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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Janet Piraino

Chief of staff to Mayor Dave Cieslewicz

After working a decade in the state legislature and a decade in Congress, I had no desire to work in local government. I thought it would be too much about potholes and not enough about politics or policy. Boy, was I wrong! Tip O’Neill was right when he said, “All politics is local.” Local government is much more exciting and fast-paced than I had ever imagined.

I firmly believe that I have the best job in Madison, so it’s hard to imagine doing anything else right now. I’ll admit that I got totally caught up in the excitement of the new Obama administration when I was in Washington, D.C., for the inauguration. So, if I weren’t in this job, I’d probably be working on the Hill.

If I weren’t on this career path I honestly don’t know what I’d do. I became addicted to politics the first day of my first real job as a volunteer coordinator on Jim Wood’s gubernatorial campaign in 1982. And I’ve been working for elected officials or candidates ever since. Even after twenty-seven years of long days and sixty- to seventy-five-hour work weeks, I have no desire whatsoever to “take the needle out of my arm.”

My mother taught me kindness. My father taught me that failure is not an option. Joe Wineke taught me how to take risks. Chuck Chvala taught me how to be bold in pursuing what I believe in. Tom Barrett taught me how to pick political battles. Russ Feingold taught me about political judgment both locally and nationally, and the importance of loyalty. Dave Cieslewicz taught me how to create and achieve a vision, and the importance of friendship.

I set up Joe Wineke’s first state Assembly office, Chuck Chvala’s first state Senate office, Tom Barrett’s first congressional office and Dave Cieslewicz’s first Mayor’s office. In each case, I started off knowing next to nothing about the entity I was supposed to be in charge of.

It’s tough to command respect as a boss and make decisions, both large and small, before you’ve developed your sea legs. In each case, I relied on a combination of gut instincts, hard work and a sense of humor to get through those early months.

I do think being a woman has worked to my advantage. I think it’s important for the top advisor to the top dog—whether in the public or private sector—to be somewhat of an alter ego. And although certainly not by design, I’ve only worked for men. So I think it’s been helpful to balance male and female energy and approaches to challenges.

For example, Russ Feingold dubbed me the “velvet hammer” because I always tried to balance toughness and compassion when approaching a management or personnel issue. The amount of “velvet” versus “hammer” that’s used needs to change with every person and every situation. I think being a woman has helped make me more aware of the importance of seeking that balance.

I want to be remembered that I worked hard. That I was tough but fair. That I didn’t take myself too seriously. That I made people laugh.

In spite of the many wonderful election night victories and first-time swearings-in that I have been fortunate to have been a part of, my proudest accomplishment is personal and not professional. I am most proud of completing the AIDS bike ride from Minneapolis to Chicago without walking up a single hill.

Bettsey L. Barhorst

President, Madison Area Technical College

I have always wanted to lead a school, at least since the first grade. I began by organizing games on the playground in second grade, and played “school” with my siblings and neighborhood pals—always making myself the teacher.

My role models were some of the nuns at my grade school. I loved their flowing habits, the white cardboard around their faces and their jingling rosaries. (I still know how to fold a towel to dress like a nun, and I always thought I looked good with white framing my face.)

One of the toughest times I’ve faced was establishing my own identity and vision in Madison. I overcame that by spending much time both externally and internally getting to know people and the territory.

I do not believe I have an advantage being a woman. A college president’s job today is very difficult for anyone. My women colleagues, however, do have quite a strong network and give each other much support.

It is difficult to generalize, but women do seem much better at keeping numerous balls up in the air simultaneously. I believe they have had to work harder to obtain their positions, to maintain balance and to manage families and, therefore, are accustomed to long hours and mega-stress.

If I weren’t in this career, I would be writing, doing research and still trying to make the world a better place.

I want to be remembered as someone who enjoyed life, got the most out of every minute, was kind and used her talents to get things done.

My proudest career moment was when we passed a referendum for college improvements at Hawkeye Community College with 63.5 percent voter approval.

My proudest personal moment was when my dissertation committee at Illinois State University called me into their conference room and addressed me as “Dr. Barhorst,” meaning I had just fulfilled all of the requirements for my Ph.D.

Genya Erling

Founder of Slow Food UW and Ph.D. candidate in the Environment and Rescources Program of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies

I think I was born into Slow Food, being born in the Kickapoo Valley. So many of our neighbors were small farmers and foragers; my mom helped start the natural foods co-op in Gays Mills (my hometown). It just seemed natural. And then we moved to Atlanta, and I realized how different things could be. Slow Food just encompasses so many of the issues I find to be important—environmental, social, cultural, personal—that all roads pointed in that direction for me.

My role models are my parents, of course, and my brother. And my older cousins who traveled all around the world—I always wanted to be like them.

If I weren’t doing this what would I do? Hmm, full-time farming? Peace Corps? Or maybe walking across Australia? Some sort of adventure. The National Geographic that came out the month I was born had a cover story about a woman who walked across Australia with her camel, and I always thought that would be fun.

My professor, Tim Allen, ends his well-known Plants and Man class by asking his students to ask themselves if they are worthy citizens of a worthy nation. I hope I am one.

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