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Opinion

Opinion

By Suzanne Parker

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment and women’s constitutional right to vote. This historic moment provides an important opportunity to emphasize that full gender equity requires racial justice and equity as well.

While the women’s suffrage movement benefited tremendously from the leadership of black women, it did not advance or include their right to vote. In fact, it took more than a half-century later for women of color to access the ballot with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The U.S. has a long history of denying its citizens the right to vote. ​Building a more equitable society means ensuring ​all ​people, regardless of race, gender, and socio-economic status, are able to participate in our political system. Many of our most heavily debated issues — the economy, healthcare, education, and public safety — carry tremendous consequences for those most vulnerable and with the least amount of political power.

That’s why it’s so important for girls, particularly girls of color, to be civically engaged as early as possible. Through our She Votes initiative, Girls Inc. helps girls realize the power of their voices, learn about the structure and role of the U.S. government, and even be inspired to run for elected office one day. Girls are innately powerful and, with the right opportunities and support, can grow up to be leaders and change agents in the world.

​Building a more equitable society means ensuring ​all ​people, regardless of race, gender, and socio-economic status, are able to participate in our political system.

Often overlooked in the pages of history, women of color have played an instrumental role in advancing civic engagement, voting rights, and social movements for centuries. From abolitionists like Sojourner Truth and Harriett Tubman to suffragettes and activists like Mary Church Terrell, Nannie Helen Burroughs, and Ida B. Wells, black women bravely fought for the rights of women and men long before they themselves were seen as equal citizens under the law or had the right to vote. They endured racial prejudice, discrimination, and even violence to advance justice and freedom for all. As ​educator and civil rights activist ​Nannie Helen Burroughs wrote​, “to struggle and battle and overcome and absolutely defeat every force designed against us is the only way to achieve.”

When the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed — making racial discrimination in voting illegal — it marked more than a century of work by black suffragists to secure voting rights for all people, which finally would include them. To this day, however, obstacles to voting still persist for black Americans and communities of color, including voter suppression, ​photo-ID requirements, early-voting cutbacks, under-resourced polls, and inadequate funding for elections.

Young people of color face additional barriers. ​Mail-in ballots, which many young people complete (as well as first-time ​voters and people of color), have been found to be rejected at a higher rate than in-person ballots, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. Tougher voting rules, difficult absentee-ballot procedures, and irregular school and work schedules serve as additional obstacles to young people exercising their right to vote.

Increasing voter participation is critical for democracy. With Nov. 3 just two short months away, we must do everything we can to ensure safe, fair, and accessible elections amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Many states have begun preparations to educate people about the health risks, make polling places as safe as possible, and also encourage voting by mail. We must also urge Congress to appropriate emergency funding to support such efforts, as the funds provided in the CARES Act fall tremendously short of what is necessary.

Millions of eligible voters, many of them women and people of color, are not active in our political decision making — and we need them to be. During this year’s centennial celebration, we remember the women who paved the way for future female voters and political leaders, and the work that remains to ensure ​all​ girls and young people grow up in an equitable and just society.

Suzanne Parker is executive director of Girls Inc. of the Valley; (413) 532-6247.

Women in Businesss

Critical Tools

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you want to get paid what you deserve? Want to learn how to maximize your income when looking for that next job?

Attend AAUW Work Smart, a FREE, salary negotiation skills workshop co-hosted by the Women’s Fund of Western MA, the Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women, the Treasurer’s Office of Economic Empowerment, and the Berkshire Community College Women’s Center.
This program provides women with the tools they need to overcome the negative impacts of wage inequality. AAUW’s Work Smart program is designed to empower women with skills to advocate for themselves in the workplace, close their personal pay gaps, and earn their market-value through salary negotiation.
Check-in begins at 5:00 p.m. and the program begins at 5:30 p.m. Light refreshments will be served.

Women in Businesss

Bringing the Past to Life

By Laura Grant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making Connections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fondon found that inspiring.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Workforce Development

More Than Clothes

Maria Pelletier found confidence — and a job — with the help of Dress for Success.

Applying for jobs can be a daunting task, especially if one does not have the right tools or preparation to nail the interview. Dress for Success, an international not-for-profit organization, is working toward helping low- to middle-income women achieve economic independence by boosting confidence and providing valuable skills, a network of support, and the right suit to get the job done — literally.

When Maria Pelletier lost her job in August 2017 — the first time she had ever been fired in her life — she felt like she hit rock bottom.

“It was the last thing I was expecting,” she said. “It really set me back and made me question who I am and what I’m able to do.”

Pelletier began collecting unemployment, and although she was applying for jobs, she wasn’t getting hired, and she couldn’t figure out why.

“I was just doubting myself,” she said. “I kept thinking, ‘why are they not hiring me? What is going on?’”

“We’re finding out where they want to work, how we can get them in the door, and what’s their path to move up the ladder and have career success, because ultimately, our goal is to help women gain economic independence.”

Fortunately, she stumbled upon a program called Dress for Success Western Massachusetts, which she says gave her the confidence she needed to get back on track. When asked about her journey through the program, Pelletier had three short words: “where to begin?”

The most important thing Dress for Success did for her was get her confidence back up. Pelletier applied and went through the Foot in the Door program, a course that helps women enter the workforce. She was able to get a job part-time at the Post Office while going to classes for the program.

Then, in April 2018, she got a full-time job as lead Client Service specialist at Baystate Medical Center, and has been working there ever since. In that role, she answers phone calls coming into the hospital, and hopes to continue to learn more about her department and grow into new responsibilities.

“The interview skills and the classes we were taught reinforced on my skills I already had,” she said. “It was just bringing it back out to the forefront and saying, ‘yes, you can do this.’”

Sense of Sisterhood

That, said Executive Director Margaret Tantillo, is exactly what Dress for Success is about — giving women the confidence they need to get into the workforce, whether it is their first time or they need a little help to get back out there.

While the name entails part of the organization’s mission, to supply women with clothing for a job interview — or a few days of outfits once a job is secured — from the Dress for Success boutique at the Eastfield Mall, this is only part of the mission. “The suit is the vehicle, or just one aspect of what we’re able to do,” Tantillo said.

