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Leadership Course

Nancy Buffone

Nancy Buffone

Nancy Buffone has three degrees from UMass Amherst and has spent her entire career working for her alma mater. The job titles and long lists of responsibilities have changed over the past 23 years, but the one constant has been that she loves — really loves — coming to work every day. As a manager, leader, mentor, and role model, she says it’s her mission to make all those on the teams she supervises feel the same way.

Nancy Buffone says that as a manager — and as a leader — one thing she tries to do is put herself in the shoes of those she’s supervising.

And in the case of younger staff members, that’s not a hard assignment, because she’s certainly been in those shoes.

Indeed, not long after graduating from UMass Amherst more than 20 years ago, Buffone went to work for the institution in the Provost’s Office. A few decades later, she is associate vice chancellor of University Relations, a relatively new realm at the school, has two offices, and manages roughly 35 people handling a wide array of assignments, from planning commencement to putting out the alumni magazine to dispensing news.

Putting herself in the shoes of those carrying out that work enables her to better understand their wants, needs, anxieties, and challenges, she said, and overall, it makes her a better leader and the offices she supervises better places to work.

“If you don’t enjoy coming to work, it can be really hard to come to work every day,” she said, making an observation that essentially defines her approach to management.

Becoming a more effective leader is one of the few things not actually listed on Buffone’s job description (we’ll get into what is a little later on), but professional development is something she takes very seriously.

In fact, earlier in her career, while working for the university’s Provost’s Office, she developed a leadership program for academic department chairs — an initiative that filled what she saw as an enormous need.

“This was something brand new, and there was a lot to the job. It was a new challenge, and it was something just so out of the box, so out of the comfort zone for me.”

As part of her own professional-development efforts, she became a participant in the Leadership Pioneer Valley program, specifically as a member of its class of 2013. She said the experience not only provided her with a much better understanding of the four-county region — one of LPV’s stated goals — but helped her do something she said all good leaders need to do — step out of her comfort zone.

In this case, that meant taking on the additional responsibilities of the Communications Department with University Relations, which effectively tripled her workload and the number of people she was managing.

“This was something brand new, and there was a lot to the job,” she said. “It was a new challenge, and it was something just so out of the box, so out of the comfort zone for me.

“And to some extent, it still is, but I love it,” she went on. “This is a place to get creative and take a lot of the work that we’re doing here every day and think about how we’re going to tell that story; that’s fun, and that’s a challenge for me.”

Her ability to move well beyond that comfort zone has been invaluable as she has taken on that ever-growing list of responsibilities, many if not most of which have to do with telling the university’s story — and telling it much better than it was told decades ago.

In many respects, it’s better story to tell these days, said Buffone, who was in a particularly good mood on the day she spoke with BusinessWest because the new U.S. News & World Report rankings of the nation’s colleges had just come up, and the university had moved up a few notches in many of the categories.

“We keep moving in the right direction,” she said, noting, for example, that the school moved up from 29th to 26th on the list of best public institutions, and from 75th to 70th among all schools.

Meanwhile, her career has taken on the same general trajectory as the university’s. For this issue and its focus on women in business, we talked with Buffone about her multi-faceted role at the university, but moreso about the broad subject of leadership and her ongoing efforts to improve those skills.

Background — Check

There are two large bowls of candy in Buffone’s office at the Whitmore Administration Building on the UMass Amherst campus. And it’s the same in her other office on University Drive, where the Community Relations staff is based.

The candy serves many purposes, she told BusinessWest, noting that, in many respects, it is an icebreaker and a temptation that brings people to those offices, which they generally leave with more than a miniature Mr. Goodbar or Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup in their hand. Indeed, they also generally leave with a smile.

“We work very hard at our jobs, so I want to laugh very hard while we’re working,” she said of her general approach to management and leadership. “I want to make sure we’re having a good time while we’re doing this.

“As for the candy … my only rule is that you’re not allowed to ask — just take,” she went on. “But over the years, the candy has been a nice icebreaker for people, and it brings people in — it’s an opening.”

Stocking her office — and later her offices — with candy is just one of the traits Buffone has developed in a career that has seen her take on a growing list of responsibilities since she graduated from the university in 1995.

Nancy Buffone sums up her broad job description by saying that that many employees she now supervises are tasked with “telling UMass Amherst’s story.”

Nancy Buffone sums up her broad job description by saying that that many employees she now supervises are tasked with “telling UMass Amherst’s story.”

As a student, she took a job working in the Provost’s Office (the provost is the chief academic officer on the campus) and had the opportunity to work for and be mentored by Judy Barker, who, as fate would have it, retired soon after Buffone graduated.

She was offered a job approximating the one Barker held, thus commencing a 14-year stint in the Provost’s Office that turned out to be learning experiencing on a number of levels.

“It was an amazing educational opportunity,” Buffone recalled. “I learned so much not just about how UMass works, but also higher education and especially public higher education. Being in the Provost’s Office, I never knew from day to day what I’d be working on; my position evolved into more of a generalist position that allowed me to get involved with many different things.”

That list included everything from working on a number of search committees for many senior administrative positions to creating new events on campus, working with the news office to promote faculty honors, and much more.

Along the way, she worked for several provosts who also became mentors, and she also earned two more degrees, including a doctorate in higher education policy and leadership. She said she was given the opportunity by those provosts to take what she was learning in the classroom and apply it in the workplace, especially within the broad realm of leadership and, more specifically, the academic department-chair level.

“Looking at what universities did to train the next person to be in the chair’s role, it became clear that at most places … it was nothing,” she explained. “So I was able to create an orientation leadership program for new department chairs that still exists today, although in a slightly different format.”

That program was among the hardest things to give up as Buffone moved on to the next chapter in her career in early 2009, as executive director of External Relations and University Events as part of the new University Relations department.

That office, created by then-Chancellor Robert Holub, is tasked with a wide variety of assignments, including community relations, events, media relations, federal and state government relations, and more. Early on, Buffone was placed in charge of events, with one of the first being the school’s 150th anniversary, a party that was several years in the making.

“We work very hard at our jobs, so I want to laugh very hard while we’re working. I want to make sure we’re having a good time while we’re doing this.”

These days, she leads two teams, one handing events and community relations and the other assigned to communications — a very broad term covering everything from the alumni magazine to the college website.

As she said, the expansion of her duties and the title on her business card tripled her workload and put dozens more people under her supervision, giving her more opportunities to apply lessons learned in graduate school and also while working with and for many great mentors.

Leading by Example

When asked to describe her style of management, Buffone paused for a second before noting that she’s from New York (Long Island, to be more specific) and thus relies heavily on sarcasm.

And then gave an example. Sort of.

“I learned how to manage by making mistakes, and I try not to repeat my mistakes,” she said with a laugh. “I started small, managing one person, and then four, and then it grew seemingly overnight when I took on the communications team. But whatever the number is, it’s really about trying to understand what I can do for the people I work with every day to make their jobs easier.

“If they can focus on what they need to do, especially the creative people … if I can make it so they can focus on what they’re trying to accomplish and not worry about distractions, then that means they’re going to be better at their jobs,” she went on. “I’m trying to create an environment that will foster that creativity and foster collaboration; to me, that’s really important.”

As for her own professional development, Buffone said her involvement with LPV enabled her to do something she really needed to do but was hard pressed to find the time for — doing some reflection on what she wanted to do and where she wanted to go professionally.

“I think it’s hard to find the time to think about what you want and about how to get where you need to go when you’re moving from project to project — it’s just too fast sometimes,” she explained. “Leadership Pioneer Valley offered that opportunity to really think about what I wanted and what skills I needed to keep moving forward.”

Elaborating, she said that, through her LPV experience, she decided she needed to get more involved in her community (Amherst), and she has, serving as a town meeting member and as president of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce board.

Meanwhile, at the office — or, again, at both her offices — she works hard at her job and equally hard at making sure people enjoy their jobs, something she believes is key to promoting creativity and, ultimately, better, more effective telling of the university’s many stories.

That includes the staging of what she called ‘standing meetings,’ which are just that — 15-minute meetings, instituted about five months ago, in which the participants stand and, in this case, keep a huge inventory of individual projects (700 a year for the communications department alone, by Buffone’s estimate) on track.

“The meetings will go half an hour even though they’re supposed to go 15 minutes,” she explained. “But if you’re sitting, the meeting can go way too long; that’s the thinking, and they’ve been pretty effective.”

As have most of her initiatives, all aimed at not only getting the word out about everything going on at the school, but making everyone on the team as enthusiastic about their role as she is.

“I’ve been really lucky; I’ve been at UMass for 23 years now, and I love my job, I really do, and I love coming to work just about every day,” she said. “And that’s how I want the people I work with to feel.”

Grade Expectations

Unlike the university itself and several of its departments — from food service to the marching band — there are no rankings for communications and events departments.

But there are still measures of success, and plenty of them, Buffone said, listing everything from letters to the editor of the alumni magazine (they show that the material is being read) to feedback on a host of events, to the sense of satisfaction showed by her team members when one of those events is over.

Another measure might be how many times she has to fill those candy bowls — which is often. That shows that people are breaking the ice, coming into her offices, communicating, and enjoying their hard work.

Which, at this university and within this department, is an effective course of action — literally and figuratively.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Women in Businesss

Giving Credit Where It’s Due

Jennifer Calheno

Jennifer Calheno was tasked with taking LUSO Federal Credit Union from $36 million assets to $100 million in 10 years. She did it in seven.

Jennifer Calheno started working at LUSO Federal Credit Union as a teller when she was just 17 — actually, a much different LUSO than the one that exists today.

Back then, this was a tiny operation — three teller windows, a handful of employees, and a small back room in a nondescript building on East Street in Ludlow. There were just a thousand members or so, all of them part of the town’s large and very proud Portuguese community.

At the time, the credit union closed mid-afternoon on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays and reopened in the evening; Calheno, daughter of one of the institution’s board members, would work that 6-to-8 shift, not ever thinking that her very part-time job would become a career.

Today, as noted, it’s a much different LUSO, with more than 6,000 members, $220 million in assets, a gleaming new 15,000-square-foot headquarters building further down East Street, a second branch in Wilbraham, and more than 40 employees.

And Calheno, working in concert with an ambitious, forward-thinking board and that growing staff, has a lot to do with all that growth. If not the architect of that transformation — and she took on that role to some extent as well — she was certainly the builder. Taking full advantage of a spate of mergers and acquisitions within the financial-services industry and new regulations that have allowed credit unions to move well beyond their original charters and customer bases, she put LUSO on a strong growth trajectory.

And kept it on that path over the past 20 years.

When hired, she was charged with taking the credit union from $36 million in assets to $100 million in 10 years, and without diluting capital. She did it in seven years, primarily through much more aggressive marketing and building name recognition.

