Our region has been recognized for strong leadership and lucky for us, some of the strongest female leaders in the area recently took the time to gather together for a roundtable discussion with Wes Roberts at our studio. Read on to learn what it's like to balance life as an inspiring leader with the demands of motherhood and family and find out why these are the Women Who Roar in our community. 

Fifty years ago there would’ve been no women at the table, and now we have a table filled with women. What does that mean? BRITTANY LAMONT, PRESIDENT/CEO, Lakewood Ranch Business Alliance:  I think it means change, evolution and opportunity. It means I think a realization of where women fall in the workplace and where women fall in leadership roles. It may be happening in this community, but it’s still not happening nationwide. But it’s nice that locally, the tides have turned a bit, and that people see that women should be in leadership positions like this. JACKI DEZELSKI, PRESIDENT AND CEO, Manatee Chamber of Commerce Should it mean anything? Or is it simply a signal of, as you said, where our community and our region has headed in recognizing leadership. It would be an interesting data point to know collectively the amount of tenure in our industry that’s around this table. All of us have been engaged for years and been supported by amazing people. SHARON HILLSTROM, PRESIDENT AND CEO, BRADENTON AREA ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT CORPORATION I would say though that we do see a lot of women in leadership roles in nonprofits in our region, we don't see them necessarily in roles of for-profit companies. In the for-profit sector, you're not seeing women ascend to those CEO positions as you are in the nonprofit sector. I think that's why you have all women here—because we’re all nonprofits. Although it shouldn’t matter because we're running businesses, whether you're a nonprofit or you're a for-profit organization.


