Powerful stories of success and leadership shared at the Kentucky Chamber’s 2nd Annual Women’s Summit

At the Kentucky Chamber’s 2nd Annual Women’s Summit, almost 500 from across the Commonwealth gathered to celebrate women leaders, talk about their journeys to success, offer guidance, and share their vision for the future.

Throughout the summit, key conversations were focused on building a supportive network, seeking and becoming mentors, practicing confidence and grace, continuing to learn, improving communication, and much more.

Women Leading Through Crisis

Attendees had the opportunity to hear from City of Mayfield Mayor Kathy Stewart O’Nan exactly seven months after devastating tornadoes left the city in an unimaginable crisis.

O’Nan spent her career as a school teacher. She said the day after the storms hit was much like leading a classroom through 9/11. Although she did not know what would come next or if they were going to be okay, what she could do was deal with the immediate needs and be there for her neighbors.

She recalled the bravery and leadership of first responders as she watched them immediately help their community as the storm was still happening. She also credited the disaster response agencies that arrived so quickly and provided their critical services. The agency representatives told O’Nan that it was great that so much work and coordination had already been done before they had arrived.

“It was the most beautiful, amazing thing to show the world how we pulled together in a crisis,” O’Nan said. “It is reaffirming to see how people’s hearts shine through.”

When asked if she considers herself an expert on crisis management, O’Nan said, “We all learn by doing. I have learned more about myself in the past seven months than I have in my life,” she said. “This was not a fake it until you make it situation, it’s get on your feet and go do it.”

She credited her decisiveness as one of her best leadership traits, and her unwavering decision-making skills have been critical. Also, O’Nan said she believes becoming a widow at a young age was one thing that prepared her for handling crisis.

She updated attendees on the rebuilding process, saying it cannot all be fixed right now, and there are some things that are out of control. As for what comes next, the mayor pointed to the many incredible organizations helping the community rebuild and said many businesses that have been leveled are building back better and more modern which makes her excited to see what Mayfield looks like in the aftermath.

“I have to remind myself to look at how far we have come seven months after,” she said. “I get so excited thinking about where we want to be and how we will rebuild ourselves. But we don’t want to forget those we lost.”

When asked what it means to be a real leader, O’Nan said, “not everyone is going to affect hundreds of people. But it is that ripple effect. We never know what we are going to do that leads to greatness in someone else.”

Women in Business 

Women leaders of Kentucky’s business community had a discussion on best practices and keys to success, no matter the industry, profession, or level.

Panelists shared advice they have been given that has helped them on their journey to success.

Duke Energy Ohio and Kentucky President Amy Spiller said it is critical to understand your role, take into account what others are trying to accomplish, and always be a student.

Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport CEO Candace McGraw said “rarely is your career and your personal life firing on all cylinders.” Because of this, she said it is important to learn how to give ourselves some grace, and being transparent with ourselves and others is key.

Fifth Third Bank Kentucky Regional President Kimberly Halbauer said, “there’s a difference between standing out and being outstanding. Being outstanding, you can use your voice a little differently. Know the difference, and choose wisely.”

During a conversation on the importance of building a network of like-minded people, Halbauer said, “the key to being successful lies in all of us supporting each other.”

Halbauer also encouraged professionals wanting to grow to seek out opportunities and get involved in leadership roles outside of their organization as practice. 

“Say Yes to You”

An executive coach, Colene Elridge, led an interactive lesson on “saying yes to you.”

She began by telling attendees that her goal is to help more women get a seat at the table, and if she cannot get them a seat at the table, she helps them build that table.

Elridge said, oftentimes, women settle for what they are given instead of what they need. Moving forward, she added, women need to ask themselves what they want more of, and then ask themselves what they are going to do to make that happen. “If you don’t know what you want, how will you know if you have achieved it,” she asked.

“What are you saying yes to,” Elridge asked. “Often, the reason we struggle to say ‘yes to you’ is that we have already said yes to so many other things. Is your ‘yes’ in alignment with who you want to be?”

Elridge shared a list of ways to “say yes to you,” including making a policy to not agree to anything in the moment, scheduling time to make yourself a priority, making your personal support team a priority, allowing yourself to be human, and taking time to celebrate.

2022 Woman in Leadership Award- Elaine Chao

During the summit, the 2nd Annual Woman in Leadership award was presented to former Secretary of the U.S. Departments of Labor and Transportation Elaine Chao.

Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Kelly Craft introduced Chao, speaking on the inspiring story that has taken her “from Taipei to Louisville, from a cargo ship to a cabinet secretary’s office in the White House.”

Chao was the first woman of Asian American and Pacific Islander heritage to serve in a president’s cabinet in the United States. Additionally, she is considered the longest-serving cabinet secretary since World War II, serving for 12 years in her cabinet positions. Chao also served as the president and CEO of the United Way of America, director of the Peace Corps, and chairman of the Federal Maritime Commission.

During an interview with Frost Brown Todd Office Member-in-Charge Jennifer Barber, Chao was asked what being first means to her. In response, Chao said, “being the first means you can do a lot of things for other people.”

Chao spoke about her experiences in public service and helping lead the nation’s response to crisis situations including 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and the coronavirus pandemic. Chao said her most valuable lessons have come during difficult moments.

“Leadership is hard and it never gets any easier,” Chao said. “So, it is good to practice leadership skills early. You want to hone your communications skills, interpersonal skills, and relationships skills. It is your job to go out there and market yourself.”

When asked who inspires her, she pointed to the people in the room. “Growing up, there were no rooms full of women like this,” Chao said.

Women in Politics

A panel of Kentucky political leaders, including Representative Samara Heavrin, Former Lieutenant Governor Crit Luallen, Lexington-Fayette County Government Council Member Amanda Mays Bledsoe, and Kentucky Chamber Senior Vice President of Public Affairs Kate Shanks, focused on the important role women play in public office. 

When working with other elected officials, “women are often focused on where to find common ground,” Bledsoe said.

Sharing the success of a major policy passed in the 2022 General Assembly to address child care needs across Kentucky, Heavrin talked about the bipartisan support of the legislation she championed. “We all know the more voices we have at the table, the better policy we can develop,” Heavrin said.

When talking about the need for more women to get involved in politics, Luallen said that women have a unique ability to speak, listen, and adapt to others.

The panelists all pointed to the support they received from their mentors. Now, because of that support, they focus their time on encouraging and inspiring others to follow in their footsteps. 

From starting her career in a state government in a mail room to holding many statewide offices, Luallen credited her success to finding great mentors, having a great moral compass, and respecting other people.

Heavrin said she ran because she wants young girls to know that they can and should get involved. “I want them to know that this is something they can do when they grow up,” she said. 

“I want my kid’s friends to know this is tangible,” Bledsoe said. “I want them to say, I see someone who looks like me, thinks like me, and that I like in this office. Maybe I can do it too.”

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