Female Leaders Eye the Future

Local Business Women Shine the Light on Community Issues

Being a female in the workforce doesn’t mean what it used to, but it’s not without its challenges. Although the glass ceiling may or may not be broken according to whom you ask, Columbia provides women with more options and diversity than many other cities, as the women in this issue’s roundtable will attest.

In the wake of a new decade, Inside Columbia Publisher Emeritus Fred Parry hosted a CEO Roundtable at Zimmer Communications with eight local business leaders. The event was sponsored by The Broadway Hotel; the hotel’s award-winning chef Jeff Guinn catered the meal that accompanied the conversation.

Participants included women executives from all backgrounds and industries who all have one goal in mind: To continually improve Columbia’s economy, workforce and safety.  

What Glass Ceiling?

Opportunities — and pay — have come a long way for women since the beginning of the Suffragette Movement, and we’re continuing to see improvements today. According to Karen Taylor, executive vice president of Central Bank of Boone County, there are many more women in decision-making positions today than when she first began her career. “I think that young women today see unlimited potential for them,” she says. “In fact, I’ve had young women say there’s no glass ceiling, and I have to explain to them there still is. But they don’t — the young women don’t see that because we’ve done such a good job breaking down that barrier.”

Randa Rawlins, executive vice president of Shelter Insurance Companies, says when she first practiced law in Kansas City, she remembers walking into her first docket call surrounded by only men. “Talk about intimidating,” she says. “When I came back to Shelter in 2002, there was one female officer. Now we have five. I think the young women in our company that I talk to still believe we have a way to go. We’re doing some intentional things, at Shelter, including creating a new position titled director of inclusion and engagement.

“I want young women to understand that, you know, we’re doing what we can, but the reality is you can’t just snap your fingers and change it overnight.”

When it comes to law practice in Columbia, Jennifer Bukowsky, attorney at Bukowsky Law Firm, says gender representation is much more equal than at national law conferences. “Here in Columbia,” she says, “maybe there is a glass ceiling, but I certainly couldn’t see it because there have been so many people ahead of me that paved the way.”

Although there was some disagreement about whether the glass ceiling still exists in Columbia, it certainly depends on industry and profession, Keri Simon, executive director of University of Missouri Health Care says. When it comes to health care, there is a high percentage of women both in the workforce and management. “I think there’s a lot of opportunities for women to move up in management and even upper management in that industry,” she says.

One way to make sure we can completely break through the glass ceiling is to advocate for equal pay. “There is a ton of data out there about how women typically don’t negotiate their pay,” Kerri Roberts, chief operating officer of TIG Advisors, says. “I’ve tried to remind myself when I’m uncomfortable that that’s what the data says. The data says I’m going to be uncomfortable and I should do it anyway.

“If I have a woman come to me and is awkwardly stammering around about her pay or a review, the first thing I say is: ‘Good job for advocating for yourself.’ I’m going to have to do my research, but good job for saying something. And I want them to go back and share that with others.”

The Workforce Shortage

It’s no secret that Columbia has a young workforce shortage. Although we’re home to several universities, it can still be difficult to find talented workers.

“A lot of times you’ll find that if people want to work, they already are,” Brenda Potterfield, vice president of MidwayUSA and The Potterfield Group, says. “We’ve had two pay increases in the past six months just to keep up with the community. Drugs are a problem. We do pre-employment drug testing, and you’d be surprised how many people don’t read that on the application, still come in, do the drug test and fail.”

Similarly, Denise Nelson, president of Accounting Plus, has been trying to hire a business advisor for two years now and hasn’t been able to fill the position.

“I think the young folks have inflated expectations of salary,” Nelson says. “We probably all did when we got out of college, but I think it’s even more prevalent today.”

One way to beat the workforce shortage? Act fast. “We talked this morning in our bank staff meeting that if we have an opening, we need to move quickly to make an offer,” Taylor says. “If we don’t, we’ll lose that opportunity because all businesses are looking for quality employees.”

Nelson echoed this sentiment. “We did have one potential employee we were interested in and by God, we didn’t make the offer on the spot and she went to another job interview that night, and by the next morning she was out of the picture. You kind of change your interview techniques a bit in a situation like that. Go with your gut.”

