View as webpage, click here.
DECEMBER 11, 2023
Good morning, Fearless readers:

How is your mental health this December? I loved this column by Mattilyn Scott of Black Iowa News about what self-care means and why we should make it a priority. Scott writes, “Can you really tend to yourself if you don’t face yourself?” I’m bookmarking her column.

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

  • An opinion column by me about why you should consider giving an Iowa school nurse the gift of children’s snow pants or snow boots this winter. You will also learn about Athene USA’s Coats & Boots program.
  • A news story about SmartHER Money, a women’s financial empowerment program created by Sonya Sellmeyer of the Iowa Insurance Division.
  • In the headlines: Former Indianola residents Katie and Nia Chiaramonte are featured in the new Hulu documentary “We Live Here: The Midwest,” which premiered Dec. 6. It explores the lives of LGBTQ families living in various Midwest cities and the prejudices they face.
  • In case you missed it: The Waukee Area Chamber of Commerce named Jessica Taylor-Fink as its new CEO.
  • Lots more!

– Nicole Grundmeier, Business Record staff writer

Want to reduce socioeconomic discrimination? Give winter snow gear to an Iowa elementary school.
Getty Photos.
For many elementary-aged children in Iowa, one of their first public tastes of inequity comes while staring down at the muddy blacktop while their wealthier classmates play in the snow.

I grew up in the 1980s and 1990s in western Iowa. Children who didn’t have snow pants or snow boots were confined to a paved area on the playground. Children who had the required gear could play wherever they wanted, building snowmen and snow forts. This type of cooperative play builds both brain cells and leadership skills.

The kids on the blacktop watched the kids in the snow. They didn’t get much exercise on those days. They didn’t get the same opportunities to learn gross motor skills or to enjoy the sensory experience of snow and ice. Or the joy.

I assumed things had changed since my own elementary playground days. After all, school lunches – while still a mess in many respects – are free in many places now, avoiding the specter of kids starving because their families haven’t sent lunch money. The snow-gear policy seemed absolutely archaic – another rule that punishes children for something they can’t change.

My second-grader came home from school in late November and told me about a child in her classroom who did not have snow pants or snow boots. The child stayed on the pavement while everyone else enjoyed the first big snow day in Iowa.

I felt a panic rising in my chest that I hadn’t experienced in more than 30 years.

I checked the Target and Walmart apps on my phone. All of the children’s snow gear was seemingly sold out in Central Iowa. We piled into our Subaru and drove to Scheels in West Des Moines at 7:30 p.m. on a Monday. I couldn’t fix this for every kid in Iowa. But I could fix it for one family. I dropped a bag off at the classmate’s doorstep around 8:30 p.m.

I do not blame teachers. They can’t be taking care of kids soaked wet by snow, kids who likely don’t have extra sets of clothes stashed in their lockers. I do not blame the Iowa schools – some, like Saydel, are struggling so much that they’re considering switching to a four-day week. I do not blame the parents. If they could afford snow gear (not just the items, but the time spent tracking them down) and spare their children both the shame and the cold, they would.

Iowa leaders frequently fret about an obesity epidemic but they don’t always see how something as simple as a pair of snow pants can contribute to it. The barriers to exercise and enjoying the outdoors start when Iowans are so very young.

Some companies have stepped up to help with winter gear. Athene USA has provided thousands of coats and pairs of snow boots to students at Des Moines Public Schools, according to the district. Athene’s Coats & Boots program started in the aftermath of the Flood of 1993. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, the program continued – Athene safely provided new coats and boots for nearly 1,500 students at four high-poverty DMPS elementary schools.

Many public schools continue to struggle to meet the increasing needs of Iowa families. November 2023 was the busiest month in the history of the Des Moines Area Religious Council’s food pantry network, surpassing the previous record high set in August by 22%, the agency announced last week. The need is great.

This year, during the holidays or anytime, buy a pair or two of children’s snow pants or snow boots and donate them to an Iowa school nurse.

School nurses always know which kids are on the blacktop.