Photography by Wyatt Kostygan

When we started SRQ now 25 years ago, President and Editor-in-Chief Lisl Liang, recounts that she had powerful women of the era warn her that “it was going to be tough, because of the ‘good ol’ boy network,” But the story she SHARES is that she was widely welcomed by the leaders of that era; in Particular Shaun Merriman, Tom Dabney and John Cranor. her experience seemed quite different THAN the women who had been the “ceiling breakers” of the previous generation. HILLSTROM: I was speaking with a former CEO of a major corporation not too long ago, who’s probably 80 now, and she made this statement: “I broke through the glass ceiling and when I got there, there weren’t any other women there.” From a generational standpoint, obviously things have progressed. Depending upon which sector of business you might be in it may still exist, but there’s no question it’s getting better. HEATHER KASTEN, PRESIDENT AND CEO, Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce:  I spent several years in pharmaceuticals with Lilly, and the top executives all the way down to the regional managers were males, but then all the sales reps were female. If you look around this town, it is women running the nonprofits, and yet if you do look at the for-profits, it is primarily male-dominated. That includes banks, manufacturing and technology companies. HILLSTROM:  If you go outside of our region, if you look at startup activity across the country or even in the world, there are a lot of women doing startups-probably because they had to in order to maybe ascend to that position. Here we have so much change happening so quickly with so many new people moving here, coming from other areas, bringing different ideologies. I think we’re in a period of time where we will see more women maybe ascending to those roles or bringing companies here. LAMONT:  The Chamber of Commerce industry has definitely evolved from being as male-dominant at the top. When the women at this table started in the Chamber world, it was all male. The EDCs are still very male dominated. ERIN DUGGAN, PRESIDENT AND CEO, VISIT SARASOTA COUNTY:  If I look up the coast, it’s pretty much all men that are the DMO leaders. I just got back from a conference in Savannah, and nearly all the DMO presidents were male. There is a generational change happening, I had a strong mother growing up. She was an executive with FCCI, so all I ever knew was that women worked and they ran businesses. I’ve got two teenage boys, I think my children have always known, their grandmother had a big job, mom’s got a big job, dad’s got a big job. It could be a shift that people are starting to accept [women business leaders] because that’s what they grew up seeing. ERIN SILK, CECD, PRESIDENT AND CEO, ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT CORPORATION OF SARASOTA COUNTY:  This group—having visible women in leadership—I see it attracting more women to bring or start businesses in this region. Particularly in the tech startup, we’re meeting women who have relocated here. There’s one in particular I was meeting with the other day, Jake Rubin, with MamaZen. She launched a mental health app for mothers. She’s from LA and she told me that the reception that she’s gotten here in Sarasota as a woman in tech and a woman founder is so much more welcoming than what she had experienced there. DEZELSKI:  There are female leaders and male leaders that are blazing trails here on the Suncoast, and this table is filled with rockstar women leaders, and it’s incumbent upon all of us to ensure that we’re going to pay it forward with the mentoring that we’ve all had. To pay forward the support that we’ve all had, and to honor the generation prior to us that built and broke through glass ceilings and forged the path. So that, Erin, your boys don’t know it any other way than there being equal opportunity for women and men to reach the top leadership positions in organizations. LAMONT:   In my personal experience, think about what you shared on Lisl’s behalf earlier, I haven’t felt like this community has viewed me differently because I was a woman. Age is a whole different topic, but I don’t think it was “you’re a woman so you couldn’t be put in these positions.” I think there has always been a level of male support from community leaders, as long as I have been pursuing my career. DUGGAN:  I may have started 10, even 15 years earlier than you. There was a lot of change in that time period. Behaviors that are no longer accepted. I have some stories. HILLSTROM:  Oh, I do too. LAMONT:  Motherhood is a whole different subset during this. There’s way more judgment on being a mom than being a woman. It’s one thing to be a woman, you have shown that you deserve your role. But despite that, some would think, “Oh, but you are a mom. Can you do this? Do you have that kind of bandwidth? Can you raise kids?” DUGGAN: That still exists. I think women are harder on women than men are for the whole motherhood thing though. LAMONT: And that could be a generational thing too. DUGGAN: In the last year I couldn’t get over how many people would say to me, “Oh, you probably don’t want Virginia [Haley]’s job, because you’re a mom.” And I said, “Well, first of all, Virginia’s a mom, and she was younger than me when she started, and her daughter was younger than my children when she started as the president and CEO. Second of all, I don’t know what you think my responsibilities were as Vice-President, but I think most people would tell you the VP does more than the president. That’s part of earning your stripes. KASTEN: Going back, even ten years ago, I do think there was some elbowing [between women] to get to the front of the line because it was so hard to achieve these roles. What I’ve seen over the last couple years of my career is women coming alongside other women, genuinely helping, being a mentor, being a support, being an encourager where I know I didn’t really see that when I was coming up the ranks. HILLSTROM: I think there were stereotypes. This woman that I spoke with said the same things; “Why would you even want to have a career; you have two children, you have a husband that earns a lot of money?” It is this stereotype that you should fit in this particular box and don’t go outside of that. The women that did were so brave because society questioned their choices very directly, meanwhile nobody said to a man, “Hey, you’re a dad. Why do you also have to bea professional?” SILK: It still happens. I am so proud of my family unit. I have a five-and-a-half-month-old, and my husband is a stay-at-home dad. I get the question all the time, “And what does your husband do?” He’s a disabled veteran, a proud veteran. Everybody in our circle knows he’s a stay-at-home dad, but when we’re out in public, for instance, we’re at a restaurant, and if the baby’s getting grumpy or something, he’s the first one to pick her up and be bouncing her around. People come up and say, “Wow, he’s such a great dad.” They don’t know that he’s with her all through the week, they think he is a great dad because he’s holding her in the restaurant. The bar is set so low. I’m like, “No, he actually is a really, really great dad, all the time.”  We’re proud of how our partnership works, and how we’re raising our daughter, and it’s working really, really well for us. [My experience helps with how I lead at the EDC,] it is important to support our employees who are mothers and fathers, but now even more so as we look at bringing new staff people on, I tell them, “you are a full person before you are an employee”. You have a family, you have kids, and we recognize that you’re a full person first. I take pride in being able to give that to other people, whereas years ago, I don’t think I would’ve been in the same situation. LAMONT: As a mom to young kids, I see it. Work used to be something that happened from 8-5, but what does life look like holistically for employees and their families? We all need to show up to the stuff for our kids, sit in the car. For women to continue to evolve in leadership positions there needs to be more of that flexibility. You might be taking meetings in the car line, picking up your kids. It is a struggle every day. And in this role they need you after 5:00. You’re also taking calls from a board member 8pm at night. You’re on all the time, but then there’s space in between for you still to feel like you can do the mom thing. If my husband shows up to jiu-jitsu, with all three of the kids, he’s a hero. But if I am wrangling all three kids, I hear, “Oh, you got your hands full, don’t you?” KASTEN: There can be guilt. I did take a five-year time out in my professional career to raise the kids. I saw both sides. When I was working and putting on the suit, I would see the stay-at-home mom in her yoga pants and I would be like, “Man, she’s such a good mom. She probably went in and had coffee with the teacher and did yoga, and then she’s probably going somewhere for lunch with a friend.” I thought that, and then when I was that mom in the yoga pants, I would see the woman come in all gussied up heading to a meeting. I’d think, “Wow, she’s important. She’s making something happen today. What am I making happen today? I’m going to go run copies at the elementary school.”

