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Courting History

Danielle Williams

Danielle Williams, seen outside the courthouse in Northampton, says her time as an assistant clerk magistrate has helped prepare her for service on the bench.

Danielle Williams was asked about the style, or approach, that she would bring to the bench as a District Court judge.

She paused for a minute to think, and then recalled a conversation she had with a colleague recently — one that revealed just how she intends to address each matter that reaches her.

“Each case that comes before you represents people, it represents families, and it represents communities,” she said. “Cases are not just papers, they’re not just documents … and you have to address each case with that in mind.”

She told BusinessWest that this human factor, the people represented in the words typed on those pages, was driven home during her years spent as an assistant clerk magistrate in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Trial Court, a position with a wide job description (more on that later), and one that opened her eyes to not only court procedure, but also the many issues facing those living and working in this region — and her own skill sets and abilities.

Williams said she didn’t take the clerk magistrate’s job with the goal, or intention, of becoming the first African-American woman to be sworn in as a District Court judge in Western Mass., but she was eventually convinced by many of those she was working with that this was the logical next step — and that she was ready.

Williams brings what might be called an eclectic résumé to her latest position, one that includes experience in the Hampden County District Attorney’s office … and experience writing and producing comic books.

“Each case that comes before you represents people, it represents families, and it represents communities. Cases are not just papers, they’re not just documents … and you have to address each case with that in mind.”

Indeed, as she told BusinessWest when she was named one of its 40 Under Forty honorees in 2015, Williams, while practicing law with the Northampton-based firm Fierst, Kane, and Bloomberg LLP, specializing in, among other things, intellectual-property law, she was also writing stories about unlikely superheroes known as the Mighty Magical Majestics.

While Williams still has somewhat of a passion for science fiction and graphic novels, she has spent the past several years focused entirely on the law and, more specifically, the courts.

After a short stint working in the Office of the Attorney General in Springfield, she joined the Trial Court as an assistant clerk magistrate in the spring of 2016, a role she’d been drawn to since very early in her career.

“I really admired how they [magistrates] really controlled the courtroom and set the tone for giving people access and making sure they felt comfortable in the courtroom,” she noted. “They dealt with all the components of the courtroom, whether it was probation, members of the public, the lawyers, the other court officers. There was the administrative aspect and also the substantive aspect, where they presided over small claims and criminal show-cause hearings, and I decided that’s really what I wanted to do.

“When I got that job, I was thrilled, and I loved it,” she went on. “I really anticipated staying there.”

But it wasn’t long before people started asking her what was next when it came to her career. The obvious answer was the bench, and while she listened to those who said she was ready to take that step forward, including Judge William Boyle, whom she considers her first mentor, she was at first reluctant, thinking she wasn’t ready to take that step forward.

“I think we’re always our toughest critics,” she said. “We want to be at our very best before we move on to the next level; you want to make sure you’re ready for the responsibility, have the education and knowledge, all that.

“Judge Boyle said, ‘why don’t you think about it?’” she went on. “I said, ‘but I’m not ready, judge; I haven’t even thought about it.’ And he said, ‘well, you should think about it.’ That meant a lot to me that someone who has seen me grow through my legal career thought this was something I should consider.”

Eventually, she gained the confidence to apply, and while her first bid for the bench was not successful, she applied again, and this this time, in a decidedly different interview process in the midst of a pandemic, she succeeded in impressing various interviewers and the Governor’s Council, the body that confirms nominations made by the governor.

She said her four years as assistant clerk magistrate certainly has prepared her for this next stage of her career.

“As an assistant clerk, you come to know who you are, especially if you’re sitting in the Springfield District Court,” she explained. “I know my temperament, I know the different agendas that happen in the courtroom — and having a different agenda is not a bad thing. The district attorney’s office represents the Commonwealth, the defense attorney represents their client, and I am a neutral party in the courtroom. Understanding those things, and having experience in managing all those different agendas in the courtroom, has been invaluable.

“Also,” she went on, “to sit in those sessions with the judges in motion hearings and trials, and listen and try to anticipate how I would respond to those issues, has been a tremendous platform for me, and a way to be prepared for the role of associate justice.”

If the interviewing and selection process was different because of COVID-19, so, too, was the swearing-in ceremony.

Usually a formal affair attended by hundreds of colleagues, friends, and family, this swearing-in was conducted from her dining room with just a few people in attendance.

“I had planned to have it in the atrium on the Springfield District Court, where I could hopefully social distance and have the public, friends, and colleagues in attendance,” she said. “But, given the circumstances, it seemed safer just to have a small swearing-in for now.”

As for where she’ll be next week, or the week after … she doesn’t know yet. While appointed out of Westfield, she could be in one of several other courts across the region, from Chicopee to Palmer to Orange, depending on where there is need.

What she does know is that, whichever court she’s in, she’ll bring in that mindset she mentioned at the top — that court cases are not documents or pieces of paper; they represent people, families, and communities.

It was the ability to communicate this philosophy, if you will, that helped her win this coveted — and historic — appointment, and it’s the one that will guide her for the next 26 years or so.


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

Special Coverage Women in Businesss

Impossible Choices

Dress for Success Western Massachusetts digital-literacy program

The Dress for Success Western Massachusetts digital-literacy program has helped numerous women like Carolyn, who was provided with equipment and coaching to start an online business.

It’s a setback that could take years, even decades, to reverse when it comes to economic equality for women.

About 617,000 women left the U.S. workforce in September, compared with only 78,000 men — nearly eight times as many. About half the women who dropped out are in the prime working age of 35 to 44.

“One of our strategic plans centers around economic security for women and girls,” said Donna Haghighat, CEO of the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts. “Obviously, that’s more important now, because many women are concentrated in low-wage jobs to begin with, and a lot of those jobs — ones traditionally filled by women — have disappeared because of the pandemic.”

According to a recent study by the National Bureau of Economic Research, the pandemic-fueled recession is tougher for women for two main reasons. First, as Haghighat noted, the crisis has battered industry sectors in which women’s employment is more concentrated, including restaurants, retail, hospitality, and healthcare. This was not the case in past recessions, which tended to hurt male-dominated industry sectors like manufacturing and construction more than other industries.

Second, the COVID-driven economic shutdowns have closed schools and daycare centers around the country, keeping kids at home and making it harder for parents — especially mothers, who tend to provide the majority of childcare — to keep working.

“The pandemic has really impacted women disproportionately in terms of not being able to go to work so they can help their kids learn,” said Margaret Tantillo, executive director of Dress for Success Western Massachusetts, an organization that empowers women to achieve economic independence. “It’s frustrating for parents to be sitting at home and trying to do what they need to do as well as help their children learn. A lot of women have several children at home.”

According to the study, among married parents who both work full-time, the mother provides, on average, about 60% of childcare. And when schools started up remotely last month, it further strained parenting demands. That contrast in accepted gender roles has contributed to a mass exodus of women from the work world that could have long-lasting ramifications.

“The pandemic has really impacted women disproportionately in terms of not being able to go to work so they can help their kids learn.”

“We have folks who are voluntarily dropping out of the job market, particularly women, because of the competing demands in terms of remote learning for children,” Haghighat told BusinessWest. “They have to navigate all that. Even if it’s a working couple, women tend to make less money, so if something has to give, and someone has to give up their job for a while, it tends to be the woman because she’s already making less money. That’s what we’re seeing.”

At the same time, according to a study by management-consulting firm McKinsey, while women account for 39% of the global workforce, they are overrepresented in three of the four hardest-hit sectors during the pandemic: accommodation and food services (54%), retail and wholesale trade (43%), and services such as arts, recreation, and public administration (46%). In addition, only 22% of working women have jobs that allow them to telecommute, compared with 28% of male workers.

The numbers get worse for women of color; while the U.S. female jobless rate remained at 8% in September, it’s higher for black and Hispanic women.

“Economic inequality was here before COVID-19. The pandemic just showed us how big this gap is and how deep the disparity goes,” said Tanisha Arena, executive director of Arise for Social Justice in Springfield, adding that some individual success stories have been wiped out.

“Some businesses will never open back up because they didn’t survive the pandemic,” she noted. “How many women own those businesses, or work at those businesses? The effect will be long-lasting. When you’ve lost your job and it’s not coming back, how do you pay your bills?”


Holding Up the Pillars

Still, last month’s massive decline in female employment is at least partially — and possibly mostly — due to the lack of childcare options, Russel Price, chief economist at Ameriprise, told CNN, noting that employment in child daycare services was still down nearly 18% in September from its pre-pandemic level.

One factor influences the next, Haghighat said, which is why the Women’s Fund has been working on a grant-funded project to create an ‘economic mobility hub’ in the region by identifying and bolstering key pillars — social determinants of either success or pain — that impact one’s ability to navigate the economy. “If one of those pillars is disrupted, like housing or transportation, that can be devastating for women and families.”

Arena agreed, noting the most obvious example — how a lack of daycare can lead to job loss, which can lead to an inability to pay rent or mortgage. “Now we’re talking about a housing issue in the middle of a pandemic — and with the moratorium being lifted, how many people are facing eviction and being homeless? I see the fallout of these economic challenges.”

“Economic inequality was here before COVID-19. The pandemic just showed us how big this gap is and how deep the disparity goes.”

In addition to distributing food to seniors, directing people to housing resources, and other programs, Arise has even paid some individuals’ routine bills. Arena used the example of an auto-insurance bill: an overdue bill can lead to a ticket, impound, or court date, all of which can generate costs far above the original missed payment, or even the loss of a job. Suddenly a life spirals out of control over $100 or less.

“It can derail someone’s life in a way that policymakers can’t grasp,” she added, citing their inability on Capitol Hill to come up with further stimulus — as if a $1,200 check in the spring adequately covered eight months of hardship. “It’s not their life.”

Haghighat said her organization’s work has uncovered some of the cracks in public support systems and how they impact not only employment, but food security, public health, and any number of other factors the pandemic has only exacerbated.

“It’s easy to say, ‘oh, it’s just an employment issue or a social-services issue.’ It’s more complex than that.”

Then there’s the broad issue known as the ‘digital divide,’ or the inability of many people to access the technology needed to function in today’s economy — an issue that’s come down hard on women since they’ve experienced more disruption.

Tantillo recalled that, as soon as Gov. Charlie Baker announced the shutdown in mid-March, “we picked up the phone and called our participants and found a lot of them had issues they didn’t have before. And one thing that came up was connectivity and being able to access and utilize the internet.”

Identifying digital equity as connectivity, access to equipment, and the knowledge and ability to use software, Dress for Success enlisted a group of volunteers to form a digital task force, providing one-on-one coaching for 25 women, 13 of whom have since enrolled in a local workforce-development program for job training.

Donna Haghighat

Donna Haghighat

“We have folks who are voluntarily dropping out of the job market, particularly women, because of the competing demands in terms of remote learning for children.”

“Everyone has a different starting point,” Tantillo said. “We assess where they are and provide coaching to the point where they can do all the things they need to do for a job search.

“I can’t imagine what their lives would be like right now if they didn’t have access to the Internet and able to do all these things,” she continued, adding that the digital divide was a reality for many long before COVID-19.

“The women we serve, they had to go to the library to go on the computer and do a job search, with maybe a kid in tow. How are they working in the same playing field as everyone else? They’re not. And the majority of women we serve are women of color.”

Then, of course, all the libraries closed, and the pandemic further exacerbated that computer-access divide. While Dress for Success has donated equipment and provided coaching for area women, that’s only a micro-level solution.

“It illustrates what’s needed at the macro level. What we’re doing really highlights what is going on in our communities. When women are trying to get out of poverty, and they’re not able to connect to a job search, it leaves not just them behind, but their families, for generations.”

“If we want an economy that’s going to thrive,” Tantillo went on, “we need to have citizens participating in the new economy, and the new economy is going to be online. Everyone has a vested interest in this. It’s an injustice if we don’t fix it.”


Ripple Effect

The National Bureau of Economic Research survey suggests the ramifications of the pandemic’s disproportionate economic impact on women could be long-lasting. The authors estimate that 15 million single mothers in the U.S. will be the most severely affected, with little potential for receiving other sources of childcare and a smaller likelihood of continuing to work during the crisis.

Even if they do return, leaving the workforce for any amount of time — which, again, 617,000 American women did last month, by either choice or because their job disappeared — will affect their lifetime earning potential, which already lags behind that of men.

All that piles on top of the health impacts — both physical and mental — of this challenging time, an area where the digital divide creeps in as well, Tantillo said.

“It impacts people’s ability to stay engaged through telehealth. We talk about social isolation; it impacts the ability to connect with family and friends. People are now talking about connectivity as if it’s a utility — that’s how important it is.

“We created a pilot for what needs to happen regionally in order for there to be real change and access for everyone,” she added. “It needs to be regional, and people need to put resources into this.”

Arena noted that people often use the term ‘essential worker’ or ‘frontline worker’ to talk about medical professionals, but so many other people who are truly essential and working on the front lines — truck drivers, grocery cashiers, gas-station attendants — have had to make tough choices about whether to work and make needed income or step away and guard their health.

She says the legislators fighting in Washington don’t understand — and don’t seem to care — how this year has taxed individuals, and especially women, in so many ways.

“Now that schools are closed, can you get to your job?” she asked. “Am I going to lose my livelihood because of these economic conditions, or literally lose my life by going to work? People are stuck between a rock and a hard place.”


Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story Women in Businesss

In the Right Mold

Pia Kumar

Pia Kumar, ‘chief strategy officer’ at Universal Plastics.

Back in mid-March, Pia Kumar recalls, at the height of the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a good deal of absenteeism at the five plants within the Universal Plastics fold — maybe 40% by her estimate, a number that spoke volumes about the high levels of fear and anxiety within the workforce.

So Kumar, who co-owns the Universal family of businesses with her husband, Jay, and has the title ‘Chief Strategy Officer’ printed on her business card, did what she says comes naturally to her.

She got on the phone.

“I called every single employee that was not here and talked to them about their concerns,” she told BusinessWest, noting that this was maybe 200 people across the five facilities. “In some cases, I talked to their wives, their husbands, their children; I wanted to understand what we could do together as a business to make sure they could come back in and do the essential work we were doing.

“We make the diagnostic machines used to test for COVID, so we needed to come back in and get working, but we needed to keep people safe,” she went on. “There was a lot of uncertainty, and we needed to establish trust.”

The company earned it by taking painstaking steps to comply with work regulations put in place in four different states — everything from masks and face shields to social-distancing measures and temperature checks, with most ideas coming from employees. And in a matter of a few short weeks, absenteeism all but disappeared.

“It’s strange — in some ways, I feel more connected to people these days. I think it’s because there’s been so much uncertainty and so many questions. There’s so many things we don’t know; it’s almost as if it [the pandemic] has given us a way to come together closer and talk about things more openly.”

Kumar’s phone calls, and those subsequent actions taken by the company, provide some valuable insight into not only her management style — although it certainly does that — but also into her approach to business and her specific, and very broad, role with the company.

Indeed, while she’s certainly involved with strategy, as that business card would indicate, and she is involved in virtually every aspect of the business, she’s predominantly focused on people and their well-being. And that goes for the community, as well as the Universal ‘family.’

This is evidenced by something she calls ‘office hours.’ These are the twice-monthly Zoom meetings she conducts with employees at each plant to help them feel more connected at a time when traveling to those plants is far more difficult and, well, people need a connection.

And she’s finding that, while Zoom is certainly a different experience than the in-person office hours she had been conducting until the pandemic (more on those later), they’re in some ways more effective.

“It’s strange — in some ways, I feel more connected to people these days,” she noted. “I think it’s because there’s been so much uncertainty and so many questions. There’s so many things we don’t know; it’s almost as if it [the pandemic] has given us a way to come together closer and talk about things more openly.”

It’s also on display in a number of programs and initiatives she’s helped introduce at the company that are designed to help individuals overcome barriers to employment and success in the workplace — and in life itself.

“We have someone in our HR department whose whole job is to make sure that we make people successful outside of work, so that they can be successful at work.” she said of efforts to help employees with everything from attaining a driver’s license to securing day-care services.

Pia Kumar shows off some of the company’s new face shields

Pia Kumar shows off some of the company’s new face shields with ‘skirts,’ one of many new products it has developed in the wake of the pandemic.

As for her own efforts in the realm of work-life balance, she said, simply, “I work at it.”

By that, she meant that she finds time for work, family, and to be alone for a few moments each day, early in the morning — time she spends meditating and planning, for the most part.

“I need to get my planning done to feel prepared for my day,” she explained. “I do a 10-minute meditation, then I spend 30 minutes planning, and then I take my dog for a walk; it works for me.”

For this issue and its focus on women in business, we talked at length with Kumar about her work with her husband to grow and expand Universal. But mostly, the talk was about people and helping them handle all that work and life can throw at them — even a global pandemic.

Clear Intentions

As she talked with BusinessWest in the company’s recently opened corporate offices, located next door to the Holyoke plant on Whiting Farms Road, Kumar showed off a display of one of the latest additions to the company’s portfolio of products.

These are face shields — which the company started making a few months ago to help meet demand for personal protective equipment within the region — that feature what she called ‘skirts.’

Designed specifically for teachers, these customized products allow for open communication without muffling the voice or hiding expressions — things masks can’t do — while providing more protection than a common face shield.

“You can wear it all day — you’re fully covered, you’re fully sealed,” she said while demonstrating the product, noting there are several styles, including models invoking Halloween and Christmas, and another promoting breast-cancer awareness. Response has been good, she noted, and there are ongoing discussions about perhaps making such shields for children.

These PPE products are part of the company’s pivoting efforts during the pandemic, she explained — a way to assist the community and especially the healthcare and education sectors while also keeping employees working at a time when many traditional customers, including those in aerospace and medical-device manufacturing, have scaled back as a result of the pandemic.

And such efforts are among the current focal points for the Kumars, who acquired Universal Plastics roughly eight years ago — she dates the transaction to the birth of their first child — from long-time owner Joe Peters. Flashing back to that purchase, Pia said the couple, who met while they were both working in finance in New York after graduating from college, were looking for a challenge they could undertake together.

“We had always had this dream to someday own and run a small business together,” she said. “We just liked the idea of building something, we liked the idea of having autonomy, we liked the idea of taking something, growing it, and making it our life’s work.”

Pia Kumar, seen here reading to children at the Morgan School in Holyoke

Pia Kumar, seen here reading to children at the Morgan School in Holyoke as part of the company’s Link to Libraries sponsorship, says her discussions with employees have helped her understand the many barriers that people face when it comes to succeeding in the workplace.

And that’s exactly what has happened with Universal, a company launched by Joe Peters’ father in Chicopee and eventually moved to Holyoke.

Indeed, the Kumars have added four other companies over the past several years, with the goal of attracting different types of customers and doing more for them. Expansion efforts started with the acquisition of a competitor, Mayfield Plastics in Sutton (since renamed Universal), an operation similar to the one in Holyoke.

“We offer a product called custom thermoforming,” she said of the Holyoke facility. “It’s good for small volumes, but as some customers ramped up, we would lose those customers. Then we started thinking about how we could keep that customer for a longer life cycle, and we started looking at injection molders.”

This led to the acquisition of Sajar Plastics in Middlefield, Ohio in 2018, and the subsequent addition of a blow-molding facility in Pennsylvania that had a strong focus on medical-equipment manufacturing — steps that have greatly diversified the corporation and opened the door to new types of opportunities.

While Pia is certainly involved with all aspects of the company, especially short- and long-term strategy, she told BusinessWest that people are her main focus, and it’s a role she believes she’s well-suited for.

“I try to spend a lot of time with employees; it’s part of what my focus is with the company,” she explained. “I like to really get out there and talk to people and really understand what our people are saying and thinking, and what their fears are.”

She traditionally did this through those aforementioned office hours — the in-person variety, especially in Holyoke, where she would walk the floor every day and talk with people. With the other plants, she would make a point of getting out to each at least once a month.

But COVID-19 changed all that, as it has many other aspects of this business — from the products being made, like those face shields with skirts and plastic dividers for automobiles (similar to those found in cabs), to the precautions being taken to keep employees safe.

Shaping Core Values

What hasn’t changed, especially during these trying times, is the company’s — and especially Pia’s — efforts to help employees overcome those barriers she mentioned.

And there are many of them, she went on, adding that a good percentage of the company’s employees are single mothers, who faced a number of hurdles before the pandemic and now face even more. She came to understand these hurdles over time, she said, and it was a real learning experience.

“Before we came here, we lived in New York City, we worked in finance, we worked in venture capital,” Kumar explained. “We were doing things with a group of people who had a lot of opportunities; they went to certain schools and had the right types of jobs and the right kind of résumés. Coming here and working in manufacturing gave me an understanding of the barriers that people face that I never had.

“I was in many ways taking for granted things like childcare and transportation and having access to affordable education,” she went on. “These are really, really good people who want to come in every day and do a really good job, but these are real barriers that they face. It’s not a question of how motivated they are or how ambitious they are — there are just structural barriers that people face that I became attuned to when I talked to my employees.”

“We had always had this dream to someday own and run a small business together. We just liked the idea of building something, we liked the idea of having autonomy, we liked the idea of taking something, growing it, and making it our life’s work.”

This understanding of the issues has translated into policies regarding attendance and other matters that Kumar considers worker-friendly.

Elaborating, she said the company has explored such things as ride-sharing and on-site day care and have encountered significant barriers to success. What has worked, she noted, is talking with people to understand their specific situations, and then making accommodations when and where they are practical.

“Our single mothers are some of our best workers,” she told BusinessWest. “And understanding that and working with that population to make sure that they have the tools they need to be set up for success became personally important to me.”

It was through her work with employees to understand and then help remove barriers that led to her involvement with a number of area nonprofits and institutions.

That list includes Link to Libraries, the nonprofit that fills school library shelves and encourages reading by placing area community leaders in the classroom to read — Universal Plastics sponsors the Morgan School in Holyoke, which many of the company’s employees attended — as well as the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts, Bay Path University, and Springfield Technical Community College, which she serves as a foundation board member.

She’s become so enamored with STCC manufacturing graduates that she has a standing rule with her operations manager: “if someone comes to us from STCC, you have to give me a reason not to hire them, because they’re all people who have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, and they just need an opportunity. And that’s the kind of company we are; that’s the kind of company we need to be. We need to be the kind of company that gives people a chance, and we need to do it over and over again.”

As for her own professional development, Kumar said she doesn’t have a coach, per se, although her husband might count as one. But she does read quite a bit on the subject.

Pia Kumar, seen here with coworkers at the company’s Holyoke plant

Pia Kumar, seen here with coworkers at the company’s Holyoke plant, says that, while she’s focused on all aspects of the business, connecting with employees and helping them address challenges has become her primary focus.

What she does have are mentors. She listed Susan Jaye Kaplan, founder of Link to Libraries, and Dianne Fuller Doherty, retired business owner and director of the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center’s Springfield office — both winners of BusinessWest’s Difference Makers award.

“I’m not afraid to ask for help; I’m not afraid to admit I don’t know something,” she said, adding that she believes good managers share these traits. “Feedback is a gift, and I firmly believe, if you don’t want to know the answer, then don’t ask the question. But if you ask the question, you need to be able to stomach the answer.”

When asked about how she approaches the broad assignment of achieving work-life balance, she said simply, “I work at it.”

“These are really, really good people who want to come in every day and do a really good job, but these are real barriers that they face. It’s not a question of how motivated they are or how ambitious they are — there are just structural barriers that people face that I became attuned to when I talked to my employees.”

“I spend a lot of time planning, I delegate a lot, and I am very comfortable with having a list of things I wanted to get to but didn’t at the end of the day,” she explained. “There are days when the company is the most important thing — when COVID first happened, we needed to make our employees safe. And then, there are other times when it’s more important that we’re there for our children. My mother is having surgery next week, so that will be the focus then.

“I feel very lucky that I have a supportive partner who helps me manage all these things,” she went on. “But we also have a really great team. We’re not the experts — we didn’t come in with a deep background in manufacturing, and that’s why we keep people from our acquired businesses. Our job is to take all the information and provide the right vision.”

Parts of the Whole

Summing up her approach to her broad role at Universal Plastics, Kumar said, “my biggest failure as a leader is when someone can’t tell me what they really think; if they can’t tell me what they really think, we have a problem.

“I encourage people debating and saying ‘no, this is how we should be doing it,’” she went on. “And when there is that open communication, there’s trust, and that allows me to do more, and the more we can grow as a business.”

Open communication. Trust. Helping employees overcome barriers. These are the keys to success at this company — and any company, said Kumar, stressing, again, that four-word phrase she used in connection with all these matters: ‘we work at it.’

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

Women in Businesss

Critical Tools

As women continue to experience the devastating impact of unemployment due to COVID-19, representing close to 60% of all lost jobs this spring, the food-service, hospitality, retail, and travel industries have been some of the hardest hit.

Further delivering on its mission of empowering women, at a time when many are forced to reimagine their lives, Bay Path University is offering a free three-credit online undergraduate college course in August. The course, “Fundamentals of Digital Literacy,” will help women expand their digital technology skill set and be better prepared for the workforce of the future. The course is offered through The American Women’s College, Bay Path University’s fully online division designed to fit busy women’s lives.

“We hope this free course inspires women to look to a better future through education at a time when they are experiencing such uncertainty,” said Carol Leary before her recent retirement as Bay Path president. “This is our way to offer women an opportunity to discover the benefits of online learning. We have deep experience serving women in a proven college format resulting in a graduation rate that is 20% higher than other adult-serving online programs.”

“Fundamentals of Digital Literacy” is a six-week, three-credit course in which students will examine best practices for utilizing social-media and digital-communication tools in the workplace. In addition, they will learn practical skills for a digital world and gain an increasing awareness of the risks of digital communication essential in all fields. By mastering the fundamentals of computing technology and demonstrating digital literacy, women who complete the course will have developed the computer skills needed to thrive in a 21st-century workforce that is continually changing.

“We hope this free course inspires women to look to a better future through education at a time when they are experiencing such uncertainty. This is our way to offer women an opportunity to discover the benefits of online learning. We have deep experience serving women in a proven college format resulting in a graduation rate that is 20% higher than other adult-serving online programs.”

Leaders in the Women in Travel and Hospitality and Women in Retail Leadership Circle organizations are sharing this free course opportunity with impacted employees impacted. The course offering is not exclusive to these groups, however, and any woman in sectors affected by COVID-19 are welcome to enroll.

“At a time when the retail industry has been dramatically impacted, it is refreshing to see Bay Path University, an institution dedicated to advancing the lives of women, provide an opportunity for women in our industry to gain a valuable skillset and college credits,” said Melissa Campanelli and Jen DiPasquale, co-founders of the Women in Retail Leadership Circle.

Unlike other online degree programs, students enrolled in classes through the American Women’s College at Bay Path University are able to get immediate feedback on individual academic performance. They also get the support they need to excel in the program, such as coaching, counseling, virtual learning communities, and social networking. The courses are designed to help provide the flexibility women need to engage in their studies, while still balancing their daily lives, jobs, and families.

As a result of the innovative approach to learning offered through the American Women’s College, women successfully earn degrees at higher rates than national averages, the institution notes. The model has been widely recognized by industry experts, the federal government, and granting agencies since its inception in 2013. Most recently, the American Women’s College was awarded a $1.6 million grant from the Strada Education Network to use its unique model to close the digital-literacy gap for women.

Enrollment in this six-week, three-credit course is subject to availability. This offer is intended for women who are first-time attendees of Bay Path University. Active Bay Path University students and those enrolled within the past year are not eligible for this offer.

