09/09/2013 06:28 pm ET Updated Nov 09, 2013

So Many Women Swim Without a Shark Cage

For the last several months I've had a new mantra, "What would I do if I wasn't afraid?" You probably recognize it from Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In, a how-to manual about leadership and self-awareness that reminded me of many important lessons I have learned in the past 50 years.

Asking myself what I would do if I wasn't afraid has served me well in making big decisions. It has helped me in small moments, when something inconsequential suddenly seemed daunting. It helps me talk straight to employees, challenge the status quo at board meetings, take care of myself and my family when I might -- if I had let myself be afraid -- put my professional life first.

What would I do if I wasn't afraid? kept playing in my brain as I followed the news about Diana Nyad's triumphant swim this week. Nyad -- a true role model from the world of athletics, which so often offers only hollow celebrity and cautionary tales, simply wasn't! She wasn't afraid. She chose not to give up her dream -- and to do it without the protection of a shark cage.

Her mantra, she tells us, was "find a way."

I listened to the radio coverage of her approach to the Florida shore, and I realized how many women around the world live their whole lives without a shark cage. In my community of South Florida, nearly 40 percent of households headed by single women with at least one child live at or below the federal poverty level. For women like me, the big decision is whether to leave the office early to get to yoga practice. These women have to decide whether food or medicine is more important, or which child gets the proper supplies for the first day of school.

Is the situation hopeless? Nyad would tell us to find a way. My way: I choose to work with a powerful group of women at The Women's Fund, whose vision is a community where all women and girls have equal access, opportunity and influence. We work to educate, advocate and support programs that help make that vision a reality. The clients served by the organizations we support are just some of the women and girls who wake up every day without a shark cage, and must find their way. Immigrant women who are survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault or trafficking find legal assistance through our grant to Americans for Immigrant Justice. Girls aging out of the foster care system find support through Casa Valentina, including housing, education assistance and access to healthcare. And women in the prison system find a path to positive changes through entrepreneurship and employability training from Ladies Empowerment and Action Program (LEAP). These are just a few of the organizations that The Women's Fund supports, to create long-term gender, racial, economic and systemic change.

What would you do if you weren't afraid? Consider these options.

1. Lead better, by being a great role model in our community. Mentor a young woman who needs career guidance, and include helping others in your curriculum.

2. Give a hand up by teaching a struggling student to read. Volunteer with a group like World Literacy Crusade/Girl Power.

3. Be stronger by creating a personal network where the currency is helping others.
What would you do if you weren't afraid? Multiply your impact by drawing women together to do even more. Because, as the fearless, powerful, amazing Diana Nyad tells us, "it looks like a solitary sport, but it is a team."

Janet Kyle Altman is a board member with The Women's Fund Miami Dade, and a partner at Kaufman, Rossin & Co. She can be reached at