“I do not find myself to be an expert in everything, because then I wouldn’t be good at anything. I bring in people who are good at what they do and I listen to what they have to say, and I take their opinions into value.”

“Marketing was my focus while earning my bachelor’s degree, and I always thought that was something that was weak here,” she recalled. “We had to get over that stigma of being just the Portuguese credit union because of our name, and we did that.”

Specifically, LUSO, which originated with the Portuguese-American Club in Ludlow, changed and expanded its charter to serve anyone who lives, works, worships, or attends school in Hampden County.

“That was the pivotal changing point for us,” she noted. “That allowed me to expand my marketing, expand my targeting, and to really get out of that mindset that we were the Portuguese credit union serving the Portuguese community; slowly but surely, the message caught on.”

And while LUSO has grown in terms of assets, members, employees, the use of cutting-edge technology, and every other suitable measure, Calheno says she’s grown as a manager and a leader, learning, among other things, about how to manage work and life, grow a thick skin, listen effectively, and surround herself with individuals whose talents complement, but don’t necessarily duplicate, her own.

“I do not find myself to be an expert in everything, because then I wouldn’t be good at anything,” she explained. “I bring in people who are good at what they do, and I listen to what they have to say, and I take their opinions into value.”

In doing all that while growing assets and membership, Calheno has also raised the institution’s profile and gotten the credit union and its employees more involved within the community, especially with young people and the all-important realm of financial literacy.

Indeed, every Wednesday, without fail, Calheno returns to her teller roots and sits behind a small desk at St. John the Baptist School (which she attended as a child), taking deposits from the students — and teachers — there.

She says these duties represent equal parts role modeling for employees who are also active within the community and simply giving back to the town that has been her lifelong home.

“It gets me out of the office, and it’s really fun,” she said, referring not only to her banking duties, but her work teaching classes for Junior Achievement.

For this issue and its focus on women in business, we talked with Calheno about LUSO and its profound growth, but also the many roles she takes as president and CEO of the credit union, including mentor, role model, and yes, teller at St. John the Baptist School.

By All Accounts

Calheno remembers the considerable amount of flak she received from the community when plans for LUSO’s new headquarters building were announced back in 2005.

It wasn’t the bank’s expansion that had people riled up, but the chosen location — the long-time home to the Double D Dairy Bar, a small mom-and-pop restaurant and local institution.

“They made the best ice cream … everyone loved the Double D,” said Calheno, who placed herself firmly within that constituency.

What the general public didn’t know, but Calheno did, was that the mom and pop behind the Double D were quite ready to call it a career, and the landmark’s days were numbered anyway.

Today, it’s home to a start-of-the-art facility that clearly speaks to how far the credit union has come over the past 20 years, or since Calheno decided to take her career back to where it started not quite a decade before.

Jennifer Calheno says she honed a number of skills over her 20 years at LUSO

Jennifer Calheno says she honed a number of skills over her 20 years at LUSO, especially the ability to effectively listen.

By that time, Calheno, just 26, had earned her MBA from Northeastern, spent some time in banking — as manager of one of WestBank’s in-store branches in Chicopee — and taken a job with the Secretary of State’s office, one that didn’t have much growth potential, as she recalled.

Meanwhile, the manager of LUSO at that time, someone Calheno worked for during her teller days, was getting ready to retire. While looking to replace her, the credit union’s board was also looking to grow the institution — and also for someone who could make that growth happen.

“The board had come together with a strategic plan — they wanted to grow the member base, they wanted to grow the asset size, and they felt they needed a new organization chart, a new structure, in order to that; they wanted to bring in a CEO,” she recalled, adding that, because she had an MBA and some experience in the business, she was asked to put together a job description for this CEO in waiting.

She did so, and while drafting it, she began to see a match between the board’s needs, her own skills, and her desire to find employment that challenged her professionally and personally.

“I thought to myself, ‘with my background and my experience, and knowing LUSO the way I do, I think this is something I can do,’” she recalled. “I looked at other opportunities, but I felt that this was a chance to come back to the organization that gave me a start, and I felt more confident coming into an organization I already knew so much about. I knew the culture, and I’d lived in this community practically my whole life.”

She recalled that she was probably the least experienced of the 15 eventual candidates for the position, at least when it came to management. But she also believed she would work the hardest to gain the respect and recognition of the board and achieve the aggressive goals spelled out in that aforementioned strategic plan.

Fast-forwarding a little, she was awarded the job, and took it with the expectation of still being in it 20 years later.

“I clearly recall a conversation I had with Mr. Dias at that time,” she said, referring to Joseph Dias Jr., founder of the credit union. “I told him I wasn’t looking for this to be a jumping ground to something else; I’m looking at this opportunity to be my career. I told him I wanted to succeed, and if I succeeded, then LUSO would succeed.”

To make a long story short, that’s exactly what’s happened; over the past 20 years, both she and the institution have grown immeasurably.

While only 26 when she took the helm, Calheno said she already understood that she was only as good as the team in place around her, and by team, she meant both the board and the employees she worked with.

“I don’t think that any opinion is not worth listening to. If that opinion jibes with where I was already going, excellent — then, it’s an immediate ‘awesome, let’s go with it.’ If it’s something different from what I’m thinking, I’m going to pursue it further.”

In both cases, there was passion for the institution and a shared vision, she said, adding that both are necessary ingredients in any success formula.

“They give me a lot of freedom, and they give me a lot of trust,” she said of the board, adding that she has taken full advantage of both to meet the ambitious goals for assets and memberships, build and open the new building, add the branch in Wilbraham, and, overall, take LUSO to a much higher plane, one she probably couldn’t have been envisioned when she was working the night shift while in high school.

In turn, she awards those working with and for her a large amount of trust — at least when she feels it’s been earned.

“I don’t micromanage — I don’t have time to micromanage,” she said. “And I do have a lot of trust in the people here. I wouldn’t have put the management team in place the way I have if I didn’t believe in them to do things the way I want them done.

“But if you start to do things not the way I want them done … then we have a problem,” she said. “If you were to ask people here about my management style, they would say, ‘the less we see of Jen, the better job we’re doing.’”

She said the most important skill she’s developed over the years is listening and valuing the thoughts and opinions being expressed.

“I don’t think that any opinion is not worth listening to,” she told BusinessWest, adding this constitutes sound advice for all managers. “If that opinion jibes with where I was already going, excellent — then, it’s an immediate ‘awesome, let’s go with it.’ If it’s something different from what I’m thinking, I’m going to pursue it further, and I’m never just going to disregard someone.”

As for work-life balance, this is for her, as it is for most women with ‘president and chief executive officer’ written on her business card, a real challenge, one that isn’t really mastered, but dealt with to the best of one’s ability.

“My family sometimes does say to me, ‘put the phone down’ or ‘get away from the computer,’ because my job is not a 9-to-5 job,” she said. “My job is 24/7, and I do tell my family that sometimes, LUSO has to come first. If I can do both, I will. Multi-tasking? That’s what I do all day, every day.”

Dollars and Sense

Calheno’s office in the new headquarters building is large, modern, and bright — there are four glass walls, after all.

Through those walls she can see the offices around her, Ludlow Country Club across the street, and the parking lot where the Double D once served up ice cream. Figuratively speaking, though, what she can see is how far she and LUSO Federal Credit Union have come in 20 years, and especially since she was a teller there in high school.

What she can see is how those remarks she made to Joseph Dias all those years ago — about how she wanted to succeed, and if she did, LUSO would succeed as well — have come to fruition.

From all angles, and in every way, it’s quite a view.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story Sections Women in Businesss

Sharing the Gold

Kacey Bellamy

Kacey Bellamy

Kacey Bellamy’s pursuit of a gold medal took her and her teammates to Vancouver, Sochi, and finally PyeongChang, where the team triumphed over Canada, the country that had beaten them at the two previous stops. It was a long, hard journey, said the Westfield resident, who has been very much in demand since returning from South Korea, and one packed with lessons for school children and adults alike about never giving up on one’s goals and dreams.

Kacey Bellamy says she never had many doubts about the validity of that old saying about how the color of the Olympic medal really — really — matters.

And now, she doesn’t have any at all.

“It’s a totally different realm when you win gold,” said Bellamy, who had captured silver twice before as a member of the U.S. women’s hockey team before that squad broke through in PyeongChang in February. “It’s like everyone wants you to share it with them, and … it does things for you.”

Like bring an invitation to Wrestlemania 34 your way. Yes, Wrestlemania.

Indeed, as she talked with BusinessWest, Bellamy was fresh off her return flight from New Orleans. The night before, at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, she took in the 34-match card and watched, among other things, the team of Ronda Rousey and Kurt Angle force Stephanie McMahon and Triple H into submission. Bellamy sat in the second row with her brother, Robbie, and some of her Olympic teammates, and loved every minute of the show.

“It was awesome,” she said, noting that, while the hockey players were mostly spectators, they were interviewed during the show. “We used to watch wrestling as kids all the time — it was a pretty important thing for our family, and my brother got to come with us.”

But a seat just outside the squared circle was just the latest stopping point for Bellamy and her teammates on what has been a real whirlwind of activity since getting back in this time zone.

There have been appearances on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and Ellen DeGeneres’s program. At opening day at Fenway Park earlier this month, she was one of seven Olympians with New England ties to throw out ceremonial first pitches. As exciting as that toss was, meeting David Ortiz was even more so.

There have been visits and puck drops at several National Hockey League games, including tilts hosted by the Boston Bruins, New York Rangers, and Tampa Bay Lightning. Bellamy received the Bold Woman Award at the Bay Path Women’s Leadership Conference on April 6, and last week gave a quick talk and handed out the honors at Westfield Bank’s Top Performers awards presentation.

And that’s obviously just a partial list of what has kept Bellamy busy the past month and half.

But she was quick to point out that, while the 586-gram gold medal she won has, indeed, opened some doors, she didn’t persevere through a decade of intense training and overcome some deep setbacks to shake hands with Big Papi, see the Undertaker from a few feet away, and hang out in Jimmy Kimmel’s green room.

No, winning the gold medal was always the goal, personally and professionally, she told BusinessWest, and one can’t — or shouldn’t — ever give up on their goals.

That’s the message she’s been leaving with the people she’s spoken before since she’s come back from PyeongChang. Actually, she delivered that same lesson long before she left for South Korea.

You just don’t give up on your dreams and your goals. The biggest thing for me is having a dream and then setting small goals personally to achieve that and working as hard as you can, day in and day out, to achieve those goals.”

That’s because it was this mindset that got her there. It’s what convinced her to put aside thoughts of retirement from the Olympics after a second straight — and even more devastating — loss to Canada in the gold-medal game at Sochi in 2014.

“You just don’t give up on your dreams and your goals,” she said. “The biggest thing for me is having a dream and then setting small goals personally to achieve that and working as hard as you can, day in and day out, to achieve those goals.