Any student enrolled in this course who wishes to officially enroll into a certificate or degree program at the American Women’s College or Bay Path University must submit the appropriate application for admission and be accepted according to standard admissions guidelines. 

To register for the course, visit bpu.tfaforms.net/41. The registration deadline is July 20, and enrollees will have course access on July 27. For more information, visit www.baypath.edu/baypathworks.

Women in Businesss

Engineering Change

Ashley Sullivan

As recently as last year, Ashley Sullivan didn’t expect to one day sit in the president’s chair at O’Reilly, Talbot & Okun — but that was OK, since she enjoyed her job so much. Now, as the firm’s leader, she gets to emphasize and expand on what she likes, including a culture of mentorship and growth that encourages employees to continually learn and pursue more responsibility, all in service to clients with ever-changing needs.

There was a time last year, Ashley Sullivan said, when the principals at O’Reilly, Talbot & Okun (OTO) weren’t sure how the company’s succession plan would proceed, or who would be its next leader. But they knew they had to talk about it.

“So many other companies are at the same age, where the leaders are getting ready to retire, so what now?” said Sullivan, who was named president of the 26-year-old geoenvironmental engineering firm in January. “I kept hearing maybe they’d look for an outside buyer, and I think it was just put off, put off, put off, because they were having fun doing what they were doing.”

But the conversation had to proceed, she went on. Of the three founders, Jim Okun works part-time, Kevin O’Reilly plans to cut back as well. While Mike Talbot plans to be around full-time for awhile, the firm needed direction for the future.

“They didn’t want to close the doors. We have a great company and a great staff,” Sullivan told BusinessWest. “So I think people at different stages, so it was maybe people wanted different things, and it was just put off.”

When the conversation got serious, the solution, they found, was right in front of them.

“I’ve learned through this process, and talking to other companies going through it, that it’s not an easy thing to transition from the founders to a generational company. Once you get past that, it gets a little easier.”

“I’ve learned through this process, and talking to other companies going through it, that it’s not an easy thing to transition from the founders to a generational company,” she said. “Once you get past that, it gets a little easier. So it was just something we had to work through and negotiate through. The choice ended up being, can we transition internally? Can we make this work? Do we have the people to make this work? And we just fought like hell to make that work.”

The transition has been well-received, said Sullivan, who came on board at OTO 20 years ago. Since then, she has been instrumental in growing and developing business in the geotechnical and construction services of the company. She has also been a key mentor to junior staff and an advisor to upper management, as well as an influencer on the firm’s marketing, work culture, and business development (more on all of that later).

Ashley Sullivan discusses the One Ferry Street project

Ashley Sullivan discusses the One Ferry Street project in Easthampton with OTO field engineer Dustin Humphrey and client Mike Michon.

“The energy here is fantastic. Last year was tough — when you’re working on any sort of change, it’s hard because everybody’s a little nervous: ‘what does this mean for me?’ And sometimes you lose focus on the overall goal,” she explained. “We have the clients, we have the work. We just had to figure out how to keep it going. So last year there was a little uncertainty and fear, for lack of a better word. This year, once the paperwork was done, the energy is through the roof.”

Culture Matters

It was during a time when she was working fewer hours that Sullivan came to understand and appreciate her workplace and its culture.

“They allowed me to have a flexible schedule when I had children, and it was something you didn’t see a lot at that time,” she said, noting that she cut back to 24 hours in 2005, sometimes more if she was needed, and was still working 32 hours not too long ago. Not surprisingly, she’s a strong advocate of work-life balance.

“I was still allowed to progress and advance my career in that way, and now I can say that it works. You can let people have a balance of where they want to be home. I wanted to get my kids on and off the bus, but I wanted to have a meaningful career too, and I found that difficult at 40 hours. So it’s something that I strongly feel works, and I want to continue to develop that culture here.”

Sullivan also instructs the civil engineering capstone design course at Western New England University. In this role, she guides graduating students through a mock building project where many of her peers join her in presenting practical technical knowledge, writing skills, and soft-skills training.

“I like to make a difference with the younger engineers, especially women,” she said. “We don’t see a lot of women in this field, and if girls don’t see women in those roles, they don’t even know it’s possible. But my children think nothing of women engineers. They just know it’s possible.”

Teaching also requires her to constantly learn more, she added. “Plus I was doing something I loved, working with students. The energy in a classroom … it just re-energizes me. Mike Talbot is now teaching a class because we see the benefit to being in community. I’ve hired a couple of my students — I have an intern from there now. It’s a great feed to get great engineers. It’s been so helpful in ways I never thought it would be.”

Sullivan enjoys being a mentor in other ways as well, including for young engineers at work.

“I love to build confidence in people,” she said. “I was a very shy kid, and I think engineering, amazingly, somehow gave me confidence in school, and that’s what I like to do for other people. I like to encourage them or say, ‘you can do more than this,’ or ‘here are some habits that will help you,’ and you see them just soar.

“There are so many amazing people here,” she said, and she strives to encourage them. “‘You got this.’ ‘You can do this.’ ‘Go to that meeting; you’re going to kill it.’ What can we do to help you?’ That’s what really gets me excited in the morning, helping people and seeing them achieve — and seeing how it builds on itself and builds on itself.”

But encouragement comes not just in words, but in opportunities. She cited the example of Christine Arruda, who started with the company in an administrative role, then took classes in drafting and computer-aided design, and now manages much of the firm’s industrial-hygiene work as a technical specialist.

Ashley Sullivan observes soil-investigation and foundation work

Ashley Sullivan observes soil-investigation and foundation work at the One Ferry Street project.

“It’s not uncommon here for people to come in and try different things. We have a culture of, ‘do you want to try to do that? Let’s do it.’ It’s a growth mindset, and I want that to continue and explode,” she said. “What do people want to do? What are some of their goals? Let’s get people into the roles they enjoy and then support them in whatever ways they can be supported. You get people doing the things they really enjoy.”

Much of the company’s evolution over the year has been tied to industry trends and the shifting needs of clients, and this focus on continuing learning serves that growth well, she said, again citing Arruda’s interest in radon, which is something schools have been concerned about in their buildings.

“Our big thing is, how can we provide value for a project?” she said. “There are only so many clients in this area. To be successful, we have to continually adapt to what clients’ needs are. So we’re always adapting and growing, and I think people who work here like that.”

Changing with the Times

Change — and taking advantage of opportunities — have been constant since the early days of O’Reilly, Talbot & Okun. Before the three founders launched their venture in 1994, they were working together at an environmental-services firm in Connecticut.

The Bay State had just developed the Massachusetts Contingency Plan, a law that tells people how to go about cleaning up spills of hazardous materials. As that program rolled out, the three saw an emerging need for people with their skills. So they started a company.

“I like to make a difference with the younger engineers, especially women. We don’t see a lot of women in this field, and if girls don’t see women in those roles, they don’t even know it’s possible. But my children think nothing of women engineers. They just know it’s possible.”

Over the years, OTO’s services have included testing commercial properties for hazardous materials and overseeing cleanup, asbestos management in schools and offices, brownfield redevelopment, indoor air-quality assessments, and geotechnical engineering, which may involve helping developers assess how much force and weight the ground under a proposed structure can stand, or determining the strength of an existing building’s foundation and surrounding topography.

Sullivan said Massachusetts has done a good job cleaning up its largest contaminated sites, so the firm now focuses more on-site redevelopment.

“The big cleanups mostly are done, but you still have things that were left in the ground because they said it’s OK to leave them in the ground, but if you’re going to redig or redevelop that site, you need to manage it,” she explained, noting that it’s tougher these days to find untouched land to develop in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, so geotech services on redevelopment projects are becoming more important. “We shift to what our clients need.”

The end result is often satisfying, especially when a vacant eyesore, like the old mills in Holyoke and Easthampton, come to live.

“Those are some of our favorite projects, because whenever we see a property get redeveloped and reused and come back to life, that just benefits the neighborhood, the community, and us. Those are great projects.”

Suffice to say, Sullivan loves her job on a number of levels, and wants her employees to feel the same way, which is why she keeps raising the bar when it comes to culture, mentorship, and growth.

“We’re not afraid to ask for help,” she told BusinessWest, explaining that she brought in a leadership group — the Boulder Co., based in Connecticut — to cultivate soft skills and leadership training.

“We had a retreat, and it was absolutely amazing. It’s really giving people skills like emotional intelligence and how to get over fears of speaking in public and how to work together better. It’s led to a big energy change here, and you’re seeing people step out of their shells and believe they can do more,” she explained. “We always know we need to be technically proficient and get that training, but sometimes, as engineers and scientists, we forget about the other half — that all our work is based on relationships, and if we continually work on that, we’ll do well.”

It’s a message Sullivan doesn’t mind sharing far and wide.

“My goal right now is to be one of the best places in Springfield to work because I think that’s how you attract the best people,” she said. “One of the reasons I stayed here was because I was able to do these things.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Women in Businesss

Bringing the Past to Life

By Laura Grant

Janine Fondon is seen here next to a portrait of her grandmother Miriam Kirkaldy.

In 1917, Miriam Kirkaldy landed on the shores of Ellis Island seeking to create a new life for herself. Despite the discrimination she faced as a woman of color, she found work in New York City and eventually became a homeowner before starting a family.

More than 100 years later, her granddaughter, Janine Fondon, stood beside her portrait at the Springfield Museums exhibit “Voices of Resilience: The Intersection of Women on the Move.” Fondon curated “Voices of Resilience” to honor the accomplishments of women who changed the world — and the exhibit does this in a number of ways.

It highlights ‘hidden figures’ with a particular focus on women of color, including African-Americans, Latinas, Caribbeans, and Native Americans, among others. The walls of the exhibit are covered with panels, all of which have photos and descriptions of these women. Examples include Jenny Slew and Elizabeth Freeman, or MumBet, who fought the legal system for their freedom in the 1700s, as well as LuJuana Hood, who founded Springfield’s Pan African Historical Museum in 1995. The exhibit stretches over hundreds of years, chronologically, beginning with female pharaohs and queens — “the first female CEOs,” Fondon said.

The exhibit provides ample evidence showing just how dedicated Fondon is to uplifting the communities around her.

She explained that she splits her focus into three main areas. The first is teaching. Having received a graduate degree in Communications and Business, she has held multiple editorial and managerial positions for companies such as ABC-TV, BankBoston, CBS-TV, and Digital Equipment Corp. She began teaching in 2012 and is currently an assistant professor and the chair of the Communications Department at Bay Path University, as well as an adjunct faculty member at Cambridge College and Westfield State University. She teaches undergraduate communication classes with subjects ranging from marketing principles to social media, and absolutely loves the work.

“It has been a joy because we have walked into the new era of communication,” she told BusinessWest.

One of Fondon’s clearest goals is to push for diverse and inclusive communities, and to that end, she launched her own company with her husband, Tom Fondon, in 1996. UnityFirst has seen many forms over the years, but at its core, the intent is the same: the website strives to share stories of people of color.

And through e-mails, newsletters, and social networking, it connects people from all across the country. News updates and profile pieces are distributed to a network of more than 2 million members. It also hosts the African American Newswire, which users can utilize to send information directly to more than 4,000 press groups and publications.

While UnityFirst has a focus throughout the U.S., Fondon also strove for upliftment specifically within the Pioneer Valley with “Voices of Resilience,” which is open through April 26 and features the stories of activists and businesswomen spanning hundreds of years who have history within Massachusetts.

Making Connections

When curating the exhibit, Fondon aimed to not only provide information but to give visitors a chance to truly learn about these women and connect with them. This also meant encouraging attendees to consider their own lives or to give gratitude toward the people who had inspired them. Part of “Voices of Resilience” features a board where visitors can write their own stories and pin them up.

Many people used the chance to thank the women dear to them — mothers, sisters, teachers, and friends. Some highlighted historical women, such as mathematician Katherine Johnson. One guest said Fondon herself is an inspiration.

“On the day of the opening, we already knew it was going to be a powerful exhibit, and we were honored to have it here at the Museums. … There was so much positive energy and so many happy people, proud people. That felt incredible.”

Fondon said she felt it was crucial to give visitors an opportunity to share their history. As such, she worked with poet María Luisa Arroyo, who wrote a piece specifically for the exhibit. The poem insists that all stories belong in this space. In the final line, she writes: “Sit here. I will listen.”

This idea of connection — hearing stories and telling them in turn — is reflected in the exhibit’s events. Springfield Museums staged a ceremony on the date the exhibit opened, and the event brought in the voices of some of the featured women, such as the family of Carole Fredericks, a blues and rock artist. Her relatives were able to talk about Fredericks’ life and the legacy she left on music. In Fondon’s words, it “opened up the storytelling.”

“On the day of the opening, we already knew it was going to be a powerful exhibit, and we were honored to have it here at the Museums,” said Karen Fisk, the museum’s director of Marketing and Communication Strategy. “We were overwhelmed by how many people showed up. Our Blake Court was absolutely full, and people were lined up all along the balconies looking down, which was a beautiful sight. There was so much positive energy and so many happy people, proud people. That felt incredible.”

“Voices of Resilience” was also home to the fourth On the Move forum on March 8, which is International Women’s Day. Beginning in 2017, Fondon organized this annual event to encourage conversation and networking among women in the community. This year’s forum featured keynote speaker Kamilah A’Vant as well as a group of business owners and professors as panelists ready to answer questions from the audience. Much like the opening ceremony, it provided a chance for genuine connection between the speakers and the visitors.

Fisk remarked on this event as well, saying she and Fondon wanted at least 50% of the gathering to consist of adolescents and young adults. To their delight, they far surpassed this goal. Groups from multiple schools came to the event to engage with the panelists and ask questions about employment and voting.

“The On the Move forum had young people and older people speaking to the power that women have, especially when they work together,” Fisk explained. “Janine unites people to work together.”

The exhibit’s closing ceremony will be on April 26 and will serve as a direct collaboration piece between Fondon and several spoken-word poets, as well as with Marlene Yu, a Chinese-American artist whose acrylic paintings are currently on display in the Michele and Donald D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts at the Springfield Museums.

These works are massive, bright, and colorful, while also capturing the spirit of environmentalism and providing commentary on climate change. Her work will be featured during the event’s closing ceremony, and Fondon was glad to have a chance to collaborate with her. Despite Yu’s age, she continues to paint nearly every day and has produced more than 4,000 pieces of work in her lifetime.

Fondon found that inspiring.

“There was a perfect melding between the ‘Voices of Resilience’ and [Yu’s work]. That is the heartbeat of the exhibit,” she remarked. “I said, ‘she’s a resilient woman’ without even knowing her — just from the power of those pieces.”

Of course, Fondon’s hard work does not go unnoticed. Her work at WTCC 90.7 FM, a diversity-focused radio program in Springfield, earned her an honorary degree at Springfield Technical Community College. She was recognized as an outstanding professor by the African-American Female Professors Assoc. and has received countless other awards for her leadership abilities.

Still, what drives Fondon the most is not accolades; it’s rooted in her family. That is the reason why she is able to give so much to the community. Fondon said she works with her husband on everything, particularly regarding UnityFirst, which the two of them started together. The exhibit even features a quilt given to Fondon in order to honor their marriage. It represents not only the joining of two families but also the deep cultural history behind the heirloom. It is clearly a prized possession, and one that sits right in the center of the exhibit.

Her daughter is at the heart of what inspires her, too.

“I want my daughter to not only know the history, but make new history,” Fondon said. “We need to get our young generation in this city excited. We need to engage them in their future. Even my daughter was just so excited to learn about her grandmother.

“If we can help young people not only find their story here, but also give them the ability to make new stories, that’s what a community wants,” she added. “We need to make sure they know that we want them, and we want them to help drive the future of this city.”

Women in Businesss

Scenes from the Dec. 5 Event

More than 450 people turned out at the Sheraton Springfield on Dec. 5 for BusinessWest’s second annual Women of Impact luncheon. Eight women were honored for their achievements in business and in giving back to the community. The keynote speaker was Lisa Tanzer, president of Life is Good. This year’s honorees are (pictured, left to right):

• Katherine Putnam, managing director of Golden Seeds;

• Carol Moore Cutting, president, CEO, and general manager of Cutting Edge Broadcasting;

• Lydia Martinez-Alvarez, assistant superintendent of Springfield Public Schools;

• Mary Hurley, Massachusets Governor’s Councilor;

• Ellen Freyman, partner at Shatz, Schwartz & Fentin;

• Tricia Canavan, president of United Personnel;

• Jean Deliso, principal with Deliso Financial Services; and

• Suzanne Parker, executive director of Girls Inc. of the Valley.

The Women of Impact program was sponsored by TommyCar Auto Group and Country Bank (presenting sponsors), Comcast Business and Granite State Development (supporting sponsors), New Valley Bank & Trust (speaker sponsor), and WWLP 22 News/CW Springfield (exclusive media sponsor).

Women in Businesss

Wellness in Season

Denise Pelletier was inspired by her own experience with the benefits of salt therapy to help others find similar success.

Denise Pelletier was gifted a trip to a salt cave for her birthday — not your average way to celebrate another trip around the sun.

But Pelletier has bartonellosis, a chronic Lyme disease co-infection that can produce symptoms like fever, fatigue, headaches, and bone pain. When her sister heard about salt therapy and the benefits it can bring, she took Pelletier to a salt cave, thinking it might help with some of the pain she was suffering from.

In the process known as halotherapy, pure, drug-free, pharmaceutical-grade salt is heated and ground into microparticles by a machine called a halogenerator and dispersed in a room or salt bed.

The results of her first salt-therapy session, Pelletier said, included relief from allergies and asthma, among other things.

“I realized that, when I do salt therapy, I don’t need to use my inhaler twice a day, and I don’t need to take my allergy medicine every day,” she said, adding that, if she doesn’t get in at least one or two salt sessions a week, she finds herself needing to use more medication. “For me, it made such a huge difference.”

Although she originally had no intention to start a business, she felt she needed to share the benefits of halotherapy with other people who may be going through a similar thing.

“I’m one of those people that, when something works so wonderfully for me, I want to help other people,” she said. “I thought, ‘how can I bring this to other people?’”

The answer was opening Enisde’s Salt Therapy Halotherapy Spa on Main Street in Palmer.

Science hasn’t quite caught up with the halotherapy trend yet, at least in the U.S., and concrete evidence of the benefits are oftentimes conflicting. But salt therapy has been around for centuries and is more popular in Europe, used as a natural and holistic method for health and wellness.

For Pelletier, the results were fantastic — which is why she’s sharing the benefits of the holistic regimen with others.

Go with the Flow

When thinking about her main goals for her new business, Pelletier had one thing in particular on her mind: keeping a positive and relaxed energy throughout the entire space.

But it took a lot of work to get there, as months were spent gutting the entire building with help from family to make it the business she dreamed of.

“The feel is very important to me, which is why we put so much into the décor,” she said, adding that salt walls and salt floors, while they do not necessarily contribute to the health benefits, add a lot to the relaxation part of the experience. “There’s a lot of people that feel a whole shift in energy when they come in.”

According to Pelletier’s website, salt is negatively charged, which means it naturally attracts positively charged particles and cancels out harmful electromagnetic vibrations in the environment and in people’s bodies. In many cases, this feeling is compared to visiting a waterfall or spending a day at the beach.

Denise Pelletier says she put much thought and effort into the décor and and feel of her establishment, and people “feel a whole shift in energy when they come in.”

And while she by no means recommends eliminating prescribed medicine while practicing halotherapy, she says using it along with salt therapy may help people cut back on the medication they are taking.

“Whether you have breathing issues or skin issues, it’s just something that’s so good to do for yourself, even if you decide to do it once or twice a month,” she said. “It really is that feeling of well-being because it’s actually doing something for you.”

There are five rooms in Enisde’s Halotherapy focused on this well-being feeling — the Dawn Room, which provides the full salt-cave experience with a room-wide salt floor; the Willow Room, with moon pods to sit on that deliver a full-body, weightless sensation; the Bosai Room, featuring a large salt sandbox floor on half of the room and wood floors on the other half; and the Zen Room and Namaste Room, which include state-of-the-art salt-therapy beds for those who want a more private experience.

Salt therapy is more popular in Europe, but is starting to gain traction in the U.S.

Halotherapy rooms are 45-minute sessions for $40, and salt-bed rooms are 20-minute sessions for $20. The salt beds, Pelletier said, were a must-have because the concentrated salt air in the enclosed space is beneficial to those seeking relief, and at a quicker pace.

Give Salt a Chance

Pelletier says the benefits, especially during this time of year, are far greater than what most people would expect.

“It definitely helps you stay healthier in the wintertime, with the flus and the bugs going around,” she noted. “If you are overcoming something, this is wonderful for you because the salt removes toxins from your lungs, it reduces swelling in your lungs and sinuses, and it detoxes your skin.”

While this method of relaxation hasn’t quite caught on in too many places yet, Pelletier hopes people will give halotherapy a try and see the benefits for themselves.

“It’s nice to have something that’s positive and about wellness,” she said. “My hope is that people will want to start taking better care of themselves and making it a priority.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Women in Businesss

Women Supporting Women

Meghan Rothschild

Meghan Rothschild

When Meghan Rothschild launched Chikmedia as a two-woman operation five years ago, she was determined to build a successful marketing firm that focused heavily, if not exclusively, on women and brought a fierce attitude and a sense of fun into the work. Five years later, as the head of a small team with an ever-growing clientele, she says those philosophies haven’t changed — nor has the need for a company that reminds women of the power they wield when they lift each other up.

Marketing has come a long way in the 21st century, Meghan Rothschild says, in ways many companies struggle to understand.

Take social media.

“When we first started, social media wasn’t what it is today — it was something that businesses absolutely used, but it wasn’t this intricate skill set you have to educate yourself about in order to be up to date on the latest trends. That’s been one of the biggest advances,” said Rothschild, whose marketing firm, Chikmedia, recently celebrated its fifth anniversary.

“We’ve learned how to use social media from a business perspective in a really successful way,” she went on. “Our social-media management is much more comprehensive, and includes graphic design and creating custom content, and using the live features and story features on all the platforms. That’s evolved quite a bit. But other things about this business are the same, like writing press releases and helping people have grand openings at their businesses.”

“You have all these places that have ample budgets, or have a staff person dedicated to marketing. We like to work with the companies that don’t have that. Marketing is such an important part of business ownership that people forget about.”

Chikmedia is unique in other ways, though. For one, Rothschild — who gives herself the title “chief badass” — says she started the business to put an emphasis on female-run organizations and women business owners with an “edgy, fierce, and authentic” approach.

At its inception, Chikmedia focused mostly on social media, graphic design, and public relations. However, the firm has expanded its services outward, with branded events (more on that later) and a series of educational workshops that aid businesses with social media, personal branding, PR 101, and crisis management, to name a few topics.

While not all clients are female-run companies, the average client, Rothschild explained, is a woman who owns a small to medium-sized business who isn’t sitting on a six-figure marketing budget and, therefore, needs to be creative with her efforts.

“We sort of thrive in that space, finding unique and creative ways to engage audiences that aren’t going to cost you $100,000,” she said. “You have all these places that have ample budgets, or have a staff person dedicated to marketing. We like to work with the companies that don’t have that. Marketing is such an important part of business ownership that people forget about.”

Among its newer clients are the region’s new Futures Collegiate Baseball League team, the Westfield Starfires. Chikmedia also worked with Square One, a Springfield nonprofit that provides a range of early-education and support services, in launching a new service line that expands childcare to all hours of the day. The company has also partnered with Dunkin’ Donuts in sponsoring several events.

In short, it’s a varied clientele, which means a lot of education going both ways.

It all feeds into a “fierce” attitude she further describes as “bold, empowering, having confidence, and positioning clients in a way that they are the experts on their subject matter.”

In fact, Rothschild said, empowering women is at the core of everything she does, having been harassed and encountered inappropriate treatment many times in the corporate world — and not only by men.

Educational workshops

Educational workshops have become a staple of Chikmedia’s services — and a way to put more autonomy in clients’ hands.

“It’s one thing to walk into an environment and not be supported by your male peers, but to encounter that from your female peers is really something. It’s frustrating,” she said. “I said, ‘this is going to stop with me. I’m going to start a company whose mission and sole purpose is women lifting each other up instead of tearing each other down.’

“As a culture,” she went on, “it’s really easy for us to give each other a hard time and drag each other down and be super competitive, but we want to be the complete opposite of that — women supporting women.”

Choosing a Path

Rothschild had been in marketing for eight years — with stints as marketing and promotions manager at Six Flags, development and marketing manager at the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, and director of marketing and communications at Wilbraham and Monson Academy — when she teamed up in 2014 with Emily Gaylord, who brought a strong design skillset to the partnership they called Chikmedia.

With about two dozen clients coming aboard in the first few months, including Bueno y Sano, UMass Dining, Papa John’s, ArchitectureEL, Energia Fitness, SkinCatering, and Lioness magazine, they were, frankly, overwhelmed with the early response and realized they had something that was more than a “side hustle,” as Rothschild put it.

Gaylord eventually left the company to pour more of her time and passion into the Center for EcoTechnology, where she works as Communications and Engagement director. Meanwhile, Rothschild was balancing ownership of Chikmedia with a full-time gig at IMPACT Melanoma. A survivor of the disease who had built a national platform for skin-safety advocacy, she was working for IMPACT as Marketing and Public Relations manager when he realized she had to make a choice.

“I spent about four years at IMPACT, and last year, the success of Chikmedia was getting to the point where it wasn’t sustainable — I couldn’t do both. And I felt like Chikmedia was the right path.” Today, she still serves as a spokesperson for IMPACT, which is among Chikmedia’s clients.

As the company has grown its client base, Rothschild said, so has its emphasis on education and training, both one on one with clients and in the community.

“We’ll do a training for anyone. We did one-hour training for a client on Constant Contact; she was new to the software, so she brought me in, and I walked her through,” she recalled. “If you have someone in your office that’s supposed to be managing Instagram and they don’t know how to use it, instead of giving them a month or two months to learn all the intricacies of it, bring us in for an hour, and we’ll educate them on what to do. That way, we’re putting the power back into corporate hands. A lot of people would love for us to manage their social media, but it’s not the most cost-efficient thing as opposed to us coming in and training your staff how to do it.”

“I’m going to start a company whose mission and sole purpose is women lifting each other up instead of tearing each other down.”

She also teaches personal branding and social media at Springfield College, calling education a “side passion” alongside marketing and helping firms grow. Often, she takes what she’s done in those classes and packages the material into condensed workshops for clients and other audiences, like a three-part series she recently conducted on navigating one’s personal brand — what it is and why it’s important.

“It’s super relevant,” she said. “Think about social media. Even though universities are starting to adapt, starting to insert it into the curriculum, it’s definitely not a standard part of the curriculum. So I’m helping to fill that void until everyone catches up.”

While teaching, though, she’s often learning — specifically, about each client and industry she takes on.

“Our specialty is learning the industry, and we’re working with everything from financial investment firms to UMass Dining, Dunkin’ Donuts, local spas like SkinCatering and Beauty Batlles, nonprofit organizations, event-planning companies … we’re sort of a mix. I always say to clients, if we don’t know something about this subject matter, we’re going to learn it.”

She tries to be honest with each potential client, too. “I’ve had people come to me and say, ‘this is what I need,’ and I’ve said, ‘I don’t think we’re the right fit for you; I think you should go to XYZ.’ Or, ‘I don’t think you’re ready for marketing yet; I think you should see a business advisor first.’ We’re not going to put a square peg in a round hole. We want the right fit.”