Iowa’s SmartHER Money program, started by a once-struggling Iowa mom, helps empower women financially
Sonya Sellmeyer, center, talks to a group of Iowa women. Sellmeyer is the consumer advocate for the Iowa Insurance Division. She started the SmartHER Money program after learning that only 50% of Iowa households are financially secure. She had been there herself. "I was a single mom living paycheck to paycheck, I had to really develop good financial habits," she said. Photos courtesy of Sonya Sellmeyer and the Iowa Insurance Division.
No matter their age or income or other circumstances, Iowa women tend to worry about being prepared for retirement.

Other Iowa women are just trying to survive until the next paycheck.

“The long-term goal is retirement. But you’ve got to take small steps to have that healthy retirement that we all want,” said Sonya Sellmeyer, who leads a state government initiative called SmartHER Money. “That might start with budgeting. Maybe who is more financially savvy, maybe they just decide, ‘OK, I need to go talk to a financial professional. I’m at that stage.’ Everyone is on a different stage of that journey. And it is a journey. That’s what we hope SmartHER Money will accomplish, is help any woman on that financial journey wherever they’re at.”

Sellmeyer is the consumer advocate in the Iowa Insurance Division. She and the department commissioned a survey in 2020 to gauge a range of information about women and finances in the state. The findings have helped inform the programming and strategy for SmartHER Money, which is online at

In the survey, older Iowans expressed more confidence than younger ones about being financially prepared to retire, and higher-income Iowans similarly were more confident than those with lower incomes. Only about 9% of people with a household income of $50,000 or less said they were confident or very confident about having enough money saved. But even for those making more than $100,000, fewer than half – 41% – said they were confident or very confident.

SmartHER Money exists to try to help improve those numbers, Sellmeyer said: “It’s empowerment, and we’re giving you the resources and tools for free and they’re trusted. We’re not trying to sell you anything.”

The office’s outreach efforts are funded from registration fees paid by brokers and from fines levied by regulators. Sellmeyer has done multiple presentations around the state, and a large conference was held in Cedar Falls in 2022. While women are the focus of SmartHER, Sellmeyer’s job also includes financial-literacy outreach for Iowans of all ages.

She encouraged Iowa women to become more involved in understanding their household’s finances and contributing to decisions. And she said she wants to bring SmartHER Money where it’s needed in whatever format it’s needed to help women feel more informed and assured. “Contact me,” she said. “Throw my contact information out there. I would love to have my phone ringing off the hook. The knowledge doesn’t do any good in here. It’s got to get out there.” (Sonya Sellmeyer can be reached at and 515-654-6538.)

Sellmeyer spoke with Fearless this fall about SmartHER Money, what obstacles women cite most commonly and how her own experiences shaped her interest in helping Iowa women in this way. The program was launched in August 2021.

This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell me about the origins of the program.

SmartHER Money came out of the fact that, as I was a single mom living paycheck to paycheck, I had to really develop good financial habits. I needed to develop my financial wellness, because I would sit down and do bills every Sunday night after my kids went to bed, and boy, I didn’t sleep much usually on Sunday nights. It just affected me mentally, physically. I’m like, “OK, this has got to change.” I really started working on a budget, started building an emergency fund, just doing some of those foundations that I really credit for helping me today.

When I took this job, I had seen a women’s financial empowerment program out of the state of Georgia called She Leads. I asked to go, and I’m very grateful that I was allowed to attend that seminar. It really empowered every woman in the room. I sat at a table with women who worked in the workforce just like I did. There were also entrepreneurs at my table of all races. It was wonderful. I came out of there and I said, “We ought to do something like this in Iowa.”

Women are more apt to leave the workforce to be a caregiver, whether it’s for a 5-year-old, or for aging parents. I’m very passionate about helping women in the sandwich generation, which is what I’m in. I have two children. I took two maternity leaves. They weren’t all paid. They were partially. But I lost income, not only at that time, but it hurts for that long-term goal, retirement, as well, which is the overall focus of SmartHER Money.

Literally, I got tears in my eyes when I read this: 50% of Iowa women reported their household was financially secure. Only 50%. We’ve got to change that, for many reasons. Like I said, the overall goal here is to have a nice healthy retirement. But, gosh, what are we doing to our health between now and then if only 50% are living in a financially secure household?

