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EmpowerCF 2021 Speaker Information

To view the photo and bios of the session speakers, click here.


Opening PLenary Session

We are pleased to have Neel Kashkari, President/CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, Liwanag Ojala, CEO of CaringBridge, and Tonya Allen, President of the McKnight Foundation, join us to help kickoff EmpowerCF 21 at our opening plenary session. They will be sharing with us their experiences and future outlook on how we can "create pathways and build community".


Tonya Allen

President of the McKnight Foundation

Tonya Allen serves as president of the McKnight Foundation, a Minnesota-based family foundation that seeks to advance a more just, creative, and abundant future where people and planet thrive. McKnight annually grants about $100 million in support of climate solutions in the Midwest, an equitable and inclusive Minnesota, the arts, neuroscience, and international crop research.

Throughout her 25-year career, Allen has been a bridge-builder and a civic diplomat. She has led successful philanthropic, business, government, and community partnerships that catalyze fresh thinking, test new approaches, and advance public policy. With extraordinary persistence, she has worked to engage communities and bring together diverse sectors to meet opportunities and challenges, and she has advocated for equitable policies and practices that benefit all people.

From 2013 to 2021, Allen served as president and CEO of The Skillman Foundation. Prior to that, she served as a program officer at the C. S. Mott and Thompson foundations. She designed many successful philanthropic initiatives and was a driving force in building a coalition behind one of the most ambitious educational reforms in Detroit’s history. She is a co-founder of Detroit Parent Network and Detroit Children’s Fund, two organizations making their city a great place to raise children.

Allen serves on several boards across the country. She is the chair for the Council on Foundations, chair of the Oakland University board of trustees, and co-chair for the Executives’ Alliance for Boys and Men of Color. Allen’s leadership has been well-lauded—she was named Michiganian of the Year (Detroit News), Newsmaker of the Year (Crain’s Business Detroit), and one of Five Nonprofit Innovators to Watch (Chronicle of Philanthropy). She also received the University of Michigan’s Bicentennial Alumni Award, Funders Network’s Nicholas P. Bollman Award, and NAACP’s Great Expectations Award.

Allen holds master’s degrees in public health and social work and a bachelor’s in sociology, each from the University of Michigan–Ann Arbor. She has earned fellowships with the Aspen Institute and the American Enterprise Institute.


Neel Kashkari

President and CEO of Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis

Neel Kashkari took office as president and chief executive officer of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis on Jan. 1, 2016, following a national search conducted by the Bank’s independent board of directors.

In this role, he serves on the Federal Open Market Committee, bringing the Ninth District’s perspective to monetary policy discussions in Washington, D.C. In addition to his responsibilities as a monetary policymaker, Kashkari oversees all operations of the Bank, including supervision and regulation, treasury services, and payments services.

Kashkari leads the Bank’s many initiatives. Among them, he was instrumental in establishing the Opportunity & Inclusive Growth Institute, whose mission is to ensure that world-class research helps to improve the economic well-being of all Americans.

Most recently, he has joined with retired Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan Page to propose amending Minnesota’s constitution to make a quality public education a fundamental right. This effort supports the Fed’s mandate to achieve maximum employment, with education being a key to obtaining a good job.

Under Kashkari’s leadership, the Minneapolis Fed also released an action plan on “Ending Too Big to Fail,” which calls for tighter bank regulations to avoid future taxpayer bailouts of large financial institutions.

Committed to increasing transparency at the Fed, Kashkari has published in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and Financial Times and is active on Twitter and Instagram. He also serves on the board of the Economic Club of Minnesota and as a member of the Aspen Economic Strategy Group.

Kashkari began his career as an aerospace engineer at TRW in Redondo Beach, Calif., where he developed technology for NASA space science missions. Following graduate school, he joined Goldman Sachs in San Francisco, where he helped technology companies raise capital and pursue strategic transactions.

From 2006 to 2009, Kashkari served in several senior positions at the U.S. Department of the Treasury. In 2008, he was confirmed as assistant secretary of the Treasury. In this role, he oversaw the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP) during the financial crisis. Kashkari received the Alexander Hamilton Award, the Treasury Department’s highest honor for distinguished service.

Following his tenure in Washington, Kashkari returned to California in 2009 and joined PIMCO as managing director and member of the executive office. He left the firm in 2013 to explore returning to public service and, in 2014, ran for governor of California on a platform focused on economic opportunity.

Raised in Ohio, Kashkari earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and his MBA from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.


Liwanag Ojala

CEO of CaringBridge

Liwanag Ojala is the CEO of CaringBridge, the first and most widely used global nonprofit social network dedicated to helping family and friends communicate with and support loved ones during a health journey.

As CEO, Liwanag leads management and ensures that all CaringBridge operations contribute toward its vision — a world where no one goes through a health journey alone.

Liwanag’s background has given her a strong foundation of business skills and knowledge that she uses to continue pushing CaringBridge forward into its next era. Before joining CaringBridge as chief operating officer at the end of 2014, she was vice president of ecommerce at Meijer. She developed digital grocery strategy for the grocer and oversaw Prior to Meijer, Liwanag served in several executive roles: as president of print business for startup Pear Tree Greetings; as president of SimonDelivers; and as general manager of CobornsDelivers. Liwanag began her career as an attorney with Briggs & Morgan, PA. As legal counsel for SpartanNash Company, she assisted the public company by advising executives on legal matters.

