Women In Business Symposium: How to navigate a pandemic and become a disruptor

From left are: Kathy Thorton-Bias, Xia Liu, Nina Johnson, Nubian Simmons and Gretchen Jameson.

Last updated on August 26th, 2022 at 01:44 pm

BizTimes Media’s annual Women In Business Symposium was held at the Brookfield Conference Center Thursday, convening a group of female leaders who shared not only how the COVID-19 pandemic shook up their personal and work lives, but how they are still continuing to move forward from that disruption.

The event also recognized Dr. Christine Pharr, recently retired president of Mount Mary University, as BizTimes Media’s 12th Woman Executive of the Year.

This year’s Women In Business Symposium panelists included Gretchen Jameson, chief learning officer at Kacmarcik Enterprises; Nubian Simmons, owner and president of The Pink Bakery; Nina Johnson, senior vice president, Wisconsin consumer and business banking market leader at U.S. Bank; and Xia Liu, chief financial officer at WEC Energy Corp. The moderator for the event was Kathy Thorton-Bias, president and CEO of the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Milwaukee.

Together, this group of women shared useful insights on everything from how they utilized social media during the pandemic to the challenges of navigating remote work and how to make sure you are innovating. Here are some lessons learned from their conversation.

Social media can be a key tool to shake things up

For Liu, the pandemic struck right as she was getting ready to take on her new role with WEC Energy. This provided challenges in getting a feel for the company and culture, as well as employees, since large groups of people were sent home. Liu found social media could serve as a connector if used in unique ways.

“Workwise, I just came up with ideas like ‘coffee with Xia’. We’d get a small group of employees together online and we’d have our coffee in our hands, but we’d be sitting in our own workplace. We did things differently just to try to keep the connection at least,” Liu said.

Johnson also found a new social media strategy during the height of the pandemic, using it to make sure what her team was doing to give back to the community was being captured. Johnson and her team would take on tasks such as buying lunch for Froedtert health care workers across all hospital campuses. They would then share social media posts to remind others to give back. Johnson likened social media to a “conduit of goodwill.”

“Social media was not a burden, it turned into an asset and resource,” she said. “My focus was to make sure initiatives were happening, even though it didn’t have the face-to-face component.”

There are different pieces to being a disruptor in your work environment

Jameson believes that with all the negative issues the pandemic brought us, there are some positives. The pandemic has allowed business leaders and companies to center on people even more than before. She said it’s key to create an environment that honors the dignity and worth of each individual, but also doing so in a way that honors each company’s mission.

“When we think about disruption and disruptive activity and what that feels like, that’s happening at a variety of levels – self and system,” Jameson said. “One thing I think is key in all of this is that we value the people, not just because of what they produce, but because of who they are. Figuring out how to do that in a way that centers people and unleashes their creativity is what’s going to power us through the next disruption.”

Innovating during a time of disruption

Simmons had more than her fair share of disruption as she was looking for a place to call home for her company. She not only found out the land she had originally wanted to build on in Memphis was contaminated, but then came home to her native Milwaukee only to be welcomed by a pandemic a few weeks later. She did not despair for too long and took it upon herself to find new ways to build The Pink Bakery.

“Faith became very important for me, but also trying to network via email. I looked for any and every resource I could find,” Simmons said. “Once I started to see there were resources here, I was all over it. I encourage everyone that’s out there, if you have an idea or you have a dream, just go ask and see who has resources.”

When asked how she goes about innovating during times of disruption, Liu mentioned a particular book she turns to for advice called “The Innovator’s Dilemma.” This book taught her that in order for any innovation to be sustainable, it has to be accessible and easy to use.

“In terms of me taking action, I keep those things in mind,” Liu said.

Helping the next generation of women in business

In any leadership role, there’s a component of mentoring those who work for you. Johnson mentors several young professionals both inside and outside her role at U.S. Bank. She also helped launch a program for women in lower paying roles that gives them information to help them succeed.

“One of the things I realized is that there’s so many emerging leaders who really want to find somebody who can just be warm to them,” Johnson said.

Simmons also helps mentor young women who want to be bakers, a complete career pivot from her initial beginnings as a graphic designer.

Jameson said it’s important to invite all women in business to the table, not just those in higher roles, to be included in important conversations.

“When they come to your doorway, you should always drop what you’re doing and say ‘Absolutely, I have time for you,’” Jameson said.


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Ashley covers startups, technology and manufacturing for BizTimes. She was previously the managing editor of the News Graphic and Washington County Daily News. In past reporting roles, covering education at The Waukesha Freeman, she received several WNA awards. She is a UWM graduate. In her free time, Ashley enjoys watching independent films, tackling a new recipe in the kitchen and reading a good book.

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