Leading Fearlessly: The power of role models for women

Published by Suzanna de Baca on

“Would you be able to pick Gloria Steinem up from the airport?” was one of the more memorable questions Peg Lonnquist asked me when I was a college student at Iowa State University. As executive director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Women’s Center, Lonnquist (“Peg,” as we called her) was a source of inspiration for me and many other students. She had an uncanny ability to identify potential in young leaders and point them in the direction of projects that helped develop their unique talents. Peg tapped me to chair various events that allowed me to meet female trailblazers including Steinem, Maya Angelou, Sarah Weddington and others. She and I have stayed in touch over the years, and I’m proud now to call my role model a friend.

Role models matter. Whether at work, in our personal lives, or on a national stage, seeing others who look like us or who are like us inspires us to strive, take risks and succeed. Representation is important for everyone, but especially for women and underrepresented groups who may feel certain doors are not open to them. 

Statistics back up the power of role models for women.2022 study from the UK found that 43% of women believe they would be more successful if they had a role model in the workplace, “with 57% believing that having a relatable role model is crucial to achieving career success and 70% agreeing it’s easier to be like someone you can see.” The Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab at MIT recently released research that showed in high-income countries, exposure to women role models often positively affects women students’ participation and educational performance in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields by improving students’ perceptions and aspirations of having STEM careers. And a recent study in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology revealed that exposing girls to role models in STEM careers led to greater motivation in those fields of study among girls of color. 

As we observe Women’s History Month, take a moment to consider what women have served as your role models. Are you a role model to someone else? A young woman or girl might be looking at you and seeing herself in your actions or behavior. Be sure to challenge her, present her with an unexpected opportunity or just tell her she’s fabulous just being herself. 

I asked local leaders to share one role model from our state who has had an impact on their lives. 

Annie Brandt, senior vice president, market executive, Bank of America:

Jenna Knox is a force. Born and raised in Des Moines, she stands for all the things that make our community the best in the nation. A leader, a mother, a wife, a daughter, a changemaker and a friend. I was incredibly impressed with Jenna several years before we became friends. She was my mother’s boss. My mom, a woman whom I have greatly admired my entire life, continually shared how her leader at work made her a better person and led with respect. As a young leader myself at the time, I wanted to learn more about her style and I was blown away. Jenna has the ability to identify a person’s strengths and inspire them to have the confidence to dream and become more. As a truly fearless woman, she challenges those around her to take action and be the change they want to see.  

Jane Burns, freelance writer and editor:

Somewhere basking in the warmth of the Hawaiian sun is a woman who inspired me greatly and probably has no idea she did. Valerie Monson, an Iowa girl from tiny Bode, was a Des Moines Register features writer extraordinaire whose work I still think of often. It was her free spirit and world travels that caught my attention when she was a guest speaker for my Drake reporting class, but to then be her Register co-worker was a gift. Her stories were often funny, like her, and always full of kindness and compassion. That taught me as a young writer and young professional that not only could creativity and humanity go together, but that they should go together as necessary partners. I don’t think that’s just a lesson for a writer, but for anyone who is creative. Or human. Or, ideally, both.

Lori Chesser, senior shareholder and vice president, Dentons Davis Brown, PC:

One Iowa woman who inspired me is Deborah Tharnish. She was one of the first women partners in our firm and our first woman president. She served — and continues to serve — as a mentor and confidant of many in the firm (and likely many others), both women and men. She is a person people trust. She is also not afraid to call out inconsistency or challenge the status quo. 

More than all those admirable traits, what inspired me was her ability to be an excellent lawyer at the same time as raising a family, practicing her faith and doing community service. Although she did all these things well, she let us know that it didn’t have to be perfect to be possible. We could do it too! 

Madison Sconiers, training specialist, Polk County Treasurer’s Office:

There is a village of Iowa women who have inspired and supported me throughout my life. However, there is one in particular who has been an inspiration to most in that village (and beyond): Mary L. Chapman. Everything she touches leaves a legacy of compassion, advocacy and collaboration. As a community leader for more than five decades, her accolades alone inspire many, but her ability to inspire others to be the best versions of themselves is immeasurable. Her impact extends beyond her long career in education and is nothing short of inspiring. As her mentee and niece, I am so grateful to be a part of her legacy. Knowing that she did, tells me I can and should live a life that inspires others. She is my motivation for continued support for our community.

Teri Wood TeBockhorst, president, Headlight Strategies:

Starting a new career can be scary. Everything is so foreign. As a young executive learning the ropes of a new industry, I was fortunate to find a role model in Willi Ware. Willi was a seasoned professional in a senior leadership role of an advertising agency that was primarily male. That didn’t bother her. She looked at everyone as individuals. People are just trying to do their best, playing on the same team for the win. 

I was fortunate she took me under her wing as a mentee. She was a master of grace under pressure who was selfless with her time and energy. I admired her, was inspired by her, learned from her, and wanted to be her. At Willi’s memorial, I heard words like giving, creative, inspirational and fearless. I still hear her voice today, guiding me to always do the right thing! Let’s all be like Willi. 

Teresa Zilk, owner, Teresa Zilk Creative Consulting LLC; founder, Stories to Tell My Daughter

Penny Furgerson, founder of Gateway Dance Theatre, has been a role model for me for as long as I’ve known her. I first met Penny when I was a young mother of three small children. She became my daughter’s dance teacher and over time, a creative mentor and great friend to me. I am inspired by her deep belief that dance is a tool and a language of community, connection and solidarity. I’ve watched her take people from all walks of life and help them unlock the confidence and power inside of themselves by teaching them dance and movement. I’m inspired most when I think about all the ways that she dared to define herself and her life. She started a dance company all while working full-time as a pharmacist and raising a family. That kind of vision and tenacity is inspiring.