Kentucky Chamber Women’s Summit focuses on key role of women in business, politics, community

On Tuesday, the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce hosted its 3rd Annual Women’s Summit, celebrating, recognizing, and sharing the accomplishments of women across the Commonwealth.

Kentucky Chamber President and CEO Ashli Watts welcomed over 600 attendees to the Summit and shared the Chamber’s intention to highlight the importance of women getting involved in politics, especially in an election year.

As the presenting sponsor, Fifth Third Bank Kentucky Regional President Kimberly Halbauer, a board member of the Kentucky Chamber, said she hopes that all attendees will leave the Women’s Summit with a call to action to change lives.

During the event, Elizabeth McCoy was recognized as the recipient of the Kentucky Chamber’s 2023 Woman in Leadership Award.

“I cannot think of another woman who has made a more significant contribution to the Kentucky Chamber, the Kentucky business community, and the Commonwealth,” said Watts.

McCoy is the CEO of Planters Bank, which just celebrated its 25th anniversary, with 14 financial services offices throughout Kentucky and Tennessee and total assets exceeding $1.5 billion. This ranks Planters Bank among the top 15 in asset size of Kentucky-headquartered banks.

McCoy has been involved in many organizations and groups across the western Kentucky region, the Commonwealth, and the nation, which includes serving on the Hopkinsville Industrial Foundation Board, the University of Kentucky Board of Trustees, and the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, among many others. Also, McCoy served as the Kentucky Chamber’s fourth female chair in its 68-year history in 2014 and has continued her involvement with the organization since then.

While being interviewed by Kentucky Chamber President and CEO, McCoy shared how the need to give back was instilled in her at a young age by her family.

When talking about her service to many organizations, McCoy said she has found it important to be involved in causes that she is passionate about. “If I feel really passionate about it, I will do a really good job,” she said.

As she has been in a typically male-dominated industry, she said that when she was able to get into a position of leadership, she knew she would make an intentional effort to ensure women have the same opportunities as men.

Her advice to women included developing strong communication skills, making their voices heard, not being intimidated, and raising their hands.

Participants at the event heard from women on a variety of topics throughout the day.

Whitney Austin, a survivor of a mass shooting, was interviewed by Renee Shaw of Kentucky Educational Television on her experiences that day and each day since being shot twelve times while entering a Cincinnati bank in 2018.

Austin created an organization called Whitney Strong to address gun violence through data-driven, responsible gun ownership solutions. From the beginning, Austin said this organization has been dedicated to finding a way for the public to feel safe.

While discussing her work with lawmakers in Kentucky and Washington D.C., she stressed the importance of working in a bipartisan way and getting everyone involved to find solutions.

Going forward, Austin stressed the need to expand mental health access and shared the crucial role mental health support has played in her recovery.

A panel including Volunteers of America Mid-States President and CEO Jennifer Hancock, Metro United Way of Louisville President Adria Johnson, and Kentucky Center for Statistics Associate Research and Reporting Director Beth Kelly, Ph.D., moderated by Kentucky Chamber Foundation Senior Vice President Beth Davisson discussed obstacles in the workplace, highlighted strategies to address these challenges, and shared advice for supporting other women.

Beth Kelly, Ph.D., Associate Research and Reporting Director, Kentucky Center for Statistics, discussed the wage gap between women and men in Kentucky, the statistics of women leaving the workforce after becoming mothers, as well as the concept of the “motherhood penalty” in the workplace.  

As 100,000 women left the workforce in Kentucky during the pandemic, the majority of them cited taking care of their children as the top reason, said Johnson. Johnson shared that Metro United Way has begun offering child care benefits the same as they would health care benefits. As part of the Employee Child Care Assistance program, the organization provides child care assistance funding for employees, and the Cabinet for Health and Family Services matches those funds toward licensed child care facilities.

While discussing how to support other women, panelists suggested expressing gratitude, identifying one person to sponsor, being willing to connect and make time for people, and acknowledging and lifting up other people.

Leading an interactive conversation, Coach Colene Elridge of Be More Consulting focused her discussion on the idea of “being your best, most empowered, happiest self” and “getting out of your own way.” She also detailed intentional practices to visualize the best version of themselves and celebrate the achievements they have made.

Bravo Top Chef Season 16 runner-up Sara Bradley, owner of Freight House Restaurant in Paducah, shared her experiences on the show and as a mother and a woman in the restaurant industry.

Though her participation in Top Chef took commitment and required her to travel as a new mother, she said she was motivated by what the show could do for her, her business, and her community. She spoke on the ways Top Chef brings notoriety, attention, and success to Paducah.

The restaurant industry is not typically friendly to working parents; however, Bradley has taken many steps to ensure her restaurant has maternity and paternity leave, has a designated place for nursing mothers, and much more.

Ashlee Rich Stephenson, senior political strategist and consultant of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce spoke on the national political environment, trends across the nation and in Kentucky, and the role of female voters and candidates.

She shared data-driven statements on women in elections: women turn out higher than male voters, women don’t look at one single issue and decide on a candidate for that one issue, and the views of female voters are the North Star to fundamentally predict how others will vote.

Economic issues remain a top concern for women, Stephenson said, which is led by inflation and prices, jobs and the economy, and taxes and spending. Stephenson also highlighted polling statistics that show women deeply value and trust businesses.

Focusing on Kentucky, Stephenson said she is encouraged to see nearly one-third of Kentucky’s state legislative seats are held by women, and they are evenly split in party affiliation.

As Kentucky is one of ten states left with divided government and with public data reporting the gubernatorial race at a dead heat, Stephenson called Kentucky the “marquee governor’s race of 2023.” She said she is encouraged to see two young candidates running for this office and hopes to see positivity incorporated into the race.

A panel of political leaders in Kentucky, including Rep. Rebecca Raymer, Rep. Keturah Herron, and Hilda Legg of Legg Strategies and moderated by Kate Shanks of the Kentucky Chamber shared their reasons for getting involved in politics, the importance of women being at the table as decisions are being made, and key issues that impact Kentucky.

When talking about the importance of women running for office, Legg said “It’s about being at the table, in the room, in the discussions, being engaged.”

Being a nurse, Rep. Rebecca Raymer did not see politics in her future, but when the COVID-19 pandemic hit there was a lot of policy being talked about at the state level, and she wanted to make sure she had a seat at the table talking about important issues.

While divisive issues get a lot of attention in the legislature, there are many issues lawmakers work on that have bipartisan support.

However, when conflicts do arise, the panelists shared what they have learned from their experiences.  

“You have to remember why you’re there and what your purpose is,” Legg said.

“I can’t just allow my emotions to blow up on this issue because there are a thousand other issues I also need to focus on,” Herron said as she represents over forty thousand people who need her to be at the table.

“It is important to understand where other people are coming from and really try to understand the issue,” said Raymer.

Legg said confidence is essential to being in politics, which she can be achieved by mentorship and lifting up other women. “If we don’t bring young women into situations, supporting them and encouraging them, we are cutting ourselves short for the future of politics,” said Legg.

When asked what is the most important thing for women to do to get involved, panelists said to vote, find what they have a passion about and get involved in it, and believe in themselves.

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