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Women of Impact 2018

Assistant Director for Public Services, Springfield City Library

Photo by Dani Fine Photography

 

She Keeps Writing New Chapters to a Story of Community Activism

Jean Canosa Albano says she’s been called an ‘honorary Latina,’ not once, but on a number of occasions.

That’s not an official title by any means — there’s no plaque or certificate to this effect, obviously — but it might be the honor, or designation, she’s most proud of.

That’s because, while she’s not Hispanic in origin, she speaks Spanish — she’s studied it here and abroad — and has therefore made thousands of non-English-speaking visitors to the Springfield City Library more comfortable and better able to utilize its many resources.

More importantly, though, she has advocated for that constituency — and in many ways become part of it — during a lengthy career devoted not only to library science but to community building and community involvement.

A few weeks back, Albano again led a contingent from the Springfield City Library marching in the annual Puerto Rican Parade through downtown Springfield, something the library has done the past several years. It’s a symbolic step and an indicator of how the institution, and especially Albano, have taken great strides, literally and figuratively, in efforts to serve that constituency and connect it with resources.

“I’m not a Latina — I have a different heritage,” she told BusinessWest. “But I have embraced it as much as somebody from outside the culture can. “I’ve been called an honorary Latina, and I love it when I hear people say that.”

But service to the Hispanic population is only one chapter, albeit an important one, in the story of Albano’s career spent with the library — and as someone committed to being involved in the community and inspiring others to get involved.

“I’m not a Latina — I have a different heritage. But I have embraced it as much as somebody from outside the culture can. “I’ve been called an honorary Latina, and I love it when I hear people say that.”

To put that service, and her career, in their proper perspective, she said that all through it, she has adopted a variation, if you will, of Shirley Chisholm’s often-quoted bit of advice. The first black woman elected to Congress famously said, “if they don’t offer you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.”

“I feel very fortunate — the Springfield community is very open and welcoming, so I haven’t had to bring my own chair very often,” Albano explained. “But I have made my own invitation sometimes; when I see something going on in the community that I would like to get involved in or when I think the library could benefit from me being there, or when we have something to offer, I won’t be shy about inviting myself to be part of it.”

Examples of this mindset abound, from her participation in the Reading Success by Fourth Grade initiative to Gardening the Community; from summer learning groups to the Young Professional Society of Greater Springfield.

With that last one, she acknowledged that maybe — that’s maybe — she’s not exactly in the target demographic group. But she saw a group with an intriguing mission and another opportunity to help strengthen the community through her own involvement.

“I said to myself, ‘they’re doing cool work, but maybe I’m a little old for that group,’” she recalled. “Then I saw some news coverage on them and heard that they didn’t have an age limit, so I decided to join. I go to the social events, and have learned about the small-business development happening in those circles, and connected them to the library; I really enjoy it.”

Jean Canosa Albano, right, with friends Maria Acuna, a Realtor, and Holyoke City Councilor Gladys Lebron, at the 2015 Puerto Rican Parade.

Jean Canosa Albano, right, with friends Maria Acuna, a Realtor, and Holyoke City Councilor Gladys Lebron, at the 2015 Puerto Rican Parade.

As she said, she’s been making her own invitations and getting involved. And while doing that, she’s always looked for new and different ways to help others get involved and help them develop professionally — especially women and minorities.

Which brings us to “My Beloved Springfield,” a women’s leadership panel and information fair she created. The most recent edition, staged last spring, featured a host of speakers discussing the paths they took to leadership positions, including Springfield City Councilor Kateri Walsh; Arlene Rodriguez, a senior advisor for the Mass. Department of Higher Education; and others.

Looking back on her career, Albano said her command of Spanish has created opportunities for her — when she entered a poor job market in the mid-’80s, it helped her land a job with the Springfield City Library. And in many ways, she has dedicated her career to creating opportunities for others.

As we explore the many ways she has done that, it will certainly become clear why this public servant, who keeps writing new chapters to her story of involvement, is a Woman of Impact.

A Good Read

‘Spanish desirable.’

That’s the two-word phrase that caught Albano’s attention as she read a job posting for the library position that would become the springboard for a career she says she “fell into.”