She told BusinessWest there are two workforce-development programs, and a third on the way, designed to help women become financially independent and confident in themselves.

Foot in the Door, launched in 2016 to help underemployed and unemployed women enter the workforce, is a collaboration between Springfield Technical Community College and Holyoke Community College instructors, who provide training on the interpersonal skills that are necessary for any workplace.

Margaret Tantillo says Dress for Success offers women a community of support — a sisterhood of sorts.

Within three months of graduating from this program, 70% of women, on average, are either in school and/or working, Tantillo explained. Program directors also make sure to prioritize putting women in jobs that are the right fit for them.

“We really work with our participants to find out what their interest is and what their skillset is,” said Tantillo. “We’re finding out where they want to work, how we can get them in the door, and what’s their path to move up the ladder and have career success, because ultimately, our goal is to help women gain economic independence.”

Having a good relationship with employers and referring agencies in the region is a big part of this, and Tantillo said practice interviews are available for women who finish the program successfully so they can receive feedback before going into the real interview. Some even get jobs right from the practice round.

On a more personal level, Dress for Success offers the Margaret Fitzgerald one-on-one mentorship program for women who are looking for jobs or recently entered the workforce. Each participant is paired with a professional woman in the community to work with on an individual basis.

“They are able to form a relationship so they can guide and support women in terms of whatever their unique, individual need is,” said Tantillo, adding that the program recently received an anonymous donation of $25,000. “The women who have come through that have had some really good results.”

She added that having a role model is a big part of women finding success in the programs, as many of them have not been fortunate enough to have role models in their lives.

The name of the program comes from a female mentor herself. Margaret Fitzgerald was a secretary and the only woman in the Physics department at Mount Holyoke College in the 1970s. She was called “mom” by many of the women enrolled in that program and acted as a mentor, advocate, and friend to the students. The female leaders in this program hope to do the same thing for their participants.

The newest program, The Professional Women’s Group, is set to launch in January 2020 with help from Eversource. It will focus on promoting employment retention and career advancement by providing valuable information, tools, and resources while creating a safe environment for participants to network with other professionals.

“They have a real sense of responsibility because what they do doesn’t just impact them, it impacts the next person we refer to that employer. It’s interesting to see how people respond when they feel like they’re part of something bigger.”

This group of women will be recruited from other programs and aims to help them especially in the first six months of a job, which are critical in terms of how people perform.

“The unemployment rate is lower, so there are more people in jobs that need the instruction and guidance about how to retain a job,” Tantillo said.

This new program, she explained, is intended to supplement the ones already in place at Dress for Success, and is framed around five pillars: workplace etiquette, work/life balance, financial health, health and wellness, and leadership and civic responsibility.

“We provide them with a community of support,” she noted. “We’ve had women talk about how they feel like this is a sisterhood and that they’ve never felt so supported before in their lives.”

Opening New Doors

Confidence. Community. Sisterhood.

These key words mentioned above several times are what Dress for Success instills in women utilizing its programs. And these women want to succeed not only for themselves, but for each other.

“The flip side is, now, when they’re in a job, they have a real sense of responsibility because what they do doesn’t just impact them, it impacts the next person we refer to that employer,” Tantillo said. “It’s interesting to see how people respond when they feel like they’re part of something bigger.”

For Pelletier, she gained not only a community of support, but a second chance.

“I was at rock bottom, and I said, ‘OK, let me try this. Let me see where it goes from there,’” she said. “They can either kick me to the curb or they can say, ‘hey, come on in.’ And luckily, they said, ‘come on in.’”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Education

Breaking Down Stereotypes

A mom of two young children, Alysha Putnam strives to be a mentor for women of all ages in the PVWIS.

Science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) jobs have historically been labeled careers for men. Those stereotypes, along with unfair treatment of women in STEM, have dissuaded many from beginning or furthering such careers. Luckily, women in STEM are becoming less of an exception, and thanks to the hard work and dedication of many colleges and organizations, women now have more resources than ever to follow their STEM dreams.

Wearing many hats is a common theme for women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields.

Parent, teacher, student, and scientist are only a few that Alysha Putnam can name off the top of her head.

When speaking about her journey, she recalls it was a bumpy road, and says several female mentors helped her become the successful woman she is today.

“It was because of various key people — particularly women, actually — who believed in me despite the life challenges that I was going through, that I was able to be successful despite all the chaos,” she said.

One of these women was her master’s adviser, Paulette Peckol, who, as Putnam recalls, was very accepting of the fact that she had two young children and was flexible with her schedule.

Now, as a teaching and research assistant at UMass Amherst in the organismic and evolutionary biology Ph.D. program, she teaches classes while pursuing her research-focused doctoral degree. Throughout this journey through education, Putnam said, she has developed a strong passion for giving back in the same way she was supported.

Unfortunately, women in STEM, including moms like Putnam, have historically faced backlash, oftentimes driving them away from pursuing a career in these fields or even discouraging them from continuing to climb the ladder once they are established. But Putnam and other women in Western Mass. are using their own personal experiences to try to improve the lives of other women who are hoping to make it in these fields.

That’s why Putnam wears yet another hat: co-founder of Pioneer Valley Women in STEM (PVWIS). She and fellow co-founders Melissa Paciulli, Beth McGinnis-Cavanaugh, and Michelle Rame dedicate much of their time to being a support system and connector to women either already in STEM fields or pursuing such a career. Putnam is an alumna of Holyoke Community College (HCC), Paciulli serves as the director of the STEM Starter Academy at HCC, and Rame is an HCC graduate and current engineering student at Western New England University.

One of their biggest goals is to squash many of the stereotypes that surround both women in STEM, at community colleges specifically. 

“Stereotypes in STEM as a whole exist,” Paciulli said. “I think it’s important to really recognize that all people belong in STEM — people of all abilities and all races and all sexual orientations. We at PVWIS really believe in inclusivity, and through the community colleges we can provide access to a wide, diverse population for STEM, and we can really tackle that issue of diversity in STEM through our work within the region and within the community colleges.”

