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APRIL 8, 2024
Good morning, Fearless readers:

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. What can you do to help? Start by believing. Believe women. Believe girls. Believe survivors.

So many of us are not believed. So many of us still can’t write or share our stories openly because we were not believed as children, as teenagers, as women. We fear not being believed, again.

I recently read this story in the Atlantic about how DNA tests are uncovering the true prevalence of incest. Many people in the comments section seemed shocked. I was not surprised. Women and children have been sharing what happened to them since the beginning of time. But often, no one wants to hear us – let alone believe us.

How will you listen to – and believe – survivors, Fearless friends?

In this week’s Fearless e-newsletter, you will find:

  • A preview of our first Fearless Focus event of the year. It’s about financial empowerment.
  • A column by Becky Gibson, Wells Fargo market executive for commercial banking in Iowa: Do you check off the “4 C’s” of leadership for a women-owned business?
  • A short story about Dress for Success Des Moines welcoming a new executive director, Judy Downs.
  • In the headlines: The Iowa Legislature approved a Medicaid expansion for some postpartum mothers. However, the bill will lower the income threshold to qualify for coverage and will cut off coverage to an estimated 1,700 Iowa women and babies each month.
  • In case you missed it: ManchesterStory’s Nicole Gunderson shares her steps from investment banking to working with startups and venture capital.
  • Lots more!

– Nicole Grundmeier, Business Record staff writer

Correction: A story that was published in the April 1 Fearless e-newsletter, “Funding cuts could adversely affect services for sexual and domestic violence survivors,” inaccurately described turnover at organizations that provide services to survivors. Leaders said turnover is a problem throughout the network of providers that work with Iowa Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence, not at those two organizations themselves.

Fearless Focus to concentrate on financial empowerment
From left: Kara Hoogensen, Marcie Ordaz, Sonya Sellmeyer, Ashlee Vieregger and Michele Williams will be the panelists for the first Fearless Focus virtual event of the year. The topic is financial empowerment.
Event details:
Thursday, April 18 | Noon to 1 p.m. | Virtual | Register for free

Wage disparities and differing policies on paid family leave continue to be systemic issues affecting women’s economic standing. On an individual level, women often feel less confident than men when it comes to budgeting, investing and planning for retirement.

In our first Fearless Focus virtual event of 2024, we will talk about both the systemic and individual challenges women face financially. Leaders will highlight programs, opportunities and policies that support women’s economic mobility.

Registration is free, so we hope you will sign up and encourage others to do the same. Since starting Fearless, we’ve heard from so many audience members about how uplifting these events have been for them – some have said that they would have their daughters watch the recording, and others have hosted watch parties over the lunch hour at their companies. These are the highest compliments we can receive, because our goal with Fearless is simple: We want to empower Iowa women to succeed in work and life.

Meet our speakers
Ahead of the event, we asked each speaker to tell us about one financial barrier that adversely affects women and how they think the business community plays a role in addressing it. Here’s what they said.

Kara Hoogensen, senior vice president and head of workplace benefits – benefits and protection, Principal Financial Group:
The 2023 Global Financial Inclusion Index consumer sentiment research from Principal Financial Group showed that women report they have less access to financial products, tools, services and safeguards than men. There is an opportunity for business leaders, particularly those in financial services, to rethink and recommit to how we support women in the workplace, facilitating greater access to the resources they need to achieve financial security and build wealth. If we don’t, we risk widening the financial inclusion gap and losing the full potential of the talent we need to grow our businesses. Additionally, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact women are poised to play a major role in the greatest wealth transfer ever. The need is clear – government, employers and financial services institutions must work together, like on income-protected leave, to achieve gender equity while combating issues such as rising child care costs and the persistent wage gap.

Marcie Ordaz, executive director, Lift Women’s Foundation:
Over the years, I have been able to attend learning sessions focusing on women’s empowerment. I thought I had heard all the inequalities women face when addressing financial barriers in and out of the workplace. It wasn’t until I attended a speed session facilitated by financial expert and friend Catherine Dittmer, financial adviser with Merrill Wealth Management, and learned about the staggering numbers on the amount of retirement funds women lose out on compared to men. Every day, women are deciding to start a family with their spouse or partner, and though many times a mutual agreement, it is the women that are out of work for longer leave time to both be a caregiver and to recover. During this time, employer contributions are sometimes reduced or ceased altogether. If the women have to take an extended leave beyond what is normal, the loss of retirement contributions is even greater. A woman who is in a long-term relationship beyond retirement may not feel the impact. However, women that depend solely on their single retirement account will have to work longer to compensate for lost retirement contributions and employer matches.

The business community has to take time to address this inequality. It is acknowledged by the U.S. Department of Labor that the impact of caregiving on a mother’s wages reduces lifetime earnings by at least 15%, averaging $295,000 in unpaid care averages. If this is just the wages, the lost benefits would make that total even higher. If there are programs to address short- and long-term disabilities, there should be programs that support retirement matching during extended leaves. Outside of the workplace, those that choose, or are forced, to be in long-term caregiving roles for their family members are not compensated for being a stay-at-home caregiver, nor do they have the chance to earn matched contributions from an external source. I believe the business community has to play a role in supporting the women that they employ that have to take an extended leave. And, as a nation, we have to figure out how to support the women that work within their homes, not earning income for 401(k) investment and match opportunities.