It was as a library associate with the Brightwood branch in the city’s North End neighborhood, heavily populated by Hispanics then and now.

“I remember saying to my mother, ‘I think this is a job I can do and that you would love,” Albano recalled, adding that her mother wanted to get into library science after high school, but was hindered by the cost of higher education.

Turns out, she came to love it herself — not only the job, but working with and on behalf of the residents of that neighborhood.

“Speaking Spanish was a real help in not only communicating with people, but also getting out into the community, becoming part of it, and discovering what the people there wanted and needed — from the library and from life — so we could respond,” she said. “I remember going to the old version of the Puerto Rican Festival or just going out onto Main Street or visiting schools; there was a lot of filling in the gaps and building bridges — and that’s been the way I approach my work to this day.”

Indeed, while Albano moved on from the Brightwood branch — she came to the central library in 1989 — she has continued to build those bridges, taking her service to the community far outside the library walls, while also making that institution a welcoming and responsive resource for city residents.

In her role as assistant director for Public Services of the libraries, she wears a number of hats — as well as an ‘Hablo Español’ button. She’s involved with a variety of human-resources functions, including hiring and recruiting, and as she recruits, she’s looking for individuals who embody what she calls a ‘turned-outward attitude’ with regard to the institution and how it must function.

Albano acknowledged that, overall, the library’s role within the community has changed somewhat over the past 30 years, and so have the duties of those who work there.

She can recall working on the reference desk decades ago and fielding a wide range of questions from callers who couldn’t simply Google things when they needed the answer to a pressing question. She remembers fielding queries on everything from stock prices on a specific date to the ISBN (International Standard Book Number) for specific titles so people could order them (now, they just go on Amazon) to Dr. Seuss and his history in Springfield.

Today, while there’s still a reference desk, the librarian spends less time behind it, and the questions are generally much different than those of a generation or two ago.

“People will ask how they can upload their résumé to a specific site, or how they can tell if a website is legitimate,” she told BusinessWest, adding that today, libraries, while still storehouses of books and information, are more community hubs than anything else.

“The library is a place to be when you need some solace, a place to be when you need to reflect, a place to meet with neighbors and strengthen community,” she said. “It’s also a place to research your entrepreneurial idea, gather together to learn, and build community.”

Spreading the Word

When the Springfield City Library created a number of outreach teams several years ago, Albano was assigned — actually, she assigned herself — to lead the civic and community-engagement team.

The key word in that phrase, of course, is engagement, she said, adding that the group focused on connecting people with their city and getting them involved with government and the many issues impacting the community.

“A lot of people feel disconnected, and we wanted to do something about that,” she said, adding that, through partnerships with the Springfield Election Commission, the Secretary of State’s Office, the League of Women Voters, the Women’s Fund, and other groups, the library has helped stage ‘meet the candidates’ events and other informational programs.

“Speaking Spanish was a real help in not only communicating with people, but also getting out into the community, becoming part of it, and discovering what the people there wanted and needed — from the library and from life — so we could respond.”

Like “Slots, Pot, Veal, and Schools,” an intriguingly titled program focusing on the four ballot questions for last year, dealing with casinos, marijuana, animal welfare, and charter schools.

“That was a heated debate moderated and filmed by Focus Springfield,” she recalled. “And it was released throughout the Commonwealth, so we had hundreds of views beyond the people in the room.”

In recent years, the library has coordinated a host of other programs, including one on how to run for office and what it’s like to serve in an elected position, she said, adding that 30 or even 20 years ago, it is unlikely that the city library would have been involved in such matters. Today, though, as part of its changing role, the institution is acting as (or much more as) a connector and a convener.

And Albano has been at the forefront of many of these efforts, especially with the Hispanic population and other often-underserved constituencies.

The Hispanic population is now quite large in Springfield, said Albano, adding that, in the public schools, at least 60% of the students are Hispanic. These numbers demand attention, she went on, adding that institutions across the city, including the library, need more than people on their staffs who can speak the language — although that certainly helps.

They need people who can connect with that population, advocate on its behalf, and connect people with resources.

The city’s response, and the library’s response, to the needs of those impacted by Hurricane Maria is a good example, she told BusinessWest, adding that staff members there helped with everything from attaining a library card to figuring out where to receive help with insurance matters, and host of other issues.