And they are not the only women in the area making it their goal to help women pursue and excel in these fields.

Gina Semprebon, founding director for the Center for Excellence in Women in STEM (CEWS) at Bay Path University, notes that her own experiences inspired her to start this program to help women pursuing STEM careers.

“I had a really hard time trying to break into the STEM field when I did,” she said. “It was so clear, even as a student for my graduate work, that there was bias. The males were breezing through, and the few women that were in there were not getting the help or support they needed, or were actually being thwarted.”

Fortunately, programs like PVWIS and CEWS are providing access to resources and educational opportunities for these women to follow their passion and climb the STEM ladder.

Turning Experience Into Expertise

When Susanna Swanker walked into the first day of her college internship, the women’s restroom had to be cleaned out for her because it was being used for storage.

Susanne Swanker

At S.I. Group (formerly Schenectady International), she was a chemist working on a pilot project. Aside from the secretary (whom Swanker bonded with very well), she was the only woman in her area. She remembers going to work in a hardhat and jeans while her other friends in accounting or social-services positions were getting dressed in business professional attire.

“It’s a different field, so you have to be willing to do those things,” she said. “I think sometimes maybe that’s a little off-putting or it’s not so attractive for people. But if you love the work, and I think that’s maybe where the challenge is, you get past that.”

Now dean of the School of Business, Arts, and Sciences at American International College, she is working toward refining STEM programs at the university to better fit students’ interests.

Being the only woman in a STEM room is not limited to the workplace. McGinnis-Cavanaugh said it is not unusual for her to be the only woman in the room while she is teaching engineering courses at Springfield Technical Community College.

While the percentage of female faculty in STEM programs at STCC is healthy, she said, the female student population is not so great.

Melissa Paciulli says the events hosted by the PVWIS are intended to make connections and build relationships among fellow STEM women.

Being a woman who went to community college and experienced many of the same struggles her students now face is one of the main reasons why she co-founded PVWIS and continues to teach at STCC.

“I see myself in my students,” she said. “I don’t care what anybody says — community colleges still have that stigma attached to them. ‘Oh, you go to a community college, you couldn’t get into a real college,’ that type of thing. That really bothers me because I went to a community college, so that resonates with me in a big way.”

These stigmas, she said, are an issue of equity in the community-college world, and the everyday issues women in STEM often face come back to one word: access.

Beth McGinnis-Cavanaugh

“There should be no difference between the opportunities that men and women have,” McGinnis-Cavanaugh argued. “We kept coming around to the same thing, that our students needed access. That was the word that we kept coming back to. We were trying to think of ways that we could expose them to professional women, to professional situations and professional networks.”

Bay Path’s Leadership Exploration Analysis Development program has similar goals. This 100% online initiative under the CEWS umbrella provides a certificate to early- to mid-career women in STEM fields, giving them the leadership skills they need to advance in their career.

Michele Heyward, founder of PositiveHire and CEO of Heyward Business Consulting, acts as an industry expert for the program, and says this certificate provides women with the tools they need to continue to move up the ladder in their career.

 

From left: Gina Semprebon, Michele Heyward, and Caron Hobin.

“Men are generally promoted based on potential, while women and people of color are promoted based on the proof that they know what they’re doing,” she said. “It is truly essential to have programs like this that are in place, active and engaging for students who are generally going to go out into a workplace where they may be the only one.”

Caron Hobin, vice president of Bay Path, partnered with Semprebon on CEWS and says stereotypes and stigmas faced by women in STEM made it a no-brainer to kick-start the program in 2013.

“I was moved by the statistics that would scream loud and clear that women were just not advancing at the same level as men,” she said. “You’re surrounded by really sharp women, and you look around and say, ‘why is this?’”

Toward a More Equal Future

The statistics speak for themselves.

According to Million Women Mentors, 75% of STEM workers are male. In addition, only three out of 12 women who graduate with a bachelor’s degree in a STEM field still work in a STEM career 10 years after graduation.

That is why programs and organizations like CEWS and PVWIS exist, and these stigmas are slowly being squashed.

“We see ourselves as being the connecting point of all these different women across the Valley and bringing them together to support each other, to share knowledge, to encourage, to uplift, to make connections, to empower,” Putnam said. “As we interact with our community-college students here in Western Mass., we are seeing incredible women of all ages coming through the community-college system who are very capable and smart and just need the support and encouragement to say, ‘yes, you can do it.’”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Opinion

Editorial

When BusinessWest decided a few years back to create a new recognition program to honor women in this region, the next big decision involved assigning a name to this initiative.

‘Women in Business’ would have been the obvious choice, and publications with similar missions and audiences have gone that route. But that would be short-sighted, and it would leave out a good number of women who are making a real difference in this community.

‘Women Leaders’ is another option, and it would certainly work, because these are the individuals that this program was created to identify — and celebrate.

But we chose ‘Women of Impact’ for a reason. When we hear that word ‘impact,’ we think of people who are influencing this region in some way, creating positive change, improving quality of life, and moving the needle on many of the important issues facing society. And while doing that, they may also be very successful in business as well.

We also chose ‘Women of Impact’ because there are countless ways to make an impact in this region — each one of them important in its own way. It was and is our desire to show the variety of ways that people, and especially women, can be impactful. We were quite successful with this assignment in our first year, 2018, and we can say the same for the class of 2019. The stories for this year’s class are unique:

• Tricia Canavan, president of United Personnel, is a highly successful businesswoman, but she is having an impact in many ways, especially in her various efforts to help ensure that individuals possess the skills they need to succeed in the workplace;

• Carol Moore Cutting, president, CEO, and general manager of Cutting Edge Broadcasting, is also a successful businesswoman and a role model for women of color across the region. She also epitomizes the hard work, sacrifice, and the ability to overcome adversity that is necessary to succeed in business — and in life;

• Jean Deliso, principal with Deliso Financial Services, is also a successful business owner and has spent her career helping individuals, and especially women, become empowered when it comes to financial planning and securing a solid future;

• Ellen Freyman is an accomplished business lawyer, but she would be the first to tell you the biggest impact she is making concerns helping others, especially women and minorities, get involved in their communities and make an impact themselves.