Fun with a Purpose

In all those efforts, she’s also passionate about keeping the emphasis on making marketing and branding fun. When BusinessWest sat down with Rothschild and Gaylord five years ago, after the launch of Chikmedia, they said if they’re another stressor in a client’s day, they’re not doing their job right. Today, as the sole business owner, Rothschild has not abandoned that philosophy.

“I can be hard to stay true to that because, as an entrepreneur, you’re trying to stay afloat and get all the work done. But I made a promise to myself when I made this a full-time job I was going to continue that path and have fun in everything I do. You spend the majority of your waking hours at work; you’d better enjoy what you do and be passionate about it.”

Ashley Kohl, owner of Ohana School of Performing Arts

Ashley Kohl, owner of Ohana School of Performing Arts, was one of many women business owners show-cased at Chiks’ Night Out.

Part of that sense of fun comes out during the firm’s branded events, such as Chiks’ Night Out event, which took place in Springfield in March to promote the spring line of Addy Elizabeth, a chic clothing boutique.

“All the focus is on women entrepreneurs, so all the models and sponsors are women entrepreneurs. We’re not calling them models, but women business owners. When they walk on runway, we describe their outfit — and their business. So women are learning what women on the runway have to offer them in terms of services.”

Then there’s a bus tour called Chiks’ Day Out, a sort of shopping trip where every stop is a female business.

“That’s how our events are positioned,” Rothschild said. “We want leave them tingling, saying, ‘oh my God, there’s such a need for this — for women to connect in a fun way.’ It creates a sense of community.”

Chikmedia promotes connections through its strong social-media presence as well, on platforms like Facebook and Instagram, as well as its own blog — not to mention its line of branded merchandise, like T-shirts emblazoned with phrases like ‘Boss Chik.’

“I see women wearing our T-shirts, hats, and sunglasses, and I’m not sure if there’s another local firm that has that kind of presence,” she told BusinessWest. “I really am proud of that, how we’ve been able to leverage our own brand to help our clients.”

Besides its core team of four in Western Mass., Rothschild has an intern in Providence, a part-time accountant, and contractors spread out over its service areas, which extend beyond this region into Boston, Cape Cod, Rhode Island, and Charlotte, N.C. In today’s high-tech world, she said, there’s plenty a company can do remotely for clients, although she needs to be in front of them for certain tasks, like running events and producing video content for social media.

And there’s plenty of room for the firm to grow, she noted, adding that its success in its first five years has been a gratifying challenge — in every sense of both words.

“I’d be lying if I didn’t I say I enjoy being my own boss,” she said. “Of course, as an entrepreneur, you say, ‘I’m going to manage my own schedule and take vacations,’ and the reality is you never take vacations. Even when you go on vacation, you’re on the phone. When you’re a business owner, you’re the business. It’s my burden to bear; its not someone else’s. It’s not someone telling me to do something; it’s me being accountable to myself.”

Still, she added, “I love marketing and PR, I love social media, I love writing. Having control of my own company makes me happy, and my team makes me happy — they’re smart, awesome people. I genuinely love what I do.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Women in Businesss

Exchange of Ideas

President Carol Leary (right) and other Bay Path leaders

President Carol Leary (right) and other Bay Path leaders with the group of visitors from Jissen Women’s University in Tokyo.

Bay Path University has a long history of forging paths for women to work together, and this year that involved helping students cross oceans and continents to learn from one another.

Six students from Jissen Women’s University in Tokyo, Japan recently ventured to Bay Path to partake in a week of learning, adventure, and cultural interchange as a part of a new hybrid exchange program between the two universities. Bay Path was selected as one of only two U.S. institutions to take part as part of the TEamUP project pairing U.S. and Japanese institutions together to develop a dual hybrid exchange program and Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) course.

During their weeklong stay, students from Jissen were able to visit the Bay Path campus, where they met with students, took in a student theater production, and had tea with Bay Path President Carol Leary. They also visited New York City, Boston, Northampton, the Springfield Museums, LEGO, and Yankee Candle, and ended their trip at the Bay Path Women’s Leadership Conference and a farewell dinner at Red Rose Pizzeria. Next month, students from the American Women’s College (TAWC) at Bay Path will visit Japan.

The program, made possible by support from the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission, goes beyond international travel and includes student collaboration in an online course that the Japanese and American students will take together, with curriculum to be jointly developed by the partners. This aspect of the program gives these students, in particular the adult non-traditional students of TAWC who may have work commitments or children at home, a chance to experience another culture firsthand.

“This innovative model for international exchange will offer women, who might not otherwise have the opportunity, the ability to participate in a culturally rich and diverse learning experience,” said Veatrice Carabine, deputy chief for Partnership Development at the American Women’s College. “We are grateful for the generous support of the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission in supporting this exciting opportunity for our students.”

Advancing the Mission

Advancing the higher education of women and preparing them for leadership roles in their professions and communities is central to the respective missions of TAWC and Jissen Women’s University, and the education this collaboration hopes to provide will extend far beyond their trips. Students will examine values related to women’s moral and ethical leadership in Japan and the U.S., including issues of social justice, diversity, and service to others. Through an experiential learning lab, students will assess leadership styles in these cultural contexts and think critically and creatively about the necessity of vision, trust, and cultural awareness to gain strategic competitive advantages for action in a global world.

“Students will have impactful opportunities to share and exchange global perspectives, compare and contrast women’s roles and leadership, and use technology tools to complete projects across time and space — not to mention develop relationships with Japanese friends.”

“I’m thrilled to partner with the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission and Jissen Women’s University to share collaborative, cross-cultural learning experiences to students at the American Women’s College, both through the course content and learning activities, as well as through the travel and hosting opportunities,” said Maura Devlin, deputy chief learning officer at the American Women’s College. “Students will have impactful opportunities to share and exchange global perspectives, compare and contrast women’s roles and leadership, and use technology tools to complete projects across time and space — not to mention develop relationships with Japanese friends.”

In a time of increasing globalization, bringing together women of different ages, backgrounds, and nationalities to learn from one other and equipping them with a greater sense of confidence, leadership, cultural awareness, and connectedness to a global world can be a powerful strategy for empowering women to address the world’s most challenging issues, and that has always been at the heart of Bay Path’s mission, she added. For the students involved, this experience will broaden their understanding of how women’s leadership can be applied to influence organizational change in differing global contexts, as students’ own leadership skills, cultural awareness, and confidence in engaging with others globally are developed.

This article first appeared on the Bay Path University blog; www.baypath.edu/news/bay-path-university-blogs

Women in Businesss

Culture of Care

Karin Jeffers, CEO of Clinical & Support Options

Karin Jeffers, CEO of Clinical & Support Options

Karin Jeffers, the long-time CEO of Clinical & Support Options, knew she had a challenge on her hands when she took the reins at the struggling behavioral-health and social-services agency. But she’s never been one to shy away from a challenge, and has steadily grown the organization into the broad-based, community-focused force it is today. She’s done so by embracing constant change, a culture of learning, and a sensitivity to the unique experiences of each client who walks through the door.

As the daughter of teachers, helping and supporting people was in Karin Jeffers’ blood. How she eventually applied that idea, however, wasn’t exactly a straight line.

“I went to school at Springfield College for physical therapy and thought I had my life figured out,” she told BusinessWest. “That’s what I was going to do. But then I took an abnormal psychology class, and I was just fascinated. It was way more interesting than anything I was doing otherwise.”

After doing a bit of research and learning how mental-health professionals impact people’s lives, she was sold, and switched her major to counseling and psychology.

“That was probably three and a half years through the PT program,” she recalled. “That was a fun phone call home to my dad.”

Her career path has validated that decision in spades, however. After earning her master’s degree in psychology, Jeffers took a job with the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and, over the next 13 years, rose through the ranks there, from home family therapist to coordinator to clinical director to regional director.

“It can be challenging when working with children and families, but what I found immensely rewarding — and this holds to this day — is the resilience of kids and families and their desire for a better life.”

“It was a great organization; it really exposed me to a lot of the ways you can help people and make a change in an individual, a family, and a community.”

It was telling — and another validation of her shift away from physical therapy — that she found the work rewarding, even though the issues she dealt with on a daily basis could be sobering, to say the least.

“It can be challenging when working with children and families, but what I found immensely rewarding — and this holds to this day — is the resilience of kids and families and their desire for a better life,” she said. “That really drives me through what can sound like horrible stories, whether it’s abuse or trauma or whatever people have been through.

“You rarely meet somebody who wants to be in a bad place,” she went on. “You meet people who want to do better, but they may not have the tools or the resources or the supports to get where they need to be; the hope is that you can help people get closer to healing and recovery.”

Meanwhile, Clinical & Support Options was an agency founded as a child and family organization that had crept away from that mission somewhat over the years, Jeffers said. She arrived there in 2005 to become CEO of what was then a $4 million nonprofit behavioral-health enterprise with about 90 employees and just a handful of sites, mostly in Franklin County.

“I’ve always loved challenges, and at the time that I came to CSO, it was a much smaller agency,” she said. “They had been through several CEOs in the prior few years. They had a really good core mission and core group of people, but needed some leadership, so it was an opportunity for me to make my mark on a new agency and see if we could build something that would make a difference.”

That she has. Thirteen years into her leadership tenure at CSO, it has become a $40 million organization with more than 700 employees spread across five counties, with 15 office locations, and serving some 17,000 people annually.

“We really have the full spectrum of services, from crisis intervention to family support to prevention services to support and recovery services,” Jeffers said. “Our latest merger was with Friends of the Homeless, so now we’re able to add housing and shelter to it. The way we’ve been able to integrate and really blend all those services together, we can truly say that, if you need support or help, just come here, and we’ll help you figure out where to get it, as opposed to you having to know which number to call and where to go and what to ask for. We work very hard at that kind of integration and service.”

She has spearheaded that kind of growth and integration through a specific set of values and a nimble leadership style that embraces change, and encourages her team to do the same. And she’s certainly not done.

Dramatic Turnaround

The Clinical & Support Options that Jeffers joined in 2005 was saddled with what she called a bad financial picture, but a good core team that wanted to provide strong services — and needed strong leadership to do so.

“I’m a big believer in strategic planning and actually following that plan and executing it,” she explained. “Some of the growth has happened through partnerships or mergers or takeovers of other offices. We’ve actually had other behavioral-health agencies close down offices, then reach out to us at CSO to assume operation. So we were able to grow by picking up those services where they were needed and expand on them, really use it as a launch point to do even more.”

Some growth was driven by changes at the state and federal levels. The 2009 Children’s Behavioral Health Initiative, which aimed to expand and integrate children’s mental-health services in Massachusetts into a comprehensive, community-based system of care, wound up building up CSO’s roster of contracts. Meanwhile, it was one of only three agencies nationwide to win a federal grant from the Department of Justice to link victims of crime to mental-health and trauma services. Other grants followed, and the agency continued to grow.

“It’s been exciting; we’ve been able to find our niche,” Jeffers said. “There are larger agencies than us and smaller agencies than us, but we’ve really been able to find our niche in certain things and do them well, while also offering a broad range of services to the community, so people can access what they need when they need it.”

Part of meeting those needs is a strategic direction toward what she calls a “trauma-informed” culture, which is essentially a system-wide change, launched about five years ago, that emphasizes sensitivity to possible trauma in every person who comes to CSO.

“A lot of people think of trauma-informed care as just a modality, trauma treatment, and we really look at it as a much broader philosophy, which is that trauma affects way more people than you think,” she explained. “You never know who has been traumatized, so how you treat people and what culture you set and having a place where you respect choices and empowerment and safety — that’s different than just providing trauma treatment.”

To that end, CSO has embarked on a long-term culture shift that not only includes best practices in treatment, but also examines what the offices look like, how policies are received, and how people are treated.

“The end result has been an ongoing philosophy of embedding trauma-informed care and resilience throughout everything we do,” she went on. “We trained everybody, from clinicians to the janitorial staff to administrative staff and secretaries, right across the board, so that everybody had the same filter and philosophy and support in doing their jobs.”

She even enlisted people to walk through the various CSO offices, like secret shoppers, and report back on their experience. The feedback included everything from pictures on walls that might be triggering to how they were treated when they came to the front window, and that feedback was then used to initiate change.

“You never know who has been traumatized, so how you treat people and what culture you set and having a place where you respect choices and empowerment and safety — that’s different than just providing trauma treatment.”

As one example, the waiting room in the Springfield office used to have hallways on either side, and staff constantly walked through. But Jeffers heard that felt really intrusive, and bothered clients who were finally asking for help, but were being ignored by professionals in the office. So the waiting room was moved to a larger, quieter spot, where the first providers clients saw were there to help them, not walk past.

“We look at our staff from the client lens,” she said. “It really is about a culture shift, and that is ongoing. There really isn’t a start and an end. Well, there’s a start, but then it’s an ever-evolving process, and our goal is quality improvement.”

Knowledge Is Power

That training in trauma-informed care is just one reflection of an organization — and its leader — that value continual learning. In fact, CSO provides more than 500 hours of free training for staff per year, which makes it easier to promote from within; more than 48% of the management team (70 out of 145) have come up through the ranks.

“It is very much a learning culture. We do a tremendous amount of internal staff training, but we also do external training,” Jeffers said, noting CSO has trained more than 1,000 individuals in mental-health first aid (both youth and adult versions) and more than 1,100 community members in principles of trauma-informed care (TIC). That’s on top of training 820 employees in the TIC curriculum over the past four years.

“We’ve provided training to other agencies, police, schools, colleges, and community groups on trauma-informed care and the impact of trauma in the communities,” she explained. “For the lay person, a lot of the focus is on how to recognize what your role can be in helping somebody get to a better place. Stigma is still real; people are afraid of mental health, and they don’t know how to react to situations. So we’re really trying to break down that stigma and empower people and teach them what their role can be, whether it’s your family or neighbor or someone in line at the grocery store having a tough time.”

That community impact — not just in external trainings, but in the day-to-day improvement in people’s lives — is one of the things that keeps Jeffers motivated as new threats emerge, such as the opioid crisis that has become so prevalent in recent years.

“The state of Massachusetts is heading in some really exciting directions with their investments in behavioral health, so to be a part of that is really exciting,” she told BusinessWest. “We will continue to be good at what we do and then see what else we can do. We certainly don’t want to grow just to grow. We want to grow to meet the needs of our community, and I think there’s still a lot of work to be done.”

“People who work here know we’ve got to change and adapt,” she went on. “It’s not about doing the same old same old, but how do we constantly strive for better quality and better outcomes? That’s something that drives me, and it’s exciting to be a part of it.”

As a prominent female leader in healthcare, Jeffers is especially proud of the percentage of women in leadership positions at CSO, including 60% of the executive leadership team (six of 10), 73% of the senior leadership team (27 of 37), and 84% of the overall, agency-wide management team (122 of 145).

Still, at the end of the day — and some days are tougher than others — it’s all about meeting needs and creating change in the community.

“There are definitely challenges,” she said. “Challenges on the funding front, keeping up with demands, and creating a good place to work are tough. But it’s exciting to know we can impact the number of people we impact.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Women in Businesss

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


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.


“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.”


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.

Sections Women in Businesss

Invaluable Connections

womenbusinessdpartMembers of the Women Business Owners Alliance of Pioneer Valley say the organization has proven beneficial on many levels, offering inspiration and knowledge from other women’s experiences in a supportive and non-competitive atmosphere. There’s a comfort level in the WBOA many say they haven’t found elsewhere, and it’s helping them gain the confidence and connections to succeed at business and in life.

The organization’s tagline is “It’s Your Business; Don’t Grow it Alone,” and that axiom and related support made a significant difference to Amy Woolf of Amy Woolf Color Consulting in Northampton when she relocated to Western Mass. from Florida in 2009.

“I was a stay-at-home mom, and being in a business-oriented environment has helped me perceive myself as a professional,” she said, noting that many companies start at women’s kitchen tables, and connecting with a warm and welcoming group of professionals can help them establish a business persona.

Woolf was talking about the Women Business Owners Alliance of Pioneer Valley (WBOA), and stressed that there was nothing like it in the Sunshine State.

She went on to say the group has provided her with invaluable benefits that include support, inspiration, connections, and knowledge gleaned from other women’s experiences.

“When you work as a solo entrepreneur, you are often very isolated. But belonging to this group is like having several dozen mentors,” she explained. “You develop relationships over time: everyone has a different area of expertise, so you have people you can call when you need to figure out how to handle different situations.”

Dee Emery-Ferraro, the WBOA’s current president, agreed, and called the organization a real sisterhood.

Indeed, the group is different than many other business and professional organizations that focus almost entirely on networking and generating new business, she said.

To begin with, this group completely avoids the word ‘networking,’ and concentrates instead on providing a warm, supportive atmosphere that fosters what they refer to as ‘connections’ that allow and encourage women to share information about their business as well as their personal lives. As a result, most members get to know each other in a way that has little to do with their professional goals, although that certainly isn’t ignored.

“In addition to being business professionals, we are homemakers, wives, mothers, sisters, and aunts,” said Emery-Ferrero. “What we do professionally is only one facet of our lives.”

Beverly Astley agrees, and says the camaraderie in the group inspires women to help their peers succeed. She attended chamber of commerce meetings before she was introduced to WBOA, but found they didn’t offer what she was seeking.

However, WBOA filled that gap and has provided her with the type of support she had hoped to find in a group.

“Women think very differently than men; when you have conversations with members of WBOA, they want to get to know you as a person, not just find out about your business,” she said, adding that the group is very nurturing; women share photos of their family and talk about their children, grandchildren, home-improvement projects, and other issues affecting their lives.

Which is not to say they don’t discuss business. Indeed, those conversations definitely take place, and a combination of programs, sage advice, and even technical assistance has allowed many women to grow their companies and become successful.

Members interviewed by BusinessWest noted that competitiveness does not exist within the group, even between women who offer similar services or products.

Amy Woolf

Amy Woolf says membership in WBOA has provided her with a number of benefits, including support, inspiration, and connections.

“It’s a great first stop for anyone contemplating a business, but it’s not just for women starting out,” said Woolf. “Over the years, WBOA begins to feel like a family, and today my closest friends are women I met in the group.”

When she leaves a meeting, she noted, she always goes home with a kernel of wisdom or an actionable item — a great idea that is easy to implement. A conference can be overwhelming, but meetings allow women to make changes and “put wisdom to work” in a manageable, sustainable way, she told BusinessWest.

“The group has been very, very meaningful to me and very helpful. I don’t know that my business would be what it is today without WBOA,” she said.

Debra Sorcinelli concurred. “A lot of our members are sole entrepreneurs and want to do business on their own terms. But it brings you up a notch to be around other professionals,” said the serial entrepreneur, reiterating the fact that many women have families and other important priorities, and it doesn’t matter to members whether someone is working part-time or full-time.

For this issue and its focus on women in business, we look at the programs WBOA offers and how they have helped women grow as professionals and entrepreneurs.

Meetings of the Minds

WBOA has 110 members ranging from women employed by companies of all sizes, to solo entrepreneurs, small-business owners who employ others, and females who work only part-time. As long as a woman is working in any capacity, she is eligible to join the group.

Membership dues are $95 annually, although the first meeting is free. Meanwhile, those we spoke with said the group is open to adding males to their roster, although so far none have expressed interest in the nonprofit, founded in 1982 by Renate Oliver.

Its initial purpose was to provide women with business referrals, but today it has evolved into what its members call a true sisterhood. Connections are made formally and informally, and many members use services and products offered by their peers.

The group’s main fund-raiser is its annual Women’s Night of Comedy, which features three professional female comedians. The event typically raises $5,000 to $10,000, and the majority of the profits are donated to charities that change from year to year. The next comedy event will be staged March 23 at the Log Cabin in Holyoke, and chosen charities include the SMART Girls program at the Westfield Boys and Girls Club and Safe Passage, a nonprofit dedicated to helping survivors of domestic violence and relationship abuse.

WBOA also holds monthly breakfast events on the third Thursday of the month at the Summit View Restaurant in Holyoke featuring guest speakers, as well as After-5 gatherings scheduled bimonthly on the first Tuesday of the month at the Delaney House.

Guests are invited to most events, and great care is taken to ensure they feel welcome and comfortable. A greeter is stationed at the door, and potential members are given the option of being assigned an ambassador who sits with them, answers questions, and follows up with a call to make sure they felt comfortable and welcomed.

During events, WBOA members participate in power connections, a program that gives them a 15-second opportunity to speak about their business. Shout-outs are also held, during which members praise a service or product from a peer that has helped them.

In addition, every June the organization has a Woman of the Year Celebration in which a member chosen by a committee is recognized for her contributions to WBOA as well as her community.

Over the past 18 months, the WBOA has started two new initiatives. The first is a mentor-mentee collaboration with Springfield Technical College Community created with help from STCC Associate Business Professor Diane Sabato and WBOA chairperson Lori Fortuna.

Business students from STCC are matched with members twice a year and take part in a six-week program that includes guest speakers, seminars, and information on topics ranging from self-esteem to job interviews. At the final meeting, mentees are given outfits donated by WBOA member Linda Ligsukis, who owns Designer Consigner in Southwick. Seventeen graduates were recently honored at a monthly breakfast meeting and received a certificate of achievement, gift bag, and flowers donated by member Jackie Griswold.

The second new program focuses on education and was coordinated by Debra Sorcinelli and Anita Eliason, co-chairs of the education committee. They launched the program with classes on how to use Facebook and social media to promote a business, and additional programs are being planned for the coming year.

Valuable Gains

Sorcinelli went into business in 1982 under the moniker It’s A Girl’s Thing. The Agawam entrepreneur began selling handcrafted silver jewelry, then switched to fashion jewelry, before she joined WBOA four years ago.

The timing was perfect; her jewelry business was successful, but she wanted to make a change and needed inspiration, which she found in the group.

“I have gone to other groups that are all about networking, where everyone wants to sell you something; but WBOA isn’t like that,” she said.

Sorcinelli became a member of the board of directors soon after she joined, and last year she closed her jewelry business and launched a new venture called Social Sorc. Today, she specializes in teaching individuals and small-business owners how to use Facebook and social media, and although WBOA has not added to her customer base, it has put her in touch with women who have business skills she wanted to learn.

“I have heard wonderful stories that were really inspiring, and the group allowed me to meet women who were more than willing to share their business secrets and contacts,” she noted. “We have all grown together.”

Sorcinelli also initiated change, and with help from co-chairs Kim Chagnon and Eileen Jerome, the After-5 events were born.

She told Business West that members have opportunities to speak about their businesses at these gatherings, which is ideal, as many have not done this in public, and the group is always supportive.

Sorcinelli has continued to be active in WBOA, and in 2015 she was feted with its Spirit Award at the annual Business Woman of the Year Celebration, in part for her work in helping women build connections with each other.

She says the old axiom that states “the people you surround yourself with determine your success” has been proven true with this group. Other women have supported her, and she has shared her own knowledge, which has included collaborating with members who wanted to use social media to promote their events.

Woolf told BusinessWest she was intimidated by social media before she joined WBOA, especially since it was a new marketing platform when she first heard about it. But after a member shared her own experiences with LinkedIn, Woolf gained the confidence to go home and set up a profile on the site.

“I have received a lot of free advice,” she said.

But she has also given back during annual roundtable events in which members give 10-minute presentations in their field of expertise.

Astley has also found WBOA highly beneficial. The sole proprietor does voiceovers via her business, Beverly Ann’s Voice, spends many hours alone in her studio, and finds the meetings inspirational both personally and professionally.

“You feel comfortable talking about personal things while you discuss your business in this group,” Astley said. “WBOA hasn’t enhanced my business directly, but it has given me a lot more confidence.”

Worthwhile Endeavor

Astley says every female entrepreneur should attend at least one WBOA meeting. “It’s a really good place to land,” she said.

Woolf agrees and says membership has provided her with priceless benefits.

“It’s an extraordinary organization, and my business has gone gangbusters. I am experiencing steady growth and wrapping up the best year I ever had, and WBOA has been a big part of that,” she said.

That’s a testimonial — one you hear often — that speaks highly of this group that caters to female professionals and provides them with a level of comfort they have not been able to find anywhere else.

Sections Women in Businesss

Opening Doors

Elizabeth Barajas-Román visits the White House

Elizabeth Barajas-Román visits the White House during her recent foray to D.C. for a forum on cultivating economic opportunities for women of color.

Expanding opportunities for women is not just a regional issue.

As an example, Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts CEO Elizabeth Barajas-Román and Program Officer Ellen Moorhouse recently joined stakeholders from the academic, private, government, and philanthropic sectors at the White House for a forum hosted by senior administration officials.

The forum, “Advancing Equity for Women and Girls of Color: Continuing Progress and Building Toward Change,” focused on developing strategies that break down barriers to success and create more opportunity for all Americans, including women and girls of color.

“This forum focused on women of color and how to be successful economically, education-wise, and in their daily lives,” Barajas-Román said. “The Women’s Fund has been working closely with the White House Council on Women and Girls in regard to our work here in the region with young women of color.”

She explained that the Women’s Fund has focused on economic security and prosperity for women of color, and the White House Council has been a strong resource for gathering data and unveiling some of the trends at play on a region-by-region level.

“We’ve been able to take a deeper look at our region, and one of the trends that stands out is how many young people are leaving the region right after high school; they’re going away to college and not returning — so much that the Census indicates Springfield and Holyoke have a statistical shortage of young people,” she told BusinessWest. “We know this means these people are not buying homes, not investing in the community. So much happens when we lose these people right when they’re starting to make a life for themselves.”

As part of the forum, Barajas-Román took part in a roundtable discussion with several national figures, including Tina Tchen, assistant to President Obama, chief of staff to First Lady Michelle Obama, and executive director of the White House Council on Women and Girls; Valerie Jarrett, senior advisor to President Obama, who oversees the White House offices of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs and chairs the White House Council on Women and Girls; and Melissa Harris-Perry, editor-at-large for Elle magazine.

As one of about 20 women’s foundation leaders from across the U.S. who participated, she was able to talk about how organizations like the Women’s Fund are trying to make Springfield a model for raising the economic status of young women.

“It was a tremendous opportunity to be invited among organizations from New York City, California, these large areas — and interesting to hear their feedback,” Barajas-Román said. “Springfield really does look like the rest of the country, and they’re watching to see if we’re successful and it’s a model that can be taken to other areas that look like us. There were national funders in the room, national organizations that work with young people. It was a great opportunity to talk about all the ways Springfield is innovating, and we were hoping to not only bring back some additional ideas and partners, but to attract more attention to what’s happening here.”

The forum built on Obama’s efforts on behalf of women and girls, like the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, expanding fair pay and paid-leave protections, and convening the first-ever White House summit focused on building workplaces that support working families and business.

The White House Council on Women and Girls has identified five data-driven issue areas where interventions can promote opportunities for success at school, at work, and in the community. Continuing research in these areas and exploration of new efforts can help advance equality for women and girls of color.

Under Obama’s leadership, the Council on Women and Girls has worked to ensure government policies appropriately consider these kinds of challenges and persistent opportunity gaps faced by many disadvantaged, marginalized, or underrepresented girls. The council also aims to inspire the private sector to do the same, to ensure that everyone who aspires to get ahead has a chance to succeed.

“By representing Western Massachusetts at the White House, we can ensure that our collective voice is heard on important policy matters,” Moorhouse said. “Only by having a seat at the table can we work to safeguard the progress we’ve made, while simultaneously laying the groundwork for future policy and social change.”

—Joseph Bednar

Sections Women in Businesss

The Producers

Gaudreau Group

Jules Gaudreau stands in the middle of a long line of women in key positions at the Gaudreau Group.