“We were always thinking about ways to make a stressful time, a very traumatic time, less stressful,” she said, adding that thousands of refugees came into this region, and most all of them needed help on many levels.

While the Hispanic population has been a primary focus of Albano’s time and energy, so too has been the subject of leadership and helping others develop those skills.

Which brings us, in a roundabout way, to Sonia Sotomayor’s historic visit to Springfield in 2015 as part of the Springfield Public Forum, an opportunity Albano said she ran with.

Indeed, she was able to obtain multiple copies of Sotomayor’s book in English and Spanish and set up a book-discussion group. She was also able to help arrange a meeting with the justice, the nation’s first of Hispanic descent, prior to her talk.

Sotomayor’s book is titled My Beloved World, and it, and the justice’s visit, inspired Albano to launch “My Beloved Springfield,” a now-annual program that brings in women leaders to tell their stories and lead a moderated discussion.

It’s simply one aspect of her broad efforts to help foster the next generation of leaders for this region, a role she takes very seriously.

“If you’re going to truly be a woman of impact, you have to pass things along,” she explained. “You have to make opportunities known to others, and you have to help them get there.”

Volume Business

As noted earlier, Albano hasn’t had to bring too many lawn chairs with her during her career. Indeed, she’s been given seats at a number of tables.

But she has invited herself to get involved on many occasions and in many ways, bringing the community into the library and the library into the community while doing so, and strengthening both.

Thirty years after taking a job her mother would love, she has come to love everything about it, especially the many forms of outreach.

She loves those almost as much as being called an honorary Latina.

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

Women of Impact 2018

Owner, Principal, Dietz and Company Architects

She’s Long Had Designs on Building a Stronger Community

Photo by Dani Fine Photography

The course was titled “Architects as Leaders.”

Kerry Dietz taught it at UMass Amherst, her alma mater, several years ago. This was a one-off of sorts, she told BusinessWest, adding that there was a critical mass of students interested in this material — which amounted to insight and instruction not on how to design structures, but rather on how architects could and should become leaders within their communities — and circumstances haven’t permitted her to teach it again.

But while that class is no longer in the catalog, ‘architect as leader’ has been a course of action for Dietz — and those who have come to work for her over the past 30 years or so. It’s a phrase that defines her career more than any building or office interior she’s designed, and it explains, better than any other three-word phrase we can find, why she is a Woman of Impact.

Examples of this mindset abound — from her time spent on the Springfield Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals to her company’s involvement with several area nonprofits, from Revitalize CDC to Habitat for Humanity, to her decision to locate her growing company in Union Station at a time when that massive project was fairly desperate to land a high-profile tenant.

And then, there was the company’s 30th birthday party.

Rather than celebrate with a cake or maybe lunch on the town, the employees at Dietz & Company, as a group, decided to use that occasion to give back within the community, in a big way.

She took that number 30, added three more zeroes, and put a dollar sign at the front. And then, she and her team set about finding appropriate ways to bestow that amount on members of the community.

“She has also been an inspiration to me personally in promoting and supporting social-issue programs that support food and housing for the homeless, veterans’ housing, and health and scholarship funding for low-income students and families.”

Throughout the course of the year, a cookout was hosted by Dietz & Company staff for veterans of the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke, and a monetary donation was made to assist with the home’s Veteran’s History video project. Also, a monetary donation was made and staff members volunteered their time to help make repairs to the home of a low-income Springfield resident as part of Revitalize CDC’s Green-n-Fit Neighborhood Rebuild. And $25,000 worth of materials and projects were funded for Springfield teachers through a competition in which initiative and impact were honored for educators going the extra mile to help and encourage the success of their students.

It was Dietz’s concept, but it was a company-wide effort.

“I basically said, ‘here’s my idea — the broad stroke,’” she recalled. “And people ran with it. As a company, we figured out who we wanted to support, and they (team members) did all the organizing. All you have to do sometimes is say, ‘let’s do it.’”

But Dietz has never waited for round-number anniversaries to become active and get herself — and her firm — involved. And in doing so, she has become not only an employer, but an inspirational leader, role model to those in this profession, and mentor.

