Celebrating Women: Carolyn Cassin

Thirty years in the hospice industry, and Carolyn Cassin, CEO of the Michigan Women’s Foundation, is still captivated.

“My father died at 16 and my child died at 4 days old,” said Cassin. “I was acquainted with death, but not too much. I didn’t understand how devastating it was because nobody talked about it.”

The themes that run through her professional life were “to make things better than they were yesterday,” she said. So hospice seemed like the direction to go in, and provided an opportunity to change something significant and important.

“When I was in graduate school, it made me think about how badly we handle death,” she said. “It happens to everyone, but us. And when it does, we move on.”

Hospice, then, began to encompass her career. Cassin and her colleagues helped create in the hospice industry, especially in Washington–working tirelessly in 1982 to get it expanded so that it was covered by Medicaid and Medicare for everyone, and making it a household name.

“It was very exciting, and I wanted to continue to do things that make significant changes,” said Cassin. “So I sold my last company and came back to Michigan, decided I needed something different to get excited about.

At the time, her daughter was having her first child and was up for a big promotion, Cassin said. She told her mother she couldn’t tell her work, which was a fortune 50 company, because she might not get the promotion. Cassin was shocked.

“I thought, this is terrible,” said Cassin. “She did it, she worked hard to conceal it and got a promotion, but I thought ‘this isn’t over yet’ and I got my energy to make important change.”

Shortly after, she took over the Michigan Women’s Foundation, deciding that it was something a little broader and ‘much more significant’ to work on.

“My first job was to get the organization to focus,” said Cassin. “The foundation’s history was basically to stand for anything involving women. While interesting, it was too broad, and not actionable. We can’t act on everything, so it took a couple years but we found our focus.”

The three pillars that were decided upon were accelerating women’s entrepreneurship, developing the next generation of women leaders and the creation of the state and women’s agenda, Cassin said.

“I wanted to stop giving away grants to people and invest in women’s businesses, so we started a micro loan program worth 1.5 million dollars,” said Cassin. “We also want to build a pipeline of women leaders, and try to focus on womens issues as well.”

If the problem does not fall into these three issues, Cassin said, they do not entertain it. This is in an effort to re-tool and be ‘smarter’.

“The fundamental advice when I look back and say what motivated me was always doing something that mattered to me,” said Cassin. “What I cared about, whether or not I got paid for it, I wanted to do this regardless. I never stopped focusing on things that mattered to me.