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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.