The Gaudreau Group in Wilbraham is like most other insurance and financial service agencies in terms of the products and services it offers to clients. It is different, though, in the fact that an extraordinarily large number of high-level positions have been filled by women. This development wasn’t exactly planned, but then again, it wasn’t really an accident, either.

Jules Gaudreau has been in the financial services field for more than three decades, more than enough time to know that this industry has moved well beyond that old catch-phrase ‘the insurance man.’

Until fairly recently, it was, in fact, a man who sold you insurance and updated your account when it needed updating, said Gaudreau, adding that while women have been a big part of this business for decades, their roles were generally restricted to service work, especially in personal lines.

That’s were. Indeed one doesn’t hear that phrase ‘insurance man’ much anymore. And this is especially true at Gaudreau, where one might only hear it in the context in which the company’s president used it — as an anachronistic descriptor better suited to another decade.

And also, and this is more important, that phrase wouldn’t in any way be an accurate method of describing the workforce at this Wilbraham-based company.

The firm has what would, by almost any measure, be considered a large and impressive number of women in top positions, with many of them serving as ‘producers,’ as they’re called in this business.

This development wasn’t exactly planned, meaning the company didn’t set out to create this kind of gender balance in such positions, said Gaudreau, adding quickly that it didn’t really come about by accident, either.

Instead, the current situation materialized through an atmosphere that certainly encourages women to consider and then seek out producer roles, said Gaudreau. But more importantly, it developed because of solid role models, effective mentoring, teamwork, and the success of those who have put some non-traditional titles next to their names on their business cards.

“I really believe in a meritocracy,” he explained. “The women in my firm are where they are because they’re really good at what they do. They just happen to be female.”

BusinessWest talked with three of these women, all producers. They have different stories, and took different paths to get where they are, but there are many common denominators — from simple business ambition to a desire to work in a position where they can help people.

Judy Davis

Judy Davis

Judy Davis, an employee-benefits strategy advisor, was a long-time dental hygienist when she decided she needed something else. “I didn’t want to be in a room looking inside mouths all day — and people didn’t seem to like my bubbly personality,” she explained, adding that she segued into financial services and has spent the past 34 years in the field, never once choosing to look back.

“I answered an ad in the paper, back when there were help-wanted ads in the paper, and was hired by a very powerful MassMutual agent, and worked for him for two years,” she explained. “I was a sponge; I just loved insurance — I really became interested in the field.”

She said she’s been recruited to several jobs within the industry — joining Gaudreau this past spring — and at each stop “wanted to be the boss; I wanted to be in charge, a leader in the business.”

Jenny MacKay

Jenny MacKay

Jenny MacKay, a member of BusinessWest’s most recent 40 Under Forty class, had mostly the same career goals, only she didn’t have to shift her employment focus. She was still a student at Western New England University, majoring in financial services, and not at all sure what she would do with her degree, when she attended a presentation by a panel of speakers comprised of WNEU management graduates.

One of them was working for Northwestern Mutual, and her remarks certainly caught MacKay’s attention.

“He started out in the internship program at Northwestern, and he walked into the downtown Springfield office, saw its high ceilings, beautiful offices, powerful people, and everyone driving a Lexus,” she recalled. “And he said, ‘I wanted to drive a Lexus, so I started an internship there.’ And before the talk was over, I decided I want to drive a Lexus, too, and I started an internship there.”

Moving the story forward, she said she had a license to sell insurance before she could legally buy alcohol.

Tracy Goodman

Tracy Goodman

As for Tracy Goodman, she refers to her present role in personal insurance sales as an “accidental career,” but also “where I should be,” which means this isn’t really an accident.

She started out in human resources, took some time out to raise a family, and, during that time, realized that she needed to get back in the business world. She began at an AFLACK office, and soon after arriving a manager asked what she was doing behind a desk when she should be out selling. And that’s what she’s been doing ever since.

For this issue and its focus on Women in Business, we talked at length with Davis, MacKay, and Goodman about not only their success in this field, but also why women can, and usually do, thrive in these roles and consider them an attractive career option.

Policy Shift

To help explain the way things are now (especially at his firm), and why, Gaudreau first did some flashing back 40 or 50 years ago, using his own memory and anecdotal evidence to get his points across.

“When I first came into the business, what women did was serve as service people,” he explained. “Most of it was because that’s where women entering the workforce in the 1940s went — service.

“MassMutual had these giant typing pools, huge rooms filled with women,” he went on. “When you needed something typed, you’d hit a button, and one of the people who didn’t have anything to type came up and grabbed what you needed done. It was very random.”

Things changed, he went on, because the modern consumer changed, he told BusinessWest, and so did selling methods to a large degree.

“It’s not about telling and yelling and selling anymore, which was the traditional optic of what the insurance guy was like — the insurance man,” he went on. “Telling people and then selling them — that’s what’s he did. Today, it’s much more consultative, and I think women have much more ability to listen, to learn, build rapport, and solve problems. What people are looking for is servant leadership; they’re looking for people to listen to them and solve their problems, as opposed to telling people things.”

Davis agreed, and, without stereotyping either gender, said women, by and large, possess more of the qualities customers are looking for in a salesperson, especially those related to listening and solving problems.

“I have a very large book of business in employee benefits and passion for my clients,” she explained. “I think my clients feel that, and this is what helps us become successful women in business.”

She said employee benefits has become a very complex matter in recent years, especially for smaller companies that lack their own, dedicated human resources department, and must navigate a sea of products, programs, and corresponding acronyms, themselves.

Such firms need a partner, she said, and women possess many of the skills required to serve in that role.

“We’re an extension of a human resource department,” she explained, “and people value our input.”

MacKay concurred, noting that early on (remember, she got her insurance license at age 20) she decided she would rather work with business owners than a husband-and-wife team gathered around the conference room table.

“Business owners just seem to get it and understand why insurance and financial services is important,” she explained. “And this led me down the path to employee benefits, because I could then work with business owners on a regular basis. My problem was I didn’t know anything about health insurance.”

Suffice it to say, she’s learned, first while serving the accounts of producers, and then becoming one herself.

Summing up her career to date, she said she always possessed an interest in financial services — and in selling — but needed some direction when it came to determining that this is what she should be selling.

Sales Force

Goodman’s story is somewhat similar. When she was told that she shouldn’t be behind a desk and should instead be out selling, she had her doubts, to say the least.

“I laughed and said ‘that’s ridiculous,’” she recalled. “I went home, and every single person in my family and personal world said ‘thank God you finally realized that you’re supposed to sell.’

“I started winning trips, doing great, and meeting all my numbers,” she went on, adding that she was recruited by another insurance company to grow personal lines before joining Gaudreau last April.

She said that while her story is unique in some ways, there are many women who don’t believe they should be in sales or financial services, for whatever reasons, and they are possibly overlooking a career option that enables them to put their strengths to work in a way that’s rewarding on many levels.

She summed it up by relating a recent meeting with a client that speaks to not only her acquired talents, but the basic skills possessed by many women — whether they know it or not.

“I sat down with a business owner and we walked through all of his insurance, and the end, he said ‘I have been waiting for years for someone like you to help me understand what I have, what I need, and what kind of coverage I should own.’

“I like that challenge,” she went on, hinting strongly that other women might, as well. “Every case for me is different, and I like solving the problem and closing the sale.”

MacKay echoed those thoughts, adding that sales work is, in many ways, entrepreneurial in nature, and many women have such tendencies — again, whether they know it or not.

“I came from a family of all entrepreneurs,” she said, noting that they all own different court-reporting operations. “So I grew up with the entrepreneurial spirit of freedom of work, working for yourself, making your own decisions about how you spend your valuable time.

“This role here allows me the best of both worlds,” she went on. “I get to work for an employer where there’s training and there’s leadership, and someone to hold my hand and teach me new things, so I’m not completely out there on my own. But as a producer, I’m in charge of my own income destiny, I’m in charge of my own time, I can make my own decisions about what I want to be and what I want to do. Many women would thrive in such situations.”

The Bottom Line

MacKay actually eschewed the Lexus in favor of a BMW. But the point to the exercise hasn’t changed, even if the hood ornament has.

There are rewards in sales and across the broad financial services sector, she and the others we spoke with said using one clear voice. Sometimes women get into this field by accident, but success doesn’t come accidentally.

It comes from hard work, listening to the client, and working in a partnership to solve a problem. These are talents that most women possess or can attain, and therefore they should not close the door on this career option.

By being proactive — and entrepreneurial — they can further retire that phrase ‘insurance man.’

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

Sections Women in Businesss

Tapping Potential

Jill Monson-Bishop

Jill Monson-Bishop says women who own businesses can benefit from creating a team of advisors who can support them.

That famous quote from Oprah Winfrey — “Follow Your Passion: It is What Will Lead to Your Purpose” — is emblazoned in oversized letters on a wall in the waiting room of Inspired Marketing Inc. in Springfield.

The quotation is in line with the belief system embraced by the company’s self-named ‘chief inspiration officer,’ Jill Monson-Bishop, a title she put on her business card when she established her full-service advertising company, then went on to hire team members with a driving desire to help clients realize their goals.

The climate within the office was also carefully orchestrated: there are three dogs on-site most days; they sport the titles  ‘employee satisfaction manager,’ ‘customer experience associate,’ and ‘siesta manager.’ Everyone has a pair of comfortable slippers under their desk, and not only is collaboration encouraged, milestones of any kind are announced and celebrated.

It’s a formula that has led to success: Over the past three years Inspired Marketing has retained 93% of its clients and increased revenue by 362%.

“We don’t strive to be the number-one local marketing agency and win awards,” Monson-Bishop said. “Our aim is to have our clients win awards and reach goals and know that everyone here is invested in their growth.”

Indeed, awards have been forthcoming: One client was feted with a Better Business Torch Award; others were finalists for the honor; and still others have been named Super 60 companies by the Springfield Regional Chamber of Commerce for revenue and revenue growth.

Monson-Bishop tells new clients she doesn’t just want to purchase media for them, create a logo, or do graphic design; instead, she wants to be part of their team. That vision has materialized, and one business sends her their weekly sales report.

“I’m part of their growth or struggle depending on the week,” she noted.

She took pride in the fact that one client, the Good Dog Spot was recently able to open a second location, which was among its goals, and says she and her team have been invited to a number of company holiday parties.

Team members at Inspired Marketing

Team members at Inspired Marketing have increased revenue over the past three years by 362% and retained 93% of their clients.

One thing she focuses on is creating synergistic relationships between clients. For example, when Square One needed a pizza donation, she approached Frankie and Johnnie’s Pizzeria. Today the restaurant donates pizza to the non-profit once a month and employees and families involved with Square One frequent the eatery and buy lunches there, which they hadn’t been doing in the past. In addition, Frankie & Johnnie’s will cater an event for Square One next year.

Another example is a collaboration between Bob Pion Buick GMC; Square One; and the American International College Men’s –D1 Ice Hockey team.

AIC had planned to stage a toy drive at a December ice hockey game, and, thanks to Inspired Marketing, Bob Pion has volunteered to donate a truck, the toys will go to Square One, and every donor will receive a ticket to another AIC hockey game.

“I believe businesses are stronger together and if they can find opportunities to work together, they can grow together,” Monson-Bishop said “Our clients know we put our heart into what we do. If I write a press release and the media uses it, my teammates come running down the hall to tell me. They get very excited when we help a business attain success.”

Personifying Beliefs

Monson-Bishop says starting her own business has been the most difficult and rewarding thing she has ever done.

“I love being an employer,” she said, “being able to watch people’s dreams come true and being part of it.”

The decision to launch her advertising firm was made after her mother died unexpectedly at age 56. The loss was devastating, but also prompted the thought, “What if I only get 56 years on this planet? What would my legacy be?”

Monson-Bishop had worked as a radio broadcaster, and when her mother passed away she was selling coupon advertising and making more money than she ever had in her life. “But I didn’t want my legacy to be selling 50% off pizza coupons,” she said.

“I enjoyed working with clients and had found that small and medium-sized businesses were not being served by advertising agencies. Many were good at what they did but they had no idea how to spend money effectively on marketing,” she noted, explaining that the belief was reinforced by Butler Carpet & Upholstery Cleaning, which had been in business for 30 years, and became her first client.

Monson-Bishop launched her new venture by renting a desk in a friend’s Springfield office. She moved to Agawam after hiring one part-time employee; then moved back to Springfield two years ago, which is a city she truly loves.

“I just purchased a Victorian in the Historic McKnight area, and believe the city is on the cusp of a renaissance. Great things are happening and I want to be part of them,” she said, noting that she also owns another house in the City of Homes.

Today Inspired Marketing has five team members in addition to Monson-Bishop  and gets help from two interns every college semester.

Their business is split equally between marketing and events, and clients include Smith & Wesson; Northwestern Mutual, American International College and the City of Springfield School Department; as well as smaller businesses.

They also work with a number of nonprofits including Valley Venture Mentors and the Zoo in Forest Park. “They do so much for us and we need to support them,” Monson-Bishop said, noting that last year, Inspired Marketing staged a Tiny Tea to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Square One’s popular fundraiser. Dignitaries included Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno and Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse who enjoyed tea seated at a child’s table. They wore hats and the event attracted a lot of media attention.

The crew also takes pride in coming up with creative advertising ideas. When they did a campaign for one non-profit they mailed reading glasses to potential donors with a note that said, “See the difference we can make,” then went on to explain the charity’s mission.

Another client received the attention it was seeking when Inspired Marketing did a mailing that contained scratch tickets with a note that said, “You wouldn’t throw away the enclosed without taking a chance on it. Take a chance on us and you will win every time;” while a press release delivered to media outlets about a classic-car cruise night contained matchbox cars; and another client’s business blossomed due to a marketing promotion in which packets of seeds were mailed with handwritten notes that said, “Let us help your business grow.”

Unique Challenges

Monson-Bishop believes female entrepreneurs face challenges unique to their gender. Her own accomplishments are significant: not only has she grown from a sole entrepreneur to a thriving advertising firm; she lost 125 pounds 3 1/2 years ago, has kept it off and been sugar-free for more than 1,200 days; was chosen as a BusinessWest 40 Under Forty 2010 class member, among other honors.

When she was notified about the most recent award, “I only celebrated for about 10 seconds,” she said, adding that she believes it’s easier for women to praise other people’s accomplishments and victories than take pride in their own.

“We tend to beat ourselves up for mistakes and need to learn to celebrate our own accomplishments and say ‘thank you’ when we receive a compliment,” she noted.

She believes her weight loss has led business professionals to take her more seriously and is now able to purchase a professional wardrobe, which was difficult to do when she was 125 pounds heavier.

Monson-Bishop has an advisory board composed of 10 local business leaders who have guided her over the years by providing honest and critical input. She shares her financial information with them and believes every female business owner could benefit from creating her own confidential circle of supporters.

“When you have a hard day or have to make a difficult decision, it helps to have someone to talk to, and that person isn’t always your spouse,” she said.

The founder of Inspired Marketing also feels many women suffer from what she calls the “Wizard of Oz Syndrome,” which is her metaphor for the imposter syndrome.

“The world may see you as the big and powerful Oz, but sometimes you feel like the man behind the curtain who is afraid to have it pulled back and be found out,” she said.

But testimonials from clients say that Monson-Bishop and her crew are truly inspired, have the ability to attract attention and help clients succeed.

Blazing a Path

Monson-Bishop not only used personality and drive as criteria when she began hiring people, today when a new position is created all team members are included in interviews with prospective job candidates to ensure they are a good fit.

Heather Ruggeri was thrilled the team chose her to be vice president and chief events officer, even though her credentials didn’t exactly match the job description.

“But she had a willingness to learn; a desire for absolute customer satisfaction and it was evident that she was deeply loyal. She didn’t want a job, she wanted to be part of something,” Monson-Bishop said, adding that Ruggeri is one of many team members whose professional achievements have made her proud.

Kristin Carlson was hired immediately after graduating from Fitchburg State University, and says her fellow team members have become like family and whenever they reach a goal, it is viewed as cause for celebration.

“I have run down the hall to Jill’s office when we have achieved something such as getting 10,000 Likes on a client’s Facebook page,” said Carlson. “We get excited about things here.”

That enthusiasm is generated by passion and the purpose that Monson-Bishop has found since she started her business venture. “You only get one chance at life, and this is it,” she said.

Cover Story Sections Women in Businesss

Bonding Agent

Liz Rappaport

Liz Rappaport says the camaraderie and support she has received from other mothers in the PWC will make leaving her baby daughter Ellie easier when she returns to work.

The Women’s Professional Chamber of Commerce is like most of the organizations with those three words in their title. But it is different in one important respect — the membership shares common challenges, issues, and emotions as they go about trying to balance work and life. This makes the WPC not only unique in character and mission, but also quite effective in providing needed support to members.

Jenny MacKay has not forgotten the first Women’s Professional Chamber (WPC) meeting she attended three years ago in Springfield.

It was a luncheon with a moderator and panel of speakers that included top female executives from Smith & Wesson, Columbia Gas, and Health New England.

An employee-benefits consultant for the Gaudreau Group in Wilbraham, and also a 2016 BusinessWest 40 Under Forty honoree, MacKay had attended events sponsored by many other local chambers, but this one was decidedly different.

“It was interesting and so inspirational to hear how these women talk about how they learned to balance the same life challenges I was facing or will have to face in the future,” MacKay said, adding that today she is a member of the WPC board of directors. “They talked about their biggest issues, which were things other women could relate to, and it was inspiring to hear that having a family won’t hold you back, that you don’t have to choose between a job or children. I’m afraid of what having kids will do to my career, but being part of the group makes me realize I am not alone.”

Liz Rappaport has also found the personal support she needed in the PWC.

The manager of Century Investment Co. in West Springfield and a 2014 BusinessWest 40 Under Forty honoree, she joined the group three years ago and said it has taught her invaluable lessons.

“Other women have told me you can never be perfect in your family life or on the job, but if you do your best; you can balance things out,” she noted, adding that she gave birth three months ago to a daughter named Ellie, and the advice she received helped her understand the challenges that will confront her when she returns to work this month.

“I’m eager to return to the PWC and talk to working moms because I have different questions now for my fellow cohorts,” she said, noting that she is the secretary of the group. “It helps knowing that they are juggling multiple roles, and if they can do it, I can do it, too.”

It was interesting and so inspirational to hear how these women talk about how they learned to balance the same life challenges I was facing or will have to face in the future.”

The PWC is a division of the Springfield Regional Chamber of Commerce, but is its own entity. Its 300 members are at different stages of life and career, and their jobs encompass a variety of professions in diverse fields. But they share a common theme: trying to balance their work with their personal life and obligations, a task most women struggle with on a daily basis.

Membership makes it easy for them to find other female professionals who can share stories and helpful hints about how to maintain a balance as they strive to fulfill their own expectations about being the best business professional, best mother, best wife, and best daughter, while playing an active role in their community and doing volunteer work.

It is this quality that sets it apart from other chambers. Women tend to network very differently when they are alone with their peers than they do in a mixed-gender group, and personal stories and situations are shared as readily as business cards. Although membership in the PWC can help them succeed in business through connections that are made, the ones they form usually result from bonding through intimate discussions.

For this issue and its focus on women in business, we take an inside look at the PWC and the ways in which women benefit from belonging to a group where dealing with personal and professional issues that intertwine is something they all relate to.

Appreciable Differences

The PWC was formed in 1953, and although its name changed from the Women’s Division of the Springfield Regional Chamber to the Women’s Partnership before it was given its current moniker in 2010, the group has always provided services to the community, local businesses, and its members.

Jenny MacKay

Although Jenny MacKay belongs to many local chamber groups, the Professional Women’s Chamber is the place where she gets the most support.

Education has always been paramount, and scholarships have been granted annually to non-traditional women students since 1965. The recipients are often returning to the workforce after years of being at home, and three individuals have each been selected to receive at least $1,000 in recent years.

The calendar runs from September to June, and since the chamber’s officers and members of its board of directors know how difficult it can be for a woman to juggle multiple roles, two meetings feature speakers who share first-hand accounts of the personal struggles and roadblocks they hit along the road to success.

There are also evening events, which are usually held at local retail establishments that allow members to shop while they network in a relaxed setting.

The year begins with a kickoff luncheon in September, which features a compelling speaker, followed by an After Hours Ladies Night in October and a PWC-produced luncheon event at the Western Mass. Business Expo (slated for Nov. 3 this year). A second Ladies Night is held in December.

The new year is heralded with a Tabletop Luncheon; there is a third Ladies Night in February, and the second headline speaker luncheon is held in March. A fourth Ladies Night is scheduled in April, and the year culminates in late May with an event held to honor the Woman of the Year.

“The Ladies Nights are held at local shops; we’ve gone to Cooper’s Gifts in Agawam, Kate Gray in Longmeadow, and Added Attractions in East Longmeadow,” said MacKay, naming a few noteworthy outings and adding that the shops provide wine and hors d’oeurves.

“We try to schedule things that women like to do that can provide them with some stimulus as well a break from the stressors in their lives,” Rappaport said, noting that the evenings help women achieve an effective work/life balance. “Networking can be mundane, but these nights out are a nice distraction, and we realize that if a woman is going to carve out time to attend a meeting, we had better make it worth her while.”

But while networking does occur during the Ladies Nights, business introductions and connections that are formed are secondary to the personal relationships that evolve when women are in an atmosphere they find fun and enjoyable.

“What someone does for business is not as important as the fact that you have made a new friend; we talk to each other and find commonalities,” Rappaport explained.

MacKay concurred. “Our Ladies Nights don’t involve the commitment of a sit-down dinner for two hours every month. We don’t want to add more commitments to a woman’s to-do list because we understand how busy women’s lives are,” she said.

The PWC also has a six-session mentorship program called Reaching Goals, aimed at giving students from Springfield Technical Community College the professional and personal skills they need to succeed in their chosen careers.

Rappaport is a mentor and has worked with women ranging in age from 18 to 38. She has spent time with some outside of the meetings and says that, in some cases, the program has resulted in a student landing a job due to the connections she makes.

Gender Issues

The majority of the group’s members are over the age of 40, so Rappaport and MacKay plan to reach out this year to Millennials who may not know about the PWC and what it has to offer, while continuing to provide programs that interest women of different ages at different stages of their careers.

MacKay says this initiative is important because Millennials are trying to establish themselves in their chosen careers, and many are experiencing conflicting emotions as they struggle to create a healthy work/life balance.

“They’re working hard, planning important events such as weddings, and also trying to figure out if they can handle having a child without fearing that something will suffer,” she said, adding that the benefits of membership are priceless and the relationships women form with each other are much more intimate than those that result from other chamber groups.

MacKay works in a male-dominated occupation, and has gotten valuable advice from PWC members about how to deal with a variety of situations as well as strategies for communicating with male co-workers, since they relate to each other very differently than women.

In addition, the group teaches women that failure isn’t an end and can lead to a new beginning, which became apparent during a luncheon where Tracey Noonan was the keynote speaker.

The founder of Wicked Good Cupcakes, who successfully won her bid for a partnership on the popular TV series Shark Tank, shared her story of how her business evolved after she started baking cupcakes in Mason jars with her daughter Dani in their South Shore kitchen in 2011.

“She was a single mom who took a baking class in order to bond with her daughter,” MacKay said, recounting how Noonan shared the hardships of being a single mom, what is was like to start a business — who she got help from and who refused to help her — and how success has affected her life.

The story resonated with women on a variety of levels, as did the personal tale told by Lisa Ekus of the Lisa Ekus Group LLC. The Hatfield entrepreneur, who represents cookbook authors and food products, spoke to the PWC in March about the struggles of balancing her personal and family life.

Other speakers have addressed issues of equal pay and the lack of qualified candidates to fill jobs in precision manufacturing, and what women can do to help fill the gap, and Rappaport says she has learned many valuable lessons, including the fact that each woman is her own best advocate.

But feeling and projecting confidence is not easily accomplished, because many women are self-deprecating, and even getting a compliment on one’s clothing can lead to an embarrassed answer and insistence that it was purchased on sale.

“Women don’t want to be thought of as pushy or too assertive,” Rappaport noted, adding that, although she has never heard of a man with those traits being referred to in a condescending manner, it’s not uncommon for women to suffer from such labels.

MacKay agreed, and said if she doesn’t smile all the time, people tell her to do so and add, “everything will be all right,” which she finds very frustrating.

Valuable Setting

Rappaport is looking forward to returning to assuming a professional role in the family business when she returns to work following her maternity leave. She knows it won’t be easy and she will worry about her baby daily, but she finds strength in numbers and the knowledge that her peers have learned to effectively juggle responsibilities in different arenas of their life without feeling they have to be perfect in every role.

But women agree that the unrealistic belief is pervasive in society today.

“When did the message, ‘you can have it all’ change to ‘you have to do it all’?” MacKay said. “It used to be inspirational, but it has become exhausting because it’s an unrealistic and impossible goal.”

Which is where the PWC comes in. It helps women understand there are others who share the same feelings and concerns who can provide each other with reassurance that doing their best each day is truly good enough.

Sections Women in Businesss

Another Step in the Right Direction

On Aug. 1, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker signed into law something called “An Act to Establish Pay Equity.” And from the minute the ink dried, people have been asking, or trying to answer, the question, ‘just what does this mean?’

It’s an important exercise, because there is not exactly clarity on that matter, regardless of which angle the questioner is coming from.

From a pragmatic point of view, said Chris Geehern, executive vice president for marketing for Associated Industries of Mass., the pay-equity measure means that employers can no longer ask those sitting across the table from them in a job interview about their pay history — and this is not an insignificant development, as we’ll see later.

But beyond that, things are far less cut and dried when it comes to the bill’s impact. At its core, the new law will prevent pay discrimination for comparable work based on gender — and, yes, employment-law specialists are already going into overdrive when it comes to the phrase ‘comparable work,’ what that means, and how a judge might interpret it. In addition to that prohibition on asking job candidates about their salary history, the bill allows employees to freely discuss their salaries with co-workers.

Also, under new law, employers are permitted to take certain attributes of an employee or applicant into account when determining variation in pay, such as their work experience, education, job training, or measurements of production, sales, or revenue.

Again, what does it all mean?

Well, it doesn’t mean that, starting July 1, 2018, when the bill goes effect, the discrepancy between what men and women get paid for doing the same work — the number varies by city, region, and who does the research, but the most commonly cited figure in the Commonwealth is that women get 82 cents on the dollar that men earn — will be magically erased.

What is does mean, said Betsy Larson, vice president for Compensation at MassMutual, is that the state will have taken another step toward closing that gap.

How? By bringing more attention to the matter of equal pay and making employers think more carefully about such matters to avoid intentional and unintentional discrepancies.

Betsy Larson

Betsy Larson

“In the macro sense, the bill is not going to impact MassMutual,” said Larson, noting that the company has long been on the leading edge when it comes to the broad subject of equal pay, because it’s the right thing to do and the necessary thing if a company wants to attract and retain top talent. “This legislation forces the issue for companies that are not as focused on ensuring equal pay.”

Elizabeth Barajas-Román, president of the Women’s Fund of Western Mass., agreed. She noted that the 18-cent gap between what men and women get paid for doing the same work adds up to a whopping $14 billion in annual income.

“That’s pretty dramatic, and it means a lot for women to close that gap — this is a pretty expensive state to live in,” she told BusinessWest.

Elizabeth Barajas-Román

Elizabeth Barajas-Román

Both Larson and Barajas-Román emphasized repeatedly that while the Act to Establish Pay Equity is a big step in the right direction, it is merely one step in broader efforts to close the gap.

Others include ongoing efforts to educate women on how to negotiate effectively, and initiatives to prompt businesses of all sizes to adopt best practices employed by companies like MassMutual and commit to true pay equity.

