Many different paths can end at a glass ceiling, but in Iowa, women are coming together more than ever before to break through it.

Why now?

Some say one catalyst was Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook Inc., who wrote best-selling self-help book “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.” The book was a story of lessons Sandberg learned as she adapted to the male-dominated world of Silicon Valley. According to Sandberg, an unwavering work ethic and drive can lead women to success. 

About the same time, some numbers coming out of Iowa were dismal. In its 2012 report, “SHE MATTERS: 2012 Status of Women and Girls in Iowa,” the Iowa Women’s Leadership Conference (IWLC) noted that nearly 14 percent of Iowa women live in poverty while one in three did not have health insurance. Without better access to education, health care and career growth, the lives of Iowa women - and consequently the lives of their families -  are diminished, group leaders noted at a 2012 conference.

“All this created the perfect storm of getting women together to finally talk and collaborate,” IWLC Executive Director Diane Ramsey said. “We asked ourselves, how can we work together to support other women in our state and address the gaps?”

Also in 2012, an American Express OPEN study confirmed that women-owned businesses continue to grow in both number and economic stature in the United States, but Iowa was dead last in state rankings of the number of women-owned businesses. 

“The fact that we were last was really what caught my attention,” said Lydia Brown, president of Ascent Iowa, a new organization to support and encourage women-owned businesses. “I thought ‘That can’t be right,’ but once you start looking at the numbers, it was concerning. And anywhere you go, there’s almost an agreement that it doesn’t matter if we’re dead last or in bottom five. What matters is we weren’t going in the right direction.”

Together, those things seemed to cause a groundswell in Iowa of private organizations and groups forming to advance women’s leadership and business ownership. Each group may offer different resources, but their goals are similar. Nearly all of them agree that collaboration and working together will help them reach their goal faster.

“Collaboration is absolutely critical if we hope to make transformational change,” Ramsey said. “We may not always agree but so long as we have a common platform for where we want to advance women, I think that’s important … to help one another, share resources and connect others.”

Two years later, Iowa is still ranked last overall in the economic impact of women-owned businesses, according to the 2014 American Express OPEN study.

Here is a look at five groups - private, professional, nonprofit and governmental - and what they are continuing to do to develop more female leaders in Iowa. 
Iowa Women’s Leadership Conference

How it began:

Coralville-based Iowa Women’s Leadership Conference started in 2007 as a grass-roots effort by about 30 women who saw the need to promote women’s leadership in Iowa, according to Executive Director Diane Ramsey. The response to the group’s first conference was immediate and dramatic.

“The demand was such that from 2007 on, we held some kind of an event each year,” Ramsey said. “By 2010, we had grown to the point it became obvious that we needed to transition from doing an event only once per year.”
What it does now:

The group now holds annual conferences in both eastern and central Iowa, bringing in prominent leaders from across the country to speak on a variety of topics. It also has become a portal of resources for women. 

IWLC is also focused on research, Ramsey said. In 2013, the group conducted the Pathways to Leadership study, in which nearly 700 women told their stories, the professional obstacles they’ve faced, and their thoughts on the state of women’s leadership in Iowa. This year, Ramsey said the group will conduct another study along with Iowa State University’s Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics and the University of Iowa’s Henry B. Tippie College of Business. 

“The focus will be on organizations, but it also will be a leadership study,” Ramsey said, adding the plan will be to find out what works within companies to elevate women to leadership positions. In addition to being a resource to women, Ramsey said IWLC hopes to play a central role in  bringing organizations and people together to achieve similar goals.
What’s next:

IWLC plans to hold events that focus not only on women but on leadership development and talent retention. Ramsey said the group also plans to add a college track to its conferences to attract and help younger women who want to lead. 

“Iowa is a great place for young women and their peers to live, work and play,” Ramsey said. “It’s not just a place to come back to, but a place where they can stay and make a career.”

National Association of Women Business Owners - Central Iowa

How it began:

The National Association of Women Business Owners - Central Iowa focuses on creating wealth for women business owners and entrepreneurs. This is the group women should reach out to with questions about business ownership, said Lori Day, co-president of NAWBO-CI and president of business consulting and coaching firm FocusFirst Inc.

The Des Moines-based group’s national organization was started in 1974. The Central Iowa chapter was started in 1984 by a small group of women business owners.

