Better Together

by Sarah Anderson

Eyes widen in fear and disbelief. Images of claws and backstabbing seem to flood the mind.“I could never do that,” is all too often the response to hearing about an all-women workplace. The fear is of an environment ruled by irrational emotions and insecurities, when the reality is quite the opposite: Women who are surrounded by other women in the workplace are met with colleagues who understand and empathize with each other in a way that magnifies abilities, potential and performance, producing powerful results.

In fact, a study published by the University of California, Davis revealed that companies that include women as part of their leadership team performed much better than their competitors with a mostly male leadership. They found that the median returns on assets and equity were at least 74 percent higher in the top 25 companies with the highest percentage of women executives and board members than in the overall group of companies surveyed.

We talked to four West Michigan businesses who shared with us the myriad benefits of cultivating a female-driven work environment.

“I think when you come into a predominantly female environment, it allows you to say, ‘OK, now let me see who I really am.’ ”
—Cori Williams, Owner of Beer City Barre

Axios HR

The power of women is reflected in larger companies, as well. Axios HR is a staffing firm in Grand Rapids with an office staff of 60 and an employee base of more than 15,000 people. Kellie Haines, president; Shannon Burkle,  executive vice president of staffing solutions; and Blythe Kazmierczak, executive vice president of human resource solutions are three members of the executive leadership team at Axios and are inspiring other women to rise into leadership positions.

Not a West Michigan native, Kazmierczak quickly noted the differences in culture here from others parts of the country.

“There’s a real focus on family and a lot of women here who stay home,” she imparted. “In other places I’ve lived,  that’s not as common. I think it’s cool that Axios has so many women, not just at the leadership team level, but strong managers and folks in client- facing roles. They are important examples for candidates when they come in and have an experience with us. I think we are helping women see what’s possible in that way.”

Kazmierczak understands that women have had to work harder to fight negative biases and as a result have become even stronger forces in their work environments.

“In many cases, women have dealt with bias where people assume they didn’t know something or have any experience,” Kazmierczak elaborated. “As a result, a lot of women are more competent than they need to be as a compensation for the fact that they’ve encountered this bias.”

She also emphasizes that making it to the top doesn’t mean biases are totally overcome.

“Maybe you have to be a little bit tougher than others who aren’t in leadership positions but don’t be fooled by that,” Haines instructed. “There’s a misconception that you don’t have compassion in senior-level executive positions.”

Kazmierczak suggests taking an objective approach to gender in terms of leadership.

“I would ask yourself, ‘What do I need from a leader?’” Kazmierczak advised. “It’s more about what you need from the leader you’re working with and that they are a good personality match for you.”

(photo by two eagles marcus | from left to rightL Kellie Haines, shannon burkel, blythe kazmierczak)

Beer City Barre

Cori Williams founded Beer City Barre as a way to impact the lives of those trying to get serious about their health and fitness. Working in a female-driven industry, Williams has a staff of seven women and one man and client base comprised primarily of women.

For her, working with women is all about the relationships and communication.

“Each woman who works here is different,” she commented. “I think, with women especially, it’s important to have an emotional connection and understand where they’re coming from.”

Facilitating positive relationships among her staff has a ripple effect in the barre studio; Williams sees her clients interact and build community among themselves, too.

“I have many clients develop strong relationships with other women they meet here in the studio,” she explained. “And that’s what I’m most proud of. Sure, get a six pack…but walk out the door with meaningful relationships.”

Working with a smaller group of women has been a welcome change for Williams, who left a large corporate position to start her studio.

“Here, we can all be successful and know that it’s because we’re smart,  welcoming and friendly and it has nothing to do with anything else,” she reflected. “It’s really big to feel that sort of self-worth in a different way.”

She also noted that this type of environment has allowed for self-growth and exploration.

“I think when you come into a predominantly female environment, it allows you to say, ‘OK, now let me see who I really am.’”

(photo courtesy of beer city barre. From left to right: Sara VanHorn, Kelly Brown, Bill Ward, Kim Brown, Cori Williams, Lenox Napolitan, Lisa Dost, Kim McDonough, MeLisa Milanowski.)

Green Gate Health

Jessica Foley and Natasha Browley started Green Gate Health after each found solutions for their health issues in medical cannabis. What followed was a team of women (and one man) who each bring their own passions and interests into a company that serves as a haven for individuals seeking holistic healthcare.

Each full moon, Green Gate Health holds a women’s group that is open to the public. It’s a time for strangers and friends to gather, talk openly, support each other and let go of the day’s pressures. Each group begins with a meditation and participants have the opportunity to speak if they would like to. Through these gatherings, Browley witnesses a profound shift in her staff and clients.

“I think a lot of the positive energy that we receive from women has a lot to do with the women’s circle,” she explained.

Browley also takes a direct approach to how women should uplift one another.

“If you see somebody who looks nice, tell them that they look beautiful,” she exclaimed. “Tell them that you love their hair, because there’s nothing wrong with complimenting another woman and making her feel good about herself. That’s what we’re supposed to do.”

For Browley, supporting each other and working together has a seismic effect outside of the office.

“We could change the world,” she said.

(photo courtesy of Green Gate Health | Clockwise from top Left: Nadija Reeves, Sharon Downer, Jessica Foley, Natasha Browley, Mackenzi Jackson)

Hello Homes GR

After working in real estate for seven years, Ashley Dietch-Schaefer saw a need to create a group that offered a higher level of personal support to young women beginning their real estate careers.

“To be honest, they kind of get pushed out,” she explained.“It’s a really male-dominated industry, so sometimes we find that some women don’t have the confidence to seek out knowledge or resources.”

This motivated Dietch-Schaefer to open her own real estate firm, Hello Homes GR.

“I saw an opportunity for women to really empower each other and support each other and genuinely help,” she divulged.

Instead of competing against each other, Dietch-Schaefer created a group that believes in each other. Shared life experiences and perspectives lend themselves to facilitating a team environment full of empathy and understanding.

“It’s really great to have that support system,” she reflected. “I can call an agent and say, ‘You know what? My son and I are at home. I can’t make it to the showing. Can you cover for me?’ and all hands are on deck…and I’ll do the same for them.”

(photo courtesy of Hello Homes GR | clockwise from top left: ashley dietch- schafer, corrin timmer, jennifer conner, nicole ware, Debora acevedo, elizabeth klopp, nora glahn)

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