“Every school I go to, I try to tell that to the young kids,” she went on. “Because I think it’s important to have a dream at that age, no matter what it is. But it’s also important that you don’t just have a huge dream — you have to set small goals and work on them every day.”

With the gold medal now in her pocket — or around her neck; that’s where it usually resides — Bellamy has other goals to pursue. She wants to stay in hockey as long as she can and in as many ways as she can — as a player, a coach (she’s already done some of that), and perhaps as a broadcaster. Meanwhile, she wants to go on telling her story and stressing the lessons to be taken from it.

And that’s just what we’ll do here. Indeed, for this issue and its focus on women in business, BusinessWest talked with someone in an unusual line of work, but one with a message that applies to everyone who laces them up — in any setting.

Stranglehold on Determination

$577.

That’s what a gold medal from PyeongChang is worth — literally speaking. You can go on the Internet and look it up (we did).

That’s less than most people might think, and it’s because a gold medal doesn’t actually have that much gold in it — just 6 grams, actually; the rest is sterling silver. For the record, a silver medal is worth about $320, and a bronze medal … yikes, only $3.50. (It’s amazing what you can learn on the Internet.)

But that isn’t what most are thinking about when they ask, ‘what is a gold medal worth?’ No, they’re thinking about maybe six- or even seven-figure endorsement deals, a face on a Wheaties box, job opportunities, business opportunities, money, fame, all that.

For the most part, Bellamy is neither thinking about nor expecting much, if any, of that. She has a few endorsements — with Westfield Bank (she’s the institution’s main pitch person, if you will), the hockey equipment maker Bauer, and a nutrition company — and can’t say if there may be more coming her way. She doesn’t even have an agent.

Kacey Bellamy shares a moment — and her gold medal — with William Wagner, chief Business Development officer for Westfield Bank, at the institution’s Top Performer event earlier this month.

Kacey Bellamy shares a moment — and her gold medal — with William Wagner, chief Business Development officer for Westfield Bank, at the institution’s Top Performer event earlier this month.

As for other opportunities that might come her way from winning gold instead of silver? She’s not sure there will be anything that could be put in the category of lucrative.

But as she talked about these matters, she offered her own two cents on the worth of not only the gold medal but the others she competed for: Priceless.

That might sound like the one-word refrain from a credit-card commercial she doesn’t appear in, but Bellamy says that’s how she feels — about the medal itself but also the experience, meaning the years of hard work, the ups and downs, and the satisfaction that comes from never giving up on the ultimate goal and finally achieving it.

“I don’t look at the gold medal as a money maker,” she told BusinessWest. “I look at it from what it means to me — the relationships that I make, the people I’ve met, and, most importantly, the journey and what I’ve learned from it.”

This is what she talks about when she tells her story to young people and even those who aren’t so young. And if you haven’t heard it (OK, you probably have), it’s a really good one.

And she usually starts telling it by referencing what was obviously the low point in her life — getting cut from the first national team she tried out for.

“I used that as my motivation moving forward,” she said, offering her experience as an example of how others should deal with the adversity that life will inevitably throw at everyone.

“I didn’t point any fingers, and I didn’t blame anyone but me. I e-mailed the coach who cut me and asked what I could do to improve my game and about the things I needed to do,” she went on. “And I used that experience to motivate me and try to be better in every aspect of my game. And, knock on wood, that was the last team I was cut from.”

Net Results

Four years later, in 2010, she was part of the team that lost to Canada in the gold-medal game, 2-0. Just 22 at the time, Bellamy was excited merely to be representing her country and taking part in the Olympics. Still, the runner-up finish left a mark — as well as determination not to be standing on the lower podium and listening to another country’s national anthem four years later.

Such a mindset was positive in many respects, she went on, but in some ways, the focus became the goal (the gold medal) and not what it might take to reach it, which is where it should have been. And this is another lesson she imparts on her audiences of school children and businesspeople alike.

“The next four years after that, we were just focused on winning, but really the focus was on not losing,” she explained. “It was more ‘we don’t want to have another silver medal … we don’t want to have another silver medal.’

“I think we looked a little too far ahead,” she went on. “And that was kind of how that gold-medal game in Sochi ended; we were up 2-0 with three minutes left. They scored, and then they tied it up with a minute left, and then they won in overtime. I think it was the small details and the mental aspect of the game that we had to work on.”

Over the next four years, the team did what she called a “360 with our program,” learned from what went wrong at Sochi, and focused inward — just as she did when she was cut from her first national squad — with the goal of getting better.

“We just tried to get 1% better every day — in training, on the ice, and in mental skills,” she went on. “We were very prepared going into PyeongChang, and as a team, we always felt the positive vibe about the gold medal around our necks, and never thought, ‘what if we lose … what if we lose.’”

There is a virtual gold mine of lessons from the U.S. team’s Olympic experiences that can be applied to school, the workplace, and life itself, and Bellamy says she’s more than happy to share them, just as she shares her gold medal with those she meets in her travels.

Especially that notion of focusing on yourself, or your team, with the mindset that, if you strive to continuously improve and meet that goal, the larger goal will likely take care of itself.

“In the past, we always thought about the Canadian team and always tried to think about how we can be better than them,” she told BusinessWest. “But these past four years, we’ve just been focused on our team and us, and what we can do better.”

And then, there are those lessons concerning teamwork and how to flourish as a team.

Bellamy said that, while those who compete as individuals — from wrestlers to tennis players to golfers — sometimes get more attention and more hype, especially when they’re the best at what they do, she has always preferred the team setting.

“The reason I play is because it’s a team sport,” she said of her decisions to keep playing and return to the Olympics a third time. “You’re doing what you love to do with your sisters and your best friends, and you get to share that. And this is what makes it so special.”

Again, more lessons for the workplace.

Dream Job

As for what happens next … well, Bellamy wouldn’t rule out anything, including a fourth Olympics.

She is determined to help women’s hockey grow and thrive, and play as long as she can; she is currently playing professionally for the Boston Pride of the National Women’s Hockey League, but has also patrolled the blue line in the rival Canadian Women’s Hockey League, and suggests that maybe the sport would be best served by a merger of the two organizations.

Meanwhile, she’d like to do more coaching, especially at the high-school level, where she would be developing young talent and helping girls on and off the ice.

“You can’t play hockey forever, but you can grow the game forever,” she explained. “And I would definitely like to stay involved in the sport itself, whether that means playing or coaching.”

For now and for the short term, though, she’ll mostly be sharing her gold medal — something she really enjoys, especially if she’s doing it at Wrestlemania.

But while doing that, she’s also sharing her story — one that’s not about hockey or gold medals, but rather about dreams and goals, and how one should never let go of either.

She and her sisters, her best friends, never did, and the experience has provided her with a lifetime of memories and invaluable lessons to impart upon others. And all that is the very best answer to the question, ‘what’s a gold medal worth?’

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Women in Businesss

Teachable Moments

Nicole Griffin

Nicole Griffin says her company’s new name, ManeHire, is meant to evoke the lion-like qualities of strength, courage, and resilience.

A job seeker came to see Nicole Griffin recently after making a careless mistake — one he didn’t even recognize at the time.

The mistake was leaving a temporary position at a large, well-known firm two weeks before his contract was up because he didn’t like the environment and the job wasn’t quite what he thought it would be.

“I said, ‘you kind of ruined all the work you did there for several months by leaving before your assignment ended,’” said Griffin, president of the employment firm she launched in 2013 as Griffin Staffing Network. “That was a teachable moment. I said, ‘you have to make the most of your opportunities. Now you’ve closed your door for a reference. Plus, while you’re there, you’re supposed to network.’”

He quickly realized he’d burned a bridge he was two weeks away from crossing, and he regretted the decision. But he learned from it, and was planning on interviewing for a similar position the day after Griffin sat down with BusinessWest to talk about her company’s client-focused model, its growth over the past five years, and a recent rebranding with a new name, ManeHire.

“It’s nice to have a company in your name — it’s easy for people to recognize who you are when they walk through the door — but I want to let my employees who work internally shine,” she said. “I don’t want the whole focus of the company to be about me, so I’m taking me out of the name and highlighting all the talent we have.”

With physical offices in East Longmeadow, Springfield, and Windsor, Conn. — and a reach well beyond the region — Griffin wanted a new name that evoked lion imagery, for a reason. “I like the lion — it represents strength and courage and resilience, and those are some of the key components you need when you’re looking for employment.”

Griffin put all three attributes to work when building her career. While working at MassMutual as a financial underwriter — providing analysis, sales, and marketing for the company’s products — she became a certified interviewer and started a small nonprofit on the side, called the ABCs of Interviewing. There, she consulted with other nonprofits, companies, and individuals, helping them with interviewing skills.

While volunteering at a MassMutual Community Responsibility event at Western New England University, helping high-school students through a Junior Achievement employment-awareness program, she was struck by some teenagers’ total lack of understanding of how to act and even dress in a job-interview situation, and that soon became a passion for helping people position themselves for employment — a passion she exercised when she left MassMutual to open Griffin Staffing Network.

As the CEO of an agency for temporary, permanent, direct-hire, temp-to-hire, and executive-level positions — placing people in administrative, medical, financial, professional-services, hospitality, insurance, and information-technology jobs — she strives to understand the big picture in the regional employment landscape, while recognizing it’s made up of many small pieces.

“It’s still the same soft skills — showing up to work, the little stuff. Some people don’t realize the value in those things,” she said, again evoking the individual who walked away from his contract, and other, equally cavalier decisions people make.

“Some people don’t realize the weight that has — decisions made in the moment that have a lasting impact,” she said, such as taking time off with no warning on multiple occasions. “There’s a process. You don’t just call out an hour before you’re due to work. You have to be very mindful of the decisions you make.”

Through her work helping client employers find talent, she’s also helping job seekers not only access those jobs, but learn the skills necessary to keep them. In so doing, she knows she’s helping to change lives.

“We impact the family unit,” she said. “Of course, when you offer someone a position, it has an immediate impact on them, but it also impacts the whole family. It’s generational.”

Course Correction

An MP in the Army National Guard in her early 20s, Griffin originally thought her future was in correctional or police work, and she was offered a third-shift job at Hampden County Jail in Ludlow, where her father worked as a correctional officer.

But she wasn’t crazy about the work, as it turned out, or the hours. A friend at MassMutual offered to put in a good word for her there, but warned that’s all she could do — the rest was up to Griffin.

She admitted she wasn’t qualified, but made enough of an impression to get a job offer.

“I learned the value of having someone else speak for you, and how impactful that is,” she told BusinessWest. “And that’s what I want to do for other people. I want to help them find opportunities that may not be reachable by themselves.”

And that’s what she does — but securing an interview is a far cry from nailing down a good job. “You have to do the work. And if you do get a position, you have to maintain it.”

