Bold and Balanced Extended Web Version

A Look at This Year’s Women’s Executive Forum

By Heather Swink, CAE

Left: Cara Brookins signs copies of her book “Rise: How a House Built a Family." Below: Brookins delivers her keynote presentation.
Left: Cara Brookins signs copies of her book “Rise: How a House Built a Family." Bottom right: Brookins delivers her keynote presentation.

Breaking the glass ceiling once and for all requires a bold and balanced approach. During Association Forum’s 8th annual Women’s Executive Forum, held on March 11 (before a stay-at-home order was in place) at the W Chicago — City Center, participants learned from their women colleagues about what being bold and balanced means — identifying and nurturing your personal brand, leadership voice and unique value; defying the odds; and persevering by believing in yourself, among other powerful strategies.

‘We make history every day’

More than 140 women association leaders gather at the forum.

The day began with an ice breaker, speed-networking style. At their assigned tables — based on career levels and tracks — women shared their courageous professional and personal accomplishments and the challenges they overcame. They discussed how they maintained balance in the midst of their bold moves. They revealed goals to accomplish this year and pitfalls to anticipate.

Association Forum CEO Michelle Mason noted that the Women’s Executive Forum is intentionally held during March, which is Women’s History Month.

“However, at the Forum, we believe women don’t make history just one month each year — we make history every day,” Mason said.

‘Building the best you’

The Women’s Executive Forum is an opportunity for women leaders in the association and nonprofit communities to establish and deepen connections while discussing unique issues faced by women in the industry. Participants explore personal and professional growth ideas in a supportive, nurturing and confidential environment.
Opening keynote speaker Cara Brookins, author of “Rise: How a House Built a Family,” and a survivor of domestic violence and a mother of four, shared her story of how she constructed a home from scratch while rebuilding her family.

“I was desperate. I lost my entire life savings. I made some bad choices,” Brookins said. Her ex-husband was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, and he stalked her family and threatened their lives. Her second husband was physically abusive. By the time her oldest children were 17 and 15, they had lived in nine different homes.

“I was stuck. I didn’t know how to make things better. I felt weak, small, powerless,” Brookins said. “I saw the haunted eyes, slumped shoulders of my kids. I decided I would do anything to build these kids a better life.”

In 2007, she came up with the idea to build a house in which she and her family felt safe. “The idea of building a house changed these kids: It changed what they saw as possible,” she said.

“I realized I had to take big steps and big action. More importantly, I realized that I already had everything inside me to make this change.”

Within a year, her home was built — and her family rebuilt. She has since written eight books, launched her own business and co-written a screenplay based on her life. Brookins shared some of her top lessons learned:

  • Take big action. The stakes and pressure were high when Brookins took on a high-risk, nine-month construction loan to build a house. She made a detailed schedule that could even make professional project managers envious. When 1,500 concrete blocks and 80-pound bags of concrete mixer to build her foundation showed up at her one-acre property site, she did what many people do these days to solve problems: She turned to YouTube for a solution. “Successful people recognize when fear strikes to use that fear and adrenaline to do that hard thing. For me at this time, the hard thing was pouring the foundation. For 40 days, I hand-mixed concrete mortar using wheelbarrows of water from a neighbor’s pond,” Brookins said.
  • Do hard things. Whenever Brookins felt nervous working on the construction site, she would ask herself, “If we go ahead and do this thing, like run a gas line, what’s the worst that can happen? The answer to that question is, ‘being willing to take a do-over,’” Brookins said.

Eventually, her home was completed. Brookins and her family lived in the 3,500-square-foot house for 11 years — which featured special amenities like a floor-to-ceiling library, a two-story treehouse, a Harry Potter-type cupboard under the stairs and a three-car garage.

“Don’t put off your big dreams and goals. If a single mom with no construction experience can build her dream house, you guys can reach your dreams,” Brookins said. “Surround yourself with a team of people who can believe in your big dreams.”

While building a home on your own may be a reach for some, Brookins said fretting over a presentation is something to which most people can relate.

“Today, none of you wanted me to fail — you all wanted me to succeed. If I got tongue-tied or fell, you all would have supported me,” Brookins said. “And guess what? Next week, I get a do-over, I do a talk somewhere else. The message here today is that we don’t need to be rescued. We have what’s inside us to make big, bold changes.”

CEO Conversation Circles

Participants then attended various “conversation circles,” which ranged from addressing vulnerability in the workplace to becoming an aspiring leader to owning your brand.

Donna Brighton, chief ideas officer of Brighton Leadership Group, challenged women to find their leadership voice by asking themselves, “Why do you want to be a leader? What does leadership mean to you?” Participants then listed leaders they admire and their attributes, then shared these attributes in small groups and came up with five top attributes as a group. Among the common attributes many groups shared were: innovative, humility, collaborative, confident, communicate, empowering, authentic, trustworthy, empathy, compassion, purposeful and integrity.

“Now you can craft your own definition using these adjectives. This will provide clarity on who you are and your leadership definition — your leadership intent,” Brighton said.

Women leaders focus too often on continuous improvement, or the need to find what’s wrong and fix it, Brighton said. “Let’s stop that. Let’s catch people who are doing things right. Let’s complement each other, pay attention to what people are doing right, support and lift each other up as women,” she adds. “Instead of being bitter, get better. That change starts with you.”