There is a well-worn saying about “having it all.” Can women have it all? Or maybe the question should be, can anyone have it all? HILLSTROM: It depends on what your “all” is. I think what you have to think about is when. So you can’t have it all, all the time. You may have it all at different stages of your life. I view life as different chapters. I worked out of college, then I was a stay-at-home mom, then I worked to get back into the professional world, which was really hard by the way. It was not easy at all. Because here’s what happens when you’re out of the workforce, even though you’ve been productive and doing things, people look at you, “You’ve been out of the workforce. What did you do?” And many employers don’t place any value on that whatsoever. But if I look at my career, my life, I feel like I’ve had it all. It didn’t always happen when I thought it was going to happen, but that’s what I say to women all the time. Always be open to the potential that it could change; never ever put those bookends on your life because you never know what the future has to hold and you always should be open for opportunities that might come your way. KASTEN: In any chapter, what does success look like? Is it sitting on a board. “Is it a certain amount of money? Is it  attending all of my kids’ activities?” Really defining success, whatever chapter you’re in, because I think that definition changes with each chapter. Be intentional about “how do I define success?” And then being at peace with that. DUGGAN: I’m sure in my twenties and my thirties, and probably even the first half of my forties, you wish for the next promotion, you wish for your kids to be out of this icky stage. And I remember my mom used to always tell me, “You’re going to wish your life away.” So I haven’t done that in a long time. So to me, I try to be very grateful for what I have today, but I think it’s fun to not have it all because then that’s what makes you want to get up and do better and strive for something new next year. And I think too, who would’ve thought prior to the time we are in now, things like picking up kids in car lines, that wouldn’t have ever flown prior to the pandemic. The pandemic showed we need to value the employees that we have that are hardworking. We don’t want to lose them over something as petty as not letting them take a 45-minute break in the afternoon to get a kid. “You’re a good employee, you can do whatever you want pretty much all day as long as you get your work done. In our office too that it’s not just kids. It’s dogs, it’s parents, it’s grandparents, it’s spouses. Not one entity is more important than another. My mom used to say, “everybody has 24 hours a day. Your time’s not more important than my time or vice versa.” Everyone chooses to spend their 24 hours however they want. LAMONT: It could just be the phase of my life with young kids, but it’s never “do you have it all?” It’s closer to the saying; “You’re always failing at one thing.” Either it’s your marriage or career or your kids. It’s always changing; what comment did my kid make today that makes me feel like a supermom? Or what fight did you have with your spouse makes you feel like you’re not a good wife? Or does a board member want something from you that you couldn’t deliver? You have 24 hours a day, and you have to be okay with not being 100 percent at everything every day. Maybe today you’re giving a hundred percent to your job and you’re giving 50 percent to your family, and that sucks, but then tomorrow you’re taking the day off and you’re giving 100 percent to your family. SILK: A lot of what I’m hearing is it’s also about perspective. If you ask me do I feel like I have it all? I feel like I have it all. Right now, I really do. Of course there are really, really hard times, and there are really big challenges in all three of those aspects. But when I look at my life in totality, the perspective I have is that I have it all, and it’s a beautiful life. It’s about perspectives.We had an event last night, and before I came to the event, I gave the baby a bath. I had 20 minutes, and I said to my husband, “Let me give her a bath and put her in her pjs.” Then I got dressed and then I came to the event. That’s the balance that you do. You try to keep your positivity and be thankful and grateful through it. HILLSTROM: I can say this because I have grown children now, but it goes by so fast. Once they’re out of high school and they go to college, it zooms by. All of a sudden they’re 22, and you’re like, “what happened to those four years”? It takes your breath away. When I dropped my son and my daughter off at college, I bawled. SILK:  I cry now thinking about her going to college. Does she have to go? KASTEN:  Definitely enjoy the journey. There’s no pinnacle point where we get to the top of the mountain and say, “Okay, now everything is perfect.” I’m with you, Sharon. We have three grown kids, and when they got their licenses at 16-I really felt the loss of control. They could be doing anything they wanted to be doing.

It seems to me that the talk of work-life balance is something that both men and women take more seriously today. DEZELSKI: I know that you and Lisl have shared those roles with your company. The opportunity for Lisl to have a top role has allowed you to have more bandwidth as a parent, likely, vice versa.

It takes teamwork, Lisl was president of our company and also serving as Board Chair at the Sarasota Chamber I think when our first baby was two years old. LAMONT: She brought baby Griffin to the board meeting!