One such initiative is the so-called Boston’s Women’s Compact, a first-in-the nation, public-private partnership in which businesses pledge to take concrete, measurable steps to eliminate the wage gaps in their company, and to report their progress and employee demographic and salary data anonymously every two years. More than 150 companies have signed on, and MassMutual is one of the lead sponsors.

For this issue and its focus on women in business, we take an in-depth look at the pay-equity bill and attempt to provide some different answers to that question, ‘what does this mean?’

To Wage a Campaign

When asked about the need for the bill signed last month — and then given the specific question ‘just how unequally are women compensated when compared to men?’ — Larson paused for a moment.

She understood that the query required some type of quantitative response, and she did acknowledge that the numbers vary: 83 cents on the dollar is the number used for the Boston market, she explained, but she’s seen it as low in 78 cents in other regions of the country.

But she quickly noted that the size of the discrepancy, whatever it is, isn’t the real issue; it’s the fact that one exists at all.

“Whether it’s 82 cents or 78 cents, or whatever, it’s unequal, and why is it unequal?” she asked. “As a woman myself, I don’t want to be thinking that I’m not going to get paid the same as a man for doing the same job and performing at the same level.”

And the measure signed into law last month is another step toward eliminating the wage gap, said Larson, who told BusinessWest that work in this regard has become a passion for her.

Indeed, she has been part of a number of panels addressing the issue of pay equity, while also preaching best practices and policies.

Larson was thus a strong proponent of the pay-equity act, which went through a few rounds of revisions before eventually gaining the support of business groups like AIM.

Geehern told BusinessWest that earlier iterations were vague and created more questions than they answered.

Overall, members are not certainly not opposed to equal pay, especially at a time when all employers struggle to attract and retain top talent, he stressed repeatedly. But they were concerned about legislation that was in many ways unworkable.

“It contained enough uncertainty that we thought it might potentially cause some real problems for employers,” he said. “The language of the original bill, for example, created the possibility that an employee of a company could go into the human resources office and ask for the compensation of everyone else who worked there.”

There were also issues with the bill’s definition of ‘comparable work,’ as well as real concerns that employers would no longer be able to reward star performers, he went on, adding that legislative leaders reached out to the businesses community, and parties then rolled up their sleeves and fashioned a bill that did work.

Overall, said Larson, the measure as passed will likely help close the pay gap by simply prompting business owners and managers to pay more attention to the matter and thus avoid what she believes are mostly unintentional discrepancies in compensation along gender lines.

“I’m not saying that companies would intentionally pay women or minorities differently,” she explained. “But this measure really focuses on the analysis and the processes that are in place.”

She points to the provision forbidding employers from asking about previous salary history as one example of how the measure will likely prove effective.

For various reasons, such as starting at a lower salary or taking time off to start a family, a woman may arrive at a job interview with a lesser salary history than the next person to sit in that chair, or lower than the employer might be expecting.

“Women are often not very good negotiators, and they come from a different place,” she explained. “Sometimes, if someone’s got a lower salary, the thought process is, ‘I can get them for really cheap,’ when you should be paying them for the job that they’re doing and what you would pay others, even if they’re starting at a different point when they come in the door.

“It’s an unconscious bias,” she went on. “I don’t think you would do that intentionally, but the thought process becomes, ‘if I don’t have to pay ‘x,’ I’ll pay ‘y,’ because I can.”

Elaborating, she said MassMutual goes well beyond the provisions in the new law — and did so long before it was conceptualized — and undertakes extensive reporting and analysis aiming to ensure there are no discrepancies in terms of salary and all other forms of compensation, including bonuses and benefits. She expects the measure to at least move the needle in that direction at many companies, which is the intent of its passage.

Barajas-Roman agreed, and said the legislation is expected to bring a needed measure of transparency to compensation policies and practices and, as a result, a more level playing field.

But as she and Larson noted, the legislation is not, by itself, going to erase pay gaps. Other steps are needed, said Barajas-Roman, including programs to help women develop and sharpen negotiating skills, and also initiatives to provide data to help them understand what they should be paid for the work they’re doing.

“A lot of women might think they’re OK, and they’re getting paid what they should be getting paid — but they’re not sure,” she explained, adding, for example, that the state treasurer’s office has a website — www.equalpayma.com — with a calculator that enables them to become sure. “A lot of women are surprised to find that they’re not getting paid equally.”

As for building negotiation skills, there is currently a pilot program underway in Boston — a five-year partnership between the city and the American Assoc. of University Women — with the goal of training roughly half Boston’s working women (roughly 85,000 people) over the next five years, said Barajas-Román, adding that, if it is successful, there will be efforts to develop similar initiatives statewide.

MassMutual already has such training programs in place, said Larson, adding that the company has a number of resources for women (and all employees), including career-development initiatives, mentorships, and tools that enable them to compare their compensation to what’s happening across the market.

And when it comes to documenting and analyzing compensation practices, the company hires an outside firm to ensure objectivity.

All these steps constitute going well above and beyond what is required, she said, adding, again, that the legislation may prompt more companies to at least move in these directions.

“For those that aren’t as focused … now they have to pay more attention to it,” she said in conclusion. “In and of itself, that’s a good thing.”

The Bottom Line

Speaking from the standpoint of employers and AIM members, Geehern had still another answer to the question, ‘what does all this mean?’

“Keep calm and carry on … that’s what it means,” he said, referring to the attitude that business owners should take, specifically when it comes to whether they need to make changes in policies to become compliant. “There’s a lot of time between now and when this bill takes effect.”

Keeping calm and carrying on may be the short-term response. But the longer-term result should be a sharper focus on the pay gap, with the ultimate aim of making it history, said Larson.

That won’t happen overnight, she stated repeatedly, but it can happen if more people become aware of the issue and become committed to doing something about it.

And that’s the real answer to the question, ‘what does all this mean?’

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

Cover Story Sections Women in Businesss

Body of Work

Dani Klein-Williams

Dani Klein-Williams says her soon-to-be released book (inset) will bring more exposure for her company and its unique niche.

When Dani Klein-Williams started her own photo studio, she had only enough confidence to seek a month-to-month lease. Fast-forward nearly 20 years, and she’s occupying 1,300 square feet on the second floor of Thornes Marketplace in Northampton. This sea change has come about through an abundance of confidence forged through a blend of sound business practices, cutting-edge work in the field, and development of intriguing niches, such as the genre known as boudoir.

Dani Klein-Williams was only half-kidding when she joked that photographers don’t even like to look back at work they did a few months or even a few days earlier because of how much they feel their talents have grown since and how they could have done things better.

And that explains why she offered a wry smile and gazed skyward as she thought back to the time she took what would be considered her first boudoir photograph.

That was roughly 12 years ago, she recalled, noting that it came about because a client, a soon-to-be bride, wanted a different kind of wedding present for her fiancé — “beautiful, tasteful, but sexy” photographs.

“She felt that she had been working out harder than at any time in her life, she looked the best she ever had, she’d been getting facials … she felt really beautiful, and said, ‘30 years from now or 50 years from now, I want to have these pictures,’” said Klein-Williams, adding that those last few sentiments comprise a form of common denominator for those who hire her for such work.

Looking back, she said the subject of that first boudoir photo shoot was in some ways more comfortable with what was going on than she was, and that she was certainly learning by doing.

“Photographers don’t even like the work they did the day before,” she said while explaining that sentiment noted above. “Usually, you’re critical, and you improve … thinking about a boudoir session I shot 10 years ago is, well, kind of scary.”

Fast-forward to today, and Klein-Williams has certainly retired ‘scary’ while fashioning boudoir photography into one of the cornerstones of a business she has taken from the ground up.

boudoir photography

Dani Klein-Williams says boudoir photography, misunderstood by many, is now a huge part of her business.

Indeed, her large studio in Northampton’s Thornes Marketplace is outfitted with, yes, a queen-sized bed, among other things, for such photographs. Only it doesn’t get used as much as it used to, because she’s doing much more of this work on location, as they say in this business — at clients’ homes, in hotels in various cities, and even on a farm just outside Boston.

Klein-Williams now shoots several hundred such photos a year, and that number is perhaps not the most surprising thing about this niche. She points out that the average age of the subjects is roughly 45 by her estimate (one of them was 69), and many, if not most, would fit that diplomatic description ‘plus-sized.’

Klein-Williams has become so adept at this art that she’s written the book on it — quite literally. It’s called Real. Sexy. Photography: The Art and Business of Boudoir. This is, as she described it, a cross between a coffee-table book and how-to manual (there are specific instructions on how to replicate each shot). It will be out in August, and she expects it will sell reasonably well, but also, and perhaps more importantly, raise awareness of her business and the niche she has developed.

Just as a recent article about her career in the online version of Forbes has. It came out about a month ago and has already generated some business, as well as a new way to reference her venture.

“It has really helped us secure some jobs,” she said of that exposure. “We had sent a proposal for a big job — shooting 40 attorneys for a Manhattan law firm — and hadn’t heard back. I forwarded them a link and said, ‘you want to go with the Forbes photographer, right?’ And they said ‘yes’ — they called back and booked.”

Between the book, the Forbes piece, and a growing portfolio of clients and assignments, Klein-Williams, who started this business just a year out of high school, feels she’s ready to take the next step (if she hasn’t already taken it) and move into high-end, even very high-end, wedding, corporate, and boudoir photography.

And she feels ready not simply as a photographer, but as a business person, because she works equally hard at both facets of this enterprise.

“I feel like I’m a business owner, and I’m in the business of photography,” she said while noting that most in this profession don’t have quite the same take. “I love photography; it’s a passion of mine. But I’m a business person first and a photographer a close second.”

For this issue and its focus (that’s an industry term) on women in business, we zoom in (there’s another one) on an intriguing business and its body, or bodies, of work.

Learning Curves

As mentioned earlier, Klein-Williams put her name on a business card when she was 19, when most of her peers were deciding which college courses to add or drop or trying to land a summer job.

So one might assume she’s always possessed an abundance of confidence — and assume incorrectly.

“When I rented my first space in the Eastworks building [in Easthampton], I went month-to month,” she said in an effort to make a point. “I said, ‘I think I can make the rent … I’m pretty sure. But I don’t really want to sign anything because I don’t know for real.’”

Dani Klein-Williams

Dani Klein-Williams says one of the goals in her business plan is to add more high-end destination weddings to the portfolio.

But like expertise in boudoir photography, confidence has come with experience, and today, Klein-Williams doesn’t lack for either, especially confidence.

Indeed, consider this comment when she was asked about the competition for boudoir work — she doesn’t believe there is much — and the other types of work she does.

“I think the biggest mistake you can make is caring what someone else does,” she explained, adding that she believes this applies to not only her business, but all others as well. “I think that it’s a waste of energy; if you spend any time thinking about what the competition’s doing, you’re not focused on what you’re doing.

“And I always think that I want to be one step ahead of everyone else, doing the latest, greatest thing,” she went on. “And I want to be constantly reinventing myself and constantly honing my craft. The second I stopped caring about what anyone else was doing … that’s when my business improved.”

Reaching this state hasn’t come easily, though, and it’s been achieved though large amounts of perseverance, entrepreneurial guile, and, yes, some luck, as we’ll see.

Our story begins, more or less, with her decision (made just before the semester was to begin) not to go to college, but instead attend the Hallmark School of Photography in Turners Falls.

That decision didn’t exactly sit well with her parents, but it did with her; she had been intrigued by photography since her youth, and, despite her parents’ reservations, she decided to follow her passion.

The 10-month program offered a quality education, she recalled, adding that it provided her with technical skills and the requisite amount of confidence needed to pursue photography as a career.

She started out working with and for two different — and much older — photographers, one of whom was in his early ’70s and essentially easing his way into retirement. And here’s some of that luck that was mentioned earlier.

“He was just feeling really done, ready to retire,” she recalled. “And he offered me an opportunity. He said, ‘I don’t really feel like being in my studio; do you want to sit here and answer phones? Anyone who calls, and I’m not here, you can take the work.’

“And he went one better — he said I could use his studio,” she went on, adding that she took full advantage of this opportunity to essentially launch her own business. “It was the best-case scenario; I had nothing to lose, I was still working for him photographing weddings, and he would let me take any spillover.”

Eventually, Klein-Williams had enough of her own clients to start her own studio, and set up shop in Eastworks in 2001 — paying month to month, as she noted, while also holding down a few retail jobs and handling jobs for other photographers.

“There was a lot of luck involved, as well as hard work and some really generous people,” she said of her start in business, adding that, in 2003, she and her husband, Keith, got engaged and together decided to devote all their energies to making the photography business work.

“We lived off his salary for a while, and I threw every dollar I made back into the business,” she explained. “It didn’t take long, and once I went full-time, I said, ‘why didn’t I do this years ago?’ Soon after, I hired my first employee and just went for it.”

As with all entrepreneurs, she had to take her talent and meld it with business acumen, something that happened over time and through the requisite trial and error.

“I tried everything, and when it worked, I stuck with it, and when it didn’t work, I moved on, and it worked out,” she said, adding that one of her forays that fell into that first category was boudoir.

Developing Interest

But as she thought back on her first session in that genre, Klein-Williams noted there was really nothing about it that even hinted of everything that was to come over the ensuing dozen years.

“I started to do this this very quietly,” she noted, putting heavy emphasis on the adjective in that sentence. “I was strictly a wedding photographer, a portrait photographer, and here and there I would do a boudoir session or two.”

Things changed, though, when the subject of one of those shoots invited Klein-Williams — or almost dared her — to put one of the shots out in her studio as a way to perhaps intrigue other brides and prompt them to pose.

She did — and, to make a long story short, many brides did as well, and a lucrative niche was born.

“I put out one or two pictures sort of in the background, not the forefront of the studio,” she explained. “People started to notice and ask about it; things started off slowly, to be sure.

“Then, we had a client come in who said, ‘if you’re using her pictures, I want you to use my pictures — you can put them on your website,’” she went on. “Then Facebook came out, and people started to say, ‘put my photos there if you want — I feel good about them, I feel beautiful, I feel powerful.’”

represent more than a third of her annual workload

Dani Klein-Williams says boudoir photographs, like this one, now represent more than a third of her annual workload — and revenues.

It got to the point where some women would call and ask why one of their photos wasn’t displayed on the website.

And those sentiments, not to mention that desire among many women to put their photos out where the public, not merely their fiancé, can see them, helps explain why this niche has grown so much over the years, said Klein-Williams, from 30 sittings a year to more than 300. The women are proud of what the camera has captured, and, in some ways, they find the experience empowering.

As she talked about her niche, Klein-Williams said this is serious business, one many people don’t fully understand, or want to.

“I think people have misconceptions about what boudoir is,” she told BusinessWest. “It’s very beautiful, very tasteful — people are generally more covered than you would see at the beach. Also, many think this is just for the size-2 supermodel, and it’s not.”

While many don’t understand this photograph genre, it’s clear that a growing number do, she went on, adding that, while she still markets herself and this specific niche at trade shows and other venues, many of those whose pictures wind up on her website and her walls find her. Many of them are from well outside the 413 area code, and, in another surprising statistic, some are repeat customers.

“When we started doing this, we thought these would be one-and-dones; we’re not going to do repeat business for boudoir,” she explained. “But people have so much fun that they end up coming back, sometimes by themselves, but often with their sister or their best friend to keep them company, so we see a lot of clients repeatedly.”

But boudoir photography, as healthy and intriguing a niche as it is, is just one component of Klein-Williams’ growing portfolio — and business.

Indeed, she now has eight employees and several photographers on her staff and, as mentioned earlier, appears poised to take that leap to the next level in terms of prominence, the size and price tag of assignments, and sales revenue (she’s looking to crash through the $1 million mark this year).

Weddings comprise a large portion of the business, and Klein-Williams is devoting much of her time and energy to building this segment of the portfolio. Much goes into this, and the actual photos that wind up in an album or on one’s walls are only part of the equation.

Indeed, there is a huge amount of customer service involved with this work, she explained, adding that it involves getting to know the bride and groom (but especially the former), what’s important to them, and what they want captured not only on their wedding day, but the day or two before, in many cases.

“People hire me because they trust I’ll do right by them,” she explained. “I will create beautiful images that will bring back the emotions of their day. It’s not just a recording of what they did — now they cut the cake, now they do the first dance.

“I really get to know my clients; I meet with them a lot,” she went on. “When they choose a florist or someone like that, this vendor is not going to be with them all day. But I’m with them throughout the day, for all their important moments. So when they make the decision to hire us, that has to be something that they’ve really thought through and that they’re comfortable with.”

These sentiments reflect what she said earlier about competition and how she doesn’t dwell on it.

“I don’t think of other photographers as competition at all,” she explained. “I feel that what I offer is unique and what they offer is unique, and when you’re hiring someone for boudoir, a wedding, or anything else, you’re hiring them based on making sure that you have the same artistic vision, but even more than that, that you have the same personality.

“You’re hiring someone for your wedding day that you really get along with and that has the same vision that you do,” she went on. “And it’s the same for boudoir.”

A Shooting Star

As she talked about her soon-to-be released book (one can pre-order it on Amazon), Klein-Williams acknowledged that this how-to could, in some ways, create competition for her down the road within that boudoir niche.

But she shrugged off that potential threat in a manner that shows how far she’s come since those days of not making sure she could make the rent.

“Before we release our secrets, we’re always on to the next thing,” she said. “That’s what a successful business person does; I’m not worried about competition.”

Such confidence shows why she’s moved to the top of the profession locally, and why this business she started when she was only 19 continues to develop and gain an ever sharper focus on growth.

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

Sections Women in Businesss

Network News

Kim Miles

Kim Miles says women often fail to network effectively and ask for what they want.

Kim Miles says many women fail to network effectively, and for various reasons.

They lack the confidence to promote themselves, their accomplishments, and their products and services, she said while summing them up, and don’t get results because they are uncomfortable asking for what they want or need.

“If you pressed the ‘pause’ button and put your career on hold to raise a family, you should talk about it with delight,” Miles, founder of Miles in Heels Productions, told the audience during a talk at a recent conference titled “Entrepreneurial Adventure,” staged by Bay Path University. “There should be no change when you speak about any transition. But many women network in a passive manner and have a hard time promoting themselves. They do it somewhat apologetically, which is something men never do.”

These were some of the words of wisdom shared at the conference, which was designed with a purpose, said Caron Hobin, Bay Path’s vice president for strategic alliances.

“More and more women are becoming entrepreneurs — taking control of their destiny and capitalizing on a great idea,” she told BusinessWest. “Our goal with this workshop was to provide a springboard for women who just want to get started or need guidance. We want to encourage and empower women to start their own businesses by providing the tools, knowledge, and networking skills they need to succeed.”

Other speakers included Holly Hurd, an author, serial entrepreneur, and owner of  VentureMom; and Bay Path Professor Stephen Brand, who facilitated an engaging, skills-building game where participants worked in teams to design new businesses.

Hurd and Miles are passionate about helping women fulfill their dreams and encouraged participants to swallow their fears, take risks, and believe in themselves.

“Whether you are a heavy hitter or new to the workforce, you should be able to walk up to the leaders in a room, extend your hand, make eye contact, and introduce yourself with confidence,” Miles said, explaining that women tend to lower their eyes, brush off praise, or share credit when they tell their story or receive a compliment.

“Entrepreneurs have to sell themselves, but it does not come naturally to women, and they are not persistent enough. If they try to get in touch with someone and don’t get an immediate response, they don’t follow through.”

But polite persistence is an art form, she continued, adding that people might not respond quickly because they are on vacation, are swamped with work, or accidentally deleted the e-mail.

Hurd shared stories from her book, Venture Mom: From Idea to Income in Just 12 Weeks, about women who created something a family member needed, then found it filled a need in the marketplace and built it into a business — or discovered a skill they took for granted could be turned into a service-oriented business as it was something other people were willing to pay for.

“The key is to find your passion and build a business around it,” she said.

Building Strategic Skills

Miles worked as a financial advisor for years and discovered that adopting the right tone and attitude was essential in a male-dominated industry. After she became aware that women network very differently than men, she shared her findings during a chamber of commerce presentation that quickly sold out.

Seven hundred women attended, and two years ago, she started a production company called “Miles in Heels.” Her mantra is, “you don’t have to get it perfect; you just have to get it going,” and during her talk she outlined ten ‘golden rules’ to help women cultivate lasting business relationships through networking.

Holly Hurd

Holly Hurd’s book contains stories about mothers who are successful entrepreneurs.

“You have 10 seconds to make a great first impression,” she said, adding that appearance matters, and this includes how you dress, how firm your handshake is, and whether you make eye contact.

She advises women to try to find out who will be at a networking event or conference, then introduce themselves to influential people who can help them.

“If you want to be a rock star at networking, you need to remember that 90% of the time you should be listening so you can discern whether the person is someone you want to cultivate a relationship with,” she noted, adding that offering to introduce a person you have targeted to another person who shares their interests is a good way to make a lasting impression.

“People love to talk about themselves, and if you connect with someone on a personal level and bond over the fact that you are both dog lovers, it is much more comfortable to transition to a business conversation at the appropriate time,” she continued.

It’s also important to extract yourself from conversations with people who can’t help you, which can be done by going to the ladies’ room. And when women meet someone they do want to know better, they should send a handwritten note, e-mail, connect with the person on social media, or call them afterward and say they enjoyed the conversation.

Miles said entrepreneurs also need to ask for what they want. Although it may not be prudent to do so immediately after meeting someone, females often make other excuses.

“They say, “I don’t want to impose on them, take advantage of them, look needy or greedy, or be perceived as aggressive,’” Miles said. “Timing is critical, but you need to have confidence.”

Digging Deep

Hurd was no stranger to the business world before she started VentureMom. Her father taught her to trade commodities and futures when she was in her teens, she started her first investment company in her 20s, and when she was 25, she was featured in  Futures, USA Today, and Fortune’s “People to Watch” column for her exceptional work managing her own futures fund. In the ’80s and ’90s, she ran an investment firm with a partner, and in 2002 they sold an algorithm they developed.

After her son was born, she became a real-estate broker and “fell” into her new business during a car ride to the family’s ski house when she decided to write a motivational book.

She didn’t have a publisher or following, but believed her ideas could help others, and started her VentureMom blog because it was free.

“I stumbled into my business venture like many other moms,” she said, adding that there are 10 million women-owned businesses today generating more than $1.4 trillion in gross income, and women are involved in 80% to 85% of buying decisions made today.

Her book is based on 250 interviews she conducted with entrepreneurial mothers.

“Everyone is scared, but you have to do things anyway,” she said, adding that it took her weeks to hit the ‘send’ button after she wrote her first blog post because she felt she lacked credibility and didn’t think anyone would be interested in what she had to say.

Instead, she received a flood of e-mails from people who wanted her to continue writing, and today her website contains an e-commerce site where mothers can sell their services and goods.

One story from her book focuses on a woman whose children played field hockey and lacrosse. She asked her husband to build something that would allow them to store their playing sticks behind a door, and her friends loved it and wanted similar racks, so the woman found a manufacturer who made her a four-piece collapsible model in a variety of colors that she called “Stick Storage.”

She began selling them at lacrosse tournaments, and slowly built a business with products sold today in 250 stores.

Another mother launched a business after she solved a personal problem. “Her son had nightmares and kept waking up, so she made a pillow with a pocket and had him write down what he wanted to dream about each night and put it in the pocket,” Hurd told the audience.

It worked well, and mothers in her son’s playgroup told her they wanted pillows for their own children. She learned that her neighbor’s husband was in the pillow-making business, so she had him make some pillows, called the product “Tucker” (which was her son’s name), and began selling them at farmer’s markets.

When a friend’s child was hospitalized, he wrote down his dreams of being healthy and put them in the pillow she gave him, and today, the hospital purchases the pillows for sick children.

“The 250 women I interviewed built businesses around something they were already doing or stumbled onto,” Hurd said. “You may be really good at putting together photo books, or cooking garlic chicken, and don’t realize it’s difficult for other people and something they will pay you to do.”

The women in her book have three things in common: they never wrote a business plan, their businesses were self-funded, and they used friends and family members to spread the word about what they were doing.

Taking the Risk

Hurd sells a ‘venture hour’ on her website that includes a two-page questionnaire, followed by an hour-long phone consultation.

She asks women what kind of business they would start if they won $500 million in the lottery and had access to anything they needed or wanted. After asking other questions, such as what they would talk about if they were invited to appear on the  show, she tells them to turn their answer into a business.

“You can change people’s lives and start any business you want,” she said. “There are a lot of young moms who accidentally solved a problem that grew into a business, like the one selling the Tucker pillow.”

It’s a product designed to prevent bad dreams, but the story behind it and the advice that conference participants received can help them turn their own dreams into reality.

Sections Women in Businesss

Stepping Up

Northampton Police Chief Jody Kasper

Northampton Police Chief Jody Kasper says LIPPI helped empower her to move aggressively up the department’s career ladder to the top rung.

Women who participate in LIPPI (the Leadership Institute of Political and Public Impact), a program launched by the Women’s Fund of Western Mass., use many terms to describe how it has impacted their lives and careers. Most eventually say the experience left them empowered — to seek public office, to apply for a job a few rungs higher on the ladder, or to take on a challenge they once thought was beyond them. In short, LIPPI helped take them far out of what had been their comfort zone.

It’s called the ‘impostor syndrome,’ a.k.a. the ‘impostor phenomenon’ and the ‘fraud syndrome.’

The term was originally coined nearly 40 years ago by clinical psychologists Dr. Pauline Clance and Dr. Suzanne Imes, who contrived it to describe high-achieving individuals who possess an inability to internalize their accomplishments and, as those above names suggest, live in what amounts to persistent fear that they will be exposed as an impostor or fraud.

Dr. Valerie Young, after first realizing that she suffered from that syndrome and that she was hardly unique in that self-diagnosis, would go on to become one of the world’s leading experts on the subject and write perhaps the definitive book on the matter: The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It.

She has also taken her work regarding the syndrome on the road, speaking before hundreds of groups of various sizes and demographic breakdowns. One of them was a gathering last fall of the 2015-16 cohort of the Leadership Institute of Political and Public Impact, or LIPPI, as it’s more commonly called.

Created by the Women’s Fund of Western Mass. in 2010, LIPPI has hosted a number of speakers, like Young, who have helped change careers and lives by giving women of all ages something — or many things — to think about, insight that would stay with them long after the talk ended.

Jody Kasper, Northampton’s police chief, can recall one specific speaker — although she states with regret that she can’t remember her name — who certainly helped put her career on the path to the title that now graces her business card and office door.

“She said that a big difference between men and women becomes apparent when there’s an opportunity for a special assignment or promotion,” recalled Kasper, who was a detective with the force while participating in the 2012-13 LIPPI class. “She said a male candidate may — even if he didn’t know the material — say, ‘I’m going to put in for it, and I’ll figure it out once I get the job.’ And she said women candidates would be more likely to say, ‘I don’t really know how to do the job, so I’m not going to put in for it now; I’ll learn, and then, in a few years, I’ll put in for it when I feel more ready to do it.’

“That really stuck with me for some reason — that attitude holds women back,” Kasper went on, adding that those words were resonating with her when the post of detective lieutenant, one she admits to feeling not totally ready to seek at that time, came open — and she became an eventually successful candidate. The same attitude prevailed when the captain’s position came open.

“I had that same thought process … ‘should I be putting in for this? It’s a big job with a lot of responsibility; have I mastered what I’m doing now?’” she said of her eventual candidacy for captain. “And the answer was that I hadn’t mastered what I was doing; I was still in the learning stages of the detective lieutenant’s position. But I had the confidence to go for it.”