Sonya Sellmeyer, consumer advocate, Iowa Insurance Division:
A PwC survey conducted in January 2023 found that 56% of workers spent three or more hours per week dealing with or worrying about their personal finances. Knowledge is power, and women fall behind men in financial literacy. In a 2020 survey done by the Iowa Department of Insurance and Financial Services (DIFS), Iowa women reported they wanted to learn more about retirement planning and investments. Younger women and women from lower-income households also requested more education and guidance regarding budgeting and debt management.

Employers offering an empowering and confidential financial wellness program as an employee benefit may be a solution, but the programs will need to be tailored to meet the particular challenges faced by women. Financial education with coaching, webinars and online tools may provide flexibility for different learning styles. Financial wellness translates to the workplace with healthier, happier and more productive employees.  

Ashlee Vieregger, senior lead adviser, Foster Group:
It’s all about earnings. Women are still paid less than men. Women are also overrepresented in low-wage occupations. And women continue to experience a “broken rung” in the career ladder between entry-level and manager roles. A decade of research by McKinsey & Co. has identified a leaky talent pipeline at every level of professional advancement for women, and it is especially pronounced for women of color. The business community can help women thrive financially in two ways. First: Fix the “broken rung” and continue to promote women in equal proportion to men. Second: Continue to invest in career advancement programs specifically tailored to women and especially women of color.

Michele Williams, associate professor, management and entrepreneurship, University of Iowa Tippie College of Business:
The gender wage gap is one of the financial barriers that adversely affects women. The business community can play an important role in addressing this gap. Helpful actions include 1. making salary information readily available and easily accessible; 2. not asking employees what they were paid in their last position — a question that is against the law in some states; and 3. offering online salary negotiation training to job candidates. Negotiating is important for all job candidates, but new employees who did not major in business are often unaware that a gender wage gap exists and, furthermore, that negotiating can significantly increase their compensation package both when they start their careers and with each promotion.

This event is part of the Business Record’s Fearless initiative, which is a multiplatform initiative with women-centered content, events and media designed to help women and the companies and allies who both value and support them.

Through the Fearless Focus event series, we give you the opportunity to learn from and connect with others around the state equally as passionate about these issues. Women, gender-nonconforming individuals and male allies are all encouraged to be fearless with us.
Commentary: Do you check off the ‘4 C’s’ of leadership for a women-owned business?
Women-owned firms now account for nearly 4 in 10 U.S. businesses. They generate approximately $2.7 trillion in annual revenue. They employ more than 12.2 million workers. And since 2019, women-owned businesses have multiplied at almost double the rate of those owned by men.

That’s not just me bragging. That’s according to the 2024 Impact of Women-Owned Businesses Report. Produced by Women Impacting Public Policy, Ventureneer and CoreWoman, the report also suggests that the potential impact of women-owned businesses could be even greater if the gaps between women of color and white-women-owned businesses, as well as between women and men, were closed. This report, first published in January and commissioned by Wells Fargo, unpacks data to determine what barriers women – particularly women of color – face.

Over my 34-year financial services career, I have witnessed this sea change of women leaders in the U.S. economy and have identified key traits of the most-successful. Regardless of economic cycle or the nature of their businesses, I find these four habits consistently help women leaders navigate challenges and position their companies for success:

1. Connection: Strong professional and personal relationships are key. Making connections and building a solid personal and professional network increases confidence in seeking advice and counsel, as well as better enabling women leaders to navigate changing markets and global competition.

Tip: During both robust and challenging economies, women can leverage their relationship-building skills to expand their networks further and develop stronger roots for their business.

2. Capacity: Managing the wide range of responsibilities in today’s environment is challenging, especially when it comes to managing both work and family. While society has come a long way in supporting more balance in shared responsibilities of family and home with partners, women often continue to take on a disproportionate share of the load. In fact, women continue to take on many additional responsibilities in their professional and personal lives, including community organizations and involvement with their children’s schools. But unless capacity and balance are respected, they’ll risk their long-term success.

Tip: Develop your team, build trust and delegate during tough times. Don’t try to do it all yourself.

3. Collaboration: Women leaders tend to collaborate and build a culture of partnership. This approach of working together builds an all-inclusive culture, allowing different perspectives to be heard and creating a valued, high-performing team. This environment nurtures development of new ideas and approaches to issues and challenges.  

Tip: Find a voice outside your circle to challenge your thought process. You might discover a new perspective or better approach.

4. Communication: Communicating effectively and sharing vision and strategy are among the most critical paths to success of any organization – and often overlooked. Successful women business leaders exhibit skill in adapting their communication style to situation and audience, leading to more effective conversations.

Tip: Communication during critical business times is key. Reach out to your stakeholders and share your voice directly.