Liwanag has been continuously recognized for her business prowess and achievements. In 2020 Liwanag as named a “Top 500 Executives” by Minnesota Monthly, as well as included in the new CARE 100, a list of the American doing the most to re-imagine and re-humanize our care system. In 2019, Liwanag was named as one of Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal’s “Most Admired CEOs” and selected by Twin Cities Business Magazine as one of their “Top 100 People to Know if 2020.” Liwanag was selected as one of the “Top 500 Executives” by Minnesota Monthly in 2018 and a “Top 2017 Women in Business” by Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal. In 2016, Liwanag was a recipient of the Minnesota Business magazine “(Real) Power 50 Award.” In 2015, the Women’s Health Leadership TRUST recognized Liwanag as a “Top Emerging Women Leader” in health care. In 2008, the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal recognized Liwanag’s leadership abilities with the “40 Under 40” award. She remains a member of the Minnesota State Bar, a trustee emeritus of the Blandin Foundation and serves on the Board of Trustees for MPR News.

Liwanag studied at Northwestern University before receiving her law degree from the University of Minnesota Law School. The opportunity to lead an impactful organization at the intersection of health care, nonprofit and technology all while utilizing her many years in ecommerce has made CaringBridge a rewarding and fulfilling chapter in her professional career.

Closing Plenary Session

We are pleased to welcome Robert D. Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett as the EmpowerCF 2021 closing plenary session speakers. They will be sharing with us insight from their recently published book "The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again".


A brilliant analysis of economic, social, and political trends over the past century demonstrating how we have gone from an individualistic “I” society to a more communitarian “We” society and then back again, and how we can learn from that experience to become a stronger, more unified nation—from the author of Bowling Alone and Our Kids.

Deep and accelerating inequality; unprecedented political polarization; vitriolic public discourse; a fraying social fabric; public and private narcissism—Americans today seem to agree on only one thing: This is the worst of times.

But we’ve been here before. During the Gilded Age of the late 1800s, America was highly individualistic, starkly unequal, fiercely polarized, and deeply fragmented, just as it is today. However as the twentieth century opened, America became—slowly, unevenly, but steadily—more egalitarian, more cooperative, more generous; a society on the upswing, more focused on our responsibilities to one another and less focused on our narrower self-interest. Sometime during the 1960s, however, these trends reversed, leaving us in today’s disarray.

In a sweeping overview of more than a century of history, drawing on an inimitable combination of statistical analysis and storytelling, Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett analyze a remarkable confluence of trends that brought us from an “I” society to a “We” society and then back again. They draw inspiring lessons for our time from an earlier era, when a dedicated group of reformers righted the ship, putting us on a path to becoming a society once again based on community. Engaging, revelatory, and timely, this is Putnam’s most ambitious work yet, a fitting capstone to a brilliant career.



Conference Keynote Speaker

Robert D. Putnam is the Malkin Research Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University, having retired from active teaching in May 2018. Raised in a small town in Ohio, he was educated at Swarthmore, Oxford, and Yale. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, a Fellow of the British Academy, and past president of the American Political Science Association. In 2006 Putnam received the Skytte Prize, the world’s highest accolade for a political scientist, in 2013 President Barack Obama awarded him the National Humanities Medal, the nation’s highest honor for contributions to the humanities, for “deepening our understanding of community in America,” and in 2018 the International Political Science Association awarded him the Karl Deutsch Award for cross-disciplinary research. He has received eighteen honorary degrees from universities in eight countries, including in 2018, Oxford.

Putnam has written fifteen books, translated into twenty languages, including Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Italy and Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, both among the most cited (and bestselling) social science works in the last half century. American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, co-authored with David Campbell, won the Woodrow Wilson award as the best book in political science published in 2011. His 2015 bestseller, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, chronicled the growing class gap among American youth.

Before coming to Harvard in 1979, Putnam taught at the University of Michigan and served on the staff of the US National Security Council. At Harvard he has served as Dean of the Kennedy School, Associate Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and Director of the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. He co-founded the Saguaro Seminar, bringing together leading thinkers and practitioners (including President Obama) to develop actionable ideas for civic renewal. His counsel has been sought by national and grassroots leaders on both sides of the aisle and both sides of the Atlantic, including Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama, Prime Ministers Blair and Cameron, and prime ministers from Ireland and Finland to Singapore and South Korea. Over the last several decades he has also worked directly with thousands of grassroots leaders in scores of local communities coast to coast across America.

He lives in Jaffrey, New Hampshire and Cambridge, Massachusetts, with his wife Rosemary.



Conference Keynote Speaker

Shaylyn Romney Garrett is a writer who has dedicated her life to the pursuit of connection, community, and healing in an increasingly fragmented world. Her work includes the uniquely revealing portraits of religious communities across the United States in American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. She is a founding contributor to the Aspen Institute’s initiative, Weave: The Social Fabric Project, and writes about her personal journey back to community on her blog, Project Reconnect.

Shaylyn has also had a successful career as a social entrepreneur. With her husband, James Garrett, she co-founded Think Unlimited, a nonprofit venture working to catalyze social innovation in the Middle East. She lived in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan for six years, during which time she partnered with Queen Rania Al-Abdullah to bring an original Arabic language curriculum on creativity and critical thinking to Jordanian public schools. Shaylyn’s work has been featured by the New York Times, FastCompany, LinkedIn, Harvard Business Review, and Arab Investor. In 2011 she was honored with the prestigious Draper Richards Kaplan Social Entrepreneurship Fellowship, and was a finalist in the global Echoing Green Competition. She was twice awarded a membership to the Clinton Global Initiative, and has been a speaker at TEDx.

Shaylyn holds a BA magna cum laude in Government from Harvard University, and is a returned Peace Corps volunteer. She is also a permaculturalist who loves to get her hands in the dirt, and thinks a lot about healthy soils as a model for thriving human communities. She lives in the beautiful red rock desert of Southern Utah with her husband James, her daughter Sophie, her son Aeon, and her loyal dog Dewey.