According to Sarah Reesman, senior deputy director of University of Missouri Athletics, people between 22 and 30 years old are the hardest to keep in Columbia. “In that in-between of graduating college and settling down, you’ve got people who aren’t yet in a serious relationship; it’s an opportunity to go out and experience different things before being more grounded with a career and/or family. So, I think that it may be a hard group to keep in Columbia at first.”

Reesman speaks from personal experience; she completed her undergraduate degree at MU and then moved away, before returning at age 29. “I was amazed at the number of people who said, ‘Oh, my gosh, you get to move to back to Columbia; we want to go back to Columbia.’ So I think there is that feeling of once there’s been that time away, that it’s a great place to come back to.”
Although many recent graduates may choose to return to Columbia, it can be more difficult to convince those who have never been.

Simon echoed this sentiment: “It’s a big problem in our industry: getting people here. To get them here, you spend as much time trying to sell them on the community as the job. Many people really have no concept of what it’s like here and are always pleasantly surprised at how great the city is once they actually arrive.”

Other than misconceptions about the Midwest, a more specific issue with attracting a larger workforce to Columbia is our airport, Rawlins says. “You know, I often have to tell people, ‘Well, you may want to look at flying Southwest into St. Louis.’ Sometimes it’s easier. I hate doing that because I want to support the airport, but the reality is it’s just, it’s kind of hard to get here.”

One way to keep recent graduates in Columbia may be localized career fairs, Carla Leible, general manager for Zimmer Communications, says. “I think if local businesses could get in front of some of these students and actually be able talk to them one-on-one, it’s something that could really, really help,” she says. “When we go to career fairs at MU, we can’t compete with big names like Kraft and Anheuser Busch and the dollars that they’re paying. The university should do a local career fair with just local Columbia businesses to allow us to get in front of students before they graduate and leave Columbia.”

Culture & Diversity

When it comes to workplace culture, Midway USA is one of the leaders in Columbia. They’ve won the Missouri Quality Award and Baldridge Award several times each. By winning culture and quality awards, businesses can attract employees that much better.

“I think that everybody feels a buy-in by understanding the Baldrige National Quality Award and understanding what it’s about,” Potterfield says. “So for your upper level or your management staff, I think it plays a better part of holding people than the hourly staff.”

Another great way to improve your business’s brand in the eyes of employees is a commitment to diversity and inclusion. At Shelter Insurance, that’s a vital part of their mission.

“We now have five employee resource groups, one of us which is for women,” Rawlins says. “And I think our employees believe they have a lot of input into what’s happening with the company. It’s given them some leadership opportunities and it’s given them some access to executives where they feel like they can talk to us.”

On the diversity side, Shelter recently hired a new director of diversity and inclusion engagement. Part of their job duties are to listen to employees about workplace inclusion.

It should come as no surprise that Veterans United is another local business that’s leading the way in workplace culture. “At Veterans United, the culture is really key,” Bukowsky says. “They spend a lot of resources and time on culture and employee events and treating each other like a family and encourage that with the foundation in other ways. For example, if someone’s sick, they really will give props to fellow employees that took meals or visited someone in the hospital or whatever else. It’s really important for them.”

Crime in Columbia

Statistically, crime in Columbia has been declining; however, violent crime in Columbia is up. “It’s easy to say, that doesn’t happen in my neighborhood,” Taylor says. “But it does and if you’ve been a victim or someone you love has been a victim then you realize how crime impacts all of us.

“My great nephew is coming to Mizzou and he’s going to live in one of the housings downtown that Mizzou’s rented. My first reaction was: I don’t know if I want him living downtown. That’s very bothersome and concerning because parents are looking at communities where they’re sending their kids to school and businesses are researching relocation and start-up opportunities. I do, however, have a lot of confidence in the working relationship between Columbia PD, Boone County Sheriff and MUPD. There are some steps being taken to address violent crime and the gang issue we’ve seen.”

As a criminal defense attorney and previous St. Louis resident, Bukowsky says it could be much worse. “I was born in St. Louis, and following what’s going on there, it’s horrible,” she says. “I mean, their crime is always way worse than ours, but it’s out of control right now. I still feel safe in Columbia by and large.”

While discussing crime itself can be helpful, proactive action is what’s necessary. Two of the biggest barriers to action? Time and money. “All of us have a full plate of work activities and family activities,” Potterfield says. “It can be really hard to find the time to devote to what some of the actions you would like to see done.”