There are many similar stories to be told by LIPPI graduates, as they’re known. Indeed, while, as the name of the program implies, it puts emphasis on introducing women to careers in public service and helping them take on such challenges, it can — and does — provide women traveling down, or contemplating, a wide variety of career paths with more and deeper leadership skills.

When participants leave the stage with their diplomas in May, LIPPI organizers want them to take two things with them, said Ellen Moorhouse, who, as program officer for the Women’s Fund, has administration of LIPPI on her job description.

“The first is sisterhood,” she said, adding quickly that classmates form relationships that go on for years. “And also some tangible business skills — what it takes to write a professional e-mail, how we conduct ourselves in a meeting … what we call the nuts and bolts.”

For this issue and its focus on women in business, we take an in-depth look at how LIPPI provides not only nuts and bolts but the tools to use them, and how it leaves participants empowered to take on — and overcome — the many challenges their lives and careers will throw at them.

Learning Experiences

When asked what she considered her best takeaway from her LIPPI experience, Kasper, who was named chief last summer, paused for a moment, as if to indicate there were several aspects to be considered.

“I’m much more inclined to say ‘yes’ to things that are outside my comfort zone,” she said eventually, adding quickly that, because of this, that zone is now much larger and, thus, fewer challenges lie outside it.

While it’s not actually written down on a mission statement or anywhere else, providing women with a broader comfort zone is essentially what LIPPI is all about.

It accomplishes this through a series of monthly programs that essentially run along a typical college year — September to May with a break in December, said Moorhouse.

She told BusinessWest that the topics covered at those sessions speak volumes about what LIPPI was designed to provide for its participants.

Valerie Young’s program last October, for example, covered ‘Resilience, Public Speaking, and the Impostor Syndrome.’ In November, the subjects for discussion were ‘Social Justice, Race, and Equality.’ In January, it was ‘Mentoring and the Power of Your Network,’ and for February, the topic was ‘Conflict Resolution.’

Still to come are a broad March program focused on everything from communications and marketing to debating. Final presentations are in May, followed by an elaborate graduation ceremony at the Log Cabin on May 23.

Several of the monthly programs drive home one of the unique aspects of this leadership program — its focus on encouraging women to seek public service and helping them succeed if they do.

In late September, for example, the program was called ‘Performance Nuts & Bolts; Policy Advocacy; and Fund-raising Part 1.’ Part 2 came in March, along with a focus on personal finances, campaign finances, and ‘boardroom basics.’ In April, the program will be ‘Nuts & Bolts of Campaigning; Digital Tools and the Campaign,’ and on May 7, state Treasurer Deb Goldberg will be among those leading a discussion called ‘Women in Local, State, and National Politics — After the Campaign.’

It’s always a diverse group of women taking in these sessions, said Moorhouse, adding that this year’s class is especially so, with participants ranging in age from their early 20s to their mid-60s, and from a wide variety of backgrounds.

“This is our most diverse class yet — we have people coming from up and down the I-91 corridor and even New Bedford, and one of the women is almost 70 years old,” she noted, adding that the program draws women from the four Western Mass. counties, who must apply for the available seats — usually 30 to 40 a year.

When asked what the committee that weighs those applications is looking for, Moorhouse said simply, “passion.”

“And in whatever focus that might be,” she went on. “It could be political, or higher education … whatever their passion may be, it just has to shine through.”

The diversity of the LIPPI program, but especially the all-women nature of the program, makes it unique among the many leadership programs in the area and attractive to many potential candidates, Moorhouse went on, adding that many participants enjoy sharing common experiences, challenges, and approaches to business and problem solving.

Linda Tyer

Linda Tyer

Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer, a member of the LIPPI class of 2013-14, agreed. She told BusinessWest that, while mixed-gender leadership programs certainly have value, and women in every field must work alongside men, there are many benefits to having only women in the room.

“I’ve always been an advocate for advancing women in politics and in business, and this was an opportunity to participate in that pipeline, not only for myself, but for the women around me,” she explained. “And what happens when you participate in leadership programs for women is that you start to recognize yourself in others, and this enables you to learn from their experiences.

“Women have a collaborative nature versus a competitive nature,” she went on, listing another reason why she LIPPI’s program is valuable. “And you learn that collaborations do lead to success — everything isn’t a competition.”

Positions of Strength

Over the years, LIPPI has not only inspired women to consider and then pursue public service, but helped hone the skills and, yes, broaden the comfort zone of those already in office.

Tyer falls into both categories, actually. She was the city’s clerk when she became part of the LIPPI class of 2013-14, and prior to that served on the City Council.

She said the LIPPI experience helped provide her with the will and confidence needed to seek the corner office.

“I had an aspiration to become mayor, and participating in the program gave me more confidence in my leadership abilities to take that big step forward,” she noted, adding that several factors, including everything from her family situation to her collective experience in city government, collided to convinced her it was time to seize the moment.

And since taking office in January, she said there have been many times when situations and challenges have prompted her to summon lessons learned during her LIPPI sessions.

“I carry with me important lessons about public speaking and giving yourself a presence in a room,” she explained, adding that these represent just a few of the many ways in which LIPPI continues to influence her life and career.

Denise Hurst, a Springfield School Committee member, tells a similar story.

Denise Hurst

Denise Hurst

She had been on the board a short time when she was asked to be part of LIPPI’s inaugural class, and admits to having doubts about whether she really needed it.

Just a few sessions in — and actually before the cohort began its work — those doubts were completely erased.

“I sat on a panel that the Women’s Fund held as a kickoff for LIPPI, and it was probably then that it became readily apparent to me that I needed to go through this,” she recalled, “because there was so much that I didn’t know about being an elected official.

“I didn’t come from a political family — I had no real experience in politics or elected office,” she went on. “So I felt very much behind the curve with respect to my colleagues on the School Committee, but the types of training and workshops provided by LIPPI were extremely helpful.”

Elaborating, she described her LIPPI experience as an internship of sorts, one that provided hands-on training and many types of invaluable experience. And, like others we spoke with, she said that what LIPPI helped provide, above all else, is that priceless commodity known as confidence.

“You can listen to all the speakers in the world about how you build confidence and how you should be confident and how you shouldn’t be scared, but the reality is that, when you walk into the School Committee chambers or the City Council chambers or state government, you’re there alone … your mentor is not there,” she told BusinessWest. “You have to be quick, you have to be able to think on your feet, and LIPPI helps you do that; it helps you strategize.”

Speaking of Empowerment…

A visitor to Pittsfield City Hall would quickly learn that the mayor’s LIPPI diploma is not the only one proudly displayed.

Indeed, several members of what would be called the Tyer administration were part of the class of 2013-14, and Roberta McCulloch-Dews, director of Administrative Services, is one of them.

A former journalist who later started her own communications company and then held several positions, including assistant to the president, at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams, McCulloch-Dews said she wasn’t really thinking about a shift into public service when she participated in LIPPI.

What she was thinking about was taking advantage of any opportunity that would expand her horizons.

“I’m a knowledge seeker — I love to learn,” she explained. “And I love to challenge myself with new ways of thinking. So when I heard about LIPPI and how it encouraged women to think about public service as another outlet, I thought it was important to learn about this area — even though moving into that realm wasn’t really feasible at that time.”

Roberta McCulloch-Dews

Roberta McCulloch-Dews

Or so she thought. Indeed, McCulloch-Dews said one of the many thoughts she took home from her LIPPI experience was the notion that one doesn’t have to wait until the conditions — especially a proper balance of work and family — are perfect to take a step into public service, or any other arena, for that matter.

“I would say that I came away from LIPPI empowered to know that I didn’t need to have everything fit perfectly to make the decision to go into public service,” she told BusinessWest. “I didn’t know at the time that I would be in public service now, but I think it was fitting to have that foundation, because it served to enrich what I’m doing now.”

Katherine VanBramer, Tyer’s executive assistant, was another member of that class of 2013-14, and she was technically already in public service while attending those sessions.

In fact, she was working for Tyer, as senior clerk.

Last November, Mayor-elect Tyer asked her to stay with her and become her executive assistant. This role would present a new set of challenges and even more work directly with constituents. But she credits LIPPI with helping to impart her with not only the confidence to make the shift, but the desire to take on a role where she would often be a liaison between the mayor and city residents.

“LIPPI definitely provided me with more self-confidence in dealing with the public,” she said. “And it really inspired me to appreciate how important it is to help people navigate their government, because it can be a tricky process sometimes. If there’s anything I can do to make the process more simple or more understandable, I’m happy and willing to do that.”

While all those we talked with related how LIPPI provided them with confidence and empowerment, they also talked with one voice about the power of mentoring, learning from others who have been through similar experiences, and how the relationships forged during their year certainly didn’t end when the diplomas were handed out.

They spoke also about how the program left them determined to mentor others and share collective knowledge and experience with those who are younger and walking where they were years ago.

“LIPPI has caused me to be more thoughtful about mentoring young women who are interested in getting into non-traditional fields,” said Kasper, noting that police work certainly falls into that category, and few women look in that direction simply because they lack role models — something she has become, and takes quite seriously.

“I’m in a position where I have a great opportunity to be a mentor,” she went on. “It’s an attitude I had before LIPPI, but that program really strengthened it.”

Moving Forward

Experts on the impostor syndrome say it is quite common, difficult to completely cure, but, in most cases, quite manageable.

The process starts with recognizing the condition, understanding that many others suffer from it, and addressing it. The last part of that equation generally amounts to building confidence and thus erasing those nagging doubts about one’s abilities, and developing a strong support system that can help keep them from coming back.

All of that isn’t on LIPPI’s mission statement, either, but that’s exactly what this unique program does.

That, and providing women across Western Mass. with a much bigger comfort zone.

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

Sections Women in Businesss

A Case Study in Mentoring


Karen Buell (left) says her career and her mentor, Mary Meehan.

Karen Buell (left) says her career and work/life balance have both benefited from the help of her mentor, Mary Meehan.

Janice Mazzallo calls it a “perfect match.”

The executive vice president and chief human resources officer at PeoplesBank was referring to the mentoring relationship between Karen Buell and Mary Meehan, which began eight years ago, after Buell came to her and asked if she would allow Meehan to serve in that role.

Buell had completed a management-training program, participated with Meehan in strategic planning sessions, and identified her as an ideal role model.

“Mary is intelligent, polished, professional, and successful,” Buell told BusinessWest, adding that she wanted to follow in her footsteps.

The bank didn’t have a mentoring program of that specific type in place, but when Mazzallo presented the idea to Meehan, she readily agreed.

“I was honored to be singled out and hoped I could make a difference,” said the first vice president of commercial lending.

Since that time, Buell has had two children, completed her MBA, and been named vice president of the bank’s customer innovation lab. And she credits Meehan with playing a significant role in helping her achieve a successful life/work integration and thus accomplish all of the above.

In fact, the two women have worked so well together that last year they participated in the Bay Path University Women’s Leadership Conference, titled “Celebrating Sisterhood,” where they shared their mentoring experiences during a panel discussion.

Their experiences — on both sides of the equation — present an effective case study in the importance of mentoring and how both the mentee and mentor benefit from the experience.

Meanwhile it also shows the many roles mentors take in their work, everything from presenting what Meehan called “reality checks” to Buell — a self-described perfectionist, reluctant delegator, and professional prone to come down hard on herself — to simply acting as a reliable sounding board.

“I told her she has to let her husband or a friend help her, that having other people assist you is OK,” Meehan recalled, adding that young people face a number of challenges today, and too often they feel they must take them on alone.

Said Buell, “there are times when I set my expectations too high because I want to be able to do it all. But I can always go to Mary and run things by her, ask her if I am off base or whether I should shoot for the stars.”

For this issue and its focus on women in business, we shine a spotlight on this relationship, which serves as a model for how mentoring can — and should — work.

Credit — Check

Buell didn’t have children when this relationship began, but the difficulties of balancing her personal and professional life were already becoming apparent. And after giving birth to a son and a daughter, who are now 4 and 2, there were times when she felt overwhelmed.

But Meehan’s guidance has proved invaluable, and she has urged Buell to be her own advocate when she felt it was appropriate.

For example, when Buell told her mentor she wanted to be able to pick up her son from school and work at home in the evenings to make up the time, Meehan supported the idea, even though flex schedules were not a common practice at the bank at that time.

“I thought, if anyone could do it successfully, it was Karen,” she noted, citing a long list of Buell’s accomplishments.

Meehan could certainly relate to Buell’s challenges and thought processes. Well, sort of.

She could relate to the part about desiring work/life balance and wanting to be with her children for important moments in their lives — or even a ride home from school every day. But not to the part about seeking — and then attaining — a flex schedule.

That’s because such thoughts were mostly foreign concepts when she broke into this business.

That was in 1975, after she graduated from college and completed a management program at Citibank. The institution didn’t have a formal mentoring program in place, but she noticed that networking took place naturally among the male employees.

“The women in the training program did connect with each other, but there were only a few in the commercial lending area,” she told BusinessWest.

A mentor might have helped her find solutions to difficult situations she encountered in her career, but she has never had one, and struggled with sacrifices she felt she needed to make during a stint in the insurance industry. Meehan had a young daughter and was working in a position that required a great deal of travel, and because her peers devoted untold hours to the job and took calls on weekends, she didn’t think flexibility was an option.

But she has never forgotten the day the sacrifice of being away from home became too much. She was working in Mexico City while at Cigna, and couldn’t return home in time to take her 4-year-old daughter trick-or-treating. And although her husband planned to do it, the idea that she would miss out on an event that meant so much to her was so upsetting that she made the decision to seek a job with more regular hours, left the insurance industry, and returned to banking.

“I never discussed my feelings with the people I worked with,” she noted, adding that doing so was certainly not accepted practice three decades ago.

Balance Statement

Times have certainly changed, and today, mentoring is an accepted practice. As part of that practice, those being mentored are encouraged to openly discuss their feelings about what’s happening with their lives and careers.

For these reasons and many others, PeoplesBank now has two mentoring initiatives. The first is a peer-to-peer program that matches every new hire with a high-performing employee to help them acclimate to the workplace. The mentor takes the person out to lunch on their first day on the job, then continues to meet with them for six months. Matches are based on two factors — personality and the person’s position at the bank — and are not gender-specific.

Mentoring was also added as an enhancement to the bank’s management program. After Mazzallo reintroduced the training, and graduates indicated they felt having a mentor would be advantageous, the practice of assigning one to each participant was established.

It has been especially appropriate because Mazzallo hires two candidates each year from the UMass Isenberg School of Management. They typically have a degree in accounting or finance and spend 12 to 18 months working on special projects in different departments before advancing to a management position.

“I felt it was very important to assign these people to a mentor who could offer them support,” she noted. “We have many seasoned professionals who are able and willing to help these graduates and also help internal candidates in our Leadership Development Program who have the potential to become managers.”

Buell told BusinessWest that she feels mentorship is valuable whether someone is just beginning their career or facing new challenges.

“If your company doesn’t have a program, you should ask for one. It amounts to self-help and is well worth it,” she said. “Mary has given me many nuggets of wisdom and helped me get a better perspective on things, as she is able to look through a different lens.

“And although younger people don’t always take the time to look for a mentor, there is something to be said for life experiences that you just can’t Google,” she went on. “We are all very busy, but it’s important to have someone who can just sit down and listen.”

Buell acknowledged that approaching a person in a high position and requesting help can be uncomfortable.

“But if someone can see the value, they may be more apt to take a stance,” she said, citing her own success as an example.

“It has made a world of difference to have someone further down the road who I can talk to, and I produce more for the bank because of this relationship. It’s been life-changing and has helped me identify my strengths, be less critical of myself, and be better able to acknowledge my accomplishments.”

Meehan has also found it rewarding. “When you give of yourself, you get a lot back,” she explained. “I have had a lot of pleasure watching Karen grow, and someday, when I look back on my career, being a mentor will definitely be one of the highlights. It has been a very nice experience, and we have become friends.”

Change Agents

Friendship would be considered a bonus — an industry term of sorts — when it comes to such relationships, but they are commonplace.

And they are just one of many rewards to be garnered by those on both sides of mentoring, which, as this model shows, brings benefits for the participants, the company, and its customers.

That would make this a win-win-win-win situation, an eventuality that brings value in a number of ways.

Sections Women in Businesss

The Women’s Business Enterprise


So, you’re a woman, and you run a business. In the pool of privately held small businesses in this country, being a woman business owner actually has many advantages.

Kristina Drzal-Houghton

Kristina Drzal-Houghton

Most public corporations, as well as local, state, and federal government purchasing agencies, have programs for allotting a certain percentage of business to women-owned companies. Getting certified as a women’s business enterprise (WBE) can make the difference between landing that business or not. However, the certification process is not without its challenges, and owners often get discouraged during the process because they lack the proper guidance or misunderstand how the process works.

Certification validates that the business is 51% owned, controlled, operated, and managed by a woman or women. Ownership is just a small part of the equation. The term ‘ownership’ goes beyond numbers in this case. A woman must also hold the highest position at the company and be active in daily management and the strategic direction of the company.

So, before moving forward, make sure that you have several ways of proving that you are leading the company, from doing the hiring and firing to any planning documents. In addition to being a majority owner, the woman must also be a U.S. citizen.

If you are puzzled about the many types of certification, you are not alone. Much confusion exists, and to fully explain each is beyond the scope of this article. However, with just a short explanation, most people can determine which certification is probably right for them to pursue.

• Women’s Business Enterprise (WBE) certification is gender-based for woman-owned businesses;

• Women-owned Small Business (WOSB) certification is required for a specific federal purchasing program that has a set-aside for women-owned businesses. There is also a disadvantaged component to this program, which is called EDWOSB;

• The 8(a) designation is actually a business development/mentoring program administered by the Small Business Administration (SBA) for a company that has been disadvantaged, and 8(a) certification is part of that program;

• Small Disadvantaged Business (SDB) certification is for businesses that are disadvantaged but are not participating in the 8(a) development program;

• Disabled Veteran (DV) certification is for the business owner who is a veteran of the U.S. Armed Forces and who has been disabled in action; and

• Minority Business Enterprise (MBE) certification is race-based for minority-owned businesses.

The U.S. Small Business Administration can be contacted regarding participation in the 8(a) program, or to obtain the SDB certification as well as the DV certification.

MBE certification is done through the National Minority Supplier Development Council (formerly known as the Minority Supplier Council, or MSC). WBE certification, as well as WOSB and EDWOSB certifications, can be obtained through the government or third-party certifiers.

Third-party certification is geared to the private sector. If you are interested only in being a vendor/supplier to any government entity, it is recommended that you contact each specific agency to obtain their requirements. If you are more interested in doing work in the private sector, particularly with large, publicly traded companies, WBE certification by a third-party certifier is recommended.

There is a long list of documents that you will need to get together for your application. This is probably the most arduous part of the certification process, and if you’re not organized or haven’t kept track of important business documents, getting everything together can be even more time-consuming and challenging.

You don’t have to be going through the application process before you get organized. If you think that getting certified is something that you will eventually want to do, it is wise to start putting aside the necessary documents and paperwork as early as possible.

The Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC), a national, Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that also provides an avenue for women-owned enterprises to get certified, has a list of required documentation on their website.

Here is typically what to expect in the certification process:

• The applicant sends the completed application to the certifying agency;

• The certifier checks to ensure that the application is complete with supporting documentation;

• The application is forwarded to one of the national review committees;

• If the committee has questions arising from the documentation in your application, they will contact you for clarification;

• A visit to your place of business will be arranged and conducted by one of the certifier’s trained site visitors. Results of the site visit are sent to the review committee;

• The review committee meets again to make final decision;

• The applicant is notified of the decision, and, if certified, a certification packet is sent. If the application has been denied certification, a letter is sent stating the reasons and stating the appeal process; and

• You must renew your company’s certification annually, whether you have WBE, WOSB, or EDWOSB certification. However, the process is a relatively simple one after the initial certification, especially if there have been no ownership changes.

Once you make it through the certification process, it’s time to use the distinction to your advantage. According to business owners who have their certification, there is a lot of potential to grow your business through this avenue, but you can’t just sit back and expect the business to come to you. The best way to get word out that you are certified is to contact local, state, and national certification agencies and ask to get put on their mailing list.

Additionally, mention that you are a certified women-owned enterprise on your marketing and promotional materials, which is an easy way to let potential customers know about this important distinction.

Kristina Drzal-Houghton, CPA, MST is the partner in charge of Taxation at Holyoke-based Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C.; (413) 536-8510.

Sections Women in Businesss

The Art and Science of ‘Finding Out’

Julie Pokela

Julie Pokela

Much has changed since Julie Pokela and partner Nancy Mihevc decided to go into business doing market research nearly 40 years ago. One thing that hasn’t changed is the simple mission for the company now known as Market Street Research: finding answers for clients who need information to understand their audience and grow their business.

Julie Pokela says it was already shaping up to be a busy summer for Market Street Research (MSR), the firm she helped lay the groundwork for nearly 40 years ago. And then, some additional work start pouring in.

Funneled by the Wallace Foundation, started by the founders of Readers Digest, as part of an ongoing initiative concerning the arts, these projects involve several noted institutions — the Seattle Opera, the Pacific Northwest Ballet, and the New York-based Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater — that want some insight into how to grow their audiences.

A major focal point of these analyses will be the Millennial generation, members of which now statistically outnumber the Baby Boomers, said Pokela, and remain a point of fascination — and mystery — for businesses across all sectors.

“People are trying to figure out how to tap into this generation,” she said, adding that these arts-related projects will utilize focus groups and a host of other methodologies to gain some insight.

When asked to speculate on what these studies may reveal about the Millennials and their attitudes about the arts, Pokela thought for a second and said, “I don’t know … we’re going to find out.”

‘Finding out’ has been the simple two-word answer to the question of what this company does since Pokela and partner Nancy Mihevc joined together in a venture called the Research Group in 1978 (more on the company’s history later). They’ve been finding answers for clients ranging from political candidates to regional and national banks; from private colleges to major medical systems; from retail chains to nonprofit agencies.

The specific questions to which they’ve sought to find answers have varied, but the common denominator has essentially been market share and the universal goal of improving it.

Today, achieving that goal involves successfully marketing to and then serving several generations, each with distinct attitudes and preferences, said Pokela, adding that the Millennials are proving to be particularly challenging for many sectors.

“Banks are really interested in this subject,” she noted. “And we do a lot of work with independent schools and colleges to help them figure how they’re positioned among the students and parents looking at colleges — and how to grow their enrollment.”

Over the years, the size and composition of MSR’s client base has changed, said Pokela, noting that, in the ’80s, the company did considerable work with banks, and later put a heavy focus on healthcare, specifically hospitals and medical systems that wanted insight into what the public thought of the services they were providing.

While the company still serves both those sectors, its overall strength has been diversity, said Pokela, adding that this trait has enabled it to survive the many economic downturns over the past four decades.

The business itself has also evolved. Years ago, MSR employed those who would do the actual data collection for the research projects. Now, those services are outsourced, noted Pokela, adding that, while laying off dozens of employees constituted the most painful moment of her career, the resulting entity is smaller and more manageable, and enables her to spend the vast majority of her time doing what she likes most — research and interpreting what it means.

For this issue and its focus on women in business, BusinessWest talked at length with Pokela about her company, the intriguing world of research, and the art and science of ‘finding out.’

Answering the Call

Tracing the history of her company, Pokela said the intriguing story began when she was pursuing her doctorate in communication at UMass Amherst, studying under, among others, Mihevc, who taught political communication.

One of Mihevc’s other students at the time became involved with Ed McColgan’s campaign to unseat Congressman Silvio Conte, and she asked Mihevc to conduct some research for the candidate.

She agreed, and asked Pokela if she wanted to assist with the polling, which she did.

Those efforts didn’t succeed in getting McColgan elected — he triumphed in the Democratic primary, but was buried by Conte in November — but they did get the attention of other candidates, who recruited the two for similar polling.

“Eventually, a business person with one of the campaigns asked if we could do some market research for his company,” said Pokela, “and from there, an advertising agency asked if we could do marketing research for their clients.

“We got to the point where Nancy was coming up for tenure, and I was looking at finishing my Ph.D., and had to decide — do we want to start a company or continue with our expected lives of being academics?” she went on. “We decided that it wouldn’t hurt anything to start a company, so we did.”

Given a boost by some work they did for the Center for Human Development in Springfield, which received a grant to conduct a telephone survey on community attitudes toward foster parenting, the pair enjoyed success early on, working mostly on political campaigns and projects for ad agencies.

The recession of the early ’80s nearly took them out, though, said Pokela, adding that she and Mihevc turned to the Mass. Small Business Development Center and then-Director Merwin Tober for some assistance on how to position the company for growth and sustainability.

Tober came up with the idea of generating a recurring form of income — or several of them — rather than being solely what amounted to a job shop. And from that suggestion, the two partners eventually conceptualized something they would call the “Quarterly Bank Survey.”

As that name suggests, the initiative surveyed area residents on a quarterly basis about their banking habits and preferences, said Pokela, adding that most all area banks bought the reports.

“It ended up being a great product and a solid source of regular, predictable income — we did it for maybe 10 years,” she said, adding that this effective niche was substantially weakened by a wave of consolidation that swept over the industry in the late ’80s and other consequences of a deep and prolonged recession that took a severe toll on the financial-services sector.

But, while bolstering its portfolio with banks, the company — which became known as Market Street Research in 1986 after Pokela and Mihevc parted ways and the former joined forces with Elizabeth Denny — was doing the same with the healthcare industry.

Julie Pokela says there are businesses

Julie Pokela says there are businesses across many sectors that want to know what the Millennials are thinking — and how they’re spending.

That remains the primary source of business today, accounting for roughly 70% of annual revenues, said Pokela, adding that now, as then, the industry relies on a steady flow of data concerning its services and how they are perceived.

The company started with a hospital survey similar to the one produced for banks, she said, adding that, by the late ’80s, most healthcare providers were ratcheting up their marketing efforts in response to changes within the industry, especially a shift from inpatient to outpatient care and the resulting increase in bed capacity.

“Length of stay was greatly reduced, and as a result, hospitals had all this excess capacity for inpatient beds,” Pokela explained. “So they started looking at the edges of their markets and saying, ‘where can we pick up more patients in areas that we haven’t traditionally looked at?’ So hospitals learned how to compete very quickly.”

Surveying the Landscape

This phenomenon has generated a steady source of revenue for the company ever since, she went on, noting that MSR has a number of prominent hospitals in its portfolio, including Mass General, NYU Langone Medical Center, the Cleveland Clinic, Dartmouth Hitchcock, and many others.

Most are steady, repeat customers that require in-depth marketing studies at least every two years, and often on a more frequent basis.

The nature of the work varies, but much of it comes down to two key issues in this sector and most all others — awareness and image.

“If you look at the process by which someone makes a decision to use any kind of organization, it starts with awareness — people are more likely to use an organization they’re aware of,” she explained. “So we track what their awareness levels are, and ask people, ‘when you think about hospitals in your area, which ones come to mind?’”

Overall, the company tailors its questions and surveys to meet the specific needs of clients and business sectors, and the ability to help companies in a host of industries has driven solid growth over the years and enabled MSR to weather the economic downturns in recent years.

The firm has clients in healthcare, financial services, the nonprofit arena, governmental agencies, retail, technology, manufacturing, and, especially this summer, the arts, which Pokela has identified as a potential source of growth for MSR.

In higher education, for example, the company has worked with a number of institutions, including Bryn Mawr College, Mount Holyoke College, Smith College, Western New England University, and UMass Amherst, with research focused on a number of areas, including:

• Satisfaction of faculty, staff, and students with the services the school provides;
• Effectiveness of communications, including marketing and promotional materials; and
• Satisfaction of alumni or alumnae regarding services for alumni and communication with their alma mater.

