We first met Rachel Harkins Ullmann last summer, when Verily had an exhibit at a women’s leadership conference in Washington D.C. Her first day on the job as executive director of the GIVEN Institute was also the first day of the GIVEN Institute’s annual national conference, which attracts hundreds of women from around the world. I was struck by how composed Rachel was in the spotlight in those first few days of her new job. And then I learned she participated in pageants, and I was curious to peek into a world I’d heard about in news and commentary, but never really from a contestant herself. So I asked Rachel to speak with me about her experience with pageants and her work for a women’s leadership organization. 

Tell us a little bit about how you got into pageants—which did you participate in, and did you win any?

My mother competed in beauty pageants in the seventies, and her stories and trophies always fascinated me as a little girl. When I was in high school, I was enrolled in an etiquette class for young women and met a contestant from the Miss America pageant. She inspired me to try it myself! I won Miss Teen Northern Chesapeake and placed second runner-up as Miss Maryland Teen. I also competed in the Maryland’s Junior Miss contest, which predominantly awards scholarship money. After graduating from college, I competed in the Miss America system for two years on a quest to win Miss Maryland to help pay for my graduate school education. I was awarded the titles of Miss Historic Maryland and Miss Appalachia, both years placing in the top ten at Miss Maryland. Of all my titles, I am most proud of winning Top Talent as well as the Top Academic Awards.

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Over the years, there have been studies and commentary exploring concerns that pageants can contribute to self-esteem issues because of the focus on things like outward appearance and being judged by strangers. Can you talk about your personal experience with these issues? 

With proper formation, I think every young woman should experience something similar to the leadership skills I learned through pageantry. I was certainly surrounded by women who were there to win the crown alone and not necessarily to improve themselves. Jealousy and comparison were present, but what competitive event does not include these temptations? In my own experience, I had been raised by parents who instilled in me a strong sense of my dignity and worth at an early age. By the time I entered pageantry at 16, I was confident in myself and my relationship with others. Thankfully, the Miss America system of pageants has always focused on the WHOLE woman, scoring the talent and interview portions of the competition highest. In fact, Miss America recently removed the swimsuit competition, a move I highly applaud. This did prove to be the most difficult aspect of the competition for me mentally and emotionally, since healthy eating and exercising are not favorite hobbies of mine! However, the skills I learned to push myself towards a goal and to achieve it were so valuable. In fact, I won both of my Miss America local competition titles wearing a one-piece bathing suit.

There are many people who commend pageants for their celebration of women’s beauty and the encouragement to leadership that they give girls and young women. Do you have thoughts on these beliefs?

I completely agree. I admire so many women that I met through my time in pageantry. These women are ambitious, well-educated, servant leaders, and virtuous! In a world where women need encouragement and support to achieve leadership positions, pageants offer that element so well. There’s a common saying in the pageant world that statistically you’re more likely to have son compete in the Super Bowl than a daughter compete in Miss America. The ability to walk into a room and address strangers with knowledge and ease, to present yourself on stage with confidence and poise, and to showcase your talents after dedication and hard work can help any woman achieve her future dreams.

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Do you think your participation in pageants has prepared you for your role as executive director of a women’s leadership institute? How do you fuse your experiences with pageants in your work with GIVEN?

It certainly has prepared me well. I credit my hours and hours of interview practice for pageants for any job offer I have received. I can answer any question directly in under 20 seconds because we had to do that on stage! I not only learned valuable interview skills, but I also learned how to speak to an audience and in front of a camera. I learned the art of speaking with an open and outward attitude through the use of body language, rather than appearing inward and closed. The overall experience of pageants gave me a great appreciation for the dignity and beauty of women and, even more to the point, the unique gifts that only women possess! GIVEN seeks to help women realize and embrace these unique gifts of womanhood. And we also seek to activate the unique gifts and talents of each young adult woman who participates in our Forum, without the competition aspect of a pageant. The prize upon completion of a GIVEN Action Plan may not be a crown made of diamonds, but as women of faith, we all anticipate the hopeful realization of an eternal crown of reward!

Many hear the term “leadership” and immediately think about positions of influence—like being a manager or a public speaker or writer, or some other outward-facing position. But GIVEN seems to talk about leadership as something every woman can possess. Can you talk about that distinction?

Every woman has the gift of leadership. Any time a woman uses her gifts to serve others, she exhibits leadership. Why? Because she is making the conscious choice to benefit someone other than herself. She is influencing others—and the course of history—by her example. Although leadership is most recognized in high-profile, influential positions, leadership is also expressed in simple and sometimes unappreciated ways, such as through a kind gesture or through the love of a mother. When you think of one of the greatest female leaders of all time, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, you see an example of a quiet, service-oriented leadership. She wasn’t wealthy and didn’t set out to possess a lot of political or social power, and yet she changed the world for the better and continues to do so posthumously. What an amazing female leader! And so, I believe that as we expand our awareness of the many kinds of leadership women exercise, we can see that every woman is called to leadership with the particular gifts she has been given.

A few Verily staff members and writers have attended the GIVEN conference over the years. You draw a very talented and impressive bunch of women together. Can you talk about why an organization and conference like GIVEN is needed for rising women leaders in today’s world?

Thank you! We love our network of female leaders! The unique gifts of women need to be made manifest in our time in order to address the many problems we face—especially our innate (even biologically influenced) sense of putting the human person at the forefront of decision-making, which is critical to protecting society and culture. At GIVEN, we pair young emerging leaders with seasoned leaders in all vocations and professions. The wisdom gained through the varied experiences and backgrounds of our mentors is invaluable in raising up the next generation of female leaders.

GIVEN is a religious organization—in fact, it was founded by Catholic religious sisters. While Verily certainly has many Catholics involved in our work, our mission is not explicitly religious. Is GIVEN only for Catholic women? What might compel a non-Catholic woman to attend, get involved with, or otherwise support GIVEN?

GIVEN was founded in 2016 by a collaboration of women religious orders to support the formation of young women and to share the unique gifts found in consecrated life. But as we all have been experiencing the new and unusual lifestyle of quarantine for two months, I think all women can gain from the wisdom and perspective of religious sisters who embrace a certain “quarantine” as a way of life! Religious sisters consciously choose to remove themselves from many worldly conveniences and traditions in order to seek to offer a lifelong gift of themselves to others. We invite all women to interact with our GIVEN Network to discover the gift only you can give! Our wider GIVEN Network is open to all women and can be accessed through our website, our YouTube channel, and social media!

Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?

We invite all women to join us from June 10-14 for our upcoming online event called Discover the Gift. We’re offering five days of free programming to give women of all ages a “taste” of GIVEN, in lieu of our in-person Forum. We hope you will join us! Register online today to receive the gift that you are, realize the gifts that you’ve been given, and respond with the gift only you can give!