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‘Influential Woman of the Year’: Viola Baskerville leads the next generation

Demonstrating the principles of leadership she strives to teach, Viola Osborne Baskerville left politics to return to the place where she first learned how to lead: the Girl Scouts.

Currently the CEO of the Girls Scouts of the Commonwealth of Virginia, Baskerville began her tenure with the group as a girl in the 1960s.

“My favorite part of being a Girl Scout was the different weekly projects the scout leader would have for us to do,” she said. A camping trip in the woods, not so much.

Being a Girl Scout “definitely taught me principles of collaboration and the ability to stand on a decision once I made it, as well as the ability to speak in front of a crowd,” Baskerville said.

Most importantly, “it started the process of teaching me how to relate to others,” an invaluable skill for leaders.

Baskerville’s leadership ability was in full effect when she was selected this month as the 2013 “Influential Woman of the Year” by her fellow honorees.

Now in its fifth year, the Influential Women awards program hosted by Virginia Lawyers Media recognized 44 women from around the commonwealth as the class of 2013, including lawyers, doctors, educators, judges, legislators and entrepreneurs.

Baskerville said she didn’t believe it when she first heard her name called to cheers in the crowd at the May 16 celebratory luncheon in Richmond.

“There were so many great people in the class – I was in awe of them,” she said. “To be selected by your peers is such an honor.”

Women in leadership roles are in need of recognition, Baskerville added, as women don’t make things happen to garner accolades, but simply to get the job done.

Baskerville hopes her achievement will inspire others – particularly women – to shape the next generation of leaders.

“Because of the organization I work with, I am focused on growing women leaders one girl at a time,” she said.

Becoming a leader

Baskerville’s own journey to leadership was influenced not only by the Girl Scouts, but also by the Massachusetts-based A Better Chance (ABC) Program.

A group of private school headmasters founded the program in 1963 seeking to provide educational opportunities to promising students facing economic challenges.

At the age of 13, Baskerville was selected as one of the first class of girls to attend an eight-week summer program held at Mount Holyoke. Based on the results from the program, Baskerville was offered a four-year scholarship to what was then known as the Northfield School, an all-girls private school in Massachusetts.

The “supportive and nurturing” all-girls environment helped shape the leader Baskerville is today, she said.

“Gender dynamics are completely taken out of the classroom and girl leaders are able to speak up in class,” she said.

After Northfield, Baskerville received her B.A. from the College of William and Mary, where she was one of only six African-Americans in a student body of 4,000.

As a senior, she won a Fulbright scholarship and spent the year following her graduation in Bonn, Germany, studying post-World War II female German writers.

When she returned to the United States, she married and had her first of two sons. The family moved to Iowa, where Baskerville entered the University of Iowa College of Law.

The experience of juggling the first year of law school, an infant and a doctor husband who was on call taught Baskerville a valuable lesson.

“Prioritize those things that are important to your own well-being first, afterwards everything else will fall into place,” she explained in her responses to questions posed to all honorees. “As the flight attendant says, ‘Put on your own oxygen mask before you attempt to help others.’”

Creating new leaders

After law school, Baskerville spent several years raising her children and working in her community. As her involvement increased, so did the suggestions that she take on a more formal role.

In 1994, Baskerville was elected as a member of the Richmond City Council; she also served as vice mayor of the city.
She then spent four terms as a member of the House of Delegates of Virginia.

A highlight of her political years was Baskerville’s sponsorship of legislation to provide scholarships for the former African-American students of Prince Edward County who were literally locked out of an education for years.

The “lost generation” was a result of the seminal Brown v. Board of Education desegregation decision. Instead of integrating its schools, Prince Edward County Public Schools closed its doors for five years. Baskerville’s bill provided $1 million in scholarships from the state, matched by a $1 million private donation, which allowed the former students to receive GEDs or attend college.

In 2005, Baskerville left the legislature to mount a run for lieutenant governor.

After she lost in the primary, incoming Gov. Tim Kaine tapped her as a member of his cabinet as the Secretary of Administration, where she oversaw nine state agencies. When his term ended, so did her time in politics.

The decision to leave public service was due in part to “the shrill voice of partisanship” Baskerville experienced.

“It became increasingly clear to me that the legislative arena was becoming an environment where the voices were not of collaboration and putting on the hat of how best to solve people’s problems, but just shrill partisanship,” she said.

Baskerville misses the process of tackling a problem from beginning to end, from being approached by a constituent and working to find a solution by formulating policy. She would not rule out a return to office.

“One never says no,” she said, but “it would have to be the right opportunity at the right time.”

Looking back on her career to date, Baskerville’s proudest achievement has been her efforts to encourage future leaders.

“I’ve finally realized that my true passion has always been supporting the next generation of leadership, whether by helping citizens understand the process of legislation or guiding young folks to leadership opportunities,” she said.

A huge focus of that support includes seeking a variety of perspectives.

“We need a disparity of voices different than just a white male voice,” Baskerville said, and women leaders are an important piece of the puzzle.

“I was always told to achieve and be the best I could, and when I think about it, that advice always came from female role models.”

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