“What I love is when you put together a group of 10 or 12 women, magnificent things happen,” Day said. “That’s why I’m a member, because I am so concerned by Iowa’s ranking as 51st for women business owners.”
What it does now:

The group delivers programming to women on a regular basis, focusing on education, influence and public policy. To leverage efforts, it frequently collaborates with other organizations within the state, including 50-50 in 2020, a Coralville-based group focused on creating political equity, and IWLC.

“We support their causes,” Day said. “We want to be aware of what’s important to groups like Nexus and vice versa. We don’t want people operating in isolated ways.”

NAWBO-CI also showcases women business owners in a variety of ways, including programming, celebrations and awards.

Day also is responsible for the creation of the Iowa Project, an ad hoc group that formed following the release of the 2012 American Express OPEN study to identify the key things Iowans could be doing advance women business ownership in Iowa.

“That helped me come back and set the pace for NAWBO,” Day said. “I think it heightened awareness and understanding of some of the issues that were presented in the American Express study.”

What’s next:

NAWBO-CI today is different than the group of 20 years ago, Day said. Right now, it is the fastest-growing chapter in the nation, and Day is also seeking to expand the group’s reach from Central Iowa to the entire state. 

“We’re holding ourselves accountable,” Day said. “This is a new mission, and every single thing we do supports this mission.”

Ascent Iowa

How it began:

Cedar Rapids-based Ascent Iowa was born directly from the results of the American Express study. The study was the catalyst for Ascent founder Lydia Brown, who co-owns Skywalk Group LLC, a professional services firm also in Cedar Rapids. Iowa coming in last in the number of women-owned businesses was startling to Brown, who believes her state does many other things well. 

“To me, it was an economic disaster waiting to happen,” Brown said. “It is a disaster in a state like Iowa, where we have a flat population growth. People may be moving within the state, but we are population neutral and we are missing the tide happening in the rest of the country that shows that women-owned businesses are growing faster than any other sectors.”

So Brown started to look into what kind of resources the state offered for potential women business owners and what could be done to guide them on the path to business ownership. She didn’t start out to create an organization, she said. However, as a small business owner herself, she knew the challenges. She met with Iowa Economic Development Authority Executive Director Debi Durham, who told Brown that if she couldn’t do it, she should find someone just like her to lead the efforts.

“I wasn’t sure I was the right person,” Brown said, “but it needed to be someone who’s started a business, who can be the cheerleader and the realist, and a person who can find people who can support you to do the work that needs to be done.”

What it does now:

Ascent became reality in October 2012, and by September 2013, it was designated as a nonprofit with a mission to inspire and support women in business ownership by helping them grow in a way that creates jobs and strengthens the state’s economy and communities. 

Ascent focuses on metropolitan and rural Iowa and is driven by the private sector with the assistance of public and academic partnerships. The group also is financially supported by the Iowa Economic Development Authority through a two-year sponsorship.

Ascent has partnered with Drake University to host a startup “boot camp” for women. That program will expand to three more colleges this summer. It’s also involved in EntreFest, an annual event for entrepreneurs held in Iowa City. 

Anyone can join the Ascent network for a small fee, Brown said, which increases ease of access to content and events that are relevant to business ownership.

What’s next: 

“People talk about how it takes a village - this is the way I view it,” Brown said. “Ascent’s goal is to help them find what they need to know with the least amount of effort possible. It needs to be as easy and direct as possible. The quickest way to discourage potential business owners is to make it a challenge to get the information they need.”

Lead Like a Lady

How it began:

When it comes to advancing women into leadership roles, sometimes the most basic lessons can make all the difference.

Lead Like a Lady was started in 2013 by four Des Moines area women as a way to provide both professional and personal support to women who are in various stages of their lives and careers. Its mission is to give women the necessary tools to live, learn and lead. 

“It all started with a conversation,” said Megan Ruble, a senior account manager at Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield and current president of the group. “We wanted it to be cost-effective, and we knew there were a lot of women in the community we wanted to learn from. Almost everyone we talked to validated the need for this group.”

Similar groups have formed in Greater Des Moines, including Moisson, a female breakfast club formed to promote leadership and cross-generational mentoring among its members. Founding members of Moisson are Jessica Carvalho, Chrystal Tamillo, Liz Cox and Carole Chambers.