When you say health, do you mean financial health, physical health, mental health?

I am our wellness coordinator here at the office, and every last Wednesday of the month I do a newsletter. I’m a strong believer that there are four components to our health. It’s nutrition; physical health, as in movement; financial; and mental. They all play in together. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve overeaten because I’m worried about my finances. Or it’s affected my mental health. Or I don’t exercise that day because I’m too depressed because I’ve got bills to pay. It all blends together. I like the term “financial wellness” so that we can cultivate all of that together to be financially well. There are great statistics about what worrying about your financial health does: how many times a month you call in sick; the lost productivity at work because we are worrying about our finances is huge.

I’d like to hear more about the gender gap and financial literacy. What do you think are some of the causes?

The No. 1 cause – and this is looking at our older female population – is women just didn’t get involved in finances. I think some of that has trickled down. One of our key takeaways in the survey that we did said 40% of women still want to be more involved, specifically younger women and women with lower household incomes, because they say they’re not that involved in the decision-making.

What are some more of the components of SmartHER Money?

We have a website and it is free. There’s all kinds of information on here. There are also free courses that anyone can take. It starts off with how to build a budget, how to buy a first house, all kinds of different stuff. I also do presentations anywhere, to any group size.

I also had a lady over in western Iowa, she was saying how she didn’t have any money. She met with me one-on-one afterward. She’s like, “I just don’t have any money.” I said, “Well, tell me a little bit about your life.” She went to the casinos all the time. And I said, “You know, I understand you have to have entertainment, but let’s take a little bit of that money. Let’s start putting it in an emergency fund, even if it’s 10 bucks out of your casino fund, just start somewhere.”

The little habits can become bigger habits and just kind of build on each other?

I’m a huge proponent of emergency funds. Because if you’ve got an emergency fund, then you’re not using that credit card and running up debt. And you’re going to be much better off in the long run.

There are three main foundations, just that getting started: It’s having a budget, having an emergency fund and understanding your credit score – paying off that debt so you’ve got a good credit score, because that credit score follows you around like a little devil on your shoulder all the time. It affects everything you do.

When you talk to women, when you do have these one-on-one situations and you’re able to meet and talk, what are some common things or themes that you hear from women as far as what are the biggest challenges in their financial health right now? I don't know if that’s maybe a different answer, before or after the pandemic.

I still think it’s the same, to be honest with you. They just don’t know where to go. For me, it was always, “I’m too scared to go to a financial professional. I don’t have any money saved for retirement. How embarrassing is that going to be to go in there? This person doesn’t want to deal with me.” They just don’t know where to go. I think SmartHER Money helps direct people to know where to go depending on their situation. A lot of women just don’t know where to start. It’s overwhelming.

Finances are risky. Especially when you get to that point where you’re investing, because no investments are guaranteed, and that’s risky.

I was very scared to invest in the stock market. I’m still very scared to invest in the stock market. But I know what my risk tolerance is. I won’t invest more than I can lose. I understand what I’m investing in and I make sure that it’s safe for my goals. It all goes back to that education, too. You don’t want to be doing risky behavior if you’re not educated in knowing what you’re doing.

I think it’s all about choice. And I think that you have to be a really good planner to do those kinds of things?

You really hit it. It is about choice. That’s one thing that when I go out and speak to women, I talk about that psychological aspect of money. Why are you buying 500 purses? It’s the choice, right? Think about, where do I want to be when I turn 65, or whatever age you want to retire? What do you want to do? Then make good choices.

There is always that psychological aspect, and this I do think has gotten worse since the pandemic: You get that dopamine hit by ordering stuff off of Amazon. You’re ordering stuff off of Amazon and you might not really need it. It’s fulfilling things that – maybe those needs were met in other places before the pandemic – but you’re spending your money. And so what does that mean for your retirement? I’m not saying you can’t enjoy yourself, you can’t buy nice things. You can’t buy 500 purses. But what is your journey and what are your choices to get there? I just think it’s really important that women understand that psychological aspect, too.