To help people do that, Griffin originally conducted free weekly workshops for applicants to hone their skills on the interview process, proper dress for an interview, business etiquette, and other soft skills. Today, instead of classes and workshops, that training is built into the application process for each job seeker who walks in the door.

“In the interview, we talk about your skill set, but also how we can mentor you. I tell my staff, ‘stop for a moment and really dig into why they left their last place of employment. What is the teachable moment in there for them?’”

Some applicants have walked out of those meetings in tears, shocked at what they didn’t know. “Some are just thankful — ‘no one’s ever told me that; no one’s ever corrected my résumé to tell me about the mistakes are making and why I’m going to all these places and not being selected.’”

Sometimes those tears are necessary, she went on. “I think honesty is key. You have to be honest with people and speak their language.”

Still, while the soft-skills gaps Griffin encounters aren’t surprising, they can be troublesome. Moreso are applicants she encounters who lack even the basics of financial literacy — who don’t know how a checking account works, or wonder why that account shows just a tiny balance after a direct deposit on payday, only to be told by the bank that the account had been $500 in the red. She recalled one woman who brought in her mother so these concepts could be explained to both of them.

“Financial literacy is passed down from generation to generation. It’s real for people. Things we take for granted, they honestly do not know,” she said. “We can make an impact by finding gainful employment for you, but if you’re not understanding how that money works…”

She trailed off, knowing there’s no good conclusion for that sentence — except to keep doing the work she’s doing, helping people gain the skills, knowledge, and wisdom they need to secure and keep good jobs.

“At the end of the day, we want you to be gainfully employed, whether through Griffin Staffing or another employer. We mean that, because it impacts the community.”

Better Days

That community is living through a historically solid economy right now, Griffin said, with Springfield the beneficiary of a string of good news, from MGM Springfield’s opening later this year to CRRC ramping up production of rail cars; from MassMutual and Big Y bringing new jobs to the City of Homes to a wave of entrepreneurial energy in the form of scores of successful startups — hers included.

“It’s a really exciting time for both employers and employees,” she said. “It’s one of those times when the opportunities are there; you have to seize the moment. I’m excited to say I’m from the city of Springfield.”

For those still in the job market, however, it can still be a challenge to find well-paying, satisfying work. A relationship-focused business model, one that digs deep to make the best matches, is appreciated by employer clients who have stuck with Griffin from when she first opened.

“We’re very client- and applicant-focused. Relationships are huge for me,” she said. “Someone may have the hard skills and soft skills, but do they fit into the culture of the company? We look at an applicant as a whole instead of just as a skill set.”

That’s a lesson she learned from MassMutual, when she was hired not necessarily for her raw skills — what they saw on her résumé — but what she brought to the table as a whole person. And it worked out; she was promoted four times.

In seeking to understand the whole person in today’s applicants, she’s come to recognize that young people value flexibility in a work situation as much as — or more than — the salary, which is useful for employers (at nonprofits, for instance) who can’t pay as much as they’d like. In short, today’s young job seekers will often sacrifice in the pay department to gain work-life balance. They also want a clear picture of where they’ll be in a few years, and how they will fit into a company culture, add value, and grow.

When the unemployment rate is low, she added, employers obviously find it more difficult to secure workers with the skill sets they need. “So what we’re doing is going after passive candidates — someone who’s currently employed but may be open to new opportunities.”

Over the years, Griffin has leveraged the skills of her staff to provide recruiting opportunities and career guidance to current and graduating students at area colleges and universities, was recognized with the Community Builder Award from the Urban League for helping meet employment needs in Springfield, and was named to the BusinessWest 40 Under Forty class of 2014 — and then won the magazine’s Continuing Excellence Award last year.

She also serves on the boards of YWCA of Western Massachusetts and the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County, and partners each year with the New England Farm Workers Council to hire a summer job applicant. “It’s very important that we give back to the community because we live here too, and our children are growing up here.”

That’s why she sees her work as making the community a better place to live, one job at a time. She’s especially gratified at the success stories that advance far beyond entry level, like a marketing intern who advanced to an executive role in an insurance company, and someone who went from working in a local warehouse to managing it.

“That’s so cool. That’s what empowers me, to see people grow in their positions. That’s so exciting,” Griffin said. “I love what I do. I don’t feel like I work. I get to get up and do what I love every single day. And I want people to wake up feeling the same way I do.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Women in Businesss

Missed Connections

Robin Saunders

Robin Saunders says the job opportunities and flexible working options in the IT field make it an ideal landing spot for talented women.

Despite the fact that women comprise roughly half the workforce and the majority of college enrollment, the world of computers and information technology remains a largely man’s world, with women accounting for just over one-quarter of all professionals. Many reasons have been posited for this disparity, but most industry leaders agree that opportunity abounds for talented women willing to, as one local professor put it, “just jump in.”

The numbers aren’t surprising anymore, but they’re still striking.

According to the National Science Foundation, though women make up roughly half of the college-educated workforce — and well over half of current college students — they comprise just 25% of the nation’s workforce in ‘computer and mathematical sciences,’ the name the Bureau of Labor Statistics gives to the broad industry most people call IT, or information technology.

“When I graduated in the mid-’80s, it wasn’t quite 50-50, but there were more women for sure,” said Brian Candido, associate professor and program chair of Computer Information Technologies at Springfield Technical Community College, noting that the field is slowly diversifying racially, but not along gender lines. “What’s interesting is that colleges are 60-40 female, and the projections are 70-30 in the next five years — but not in IT. It still tends to be white males. We’re seeing more Latinos, which is good, but not as many women as I’d like to see.”

Robin Saunders, director of Graduate Programs in Communications and Information Management at Bay Path University, agrees — even from her perspective at a women’s university.

“It is absolutely a problem,” she said. “If you look at the studies done by Google, women represent less than a third of the people in information-technology fields. They partly attribute that to women not being encouraged in high school to get into computer science. They’re told it’s difficult, it’s boring, it’s technology. When I was in my graduate cybersecurity degree program, I was the only woman. It can be pretty intimidating.”

And that’s unfortunate, she said, considering the opportunity that exists in IT, citing projections that, by 2020, some 1.4 million computer-science jobs will need to be filled, making IT one of the fastest-growing industries in the U.S. (see table below). It’s that growth, she said — and increased efforts to engage women at a younger age about those opportunities — that will start to shift the trend, she added.

computingtheopportunity0118a

“Many of those jobs will be filled by women,” she said. “It’s a perfect place for women to be; these are jobs that can be done full-time, part-time, or in an entrepreneurial way. If women are looking for something that’s flexible, it’s a perfect field to be in, and the jobs are expanding exponentially.”

In short, now is the time for young women — and older career changers, for that matter — to consider a field that, despite lingering stereotypes, is as promising and diverse as any. And that message is being delivered in myriad ways.

“The Girl Scouts just developed a coding badge, which is wonderful and something that teaches girls computer science is not just for your quintessential computer geeks, guys sitting in the basement with headsets,” Saunders said. “Women say that’s not what they want to be. But they don’t understand what the definition of information technology is. It’s such a broad field.”

She cited examples of applied computer science, which uses computers to examine and solve problems in a variety of industries, from healthcare to finance to precision machining. Meanwhile, professionals in her own specialty, cybersecurity, are increasingly in demand in virtually all types of businesses.

“Women are so sought after when they graduate,” she added. “Employers are looking for women to fill those positions. There’s a big push to equalize the genders in business, so if you’re a women with a degree in computer science, it pretty much guarantees a job.”

Breaking the Code

If that’s the case, why that nagging 25% statistic?

ISACA, a nonprofit that specializes in developing knowledge and practices for the IT industry, recently tried to get at the answer from within, surveying women who currently work in IT about the greatest barriers they face.

The top five were lack of mentors (48%), lack of female role models in the field (42%), gender bias in the workplace (39%), unequal growth opportunities compared to men (36%), and unequal pay for the same skills (35%).

“Women are vastly underrepresented in the global technology workforce. This is not only a societal concern, but also a workforce problem, given the critical shortage of skilled technology professionals faced by many enterprises,” said Jo Stewart-Rattray, board director of ISACA. “The survey findings reinforce that there is much work left to be done. By providing more opportunities, including career-advancement programs, we can make long-overdue progress in ensuring that women are more equitably represented in the technology workforce.”

When asked about opportunities for professional growth, 75% of respondents said their employer lacks a gender leadership development program. Additionally, 80% report that their supervisors are male, and just 8% report never experiencing gender bias in the workplace.

One big takeaway, Stewart-Rattray said, is that women hunger to learn and benefit from the presence of other women in technology.

Brian Candido

Brian Candido says STCC’s female enrollment in computer programs has mirrored national statistics, but the college is taking steps to increase it.

Saunders said it needs to start early, with clubs as young as middle school that get girls together to talk about technology and coding, and organizations like Girls That Code. And those networks need to extend into adulthood; a good example is Saunders’ own participation with the Women in Cybersecurity network, whose national conference she addressed two years ago.

“Women love mentoring and love networking, and they’re good at it. That’s the way to get them interested.”

Candido agreed that outreach and engagement should begin long before college if the industry wants to turn around its drastic general imbalance.

“We see four or five female graduates a year, and the ones that do finish do quite well,” he told BusinessWest. “The companies we partner with, MassMutual, Baystate Health, they want diversity. They want employees that reflect the community at large.”

Everyone uses technology and social media, and some of that is spurring interest in what’s making it tick, what’s behind the software, what makes it happen.”

STCC has made efforts to create that diversity on its own campus, such as the STEM Starter Academy, which financially supports first-year students entering the STEM fields, with a particular emphasis on women and students of color; this year’s cohort is 50% female. Then there’s Candido’s mobile-programming course he teaches at Commerce High School, a project-based course that has teenagers developing apps in an effort to pique their interest in an IT career. Of the 18 current students, six are female.

“Everyone uses technology and social media, and some of that is spurring interest in what’s making it tick, what’s behind the software, what makes it happen,” he said, adding that there’s a meritocracy in the tech world that rewards what someone can do, not necessarily what demographic they are. “Some of these opportunities now, they don’t even meet with people; they work remotely over the Internet, develop apps and deploy them, or work on networks. We’re seeing that people can work everywhere and work virtually.”

Because they’re working in virtually every industry, Saunders noted, Bay Path’s applied computer science degree is especially attractive to students who see technology as a way to create tools and apps that solve real-world problems, rather than as an end in itself. Meanwhile, the school’s master’s degree in applied data science prepares them for an economy that is expected to need an influx of 190,000 big-data experts by 2018.

Meanwhile, Bay Path’s Center of Excellence for Women in STEM provides a number of supportive resources for students pursuing IT and other STEM-related degrees, including professional-development, mentorship, and networking opportunities; guest speakers, workshops, and forums; and honors programs.

It’s enough to make women want to take the plunge into IT, she said, and that’s the point.