“Kerry has committed her life to promoting women in the practice of architecture by promoting a fair work environment in her firm and as a leader in the Massachusetts architectural and business community,” said Kevin Riordon, an architect at Dietz. “She has also been an inspiration to me personally in promoting and supporting social-issue programs that support food and housing for the homeless, veterans’ housing, and health and scholarship funding for low-income students and families.”

While doing all that work within the community, Dietz has established herself within the field of architecture, one long dominated by men. She owns one of the largest firms in the region, and has carved out several strong niches, especially in affordable housing and education.

It is this combination of excellence in her field and career-long designs on finding ways to strengthen the community that has placed her in the inaugural class of Women of Impact.

From the Ground Up

Deitz traced the ‘architects as leaders’ concept — as a college course but also the M.O. for her career — to a summit she attended in the early ’80s that was hosted by the American Institute of Architects.

It was memorable because it was not what she was expecting.

“It wasn’t about how to be a good supervisor or how to do marketing and make more money — it wasn’t that kind of thing,” she recalled. “Instead, it was about our place in the political world and within the community — what do you have to offer?”

Kerry Dietz, right, presents a donation to the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke as part of her company’s 30th anniversary celebration. Several staff members are in the background.

Kerry Dietz, right, presents a donation to the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke as part of her company’s 30th anniversary celebration. Several staff members are in the background.

And because of their training and the collaborative nature of their work, architects have quite a bit to offer, whether they fully understand that or not, she went on.

“If lawyers think they can run the world, and captains of industry think they can run the world, well … how about architects?” she asked rhetorically. “We receive an incredible amount of training on how to take a whole bunch of dissimilar thoughts and ideas and listen to a whole group of people, and pull it all together and create a building. And even before that, a vision of a building; it’s all really about listening to people and synthesizing all that.

“These are core skills the world needs,” she went on, adding that a commitment to putting these skills to work has guided her firm, not only in its design efforts, but within the community as well. And it’s been that way pretty much since she got into this business more than 40 years ago.

Our story starts in Ohio, where Dietz grew up and later attended Kent State University, majoring in architecture. She was one of just four women in a class of 150.

“Kerry is an outstanding example of what it means to be a community-oriented businesswoman. She is an extremely positive influence and role model for young professionals and the next generation of architects.”

After earning her master’s in architecture from Michigan State University, she worked for a few firms in Western Mass. before partnering with Phil Burdick and launching a firm that would bear both their names.

While that venture was short-lived, Dietz would go into business for herself, opening Dietz & Company Architects in 1985. It has been a staple in downtown Springfield ever since, growing from three employees to a high of 28 (currently 23).

Over those 34 years, Dietz and her staff have ridden out a number of economic downturns, which are felt in this field perhaps as much, if not more, than any other, and firmly established the firm as a leader in several areas, but especially the commercial, education, and housing realms.

The portfolio of recent projects includes the poker room and restrooms at the $960 million MGM Springfield as well as renovation of 95 State St., MGM’s local headquarters; bankESB’s banking center and corporate headquarters, as well as a number of other projects for that institution; 83 Maple St. in Springfield, the Merrick Phelps House historic preservation project; a new branch for the Bank of Western Massachusetts in Northampton; and many others.

In the education realm, the company has designed the UMass Center at Springfield facilities in Tower Square, the Hoffmann Environmental Center at Berkshire Community College, the King & Scales dormitories at Smith College, and numerous renovations and repair projects at Springfield Technical Community College, among countless others.

And in housing, recent projects include Parsons Village, multi-family housing in Easthampton; Roosevelt Towers, a multi-family project in Cambridge that is still ongoing; and Highland Woods, a multi-family and senior-housing project in Williamstown, among many others.

But while what she and her team have accomplished is certainly significant, it is how Dietz runs her company that sets her apart within the field of architecture — and makes it clear why she is a Woman of Impact.

Drawing Inspiration

And this brings us back to the company’s 30th-anniversary celebration, and also to that class she taught at UMass and the mindset behind it.

“We started reading these stories about how teachers were paying for stuff out of their own pockets and they can’t get tax deductions for it even,” she recalled. “And we thought, ‘what if we could fund some special projects that teachers wanted to do?”