• Mary Hurley has been a life-long public servant and has made an impact at every stop in her career — as a lawyer, a Springfield city councilor, mayor of the city, District Court judge, and, most recently, as governor’s councilor. At each stop, she has impacted lives in countless ways;

• Lydia Martinez-Alvarez, assistant superintendent of schools in Springfield and the first Hispanic woman to hold that post, is being impactful in many ways, from helping to ensure students can succeed in the workplace after they accept their diplomas to serving as a role model for young women, and especially Hispanic women;

• Suzanne Parker, executive director of Girls Inc., has transformed that agency into a powerful force when it comes to empowering young women and enabling them to seize career opportunities. As a mother and master of the art of balancing life and work, she is also a role model to those girls across the region; and

• Kate Putnam, managing director of Golden Seeds and a successful businesswomen in her own right, is making an impact in several ways, but especially in her efforts to mentor entrepreneurs, and especially women entrepreneurs, helping them attain much-needed capital and grow this region’s entrepreneurship ecosystem.

Eight stories. Far more than eight ways to have an impact on this region and the people who call it home. This is why we created a new recognition program and why we chose this name. And that’s also why the class of 2019 is worthy of celebration.

Women in Businesss

Women Supporting Women

Meghan Rothschild

Meghan Rothschild

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

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

Take social media.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Educational workshops

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

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

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

Choosing a Path

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fun with a Purpose

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

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

Ashley Kohl, owner of Ohana School of Performing Arts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Health Care

Combating ‘Hair Interruption’

By Mark Morris

Joan Quinn, coordinator of the Wig Boutique at the Cancer House of Hope in West Springfield.

Joan Quinn, coordinator of the Wig Boutique at the Cancer House of Hope in West Springfield.

When a cancer patient goes through chemotherapy treatment, feelings of nausea, fatigue, and hair loss are all common physical reactions. For women, loss of hair often adds an emotional element of humiliation and shame.

“I don’t call it hair loss; I call it hair interruption,” said Joan Quinn, coordinator for the Wig Boutique at the Cancer House of Hope (CHH) in West Springfield, who sees her mission as helping women look good and feel better about themselves while their hair grows back.

And she is passionate about her work, as will become abundantly clear.

The Center for Human Development (CHD) runs the Cancer House of Hope as a free community resource to provide comfort and support in a home-like atmosphere for anyone going through cancer treatment. Yoga classes and Reiki massage are among the many services offered there.

As for wigs … Joseph Kane, former director of the Cancer House of Hope (he left that position for another opportunity earlier this month), admits that, while they’ve always been available, they were often treated as an afterthought.

“If someone asked for a wig, we’d pull one out of a plastic tub, and it usually looked like it had bed head; it wasn’t ideal,” he said, adding that this important service has come a long way in recent years thanks to Quinn, who not only provided the drive to create and stock a boutique where there was none, but also staff it with volunteers, maintain a steady inventory, and raise needed funding to keep the operation thriving.

Our story begins with a visit to CHH by one of Quinn’s neighbors, who left her tour thinking that the wig service, such as it was, needed serious help, and that Quinn, a cosmetology-field veteran of more than 50 years who spent 26 years teaching the subject at Springfield Technical Community College, was just the person to provide that help.

“If someone asked for a wig, we’d pull one out of a plastic tub, and it usually looked like it had bed head; it wasn’t ideal.”

“My neighbor said, ‘oh, Joan, I know your standards, and this doesn’t meet them. You should stop in and see them.’”

She did, and this was, coincidentally, after an answered prayer left her looking for a way to give back — and in a big way.

Indeed, a few years earlier, Quinn’s son suffered from a heart condition that required a transplant. As he was living in Iowa City, Quinn flew there to help. “During that time, I prayed that he would receive a heart transplant and promised God that, if he lived, I’d give back tenfold.”

Her son did receive a transplant and is healthy today.

Feeling that she now had to deliver on her promise, Quinn had no idea how she could help the American Heart Assoc. But when the need for a better wig situation presented itself at CHH, she knew immediately she could make a difference.

And she has. Now in operation for more than three years, the Wig Boutique is currently booking appointments five days a week with three volunteer consultants. Quinn estimates the facility has provided more than 300 wigs for cancer patients since opening.

For this issue and its focus on healthcare, BusinessWest explores how the Wig Boutique came to be and why the services it provides are so important to women battling cancer.

Root of the Problem

As she retold the story of how the boutique was launched, Quinn noted that, under some health-insurance plans, cancer patients can purchase a wig and get reimbursed after the fact. In order to be covered under MassHealth, cancer patients must travel to its contracted wig provider located in Worcester.

When Kane learned that three wig providers in the area went out of business, the thought of a dedicated wig program began to sound like a viable idea.

“When I met Joan, she had a vision to make the wig boutique feel like a higher-end service,” Kane said. Likewise, Quinn credits Kane for what she called his “blind faith” that she could convert one of the rooms in the Cancer House of Hope into a boutique on a zero budget.

Volunteer Jan D’Orazio in the Wig Boutique.

Volunteer Jan D’Orazio in the Wig Boutique.

The energetic Quinn began by figuring out how many wigs CHH had and how to get them into presentable shape. Tapping into her network, she convinced her former teaching colleagues at STCC to open their cosmetology classrooms during summer break and made arrangements to have 110 wigs washed. “We even brought in people who didn’t know how to wash wigs, but we taught them.”

Now with a starting inventory, Quinn needed to purchase shelving material and clean lighting for the room. “It had to be organized, and it had to be cheerful,” she explained. “I could not envision people coming in to look through a tub of wigs.”

Before she even had shelves, Quinn approached local businesses and asked them to sponsor $20 shelf tags to be placed in front of each displayed wig. In a short time, she raised enough to pay for the building materials.

While planning the design of the room at the Home Depot, Quinn lamented that she had enough money for materials but not enough to cover labor. The Home Depot associate told her about a program the store sponsors where it would pay for the labor as a donation, a big step toward executing Quinn’s vision.

The finished room resembles a true boutique, displaying 59 wigs under clean lighting with a fitting chair and a full-length mirror. Kane said the boutique provides a unique experience for cancer patients.

