Words from working women: 8 local business women share their experiences

Sofia Mehaffy, pictured at her home in Cedar Rapids, is director of community health and nutrition at Horizons:
Sofia Mehaffy, pictured at her home in Cedar Rapids, is director of community health and nutrition at Horizons:

The Gazette interviewed female business leaders in Iowa about their experiences in the workforce, career negotiations and advice for other working women. Check out Sunday’s Gazette to see why Iowa hasn’t always been the best for working women and what is being done about it. 

Nancy Quellhorst

Development director at the University of Iowa Foundation, former CEO Iowa City Area Chamber of Commerce

Age: 59

Sexism at work: “I once worked with a misogynist who would shout in my face. Fortunately I built a coalition of partners to establish a reputation that saved me.”

Advice to working women: “Have the right partner. My job at the Chamber was pretty high profile. I would go to events with my husband, (Neil Quellhorst), and people would say, ‘What do you do?’ He had 700 people working for him (at Rockwell Collins) with 10 times the budget and he would say, ‘I’m Mr. Nancy Quellhorst.’”

Sofia Mehaffey

Community Health and Nutrition director at Horizons, A Family Service Alliance

Age: 33

Seizing opportunities: “Men will apply for a job with 50 percent of the qualifications, but a woman will wait until she has 80 percent,” Mehaffey said. When she saw Horizons job opening, Mehaffey went for it despite knowing she didn’t have all the qualifications — yet. “Where there’s an opportunity, I do try to take it.”

Being a role model: “I had a little girl say to me one time, ‘This is your car? This is your house? You’re someone’s boss? And you’re black?’ She’d never met someone who was black and had people report to her. It’s good for kids to know they can choose a life outside where they started.” 

Jennifer Daly

President and chief executive officer of Iowa’s Creative Corridor Development Corp.

Age: 45

Advice to working women: “Everyone has valuable things to share. If you don’t speak up and put your ideas, put your thoughts (out there), take those risks, sometimes it feels uncomfortable, but it’s the only way that you will build your own brand as a person and a professional.”

Patty Judge

Founder and chairwoman of Focus on Rural America

Age: 73

Former lieutenant governor of Iowa, first female Iowa Secretary of Agriculture

Sexism at work: “I was the first woman to serve as Secretary of Agriculture in the state, and when I ran for that the first time a lot of people — to my face, let alone what was going on behind my back — would tell me that was not an appropriate job for a woman, that a woman couldn’t handle that type of job working with various aspects of Iowa agriculture. The second time I ran, it was not an issue. No one ever said to me or wrote in any article or anything that I wasn’t fit for the job because I was a woman.

“They might not have liked me for some reasons, believe me, but it was never about my gender. I figure it goes to reveal how (women) have to continually prove ourselves.”

Lisa Shimkat

State director of the Iowa Small Business Development Center

Age: 46

Climbing the ladder: “I know that I’ve had to fight for things, but one of the things I learned early is to always give people more than they expect. You’ve also got to keep building your network and never stop educating yourself. Those are probably the top three things that I have always made sure I stayed focused on.”

Anne Harris Carter

Alliant Energy’s director of energy efficiency

Age: 54

Lack of diversity in Iowa: “I talk to colleagues in the community who are professional black women — particularly I find this to be true for folks who are transplants to the area — it is a challenge being able to build that community, or, as we sometimes say in my tradition, that sisterhood. The race element is significant and not being from here is significant.

“We need to do more to bring talent to the state to meet the needs of employers. Until we are visibly diverse, it means we need to work that much harder at a leadership level to make sure we get it and are actively focused on it.”

Diane Ramsey

Iowa Women Lead Change founder and Epic Corporate Challenge co-chair

Age: 65

Advice to working women: “Whenever someone wants an hour of my time, I always say yes. You can learn as much from someone trying to pick your brain as they learn from you. Each of us has an experience we can share with others. When we do that it enriches us all.” 

Beth Malicki

KCRG TV News anchor and Zach Johnson Foundation board member

Age: 40

On serving community: “I will say yes if it’s benefiting students who are in poverty, especially if it has to do with education. I didn’t grow up privileged, so I have that memory. My mom was 15 when she had me and we leaned very hard on my grandparents.”

Getting what you’re worth: “Get educated on what your worth is and how you can pitch that to your boss. You have to be realistic about your employer’s capacity. Are you willing to walk away?”


Compiled by Erin Jordan, Michaela Ramm and Matthew Patane

Check out Sunday’s Gazette to see why Iowa hasn’t always been the best for working women and what is being done about it. 

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