Women leaders say helping others helped them

Anita Falkofske Eaton, Stacie Sefton, Julie Knake Tow, Kate Minette and Nancy Kasparek know about the glass ceiling. It’s that level in an organization that women cannot — supposedly — rise above.

In developing their own careers, they just decided to ignore it.

When asked about what lessons they could offer other women, these business leaders talked about the importance of learning, taking on new challenges and building relationships with employees and customers. They also mentioned some things you won’t hear as often from male executives — the value of helping others advance, respecting family needs and learning from your employees.

And they’re not afraid to ask for directions.

As senior vice president of operations for Pearson PLC in Coralville, former human-resources manager and teacher Kate Minette believes in teamwork.

Minette leads an operation of about 800 scattered across Iowa, Minnesota and Texas, sending out and scoring assessment documents for schools and other clients.

Her HR and education backgrounds wouldn’t have been enough to get her the big promotion just anywhere, she said, but “within my own company, I had the experience and reputation.”

“I considered it a huge opportunity that never would have taken place outside the company where I was employed.”

Her guiding principles are to hire the best people, and to regard their roles as equal or greater in importance to her own.

“The people I hire are typically smarter than I am,” she insisted.

Minette advised other women to “be who you are with everybody.” And she doesn’t think much about the glass ceiling concept.

“Anyone in my generation who’s been in the work force for decades has faced up to different levels of scrutiny,” she said. “A lot of that has been erased.”

Julie Knake Tow’s husband brought home a stack of library books on how to start a business after she decided it was time to leave her full-time nursing job at the University of Iowa. She spent many months researching how to start a business and the complex rules of Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement before founding a home health care business in Cedar Rapids 16 years ago.

“I would read until 3 a.m.,” Tow said. “We had a baby, a 2-year-old, a 5-year-old and the support of my father. I went to California where I had a girlfriend in the home care business and did research. I did a marketing plan, worked with SCORE and took a couple of marketing classes at Kirkwood” Community College.

Tow’s preparation paid off unexpectedly with an early growth opportunity for the business. Another new home care provider in the Waterloo area ran into trouble meeting Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement criteria and asked Tow to take over its staff and client lists. That prompted Tow to finally quit her full-time nursing job.

Today, Tow’s two businesses, Comfort Care Medicare and Comfort Care, providing in-home personal and medical care, employ about 200.

While starting the business took courage, Tow said she tries to keep a compassionate philosophy that appeals to the needs of the women-dominated staff.

“When you have 200 women working for you, there’s a crisis every day” involving child care or other family issues, she said. “We try to be very flexible and very family-oriented.”

Today, Comfort Care has operations in Coralville, Cedar Rapids, Waterloo and Davenport.

“Don’t beat yourself up for making mistakes,” BHFO Outlet founder and CEO Stacie Sefton said. “That’s how you learn.”

Sefton may be the ultimate example of learning from experience. She left college before graduation to work in retail management, and within a few years was cofounding a company. She later worked on her own business. Now eight years old, BHFO Outlet is the largest fashion retailer on eBay in terms of sales.

BHFO has 75 regular and 10 to 15 temporary employees. It has branched out from eBay to and its own website, and has added an online book retailing business.

Scaling up fast to take advantage of the opportunities has been one of BHFO’s challenges. Sefton’s husband left his job to help out full-time.

“Scaling has meant taking risks and being able to focus,” Sefton said. She still does all the company’s buying, evaluating the dozens of deals pitched her way each month in an effort to find those that can allow BHFO to offer great bargains on popular fashions and still make a decent profit.

Developing strong vendor relationships has been critical to BHFO’s success, and Sefton admits her personality plays a part.

“Having that good old honest Iowa small-town background has helped as far as being trusted and being credible,” Sefton said

“It’s a lot of hard work,” she added. “You have to be driven. I’m driven by accomplishment and success, and hopefully can pass that along to my children.”

Sefton urges women not to shy away from risks. She says it’s critical to make smart decisions and listen to those around you, but that it’s also important at times to be willing to ignore well-intentioned advice.

Nancy Kasparek likes to tell young women that if they’re looking for obstacles because they’re a woman, they’ll find them. But if they’re looking for opportunities, there are plenty of those, too.

After a decade as a stay-at-home mom, she took a part-time job as a bank teller at U.S. Bank and in 10 years rose to become president, in 1997. She was the first woman named to the position in the bank’s 125-year history.

Kasparek is in line to become the first woman president of the Cedar Rapids Country Club as well as the next president of the Cedar Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce. She serves on eight boards.

Willingness to try new things have served Kasparek well. Banking is “an extremely complicated field that changes every day,” she said.

To help with that learning, Kasparek sought out mentors. She said some have been men, particularly former bank president Steve Caves. But when she was appointed president, she made a list of about a dozen woman leaders in the community and asked them to lunch. Every one accepted, and several remain good friends and mentors.

Kasparek had little interest in banking when she joined U.S. Bank, thinking of it as part-time employment she could fit into her schedule. Her initial disinterest dissolved when she discovered the business was about relationships.

“I fell in love with banking,” she recalled.

---- Kasparek’s view of her role follows the “servant leadership” model, which focuses among other things on listening, empathy, foresight, stewardship and commitment to the growth of others.

Anita Falkofske Eaton is manager of Proctor & Gamble’s Oral B Laboratories toothbrush and custom packaging factory in Iowa City. With 500 employees, the plant can make about 1 million toothbrushes in a 24-hour period. It is the second-largest generator of UPS shipments in Iowa.

“Part of the reason that glass ceiling is there for women is that they aren’t always taking the front-line roles that prepare them for future leadership positions,” Eaton noted. “Manufacturing ... can lead them to a lot of higher-level jobs.”

Eaton began her career in 1982 as a chemical analyst at a Gillette toiletries plant in St. Paul, Minn. Only 23 years old, she had a bachelor’s degree in biology, and children at home.

When a temporary second-shift supervisor position opened on a production line, she decided to try it. Her performance pleased her supervisors, who made the assignment permanent.

After 18 years and many challenging promotions, Eaton became plant manager.

Male superiors who approved her promotions were often men with daughters who wanted their own children to have good opportunities someday. Eaton recalled one early manager who invited her to bring her baby to night meetings at the plant.

Eaton left Gillette for a few years to oversee the transition at her St. Paul plant to its new ownership, then returned to Gillette because there were no advancement opportunities. Gillette moved her to Boston to oversee “global fill” arrangements in new markets, then sent her to oversee Oral B Laboratories in 2004. The plant was acquired by Procter & Gamble about one year later.

Eaton said it’s important to work for a company whose values are aligned with your own. Procter & Gamble has a good history of providing training support and flexibility for women employees.

“The first time I ever stood in line for a women’s restroom was at Procter & Gamble,” she quipped.

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