06/09/2014 10:59 am ET Updated Aug 09, 2014

Women in Business Q&A: Johanna Osburn, Executive Director of DIFFA

Johanna Osburn was appointed the Executive Director of DIFFA: Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS in 2013. Working with a diverse Board of Trustees representing all aspect of the design community, she is responsible for overseeing the vision and execution of the National organization's fundraising and communications as well as providing support to DIFFA's chapters across the country. Funds raised through various DIFFA initiatives are granted to organizations fighting HIV/AIDS through education, prevention, treatment and research. In 2014, DIFFA celebrates its 30th anniversary, and will have a series of events to celebrate this accomplishment and continue to raise awareness of the importance of fighting HIV/AIDS in America.

Prior to joining DIFFA, Johanna served as Director of Development for Empire State Pride Agenda, New York's statewide LGBT civil rights and advocacy group. A member of the senior management team, Johanna directed their fundraising strategies and worked on a number of advocacy issues, including the successful fight for marriage equality for same-sex couples. Johanna graduated from The George Washington University with a Bachelors of Arts in History and a minor in Slavic Languages and Literature.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I was incredibly fortunate to have a supportive family that encouraged me to forge my own path, to learn from my mistakes and cultivate my strengths. Throughout my educational experiences, I was challenged to use my own voice and learned quite early that if I didn't speak out for myself, as well as the issues and individuals I cared about, that no one would do it. Looking back, I was the student asking a lot of questions and always wanted to know more, but I would also take the time to find answers and ask for help. I think that is one of the most important skills we can cultivate: the willingness to ask for assistance. It's incredibly hard and humbling to do, but it can also open so many doors.

How has your previous experience aided your position at DIFFA?
Choosing to work in non-profits for most of my career has been fulfilling and challenging, and my prior experiences gave me an incredible base to build off of when I started at DIFFA. The progressive non-profit community is incredibly small, and I find myself regularly reaching out to former colleagues and peers to seek their input and advice.

I also said "yes" a lot when starting my career - attending a meeting with a supervisor or colleague, being willing to take on another project, helping in any way I could. It allowed me to take on new opportunities because I had learned so much by listening and understanding my job and organization. Additionally, most effective non-profit organizations run on much smaller budgets than for-profit organizations of comparable sizes, yet are expected to do as much if not more with less.

I've tried to determine how to effectively use the assets DIFFA has - for instance, DIFFA has a wonderful volunteer base that helps us with a lot of in-kind assistance - to allow us to use our resources more effectively.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
In my prior position, I began to feel truly burned out because I had not learned how to take time for "self care." and I lost dozens of vacation days over the years. I still feel pressure, mostly imposed on me by me, to exceed expectations and be the best. But I can't do that if I am exhausted and worn out. Responding to emails at midnight or spending a portion of every weekend in the office isn't healthy for anyone. I have taught myself to set limits - unless there is a crisis, I try to stop checking emails at a reasonable hour.

I have also learned to say no, which is incredibly hard. There are networking and fundraising events every night of the week and oftentimes multiple events that you could or should attend. There is a point where you need to either delegate or take an evening off. You can't be an effective manager if you aren't setting a good example for your team. That said, there are inevitable demands that require long hours and sacrifices. After those settle down, take the time to breathe and get back to a healthy place.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your time at DIFFA?
The highlight has been getting to know the DIFFA family. DIFFA has an incredibly diverse base of supporters and Board of Trustees - world-renowned and emerging architects, interior designers, fashion designers, manufacturers, students and so many more. Hearing the stories from these individuals about why they care about DIFFA is inspiring and rewarding. My hope is that as we celebrate our 30th anniversary we can reinforce our mission to both past and new supporters and inspire them to be part of our next decade of work.

The biggest challenge is an overall complacency among the general public, as well as some of our supporters, that HIV/AIDS is over. I come from an advocacy background, so one of my priorities is to ensure we are using our platform to educate people on HIV/AIDS, especially in the industries that have supported DIFFA. We have a creative and passionate group of supporters and it is my goal to harness their energy to help us succeed.

