Women who lead
Women’s History Month is an apt occasion to celebrate another crack in the glass ceiling. For the first time in history, female CEOs are running more than 10 percent of Fortune 500 companies. That’s a start, but we have a long way to go.
More women are also leading way and making change across the South Sound – in business, the political arena, nonprofit sector, and other fields traditionally dominated by men.
The EDB recently asked some of region’s prominent female leaders to share their thoughts for women seeking similar paths.
“Everyone can be great, because everyone can serve.” (Martin Luther King, Jr.)
Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards has a lifelong track record of public service. She served on the Tacoma Metropolitan Parks Board and Tacoma City Council before being elected mayor in 2017 and re-elected in 2021. In November 2022, she was elected president of the National League of Cities.
She continues to be a champion on equity issues and anti-racist systems transformation while expanding her involvement in regional and national efforts related to homelessness and affordable housing, public safety, support for youth and families, growing local business, and the creation of family wage jobs.
Surprisingly, leadership wasn’t on the agenda when Woodards started her journey.
“I didn’t aspire to be a leader,” she said. “I wanted to help people and be able to serve others. Tacoma has been good to me, and I felt an obligation to give back so others can have the same experiences and opportunities I’ve had.”
Woodards credits others for leading the way. She worked alongside Harold Moss, Tacoma’s first Black mayor, and Thomas Dixon, Founding Director of Tacoma Urban League. She also draws inspiration from trailblazing women, such as Ella Mae Crawford, the first Black woman hired by the City of Tacoma; Dolores Silas, the first Black woman on the Tacoma City Council; and others.
“They inspired me to do what they do to help others,” she said. “They broke barriers for me to do that.”
As others have lifted her up along the way, she continues to pay it forward. “Mentor others as you’re rising. It doesn’t cost you anything, and it means the world to those you lift,” she said.
“As John Maxwell said, ‘Everything worth having is uphill. Everything.’ Even when there were waves of uncertainty, I believed in my path.”
Bett Lucas has made her mark in Tacoma’s oil and energy sector, first as VP for Targa Sound Terminal and now as a key member of the SeaPort Sound Terminal executive team. As a woman in leadership working in a traditionally male-dominated field, growing a career and family hasn’t been easy.
“There were moments when I questioned my choices, my career and myself,” Lucas said. “Thankfully, my love for my job and the field I work in outweighed my concerns. I kept showing up, and I often remind others to do the same.”
Lucas also learned to ask for help along the way. The busy mom of six credits her “bench” of willing mentors, helpers, family and co-workers as the key to her success. As a leader in her industry, she pays it forward by encouraging and mentoring others, especially when it comes achieving family-work life balance.
“Parenthood and family life can broaden your perspective, fine-tune decision-making and increase your value,” she said. “When you and your company or organization buy into that, your potential will be multiplied.”
That belief inspired Lucas to start her own podcast: “Living Your Big Bold Life,” where visitors from the Pacific Northwest and around the world come together to share, help, learn and encourage.
“Bold encouragement is essential, and leaders should recognize that it can forever change lives and organizations for the better,” she said. “What could be more exciting than that?”
Pierce County is fortunate to have two amazing women leaders working to secure the Port’s future as an employer, catalyst for economic development, environmental steward and community partner.
Kristin Ang, Commission Vice President: “Women who lead authentically can inspire and empower others to do the same, creating a more inclusive and effective workplace.”
Kristin Ang is a history maker. In 2019, she was the first person of color elected to the Port of Tacoma Commission. The Filipino-American attorney and community advocate received the historical endorsement of the Puyallup Tribe of Indians and serves on the Port’s workforce economic development, environmental, DEI and Tribal liaison committees.
Running for political office and jumping into a new industry was not part of Ang’s comfort zone.
“Taking a risk can be a significant challenge in anyone’s career, but something inside told me to go for it,” she said. “I succeeded because I trusted my vision and abilities, developed new relationships, learned on the fly, and was highly committed and open to collaboration.”
Ang acknowledges the plethora of obstacles women face in seeking leadership roles. In addition to gender bias and discrimination and difficulty in finding mentors and work-life balance, she perceives another prominent challenge.