“Just jump in, I say,” she told BusinessWest. “You know this industry is going to explode. So get in and see how it feels.”

Shift Key

While colleges are doing their part, the industry itself bears some responsibility for creating a more female-friendly culture, Stewart-Rattray argued.

“There also is much that enterprises can do, such as ensuring they are offering equitable pay for men and women and providing flexible working arrangements,” she noted. “Having ‘keep in touch’ days when women are on maternity leave, in addition to encouraging professional-development opportunities such as webinars and online courses, are other worthwhile ways to ensure that women remain connected to the organization while on leave.”

After all, she added, cultivating a more diverse work culture just makes economic sense.

“In addition to promoting a more just society, enterprises have bottom-line motivation to hire and promote women,” she said, citing research from the Peterson Institute for International Economics suggesting that organizations with at least 30% female leaders add up to 6% to their profit margin, on average. “This does not surprise me. The women I have worked with are highly motivated, focused, and encouraging of their colleagues. They are as knowledgeable — if not moreso — than their male counterparts.”

Saunders knows that to be true, and she tells prospective students as much.

“My recommendation is just to be fearless. We all had to start somewhere. The only problem is, the future doesn’t wait for anybody. If you don’t jump off the diving board, you’re going to be left behind.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Women in Businesss

Market Shift

jane-albert-7-of-8From her early days in marketing, Jane Albert had a goal — to work in the field of healthcare, and specifically for Baystate Health, the region’s largest health system. To achieve that goal, and eventually be part of the organization’s senior leadership, she was willing to take risks, welcome new opportunities as they arose, and continually make connections — all the while never losing sight of who her customers are and how to most effectively meet their needs.

When she was 8 years old, Jane Albert was the only one of her friends allowed to ride her bike from her Springfield neighborhood all the way to City Line Pharmacy in East Longmeadow. She immediately saw the money-making possibilities.

“I would buy candy there and set up a table on my front lawn to sell candy to all the kids in my neighborhood, and I’d mark the candy up,” she said. “I evaluated the demand for certain types of candy; at first, I bought what I liked, but then I saw what they were buying.”

When someone would complain about the prices, she’d note they could easily ride to the pharmacy and buy their own. Except that they couldn’t.

What she didn’t realize at the time, she said, was that she was exercising the four ‘Ps’ of marketing that students of the subject learn in college: product, price, place, and promotion. “The candy was the price, and the price was the markup based on the demand. The place was local — my front yard — and promotion was word of mouth; kids rode their bikes around and said, ‘Jane’s selling candy.’”

While Albert didn’t know at the time that marketing and business development would become her career and driving passion, it’s easy now to look back and recognize an early aptitude for it — and the connecting threads between candy and healthcare as she settles into her latest role at Baystate Health, as senior vice president of Marketing, Communications & External Relations.

“It all goes back to that entrepreneurial spirit — even in healthcare, what do people want, and how do we deliver that and make them happy? And how do you determine what people want, or give them something they can’t get somewhere else?”

Her marketing career started in the 1990s with a moment of ‘bartering’ with Braman Chemical owner Jerry Lazarus, who was in her home on a pest-control call. “I shared ideas with him on how he could improve his marketing outreach. He was so taken with the ideas, he didn’t charge me. I thought, ‘oh, this is really valuable. I have good things to offer that I could package.’”

With a baby at the time, and a part-time teaching gig at what was then known as Western New England College, she launched a solo venture as a marketing consultant — something she could do with her skills and still be home with her family at night.

During that time, Albert developed a footprint across the Northeast and partnered with marketing and research firms and ad agencies to increase the value of what they brought clients. Some were more receptive that others — one client didn’t think she brought as much value working from home than someone with a “fancy office.”

“I said he was getting me 24/7 and wasn’t paying for overhead — just paying for brainpower,” she recalled. He challenged her by calling her at 6:45 one evening, when he figured she’d be cooking dinner. She took the call with one hand while stirring food on the stovetop with the other.

I’m always looking to the future and what’s next — I’m a visionary planner. And I knew my next step was not going to be a college president. So I asked, what’s next for me?”

Meanwhile, she was proving her value in other ways as well. While teaching at WNEC, she developed a plan to create a marketing department. Later, “the president called and said, ‘we like what you did. Will you be our first director of marketing?” She took that job, and when current President Anthony Caprio came on board, he promoted Albert to vice president of Advancement and Marketing.

She liked that job, though she missed the classroom culture, that moment of seeing the lights go on for a student who made a connection between the textbook and real life. “But I was able to promote a good school, and that was gratifying as well.”

But it would not be her final career stop. Far from it.

“I’m always looking to the future and what’s next — I’m a visionary planner,” she told BusinessWest. “And I knew my next step was not going to be a college president. So I asked, what’s next for me?”

The answer, she decided, was in healthcare.

“I was born at Baystate and raised in Springfield, and I wasn’t going to relocate anywhere,” Albert said. “I had heard a lot about Baystate’s leadership under [then-President] Mike Daly, and that’s where I had my sights set. You can have so much impact on people in healthcare, and I saw the impact Baystate had on so many people, so I wanted to work there and get involved in healthcare.”

But no opportunities in her field of marketing were available right away, so, as a stepping stone, she went to work for Veritech, a 25-person multi-media company that specialized in healthcare, heading up its business-development arm — a move that baffled friends and family who wondered why she would shed the prestige of being a college’s vice president for something seemingly much less glamorous.

But she had a plan.

“The core of their business was healthcare education,” she explained. “The founder was really a man ahead of his time. He created digital patient-education programs online, but it was too soon; there was no payment model for it. But I loved his company. My thought was that I’d take over his company when he retired, or use that as a launchpad to get to Baystate.”

Two years later, she got a call from the head of Baystate’s Marketing department — a job opportunity had opened up, with the health system looking to install a manager of Medical Practices Marketing. Again, friends wondered whether it had been worth leaving her vice presidency at WNEC to wind up in a managerial role in a massive health system.

“I did it because, looking at the long term, I wanted to be here at Baystate,” she said. “It was a significantly different job, obviously, compared to Western New England, but I said, ‘I’m in it for the long haul, and I’m going to go for it and do the best I can.’”

Fifteen years later, she’s sure that was the right decision.

Up the Ladder

When preparing to take a photo for this article, Albert joked that BusinessWest should take one of all her Baystate business cards. Indeed, it’s an impressive collection.

For instance, Baystate’s physician practices, the focus of her first stop, is an important part of the network, today boasting more than 80 primary- and specialty-care doctors. “My job was to promote the physicians and the practices to the general community, so they would know what we had to offer.”

During her time in that role, Albert presented the first marketing plan to integrate two legacy medical groups to become one organization, known today as Baystate Medical Practices.

But much of the day-to-day work was about building bridges between the doctors and their patients, and between the practices and their communities, she added. “That’s the most important piece, the relationships. That’s what it’s all about. When doctors have good relationships with patients, the patients share that with others. When the doctors have good relationships with other doctors, they refer to one another.”

She was later appointed manager of Corporate Marketing, overseeing Baystate Health’s marketing efforts, loyalty programs, and events, followed by a stint as director of Public Affairs & Internal Communications. She then returned to Baystate Medical Practices, successfully launching the organization’s first physician-referral office, working under the leadership of Mark Keroack, who later became president of Baystate Health.

“That office was really about developing relationships between Baystate doctors and community physicians, and paving a pathway for better access to each other, and for patients to get appointments,” she explained. “I knew so much about Baystate that moving into this operations role was really exciting. It was a place I could grow and have an impact.”

But not long after, a search committee embarked on a nine-month search for a key dual role in the system: vice president of Philanthropy for Baystate Health and executive director of the Baystate Health Foundation. They failed to identify the ideal candidate, however, and turned inward, to someone with a deep understanding of the system’s needs and some experience in fund-raising. That’s right — it was time for Albert to order a new set of business cards.

Among her accomplishments in that role, she led a transformation of the foundation to align philanthropic support with a new strategic plan, and oversaw the completion of a $5 million capital campaign for the new surgical center at Baystate Franklin Medical Center in Greenfield.

Four years later, though, it was time for another move, this time into the health system’s senior leadership team. As a member of Keroack’s cabinet, she now oversees the functions of marketing and digital strategy, government and public relations, community relations and public health, communications, and philanthropy.

That’s … quite a long list.

And it’s not a job performed in the quiet of her office; with a wry smile, she held up that day’s schedule, an uninterrupted block of meetings with different departments — squeezing in BusinessWest among them — and made it clear most days are like that. But she relishes her raft of new responsibilities.

“There’s been a lot of change over the last few years,” Albert said, referring to both her role and the evolving shape of healthcare as well. “But change brings opportunity. Healthcare is changing every single day, and so is our environment, so we have to be able to change, to meet the needs of our patients, families, donors, and legislators.”

The biggest challenge in healthcare is government changes and reimbursements. You’re dealing with an industry where more than half the revenues are provided by the government. There’s continual change, and that makes it difficult.”

Indeed, that latter group is often the most demanding.

“The biggest challenge in healthcare is government changes and reimbursements. You’re dealing with an industry where more than half the revenues are provided by the government. There’s continual change, and that makes it difficult.”

In addition, Baystate serves a population with high levels of poverty, and Medicaid reimburses only 75% of costs, on average. “We’re losing 25 cents on the dollar for every Medicaid patient. And when you have a charitable mission to take care of everybody — no one gets turned away — it becomes challenging to afford all that we need to do.”

Improving the Prognosis

‘All that’ extends well beyond everyday care, of course, including attracting top talent, investing in innovative technology, providing the teaching resources of an academic medical center, and, now, partnering with UMass Medical School on a Springfield branch.

“That’s why philanthropy is so important,” she added, particularly at a time when hospitals are expected to keep communities healthy, improve the patient experience, and reduce costs — the so-called ‘triple aim.’

“Healthcare used to be based on, the more you did, the more you got paid,” she said. “You’d send a patient for six tests, an X-ray, and three specialists. Now, healthcare is reimbursed based on how healthy you keep patients.”

And preferably not in hospitals. Take asthma, for instance, a particularly pervasive issue in the Pioneer Valley. If a child’s asthma is not controlled and he or she winds up in the hospital, it results in poor school performance, missed work for the parents, and higher costs for the health system — a vicious cycle. The better option? Preventive efforts to keep the child healthy at home.

“Where do you find a business that tries to keep you away from that business, and that’s a success?” Albert asked. “But that’s where we are. Our goal is population health and doing all we can do to keep people healthy. We look at social determinants of health — access to food, incidence of diabetes and obesity, which can lead to heart disease … all those things drive the cost of health way up. It’s a much better picture when people are healthy, and that’s what we want.”

Achieving that goal requires everyone in the health system to align behind a single mission, and that requires a culture change, she explained, from the doctors performing cutting-edge surgery to maintenance staff raking leaves and improving the aesthetic appeal of a building that few customers are really happy about entering.