Working in concert with Springfield School Volunteers, Dietz & Company invited teachers to visit a website and propose specific initiatives, listing motivations, goals, and possible outcomes. It was competition, but the company had enough money to fund all the requests.

“We had an awards ceremony at Central High School where we had wine and hors d’oeuvres for the teachers, because they don’t get recognized for all they do,” said Dietz. “And some of them are just amazing in terms of what they’re doing with the limited resources they have.”

The work with Springfield’s teachers, as noted, is just one example of the operating mindset at Deitz & Company, one that is perhaps best summed up in the company’s primary marketing slogan — ‘design that looks good, does good’ — with the supporting line: ‘with a collaborative and dynamic approach, our designs reflect the desire to create exceptional architecture that also serves.’

There is much that goes into those two words ‘good’ and ‘serves’ — everything from a focus on the environment to meeting the needs of the client; from preserving the past to sustainability. But behind it all is that focus on this firm, and especially its founder, being leaders in the community and setting a tone when it comes to giving back.

Indeed, when referring to Dietz, team members consistently use words and phrases like ‘mentor,’ ‘role model,’ and ‘inspiration’ to describe her as well as her approaches to architecture and community involvement.

“Kerry has shown an ongoing desire to give back to the community on many levels, from spearheading design-inspired solutions that serve the community through addressing housing and public-space needs, to a more grassroots-level approach by dedicating personal time and efforts to enrich the lives of others face-to-face,” said Mark Hellen, a project architect with the firm. “She continually teaches her staff and colleagues that there is great importance, and great need, in helping the communities that surround us in as many ways as possible.”

Jason Newman, another project architect, agreed.

“From the perspective of a young professional, Kerry’s drive to educate and develop the next generation of architects is as much present in her company as it is in the classroom,” he said. “She continually creates learning opportunities within the context of our work, and does not punish a mistake made with good intention.

“Our office is an environment of shared learning, equity, and support in all aspects of our operation,” he went on. “In my opinion, Kerry is an outstanding example of what it means to be a community-oriented businesswoman. She is an extremely positive influence and role model for young professionals and the next generation of architects.”

Newman took the class “Architects as Leaders.” He remembers it opening his eyes to the larger responsibilities of all people in business.

“We learned about public engagement, advocacy in local governments, and serving the greater context of the communities in which we work,” he told BusinessWest. “Our assignments throughout the semester included things like attending the local government meeting of our choice and forming conclusions on the social impact of the items on the agenda, good or bad. This class taught us the importance of being aware and participating in the big-picture issues at the forefront of our communities.”

The Bottom Lines

The big picture.

That’s always been what Kerry Dietz has been focused on.

That’s not the company’s bottom line — although she’s focused on that, too. Rather, it’s the health and vitality of the communities in which she lives, works, and designs buildings.

She doesn’t teach “Architects as Leaders” anymore — actually, time doesn’t permit her to do much, if any, teaching these days.

But she still lives by that credo, and so does her firm. And that’s a very solid foundation on which to build.

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

Women of Impact 2018

Executive Director, Springfield Housing Authority

Photo by Dani Fine Photography

Throughout Her Career, She’s Been Both Active and Visible

Denise Jordan says she was caught off guard — “blindsided” was her exact terminology — when Domenic Sarno, then Springfield’s mayor-elect, asked her to be his chief of staff when he assumed the corner office in early 2008.

Not just because she had only recently started working for him on the campaign trail, but also because she had no real idea just what a chief of staff did and what this position might mean for her, career-wise and otherwise.

So she researched it the way people research things these days.

“I Googled ‘chief of staff,’” she told BusinessWest with a wide smile on her face, adding that her online search was, for the most part, fruitless. Indeed, about the only material she could find regarding that title related to the military.

Still desperate for some insight into what a chief of staff does, she said she started watching reruns of The West Wing hoping to get a clue.

In the final analysis, she said ‘yes’ to Sarno’s offer without really knowing just what the job entailed and what she would be doing day in and day out. Which turned out fine, because if there was a standard, or traditional, job description for the Springfield mayor’s chief of staff (and there wasn’t, really), Jordan essentially tore it up and wrote her own.