That’s leadership! OK, a question then, there’s all these sayings like “you lead from the front”, “you lead from the back”, “you lead from demonstration”, “you lead from motivation”. What makes for effective good leadership? DEZELSKI: All four of the things you mentioned, two being opposite sides of the same coin and the other two, the answer is there’s a time and place for nuance within your style of leadership, what your team needs, what your constituents need, what your board needs. What do the people you are leading need at that time? Do they need you to take the step back and push them forward? Do they need you to be decisive and be leading from the front? DUGGAN: We spend a lot of time on our team going through this at our retreats with our staff. Every year we will bring in the colors exercise, so at the end of it, everyone hopefully will appreciate that you are a blue and I’m a green and you need this and I need that, but we both add value. And, adjusting to the moment; we call it reading the room, and I’d say that’s the hardest thing to teach. We’re trying to teach our high school son to read the room in social conversations at Thanksgiving dinner. Like “That wasn’t appropriate. Did you see grandma’s face? She didn’t particularly care for you saying that, but yet you dug in and just kept on.” I’ve experienced that with staff too, that you are not reading the room, you are beating a dead horse. Give-and-take and reading the room and figuring out what’s needed when. I think it’s tough, and some people can’t do it, but I think that’s how you get to the pinnacle of the mountain.

All of you are leaders to your staff, but then also you have to answer to boards. LAMONT: Members, investors, all of them. A lot of moving parts.

How do you balance those dynamics? SILK: Listening is a big one, and I don’t think you can be successful without being a good listener. I try to listen first. LAMONT: It’s a delicate dance based on who you’re interacting with. I think there’s a certain level of toughness that comes with it too, of like, you’ll deal with whatever hard situation, but you also, 20 minutes after that have to get on a stage and go present in front of 300 people, and it doesn’t matter what happened with the staff five minutes before that. There is a certain emotional toughness that I think you have to develop, of one, not ever taking things personally and two, of just being able to roll with it and move on. That’s I think the one thing that maybe I’ve learned is whatever happens, just keep moving. Just keep moving. HILLSTROM: I think resiliency is super important, especially when you're answering to so many different factions. I have this post-it note that says "respond versus react." So take a breath before you respond to something that's been said. I just think treating people the way you want to be treated. Respect is so important. I'm the same person all the time. I don't have a certain persona here and a different persona there, so I know who I am, and so that's what I present, and so I'm comfortable in that. DEZELSKI: The art of diplomacy. We've all mentioned it in one way or another, even in other questions that you've asked us this morning already. The art of diplomacy, and yes, some of that has to be built by experience. HILLSTROM: I also say humor. I like to plug humor in almost every aspect of my life. There's a lot of laughter in my office. I think it just cuts through stress and all those kinds of things.

A challenge that comes from having a high level of leadership in the community is that you also have a high level of visibility. People think that’s a good thing, but it also means that you can’t be anonymous and just go get the shopping done. DEZELSKI: None of us can go to Publix on Saturday morning without running into someone who was a stakeholder or constituent, but it comes with the territory, and that’s a known part of the job, and you’re willing to recognize and handle that.  HILLSTROM: How about every time you go to SRQ Airport, getting on an airplane, and you walk down the aisle, and you are saying,”Oh, hi.” Oh, hi” “Oh, hi.” DUGGAN: And that’s when your kid will have a temper tantrum. DEZELSKI: Or you’re drinking a bloody Mary at 10:00 AM. Oh,” you say, “it’s just tomato juice.” DUGGAN: While your child’s having that temper tantrum. HILLSTROM: That’s why you need it. LAMONT: None of us would do it if we weren’t so passionate about the work we do. I mean that’s what drives you is you believe in your mission, you believe in what you’re contributing to the community. You’re not making plastics every day, you’re transforming a community. KASTEN: Going back to what Sharon said about experience, and the confidence you have to build for it. I felt so much pressure when I took the job at the Sarasota Chamber, and all the media said, “The first woman in a hundred years to run this organization!” I was like, “Oh my God, womanhood riding on my shoulders. I cannot screw this up for the female species.” There were so many times I would just go in my office and close the door and I would let myself talk. I would be like, “You are going to figure this out. Just take a deep breath, go back out there, shoulders back, chin up, buttercup, make it happen.” We’re fast forward now coming up on my fifth year. Now there’s nothing that anybody says, that walks in the door, that is going to surprise me. I’m just at peace, and you just have a sense of, “Okay, I do know what I’m doing.” That anxious, tight feeling of not wanting to let anybody down, it does pass. HILLSTROM: It’s always being open to learning. I used to be really hard on myself. “I can’t believe I didn’t know that,” I would say to myself. So I’m more comfortable now saying “I need to have you explain that to me, because I don’t understand what that means.” That took me a long time to get there because I always felt like I had to know everything—but you don’t have to know everything, and it makes you more human when you admit you don’t.