Foundation fund

Hawaii winner strives to bridge inequality gap

Leela Bilmes Goldstein is one of USA TODAY’s Women of the Year, a recognition of women across the country who have made a significant impact. The annual program is a continuation of Women of the Century, a 2020 project that commemorated the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage. Meet this year’s winners at

As a young girl in Thailand, Leela Bilmes Goldstein couldn’t help but notice a social divide.

Why do we live in this big house and my friend lives in a smaller one? Why do some people have to work but not others? Why aren’t men and women treated the same?

What Goldstein, now 54, realized later: She had a passion for social and gender justice early on. But how do you turn that passion into a full-time gig? As a child, she was full of questions about closing societal gaps. As an adult, she struggles to get answers.

Now executive director of the Women’s Fund of Hawaii, Goldstein, who moved to Hawaii when she was 6, spends every day working for the welfare of women. For her efforts and leadership, she was named Hawaii’s USA TODAY Woman of the Year.

The Women’s Fund of Hawaii bills itself as the “only foundation in the state that focuses solely on women and girls.” Each year, the foundation distributes more than $100,000 in grants to local organizations that support “innovative, grassroots programs that empower women and girls in Hawaii.” During the pandemic, when women were particularly hard hit economically, Goldstein and the Women’s Fund of Hawaii stepped in to help.

They first created an emergency fund that distributed over $30,000 to 15 different local organizations. Then they awarded $60,000 in grants to local nonprofit programs that “imagined a post-pandemic Hawaii where women thrived.”

Finally, the fund released a Gender Impact Report which details how women on the islands have been most affected by the pandemic. The report shed light on the unique economic collapse in which Hawaii — which relies heavily on tourism and fills many of its hospitality jobs with immigrant women — has found itself. From August 2020 to March 2021, Hawaii had the highest female unemployment rate in the country.

Goldstein can’t remember a time when she wasn’t fighting for women. She often thinks of a quote from famous author Maya Angelou: “I am a feminist. I’ve been a woman for a long time now. It would be stupid not to be on my side.

Leela Bilmes Goldstein, far right, celebrates her daughter Ollie (second from right) at Ollie's graduation.  Also pictured are Leela's husband, Brian Goldstein, and their eldest daughter Malia.
Leela Bilmes Goldstein, far right, celebrates her daughter Ollie (second from right) at Ollie’s graduation. Also pictured are Leela’s husband, Brian Goldstein, and their eldest daughter Malia.
Courtesy of Leela Bilmes Goldstein
Who paved the way for you?

I am fortunate and honored to be part of the board of directors of Women’s Funding Networkand being involved in this, I met some women I call “the big girls”: The former President and CEO of the Texas Women’s Foundation, Roslyn Dawson Thompson, is just an amazing, no-nonsense woman. She’s super warm and friendly, gets things done, runs this organization that has a $36 million endowment, she’s mentored me. I really look at her.

And then also The Colorado Women’s Foundation is led by Lauren Casteel, a woman of color who tells it like it is, she’s a go-getter, vivacious, so competent.

I don’t know how each of these women became so brilliant, but I want to be like them when I grow up.

What is your proudest moment?

It’s as a mom. When my eldest daughter, Ollie, started at the University of Oregon, she was so happy and I felt so happy for her and proud of her that she worked really hard and got what she wanted.

With my second daughter, Malia, it was not a moment but rather a period, as she graduated from high school 2020. With her, it is the resilience she shows that makes me proud.

Do you have a guiding principle or a mantra?

Yes, it’s a quote. I love quotes! Desmond Tutu once said, “I’m not an optimist. I am a prisoner of hope.

For me, that means I believe in the positive, I believe in human potential. I believe in being in the moment even if it is a difficult time. You will get there. I don’t usually live in anxiety – not to say I don’t have anxiety, but I dwell in a place of hope.

Hawaii is often associated with paradise, and we forget that there are ordinary people there, working, living and struggling.  What do you want people to know about women in Hawaii?

This East often perceived as paradise, but it is not paradise for everyone. It can be a struggle, especially for women. The people most likely to live in poverty here are single mothers. Not single parents but single moms.

But what I think of the women in Hawaii, I think they’re strong, they’re proud, they’re wise, they’re gentle in their strength. They fight. They love this place and they love the culture and they love their families. Communities thrive here because – or really, when – women do.

Leela Bilmes Goldstein
What I think of women in Hawaii, I think they are strong, they are proud, they are wise, they are gentle in their strength. … Communities thrive here because – or really, when – women do.
What advice would you give to your younger self?

Figure out what you like and then, let’s face it, figure out if you can make a living out of it. And find a mentor!

Follow National Correspondent Lindsay Schnell on Twitter at @Lindsay_Schnell

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