“One of the most significant challenges for women is finding and embracing their own leadership style,” she said. “When you lead authentically, rather than conform to traditional leadership styles that may not suit your personality and strengths, you’ll find your way of leading is best for the community or organization you serve.”
She believes Pierce County organizations can empower more women to take on leadership roles through valuable mentoring and networking opportunities as well as women-focused leadership development programs. Embracing a philosophy that celebrates and encourages women in the workplace is key.
“We need to create a supportive culture that values diversity, promotes inclusivity and supports work-life balance,” Ang said. “This will help more women envision themselves in leadership roles and contribute to a brighter future for all.”
Deanna Keller, Commission President: “Look for and appreciate male allies. They are there!”
Deanna Keller’s robust experience in the public and private sectors prepared her well for the position she was elected to in 2019.
Keller was previously co-owner of Kel-Tech Plastics Inc. She served as president and CEO of the Tacoma-based industrial fabrication company from 2008 to 2020. Previously, she held a variety of positions in a 24-year career with the Puyallup and Clover Park School districts, from high school teacher to district program administrator to school principal.
Keller says her biggest career challenges remain a barrier for many women in leadership today. “I had to change directions to create a better balance between my family and a career that was engaging and enjoyable,” she said. “Today, childcare continues to be the biggest hurdle for women who want to work and have a family.”
While there are fewer barriers for women, glass ceiling remains across industries. For women considering a leadership path, Keller says, “You need to have a thick skin and work hard. You not only need to look to your employer to be inclusive, but you also need to include yourself. It works both ways.”
Fun fact: Keller is a Marine Corps vet and served for five years in the “President’s Own” United States Marine Band in Washington, D.C.
Betty Capestany, Director, Pierce County Economic Development
“If you’re a leader in business or in your community, make sure everyone has leadership opportunities.”
Betty Capestany’s resume reads like an economic development playbook. Before taking the helm at the Pierce County Economic Development Department in 2018, she was CEO of the Bellevue and Renton Chambers of Commerce, Economic Director for the City of Renton, and Assistant Director for the Kent Chamber of Commerce.
Her career has been dedicated to the notion that successful, supported businesses help communities thrive. That conviction didn’t waiver when COVID-19 hit. Under her leadership, the Pierce County Economic Development Department pivoted immediately to ensure that businesses most affected by the pandemic survived and thrived.
Pierce County Economic Development distributed $46.5 million in direct small business support using Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) funds. The department oversees $40 million of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) dollars, some of which was used to launch the Pierce County Business Accelerator (PCBA) in 2021. The program has garnered local, state and international accolades for serving entrepreneurs and business owners to help foster innovation and create wealth-building opportunities for BIPOC, veteran and women-owned businesses.
As a female in leadership, Capestany believes that the sky’s the limit for other women. That doesn’t necessarily mean reaching an uppermost position in an organization, business or government entity. There are a lot of opportunities for people to engage and make a difference.
“Figure out what your talents are and contribute value to what you’re doing – whether it’s making a widget, teaching a class, leading an organization or volunteering in your community,” Capestany said. “Most important, pay it forward and help others along the way, including women, BIPOC, next-gen or male colleagues. ”
“I’m here to support my team, help them overcome obstacles, get them the resources they need and empower them in all amazing things they do. We’re in this together.”
When Jackie Flowers joined TPU in 2018, she was the first woman to be permanently appointed to the top spot in the Utilities’ 125-year history. And while she directs the largest department within Tacoma City government, she credits an exceptional team for keeping the lights on, the water flowing and the trains running – all while launching significant initiatives and solutions.
Flowers is particularly proud of the organization’s continued antiracist transformational work and efforts to mitigate obstacles for its underserved customers. She’s also excited about a plan in progress that will better prepare TPU to respond in complex emergency situations.
“The pandemic offered the opportunity for us to begin building an incredible comprehensive continuity of operation plan to ensure we have a robust emergency response across the organization,” she said. “When finalized, we’ll use that to improve services and be able to maintain continuity and have adaptive management for whatever changing circumstances arise.”