“She was driven, but she also had a great deal of compassion and empathy — and that’s important in this business.”

Indeed, during her more than 10 years in the post, she was highly accessible and visible (something most mayoral chiefs of staff were not) and also innovative and even entrepreneurial in her efforts to serve the city’s roughly 150,000 residents and represent her boss and his plans for the city.

Most everyone remembers how she was front and center after the June 1, 2011 tornado that practically went over the roof of City Hall as it traveled to the south and east across the city, working 45 straight days and assuming a wide variety of duties in an effort to restore order and begin the work of rebuilding.

But in many ways, she was like that every one of the nearly 4,000 days she spent as chief of staff for the Sarno administration, displaying the qualities needed to do that job well, but also being a true leader within the community.

“She was driven, but she also had a great deal of compassion and empathy — and that’s important in this business,” said the mayor, adding that Jordan, now executive director of the Springfield Housing Authority, is recognized as a “voice of leadership” not just for the city but in the region.

This explains why she’s been asked to lend her time, energy, and talents to organizations and causes ranging from Rays of Hope (she’s a breast-cancer survivor herself) to Square One; from the Massachusetts Women of Color Coalition to the United Way of Pioneer Valley’s Women’s Leadership Council.

And when asked for her working definition of ‘leader’ and what separates such an individual from a manager, Jordan offered a response that explains why she is a Woman of Impact.

Denise Jordan says she grew up in a “house of service,” and all through her life and career she has made it a priority to give back.

Denise Jordan says she grew up in a “house of service,” and all through her life and career she has made it a priority to give back.

“Managers tend to the day to day, and they keep things going,” she explained. “Leaders … they chart the path; they’re the ones who hold folks accountable and set the tone for an organization. Leaders are people who other people follow, not because they have to, but because they believe in their ability to lead.”

Stay with us, and soon it will be clear why Jordan certainly fits her own description of ‘leader.’

An Involved Effort

Jordan was at the famous civil-rights rally at the Octagon Lounge in Springfield in 1965. Well, sort of.

Her mother was several months pregnant with her at the time, and she was there, as was her father, Raymond Jordan, later a long-time state representative, who was arrested that day along with many others. Denise said her parents were a huge influence for her growing up, instilling in her the importance of getting involved and serving the community.

“I always tell people that I grew up in a house of service,” she told BusinessWest. “Both my parents were actively involved in the civil-rights movement in Springfield, and they were also very involved in the community.”

Her résumé would indicate that she learned well from her parents’ example. It lists stints as a civil-rights officer with the Executive Office of Health & Human Services in Boston, a variety of posts for the Department of Mental Retardation, starting in 1989, and as a personnel compliance monitor with the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority.

But while carrying out those various responsibilities, she was also very active within the community.

“I just recall that, ever since I was young, I’ve always been someone who volunteered to do something,” she said. “When I was young, I did all the March of Dimes walk-a-thons, and just volunteered for anything and everything.

“I’m a product of the Girls Club on Acorn Street,” she went on. “And that was probably the beginning of just being around a lot of nurturing adults who always put us first and gave back. And I think, from that moment, I always strived to be one of those adults when I was old enough to be.”

She said she got her start within the community as a board member for Martin Luther King Family Services, and considered that a springboard to a wide range of service, from chaperone duties for the Martin Luther King Center’s black college tours to a stint on the FutureWorks board; from being a founding member of the Martin Luther King Charter School for Excellence to serving as president of Academic Athletic Arts Achievement Assoc. (5A) Football, a youth football league founded by her father in the mid-’90s.

She served for 10 years on the Election Commission and as chair for six years. Under Mayor Charlie Ryan, she served as co-chair of the Youth Commission.

All that work within the community caught the eye and the attention of Sarno. Jordan says she knew him, but not personally or very well when he called early in 2009 and invited her to a meeting, at which he revealed his plans to run for mayor and asked for her support.

He got it, and after the election that swept him into office, he named Jordan co-chair of his transition team. Not long thereafter, he had a different role in mind.

And as noted earlier, one of her first priorities was to make the chief of staff visible and accessible — to a host of constituents, but especially city employees.