“It gives someone who is losing her hair a chance to come in, meet with a professional, and leave with something that does not look like a wig — all for free,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s really powerful.”

When women first come in for a consultation, Quinn said, they are often reliving the horror of having cancer and confronting the reality of their hair falling out.

“Many of the women we see are depressed and fearful of taking off their head covering,” Quinn said. “While we can’t take away their fear, we reassure them that we work with many people in their situation and that this is a safe place.”

She added that the dozens of wigs displayed in the room help to shift the women’s focus away from themselves and onto which style of wig they might want.

“Current wig styles change quickly, so we’re always looking for new styles and quality wigs,” she noted, adding that she approached Sally’s Beauty Supply in West Springfield and left her name on a piece of paper to call if they ever had wigs they wanted to donate. The manager of Sally’s happened to pin Quinn’s contact information on a bulletin board, and one day, when the company discontinued its line of high-end wigs, Quinn got the call and filled two shopping carts with donated wigs. In addition to local donations, CHH receives wig and accessory donations from as far away as North Carolina and California.

Quinn told BusinessWest she is grateful for her network of volunteers and professionals, whom she refers to as her “angels.” She works with many salons in the area whose owners are often former students.

Quinn approached salons with a fundraising idea for the Wig Boutique called “Hang Cancer Out to Dry,” consisting of a small, desk-sized clothesline where customers can attach cash donations with miniature clothespins.

“In its first 17 months, this effort has raised more than $10,000,” Quinn said, adding that it’s not unusual for a salon owner to raise $300 from customer donations and then match it with a $300 donation of their own.

While Quinn pursues donations with great drive and enthusiasm, she also goes after volunteers the same way. Jan D’Orazio was shopping for Christmas decorations at Michael’s when Quinn approached her and asked if she was a hairdresser. D’Orazio replied that many years ago she was, but hadn’t done it in a long time.

“I must have been having a good hair day, because the next thing I knew, Joan was showing me pictures of the boutique on her iPad and encouraging me to join her,” said D’Orazio. “By the time I got to my car, I said, ‘what did I just agree to do?’”

Quinn freely admits she chased down D’Orazio and is glad she did. “Jan is very calm, and she makes people feel comfortable.”

Joni Provost also works with D’Orazio and Quinn as a volunteer coordinator for the Wig Boutique. The three women provide consulting services on selecting wigs. They do not cut or style the wigs, but encourage having that done at a hairdresser. Quinn said sometimes a woman brings along her hairdresser to the boutique. “We want people to feel this could be their hair and their length.”

A Cut Above

D’Orazio said one of the most rewarding parts of working at the Wig Boutique is seeing her clients change in demeanor.

She said many women who come in are feeling down and have what she described as a “cancer look.” The consultation helps to brighten their day and change their whole outlook.

“Last week, a lady came in who is fighting her third bout with breast cancer. When she was getting ready to leave, she was so happy and told me, ‘I feel like Cinderella; I don’t look like I have cancer anymore.’”

Those sentiments speak to how the boutique is providing not only hair and a certain look, but a chance for women to feel better about themselves as they confront perhaps the most difficult time in their lives.

Thus, it’s changing lives in a profound way.

Women of Impact 2018

Leaders Who Have Been to the Top

BusinessWest’s chosen Women of Impact for 2018 know what it’s like to surmount challenges, tackle huge obstacles, and clear bars they’ve set very high.

As they receive their awards on Dec. 6, they and a gathered audience of friends, family, and colleagues will hear some motivational words from someone who’s done all those things in a very literal sense.

Indeed, the keynote speaker for the Inaugural Women of Impact Awards will be Lei Wang, the first Asian woman to climb the highest mountain on every continent and to ski to both the North and South Poles. 

Wang, who earned a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from Tsinghua University in Beijing, an M.S. degree in Computer Science from University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, and an MBA in Finance and Marketing from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, was on track for a promising career in information technology — until she discovered her passion for mountaineering in 2004 and set her dream on reaching the peak of the world’s highest mountains on seven continents and skiing to the North and South poles.

With no previous athletic training, she started with running, from one mile to a marathon. She built her basic fitness foundation and learned the craft of climbing from scratch. She gave up a normal life to dedicate herself to this undertaking and overcame many physical and ideological challenges with her commitment and determination. Her remarkable journey culminated at the top of Mount Everest on May 24, 2010. With that climb, she became the first Asian Woman to successfully reach the world’s seven summits and two poles.

Wang now shares her reflections and experiences in front of a wide range of audiences as a motivational speaker. At the Dec. 6 event at the Sheraton in Springfield, she’ll be sharing the day with eight women who have reached the pinnacle of their chosen profession, but who have also devoted their lives and their careers to finding ways to give back to the community.

That’s why they’ve been chosen as Women of Impact, with the emphasis on both women and impact.

The Women of Impact for 2018 are:

• Jean Canosa Albano, assistant director of Public Services, Springfield City Library;

• Kerry Dietz, principal, Dietz Architects;

• Denise Jordan, executive director, Springfield Housing Authority;

• Gina Kos, executive director, Sunshine Village;

• Carol Leary, president, Bay Path University;

• Colleen Loveless, president and CEO, Revitalize Community Development Corp.;

• Janis Santos, executive director, HCS Head Start; and

• Katie Allan Zobel, president and CEO, Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts.

The awards luncheon will begin at 11 a.m. with registration and networking. Lunch will begin at noon, followed by the program and introduction of the Women of Impact by Kate Campiti, associate publisher of BusinessWest and Healthcare News and Tamara Sacharczyk, news anchor and I-Team reporter for WWLP-22 News.

The Inaugural Women of Impact is sponsored by Bay Path University, Comcast Business, Country Bank, and Granite State Development Corp, with media sponsor WWLP-22.

For more information or to purchase tickets, call (413) 781-8600, or go HERE.