We all want to have the time to educate ourselves on what’s happening, who’s on our local ballot, but how much time do we really have? Rawlins asked. “It’s really hard to keep up with what are the things that are of interest that we need to be educated about and that we need to be thinking about. Because, you know, the people who are on the school board and the people who are on city council, the people running our police department, they’re key to all of the issues we’re talking about.”

For those who do have the time to keep up with community issues and stay involved, they may be affected by another issue: lack of funding.

Approximately a decade ago, Taylor was working on a camera initiative in Columbia. At the time, Darwin Hindman told her she would need $25,000 to run the campaign. “He was exactly right,” Taylor says. “I was shocked, but if you’re going to get the word out and you’re going to actively campaign for something, that’s the minimum. That’s a low number today.”

Addressing the Poverty Cycle

Boone County has an 18% poverty rate, which means one in five people in our community are living in poverty. Poverty is defined as living at 50% below the federal poverty rate, which is around $13,000 per member of a family.

“This is shocking to a lot of people and it has a definite impact on our community,” Parry says. This shows up in housing, job training, education, transportation and many other areas, he says. “We look at our subsidized school lunches and I think that people think, well, people are working the system. But there’s an awful lot of people who just simply don’t have that opportunity. You know, we’re a progressive community but yet we sure haven’t been very successful in tackling some of the more significant social issues in our community.”

“When you look at our society, I mean look at the stock market, you know, high as it’s ever been, but, you know, some things don’t mesh very well,” Rawlins says. “How can we be prospering so much, but yet the poverty situation is not improving in the least. I mean, we have to step back and say, look, something’s not working very well.”

Boone County will spend $9 million on social services for 2020 and the City of Columbia will spend $1 million. Add in charitable organizations such as United Way, and ultimately a lot of money is being spent on the issue of poverty in our community. But, according to Potterfield, money isn’t the only issue. “I think that we are perpetuating poverty when we continue to just throw money at it without including training or childcare. You’ve got to get people trained and out in the workforce.”

Along with tax returns are student loans. When she was a criminal attorney, Bukowski used to get paid after people would receive their tax return. “Now, it’s two or three times a year because of student loan checks. They’re getting these huge checks for things they’re never going to be able to pay back and spending it like it’s their tax return money,” she says. “That’s a bubble that’s going to burst and hurt Columbia.”

If organizations and measures already in place were able to reach people at a younger age, we could more effectively break the poverty cycle, Reesman says. “If you’re able to do early interventions and provide early opportunities, it seems like that provides the best path toward breaking the cycle.”

In order to determine how many beds prisons will need in the future, authorities look at third-grade reading levels for the correlation, Taylor says. “That’s pretty scary to think about.”

As a former public defender, Bukowsky saw first-hand how systems in place are not helping those in poverty. “I’d be talking to people who are in trouble and would ask, ‘Well, why are you living here?’ And so many times their answer would be that the most stable person in that person’s life got subsidized or free public housing here because they were told if you want a house in St. Louis, it’s 18 months to 3 years, but if you want to move to Columbia, it’s half that.

“It’s the most stable person in that person’s life that’s able to jump through the hoops,” she says. “And then they move here and everyone in their orbit moves here. And then they’re in these situations that we’re talking about with regard to crime.”

Cause for Optimism

Although there may be several issues in Columbia that need to be addressed, there are many reasons to be positive about our community. Taylor says that Central Bank of Boone County has seen strong growth and we know we’re attracting new businesses to our community. “There are so many good things about Columbia, which is why people come back,” she says. “I have grandchildren that are being raised here, and I’m really optimistic about the future of our community!”

According to Rawlins, corporate citizenship is one of Shelter’s four main focuses. “I’m encouraged by the response I’ve seen of our employees to that and how much they care. We don’t have to tell them to go out and be a part of the community and to participate in whatever nonprofit it is. So, I just see that next generation; that makes me proud of our employees.

The national economy may be booming, but other towns that are similar size to Columbia are struggling, Bukowsky says. “We are so lucky compared to other smaller towns that are dying and wish they were us. I could see us merging with Jeff City in the future to be more like an Austin or Madison eventually, like a jewel of the Midwest.”

MU Healthcare’s Simon echoes this (Columbia is luckier than many other small towns) sentiment: “Columbia feels very insulated from a lot of the downturns and things that happen. There are a lot of people who care deeply about some of the social issues that we’re talking about and I think just figuring out how to identify what the solution is and get busy doing it. I think there’s a lot of people willing to do the work once we determine the direction.

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