“It’s been said that the doors of City Hall were really opened under the Sarno administration,” she said. “I remember my first week at City Hall … there were employees who had been in the building 25, 30 years, and they had never seen the chief of staff’s office the whole time they had been working there.”

Twists and Turns

Just to be clear, there is an official job description for the chief of staff’s job at the mayor’s office. The list of duties is rather extensive and includes everything from representing the mayor in dealings with constituents, city officials, and the business community to overseeing commission and board appointments, to being the mayor’s first point of contact for 2,800 municipal employees.

“Managers tend to the day to day, and they keep things going. Leaders … they chart the path; they’re the ones who hold folks accountable and set the tone for an organization. Leaders are people who other people follow, not because they have to, but because they believe in their ability to lead.”

But during a decade-long stretch that saw the tornado and a host of other weather events, a natural-gas explosion that damaged several city blocks, and a seven-year-long effort to bring a resort casino to the city, the position demanded that its holder provide real leadership, and Jordan did just that.

Especially in the hours, days, weeks, and months after the tornado tore a path across Springfield seven and half years ago. To Jordan, it seems like only yesterday, and the memories of that period remain etched in her mind.

She has vivid recollections from the moments just as the tornado passed almost directly over City Hall, such as gathering in the basement of that structure and later seeing what she described as “mass pandemonium” in Court Square and the area to the south.

She also remembers instinct kicking in as she hailed a passing police cruiser and directed the officer to take her to the city’s emergency command center on Carew Street.

“It was a like a scene out of a movie,” she recalled. “You literally jump in a car, and the sirens are going, and you’re driving down State Street trying to get where you need to go. To me, it was so reassuring to see the leadership qualities of the department heads of the city of Springfield; we had never had a disaster like that, but folks just knew what to do.”

Sarno said Jordan was one of those leaders, visible as always, doing whatever needed to be done, and acting with that aforementioned blend of drive and compassion.

“Boots on the ground, literally — that was her,” the mayor recalled. “She was out there in the days and weeks after the tornado, going to door-to-door in all the neighborhoods in that heat and humidity, talking to residents, assessing damage, helping however she could.”

Jordan was brand-new to the Housing Authority position when she talked with BusinessWest. In fact, it was her first day on the job.

She said she would approach it the same way she’s approached everything during in her career — by making full use of her strong listening skills, being visible and accessible, and putting those she’s serving first.

“Every job I’ve had, I’ve been paid to serve people,” she explained. “When the Housing Authority position came open … I didn’t see myself there initially. But the more I talked to people about the skill sets needed and things like that, I decided that this was something I wanted to pursue, based on the fact that it still put me in a position to help people.”

Soon after Jordan started her work with Sarno’s team in 2008, friends and colleagues threw a party to mark the occasion — specifically her becoming the city’s first African-American chief of staff. And as her time with the mayor was winding down, many of those people decided it was time to throw another party.

But Jordan, thinking another celebration wasn’t really necessary, decided to transform the event into a fundraiser for Rays of Hope, which this year celebrated its 25th anniversary (she was one of the event chairs).

Her goal was $5,000. When she talked with BusinessWest, she had more than tripled that, and checks were still coming in.

“I’m beyond excited and overwhelmed … it’s good to be able to give back to an organization,” said Jordan.

And she should know; she’s been doing it her whole life.

Impact Statement

Jordan told BusinessWest that she had to give up her leadership post with 5A Football about a year after becoming Sarno’s chief of staff.

As she recalled, her time watching football was devoured by city residents making various requests and demands.

“I was too accessible,” she said with a laugh. “Every game, somebody wanted a job, or they wanted to complain about their taxes, or they wanted me to get their kids into a certain school … after a while, it became too much.”

‘Too much’ isn’t a phrase you hear Denise Jordan utter very often. Her career has always been marked by her willingness to take on more, do more, achieve more, and be more of a leader within her community.

That’s the job description not for a chief of staff, but for a Woman of Impact, and that’s why she’s a member of the inaugural class of 2018.

By the way, she didn’t have to look that title up on Google. Her career’s work defines it perfectly.

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

Women in Businesss

Giving Credit Where It’s Due

Jennifer Calheno

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By All Accounts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dollars and Sense

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

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

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

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

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

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