Thank you to our sponsors:


Sponsors:

Bay Path University; Comcast Business; Country Bank; Granite State Development

Exclusive Media Sponsor:

Springfield 22 News The CW

Photography by Dani Fine Photography

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]

Cover Story

Working in Concert

Executive Director Susan Beaudry

Executive Director Susan Beaudry

As the Springfield Symphony Orchestra prepares to kick off its 75th season on Sept. 22 with “Gershwin, Copland, and Bernstein,” it faces a host of challenges shared by most orchestras its size, especially a changing, shrinking base of corporate support and a need to make its audiences younger. Susan Beaudry, the SSO’s executive director, says the way to stare down these challenges is through imaginative responsiveness — and especially greater visibility through stronger outreach. And she’s doing just that.

Susan Beaudry says there’s a great deal of significance attached to the fact that the Springfield Symphony Orchestra turns 75 this season — starting with the harsh reality that fewer institutions of this type are reaching that milestone.

Indeed, several orchestras, including one in New Hampshire, have ceased operations in recent years, and many, if not most, others are struggling to one degree or another, said Beaudry, executive director of the SSO for more than a year now.

The reasons have been well-documented — the decline of many urban centers where such orchestras are based, falling attendance, declining corporate support, ever-increasing competition for the public’s time and entertainment dollars, and an inability to attract younger audiences are at the top of the list. The SSO is confronting these obstacles as well, Beaudry told BusinessWest, as well as the additional challenge of not knowing who will manage its home (Symphony Hall) after the Springfield Performing Arts Development Corp. announced last week that it will no longer manage that venue and CityStage, leaving the immediate future of those venues in doubt.

But while the institution is not as healthy financially as it has been in the past, it embarks on its 75th season on solid footing (there’s been a 20% increase in the annual fund since Beaudry’s arrived, for example), with determination to stare down the challenges facing it and seemingly all arts institutions, and optimism that an improving picture in Springfield and especially its downtown will benefit the SSO moving forward.

And Beaudry is a big reason for all of the above.

The former director of Development for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Beaudry was recruited to the SSO three years ago to lead development efforts for the institution. When Peter Salerno retired in the spring of 2017, she became interim executive director and later was able to shed that word ‘interim.’

“If you’re always doing your product behind closed doors, then it’s easy for other people to decide who you are and to give you an identity in the community. So it’s our job to open those doors, to get out, and to be playing.”

She brings to her role experience with not only fund-raising but business management — she’s a graduate of the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst, began her career as a national and international product marketing manager for Gardner-based Simplex, and operated her own restaurant.

She’s calling on that wealth of experience to create a new business plan for the orchestra — figuratively but also literally — that focuses on raising the profile of the SSO, introducing more people to orchestral music, and taking full advantage of what is, by most accounts, a rising tide in Springfield and its downtown.

Summing it all up, she said the orchestra has to do much more than what it’s done through most of first 75 years — perform about once a month, on average, at Symphony Hall.

“One thing that I’ve recognized since I’ve been here is that we can and must do a better job with our outreach and education and sharing the good work that we do with the community,” she explained. “If you’re always doing your product behind closed doors, then it’s easy for other people to decide who you are and to give you an identity in the community.

Principal percussionist Nathan Lassell

Principal percussionist Nathan Lassell was one of the SSO musicians featured at a recent performance at the Springfield Armory, an example of the orchestra’s efforts at greater outreach within the community.

“So it’s our job to open those doors, to get out, and to be playing,” she went on, adding that there have already been some good examples of this effort to move beyond Symphony Hall and creating more visibility. There was the SSO string quartet playing in the renovated National Guard Armory building at MGM Springfield’s elaborate gala on the eve of its Aug. 24 opening. There was also a sold-out performance of percussionists at the Springfield Armory on Sept. 1, a performance that Beaudry described as “the coolest chamber event concert I’ve ever seen in my life,” and one that did what needs to be done in terms of changing some perceptions about the institution.

“People were cheering and laughing, and it was so engaging,” she recalled. “People walked out literally moved; they now have a new perception of what orchestral music can be like.”

There will be more such performances in the future, including 4U: A Symphonic Celebration of Prince, an MGM presentation featuring the SSO, on Sept. 18, said Beaudry, adding that, overall, the orchestra, at 75, must create the opportunities and support system it will need to celebrate 100 years and the milestones to follow.

It’s a challenge Beaudry fully embraces and one she’s essentially spent her career preparing for. And she believes the timing is right for the SSO to hit some very high notes moving forward.

“We’re sitting at the pinnacle place,” she said. “We have a chance to hit it out of the park.”

Achievements of Note

It’s called the League of American Orchestras.

That’s the national trade association, of you will, for symphony orchestras. The group meets twice annually, once each winter in New York and again in the spring at a different site each year; the most recent gathering was in Chicago.

At that meeting, as at most others in recent years, the topics of conversation have gravitated toward those many challenges listed earlier, and especially the one involving lowering the age of the audiences assembling at symphony halls across the country.

“Every arts organization is looking to lower the average age of its patrons,” she explained. “That’s the only way to secure your future — having people joining you at those lower ages, at a lower ticket price, and eventually that will filter upwards and be your replacement audience.”

Chicago and New York are only a few of the dozens of cities Beaudry has visited in her business travels over the course of her career, especially when working for Simplex, maker of the time clock, among many other products, as divisional senior marketing director — specifically, a division devoted to a fire-suppression and alarm product line.

“This was a job where you on a plane every Monday, and you didn’t come home till Friday,” she explained, adding that this lifestyle — especially eating out all the time — helped inspire what would become the next stage in her career, as a restaurateur.

“As a result of all this travel, I became very interested in regional cuisine,” she explained. “When you’re the marketing person visiting from headquarters, they want to take you to what they’re proud of — their symphony, their museum, their opera, and their best restaurant; after a while, those meals start to grow a little thin, as do your pants.

“So I would say, ‘instead of going to a big, fancy meal at yet another steakhouse, let’s find a little hole in the wall that’s a representation of what the cuisine is in this area,’” she went on. “So I became really interested in food.”

So much so that, when she became a mother, and that ‘get on a plane Monday, return home on Friday’ schedule wasn’t at all appealing anymore, Beaudry, after staying at home for a few years, opened her own restaurant, Main Street Station, in Chester, not far from her home and where she grew up, and just down the street from the Chester Theater Company, which her parents ran.

