In February of this year, Vanessa McDowell Atlas announced that she would be stepping down as CEO of YWCA Madison and moving on to serve as Chief Operating Officer of the nationally-based organization, Black Girl Ventures, an organization dedicated to serving and supporting black/brown woman-identifying business founders and entrepreneurs.

UMOJA met with Vanessa during her final week at YWCA to get up-close and personal about her early start in Madison and what motivates her to continue such mission-directed work.

Vanessa grew up on Madison’s west side where she fondly remembers her days growing up in the Orchard Ridge neighborhood.  One of two children (her older brother Monte now lives in Atlanta with his wife and 2 children), Vanessa’s father nicknamed her “Loop”, for “… reasons that remain unknown to this day,” she laughs.

The family home was one of several located on a leafy cul-de-sac and she remembers days exploring nearby woods and riding bicycles on the paved areas outside the house.  Bike riding through the neighborhood was a phenomenon with the local kids, but young Vanessa was reluctant to give up the training wheels that her father had installed to help her learn to ride a bicycle. 

 “Yes, I had those training wheels for a really l-o-o-ong time,” she emphasizes.  “My dad finally told me that maybe it was time to take them off, but I refused!” 

She explains that it wasn’t until the time her best friend, whose bike had shed its training wheels months earlier, laid down her bike to go in for dinner that Vanessa went over, picked up her friend’s bike, got on and tested out ‘life-without-training-wheels’ by herself.  “And I rode forever,” she laughs.

It was that determination – and knowing when the time was right – that set Vanessa on her life trajectory.

As a youth she was active in sports, starting out with soccer, but made a switch when an errant and “wet soccer ball connected with my head,” she reports.  She transitioned to basketball and track – a sports activity that she recalls with a smile.  She shares that she was a member of the West Side Track Club and ran with the South Madison Panthers Track team, travelling to competitions around the region.  It was an experience she described as “…wonderful, especially the experience of travelling with other kids.  It was so cool!”

But her favorite childhood memory was hanging out with her parents and other Black professionals at Wisconsin Association of Black State Employees weekend events.  She remembers it as a wonderful time of fellowship and togetherness.

It may have been that sense of professional collegiality that sparked an early career interest in pediatrics.  She recounted “I had an opportunity to job-shadow with a pediatrician while I was in high school.  It was a great experience, but after a few real-world experiences I realized that it was not the field for me!”

Despite that insight, her empathy and concern for others did not waver.   

“When I realized I could care for people – especially young people – in other ways, I decided to try to figure out a way to support the downtrodden,” she says.  She enrolled at the UW Madison and was soon “propelled,” as she describes it, to study Sociology.  It was a decision that, much like her decision to ride without training wheels, set her in motion for the career she enjoys today.

As she built her service-filled career, she also found time to enjoy the arts. She remembers growing up in a house full of music, especially on Saturdays when there were household chores to be done.  She cites her parents as the main influencers for her love of music and it flowed to everyone in the family: her brother started his early roots as a DJ, her mother sang with the Mt. Zion Inspirational Choir, and she sang in the MTZ Children’s Choir.  

In college she picked up the guitar for the first time.  “I remember (listening to music and) hearing bass lines and thinking they were the funkiest part of the song,” she says.  It is an instrument she loves to play to this day with the Mt. Zion Church Choir and others. 

But behind this musical beat remains a dedication to service.  As an alumna, she pledged Delta Sigma Theta, Inc. She told us that her mom was a Delta and that she has always been surrounded by Delta women.  “I was impressed by the story of its strong women founders,” she remembers.  “It was a history and commitment to service I wanted to be part of and contribute to.”

And contribute she has — through her work with YWCA Madison and other service endeavors.  

So what’s next?  Vanessa shares that in addition to starting her new role with Black Girl Ventures, she and her new young family will be moving to North Carolina this summer to start “the next chapter of my life.”  She adds, “The time is right and it’s an experience I’m really looking forward to.”  But despite the distance, she quickly adds:  But Madison will always be my home.”  

From Monte Mcdowell 

From afar, I have watched with amazement my sister Vanessa grow into a dynamic community leader. What is even more special is that she has done it in the community in which we were both raised. It is always the hope that we can leave a place better than we found it. For Madison, and the YWCA, Vanessa has done that with grace, empathy, and love. From making sure some of Madison’s vulnerable residents receive the support they need, to helping small businesses thrive, her efforts and impact are awe-inspiring. Thank you, Vanessa for sharing your gifts with our city!

We have been blessed as parents to watch Vanessa McDowell-Atlas grow, mature and become a very active and integral part of Madison’s vibrant community. Vanessa was born and raised in Madison, WI and has been a positive role model for our youth and young adults.  She made a conscious decision to stay in Madison to attend college at the University of Wisconsin – Madison and to continue to stay and work here because of her dedication to her community. 

Vanessa has left a HUGE footprint in Madison! Her community involvement started at a young age on Madison’s south side. She was a member of the South Side Raiders cheerleading team and ran track for the West Side Track Club and the Southside Panthers community teams. She was also very active at Mt. Zion Baptist Church as a member of the Children’s Choir and President of the Young Adult Choir. She also served as Director of the Youth Ministry Department. She played the drums as well as the bass guitar for the Mt. Zion Baptist Church music ministry and a variety of other choirs and musical groups. Vanessa also served for ten years as Executive Assistant to the Pastor. 

Vanessa is a Delta legacy and has been an active member of the Madison Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. since 2010. She currently serves as a member of the Chaplain Council and Co-chairs the Arts and Letters Committee. The goal of this organization is to provide assistance and support through established programs, public service and social activism in our local community. 

As the first Black CEO of YWCA Madison, Vanessa is a social justice advocate and has been unapologetic about how she feels, talks and addresses issues related to race, gender, civil rights and other concerns that deal with inhumanity and injustices of the underserved. 

She has been deeply committed to offering programs that support women and social justice, help families and strengthen communities.  She has a passion for serving others by leveraging voices that have been silenced as well as empowering others to live out their purpose. 

Vanessa has been recognized for her leadership and as a result has received a number of awards and accolades including the following;

  • One of 22 “Women to Watch” – 2016 – BRAVA magazine 
  • One of 35 Most Influential African Americans in Wisconsin – 2018 – Madison 365
  • “40 Under 40” Award Recipient – 2018 – In Wisconsin Magazine
  • Featured as a Madison leader in the documentary “Madison Black Renaissance” – 2021
  • Recipient of Dane County’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Leadership Award – 2022

Vanessa has been named one of Madison’s premier DJ’s.  For the last 10 years she has provided DJ services in the Madison community as “DJ ACE”, in her spare time. She prides herself in being a crowd mood setter and believes music has healing qualities that brings an inclusive crowd of people together. She enjoys empowering young girls that they too can be a DJ while also serving as CEO of a major community organization.

Our family is so very proud of Vanessa’s accomplishments and the impact she has made in the Madison community. The entire community has been enriched by her presence and leadership!! We pray that her legacy will continue to be acknowledged and celebrated.

We wish her God’s continued blessings as she moves on to start the “next chapter” of her life!!

Charles and Candace M. McDowell