Margaret Farrow never set out to be “the woman who got elected” or “the woman to hold office.”
It was true when she ran for Elm Grove village board and later became the first woman to serve as village president, when she ran for state assembly, state senate, and ultimately, when she went on to become the first woman to serve as Wisconsin lieutenant governor in 2011.
“I wanted to prove to them that I was no different than them … I came out of local government, so I knew budgets, I knew infrastructure, I knew education because I raised five sons,” Farrow said. “I wasn’t just there for women. I was there for everyone.”
While clear disparities exist regarding the proportion of women holding senior management positions, serving on boards and holding public office, Farrow said she has found success by simply being the best person for the job. Her credentials stood on their own. Gender was peripheral to the matter, she said.
Farrow will join three other women business leaders on May 31 at the BizTimes Women in Business breakfast panel during the BizExpo at Potawatomi Hotel & Casino, sharing their journeys toward attaining professional success. Panelists will discuss their experiences of leading through change, including issues related to culture, diversity, equality, innovation and philanthropy. The conversation will be moderated by Kimberly Kane, founder of Kane Communications Group.
Coreen Dicus-Johnson, who became president and chief executive officer of Menasha-based Network Health in 2016, grew up in a home where there were “no limitations” placed on what she could be, and her career journey has been a “jungle gym” of seizing one opportunity after the next.
“It’s never been a slide,” she said.
An attorney, Dicus-Johnson previously held executive leadership positions with Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare, as well as positions with Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Wisconsin. She credits various mentors with helping open doors for her throughout her career.
Still, Dicus-Johnson acknowledged, not all women have been afforded the same opportunities, reflected in the stories now being highlighted in the “Me Too” movement.
“My heart breaks for those who haven’t had what I have had in my career because I have been incredibly blessed to work for amazing people that gave me opportunities both to succeed and fail,” she said.
Kim Metcalf-Kupres, who retired in the fall as vice president and chief marketing officer for Johnson Controls International plc after 23 years at the company, spent her career in traditionally male-dominated industries. But, she never felt that it limited her success.
Rather, Metcalf-Kupres, who currently serves on the Oshkosh Corp. board, said she took a winding path throughout her career and positioned herself as a lifelong learner.
“If you’re not reinventing yourself and staying current, particularly with technology and disruption, you’re going to be obsolete,” she said. “The old philosophy of come to work every day, do a good job and good things will come just doesn’t apply anymore. If you’re not actively managing your own continuous education process and becoming a lifelong learner, you’re going to be challenged.”
Dicus-Johnson said she’s continuously been called upon to lead organizations through change, whether navigating the introduction of BadgerCare while working in the insurance industry or leading organizational change when a company is sold.
“I said, ‘This is how I can make my mark,’” she said. “You can’t be afraid of what that change brings and what that opportunity is.”
When enacting change, Laurie Benson, executive director of Nurses on Boards Coalition and co-founder and former CEO of Madison-based tech firm Inacom Information Systems, stressed the importance of building trust.
“If you’re bringing forward a new way of doing business with your customers, before you try to change things, (assess) what is the level of trust?” Benson said. “Everything is better if we move at the speed of trust.”
Dicus-Johnson said it’s important for women to recognize their own role in shaping their careers.
“You can empower yourself,” she said. “Regardless of what’s going on. You have a choice today. You can see the opportunity or you can see the barrier or the wall. But that is your choice. There (are) four women here who have had to chisel their path in different times, in different industries, with all the complexities, but we figured it out.”
Metcalf-Kupres said it’s incumbent upon more seasoned professional women to mentor and advocate for younger women to ensure they don’t experience barriers to their success.
“It shouldn’t have to be so hard … Plants grow through concrete, but they shouldn’t have to all the time,” she said. “There should be fertile soil.”