The company also works with private elementary and secondary schools and also public school systems and school boards, in matters ranging from attracting and retaining high-caliber students to communicating information and specific strengths to the community.

In retail, meanwhile, the company has provided services for national chains, mom-and-pop stores, and entities that fall in between. It helps those clients with everything from assessing awareness (there’s that word again) to customer satisfaction, site-location selection, market feasibility of new products, and more.

Increasingly, those in each sector want to know what the members of each generation are thinking and what they’re looking for in terms of products and services.

She joked that those in healthcare are not yet fascinated by the wants and needs of the Millennial generation — “young people don’t get sick” — but just about everyone else is, including those arts institutions that have recently become clients.

“They want to know how to get the next generation interested in the arts,” she explained. “They want to know how to get them interested not only in going to see these groups, but also interested in becoming subscribers and then eventually donors.

“At the focus groups I’ve been going to with people in their 20s and 30s who are going to the arts — they’re very passionate about it,” she went on. “That’s very exciting to see. The question is how to translate the passion exhibited by the people who are going, to the people who are not going.”

As for the answers to that question … the reports commissioned for those arts institutions should be completed by this fall, she went on, adding that there may be some answers there.

Poll Position

Looking ahead, Pokela said the company’s primary goal is to continue to log steady, manageable growth.

She believes it can continue to do so because, overall, it scores well in those areas for which it gauges results for its many customers — awareness, quality of service, and image. And, especially, because it continues to raise and clear the bar in that one realm for which it was formed, a service that has become both an art and science: finding out.

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

Sections Women in Businesss

Creating a Sounding Board

Cathy Crosky

Cathy Crosky says women owners benefit from having a sounding board comprised of peers navigating similar issues and challenges.

Attorney Paula Almgren says she knows she’s a much better, much smarter businessperson now than she was before she joined a group called WomenUpFront about 18 months ago.

She credits the Pittsfield-based organization, which launched three years ago and is composed of fellow small business owners, with everything from helping her take basic, common-sense steps, such as creating a website for her practice, to developing an appetite for risk taking, including a book she’s planning to write on one of her specialties — navigating community-based care.

“I’ve taken a lot of actions I might not have taken, or would have taken longer to implement, if I wasn’t part of this group,” she said, citing the website as just one example. “And you become accountable to the group; if you say you’re going to do it, you have to do it.”

And yet, Almgren literally can’t wait until she can stop attending the monthly meetings of this group.

Indeed, there is a ceiling regarding annual revenues for membership in this intriguing group — $1 million — and Almgren, who started her practice in 1996, intends to break her way through it sometime soon.

When she does, she’ll be able to ‘graduate’ to a group called the Women Presidents Organization (WPO), which has pretty much the same basic mission statement and MO as WomenUpFront, but is obviously for those with larger ventures and often different challenges.

Transitioning to membership in WPO is the unofficial, usually unannounced ambition of WomenUpFront members, said Cathy Crosky, an executive coach and organizational transformation consultant with Charter Oak consulting group in Williamstown who conceptualized and now leads both organizations.

Paula Almgren

Paula Almgren

She told BusinessWest there are many stories like Almgren’s still being written in Berkshire County. They involve women who have found a comfort zone — not to mention myriad learning opportunities — in a group of roughly a dozen that she described early and often as a “sounding board.”

It is now Crosky’s ambition to replicate the success of the Pittsfield group in Hampden County. She noted that statistics clearly show that more women are choosing entrepreneurship as a career path, and the Greater Springfield area is certainly no exception to this rule.

Like the Pittsfield WomenUpFront group, the one planned for Hampden County will be limited to first-stage companies — it is not intended for startups, said Crosky, adding that it is focused on business, not networking, although there is certainly some of the latter as well.

“The idea behind the group is to help women to get beyond the day-to-day challenges and look at the business more purposefully and more strategically,” she said, adding that, to help meet that goal, she has brought in experts on subjects ranging from employment law to time management to address members. “It’s a deep dive into business issues and challenges, and it’s a learning group.”

For this issue and its focus on women in business, we take an in-depth look at the success achieved by WomenUpFront in Pittsfield, and how Crosky plans to make this concept more of a regional phenomenon.

Getting Down to Business

Unlike most members of the Pittsfield WomenUpFront group, Pam Sandler’s immediate goals do not include graduation to WPO.

That may eventually happen, she said, but at present, she’s comfortable with the revenue patterns being generated by the Stockbridge-based architecture firm she launched more than 30 years ago that bears her name and specializes in both residential and commercial work.

Pam Sandler

Pam Sandler says women have to juggle their lives differently than men do, which leads to unique challenges balancing business and other obligations.

“I was different than other women in the group — I really didn’t want to grow my business; I thought I was stretched as far as I could be stretched,” she said, adding that, generally speaking and economic downturns aside (they traditionally hit this sector very hard), she can generate as much work as she wants and needs to handle. “I was, and still am, far more interested in working smarter — I was getting pretty burned out.”

And, like Almgren, she believes she’s already made significant progress with that goal. As evidence, she cited the fact that she’s not burning as much midnight oil, and not because she has fewer projects on the books.

“I don’t work as many hours as I used to because I don’t have to — I’m working smarter,” she told BusinessWest. “I have less stress, and I’m more focused on the big picture — and I owe much of that to my once-a-month fix.”

That fix, as she called it, WomenUpFront, was in many ways inspired by WPO, said Crosky, adding that she was approached by several women who knew they could benefit from such a group, but didn’t fit the revenue criterion.

Like WPO, the new group was designed to be a forum where common issues and problems can be discussed confidentially, she went on, adding that members soon discover that, whatever challenge they’re facing, they’re certainly not unique, or alone, in that fight.

“The demands of running a business are increasingly more challenging,” Crosky told BusinessWest. “The roundtable provides an opportunity for women to share some of these challenges they have that are similar and offer support, best practices, and ideas — and learn from each other.”

Almgren concurred. “I find that there’s a lot of problem solving in the group — every time I go, I learn something new,” she told BusinessWest. “It’s really helpful as a business owner to be able to talk about what’s working and not working with your business and share ideas with other women business owners.”

Crosky noted that, while some business groups have certainly enjoyed success with a mixed-gender format, the women-only structure of this group appeals to many because of the commonality of issues and a generally shared outlook on business and how to manage.

“Many women report feeling much more comfortable in a women-only group because women lead differently than men and the challenges that women face in the marketplace are different,” she explained. “There’s also the challenge of balancing work and their personal lives, because they do have primary responsibility for children and aging parents, despite the changes in role definition.”

Sandler agreed.

“I find that women have to juggle their lives differently than men do,” she said. “I have three children, and I have to organize their lives and my work at the same time, which has been a real challenge.”

Crosky announced her intentions to form a Pioneer Valley chapter of WomenUpFront in the spring, with the support of the Business Growth Center and PeoplesBank, which have offered to provide meeting space and other forms of assistance.

She’s been working since then to recruit the eight to 10 women entrepreneurs she needs to launch. She knows they’re out there, but she also knows that most individuals who can use help are also those who find it most difficult to commit the time required to be an active participant in such a group.

If she can get a few minutes with a prospective member, she advises them it’s necessary to make the time.

Meeting of the Minds

Crosky said there is no firm timetable for starting the Pioneer Valley chapter of WomenUpFront.

The task of making women aware of the organization and its benefits and convincing them to commit the requisite time and energy is ongoing.

Overall, she believes expanding the concept across the Valley will help individual business owners meet their goals, but also benefit the region in its quest to encourage entreprebeurship and create jobs.

“Not everyone wants to grow beyond $1 million, but everyone wants to be more efficient and stabilize their business,” she said. “And that’s what we’re here for.”

For more information on WomenUpFront, call (413) 822-1263.


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

Sections Women in Businesss
Jo-Ann Davis Becomes First General Counsel for Baystate System

Jo-Ann Davis

Jo-Ann Davis says her office will handle matters ranging from bond financing to mergers and acquisitions to labor negotiations — and much more.

When Baystate Health administrators decided last fall to move ahead with plans to hire the system’s first chief general legal counsel, they asked Jo-Ann Davis, serving then as Baystate’s vice president of Human Resources Consulting and Employee Relations, if she would serve on the search committee that would evaluate candidates for that important post.

She agreed to take on that assignment, but not long afterward came to the conclusion that she was at least as qualified for this position, if not more so, than the applicants she would be screening.

“I started to scratch my head and say, ‘I think that I could actually do this … I’d like to throw my hat into the ring,” she told BusinessWest, adding that, by sharing this observation with those same Baystate administrators, she went from being an assessor of candidates to a candidate being assessed.

Fast-forward a few months, and Davis now has what she considers to be the best job within what would be considered the region’s legal community.

Her new business card identifies her as senior vice president and chief general counsel, which means she’s responsible for overseeing the handling of all legal matters involving a system that now includes four hospitals (Baystate Medical Center, Baystate Franklin Medical Center, Baystate Mary Lane Hospital, and Baystate Wing Hospital — with negotiations underway for a fifth, Noble Hospital in Westfield), more than 11,700 employees, and nearly $2 billion in net revenues.

This is a multi-faceted position, she said, one that involves everything from labor contracts to real-estate matters; from regulatory compliance to litigation management. She will also serve as primary legal advisor to the chief executive and the president’s cabinet, and chief legal officer to the board of trustees.

“This involves planning, overseeing, and managing all legal services for the system,” she said, reading directly from the lengthy job description that came with that business card, adding this is a professional challenge she fully embraces.

“I’m very excited about this for a lot of reasons,” she explained. “One, we need this role and function here. Two, there’s an excitement for me when it comes to building a department and starting from scratch, and as a professional woman, I’m very proud of the fact that Baystate, when it had the opportunity to hire its first senior leader and general counsel, they chose a woman for the position.”

Jo-Ann Davis says her office will handle matters ranging from bond financing to mergers and acquisitions to labor negotiations — and much more.
[/caption]Davis said one of the first items on her to-do list is to assemble a staff — one that she believes will eventually consist of several lawyers (perhaps five to eight) and several support staff, including paralegals. And before deciding the size and makeup of that staff, she said she must first itemize, if you will, the system’s legal needs and then decide how best to meet them.

Historically, the system has contracted with several area firms to handle matters ranging from bond financing (for the massive, $353 million Hospital of the Future project, for example) to mergers and acquisitions to labor negotiations. And it will continue to do so with the new general-counsel structure, although more matters will now be handled in house.

Davis said the Baystate system has long considered adopting the general-counsel model — one used by most major corporations and health systems — and new President and CEO Mark Keroack, who took the helm 11 months ago, made it one of the priorities of his administration.

“As the system grows and expands, and as healthcare and health law become increasingly complex, you need to have in-house counsel so you have that expertise at your fingertips,” she explained, adding that, while the system is expecting to lower its overall legal bills through this model, the primary motivation is to more effectively manage (that’s a word she would use often) the myriad legal services required by a system of Baystate’s size.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Davis about her new role and all that entails.

Offering Testimony

Davis began her law career in 1982 as a human-resources consultant for the Springfield-based law firm Sullivan & Hayes, where she landed after earning first a bachelor’s degree in political science at Wheaton and then a master’s in education at Harvard.

She would add a juris doctor to her educational résumé in 1988, graduating from Western New England University, and became an associate with Sullivan & Hayes that year. She made partner in 1994 and remained with the firm until 1998, when she joined Springfield-based Skoler Abbott & Presser, becoming a partner in 1999.

At Skoler Abbott, she worked with a wide range of clients, developing strategies with regard to the many aspects of employment and labor-law matters, and representing them in federal and Massachusetts courts and before such bodies as the Equal Employment Opportunity Counsel (EEOC), the Mass. Commission Againt Discrimination (MCAD), and the National Labor Relations Board. Baystate wasn’t one of her clients (although the firm did some work for it); however, the system became the next line on her résumé.

She came on board as director of Employee Relations in 2003, and became director of Human Resources Consulting and Employee relations in 2009, and vice president overseeing that department in 2012.

In those latter roles, she built, developed, and managed the department, supervising six HR directors system-wide and leading a staff of 25. She also handled the full gamut of employment and labor-related matters, including employment litigation in state and federal courts, before the EEOC, MCAD, and other bodies.

It was the breadth and depth of her experience with the system, and also in private practice, that convinced her she was capable of handling the general counsel’s role — and not merely coordinating the search for that individual — and those who did conduct that search eventually came to the same conclusion.

Indeed, Davis, who prevailed over a host of candidates from across the country, took on her new role in late March. And she’s spent the past two months undertaking that aforementioned analysis of the system’s legal needs.

“A big part of my role is to build the department,” she explained, adding that this means analyzing how much is spent (she said she was still getting her arms around the budget), where it’s spent — in business transactions or employment and labor matters, for example — and then determining what types of lawyers should be hired (meaning which aspects of the law they specialize in) as well as which work will be handled in-house and which assignments will be contracted out.

“This analysis is typical of what any general counsel’s office would do,” she went on. “You have to decide what your bread and butter is — what you can handle internally — and what is too complex and sophisticated, where you really need specialists.”

This will be an involved analysis, she continued, adding that she expects it will take several months to determine the size and character of her staff and fill those positions.

When it’s staffed and operating, she expects that the general counsel’s office will bring more efficiency to the task of managing the system’s legal matters, simply because those individuals are in house and employed by Baystate.

“I sit on the president’s cabinet, and when we meet weekly, there isn’t an issue or strategy or business imperative, or any discussion around patient care, that doesn’t involve or have legal implications,” she explained. “To have that expertise sitting at the table, in the moment, is invaluable.”

Using the Hospital of the Future as an example, she said that huge project involved everything from bond financing to regulatory compliance matters to construction issues. Outside counsel was used for each aspect of that initiative, but with the general-counsel model, many, though certainly not all, of these matters can be handled in house.

“Areas that are very sophisticated, that are not done on a day-to-day basis … you still want to contract those out,” she explained. “But things internally that we’ll be doing include general contract review, employment and labor relations, physician contracting, professional-services agreements, and much more.”

Summary Judgment

As she talked about why she left private practice and a partnership with one of the region’s leading employment-law firms to join Baystate a dozen years ago, Davis said there were many motivating factors, but primarily a desire to represent one client, not a portfolio of them.

“When you work for a private firm, a lot of it becomes marketing your own services instead of practicing law,” she explained. “I got to the point where I wanted to represent one client; you form deep relationships with that one client, and you have a vested interest in the success and opportunities of that one client.”

Today, she’s not only representing that client, but representing it as general counsel. That role represents a host of responsibilities, but a tremendous opportunity as well. “As a lawyer in this community, I have the best job,” she said.

Not bad for someone who was originally asked to weigh the candidates for that job.

Sections Women in Businesss
Fast-growing, Women-led Company Aims to Clarify Health Information

Stacy Robison, left, and Xanthi Scrimgeour

Stacy Robison, left, and Xanthi Scrimgeour saw a need for clearer health information, and turned that need into a fast-growing, multi-faceted business.

There’s a gap, Stacy Robison says, between the ability of the public to understand the copious amounts of health data they encounter, and how effectively that information is communicated.

But six years after she and Xanthi Scrimgeour launched CommunicateHealth in Northampton, that gap is narrowing — as quickly as their company is growing.

“We both come out of traditional public-health backgrounds,” Robison said of Scrimgeour, her partner in both life and business. “Xanthi was doing some health-education work for one of the bureaus for the state Department of Public Health. I did a lot of work at the federal level. I was doing some policy work around health literacy, looking at how people understand health information.”

On both levels, she said, “public health is historically underfunded. They don’t traditionally get cool design, creativity, technology.”

At the same time, data showed that people were increasingly struggling with health information at a time when society in general is shifting the burden, more than ever before, onto individuals to manage their health and seek relevant information.

“The other part of the equation is how poorly designed and poorly written information in public healthcare can be — it was a huge gap,” she told BusinessWest. “So that was really the vision for the company: let’s fill this gap. There was clearly a business case for this.”

So, in 2009, the two left their jobs and launched a startup business from their attic, with the goal of developing and rewriting health-information documents in a way that would be clear and engaging for all readers. By 2011, CommunicateHealth, as they called it, was approaching $1 million in revenue annually; it ended 2014 with just over $6 million. Meanwhile, a three-person operation six years ago now boasts a staff of 36 in Northampton and a second office in Rockville, Md. The Women Presidents’ Organization recently ranked the enterprise 44th on its list of fastest-growing women-owned companies.

That rapid success might surprise Robison and Scrimgeour, but only to a point. After all, they knew the vast health-information industry had a need for professionals who could clean up and redesign often-confusing communications.

“We consider ourselves a mission-based company,” Robison said. “We asked ourselves, ‘can we do this? Can we bring some creativity and new technology to a field that hasn’t had a chance to benefit from it? That’s really the mission — what can we do to make people’s lives better by simplifying the complexity of the public-health system? And, obviously, it was a good business model. We’ve done really well.”

Plain Speaking

Robison has been rewriting poorly presented health information since her previous career working with federal public-health agencies, and that was initially the bread and butter of CommunicateHealth. But as the startup has grown, it has also expanded its scope of services, moving from a subcontracting role to that of a prime contractor.

“We started doing content — focusing on how we can write this information more clearly. Since then, ‘plain language’ has become a buzzword in the federal arena. So we would do that and hand it off to a designer, and it was out of our our hands. But then we’d see it and say, ‘this is horrible.’ You can simplify the language, but if you put it in a 10-point Times New Roman font crammed onto a page with no pictures, you haven’t succeeded.”

So she and Scrimgeour introduced a design element into the firm, starting with one graphic designer and boasting four today, and will typically handle both content and design. Meanwhile, web-based health information was becoming more prominent — moving “beyond the brochure,” as Robison put it.

“It became more apparent that, if we’re going to do this well, we need to know how to make this interactive and work with technology, so we brought web developers onto the team,” she went on. “As we brought more and more resources in house, the business model expanded and became more full-service.”

With any project, Robison said, the team starts with determining who the audience is and how best to deliver the material, whether it’s pandemic information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or childhood-obesity messages from the American Academy of Pediatrics, to name two past clients. And the process of determining the direction of a project is one that sets CommunicateHealth apart.

“One thing that makes us really different is our testing process. We involve the end users of our materials in the development process,” she said, using the example of a health-information app to explain. “Before we design a new app, we’ll go out and interview focus groups, ask what features people like, how they feel about this type of information. Once we get a prototype, we put it back in front of people. ‘Are we right on track? Would you use an app like this?’ Then we test it again, and ask, ‘did we accomplish what we wanted to accomplish?’ That process creates better products, but it also really connects us with people who will use them.”

Government agencies comprise about 70% of CommunicateHealth’s client base, with private entities, from large health plans to small health-information startups, making up the rest.

“We run a huge gamut,” Robison said. “One project right now is for parents of young children who may be worried their kids have some kind of motor delay or developmental delay. We’re looking to create information for parents that’s supportive but not overwhelming, and also really accurate.”

Part of that project involves creating web-based GIF animations to demonstrate what it means when a toddler has a wobbly gait or some other movement impairment. “Parents reading this online can see this is what it looks like. We’re testing it with parents, all in hope of delivering a tool that’s supportive and easy and clear — nothing that’s too complex.”

The company will also be handling some communications around upcoming dietary guidelines for Americans, which are updated every five years. “We’ll be supporting that work, so we’re doing a lot of work right now with surveys, focus groups, and background work,” Robison said of the federal-level project.

The ‘Show Me’ app developed by Communi-cateHealth

The ‘Show Me’ app developed by Communi-cateHealth helps people with hearing or language barriers ‘talk’ to first responders.

Meanwhile, on the state level, she and Scrimgeour took on a project for the Mass. Department of Public Health, developing an app for individuals with communication challenges, from deafness to language barriers, to use to ‘talk’ to first responders in emergencies.

“That’s our favorite kind of project, because it was a blank slate — there was nothing like it,” Robison said. “So it allowed us to do our process, talk to people, figure out what’s going to work. We ended up with a simple app, all icon-based. That was a fun project.”

Give and Take

Robison, in fact, kept coming back to that back-and-forth dialogue with end users and its importance to every project, whether it’s taking an agency’s jargon-filled content and simplifying it for public consumption or creating something brand new, as in the case of the emergency app.

She also gets plenty of input from editorial boards and educational review boards, who help ensure accuracy and consistent messaging, but even then, research gathered from the public can sway content. “They’ll inevitably push back on everything, but we can show them the user testing — that we put [the original material] in front of people, and they didn’t understand it. We say, ‘you have a choice — and if you’re going to communicate, this is how you do it.’”

To private companies like health plans, clear communication can affect the bottom line as well, she added.

“Large health plans sometimes bring us on to improve communication with their members. We’ll take a look at a handful of their communications — transactional letters about co-payments, welcome guides, enrollment materials — and work with them to create a voice that’s more appropriate for consumers. We’ll test it to find out what’s working and what’s not.”

Overall, Robison said, it’s rewarding to be a business owner with such a wide array of projects, so no one gets stuck in a rut. “We’re a mission-based company. The people who come to work here, come to work because of the mission. They ultimately care about the end product; they want to deliver high-quality products.”

At the same time, she and Scrimgeour have also experimented with work-life arrangements inspired by Silicon Valley that fosters employee growth, autonomy, and satisfaction, including an unlimited time-off policy. Also, Friday afternoons are mandatory “creative time,” where everyone gathers to brainstorm ideas and sometimes help fellow employees stuck at a critical point in a project.

“It has been interesting for us to find those models,” Robison said. “How can we engage people and do things differently, treat our employees differently? There are a lot of traditional business models, but not a lot of people shaking it up.”

CommunicateHealth has risen to prominence at a time when healthcare in general is being shaken up by shifts in how care is delivered and paid for — and when consumers are increasingly anxious about the issues they’re dealing with, and just want some clear answers.

At the same time, Robison and Scrimgeour have become active supporters of the National Women’s Chamber of Commerce in its efforts to increase the share of federal contracts awarded to women-owned businesses. The goal? Five percent of the tens of billions of dollars available. “So, yeah,” Robison said, “we haven’t evened out that playing field yet.”

Still, the continued growth of CommunicateHealth serves as an inspiring example of two women who turned a passion into a business plan, which then became a local success story with a national reach.

“If you’d asked me years ago if I’d be a business owner, I’d have said never in a million years,” Robison said. “But it’s really nice for us to be this mission-based company and do well, which ultimately means we can do well for our employees and be a provider of jobs and training and good things like that. There are not a lot of models for this in public health, so to be able to do this is really gratifying.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Women in Businesss
Lanie Delphin Brings Couples Together with Mass Match

Lanie Delphin

Lanie Delphin

Lanie Delphin met her husband, Bud, through a dating service 16 years ago. And that got her thinking about how lucky they were.

Actually, that’s the wrong word; Delphin doesn’t believe relationships are built on luck — or fate, for that matter — but on solid, common-sense matches. And she decided she wanted to be a matchmaker.

“At the time, we realized there were just no good ways to meet people,” she told BusinessWest. “Internet dating was just taking off. I always believed I’d find someone, but it’s very hard to find people in this culture. People typically don’t want to meet at work, friends typically don’t want to fix you up, many people don’t go to religious institutions anymore. And if you do meet someone randomly, you don’t know if that person is looking for someone — or even single.”

Fascinated by the dating business, she bought a license in 2002 from a national company called Single Search and launched the online dating service Single Search Western Mass.

“We started the business as a way to help people find the success we had found,” she said. “When we started, I had never run a business, so I was grateful for the help I got being a licensee of this company; I wouldn’t have known where to begin.”

But she was less enamored of the computer-matching algorithms that Single Search — which no longer exists — employed. “They had a computer program that matched people; that was the original model. I very quickly learned I didn’t like the matches the computer made. I went over every single match — it was very time-consuming — and most of them didn’t make sense to me. So after that, I decided, if I’m claiming to be a matchmaking service, I need to meet people. I completely changed the model. I changed the name; I changed everything about it.”

A few years after first dipping her toe into the matchmaking business, Delphin was meeting personally with 99% of her clients, and the company — now operating as Mass Match — was attracting hundreds of members and generating success stories.

“It’s interesting — Match.com and some of these other dating sites are, from what I’ve been told, plateauing in terms of business, so now they’re offering some of these boutique services, hiring matchmakers in many cities. They came to understand something I knew from the beginning, which is, how do you match people if you haven’t met them?

“The difference between them and personal dating services like mine is that they charge thousands of dollars,” she went on. “We’ve held true to our mission from the beginning to provide a personal, private, and affordable way to meet. I have not raised my prices in five years. The economy’s been bad, but even so, I don’t want to gouge people.”

Customers pay an annual $295 fee, not a monthly rate, which they appreciate, Delphin said, because it allows them to relax and avoid the temptation to rush into a serious relationship (more on that later).

“Most of the money I make goes back into advertising,” said Delphin, who runs the day-to-day operations of Mass Match herself. “It feels important work for me to do. You may find the love of your life; many have. But you might not. I want to keep the price fair. The business needs large numbers of people, so I don’t want to charge too much money.

“If I could guarantee everyone the love of their life, the value of that would be incalculable,” she added. “But nobody can do that — not even the people charging thousands of dollars. But I want everyone to be able to take a chance.”

Personal Touch

The process of signing up for Mass Match is simple, but it’s not for people who want to meet their next love solely from a PC screen.

“Most people sign up online, and I send them information in the mail and set a time to meet up,” Delphin explained. “The form asks about their age, education, some interests, politics, religion, marital status, kids, and some of the same things about who they’re looking for — what interests them, what’s important to them.

“I tell everyone they shouldn’t take more than a couple of minutes online filling this out because, when we meet, we redo it,” she went on. “I get to know them and their story. When we meet, we go over their past, what worked and what didn’t work, what kind of person they’re looking for. I give them a lot of advice I’ve learned over the years that I believe makes for a healthy relationship. A lot of people have told me, even if they didn’t find anybody, the advice I gave them set them off in the right direction, and that was worth the price alone.”

When Delphin makes a match, both parties receive an e-mail with contact information. If neither is interested enough to reach out, that’s fine. But if one party responds, she requires the other to write back, if only to politely decline, because that’s simply a civil way of interacting.

“They don’t have to meet, but they do have to answer politely,” she said. “The Internet is full of rude behavior. Some people think saying nothing is better than saying ‘I’m not interested,’ but I don’t agree with that.”

Clients appreciate the fact that Delphin’s personal involvement screens out much of the outright deception prevalent on dating websites, and they’re often willing to take a chance on someone they might not have considered based on a questionnaire alone. “Sometimes I think outside the box because I think two people are a good match.”

Members range in age from their 20s to their 80s and represent all religions, political persuasions, and sexual orientations, she added. “One thing they all have in common is they are serious about meeting someone, but they don’t want to meet someone at a bar. Some don’t want marriage, but they’re looking for a long-term relationship.”

Once the matches start flowing, she considers herself an on-call relationship coach. “To me, giving personal service is key. I’ve been at an opera, on vacation, at a movie theater, watching TV, and I have answered people.”

The advice begins on that first meeting, when Delphin shares some of her personal philosophy about relationships.

“I tell everyone to slow down and date,” she said, putting an emphasis on that last word. “I’ve met thousands of people in 13 years, and the biggest mistake is rushing it. It takes a lot longer to get out of a relationship than get into one, and often people hunker down and stay with someone for the wrong reasons.”

In fact, she encourages people to give it three to five casual dates before getting serious, and even advises going on dates with other people during that time, believing that if a match has potential, it will survive a cautious approach.