What it does now:

The 40-member group, which Ruble co-founded along with Andrea Jansa, Sunni Swarbrick and Jaimie Ackley, holds a formal breakfast meeting each month in addition to a more informal happy hour event. Women business leaders from across the state are brought in to speak to members on subjects ranging from being in a leadership role at a young age to how to negotiate a salary to how to throw a perfect holiday party.

“We want it to be an intimate experience that you can’t get anywhere else,” Ruble said. “Having these women and having pure, honest and raw conversation, you kind of see a side of them that you wouldn’t typically see.”

What’s next:

Each fall, the group holds a membership event for potential new members. Those who do get involved usually exhibit a passion for women and leadership, as well as mentorship and professional development.

While it takes work, Ruble said others can start similar groups.

“We had four of us that got the group off to a good start,” Ruble said. “You have to make sure you are very solid as a group. With us, this is our mission, and if it doesn’t fit, we’re not going to do it. You have to make the tough calls sometimes.”

State of Iowa

How it began:

Iowa government also has a role to play in advancing female leaders, say two of the state’s top female governmental leaders.

The state’s highest elected female official said she’s watched momentum building for female leaders over the past two years, but even in her position, she  said she wasn’t as informed about of all the efforts as she wanted to be.

“I was frustrated by that,” said Iowa Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds. “How can we not know the great things that are happening out there? Still, we had these pockets of excellence happening across the state, and there was no way to really collaborate or highlight what was happening.”

Those efforts need to be led by the private sector, said Iowa Economic Development Authority Executive Director Debi Durham, but government also has a role.

“The government’s role is to come alongside and find out how we can take limited resources and strategically place them along the pipeline,” Durham said. 

What it does now: 

One example is the partnership between IEDA and Ascent Iowa. The two have entered into a two-year contract. The partnership allowed for Ascent to receive public dollars to aid in its efforts to be a resource for potential women business owners. Through Ascent’s research, the partnership is also helping IEDA get a picture of the state of women business ownership in Iowa as well as an assessment of the resources already in place.

The public sector has done its part in the past by offering tax breaks, micro-loans and other forms of financing for small business owners. Currently, state leaders are fostering leadership skills through programs, including Gov. Terry Branstad’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) initiative.

What’s next:

Reynolds and Durham also have brought together a group of women business owners to look at the programs in place and gain feedback from them. The group has met once and will continue to meet this year. Reynolds said state officials are also in talks with company executives to learn best practices, what works within their companies and what doesn’t.

“Do they have a procedures in place? Do they have diversity in their boardrooms?” Reynolds said. “We’re doing it to better understand what they’re doing so we can use them as an example.”

Durham also hopes to facilitate an investors luncheon to match those with both an ability and willingness to invest together with women-owned businesses that need financing. She said the state plans to continue building on the framework being laid by the private sector, because increasing the number of women-owned businesses in Iowa is crucial.

“The number of women-owned businesses in Iowa is 25 percent, and 22 to 34 percent is average,” Durham said. “We will continue to push the needle on that and see percentages scale up year after year. When you put focus on an issue, and it’s important and deliberate, we see all the energy and we can come alongside with state resources and opportunities. Then we’ll start seeing things happen.”

Iowa’s state ranking by growth in number and economic clout of women-owned businesses (1997-2012)

- Growth in number of firms: 20.6 percent (ranked No. 50).
- Growth in firm revenues: -3.5 percent (ranked  No. 51).
- Growth in employment: -19.8 percent (ranked No. 50).
- Combined economic clout: Ranked No.50.

Source: National Association of Women Business Owners - Central Iowa

Doing our part

The Business Record recently has started a free weekly e-newsletter to chronicle Iowa efforts to increase female leadership, and to empower, and connect Iowa women who aspire to lead.

Lift IOWA is the brainchild of Connie Wimer, the Business Record’s founder and chairman, and Janette Larkin, our publisher. Both women have long histories of supporting and nurturing female leaders, so they saw a need and a role for a statewide electronic publication that would connect and support Iowa’s female leaders.

The debut issue of the e-newsletter appeared on March 24 and is published every Monday. To learn more and to sign-up, go here