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Rayona Sharpnack


Sausalito, CA

Consumed by my love for ideas, I believed I could change the world.

To say that I have been driven, worked hard and leaned in to opportunities in my life is an understatement. I was raised in a lower middle class family in Nevada with three older brothers who I had to wrestle down to get an extra slice of meatloaf. For some reason, I never saw my gender or age as a barrier to what I wanted to do. Perhaps because of the influence of my brothers, I instinctively knew to lean in to get what I wanted.

In fourth grade I decided to become a physical education teacher, long before such a position had been created for women in my town; I held true to that vision through college. When I was eleven years old, I became a national record holder in the Junior Olympics for the longest softball throw. At sixteen I won the Nevada singles and doubles tennis championship—without any formal training. In college, while playing three sports, I soaked up everything I could about linguistics, business, athletics, psychology and education. Consumed by my love for ideas, I believed I could change the world.

After college, I ventured into the Amateur Athletic Association (AAA) and professional softball. In 1978, while playing professionally for the International Women’s Softball League, I became one of the first people to be both a player and a general manager simultaneously in professional sports, and I led that team to a record on-field and financial performance.

When the league folded, and I left professional sports behind, I became the softball coach at Stanford University while still maintaining my junior high school teaching job. After eleven years, I was frustrated with the education system’s resistance to innovation. Knowing that leadership was my real calling, I became a business consultant. I brought my background and experience to problems facing the corporate world. One of my first challenges arose at Sun Microsystems, then a powerhouse in the emerging high-tech revolution. In my meetings with female employees at Sun and other Bay Area companies, I heard about the inequities and unrewarded contributions women were making in the workplace. My previous work with in-house leaders shone a light on those problems and helped to catalyze organizational change. The consulting projects kept coming, and I continued working in increasingly complex, challenging, and ultimately rewarding situations. Along the way, I raised my daughter and continued to be active in sports, associations, volunteer work and teaching.

Longing to share the work I was doing inside organizations with more women, I founded the Institute for Women’s Leadership (IWL) in 1991, and began conducting three-day workshops with powerful women for some of the most important organizations in America and abroad. As high achievers, the women who come to me typically feel stretched beyond capacity by the needs of family, the urge to be more healthy and fulfilled on a personal level, and the intense demands of high-profile corporate positions. Such women are seeking breakthrough change and I help to guide them through the process of unlearning what they assume to be true about their worlds and reorienting their focus and approach. The conversations we generate change the way these women think about their leadership, and enable them to scale their passion and skills beyond what they could have imagined, while simultaneously reconnecting with their inner needs.

I allow them to discover their natural ability to lean in to whatever has stopped them in order to overcome it. One of the great satisfactions in that work for me is seeing those leaders develop relationships with each other that extend beyond the workshops, creating a network of engaged women who support each other’s personal and professional objectives while furthering their influence across industries and communities.