“There aren’t a lot of businesses where people don’t want to come to your business, so we want to make it as pleasant an experience as possible,” she said. “That is our focus. The world is changing, so we need to understand what the patient wants and how we can best deliver it.”

The bottom line, Albert said, is trying to make a difference and make the world a better place, as cliché as that might sound.

“I’m excited about where I am in this role,” she said, reflecting simultaneously on all the stops along the way. “People can see you can go from a manager up the line. An organization of this size provides those opportunities.”

It’s certainly a long way — figuratively, anyway — from just over the border in East Longmeadow, where an 8-year-old with a knack for marketing first began figuring out what her customers wanted and how to deliver the goods.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Women in Businesss

Dogged Determination

Good Dog Spot Managing Director Elizabeth Staples

Good Dog Spot Managing Director Elizabeth Staples

Elizabeth Staples turned a life-long love of dogs into one of the region’s most notable pet-friendly success stories, the Good Dog Spot. From one small location to two large spaces, 25 employees, and more than 2,000 customers, Staples has built her growing daycare and grooming business according to one driving philosophy: each furry client is someone’s family member, and deserves more — much more — than a hard floor and a cage.

Elizabeth Staples always wanted to be around dogs. Fortunately for her, some early disappointment gave way to an abundance of canines in her life — and a successful second career.

“When I was younger, I wanted a dog, and my mom said no,” she told BusinessWest. “But when I was old enough to get a job, I started working at a local kennel, a family-run place. I liked it — they were able to set their schedule around their family, kids, whatever they had going on.”

That was an important lesson, one she would one day apply to her own venture, the Good Dog Spot, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary in Chicopee this year, as well as the first anniversary of its second location in Northampton.

That part of her story begins in 2007, when Staples, who worked for MassMutual at the time, couldn’t shake her love for animals, and a growing desire to craft a career around them.

As a board member with the national Pet Care Services Assoc., she noticed doggie day cares were becoming more popular, many launched by people in the corporate world who had built some savings and decided they’d rather play with dogs all day. But the centers she saw springing up regionally left her cold. She saw an opportunity to do better.

“On the East Coast, I was seeing chain-link kennels, warehouse kennels … just places for the dog to stay until their owners came back,” she said. “But out west, in California and Texas, you were seeing cage-free dogs playing with each other. It seemed like a more labor-intensive thing, but the dogs enjoyed themselves more. I thought that just made sense.”

So she launched the Good Dog Spot in Chicopee in 2007, envisioning a place where canines can mingle and have fun during the day, a model, she said, that more accurately reflects the pet-owner relationship when the pet and owner can’t be together.

She maxed out a credit card and convinced a bank to give her a small loan, which she used to open the business in a small space on Old James St. in Chicopee, which she quickly outgrew by 2009, moving to a warehouse about a mile away on North Chicopee Street. “Whatever we were doing was working, because we grew right away.”

Groomer Kathy Jarvis works on a patient customer at the Northampton site.

Groomer Kathy Jarvis works on a patient customer at the Northampton site.

What she was doing, in fact, became one of the region’s more successful pet-related ventures, one that continues to expand its customer base and introduce more dogs to a daycare experience that involves more than cold floors and chain-link fences.

Groomed for Success

At first, the Good Dog Spot focused on day care and grooming, the latter service overseen by Lisa Peloquin, Staples’ business partner and senior groomer.

“Shortly after that, people started asking us about overnight care, so we put in some overnight suites — crates we built into the walls,” Staples said. The area was designed with a homey feel, but the sleepover dogs are typically plenty tired after a day at the Good Dog Spot.

That’s because play and socialization are critical elements of the business model. First-time visitors begin with a day-long evaluation to make sure they get along with the other dogs.

“One of the things we decided early on was to really get to know the dogs,” she said, explaining that dogs that have interaction issues are kept separate from their fellow day campers (but still given plenty of human interaction), while the more social dogs are grouped by age, size, and play style, so senior dogs, for example, aren’t overwhelmed by puppies and high-energy dogs.

“They play all morning, and around 11 or so, we take them in their groups outside for outdoor play time and potty break,” Staples explained. “Then it’s back in to settle down and take naps.” Naptime is roughly from noon to 2, just like a child would at a daycare. “When they’re active and they go, go, go all day long, they can get cranky.”

The staff-to-dog ratio is never less than one per 10 to 15 dogs, so the handlers can give individual attention as needed, she added.

“Every dog-owner relationship is different. There’s so many reasons they might be using daycare. Maybe the dog is destructive at home, and they can’t go home during the day and let the dog out of the crate. Or maybe we can help reinforce basic potty training.”

Even the grooming customers, who tend to schedule regular visits every six to eight weeks, on average, can benefit from professional expertise, she went on. “Maybe the dog’s fur is really matted because the owner doesn’t know how to brush properly. We can talk with them, and a lightbulb goes off, and they get it.”

Whatever the issue — and often there’s no issue at all except a desire to give their pets some socialization during the long daytime hours — Staples said her goal is to strengthen the dog-owner relationship. “I love being able to make a difference. If the dog has issues at home, we work to make the relationship better, and make the bond between the owner and dog stronger.”

They play all morning, and around 11 or so, we take them in their groups outside for outdoor play time and potty break. Then it’s back in to settle down and take naps. When they’re active and they go, go, go all day long, they can get cranky.”

She makes that promise to well over 2,000 clients with the help of 25 employees. Besides Staples and Peloquin, the Good Dog Spot’s leadership team includes Corey Staples (Elizabeth’s husband), director of operations; Jacob McCarty, office manager; Shannon O’Connell, daycare manager; and Jennifer Rueli, Northampton facilities manager.

“I knew I didn’t want the business to rely solely on me, so we’d be functionally useless unless I was in the building,” said Staples, who, like the kennel she worked for as a teenager, aims to provide work-life flexibility for her employees, just as her services offer the same flexibility to clients.

New Leash on Life

The Chicopee site, which initially offered almost 5,000 square feet of space, has since expanded twice to double that size — while adding amenities like a small retail shop and the Bark Bus shuttle service — but that still wasn’t enough room.

“We knew we were nearing capacity in our Chicopee location,” Staples said. Northampton made sense as a second site, but she was only feeling out the area, not intending to commit, when her real-estate agent found a King Street building that wound up working perfectly — a wide-open, rectangular structure that she would be able to customize into a flow that would meet the Good Dog Spot’s needs.

That location was also successful right from the start, buoyed by a number of Chicopee clients who switched over because Northampton was more convenient for them, and also by the company’s growing reputation, paired with an expanded advertising and marketing presence.

“The Northampton community was so welcoming as a whole,” she said. “The city was easy to work with, and it’s such a dog-loving community. I really feel fortunate to be where we are.”

dogspot2

Staples’ commitment to pet welfare extends to her training — and that of her staff — in pet first aid and CPR through the American Red Cross. She has also donated time and resources to Dakin Humane Society, Thomas J. O’Connor Animal Control & Adoption Center, and Rainbow Rescues, and donated pet oxygen masks to local fire stations.

But her most lasting contribution to pet welfare may be her embrace of a model of doggie daycare that treats dogs like family — the way most pet owners today treat them.

“We definitely think we see friendships form between our daycare dogs,” she wrote recently on the Good Dog Spot blog. “Many dogs come on certain days of the week and regularly see the same dogs every time they come. We notice that dogs will be excited to see certain other dogs, and play together every time they come. The dogs here will even form cliques with each other, with a whole group of dogs playing together and becoming friends.”

New clients are sometimes bemused by the report cards and even art projects that get sent home with their furry friends each day, but they quickly understand Staples’ view of dogs as furry kids, and worthy of being treated as such.

“We want to support pet people in our community,” she told BusinessWest. “People around here are so passionate about their dogs, and we’re there to help in whatever way we can.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Women in Businesss

‘The Art of Risk’

Kathy Anderson

Kathy Anderson says risk isn’t bad, “it’s just scary sometimes.”

It was more than a decade ago now, but Kathy Anderson can clearly remember the many emotions that accompanied her decision to seek the role of director of the Holyoke Office of Planning and Development.

They included doubt — there was some of that, and on many levels — as well as uncertainty and perhaps a bit of fear as well. But there was also confidence and anticipation about what she could do in this role and what it would mean for her career.

Anderson recalls that what she needed — and what she got from her friend, fellow Holyoker and mentor of sorts, Joan Kagan, director of Square One — was some inspiration in the form of thoughtful advice on how to approach and manage this episode in risk taking, as well as some needed encouragement and reassurance that she was certainly well-equipped to succeed in that big job.

“That was a male-dominated field, and people were questioning whether I could even do that job,” Anderson recalled. “And she (Kagan) said, ‘Kathy you can do this; you’re the conductor in an orchestra. The conductor doesn’t need to know how to perform all the pieces … they just need to know how to conduct the orchestra, and that’s what you’re doing.’”

It’s because Anderson has never forgotten those words, or how important they were to her, that she has enthusiastically partnered with colleague Maureen Belliveau, director of the Greater Easthampton Chamber of Commerce, to launch a new women’s leadership event and make the broad subject of risk the focus of the inaugural program, slated for Friday, Sept. 22 at the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House in Holyoke.

Make that “Women & The Art of Risk.” That’s the formal title of the event and a template to be followed moving forward, said Belliveau, adding that ‘Women & The Art of ….’ will become a brand, of sorts, with the noun to change with the year.

And risk, or the process of assessing, assuming, and managing it, is truly an art, she went on, adding that women encounter risk on many levels and at many stages in their life — in their careers, in their family life, and in the constant struggle to balance those two forces.

To help with this assignment, the two chambers have put together this leadership conference, one that will feature workshops, discussions, and career-development opportunities. Some of the day’s programming has fallen into place, but in many ways, the canvas still needs to be filled in, said Anderson, adding that a big component still taking shape is the series of inspirational stories of risk-taking that organizers plan to present.

They’re calling them, appropriately enough, ‘stories of risk,’ and the chambers invited women to submit entries (via 500-word essays or two-minute videos) for the right to tell their story.

A number of entries have been received, said Anderson, and they are currently being reviewed, with the winners to be announced in the weeks to come.

Whatever stories are chosen, they are certain to generate discussion and debate, while also inspiring those in the audience, which is what organizers had in mind when they blueprinted this program.

Climate Change

As she talked about how and especially why the women’s leadership conference came about, Belliveau began by turning the clock back a few decades to when she was starting her career.

Desiring to be careful with her words and not generalize, she nonetheless strongly implied that back then … well, women were, by and large, less willing (and perhaps less able) to be of assistance to other women, especially when it came to career ladder climbing, mentoring, and more.

