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SWFL female executives share keys to success at summit

By Staff | Mar 12, 2019

JESSE MEADOWS One hundred and seventy-five women convened at Florida Southwestern State College for a free day of seminars and workshops sponsored by the Lee County Economic Development Office.

Florida ranks first in the growth of women-owned businesses in the last decade, and women are especially dominating the non-profit sector in Southwest Florida.

“Of the biggest non-profits in the region that have revenues of $10 million or more, seven are run by women,” Jennifer Reed, senior writer at Gulfshore Life, said during a panel discussion on the state of women in business at the 2019 SWFL Women’s Business Summit on March 1.

One hundred and seventy-five women convened at Florida Southwestern State College for a free day of seminars and workshops sponsored by the Lee County Economic Development Office.

“By some measures we’re advancing, by other measures we’re kind of stalled out,” Reed, who moderated the discussion said.

Women are ahead in education, she explained.

JESSE MEADOWS Janette LaHeureux, managing advisor of insurance firm BKS Partners speaks to the audience at the 2019 SWFL Woman’s Business Summit.

By 2027, women are expected to earn 60 percent of all college degrees, and while they are entering the workforce in roughly equal numbers as men, only 38 percent of managers are female, she said.

“Early stage promotional inequity is what spurs the representation gap,” Reed said, noting that 71 percent of Florida’s top 100 companies have no female executives.

So what could be holding women back in the workplace?

Stacey Cook, chief executive officer at SalusCare who worked her way up to leadership from a volunteer position 20 years ago, said a big issue for women is a lack of confidence.

She encouraged women to take an inventory of their unique skills.

JESSE MEADOWS Jennifer Nelson, CEO of Uncommon Friends Foundation and a Cape Coral City Council member.

“Step outside of yourself and look at yourself performing the skills and abilities you’ve listed and begin to develop a belief in yourself that you can rise above,” she said.

Michelle Hyton-Terry, executive director of Fort Myers Community Development, also worked her way up from an entry-level start 15 years ago.

She acknowledged the harmful stereotypes women often deal with in the workplace, but encouraged women not to internalize them.

“If somebody wants to have a certain opinion of me, that really isn’t my business,” she said.

Janette LaHeureux, managing advisor of insurance firm BKS Partners, said it is important to know when to stand up for yourself.

“(There was) a man I’d worked for for many years who degraded me, saw me as nothing but eye candy, and didn’t praise me for the work I did,” she said.

When she requested medical leave at eight months’ pregnant, he embarrassed her in front of her coworkers.

“He pointed at the rest of the women and said, ‘Don’t anyone come into this office looking like her.’ That man devastated my life. I finally said, ‘I’m better than this, I’m better than you. You taught me how not to treat people.'”

Many of the panelists said fostering good relationships with employees and colleagues was a major key to their professional success.

“For me, succeeding and leading in an organization was a result of learning, talking, asking a lot of questions and forging important relationships,” Cook said.

Jennifer Nelson, chief executive officer of the Uncommon Friends Foundation and a Cape Coral City Council member, agreed.

“Being able to go to your employees and ask how their parents are or their kids are that’s what people remember about you,” she said.

Personal connection is an important part of problem-solving in the workplace for Nelson.

“Your frontline people are the most honest,” she said.

When she got complaints as a council member from residents in the Cape about problems with garbage pick-up, she got on a WastePro truck to talk to a driver about it and see firsthand what he was dealing with at work every day.

“It was really eye-opening, because it was kind of like Undercover Boss, right?” she said, laughing.

“I’m listening to this driver who’s giving me what-for, and I’m taking notes, like ‘Yes, sir, I’ll be right on this!’ As a result, things have gotten a lot better. Sometimes it just takes that human interaction.”

LeHeureux said gathering information can often be a source of power and a way to build confidence at work.

“Be a sponge, be very observant, gather all the knowledge you can. Knowledge is power. When you have knowledge to share, people listen,” LeHeureux said.

Preparation is also key, especially when going into a new position.

“Any new job I ever had the first thing I would do is say, ‘Send me a copy of your financial statements.’ When an organization is going down financially, that means you’re cutting positions and benefits and I don’t like to cut, I like to build,” Nelson said.

LeHeureux suggested asking potential employers what kind of non-traditional benefits they offer, and how their workplace culture is unique from their competitors.

“That tells you how much they care about their employees,” she said.

The panelists also tackled a common question for women in the workplace: how do you juggle your professional and personal responsibilities?

“(Female) senior level executives are twice as likely as men to have a spouse or partner who also works full-time,” Reed said.

This means men who work top-level positions are more likely to have spouses who can take care of their homes and families.

BJ Brundage, vice president of strategic development for Deangelis Diamond Construction, who also serves on the Horizon Council, Southwest Florida Workforce Development Board and the Fort Myers Technical College Advisory Board, had some practical advice.

“The first thing you need to do is hire someone to clean your house. I have not cleaned a toilet in 25 years. That’s the biggest treat you can give yourself,” she said.

Nelson, a single mother, agreed.

“I don’t want to spend eight hours on a weekend (cleaning) when I could be hanging out with my kid,” she said.

Cook and Hyton-Terry both pointed toward prioritizing self-care.

Cook said she wakes up at 4:30 in the morning so she has time to prepare her mind for her busy schedule.

“There are things I need to do so I can balance all the balls in the air by spending time in the morning, even if it’s half an hour, to be able to turn inward and access that part of you that’s quiet, rested, and focused, and then I begin to look at the day,” Cook said.

“The key is work/life balance and it’s hard. You make it work. You are a magician,” Nelson said.