Milwaukee-area executives share stories of change at BizTimes Milwaukee’s Women in Business Symposium

Laura Gutiérrez of the United Community Center moderated a panel discussion with Peggy Williams-Smith of VISIT Milwaukee, Kendra Whitlock Ingram of the Marcus Performing Arts Center, Leana Nakielski of American Family Insurance, and Syneathia LaGrant of ManpowerGroup.

At BizTimes Milwaukee’s Women in Business Symposium Thursday, women business leaders not only shared stories of change but also the ways in which they navigated adversity while inspiring those around them.

In addition, Milwaukee-based Dohmen Company Foundation president and chief operating officer Kathy Koshgarian was honored as BizTimes Milwaukee’s 11th Woman Executive of the Year during the event, which drew more than 300 attendees at the Italian Community Center in Milwaukee.

Stories shared by a panel of four Milwaukee-area executives ranged from tough decisions made during the COVID-19 pandemic to various stages of change they experienced while advancing their professional careers.

Days before the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, Kendra Whitlock Ingram moved to Milwaukee for her new role as president and CEO of the Marcus Performing Arts Center.

On her first day of work, Whitlock Ingram’s morning meeting was about canceling the performing arts centers’ first Broadway show the following week. With pandemic-related restrictions on public gatherings, she was also preparing to either lay off or furlough people she hadn’t even met yet.

Meanwhile, Peggy Williams-Smith was preparing for the largest event the city has ever seen, the Democratic National Convention, as president and CEO of VISIT Milwaukee. Within just five months at VISIT, William-Smith had to lay off more than half of the company’s staff as she navigated tough decisions to keep an organization with a 54-year history alive.

For Leana Nakielski, the daughter of an immigrant mother and a third-generation Polish-American father, change has been a constant as someone who grew up with a multi-cultural identity. Nakielski reflected on what it was like to adapt in different circles both socially and professionally and how those experiences prepared her for her role as strategic partnerships director at American Family Insurance.

At the end of 2019, Syneathia LaGrant had just been diagnosed with breast cancer for the second time. Deciding that her health was more important, LaGrant left her position at Molson Coors. Fast forward to November 2020, LaGrant joined ManpowerGroup in the middle of the pandemic, all the while studying for her doctorate.

Here are a few pieces of advice from the panelists who have navigated adversity at various stages in their lives and careers:

  • When you have great competent people around you, let them be great and competent. Thank them for their hard work and show gratitude.
  • Implement the ‘work your way’ philosophy, which gives employees flexibility in their schedule and workflow.
  • Avoid paralysis by analysis. Plan for what you think is going to happen but prepare for things to change quickly when it comes to making pandemic-related decisions and protocols.
  • Focus on family, care for yourself and protect your peace.
  • Don’t change just to change, ensure there is a purpose.
  • You don’t have to be the smartest person in the room. Surround yourself with smart people and allow them to shine too.

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Maredithe has covered retail, restaurants, entertainment and tourism since 2018. Her duties as associate editor include copy editing, page proofing and managing work flow. Meyer earned a degree in journalism from Marquette University and still enjoys attending men’s basketball games to cheer on the Golden Eagles. Also in her free time, Meyer coaches high school field hockey and loves trying out new restaurants in Milwaukee.

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