“We were trying to enter the male-dominated workforce, and because it was so competitive, women were not necessarily jumping up to help one another,” she recalled. “But now I feel the environment has changed; the energy has shifted, and now is the time when we can come together in a really strong way and support each other.”

So, in many ways, this new women’s leadership conference is a celebration of this phenomenon and an attempt to take full advantage of it, for the betterment of women across the region.

This greatly improved climate when it comes to women helping and mentoring other women was coupled with a desire by the leadership at both chambers to create programming that went beyond traditional networking and beyond the prototypical legislative roundtable.

“Kathy has been wanting to do a conference-type event for women for some time now, and I’ve wanted to do something on inspirational leadership,” said Belliveau, noting that the two chambers have collaborated to present an event involving area legislators each spring for several years now. “We started talking in January about what we were going to do this year, and things just kind of snowballed.”

Maureen Belliveau says organizers of the September women’s conference are working hard to avoid falling into the clichés involving the subject of women and risk.

Maureen Belliveau says organizers of the September women’s conference are working hard to avoid falling into the clichés involving the subject of women and risk.

Anderson agreed, and noted that, in some ways, the collaborative relationship between the two chambers, and the two chamber leaders, helped inspire the women’s leadership conference, its theme, and its tone.

“We’re two women in business, and we’re trying to help people in business,” she explained. “When Mo and I first met, we instantly clicked; we’re helping each other, and we’re mentors to each other.

“We’re inspired by each other and we get ideas from other, which benefits our members and the region as a whole,” she went on. “We felt like we wanted to bring that feeling of inspiration and camaraderie to a bigger stage, if you will.”

As the notion of a women’s leadership conference began to crystalize, organizers, from the start, sought to take the discussion to a higher plane than most women in business have previously, and repeatedly, encountered.

“We’re trying to stop ourselves from falling into clichés concerning this topic, which is pretty easy to do,” said Belliveau. “Instead of hearing, again, ‘you need to schedule time on your calendar to relax and be by yourself,’ how about information about how women are being sucked into a lot of other agendas that aren’t supporting their own agenda, and advice on how to clear all that out so they can focus on what’s really important?

“At the end of the day, we want people to leave inspired,” she went on. “And we want them to leave with something they didn’t have when they came, whether that was a connection or a new way to look at things.”

And they are expecting the various presentations, and especially those ‘stories of risk’ noted earlier, will go a long way toward accomplishing that goal.

Indeed, such sagas will provide a personal, real-life tone to the discussion, said Anderson and Belliveau, and they will, if chosen properly, portray the full gamut of risk, address the many forms it takes, and drive home the point that risks must be weighed and taken at all stages in one’s life.

The wording in the invitation to submit an entry is very telling and speaks to why organizers put this program together. “Have you taken a bold move in your career?” it reads. “Have you struggled with work/life balance but took a risk to bring it back into balance? Have you had a gnawing feeling you wanted to quell that compelled you to take a risk? Has there been something looming over you that involved risk to overcome?”

Most women would answer ‘yes’ to most if not all of those questions, said Anderson, and that’s why she and Belliveau are expecting a strong turnout on Sept. 22.

As noted earlier, programming for the event is coming into place, and it will have a strong local flavor.

The keynote speaker will be Colleen Del Vecchio, director of Alumnae Engagement at Smith College, and a Gallup-certified strengths coach. Breakout sessions will feature:

• Natasha Zena, co-founder and publisher of Lioness Magazine;

• Angela Lussier, author, founder of the Speaker Sisterhood, and host of the “Claim the Stage” podcast;

• Tahirah Amatul-Wadad, an attorney with the Mass. Commission on the Status of Women;

• Dora Lewis, career coach at the Sullivan Career & Life Planning Center at Bay Path University; and

• Mollie Fox, a consultant and trainer specializing in leadership and negotiation.

Tickets to the conference are $99 if purchased before Aug. 25, and $119 after that date. Tables of eight are $750. For more information on the event, visit www.holyokechamber.com or www.easthamptonchamber.org.

Save the Date

Summing up the broad subject matter for this fall’s conference, Anderson, who should know, said, “risk isn’t bad … it’s just scary sometimes; it’s the unknown.”

It’s scary almost all the time, actually, and by creating an informative, interactive environment where risks can be shared, discussed, debated, and dissected, organizers of this women’s leadership conference expect that perhaps they can make such exercises somewhat less scary.

This was the motivation for the event, and the two chambers — and their leaders — believe the time, the environment, and the energy is right for such a program.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story Sections Women in Businesss

Words to Live By

lussierbooksIt took just nine words to change Angela Lussier’s life: “you’ll never be ready; you just have to start.” That’s good advice for entrepreneurs of all kinds, but it was especially relevant for a shy, self-conscious, but creative and ambitious woman who decided her path to leadership was learning to overcome her fear of public speaking. Today, through the Speaker Sisterhood, she’s helping women around the world do the same — and, in the process, discover who they really are and what they were meant to do.

Angela Lussier has a surprising entrepreneurial bent — surprising to herself, that is.

It began at UMass, where she studied a VHS tape to learn how to cut her boyfriend’s hair. “My neighbor walked by and said, ‘can I have a haircut too?’ I said, ‘why not?’ Then his roommate walked in and said, ‘can I have a haircut?’ I said, ‘sure.’ Soon a whole bunch of guys on the floor wanted haircuts.”

Soon, she was setting up shop in a back room and charging for haircuts, which she did until the dorm shut her down. It wasn’t until later that she realized she had been an entrepreneur, if only for a short time.

It never occurred to me that it was a business,” she said. “I just wanted to make some money to put gas in the car and buy clothes.”

Lussier tells the story to demonstrate how opportunities cross our paths all the time, and sometimes what seems to be the least likely possibility can become a successful business.

Which explains why someone who was terrified of speaking now runs a business teaching women how to find their voice.

It’s called the Speaker Sisterhood, and it helps women become more effective public speakers. But it’s much more than that, she said. “It creates a safe space for women trying to find out who they are and what they’re meant to do.”

It’s a winding story that can be told only from the beginning, after college, when Lussier went to work in marketing for Rock 102 and Lazer 99.3, a job where her natural creativity was encouraged and rewarded. But she soon learned not every job was like that; an executive at her next employer, an executive recruiting firm, eventually told her, “we knew your creativity would be an issue when we hired you.”

So, in 2009, she started out on her own, initially as a career consultant, helping people figure out what jobs were the best matches for their skills and passions. Her grounding philosophy? “You have to work in a place that respects your talents and gifts and uniqueness.”

Lussier knows something about that, having had to overcome her own physical uniqueness. She stood six feet tall at age 12 and had to endure barbs like “ogre” and “jolly green giant” — experiences which led, she realized years later, to an intense shyness and anxiety about public speaking.

“At the recruiting firm, I realized that being shy was not a great attribute to have. Looking back to the radio station, the people who were the most respected, the most followed, were people who were excellent communicators, and even better public speakers. I had this fear of being seen, being made fun of, but I wanted to be a leader. So I signed up for Toastmasters.”

It didn’t go exactly as planned at first. “I said, ‘OK, I’m going to tackle this fear of speaking because I want to be a leader.’ Six months later, I’d never said a word.” That’s when the club’s leader told her she was on the agenda for the next meeting, where she would deliver a four-minute speech about her job. “I said I wasn’t ready, but she said something that changed my life: ‘you’ll never be ready; you just have to start.’”

It wasn’t easy. In fact, she sat in her car outside that next meeting, petrified of going in, wondering if people would make fun of her or think she sounded stupid. But she took that first step, even though she read completely from notes, never looking up at the audience.

“The important thing was, I didn’t die,” Lussier said with a laugh. “So I continued to go back and give more speeches, and every time I gave a speech, not only did I not die, but I learned something about myself. I learned why I was so shy; I was able to connect it to my adolescent years, feeling so different, feeling like people didn’t understand my creativity, feeling like the black sheep in the family, like I didn’t relate to other people. Public speaking gave me not only a voice, but insight into who I am.”

That recognition would eventually form the basis of the Speaker Sisterhood, though the story would take a few more turns first.

First Steps

Lussier’s first step was recognizing she needed public-speaking skills to advance her career-consulting business, so she developed a free workshop series on how to find a job in a tough economy (remember, this was right after the recession peaked), interviewing skills, self-marketing, résumé writing, and other topics.

She pitched the idea to area public libraries without success, until Forbes Library took her up on it, allowing her to stage two separate eight-week series, a daytime series for unemployed job seekers, and an evening series for people with jobs looking for a change. After that first booking, other libraries came on board.

But she still needed to write the material. And deliver it. And she was still far from fearless on that front.

“When the first workshop came around, I drove there thinking to myself, ‘who do I think I am? No one’s going to come to this. I’m not a business owner. I’m only 28 years old; why would anyone take career advice from me?’ I sat there in the library parking lot, and a voice told me, ‘maybe you should do this because you want to be a leader.’”

Not only was the workshop a success, but Lussier gained a paid booking through it, and people kept showing up at the free library events, leading to more exposure and more paid bookings, including, eventually, one for a local Fortune 500 company. She had no idea of her worth at that point — the firm seemed surprised when she came up with a fee of $200, and she realized later she should have charged 10 times that — but she started to recognize that speaking about careers, which originally was a way to boost her consulting business, had potential as a revenue stream in itself.

“That was a huge turning point for me,” she said. “I had become a professional speaker; I’d built this skill, and people like hearing me speak. I thought, ‘I’m actually a leader; I actually did this. I can’t believe it’s happening.’”

So, while she continued her career-coaching business, she started asking herself a few questions: “where have I been most successful? What do I enjoy doing? What do people always ask me about?”

She sat down one night in front of a fire, coffee at the ready, and filled a journal with the answers to those three questions. And the one common denominator to all three was public speaking, her former nemesis. “It was like a neon sign blinking from the highway. I thought, ‘why did I not see this until right now?’”

She had already enrolled in the Valley Venture Mentors Accelerator program, but decided to switch gears midstream and morph into something different, to build an online school to teach women how to be professional speakers.

Angela Lussier

Angela Lussier addresses a Washington, D.C. audience at a TEDx event in 2010.

“We need more women on stages, more women getting paid what they’re worth, more women leading conferences,” Lussier told BusinessWest. “It took me a long time to see there should be a Toastmasters for women — a place where women can get together and share their voices and be honest and say the things they don’t get to say in the world.”

As an experiment, she co-hosted an open house for her first speaking club to see who would respond. About 10 women showed up, all strangers. At first.

“Each woman shared her story about fear of speaking up, being belitted at work, being told their opinions don’t matter, feeling like they don’t have any idea how to say what they’re thinking. Or, they’re working in a job now where they have to train people, and they’re terrified, but they don’t want to lose their job.”

Something happened that day that surprised Lussier.