Loretta Deluca, FASAE, founder and co-owner of Delcor, and Amy Thomasson, the director of marketing for the Congress of Neurological Surgeons, led a session about building your brand – beginning with defining “brand”: a widely recognized impression of an individual based on experience and achievements in the industry, marketplace and community. Participants shared personal stories about their own brand journeys.

Thomasson said a key to her brand success is focusing on one social media platform (she recommends LinkedIn) and equally balancing her posts about herself and noteworthy activities and achievements of the people in her network.

Crushing the Glass Ceiling

Alpana Singh, master sommelier, restaurateur and Chicago television personality on Check Please (WTTW Channel 11), shared her motivating and inspiring story of being the daughter of Fijian immigrants and becoming a successful entrepreneur and the youngest woman to pass the master sommelier exam — being just one of 27 women to ever do so.

“The power of belief and mindset is everything,” Singh said. “If you have a clear vision for your future, it will manifest. I pictured my business card with ‘master sommelier’. ‘Holiday’ from Madonna was my theme song. Once I passed my [sommelier] test, that’s the feeling I wanted to have.

“I think of my life 18 months ahead. That’s doable. That’s a possibility. Have a purposeful, intentional plan to get what you want.”

Singh credits her success — overcoming adversities, navigating a male-dominated profession, having a successful television career and owning three restaurants — with her self-belief. “I believe I deserve a seat at the table. I belong here,” she said.

Women and Work

A powerful panel of women spanning from the baby boomer generation to Generation Z spoke about their perspectives on influential leaders, approaches to career choices and work/life balance, among other issues.

Marilyn Jansen, director of business development at Association Management Center, representing the boomer generation, said Ruth Bader Ginsburg is an inspiration for her.

“[Ginsburg] has helped pave the way,” said Jansen, who began her career in corporations, then owned her own business and now is on her “third chapter.” “It’s profound what she changed from a legal standpoint.”

Minal Patel, senior vice president and market executive for Bank of America, representing Generation X, said her mom has been her biggest inspiration. “My mom is of South Asian descent and a middle-school graduate, working in a factory most of her life,” Patel said. “She encouraged me to pursue my goals. I’m first-generation American … this is my 26th year working at Bank of America.”

Michelle Mills Clement, CAE, CEO of the Chicago Association of REALTORS®, said Michelle Obama is her inspiration. “We’re both from the South Side of Chicago. She’s a wife, mother and unapologetically an African American woman,” Clement said.

Megan Besler, a then-senior majoring in finance at the University of Missouri, said she most admires her mother: “My mother previously was a child attorney, and now she’s working for an anti-sex trafficking organization. She follows her passion.”

Panelists also discussed their approaches to career choice and work/life balance.

“There was no family leave policy when I began having a family,” Jansen said. “Now I can work a lot because I no longer have children at home. I make it an intention to schedule when I’m coming into the office and when I intend to come home to strike a balance.”

Clement believes everyone has — and should have — a different definition of work/life balance. “People have projected onto me. You have to make sure the balance is right for you. You have to ask yourself if you’re balanced or if you need to reset.”

Besler, who works two jobs and carries a full course load, said, “I’m well-organized and proactively schedule time for myself, time to see friends and time to enjoy college.”

Like Clement, Patel agreed that “balance is not a one-size-fits-all.” “It’s very personal. In our household, my husband is primary caretaker. That’s what works for our family.”

Mindfulness, Trust and Transparency

A proven leader in the corporate and social change sectors, Dorri C. McWhorter, CPA, CEO of the YWCA Metropolitan Chicago, has embarked upon a journey to transform the 140-year-old social service agency to a 21st century social enterprise. Since she became the YWCA’s CEO in 2013, McWhorter is moving the agency into the digital age by relaunching the TechGYRLS program, which focuses on developing STEM awareness for girls ages 9 through 14 and introducing 3D: Developing Digital Diversity, which provides web and mobile application development training to adult women. McWhorter also led the process for the YWCA to develop an exchange-traded fund (ETF) for women’s empowerment in partnership with Impact Shares, the first nonprofit investment advisor to develop an ETF product.

This type of innovative thinking and result has led to recognition such as being among the Chicago Tribune’s inaugural “The Blue Network” list, comprised of the top 100 innovators in Chicago, as well as being the recipient of Good City Chicago’s Innovative Leader Award.

McWhorter credits her success to “seeing the possibilities.” “Max Lerner said, ‘I am neither an optimist nor a pessimist, but a possibilist.’ I also tend to see possibilities,” McWhorter said.

As the closing speaker during the Women’s Executive Forum, she left the audience with the challenge: “Ask yourself: Who are you? What are all the different aspects of yourself? Identify what you bring with you daily that defines you. Make a commitment to yourself. Ask, ‘why not me?’ Be true to you. Be your authentic self.”

McWhorter’s presentation, peppered with inspirational questions, ended with a quote by Glinda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz that summarizes the theme woven throughout the forum: “You’ve always had the power, my dear! You’ve had it all along.”

About the Author

Heather Swink, M.A., CAE, is a freelance writer and editor in the Chicago area serving associations.

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