Working in a male-dominated field for three decades, Flowers often has found herself the “only” in her profession. She sees a shift today as more females move into STEM fields and onto leadership paths. For those girls and women, she offers this advice: Believe in yourself.
“Women tend to think they have to meet 100 percent of job requirements before applying for jobs,” she said. “Don’t eliminate yourself before you have applied. Articulate your transferable skills by highlighting experience and successes and make your case.”
“Be candid and transparent with the facts, but also, be kind with the delivery. It’s important to recognize that people want to do their best and care about their work and their colleagues.”
Lori Forte Harnick oversees an $88 million job training, thrift retail and recycling nonprofit covering 15 counties in western and southwest Washington. The unique social enterprise provides free education, job placement and career pathway services to an average of 4,000 people each year.
Harnick’s brought a hands-on role to make a difference in Pierce County when she made the move from Chief Operating Officer for Microsoft Philanthropies in 2017.
She joined Goodwill at a time the nonprofit faced challenges that required changes within the organization. “I knew that to get others to embrace change, I needed to listen to their concerns, sketch out a vision and ask for their feedback,” Harnick said. “It was less about change and more about creating a future together.”
For women who want to pursue a leadership role in the nonprofit sector, Harnick offers: “Take the time to learn about the community you seek to serve,” she said. “What do people need, what services are already provided, and how can you be a partner for change and impact?”
“Entrepreneurship can be a lonely path. Finding communities where we feel like we belong and people we can connect with can make all the difference.”
Social entrepreneurship strives to make a positive impact on social, economic, and environmental issues. It’s an approach that’s on the rise, and Neetal Parekh wants to make it more accessible, actionable and transformative in Pierce County.
Parekh is CEO and founder of Innov8social, which builds content, tools, and programs for exactly that purpose. She’s the author of the best-selling book 51 Questions on Social Entrepreneurship, and convener of Impactathon, a social impact hackathon in which participants map problems, design solutions and pitch to judges. She is also a practicing immigration attorney.
“Social entrepreneurship empowers us to creatively re-imagine how businesses and individuals can create meaningful impact and lasting value,” she said. “I believe that innovation, empathy and a problem-solving mindset can help us become better leaders and contributors.”
Innov8social is participating in the Tacoma Maritime Innovation Incubator with a focus on developing children’s books to empower problem solving and sharing the Impactathon model locally. Parekh is connecting with Pierce County initiatives, organizations, grant opportunities and incubators, saying, “Cross pollination and collaboration between and among these various opportunities can help amplify the impact they can have for entrepreneurs.”
Her motto and favorite hashtag – “In all good things #goanddo” – fit her approach well.
“I feel most connected to the ‘why’ behind my entrepreneurship, writing and legal work when I see others inspired or called to create, build, connect and collaborate through it,” she said.
“In my wallet, I always carry a piece of paper with the word ‘joy’ written on it. The work we do is urgent, but I need to also remind myself to find the joy in it.”
When Dona Ponepinto joined UWPC in 2014, she had 30 years of experience within the United Way network and a long history of working on behalf of children and their families. That work has continued in Pierce County with a flourish.
During her tenure, Ponepinto has led groundbreaking, three-state research on the financial stability of families and convened the Hunger-Free Pierce County collaborative. Moreover, she helped secure funding for the Center for Strong Families, which helps Pierce County residents face financial challenges head-on.
“What we’ve accomplished here is not about me,” she said. “It’s about bringing people along beside me who believe in the common good for everyone.”
It’s also about the support of other women in leadership. Ponepinto is part of an informal network of South Sound women CEOs. The group formed organically several years ago and continues to gather members.
“It really has become this magical support group, especially during COVID,” she said. Whether meeting via Zoom, over coffee or during happy hour, one question that routinely comes up in their conversations is, “How are you taking care of yourself?”
“That is a very important question for women leaders to ask one another,” Ponepinto said. “Running an organization can be lonely. You need to have a place where you can connect, ask for help, offer advice, and just feel vulnerable and safe.”