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Omaha Magazine

Becoming Brave Enough: Health Care, Handbags & A Haven for Women Leaders

Dec 28, 2020 09:24AM ● By Kamrin Baker
Dr. Shilcutt in front of UNMC

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Women are mothers and war heroes, tech giants and family counselors, teachers and CEOs, magazine editors and leaders. Contrary to years of patriarchal belief, women are complex individuals, who need not adhere to any binary, role, or expectation.

Dr. Sasha Shillcutt is her own special combination of titles: cardiac anesthesiologist and director of clinical research in the Department of Anesthesiology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, founder and CEO of Brave Enough, gender equity researcher, author, podcaster, speaker, handbag designer, mother, and wife. 

Although Shillcutt isn’t likely to rank any of these titles in a particular order, founding her company and digital community Brave Enough has allowed her to fully embrace all that she is.

Brave Enough came to be when Shillcutt was in a rough patch personally and professionally. After countless hours and dollars spent becoming a doctor, she was prepared to throw in the towel. She had to be “brave enough” to find another way.

“I was experiencing bias and discrimination and kept overachieving to have the same opportunities as men, who just…perform,” she said. “This led me to extreme burnout. After a year of putting myself together, I realized I was really lonely. I had isolated myself from other women and had no female friends in similar spaces. I just started this group text and basically sent out a bat signal to nine women, saying: ‘Do you want to be my friend?’”

That bat signal soon attracted over 12,000 women in medicine. Brave Enough has become a global brand with three principles: Helping women find clarity, set boundaries, and connect with one another. With digital forums, courses, retreats, style guides, a national conference, and now Shillcutt’s book, Between Grit and Grace, thousands of women are learning the art of being “feminine and formidable.”

“I believe women are overwhelmed and undervalued,” Shillcutt said. “We are told in academics that we need to stick to the path to promotion, to tenure. There are times to be on that path, sure, but putting a noose around someone’s creativity defeats the purpose of academia. We need the innovation and ideas of women.”

Writing Between Grit and Grace [published by Health Communications Inc.] was a practice in vulnerability and healing for Shillcutt, who felt the self-help genre was lacking a conversation on the fine line of being both assertive and feminine.

“Most of us have elements in our jobs and lives that require us to have a lot of grit and a lot of grace,” she said. “We have to expand that margin and teach women that whatever makes you feel power is your femininity. That means something different to every woman.”

Shillcutt was once told by a group of male doctors that if she ever wanted to be taken seriously in medicine, she should ditch the red high heels. This stifling of her voice and individuality added to her drive to create a community where women could wear whatever shoes they desired—and receive sincere compliments, not snide remarks. 

“For a long time, I thought to be a serious doctor or scientist, I had to put away any warm-feely words,” Shillcutt said. “Every sentence of research needs to be sourced and factual, but writing the book, my editors said the first chapter sounded like I was giving a prescription. They said, ‘Sasha, we need your voice.’”

Growing up an avid reader and writer, Shillcutt tapped back into her innate desire to create, called a friend at Harvard Health Publishing, and made something new.

Her creative endeavors haven’t stopped there. Shillcutt recently released a Brave Enough handbag, which, despite her feelings of imposter syndrome, sold out in a day. She wanted to make something that women could carry in personal and professional spaces and feel confident. The inside of the black leather tote contains a gold bar inscribed with the affirmation: “I am enough.” 

“Don’t wait for your fairy godmother,” Shillcutt said. “I was waiting for someone to say ‘poof, I’ll help you!’ but I learned that you have to believe in your own ideas to get other people to believe in your ideas. When we’re connected, we have answers.” 

Shillcutt’s friend and colleague, Dr. Julie K. Silver, an associate professor and associate chair of the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School, understands the value of lifting up women in medicine.

“Dr. Shillcutt is a tenured professor, a level that few women physicians ever achieve,” Silver said. “Her work on gender equity and her support of women in medicine have had far-reaching effects. Dr. Shillcutt has broken many glass ceilings and actively lifted countless women up. She has inspired tens of thousands of women physicians and has been a strong advocate for them.”

Shillcutt has creatively explored and confronted the world of academia—bedazzled lab coat and all—because she needed to reignite her own fire, but she has also learned how great an impact women’s networking can have on the world.

“Women are the life-givers of this world,” Shillcutt said. “So who do you want to be the most empowered in our societies? Women of every race, every ethnicity. You learn how to take care of yourself as a child from a feminine figure. Empowering women is the most significant thing we can do in our society.” 

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This article was printed in the January/February 2021 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.