While the economic landscape continues to evolve, women business leaders need to demonstrate confidence, enlisting trusted allies as they build their businesses. Challenging and dynamic times require leadership that builds and shapes a successful team. These four C’s of leadership are integral to success.

Becky Gibson is a Wells Fargo market executive for commercial banking in Iowa. She lives in Des Moines.

Dress for Success Des Moines welcomes new executive director
Dress for Success Des Moines, a nonprofit organization that empowers women to achieve economic independence by providing a network of support, professional attire and development tools, announced the appointment of Judy Downs as executive director. She started April 1.

Downs succeeds Jody White, who will be stepping down from the position after serving part-time for 14 years. Downs brings with her over a decade of experience working with nonprofit and advocacy organizations, including the Iowa Environmental Council and the Science Center of Iowa, and has served as a member of the Urbandale School Board.

Downs said she is excited and honored to join the Dress for Success community. “Since its founding over a decade ago, Dress for Success Des Moines has seen significant growth. Judy brings a wealth of skills and experience to continue the legacy of our founders and propel the organization into its next era,” said JJ Severson, Dress for Success board president, in a prepared statement. “We couldn’t be more excited to have her as the leader of the organization.”

Getty Images.
In the headlines
Iowa lawmakers approve Medicaid extension for new mothers, which would end coverage for hundreds: Legislation granting low-income Iowa mothers a full year of Medicaid coverage after giving birth — and end coverage for others — is heading to Gov. Kim Reynolds’ desk for her signature. The bill, which lowers the income threshold to qualify for coverage and will cut off coverage to an estimated 1,700 women and babies each month, received final approval from the House on Wednesday. Senate File 2251 was passed on a 70-25 vote, with some Democrats in opposition, according to this story in the Des Moines Register.

Kim Reynolds signs law repealing gender balance requirement for Iowa boards and commissions: Gov. Kim Reynolds has signed a law repealing Iowa’s requirement that state and local boards and commissions have a balance of men and women serving on them. Reynolds, a Republican, signed Senate File 2096 Wednesday afternoon in a ceremony in the governor's office in the Iowa State Capitol building in Des Moines. The requirement was put into law in the 1980s as a way to increase the number of women serving on state boards and commissions, according to this story in the Des Moines Register. Fearless wrote an in-depth story about Iowa’s gender-balance law in October.

Pioneering women’s sports: How this Davenport woman helped create an avenue for girls to compete at Iowa: In 1968, Helen Smiley was tasked with starting up a competitive women’s athletic program at the University of Iowa, with a budget of less than $800 for seven teams, according to this story by WQAD8. “When I was at Iowa, way back in the 1960s, 68, we were lucky to have 30 people in the audience,” Smiley said. “We were thrilled to have 25 or 30 people.”

‘I just thought the sky is the limit’: Meet the Iowa colonel breaking barriers for women in the military: Col. Sonya Morrison never intended to be the first woman to go through pilot training for the Iowa Army National Guard, but she will forever have her name written in the history books. An Osceola native, Morrison enlisted into the Iowa Army National Guard in her junior year of high school. She quickly learned that flying military helicopters was her passion, according to this story by KCCI.

Worth checking out
‘They feel seen and they feel validated’: For a generation of women, this moment for Caitlin Clark and the Hawkeyes is their moment too (The Crossover by Jane Burns) Reynolds nominee McKenzie Snow confirmed as Iowa education director (Iowa Public Radio) Lisa Bluder’s coaching masterpiece has helped push Iowa women’s basketball to new heights (HawkCentral) What happened when this Italian province invested in babies (New York Times) Women are more unhappy at work than men (Newsweek) The rise and fall of the trad wife (New Yorker)
ManchesterStory’s Nicole Gunderson shares her steps from investment banking to working with startups and venture capital

Like many students, Nicole Gunderson entered college not knowing what career she would land in.

“When I started at the University of Iowa … all I really knew was that I wanted to do ‘business.’ I didn’t have a very clear direction when I started.”

She found her way to finance but has since ventured into different branches of the industry. She entered the venture capital field when she joined Des Moines-based firm ManchesterStory in 2022.

Reflecting on her career so far, Gunderson shared that each new role has built on her past experience while pushing her outside her comfort zone.

Her first experience with this was diving into the startup world and joining Des Moines-based fintech startup Dwolla.

“I wasn’t sure if I was going to thrive in a startup environment where the playbook has not been written for you and you really have to chart that course — it turns out I loved it,” Gunderson said.

Read the rest of the story
Now accepting nominations
For 25 years, the Business Record has recognized women who have made outstanding contributions to the community in a variety of areas with the Women of Influence awards. Awards will be presented at a reception on Thursday, Aug. 1.
To be considered, please submit a resume and cover letter specifically addressing accomplishments that meet the judging criteria. Letters of recommendation, while not required, are encouraged. Click here to get started.
Be fearless with us
At its core, Fearless exists to help empower Iowa women to succeed in work and life. We believe that everyone has a story to share and that we cannot progress as a society unless we know about one another. We share stories through featuring women in our reporting, featuring guest contributions and speakers at our events.

We are always looking for new stories to share and people to feature. Get in touch with us!

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