She’s made history by being the first woman international president of the Lions Clubs International (LCI), and it’s easy to remember her name because it’s one of the most common names in her native Iceland.

Gudrun Bjort Yngvadottir was named after her mother’s sister who died just weeks before she was born in 1948. “She was very dear to my mother, so she decided to give me the same name as my aunt,” says Yngvadottir during our interview in Petaling Jaya, Selangor.

In fact, a 2004 survey ranked Gudrun as the most given female name (followed by Anna and Sigriour) because of Iceland’s strong tradition of parents using the names of those close to them for their children. “I have four granddaughters and two of them have my name too,” Yngvadottir confirms.

The charming 70-year-old now heads the traditionally male-oriented LCI, an international non-political service organisation based in Illinois, United States. It was founded by Melvin Jones in 1916 and became the first service club to finally admit women as members in 1987.

There are now 1.4 million members in over 200 countries, and in June this year Yngvadottir was elected as their first woman international president during the 101st international convention in Las Vegas.

Yngvadottir, a biomedical scientist and former vice director of the Institute of Continuing Education at the University of Iceland, has been a member of the Gardabaejar Eik Lions Club since 1992. She has dedicated her service to children and youths, leadership development, environmental protection, health and wellness, and the Lions Clubs International Foundation (LCIF).

Between 2010 and 2014, she was international director (then chairperson) on the leadership committee, she was on the women’s task force, she was a board appointee on the district and clubs service committee, and on the LCIF governance ad hoc committee.

Her awards in recognition of her services include the Kjarans Medal from the Icelandic Lions, the Lions Crystal from the Norwegian Lions, 11 International President’s Awards and the Ambassador of Goodwill Award (the highest LCI honour).

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Yngvadottir shares a moment with (L-R) District 308 B2 Malaysia governor Datuk Ir Neo Say Yeow, Yngvadottir’s husband Dr Jon Bjarni Thorsteinsson, and LCI International director Datuk Dr K Naga.

Yngvadottir’s rise to the top of the pride was systematic. Over the years, she served actively and worked her way up the ranks. In 2016, she became VP and took time off from her day job (and earning a professional salary) to focus on her volunteer work. “I don’t know if I’m going back. You leave everything for this. It’s a six-year commitment and I have to give myself 100%,” she says.

Lions Clubs

Yngvadottir and Thorsteinsson always travel together for LCI activities.

She has to travel extensively, about four to five weeks at a time to over 100 countries, before she’s back home for just three or four days. But her husband Dr Jon Bjarni Thorsteinsson is always with her. “We’re a strong team. We understand and support each other. He was a Lions before me. When he was in his leadership role, I supported him. Now he supports me,” Yngvadottir says.

Thorsteinsson, a former LCI international director, taught Yngvadottir a lot about the group. She hadn’t been keen to join any organisation back then because of her family and her career, but the LCI was different.

“There were strong women in the clubs, all active in our community; professional women running businesses or in politics. Their company and fellowship were meaningful to me,” says Yngvadottir about her attraction to the group.

Now that she’s the most powerful woman in the den, she says there will be changes that come with female leadership. People are starting to think about the LCI differently now, she adds. “Hopefully more women will join us,” she says, revealing the group’s plan to have equal numbers of men and women, as well as having more of them be decision-makers.

Having better equal opportunities might also help them “attract younger people who have the energy, while the older people have the experience”, says Yngvadottir. When more young and senior members are working together, the clubs can better “understand the different needs of modern society and how to meet them”.

Since her presidency, there’s been talk of other women who could carry on her service.

“We are encouraging women to take on the responsibility, and we are encouraging men to identify these women as leaders,” Yngvadottir says. “There are some women for the post of international president. Next year at our convention in Milan, we have a candidate from Canada. I hope she’ll be elected.”

Yngvadottir admits that if there’s no other woman after her presidency, then LCI could again appear as a male-dominated group. “We really want to have men and women serve and lead together, so we can prove that we’re an organisation with gender balance,” she says. This is important, she adds, to attract younger members and “be stronger”.

Yngvadottir also reminds us of the LCI motto, “We Serve”, and its pledge to serve 200 million people every year. “We are the global leader in humanitarian service. We’re very proud of that.” She cites a new global cause project on diabetes as a current priority. “There are 400 million people suffering from diabetes and it’s in every part of the world.”

Meanwhile, their other programmes tackle vision and sight, hunger, childhood cancer and the environment, something that’s close to her heart and home. “Iceland is a volcanic country, so taking care of nature is very important,” Yngvadottir says.

Environmental projects are crucial to Icelanders, she adds. “I planted thousands of trees with my parents when I was a child. My husband and I own a piece of land in the mountains and we have planted 4,000 trees. The world is suffering from too many trees being cut down, which disturbs the ecosystem. We as Lions have taken up this mission to protect the environment.”

As our interview comes to a close, Yngvadottir talks about her role models, the first being her mother. “She was a professional and was active in politics,” Yngvadottir remembers. Then came one of the biggest influences of her life, a college teacher named Vigdis Finnbogadottir who taught her French.

Finnbogadottir would eventually be directly elected as Iceland’s fourth president in 1980 and hold the post until 1996, the longest-serving democratically elected female head of state of any country. “She was clever and very well educated, so anything is possible!” Yngvadottir says.

As a role model herself – Yngvadottir has a son, a daughter and six grandchildren – her advice to women is this: “Develop your skills so that you’re a strong individual, and that way you can be a role model. It has to be about feelings and plans. The two go together like the brain and heart. Be honest with yourself and to others. And if you have done wrong, you have to correct it.”

Next page: The first woman international president of the Lions Clubs finds inspiration from a 10-year-old Syrian refugee girl.