remarkable individual her father would marry several years after that tragedy, Patty, who would adopt Forbes DiStefano and her sister Heather, who is also on this list of life changers, as well as two sisters who would come later, Kelly and Megan. And her aunts as well.
There would be impactful women at the YWCA, where she first went to work as a receptionist and would stay for nearly three decades.
“I’ve always been sort of an impatient, unsettled learner — I’m always looking for something else to learn, something else to do, a problem to solve. And I’ve always had women who responded with ‘go ahead and try it … we’ve got your back; we’ll pick you up if you fall.’”
Then there’s Joan Kagan-Levine, her predecessor as president and CEO of the Springfield-based early-education provider Square One. Like others, Kagan-Levine encouraged her to reach higher, take on risks, and maybe try to do something she might not have thought she could do.
“I’ve been surrounded by women who encouraged me to try things,” Forbes DiStefano said. “I’ve always been sort of an impatient, unsettled learner — I’m always looking for something else to learn, something else to do, a problem to solve. And I’ve always had women who responded with ‘go ahead and try it … we’ve got your back; we’ll pick you up if you fall.’”
With all those powerful leads to follow, she has, in essence, devoted her life to having the backs of others, especially women — being there to pick them up if they fall and being that single woman who becomes a force in someone’s life.
That’s been the case whether it’s the many women in her own family; the 130 or so women, by her count, now working for Square One; or others in the community.
Indeed, she keeps with her what she calls a “secret notebook,” one in which she jots down notes, mostly on women she’s helping through issues and problems in their lives, be it with buying a house or how to move forward in their career.
But being a mentor and influence in the lives of others only partially explains why she is part of this Women of Impact class of 2023. She is also a dynamic leader, guiding Square One through an important and challenging time in its history — and, yes, there have been many of those.
Today, she is leading a project to build the agency a new headquarters in Springfield’s South End, its home since 1883, while playing a key role in efforts to secure adequate funding for the agency and erase the discrepancy between what the state pays to childcare facilities in the 617 (and other area codes in and around Boston) and what it pays to those in the 413.
As a manager, Forbes DiStefano said she tries to lead by example and do whatever needs to be done, a philosophy captured in comments by Kris Allard, Square One’s vice president of Development & Communication, who first met Forbes DiStefano while they were serving on the Dress for Success board of directors and nominated her to be a Woman of Impact.
“Dawn does not lead from behind her desk,” Allard wrote. “She can often be found sitting on the floor reading stories with a group of preschoolers, chatting with a young mother enrolling in a family-service program, delivering diapers and groceries to families in need of assistance, and even preparing lunch for hundreds of children when the kitchen staff needs an extra pair of hands.”
All that, and much more, explains why she is certainly a Woman of Impact.
It’s All Relative
Forbes DiStefano said her mother, Patty, who is only 13 years older than she is, has often been able to inspire and motivate her words and actions.
She has many examples, but one that stands out is from the days not long after she graduated from UMass Amherst with a teaching degree and landed in a terrible job market for teachers. She was spending a lot of time at the family’s pool and enjoying her summer until Patty pulled her aside one day on the deck.
“She said, ‘Dawn, you’re the oldest of four girls, you’re a college graduate, and I need your sisters to see a college graduate working — let’s go work,’” she recalled, adding that the YWCA was hiring for an office it was opening in Northampton; she knew people at the agency, so she went to work there as a receptionist.
So began an intriguing, and very much ongoing, story of involvement with nonprofit agencies, service to the community, and being a woman and a leader who would certainly make all the women who have ever had her back quite proud.
As a receptionist at the YWCA, she was soon inspired by one of those women to start writing grants, become the agency’s grants manager, and make this work more than a job.
“I immediately fell head over heels in love with the notion that I could make a career out of helping people, and most especially helping women,” she said.
In 2007, she became the YWCA’s director of Resource Development, and would stay in that role until 2015, when she decided it was time for a change. She had lunch with Kagan-Levine, who convinced her to become Square One’s chief Finance and Grants officer. Forbes DiStefano would become executive vice president in 2019, and would prevail in the nationwide search for a successor to the retiring Kagan-Levine in January 2021.
As she talked about her current work and the challenges facing her and the agency, she was quick to note they are far less in scope than those Square One faced in the preceding decade — the tornado that destroyed its old headquarters building on Main Street, the natural-gas explosion that rendered one of its facilities unusable, and the tortuous first nine months of the pandemic, which … well, no explanation needed.
Still, there is plenty on her plate, including the work to build a new facility downtown, a $12 million project now moving through the design and fundraising stages, and ongoing efforts to close the discrepancy between what the state is paying for childcare to facilities on either end of the state.
Indeed, she was a definitive voice in a Boston Globe article earlier this year that drew attention not only to the discrepancy between the reimbursement rates, but the need at agencies like Square One to raise money to cover the difference between what is received for a subsidy and the cost of providing care.
The Compounding Effect
At Square One, more than 90% of employees are women, and Forbes DiStefano has committed herself to having their backs and providing the encouragement and inspiration that others have provided to her — all while also being a mother; a strong supporter of agencies that support adult women, such as Dress for Success; and the CEO of a nonprofit.
While doing so, she drives home not just the power of a single woman, but the even more powerful force that emerges when women work together toward common goals and solving problems.
“Someone smarter than me — I think it was in a Forbes article — talked about the power of women and the compounding effect,” she told BusinessWest. “Women, on an individual basis, have power, but the collective impact that women have when they make the conscious effort to support each other in the most inclusive way — it is an exponential change to the world around us.
“When you invest in an individual woman, because the tentacles from the single woman are so vast, whether she’s serving as a sister, a mother, a grandmother, an aunt … if you support her, the exponential improvement and the compounding value of that investment can’t be compared to anything else,” she went on, adding that she is committed to making such investments, whether it’s with her daughters or with her employees. “Invest in a woman; it’s one of the best investments you can make.”
That’s because, she continued, when women struggle and they can’t access what they need, that same compounding effect occurs, but in a negative way. “Her children suffer, and the people around her suffer.”
Which brings us back to that aforementioned secret notebook.
“It’s filled with all the women in my life, so that I can remember who’s buying a home, who’s struggling to care for their aging parents … I can’t remember it all by heart, so I have to write it all down,” she said. “I try to touch one a day; that is always my goal. I either do a handwritten note or a text or a phone call to another woman to let her know I’m thinking about her. I try to connect with women once a day, and in a personal way.”
Getting back to her grandmother, Forbes DiStefano said simply, “she taught me the power of one woman.”
There have been many others who have provided similarly impactful lessons along the way. Together, these individuals inspired her to make providing similar support and inspiration what she calls the “cornerstone of her life.”
So today, as a mother, daughter, employer, mentor, fellow board member, and nonprofit leader, she is the one displaying the awesome power of one woman.
Not just a woman, but a Woman of Impact.