She described the venture as a hobby, one she pursued for three years, before “returning to work,” as she called it, specifically with the Boston Symphony as director of the corporate fund for Tanglewood. She stayed in that job for seven years before being recruited to South Florida to set up the annual fund for Junior Achievement, before returning to this region.

She said she was approached by David Gang, president of the SSO (he’s still in that role) and encouraged to apply for the open position as director of Development for the orchestra. She did, and came aboard nearly three years ago.

Beaudry said she welcomed the opportunity to succeed Salerno, and for a number of reasons. First and foremost, there was the opportunity to lead an orchestra, one of her career goals. But there was also the opportunity to orchestrate (no pun intended) what would have to be considered a turnaround effort for the institution.

And as she commenced that assignment, she did so knowing that she had a number of strong elements working in, well, harmony.

“People were cheering and laughing, and it was so engaging. People walked out literally moved; they now have a new perception of what orchestral music can be like.”

Starting with the conductor, Kevin Rhodes, who has been with the SSO for 18 years, remarkable longevity in that profession, and has become in ways a fixture within the community.

“He’s such a high-energy, high-profile person,” said Beaudry. “And he’s so willing to jump in to help promote the SSO. In the commercials on TV, he’s willing to dress up in costume, be in character, and be light and silly. And that goes a long way toward changing the perception of what’s happening at Symphony Hall, that it’s not stodgy and stuffy and only for a certain demographic.”

Another strong asset was the board, Beaudry went on, adding that many of the 30-odd members have been with the institution for many years and thus bring not only passion for the SSO but a wealth of experience to the table.

“We’ve been lucky to have board members who have stayed with us for a very long time,” she explained. “So you have institutional knowledge and history and some people who have been through the ups and downs of the organization and can give new leadership like myself feedback about things that have been tried in the past, things we haven’t done in a while that might be successful, and more. To have that kind of leadership has been very helpful.”

Sound Advice

But a well-known, community-minded conductor and a committed board are only a few of the ingredients needed for success in these changing, challenging times, said Beaudry.

Others include imagination, persistence, and a willingness to broaden the institution’s focus (and presence) well beyond what would be considered traditional.

And this brings us back to that list of challenges facing the SSO and all or most institutions like it, starting with the development side of the equation, where the corporate landscape is changing. Elaborating, Beaudry said that, in this market and many others, fewer large companies remain under local ownership, and thus there are fewer potential donors with keen awareness of the institution, its history, and importance to the city and region — a reality far different than what she experienced in Boston.

“The corporations have left or merged — you used to be able to hit five banks in a week and take care of half your season in corporate sponsorships,” she told BusinessWest. “Now, you have to call long-distance; running into the bank president on the street corner just doesn’t happen anymore. You’re taking to someone who doesn’t have any idea what you are or who you are to the community or what the giving history or the relationship history has been, and, sometimes, not interested in learning about it.”

Then, there’s the growing competition for the time and entertainment dollars of the public, she noted, especially the young professionals that comprise the constituency the SSO — and all arts institutions, for that matter — are trying to attract.

“You need people that have discretionary income and time,” she explained, adding that the latter commodity is becoming the more difficult for many people to amass. “Busy parents who are running to soccer games and ski races and cross-country matches are exhausted come Saturday night. Not only are we competing with how busy family lives have become, we’re also competing with the ease of entertainment right in your home. Come Saturday night after a really busy work week and really busy Saturday taking care of your life, do you have the energy to get dressed up on Saturday night and go out when you can order a pizza, open a bottle of wine, and order any movie you want on Netflix?”

In this environment, which, she stressed again, is not unique to the city and this symphony orchestra, greater outreach, and making more introductions, is all-important.

“If the environment’s changed and you’re still doing the same things, eventually you’re going to see your own demise,” she said. “So you need to be reactive and responsive. One of the things I’ve done is increase the number of events that we have. Events are a nice way to introduce yourself to the community, shake a lot of hands, and meet a lot of people in one evening — and from there you can build further relationships and start meaningful relationships around giving.

This was the case at the Armory concert and the performance at MGM’s grand opening, she said. Hearkening back to the former, she said it’s clearly an example of what the SSO needs to do more often — partnering with other organizations and institutions within the community and putting itself in front of before new and different audiences.

“The Armory had a concert series, and we contacted them and said we wanted to participate,” she recalled. “As a mission-driven community partner, we need to be doing more of that; we need to be out in the community.”

And the performance resonated, she said, not just in enthusiastic applause for the performers, but, perhaps even more importantly, in pledges for all-important financial support.

“I literally had people telling me, as they were leaving, that they were going to be giving us more money — they were so impressed, they wanted to increase their gift to us,” she recalled. “And in the end, that’s what keeps us playing — people loving what we do and becoming excited to support it.”

While adding more events, the SSO is also adding more family-oriented performances to its lineup, said Beaudry, adding that, in addition to the annual holiday celebration in early December, there will be On Broadway with Maestro Rhodes, featuring songs from Oklahoma, Carousel, Guys and Dolls, and other Broadway hits, and also a Movie Night with Maestro Rhodes, featuring music from Gone with the Wind, Casablanca, Lawrence of Arabia, and many other timeless hits.

Moving forward, Beaudry said the opening of MGM’s resort casino and the coming of big-name acts like Stevie Wonder, who performed on Sept. 1, and Cher, who’s coming to Springfield on April 30, will bring more people to Springfield and, hopefully, expose them to more of its assets, like the SSO, CityStage, and others.

“As they say, a rising tide lifts all ships,” she noted, adding that the SSO could certainly be one of those ships, especially if works to become more visible across the area and even more of the fabric of the community. “When people are checking out a new place, sometimes they’ll open themselves up to new experiences.”

The Big Finale

Taking in a performance by a symphony orchestra would be a new experience for many, and moving forward, it is Beaudry’s goal — and mission — to make it something … well, less new.

It’s a challenge facing all those attending meetings of the League of American Orchestras, and one that can only be met, as she’s said repeatedly, by being imaginative, responsive, and reactive.