You’re right. I think it is a dopamine hit.

Just in me educating myself, it’s amazing, the growth I’ve had financially. My income really hasn’t gone up that much. It’s just me understanding the choices I was making and how I was spending my money and how to budget better. I like to travel. So I’ve got a travel line in my budget. It has to work for you. That’s the other thing I want women to understand, is whatever financial wellness journey they want to take, it has to be how it works for them. It is no different than a nutritional plan. That is always what I go back to. I know that the Snickers isn’t good for me, but I want it every once in a while. You know, we all know the apple is better, but do we do it? It’s the same concept.

We know that women are doing a lot of parenting. What advice would you have for parents? How can they best prepare their children to be healthy financially, and to do the kind of things that you are teaching through SmartHER Money? Especially girls?

I think parents have got to talk to their kids about money more. I’ve seen a lot of studies lately that said that parents would rather talk to their kids about sex education than money. That really caught my attention. Both are equally important conversations. But I thought that was interesting. This is just my personal opinion: I think a lot of parents have made mistakes, and they don’t want their kids to know about those mistakes. But we’ve got to talk about mistakes so everyone can learn from them.

It’s talking to them about responsible credit usage and credit scores, and how that follows you. Start having your kids, as they start having expenses, develop an emergency fund, especially if they’re driving a car.

It’s just that open communication. Like I said, maybe one good way to start that as parents, as women, is to talk to your children: “Hey, are you talking about financial literacy in the school? Because if you’re not, or if you are, let’s talk about it more.” Because honestly, that’s one of those life skills that’s going to follow you everywhere you go. I hate to say it, but maybe some of the stuff you’re doing in math class, you might not use 10 years from now, but the stuff you’re going to learn financial literacy-wise in whatever class they’re teaching it in, you’re going to use it.

Morgan Bear (not pictured), who is from the Meskwaki Settlement and now works at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, said she realized she had to attend college after learning about Indian boarding schools that forced Indigenous children to assimilate. A memorial located at one of the former boarding schools is pictured above. Getty Photos.
In the headlines
Meskwaki woman works to empower underrepresented college students: Morgan Bear is a program adviser with TRIO Student Support Services at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids. It’s a federally funded program that serves first-generation students, low-income students and students with disabilities, according to KCCI. The role is personal for Bear, who is from the Meskwaki Settlement. “To me, this isn’t work. I was that student,” Bear said. “I was a first-generation student. My mom didn’t go to college. She was a single mom. I was a low-income student.” Bear remembers the moment during her senior year of high school when she learned about federal Indian boarding schools. “That was really the moment I decided that I was going to go to college,” Bear said. According to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, from 1819 through the 1970s, the U.S. created the boarding schools to “culturally assimilate” Indigenous children. Children were removed from their tribes and brought to these schools. Many of them were abused. Some died. “I was sitting there and I thought to myself, ‘Oh my God. What am I doing? I need to go to college. All these kids died so I could be here, or they had to go through that and I don’t want it to be for nothing,’” Bear said.

Smothers named Inspiring Women of Iowa event chair: Girl Scouts of Greater Iowa has announced Tina Smothers will serve as event chair for the 2024 Inspiring Women of Iowa event. Smothers is a licensed real estate broker and the owner of Integrated Asset Management. Her community involvement includes supporting small women-owned businesses in Iowa and advocating for suicide and mental health awareness. She received the Inspiring Advocate for Women Award at the 2023 Inspiring Women of Iowa event. The eighth annual lunch will be held on May 10 to honor the finalists and recipients of the Courage, Confidence and Character Awards.

Hulu documentary to feature former Indianola residents: Former Indianola residents Katie and Nia Chiaramonte are featured in the new Hulu documentary “We Live Here: The Midwest,” which premiered Dec. 6. It explores the lives of LGBTQI+ families living in various Midwest cities and the prejudices they face. Both born and raised in Des Moines, the couple, who were childhood sweethearts, moved to Indianola with their five kids in 2017. In March 2022, the pair was interviewed at their home in Indianola for the documentary, according to the Indianola Independent Advocate. Nia came out as a transgender woman in 2018. She said it was difficult to reconcile how friends and family could show kindness toward her while voting for politicians, such as former President Donald Trump, who openly support anti-trans policies. They also faced hostility in their church. But they found support in the Indianola school system.

