What I've Learned

Power and influence takes all forms in Madison, from politics and higher education to business and food. Nine inspiring women share their ups, downs and lessons learned—plus a few words that describe them best.

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Jennifer Alexander

President and CEO of the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce and Thrive

I have worked in business, government and education. Though on the surface being a small-business owner, a cabinet secretary and a high school principal seem to have little in common, the roles share the three things that matter to me in a job—a chance to learn new things, a challenge and the opportunity to make a difference.

You learn most from your parents when they are simply living their lives and they are sure you aren’t paying attention. Which was a pretty decent bet on their part, given they had a daughter that was more interested in fashion than physics, failed to return her library books or clean her room and thought that driving the tractor was an embarrassment. My parents owned and operated a small landscape nursery. They worked hard, were respectful to people regardless of rank or status and envied no one. They were, and still are, in love with one another and best friends. They taught me about marriage, being true to your values and the importance of small business.

When I was thirty-six my husband died unexpectedly. I was a second-year high school principal and Plymouth’s first female high school principal. Becoming the “widowed” lady principal created a difficult notoriety in a small town. I feared being pitied or “cut slack.” The high expectations of a wise and wonderful boss, then-superintendent Paul Brandl, gave me the opportunity to find meaning in the challenges of my work.

Leadership ability is not related to gender. However, hiring a woman signaled that the board welcomed change and that the Greater Madison Chamber is “not your father’s chamber.”

At least at our house, women do a better job of cleaning the cat’s litter box and men do a better job of changing light bulbs. I am pretty sure that there is no related work metaphor.

In my wildest dreams, I’d be the Secretary of State, the CEO of a large corporation, a national news anchor, a comedian or a world-renowned chef.

How I’d like to be remembered professionally: She saw potential and helped to make it real. Personally: She lived right and loved well.

Biddy Martin

Chancellor, University of Wisconsin–Madison

I have been in higher education for my entire career, as a faculty member and an academic administrator. I developed my interest in leadership roles when I was asked to serve as Cornell’s senior associate dean in the College of Arts and Sciences. I discovered that academic administration was intellectually engaging, offered opportunities to learn about a full range of disciplines and allowed me to serve an institution I believed in.

My role models were my teachers and coaches (if I pursued my childhood dream, I’d be a basketball coach). As a child, I developed a fascination with JFK and his use of language. It made me aware that I loved language.

The toughest time I have faced was as a member of the hospital board in February when we were asked to approve the proposal for second trimester abortions. I dealt with what I considered a very difficult issue by listening to the arguments for and against, doing some research on my own and supporting what I believed was best for the community under current circumstances.

I don’t think there is an automatic or simple advantage in being a woman. I think the experience of having been a woman in positions historically held by men helps me avoid taking my position for granted and may help make me sensitive to the ways in which various people come to be marginalized. There are plenty of men who have those same sensitivities.

Annette Miller

Community Services Manager, Madison Gas & Electric

I have always been interested in roles that allow me to lead and make decisions on issues that impact people. Specifically, the career I have built has developed my knowledge and skills for business, community and outreach with an eye for diversity and inclusiveness.

My role model was my mother, who modeled to me a woman of independence, strength and character and yet was a mother to her children. As a young woman a role model was Tiger Woods. When he was asked to declare his race, he stood his ground and embraced his mother and his father and did not allow those outside of him to compartmentalize his multicultural heritage, values and perspective. ... I personally felt that I was now given permission to do the same. As I have experienced these last two years of electing Barack Obama, I see a modeling of how we do not let race be the leading measure of a man or woman, but an attribute to what a person brings to the table.

My toughest hurdle has been how to balance being a wife, mother, careerist, and community activist and feel fulfilled. It was an exciting time yet a difficult time because I had finished my second year as the mayor’s community and neighborhood liaison. I knew that I was becoming more split in the desire to continue to serve the mayor and the city or make the decision to put my family back front and center. To help me make the decision, I found myself flat on my back for three months. As I was recovering from a broken leg, I was reconnecting with my children and my husband, and the most emotional moment was when I looked into my two-year-old’s eyes and realized that I did not know her milestones as I did my middle and oldest child’s. It was that moment that I knew I had to leave this career for a new one.

I would not be honest with myself if I had not at times felt that as a woman, I brought more to the table. But I have felt that to be true as a woman of color, too. I think what I have come to realize is that as a person and based on my experiences in life, I do bring a unique set of skills to the table. Yet, I do not think that those skills are brought only because I am a woman or a person of color. I think what I truly have brought to the table is leadership, creative ideas and a willingness to take risks and not be afraid to speak out loud about what I think should be done to make things happen. I am a person who believes in work and being involved, so the question to me is not what would I be doing but with whom and for whom I would be doing it. I see myself and want to be remembered as a woman of strength, character, honesty and ambition who had a commitment and compassion to serve her family and community.

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