Beaudry and the SSO are working diligently to be all those things, and because of that, and to borrow a term from this industry, things are more upbeat.

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

Women in Businesss

Leadership Course

Nancy Buffone

Nancy Buffone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Background — Check

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leading by Example

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

And then gave an example. Sort of.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade Expectations

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

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

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

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

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

Women in Businesss

Giving Credit Where It’s Due

Jennifer Calheno

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By All Accounts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dollars and Sense

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Opinon

By Suzanne Parker

Politics affects nearly every aspect of our daily lives. But for some groups, including women and girls, what happens politically has a disproportionate impact on their health, safety, and well-being.

Many of the issues heavily debated right now — the economy, healthcare, gun control, and education — carry tremendous consequences for those most vulnerable and with the least amount of political power due to factors such as gender, age, race, and ethnicity.

This is why it’s so important for girls to be civically engaged as early as possible. Through the Girls Inc. ‘She Votes’ initiative, girls realize the power of their voices, learn about the structure and role of the U.S. government, and are inspired to lead and become future female leaders.

Through ‘She Votes,’ girls research candidates, hold mock debates, meet with elected officials, visit polling places, and even help register voters.

Building a more equitable society means educating and empowering girls to be actively involved in civics and the political process. Three key reasons why it matters right now:

1. Starting early means greater likelihood of voting

We know there is a relationship between youth civic education and their political engagement and future voting. When we help young people understand early on why voting is important, how the political process works, voting rights, and their local government, they build a lifelong commitment to being civically engaged. During the 2014 midterm elections, only 12% of eligible 18- to 21-year-old college or university students voted.

2. Women are still very underrepresented in public office

Women remain underrepresented among state governors, in Legislatures, and in local office. Women of color are further underrepresented as elected officials. While women make up more than half the U.S. population, they are represented by a Congress made up of 80% men. Educating girls and young women about this reality can empower them to change it. A government cannot represent the will of the people unless it reflects their diversity.

3. The 2018 midterm elections

On average, voter turnout is about 60% in a presidential election years, but only 40% during midterm years. Yet Congress (as well as local leaders) determines many of the policies that impact our daily lives. With a number of key issues affecting women and girls on the legislative agenda, this year’s election will play a critical role in determining whether girls in this country have the rights and opportunities they need to grow up healthy, educated, and empowered.

At Girls Inc., we believe the recruitment of women into political and other forms of leadership must start with girls. We encourage area residents and business leaders to use this year’s election season to engage and empower the girls in your lives — and make sure you vote, too.

Suzanne Parker is executive director of Girls Inc. of Holyoke; [email protected]

Women of Impact

The Inaugural Women of Impact Awards

BusinessWest has consistently recognized the contributions of women within the business community and has now created the Women of Impact awards to honor women who have the authority and power to move the needle in their business; are respected for accomplishments within their industries; give back to the community; and are sought out as respected advisors and mentors within the field of influence.  Nominees can be high-level executives, entrepreneurs, leaders of a non-profit organization, business owners, volunteers, or mentors: any inspirational woman, at any level in her career, who is doing remarkable things.

Nominations are now closed for 2018, but you may submit a nomination for 2019 consideration.

The 2018 Women of Impact honorees  will be announced and profiled in the October 29 issue of BusinessWest and  will be honored at the Women of Impact Luncheon Awards on Thursday, December 6, 2018 at the Springfield Sheraton Monarch Place Hotel.

Click here to view nomination information, requirement, and to submit your online nomination form.

For sponsorship information contact:
Kate Campiti 413.781.8600 (ext. 104) [email protected]
Kathleen Plante 413.781.8600 (ext. 108) [email protected]

Event Information
Date: Thursday, December 6, 2018
Time: 11 a.m.-1:45 p.m.
Location: Sheraton Springfield, One, Monarch Place, Springfield, MA 01144
Tickets on Sale: October 1, 2018; Price $65/person; $650/table of 10
For more information: Call (413) 781-8600 x100 or email at [email protected]

Sponsored by:

 

Opinion

Editorial

Talk about a good problem to have.

There are so many women running for the Merrimack-Valley-based congressional seat being vacated by the retiring Niki Tsongas that women’s advocacy groups don’t really know what to do.

In the past, they would know exactly what to do — endorse the one woman who might be running for the post amid a crowded field of men.

This year, though, they have to choose which woman to endorse, and there were five of them at one point. Like we said, that’s a good problem to have. Actually, it’s a great problem to have, and women’s advocacy groups across the region, the state, and the country, are now facing it.

Indeed, women are running for political offices of all kinds, and at all levels, in record numbers, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. In fact, people are calling this the ‘year of the woman,’ and with very good reason.

It’s a stunning development in some ways and a very positive one on many levels. Sparked by the #MeToo movement as well as by the ineffectiveness of leaders in Washington to accomplish much of anything, women are stepping off the sidelines and into the political fray, if you will.

And it’s about time.

Indeed, while one can argue the degree to which women have broken through the glass ceiling in business — some would say they have; others would contend that they still have a ways to go, especially when it comes to seats on corporate boards — there is no debating that when it comes to politics, the ceiling remains.

There has been some progress over the years, but the governing bodies in this country are still dominated by men — white men to be more specific.

And while many of them represent their constituents well, it just makes sense that governing bodies are more effective — and address the wants and needs of all people — when they are truly diverse.

And that means more women.

Throughout history, women have been involved in politics, but in most cases, that meant working on behalf of men seeking office. There’s nothing wrong with that, but in many cases, these women were selling themselves short. They were working for someone they thought could listen, act on what they were hearing, and lead effectively. And if they wanted to find someone who could do all that, all they need do was look in the mirror.

But, quite obviously, they needed to do more than that. They needed to find the courage — because that’s what’s required — to put themselves out there, defend their views, and be willing to handle the personal attacks and all the other forms of mud that are part and parcel to running for office.

This year, thousands of women are finding that courage, and it is certainly the most positive development — politically speaking — that we have seen in some time.

Not all these women will win office, obviously. But that’s a secondary consideration at this point. They are winners simply because they are running, and the country wins as well.