Delphin repeats a mantra of four ‘Cs’ that she believes is the key to any relationship. The first is chemistry. “Nobody has to be reminded of that; it means you look forward to seeing them at the end of the day. They don’t bore you.”

The second is communication, which means being willing to address conflicts that arise. “Obviously, abuse isn’t good, but neither is avoiding conflict completely.”

She doesn’t, however, advise filling up the first dates with too much baggage. “The mistakes include sharing too much personal information; sounding negative, bitter, angry, or sad; or sounding too busy to date. I advise a Buddhist mindset of living in the present tense and getting to know people slowly.”

The third and fourth Cs — character and compatibility — are far more important, she said. “If you both have good character and you’re compatible with each other, all will be well. If not, all will not be well. It can take a long time to see. But if you have a character problem or a compatibility problem, get out.”

Of course, there is one flag to look for right from the first date. “Notice how they treat the waitstaff.”

Be My Valentine

Delphin is understandably proud of the hundreds of relationships — and marriages and children — that have grown from her initial match.

“Widowed couples are finding love the second time around, and people who never had a relationship are finding love. Many people are divorced and finding the right person the second time around. We’ve had so many happy couples, and many people are still looking, like you’d expect.”

Still, she sees Mass Match as a way to not only bring people together, but to encourage their personal growth.

“One of the most gratifying things to me is the educational component — I have a master’s in education, after all,” she told BusinessWest. “Seeing people change their mind about something, or open their mind, is as gratifying as finding the right person. It’s when they figure out it’s not going to be how tall someone is, or how much they weigh, or how rich they are — it’s going to be who they are. It’s never going to be the objective things; age differential isn’t why things don’t work out for people.

“When people figure out it’s the subjective things, who that person is,” she added, “they start thinking outside their own box, that’s an amazing accomplishment.”

Valentine’s Day is coming up, which Delphin obviously sees as an opportunity for Mass Match, yet she encourages people not to put too much stock in the social expectations of one day on the calendar, and to keep their eyes on the long term.

“Those who are single need to remember that, for the first time in history, more than half the adult population is in the same boat they are. And many married folks are not in healthy relationships, so it is best not to romanticize or sentimentalize anyone else’s situation,” she noted. “It would be a big mistake to rush into something just so you can receive candy and flowers, only to pay a huge price for them down the road.”

Instead, she stresses that being single is a valid choice, too, and Valentine’s Day shouldn’t put any extra pressure on.

“I would advise people who just started dating to make light of the whole notion of Valentine’s Day. We tend to couple off too fast anyway, long before we have time to see if the person we are with really makes sense for us,” she reiterated. “If everyone is putting their best foot forward — because, as Cupid knows, positive energy attracts — then by going slowly and meeting and dating different people, we can use our heads and figure out which of their little quirks we learn about down the road are cute, which are merely annoying, and which are downright unacceptable. Over time, we will figure out who makes the most sense for us.”

Knowing that half the adult population is single, however, doesn’t make it easier for people who long for love. And Delphin is ready to sit down with them and talk all about it.

“There are no good ways for anybody to meet, so they’re stuck,” she said. “And they’re tired of Internet dating; they often tell me it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack, trying to figure out who’s real and who isn’t. They tell me they’re done wasting their time.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Women in Businesss
Maura McCaffrey Takes the Helm at Health New England

Maura McCaffreyMaura McCaffrey remembers reading the want ad in her Sunday paper — Health New England was looking for a clinical pharmacist — and thinking this was a job she really wanted.

She had gotten to know many members of the staff at the Springfield-based health-insurance provider while working as a sales representative and then regional account executive for the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly, and had come to respect the company’s culture and team-focused way of doing business.

But there were some complications to making this career move. Indeed, McCaffrey and her family were living 75 miles east of Springfield at the time. Her twin sons were 4 years old. She had an office in her home, made her own hours, and drove a company car she would have to relinquish.

After some soul searching, though, she decided to apply, with the thinking that this was very likely to be a short-term assignment, a line or two on her résumé, and merely the latest example of what she described as a career-long pattern of being able to put personal fears and insecurities aside and take some risks to advance professionally. “My plan was to figure out what I could about managed care, and I thought I would be here 18 months, two years at the most.”

It didn’t work out that way, and she told BusinessWest that she knew this would be the case early, probably on her first day at HNE. But she didn’t tell her husband that until well after those 18 months she had originally given herself to figure out if this was going to work.

“I told my husband, ‘I have to apply for this job, I have to work at Health New England — this is my opportunity to find out what this company is all about,’” she recalled. “And he said, ‘well, that’s a little impulsive; you just read a newspaper, we live 90 minutes away. You want to take that job and make that commute?’

“I said I thought it would be worth it for 18 months,” she went on. “Three years later, my husband said, ‘you’re either all in on this and we’re going to move the family, or you’re going to find something else.’ And I said, ‘I’m all in — I just haven’t finished learning everything I want to learn from Health New England.’”

In the decade since, she’s gone from all in to all the way to the top.

Indeed, she recently succeeded Peter Straley as president and CEO, completing a succession process that began heating up over the past several months as Straley let his intention to retire be known, but has actually been a work in progress for several years.

hnelogo_cmykAs she talked with BusinessWest about her ascension, one that has quickly made HNE one of the largest women-led business in the region, McCaffrey said the company essentially put her on a path to the CEO’s office, and she took it, along with many more of those risks she described earlier.

There were several changes to the title on the business card along the way — she served as everything from Pharmacy Services manager to vice president of Marketing, Business Development & Medicare to chief executive officer — and that learning process she described earlier never stopped, and it won’t now that she has the corner office, she said.

Looking forward, McCaffrey said there are a number of challenges facing the healthcare industry and payers such as HNE, especially when it comes to controlling the cost of care and, overall, making the community healthier.

These two missions go hand in hand, she said, adding that the industry must somehow move from its current, and highly inefficient, fee-for-service model to one that rewards providers for keeping people from getting sick, not simply treating them when they take ill.

And one of the keys to progress is inspiring individuals to take responsibility for their own health, she went on.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with McCaffrey about everything from that path she took to the CEO’s office to the factors that are keeping more women from gaining such a title, to the prospects for real — and effective change — in the business of providing affordable healthcare.

Exercise in Firm Leadership

When it comes to taking control of one’s health, McCaffrey, like her predecessor, practices what she preaches.

She said she’s generally up by 4 each morning and starts her day with exercise, for a minimum of 10 minutes, but usually much more. She’s at her desk by 6 or 6:30 — “that’s my best thinking time” — and quite often, that desk sits three and a half feet in the air.

Indeed, McCaffrey’s workspace includes a desk leaf complete with a small motor that elevates it to a height by which she can work while standing, which, she states, is far more healthy than sitting for eight or 10 hours.

“I sit in meetings all day, which isn’t good for you,” she noted, “so I stand when I’m doing e-mails and other work.”

How McCaffrey, the proud daughter of Irish immigrants who came to this country in the early ’60s, arrived at the CEO’s office with the so-called ‘standing desk’ is an intriguing story, one that begins at an old-fashioned corner drugstore in her hometown of Leominster, roughly 20 miles north of Worcester.

There, after school, she worked the soda fountain, scooped ice cream, served coffee, sold cigarettes and lottery tickets, and, when the pharmacist was busy, would go out back and help him fill prescriptions, usually doing the paperwork in this era before computers.

Eventually, the store’s owner tried to convince her to attend pharmacy school — and had to keep on trying, because she was initially, and continually, resistant to that idea.

“I said, ‘are you crazy? How would I ever know all these prescriptions and all this stuff?’” she recalled, adding that the pharmacist eventually tried to persuade her by highlighting the job-security aspects of the profession — one has to be licensed to do this work — and when that didn’t work, he focused on financial security and schedule flexibility.

“But again, I said, ‘thanks, but no thanks,’” she went on, adding that he finally sold her when he said she could attend UConn or the University of Rhode Island and pay in-state tuition because Massachusetts didn’t have a public pharmacy school. That was welcome news because she was paying for college herself.

As she was graduating from URI, the pharmacist who started her down this road was selling his five stores to CVS, but he essentially made McCaffrey part of the deal, so she worked for that chain for several years, and thoroughly enjoyed the work.

“I loved every minute of it — it was a phenomenal career,” she told BusinessWest. “You saw when people were getting healthier or better, or they’d share stories about their families — it was a great job, and I had a great team to work with.”

Part of that job was to do community-support programs, where she would speak on behalf of CVS and talk about the benefit of pharmacists or educate the public about their medications. And in the course of doing so, she became acquainted with people in the pharmaceutical industry, who encouraged her to join them.

Eventually — after being reminded that, if this didn’t work out, she could go back to pharmacy work — she made the leap, joining Eli Lilly first as a senior sales representative and then as a regional account executive, handling much of Central and Western Mass. and working with companies like HNE.

And this brings us back to that want ad she read in the Sunday paper, and the learning that she wanted to continue.

Healthy Outlook

As she talked about her first years with HNE, McCaffrey said there were plenty of learning opportunities, which eventually exposed her to every department in the company, the people who worked in them, and the processes for achieving continuous improvement and growth.

“They allowed me to take on opportunities that were stretch-risk assignments for departments where I had no idea, technically, what they did,” she explained. “But I knew I could work with people and I could help manage people, and we could get to the outcomes. And I also knew that, if you gave me time and let me sit down and work with people, I could understand the department and what they were doing.

“One of these was the call center,” she went on, “and later, it was enrollment, provider relations, and credentialing. I didn’t have a strong background in those departments, the people here are team players, but it’s all about collaboration; they’re OK if you’re not the world’s leading expert on call centers — as long as you’re willing to jump in, learn about it, look for opportunities to improve, and take care to develop the people on these teams, which I was.”

Taking full advantage of the opportunities given her, McCaffrey started moving up the ladder, from clinical pharmacist to Pharmacy Services manager to director of Pharmacy & Service Operations to vice president of Pharmacy & Service Operations. Then came another one of the exercises in risk-taking — assuming a new position essentially created for her: vice president of Marketing & Business Development.

“I had some marketing background from Eli Lilly — they put us through great training programs, but I didn’t go to college for marketing,” she explained, adding that she leaned on those who did to help build the HNE brand, while also engaging in business-development initiatives, such as launching the Medicare and Medicaid product lines.

After six years in that role, she was promoted to COO, another newly created position, which included everything she was already doing, in addition to sales and a new IT department.

By the spring of 2013, she found herself spending more and more time at Baystate Health — HNE’s parent company — working with its CEO, Mark Tolosky, and board members, and filling in for Straley at a number of meetings and events. Late that summer, not long after Straley made clear his intention to retire and the timeline to do so, Tolosky offered her the CEO’s job. She took over early last month.

Her new office is slightly larger than the one she’s occupied the past few years, and the responsibilities are certainly greater, but McCaffrey said her management style and her approach to working with others within the company won’t change.

When asked to describe it, she returned to that word ‘collaboration,’ which she described as the opposite of dictating, which is certainly not her style.

“I believe that, if you get teams to work together, you get a better product than if just one person is in a dictatorship role,” she said. “But, likewise, you can’t be afraid to make decisions; you need someone who can be decisive and, with either limited data or as much data as you have, make those decisions.

“More importantly, my leadership style is based on what we call our high-performance culture,” she went on, adding that there are three steps to creating it:

• Make sure employees know and understand that they are responsible for their own performance;

• Likewise, employees are responsible for the success of those who are critical to helping them get their job done, what the company calls ‘shareholders’; and

• Make it clear that employees have to give up their own agendas for the good of the company.

“You need to develop core relationships with the people you work with,” she went on. “To me, that’s the cornerstone of the high-performance culture we have here; you must develop relationships, even with the most challenging people, the people that are most difficult for you, the people who have opposite personalities than you. My expectation is that you will then understand where someone is coming from and empathize, put yourself in their shoes.”

Future Tense

Teamwork and a high-performance culture has enabled HNE to outperform competitors that are exponentially larger, said McCaffrey, and those qualities will be needed moving forward as the landscape for health plans becomes ever more challenging.

Looking ahead, she said that change is necessary — that aforementioned shift from the traditional pay-per-service model to one that rewards providers for keeping people from getting sick — and that it is happening, albeit not as quickly as most people would like.

“If we’re changing the way we practice medicine, from the fee-for-service, do-more-and-you-get-paid-more world, to one of population management and being responsible for a global budget for people, while at all times maintaining the highest-quality care possible … that’s not going to happen overnight,” she said. “But can I look out on Western Mass. and see flickers of positive behavior? I absolutely can.”

“But even with continued progress in population management, the real key to creating a healthier community will be to inspire people to take control of their own health and well-being,” said McCaffrey.

“That’s a challenge for every provider that interacts with someone; it’s a challenge for every disease-management group,” she told BusinessWest. “How do you convince someone that wearing a pedometer and walking 10,000 steps a day is really a good thing? They can read the material, they understand that, and they understand that, if they eat McDonald’s three times a week, that’s not good for their heart. Moving from knowing something to doing something, or not doing something, is the key.”

Now one of the few women in top-leadership positions among the region’s largest employers, McCaffrey was asked about these numbers and whether they are likely to change.

She said they might, if the business community becomes more willing to give women such opportunities and, more importantly, if women are willing to take the risks and do the hard work necessary to seize those opportunities.

“Women have to be willing to take risks and put themselves out there,” she said, adding that this goes for men as well. “If you want to sit back and hope that someone comes to you someday and says ‘would you like to be a CEO?’ then the chances of that happening are slim to none.

“But if you’re willing to manage your fears and your insecurities and say, ‘I don’t know how to manage a call center, but I know how to manage people, and if you know how to do that part of a job, the technical aspects will take care of themselves,’ then you can get the role you want — there’s no doubt in my mind,” she went on. “You have to be able to put aside those fears and say, ‘I can do this.’ You can’t be afraid; you can’t let fear hold you back.”

Bottom Line

It’s been a very intriguing 10 years for both the healthcare industry and McCaffrey since she told her husband she was “all in” on Health New England.

She’s shown repeatedly that she’s able to put aside those fears and insecurities she mentioned and not only reach for opportunities, but grasp them as well.

This is a philosophy that she believes permeates the entire company, and she’s intent on keeping it that way, as evidenced by the language in a global e-mail she sent to the staff just after she officially took over as CEO.

“I said that I was excited about what’s in store for us,” she recalled. “I said that there are times of change still ahead, and that if we keep to the core of who and what our company is, we can look at this change as opportunity and growth for the company.”

And as she goes about that assignment, she can certainly lead by example.

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

Sections Women in Businesss
Arguments Rage Over Its Size, Causes, and Potential Solutions

EqualPayWhile pushing for the proposed Paycheck Fairness Act, President Obama trotted out an oft-repeated statistic — that working women in the U.S. make, on average, 77 cents for every dollar that men earn.

It’s a startling figure, but one in serious dispute, because it uses raw median wages from census data, and doesn’t take into account a number of differences between men and women, including the fact that women work fewer hours on average — with parental obligations being a large factor — and the fact that the careers they choose are, on average, lower-paying than male-dominated fields.

Obama’s own Department of Labor reported as much in 2010, noting that “there are observable differences in the attributes of men and women that account for most of the wage gap. Statistical analysis that includes those variables has produced results that collectively account for between 65.1% and 76.4% of the raw gender wage gap … and thereby leave an adjusted gender wage gap that is between 4.8% and 7.1%.

Even that single-digit gap, however — which economists have not been able to explain — is too much, say proponents of the federal Paycheck Fairness Act, several iterations of which have been proposed over the past decade, the most recent having passed the House but stalled in the Senate in April.

According to U.S. News & World Report, the act seeks to make wages more transparent, requiring employers to prove that wage discrepancies are tied to legitimate business qualifications and not gender, and prohibiting companies from taking retaliatory action against employees who raise concerns about gender-based wage discrimination.

“The Paycheck Fairness Act … still requires employees to meet an exceptionally high burden before an employer need even offer an affirmative defense,” argues the National Women’s Law Center, which supports the bill.

The center notes that, under the Equal Pay Act of 1963, a plaintiff must identify a comparable male employee who makes more money for performing equal work, requiring equal skill, effort, and responsibility under similar working conditions. “Employers may still pay different wages to male and female employees performing equal work if the pay decision is based on merit, seniority, or quantity or quality of production.”

Still, some supporters say the bill, even if eventually passed, is just a start, and that what the employment landscape needs is nothing short of culture change when it comes to accommodating the needs of women and paying them accordingly.

Mother of All Problems

For example, UMass professors Joya Misra, Michelle Budig, and Irene Boeckmann studied gender disparities across the globe and determined that, in most countries, the variation in employment and pay between mothers and childless women is greater than that between childless men and childless women, suggesting that these differences are driven not so much by gender as by parenthood.

Claudia Goldin, a Harvard economist who has written considerably about wages and gender, points out how a refusal by employers to accommodate mothers’ work-life obligations accounts for a significant portion of wage disparity over time.

“The gender gap in pay would be considerably reduced and might even vanish if firms did not have an incentive to disproportionately reward individuals who worked long hours and who worked particular hours,” she writes, adding that, ideally, companies should offer workers more options for how much to work and when to work, and not penalize them because of an unconventional schedule.

“Goldin’s emphasis on the relationship between more flexible working hours and lower wage gaps can fix the gap at the hourly level. It would allow women who put in the same hours as men — no matter when they put them in — to earn the same rate,” writes Bryce Covert in New Republic.

“Of course,” he adds, “flexibility probably wouldn’t have a big impact on the annual wage gap, which reflects the fact that women are much more likely than men to have to interrupt or completely pause their careers to care for children. But that doesn’t mean the government is powerless to reduce the annual wage gap. Initiatives like affordable child care and paid family leave can make it easier for caregivers — who, even now, are predominantly women — to pick up the kids from school or take time off for a new baby. It might also encourage more men to do the same things.”

Meanwhile, opponents of the Paycheck Fairness Act point out a striking pay disparity in the careers men and women choose, arguing that individual choices account for a large portion of that purported 77% gap.

Christina Hoff Sommers, the iconoclastic writer on women’s issues, notes in the Daily Beast that, despite efforts to promote STEM careers to young women, most engineering, math, and computer-science fields — among the highest-paying careers — are dominated by men, while nine of the 10 least remunerative college majors — including careers in education, social services, and the arts — are dominated by women.

“All evidence suggests that, though young women have the talent for engineering and computer science, their interest tends to lie elsewhere,” she writes. “To say that these women remain helplessly in thrall to sexist stereotypes, and manipulated into life choices by forces beyond their control, is divorced from reality — and demeaning to boot. If a woman wants to be a teacher rather than a miner, or a veterinarian rather than a petroleum engineer, more power to her.”

Stemming the Tide

Frank Bruni, an op-ed columnist for the New York Times, says those trends in career choice are not irreversible, but may, in fact, result from deep-rooted, long-standing pressures young women feel to follow certain career paths.

“If we’re concerned about them, if we’re concerned about all working women, we have to talk about child care, flexible hours, paid leave,” he writes. “We have to talk about gender stereotypes and whether they steer women into professions with lower compensation. We have to talk about the choices that women make and which of those they feel muscled into.”

He’s not the first to argue that women are raised to prefer ‘nurturing’ fields and that men are encouraged to prioritize pay over job satisfaction. Kay Hymowitz, a writer with the conservative Manhattan Institute, says that discussion often breaks down along political lines.

“According to liberals, if women are becoming pediatricians instead of neurosurgeons, public-interest rather than corporate lawyers, child-care workers rather than coal miners, and are working 35 rather than 40 hours a week, as they are, it’s because of what Frank Bruni described as a culture that ‘places a different set of expectations and burdens on women and that still nudges or even shames them into certain roles,’” she writes.

“In the conservative view,” she goes on, “it’s the natural differences between men and women which lead them to make many of the life choices they do, differences that could probably not be resolved by anything less than mandatory universal hormone injections. The two sides are not likely to reach agreement on this nature/nurture debate anytime soon.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Women in Businesss
Carol Campbell Thrives in the Male-dominated Construction Field

CampbellAs she spoke with BusinessWest last week, Carol Campbell was preparing to head down to Walt Disney World to run in her fourth half-marathon.
“I have to be competitive in business, but I’m not a good runner,” she laughed. “You’ll never see me in the top 100; my goal is to finish. But the training keeps me healthy, which allows me to do everything else I do. And it’s a good time for thinking.”
Of course, a few days in Florida in January — while much of the northern U.S. deals with something ominously called the polar vortex — isn’t a bad thing in itself. Or, as Campbell put it, “I’ll go run anywhere that’s flat and warm.”
But running isn’t the same thing as running a company, and she’s thrilled that her firm, Chicopee Industrial Contractors (CIC), has largely recovered from a very flat period that began in late 2009 and lingered through a crippling recession. “We’re good,” she said. “We’ve had better years, but I’m happy that we’re on a nice, steady incline.”
To get to this point, however, the company endured what she called the first crisis of morale in its 22-year history.
“We have had great years, and we have had OK years. Then, in 2009, I experienced something I had never seen in business — we just hit a brick wall,” Campbell said. While other types of businesses had been struggling since early 2008, CIC — whose services include rigging, millwrighting, plant and machine relocation, and structural steel installation — benefited, sadly, from a number of area plant closings.
“We were quite busy. We had a great year in 2008 and most of 2009, and then in December, I knew what everyone else was talking about.”
That began a period of downsizing and relative inactivity so severe that CIC essentially had to return to the infancy stage of its business to recover.
“We still had an infrastructure, but it had been chipped away because we had dealt with layoffs, dealt with downsizing, and lost some positions to attrition, and then, as the market started to increase, we were expected to do everything we had done before. We had the bones, but just the bones.”
And she’s not talking about the milk bones that Abigail, her 10-year-old llasa apso, snacks on when she accompanies Campbell to work every day. She’s long joked that Abigail has a role at CIC just like any other employee, even if it’s just providing stress relief through a few moments of therapeutic petting.
Hopefully the next several years will bring less stress than the last few, but if not, well, she and her team have overcome plenty of challenges before.

Moving Parts
Before launching CIC in 1992, Campbell was working as director of marketing and development for the UMass Fine Arts Center, but looking for an entrepreneurial challenge.
The recession of the early ’90s had taken a toll on various sectors of the economy, and three area rigging plants had shut down. CIC was a way to rescue many of those workers — including Campbell’s now-ex husband — and hit the ground running with a skilled team and equipment bought on the cheap.
“Some other businesses were not surviving, so there was a ready workforce for us. We were also able to get a lot of equipment at 50 cents on the dollar because of the auctions happening in the companies that closed,” she recalled. “So our entry into the market was a reasonably easy one.”
The economic landscape was still challenging, though, and Campbell faced personal trials as well, including a difficult divorce. But she gradually grew CIC’s client base to close to 1,500, with the majority of work coming form a core of a couple hundred repeat customers.

invest more heavily in personnel and equipment

Carol Campbell says CIC’s rebound from the recession has allowed it to invest more heavily in personnel and equipment.

“We have some good strategic alliances with local businesses that share our same vision of quality and how we treat employees, and they’ve been long-standing relationships,” she said. “We do a lot of repeat work, and we don’t sell based on price, but we give the highest level of service.” But the recession that exploded in 2008 taxed that business model.
“We had the same customer base, but they were dealing with their own issues from the recession,” she said. “All of a sudden, price just became the number-one driver in sales — whoever could provide the best price. Also, some businesses were trying to do their own rigging in house, as opposed to taking on that extra cost.”
She said it was “many months” before CIC got to the point where it could start investing in new equipment and regrowing the business — and to start rebuilding morale.
“One of the hardest things that came from the recession — and you find a thread of this with everyone you talk to — is, when there’s such uncertainty about work, there’s a change in morale,” she told BusinessWest. “We never had issues with morale prior to this; we had always been very solid. That’s why we spend so much of our resources on our workforce, training our workforce and keeping them at the level they need to be able to perform.”
That focus on rebuilding from within, Campbell said, has helped coax CIC back onto a steady incline of growth.
“We’ve been working with a grant from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to educate our workforce on computers — we’ve had a big difference in the level of knowledge about computers — and we’ve brought in outside facilitators and also had training from within,” she explained. “We’ve invested in a lot of new equipment, too; over the last couple of years, we’ve really increased our equipment inventory.”
Campbell repeatedly came back to the value she places on her workers — “we’ve been very fortunate, and many of our employees have stayed here many years,” she noted — partly because such a specialized field of construction faces a regional skills gap.
“We need to find programs to educate the workforce,” she said. “Having the desire to do this is not enough. You have to have experience. We do a lot of on-the-job training, but you still have to come in with years of experience.”
To that end, she’s teaming with other firms to develop more training programs in the community, as well as trying to create smoother career paths from technical schools into her industry.
“It all comes back to the same thing — we want to expand the company and offer new services, but we still need the workforce,” she said. “They say unemployment is high, but we don’t see that here.”

Growth Plans
That said, rigging, millwrighting, and CIC’s other specialties don’t tend to follow a specific business cycle, as evidenced by the flurry of plant-shutdown activity of 2008 and that figurative brick wall in late 2009. “It’s a feast-or-famine type of business,” Campbell noted.
But while the Great Recession might have changed the bar, she told BusinessWest she’s happy with where the company is right now, despite the fact that major expansion plans in Louisiana several years ago didn’t come to fruition — partly because of the difficulty penetrating a stubborn old-boys network.
“Our goal had always been to open up down south,” she said. “But we’re looking at some other opportunities up here for expanding our services. In the ’90s, everyone was, ‘do what you do best and outsource the rest.’ Now, everyone is looking for that one-stop shop. We’re pretty turnkey — from concrete and foundation installation to some structural steelwork to rigging and assembling — but we want to expand on that.”
She says being a female CEO in a male-dominated industry is neither the challenge nor benefit some might believe. Rather, what Campbell brings to the table is far more than her gender, as evidenced by an embroidered pillow in her office bearing the expression, “behind every successful woman is … herself.”
“There’s certainly no advantage to being a woman in this business,” she said. “Certainly we have all the certifications [as a woman-owned company], but I can count on one hand how many times we were hired because of those. It’s just not part of the hiring process for us. When they need our skills, they need our skills.”
And companies really do need those skills. She recalled one recent project where the client said CIC made the work look easy.
“But the next time they try it themselves, they get in trouble, and we get a last-minute call,” she said. “It’s a skill, and it’s an art. Sometimes it can be enjoyable to watch, like a ballet, watching someone set this large, awkward, heavy piece almost on a dime. I saw someone today who did not have an eighth of an inch of clearance as he moved the piece around. It’s a touch; it’s a feel.”
At the same time, she has a feel for the community around her, long making civic involvement a key part of her life.
“I feel Chicopee Industrial Contractors has an obligation to give back to the community,” said Campbell, who serves on the board and executive committee of Westmass Development, the executive board of the Women’s Fund of Western Mass., the board of Associated Industries of Mass., and the board of directors for the Chicopee Chamber of Commerce, as well as recently being invited to the Dress for Success board of directors, just to name a few activities.
“It’s a way I can give back, but I’d be foolish not to say it’s a good way to network, too,” she told BusinessWest. “There’s a good feeling of pride and self-worth in being able to use the skills and knowledge and experience that you just take for granted to help your peers, to help their organizations meet their goals.”

Bottom Line
It’s not much different, after all, than helping CIC’s clients reach their goals.
“The follow-up calls with customers are always positive,” Campbell noted. “That’s because we work hard to meet and exceed our customers’ expectations, and I think we’ll continue to do that.”
After all, running a successful business is a marathon, not a sprint. Well, a half-marathon, at least.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]