I'm truly shocked when we meet with young people who think there is a "magic pill" they can take or that they are somehow immune to the disease. There are also people who think that HIV is mostly eradicated or isn't an issue in the US. There has been an incredible lack of urgency to keep HIV/AIDS at the forefront of public health, and personally, that scares me. We have a generation of 13 - 25 year olds who have had little to no education about the disease and their rates of infection are steadily increasing. We also have our first aging generation who are living with HIV, and there is little attention to ensure they get the compassionate, effective care they deserve.
I think it is imperative that we, who lived through the first waves of the crisis or came of age during that time, educate our youth and invest again in treatment, prevention and the search for a cure.

How does the annual Dining by Design tour raise awareness of DIFAA?
DINING BY DESIGN is an event like no other. Dozens of companies and designers participate, creating one of a kind dining installations or vignettes that are viewed by thousands, and each city has a unique series of special events, including cocktail parties, talks and a gala dinner. There are months of planning and hundreds of volunteers who help us create a series of events that inspire and make people think. One thing we stressed this year was to remember why DIFFA was founded and why we are still around continuing to fight HIV/AIDS. For our New York event, we are seeing those discussions become a reality with many of the installations not just reflecting a specific brand or designer; they are integrating the cause in truly awe-inspiring ways. We also work with student designers to create installations. They are mentored by leaders in the field, and we are able to use this opportunity to educate them on the cause. Many of them dig deeper to understand the devastating effects of HIV on the greater design community and the impact it continues to have on their world.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
It's hard to pinpoint one issue that affects all women; rather I think there are certain experiences that are universal. I don't know if I will ever see the day when women are treated as equals in the workplace, whether they are breaking the glass ceiling or starting their careers. It is incredibly frustrating to know that we've come so far but still face discrimination and barriers, no matter what field we are in or at what stage of our careers.

We sometimes impose our own barriers, especially when it comes to negotiating a better salary or a promotion. However, we are now seeing a generation of women in the workplace who have learned from the struggles of our mothers and grandmothers on how to be in charge of our careers. They are insisting on flexible schedules, and they are expecting and demanding to be recognized for their achievements the same way men are. There will always be roadblocks, whether subtle or overt. The more we stand up to those and speak out the better we will be. We owe it to ourselves and the women who will come after us.

What are your thoughts on Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In book and movement?
I bought the book reluctantly and finished it in a day. I'm a big fan! I have given the book it as a gift to some of my friends and insisted that they devour it. While I can't relate to all of her experiences and some of her advice doesn't translate to my field, it was refreshing to read of her successes and failures. She was honest but not apologetic. Again, the more we as women in the workforce talk about these challenges, the more we can all affect change.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I have never had a formal mentor in my professional life. I have tried to maintain relationships with individuals who have given me sound advice, challenged me to do better and have encouraged me to be my best. It is important to reach out to them both in times of crisis and when things are going well. They care about your success.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
There are so many women who come to mind immediately. I don't think you need to agree with every aspect or viewpoint of a leader you admire. Rather you take in what they have achieved and how they have achieved it to learn from them. One leader I've long admired is Hillary Clinton, who has used every opportunity to fight for what she believes in to try to create real change. She also has admitted when she has evolved on issues and I admire that honesty. Another is Madeline Albright, who faced incredible challenges as Secretary of State. Her personal story could have broken a lesser person; she turned that into strength and succeeded. Finally, in my field, Dr. Mathilde Krim, one of the founders of amfAR, is inspiring. She is a force to be reckoned with - her bravery and fortitude to fight HIV/AIDS from almost the very beginning was and still is without parallel.

What are your hopes for the future of DIFFA?
DIFFA has an incredible legacy - it was founded by a group of designers in response to a crisis. They saw the devastating effects of HIV/AIDS among their peers and harnessed their anger and fear into one of the most successful organizations in the fight. I have barely known a world without HIV, and I feel that DIFFA continues to play a role in funding those organizations who are working day in and day out on prevention, treatment, education and research. We also have a unique role in working with emerging designers through our Student Design Initiative where we introduce them to our work and have a platform to further educate them on HIV/AIDS. In the classroom they study the greats who are no longer with us due to AIDS. Through their work as designers and as they become the next leaders in their field, I hope that they will be inspired to work with DIFFA and help us work to fight HIV/AIDS.