“As we went around the circle, it was like each woman was giving the next woman permission to tell the truth. They came as strangers, but they left as sisters. I had never experienced that kind of transformation; I had chills for two hours. I knew this was not just a public-speaking club, but an opportunity for women to walk in the door and shed their role as wife, mother, boss — to show up as themselves and say what’s on their mind.”

She knew she had something special, and the e-mails that followed proved it — e-mails from women who didn’t attend the meeting, but knew someone who did, and wanted to join. So she built waiting lists and eventually launched clubs in Springfield, Northampton, Amherst, and South Hadley, training the women who would lead each one. Recently, a Greenfield club opened its doors, as well as a second club in Northampton.

Gaining Momentum

But Lussier saw potential for the Speaker Sisterhood clubs well beyond Western Mass., creating a curriculum and licensing model to take the concept nationwide and even international. Lehigh, Pa. and Portland, Maine were the first club sites outside the Commonwealth, and a New Zealand club marked the first overseas expansion.

“You don’t have to be a public-speaking expert to start a club, but you do need to have leadership experience and meeting-facilitation experience, and a sincere interest in helping women build this skill set,” she said, reiterating what she considers the heart of the clubs’ popularity.

“Yes, we’re running speaking clubs that teach skills, but these clubs also use public speaking as a tool for self-discovery,” she went on. “What I say to members is, ‘this is your public-speaking journey, and the more you learn, the more you’ll find out how little you know.’”

And they are learning about themselves, she noted. One woman, who works in a healing field, signed up because she wanted to build her skills to teach workshops, and after a few months, she remarked that, when she spoke before a group, she felt like a floating head, disconnected from her body. What she came to realize was that she spent so much time talking to people one on one, in a spirit of empathy, that she started to take on the energy of each person she spoke with.

“She said, ‘I become them, so in front of a group of people, I have no idea who I am. That teaches me I’ve spent my whole life being other people, and now I have to discover who I am.’ To hear someone say that is transformative — not just for the speaker, but for the audience. We’re all learning from each other’s journeys.”

Those journeys vary, she said, from business owners who want to get better at promoting their services, to teachers who interact with kids all day, only to freeze up when they meet with parents. “One has experienced several tragic deaths over the past few years and felt she’s lost herself in grieving those deaths, and she wants to discover herself again.”

The curriculum takes the form of an ‘adventure guide,’ with chapter titles like “Adventures in Storytelling,” “Adventures in Humor,” “Adventures in Audience Interaction,” and so on.

“It was a thoughtful decision to call it an adventure because anything can happen. It’s not about perfection; it’s not about doing it right. The emphasis is not on trying to be a perfectionist, but enjoying the journey. It helps a lot to reframe public speaking that way.”

By prioritizing sharing experiences over perfection, she added, participants feel less alone as they realize so many others feel the same way they do. “And that helps them build confidence in themselves.”

The meetings include prepared speeches, but also a lot of improv games, which challenges club members to be present in the moment while stretching their creativity. She knows it’s a lot to ask from new members, many of whom are approaching the club from a place of anxiety.

“The first day, there’s a lot of fear. Their voices are trembling; they’re looking around the room, thinking, ‘do I belong here?’ Then they speak again at the end, and there’s a transformation over two hours. They go, ‘wow, I’ve never been able to speak like this. This is what I need.’ I feel like the biggest step you take on your public-speaking journey is the first step. Every single step after that gets easier. So I always applaud the guests for showing up. That’s not easy.”

By the Book

Amid her transformation into the leader she’d long wanted to be, Lussier has also shared her words with the world through her books. The first, The Anti-Résumé Revolution, was a direct result of that first eight-week workshop, inspired by one attendee asking her for her notes — which totaled 120 pages. So she combined them with her own story, interviewed others who had followed her advice, and self-published in 2009.

“The whole concept is not just waiting for opportunities to show up on a job board or the newspaper, but to go out and create your own future and taking action on your ideas,” she explained.

She managed to get the book into the hands of Seth Godin, one of her heroes and the author of Purple Cow, which drives home the importance of being different and standing out fron the crowd. He recommended Lussier’s book on his blog, broadening her visibility immensely.

“That changed my whole perspective on what’s possible,” she said. “I wrote a book in my basement which was now being shared with millions of readers, being taught in colleges, and being read by people all over the world. It helped me see that, even if you think what you’re doing is only for a small audience, you never know what could happen.”

Two more books followed. She published Who’s with Us? in 2015 — sporting the subtitle From Wondering to Knowing If You Should Start a Business in 21 Days. It was the result of talking to hundreds of people about their business ideas, and takes the form of 10 self-assessments potential entrepreneurs can use to gauge their next move. She recently followed that with Do + Make: The Handbook for Starting Your Very Own Business, which progresses beyond the assessment phase and dives into practical action.

Clearly, Lussier has found multiple outlets for her entrepreneurial bent and her passion for writing. But her heart lies mostly in the work she’s doing with women — not to give them a voice, but to help them discover their own.

“It’s the most amazing work I’ve ever done. I know I was born for this reason — to start the Speaker Sisterhood and build clubs around the world,” she told BusinessWest. “I want to help thousands, if not millions, of women discover who they are, and how amazing they are, so they can go out and do what they were put here to do. Ever since I was 5 years old, even when I was a teenager and felt like an outcast, I knew I would do something important someday.”

That’s the voice that echoed in her head the night she sat in her car, stricken with anxiety, ready to drive away and abandon her dream of becoming a better speaker.

However, “I thought, ‘I’m not going to do something important if I go home.’ And even when I started my business, that was just the road to the thing; it wasn’t the thing. Now, every meeting I go to, I can’t believe I get to do this; I can’t believe this woman is discovering things about herself because, years ago, I sat in a car and said, ‘you’re going to go in and give a speech.’ That blows my mind.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Women in Businesss

Laying the Groundwork

The Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts recently announced a slate of initial appointments to the steering committee of the Partnership for Young Women’s Progress (YWP), its multi-sector partnership aimed at driving economic prosperity for young women in Springfield.

In February, the MassMutual Foundation and the office of state Treasurer Deb Goldberg announced their participation as lead corporate and government partners, respectively, for the project. The MassMutual Foundation awarded $150,000 to the Women’s Fund to support the launch of the partnership, while Goldberg’s office will offer its Women’s Economic Empowerment series, share state-agency-generated research and data, and participate in final recommendations.

“The YWP initiative is a new, innovative way to showcase the talent and leadership skills of young women in the city of Springfield. We are excited to be a part of this initiative and look forward to working with the young women selected for the program,” said Sarah Williams, vice president of Global Capital Risk at MassMutual, and one of the steering committee members chosen in April.

The YWP aims to elevate the leadership of local young women (ages 12 to 24) and design a lasting blueprint for investing in the Springfield community that addresses the needs, programming, best practices, policies, and research that will build the pathways to economic prosperity for themselves, their families, and their community.

The pilot is made up of two core groups, the Young Women’s Leaders Advisory Council (YAC) and the steering committee. The YAC will consist of up to 20 young women (again, ages 12 to 24) who will be selected by a competitive, city-wide nomination process that opened last month.

The steering committee is comprised of cross-sector leaders from the education, government, business, philanthropy, and nonprofit sectors (see list below). The committee’s purpose is to provide thought leadership, as well as leadership development and mentorship opportunities, for the young women on the YAC. They will also help facilitate community outreach, help attract additional resources to the project, and assist with sequencing final recommendations.

“What we know from available data is that young people, and particularly young women, are leaving our region for perceived lack of economic opportunity,” said Layla Taylor, board chair of the Women’s Fund. “While these statistics are troubling, we are excited about the opportunity to work closely with city leaders to make this project transformative for our community, and as a model for peer cities across the country.”

The three-year YWP challenges partners to:

• Create leadership and high-level decision making opportunities for young women, and reward their efforts as part of the YAC;

• Encourage the participants to become peer educators by launching philanthropy clubs or hosting workshops at their school;

• Analyze available data, examine current investments, and identify where partners can make a lasting impact;

• Create a public document with young women’s economic growth and empowerment recommendations;

• Engage message research conducted by a leading national firm to help shape strategic communications, which will be aimed at creating a positive shift from the current negative cultural narratives regarding young women; and

• Generate and fund a phased action plan for the region that will include re-granting partnerships.

“What a wonderful opportunity this initiative offers for young women in our community,” said Lydia Martinez-Alvarez, assistant superintendent of Springfield Public Schools and a member of the steering committee. “I am extremely proud and excited to be part of an initiative that will make a real difference in the lives of our young women. The guidance and mentorship they will receive is beyond measure, and we will be keeping our eyes on these young women and expecting great things from them in their future.”

Besides Williams and Martinez-Alvarez, other members of the steering committee include Ann Burke, vice president, Western Mass. Economic Development Council; Michael Clark, senior advisor and director of Strategic Engagement, office of state Sen. Eric Lesser; Dawn Creighton, Western Mass. regional director, Associated Industries of Massachusetts; Ernesto Cruz, legislative aide to state Rep. José Tosado; Dawn Forbes DiStefano, chief finance and grants officer, Square One; Pattie Hallberg, CEO, Girl Scouts of Central & Western Massachusetts; Denise Hurst, Springfield School Committee member; Justin Hurst, Springfield City Council member; Ronn Johnson, President and CEO, MLK Family Services; Rachel Parent, vice president, MassMutual, and chief of staff, MassMutual U.S. Business; Suzanne Parker, executive director, Girls Inc. Holyoke; Marian Sullivan, communications director, office of Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno; and Samantha Washburn-Baronie, deputy director, Office of Economic Empowerment, office of the state treasurer.

“As a husband and father of two daughters, I recognize the importance of young women being able to have equal opportunities to succeed and contribute to their communities,” Tosado said.

Added Sarno, “this is all about empowerment access and pathways to secure better educational, social, and economic-development opportunities for the women of our community.”

Goldberg noted, when the YWP program was launched, that public-private partnerships like this one are crucial in creating opportunities to empower young women across the state.

“We truly value this partnership that leverages available resources in an innovative and collaborative way,” added Ali Mathias, MassMutual’s director of Charitable Giving and vice president of the MassMutual Foundation. “This program will not only expand the economic opportunity for young women, but also economic development in the city of Springfield.”

Even as it transitions from the leadership of former president Elizabeth Barajas-Román, who stepped down in March, the Women’s Fund has been busy with new initiatives. It recently announced a partnership with Bay Path University aimed at driving women’s leadership and educational access by providing college credits as part of the Women’s Fund’s Leadership Institute for Political and Public Impact (LIPPI) program.

Through that partnership, which aims to educate women for leadership roles, LIPPI will give participants access to Bay Path’s online classroom tools, including virtual sessions with instructors. LIPPI participants will also be able to earn three undergraduate or graduate credits from Bay Path or, upon approval, credits that can be transferable to a college or university of their choice. To date, more than 250 women have graduated from the LIPPI program.