Iowa woman sues Ozempic maker over alleged side effects: An Iowa woman is suing the makers of the popular drug Ozempic, claiming the company has downplayed potential side effects while spending millions on food and travel for prescribing doctors, according to this story in the Iowa Capital Dispatch. The lawsuit, filed on behalf of 53-year-old Melissa Huffman in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa, alleges Novo Nordisk and its affiliates are guilty of fraudulent concealment and negligent failure to warn in the manufacturing and marketing of the drug Ozempic. The drug, which is approved for the treatment of Type 2 diabetes, has become extraordinarily popular in recent years, in part because it can help some patients lose weight. Huffman alleges that as a result of using Ozempic, she suffered from gastroparesis and sustained “severe and permanent personal injuries” that resulted in vomiting, diarrhea and extreme abdominal pain. She had to take additional medications to treat her symptoms and made multiple emergency room visits due to her condition, the lawsuit alleges.

The racial homeownership gap is widening. New rules might make it worse. Marsheila Caldwell wants to celebrate her upcoming 50th birthday by buying a home in a neighborhood safe enough for her 11-year-old son to play outside. The Cincinnati social worker is gearing up to restart a search she had abandoned out of frustration three times in recent years because she couldn’t find an affordable house that met her needs. But she also knows the market has only gotten more difficult, with home prices hitting record levels and interest rates hovering at two-decade highs. “I’m just praying that somewhere I can find what I’m looking for,” Caldwell said. Finding a home she can afford could get harder if regulators get their way. An unusual alliance of big banks and some housing affordability advocates is arguing that a proposal meant to boost the financial stability of banks would make mortgages more expensive for cash-poor home buyers — disproportionately people of color, according to this story in the Washington Post. “This is an all-hands-on-deck moment,” said Odette Williamson, a senior attorney with the National Consumer Law Center. The proposed rule change would force banks to hold on to more capital for residential mortgages with smaller down payments. The logic is that such loans are riskier, so banks should keep more in reserve against defaults.

Worth checking out
What home schooling can hide: A boy tortured and starved by his stepmom (Washington Post). This Decorah woman needed help with medical bills after a miscarriage. Embrace Iowa gave her a hand up. (Des Moines Register). The difference that Sandra Day O’Connor made (New Yorker). Some doctors are ditching the scale, saying focusing on weight drives misdiagnoses (NPR). Women’s brains change across the menstrual cycle (Washington Post). How millennials learned to dread motherhood (Vox).
Waukee Area Chamber of Commerce names Jessica Taylor-Fink as new CEO
The Waukee Area Chamber of Commerce has named Jessica Taylor-Fink as its next president and CEO. She succeeds Michael Bartos, who departed the position in August.

Taylor-Fink has over 10 years of experience in the nonprofit sector working in marketing, fundraising, volunteer administration and community development roles. She most recently served as development and marketing manager for Lead DSM. Before that, she was the volunteer engagement manager for Girl Scouts River Valleys.

She has also worked with the Girl Scouts of Greater Iowa and the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Central Iowa.

“Waukee is a booming area with a global community, and I’m honored to be stepping into a role that champions all of the businesses that call Waukee home,” Taylor-Fink said in a press release. “This is an exciting time for the chamber as Waukee continues to be one of the fastest-growing communities in the country.”

Taylor-Fink has two undergraduate degrees from Iowa State University and a Master’s of Public Administration from Drake University. She is also a current board member of Young Variety.

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!

Like this newsletter? Please forward to a friend!
Did someone share this newsletter with you? Sign up here.

Business Publications Corporation Inc.

515.288.3336  |

Contact the group publisher of BPC:
Contact Fearless staff writer:
Submit press release:
Advertising info:
Membership info:

Copyright © BPC 2023, All rights reserved.
Reproduction or use without permission of editorial or graphic content in any manner is strictly prohibited.

Email Marketing by ActiveCampaign