Heidi Hookman Brodsky

photo by Clay Blackmore

photo by Clay Blackmore

by Danielle Cantor

Heidi Hookman Brodsky has spent her life in the company of women: The oldest of four sisters with strong ties to her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, she spent her formative years attending the all-girls Holton-Arms school in Bethesda and is now the mother of three young adult daughters. Brodsky grew up in Potomac, Md., studied English at the University of Pennsylvania with plans to become a reporter, then earned a J.D. from American University’s Washington College of Law. Her interest in journalism and entertainment led her to Discovery Communications, where she applied the full scope of her education to writing and negotiating contracts for Discovery Channel networks that were launching worldwide in the 1990s. After the birth of her third child, Brodsky made the decision to leave her job and focus on raising her daughters – but her drive to make a difference eventually drew her back to volunteer work. In all, she has worked as a community volunteer, organizer, and leader for 20 years, serving organizations including the D.C. Volunteer Lawyers Project, where she provided pro bono legal services to victims of domestic violence; and most recently, the Bender JCC of Greater Washington, where she served as board chair and recently co-founded the "She Says" women’s speaker series. In 2014, Brodsky received the JCC Association of North America Esther Leah Ritz award for notable emerging leaders.

Who inspired you at various points in your life?

It was a mixture of many different people. I come from a long line of matriarchs and had the benefit of knowing my great-grandmother, who lived to be 103. She moved here from Russia and worked in a factory at age 14. She and my great-grandfather raised five children, three doctors and two business women, while running a boarding house and a store. I remember telling her, "I don't think I ever could have survived all the hardships that you survived," and she said to me, "When you're put in these positions, you realize how strong you are. You are a strong person. Hopefully you'll never have to realize it the way I did, but it's bred in you." After that, I always felt like I had this superpower inside me. I was also incredibly close to her daughter, my grandmother, who also lived to be 103. She was such an elegant, strong woman, well-loved in her community and always optimistic. That strength has also carried to my mother, who's now 76

and is also very smart, diplomatic, and strong. She's soft-spoken, but you can't mess with her. My family's matriarchs, coupled with spending my formative years at a girls' school – where the class president and the athletes and the valedictorians were all women – has made me a feminist. I really believe in women; that we can do anything and should have every opportunity to do so.

What is your leadership philosophy – and what are your leadership challenges?

My leadership style is to listen to competing view points and to really contemplate what each person has to contribute to the conversation. Ultimately, I draw on my experiences both academically and professionally and analyze and really think through the options before making a recommendation. I also to try to set the best example that I can. From a very early age because I was the eldest of four daughters, I felt it was my responsibility to lead, to set an example, be a role model, and give counsel – sometimes when it wasn't asked for. That can be a challenge: Figuring out when I need to try and fix something, and when I am just called upon to listen and support. As I've gotten older, I've learned how to hear other people and empower them to figure things out. I also acknowledge when I don't know something, and I don't pretend to have all the answers. It helps to be surrounded by smart and caring people – like on the board of the Bender JCC, where I've served for the past 10 years.

After experiencing women's leadership at a girls' school, what was your experience as a woman studying law and then working with men in a pre-#MeToo era?

In law school, I never felt like the women weren't speaking up, or that the men were speaking over the women, or that the men were getting any sort of different treatment. I never experienced the sexism that happens in the corporate world and in some law firms. Actually, when I was graduating law school in 1992, I wrote a piece for Legal Times titled, “Women Struggle to Make it to The Top.” I interviewed women who were partners in law firms and asked, more out of curiosity than anything else, whether there was still a glass ceiling to partnership. And the bottom line of the article was, no. The issue that many of them outlined – and this was very, very early for this issue – came down to the balancing act that women had once they had a family, and how they still had to act like men and had to give things up in order to make it to partnership. That set a tone for me: In 1992, I did not necessarily see that women could have it all, even though people were saying they could, and I wasn't sure I wanted to make those sacrifices once I had children.

As for my career, the cable industry, especially in its earlier years, had a good representation of women, many of them in leadership roles. While Discovery Communications was at the forefront of flexibility for parents at the time, I still felt a pull between what I wanted to do as a parent and with my career. I got to travel internationally and combine all the skills that I loved; it was a really exciting time for me, but ultimately I decided to leave Discovery and become a stay-at-home mom to my three daughters.

You did some pro bono legal work for victims of domestic violence. What brought you to that work?

As my daughters were getting older, I started exploring things I could do outside the home in addition to serving on the board of the JCC. I had kept up my bar licensing with both Maryland and D.C., so I decided to get involved with the D.C. Volunteer Lawyers Project (DCVLP), an organization of women who were training other women like myself, who had law degrees and were interested in representing victims of domestic violence in divorces, restraining orders, and in the court system. I learned a lot – including how difficult it is for women without privilege to access legal resources.

Tell me about a moment – or a few – when you made a difference.

Shortly after leaving Discovery, a friend and I formed a political action committee called National Children’s PAC to raise money and support female candidates in Congress and the Senate. We held events and raised thousands of dollars for the women’s campaigns. It felt really great helping other women to achieve their goals and although the PAC was somewhat short-lived, I felt like we really made a difference.Later, when I was working with DCVLP, we were helping a young woman in a domestic violence situation who was going through a divorce and seeking custody of her two children. The case was especially challenging because her spouse actually had the means to hire a professional law firm. We were trainees with no experience in divorce cases representing our client pro bono, and we were being challenged by a partner at a firm that specialized in family law. It was complex, and ultimately we were able to fight back in a way that helped this woman tremendously.

What do you find most gratifying about lay leadership – and what do you find most frustrating?

It is incredibly gratifying work to be a lay leader of the Bender JCC. Every day, we are giving Jewish people and many non-Jewish people as well a place to be and an opportunity to find a community. We see ourselves a town square and a place where everyone can find an inclusive community. I’m also so proud of our summer camp which serves 500 children, 100 of whom have special needs and different ability levels. All of the kids participate and grow together. Witnessing the camp in action is something truly special.

In terms of the personal challenges, sometimes people say or do things that you don't like, or sometimes meetings go sideways, but I've surprised myself in my ability to manage the emotions that come along with conflict and just keep going forward. It's okay to disagree sometimes.

You've talked about the supportive women in your life; how do you describe the value of having cheerleaders?

It goes back to my upbringing. I have always had a support network of women to call upon when I’ve needed advice, and both my mother and father who have always encouraged me. I also have an incredible partner in my husband, who has always believed in my ability to lead and to succeed. And it goes back to my grandmother and great-grandmother, who told me that I had the strength within me all along. As a result, I have learned to trust my instincts and rely on my skills. The support I have had encourages me to give back and to help other women. The motto at my alma mater is, “Find a way or make one.” This has been my mantra all along.

More of the 2019 Women to Watch Honorees: