38 of Chicago’s Top Black Women of Impact 2019 (and the Women Who Have Impacted Them)

Feature photo by Justin Eisner on Unsplash. Additional photos courtesy of each individual.

In honor of Black History Month, we asked some of Chicago’s top black women leaders about the women who have impacted their lives the most.

Leslie J. Anderson, SVP U.S. Head of Metro Banking Treasury Sales, BMO Harris Bank

Chicago's Black Women of Impact 2019: Leslie J. Anderson, SVP U.S. Head of Metro Banking Treasury Sales, BMO Harris Bank

What female trailblazer has had the biggest impact on your career or upbringing and why?  

There are many women that have had an impact on my life in different stages — Wilma Rudolph, Olympic gold medalist; Maggie Lena Walker, first black woman bank CEO; Shirley Chisholm, first black woman elected to Congress and first to run for president are just a few. I am blessed, however, to sit at the table with my trailblazer, getting a front row seat to her knocking down walls and crashing through ceilings — Patricia Brown Holmes, managing partner of Riley Safer Holmes & Cancila, first African American woman to lead and have her name on the door of a major law firm that is not women or minority owned. Patricia is my living legend because she models excellence everyday while also being committed to holding up her community and opening doors to make sure that while she may be the first, she intends not to be the only. Patricia has excelled in a world that in some cases never expected her to and where her success was neither recognized nor celebrated but it never stopped her from pushing forward with grit and grace! She never let the historical barriers create limits for her because she knew on whose shoulders she stood and the need for her to build up her shoulders so that others like me could stand on them and move us as a collective group of outstanding women to heights we never imagined but were destined to all the same!

Michelle T. Boone, Chief Program and Civic Engagement Officer, Navy Pier

Chicago's Black Women of Impact 2019: Michelle T. Boone, Chief Program and Civic Engagement Officer, Navy Pier

What female trailblazer has had the biggest impact on your career or upbringing and why?

Lorraine Hansberry — She was an African American playwright born on the south side of Chicago, just like me. I learned about her in college in a theater class, and although I was familiar with “A Raisin in the Sun,” written by Hansberry, I didn’t know much about her. I quickly devoured her works and was struck by a particular opening line from another one of her pieces titled “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.” The line read, “I was born on the south side of Chicago. I was born black and a female.” It was the first time I read something by an artist and thought, “Me too!” She achieved so much and made a lasting impression in the arts. I’m not a playwright, but I’ve worked to build a career that supports and helps Chicago artists to leave a lasting imprint on the world.

Ambassador Carol Moseley Braun, CMB One Corp.

Chicago's Black Women of Impact 2019: Ambassador Carol Moseley Braun, CMB One Corp.

What female trailblazer has had the biggest impact on your career or upbringing and why?

Dr. Dorothy Height; she was a civil rights leader, a soror of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority to which I also belong, she was a woman who shaped policy, and when I got to the U.S. Senate, she was an invaluable advisor.

Angela Cobb, CEO, FirstGen Partners, LLC

Chicago's Black Women of Impact 2019: Angela Cobb, CEO, FirstGen Partners, LLC

What female trailblazer has had the biggest impact on your career or upbringing and why?

This may sound trite, but my mother is the female trailblazer who has had the biggest impact on my career and upbringing. She went to college at 40. It took her seven years to get her associate degree commuting an hour each way to work and taking care of my father who became terminally ill while she was getting her degree. Through all of this she was still fully present for me as I was going through my teenage years. After getting her degree, she continued to advance her career and as I was just beginning my professional journey she provided invaluable guidance. Now, as a widow in her late 70s, I’ve watched my mother reinvent herself yet again. She’s active in her church and quilting circle, travels after not being a traveler for most of her life, and took her first nonprofit board position at 75. She is a model of strength, persistence, grace, and reinvention. She reminds me that nothing is impossible and that life is filled with many chapters.

Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman, U. S. District Court, Northern District of Illinois

Chicago's Black Women of Impact 2019: Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman, U. S. District Court, Northern District of Illinois

What female trailblazer has had the biggest impact on your career or upbringing and why?

My mother, the late Dr. F. Frances Johnson, was the first in her family to graduate from high school, college, and graduate school. She continued to complete her doctorate all while taking care of her family and pursuing her career in education. She rose to become Associate Provost at University of Alabama-Huntsville, a first for a woman of color. Mom had two favorite sayings: “By doing your best you can achieve anything,” and “Beauty is as Beauty Does.” She was the smartest, kindest, and most beautiful person I’ve ever known and I still strive to be like her.

Fran Johnson knew about education but before college we had no exposure to lawyers, judges, or doctors. Because of her belief in us and encouragement, her two daughters became a lawyer and a pediatrician. My mom had no idea about the process of electing a judge in a city like Chicago, but all she had to hear was the fatigue in my voice and she drove more than six hours to surprise me and take care of my family’s basic needs during my run for the Circuit Court of Cook County. Then on election day she stood in the cold with my father passing out material at the polls. My mom showed her belief by actions as well as talk. She will forever be my hero. 

Cecilia A. Conrad, Managing Director of Fellows and Awards, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Chicago's Black Women of Impact 2019: Cecilia A. Conrad, Managing Director of Fellows and Awards, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

What female trailblazer has had the biggest impact on your career or upbringing and why?

My mother has had the biggest impact. One of my early memories of her is watching her on the evening news in her homemade copy of a Chanel suit participating in a sit-in at a luncheonette. She grew up in Champaign, Illinois, graduated from U of I, and moved to Dallas with my dad in the 1950s. She led one of the first girl scout troupes in the Dallas black community; chaired my father’s successful campaign for a seat of the Dallas School Board (first African American to win a citywide race). She was the first African American foreman for the County Grand Jury, served on the Texas Coordinating Board of Higher Education and on the Texas State School Board. She was also a master seamstress and cook, a volunteer at St.Paul hospital, and the parent who went on nearly every field trip. I will never measure up.

Gabrielle Cummings, President of Highland Park Hospital, NorthShore University HealthSystem

Chicago's Black Women of Impact 2019: Gabrielle Cummings, President of Highland Park Hospital, NorthShore University HealthSystem

What female trailblazer has had the biggest impact on your career or upbringing and why?

The female trailblazer that had, and still has, the largest impact on my upbringing and career is my mother, Frankie Lowe. She is a woman of fortitude, faith, drive, and determination all while being compassionate with those around her. To this day she serves as my sounding board so that I take a balanced approach to the decisions I make.

Shelley A. Davis, President, Forest Preserve Foundation

Chicago's Top Black Women of Impact 2019: Shelley A. Davis, President, Forest Preserve Foundation

What female trailblazer has had the biggest impact on your career or upbringing and why?

Shonda Rhimes is an inspiration for me now. She is a daughter of Chicago. She is breaking barriers in popular culture and business. Through her work, she is showcasing beautiful, powerful, and complex images of Black women that we don’t see enough. Via her philanthropy, she is supporting the arts, education, and activism with a focus on fighting for equality and standing up against bigotry. In this climate and at this moment, we need philanthropic investments that will help us strengthen communities that reflect the most positive values of our society

Amara Enyia, Chicago Mayoral Candidate

Chicago's Black Women of Impact 2019: Amara Enyia, Chicago Mayoral Candidate

What female trailblazer has had the biggest impact on your career or upbringing and why?

Amara sees her mom, Irene, as her leading trailblazer. Irene Enyia comes from a long lineage of women activists in Nigeria. Amara’s persona stems from her mother and traditional Nigerian culture, where women are the foundation of the family unit and family affairs. Because of this, Amara is a “let’s get it done” leader who always maintains a sense of calmness and clarity.

Kimberly M. Foxx, State’s Attorney of Cook County

Chicago's Black Women of Impact 2019: Kimberly M. Foxx, State's Attorney of Cook County

What female trailblazer has had the biggest impact on your career or upbringing and why?

Barbara Jordan was a lawyer, a Soror (Delta Sigma Theta, Inc.), and a political trailblazer. In these times of political turmoil, I am inspired by her leadership and eloquence during the Nixon impeachment hearings. One of my favorite quotes from Barbara speaks to our work ahead: “If society today allows wrongs to go unchallenged, the impression is created that those wrongs have the approval of the majority.”

Esther Franco-Payne, Executive Director, Cabrini Green Legal Aid

Chicago's Black Women of Impact 2019: Esther Franco-Payne, Executive Director, Cabrini Green Legal Aid

What female trailblazer has had the biggest impact on your career or upbringing and why?

Naturally, my mother always has the number one spot in my life as a trailblazer and woman of influence; and I am truly grateful for the many women who support me, take care of me, and show me love when I need it most. But regarding the person who has had the biggest impact on my career path, I would have to say it is Dorothy Burge. Also known as the beloved “Mama Dorothy,” Dorothy has been there for me every step along the way throughout my career. She has known me even before I had any semblance of what my career path would be. Dorothy has been my sounding board, resource, co-conspirator, accountability partner, “Auntie” figure, and friend. She has supported me, challenged me, helped me grow, and contributed to the cultivation of the woman I am today. In her work to restore the dignity of police torture victims, raise awareness of young people impacted by the criminal justice system, or advocate for reparations for those most deserving, Dorothy can be best described as a REVOLUTIONARY! She not only cares about the plight of the Black community, but it is her life’s calling to ensure that justice is always served. The fact that I work on many of these same issues today is no accident because Mama Dorothy has been a tremendous influence in my life. In so many ways, we are kindred spirits! I appreciate her for the woman she is and especially for who she has been to ME.

Helene Gayle, President and CEO, The Chicago Community Trust

Chicago's Black Women of Impact 2019: Helene Gayle, President and CEO, The Chicago Community Trust

What female trailblazer has had the biggest impact on your career or upbringing and why?

My mother because she instilled in me a passion for social justice and commitment to something greater than myself.  

Sharon T. Grant, Vice President of Community Affairs, United Airlines

Chicago's Black Women of Impact 2019: Sharon T. Grant, Vice President of Community Affairs, United Airlines

What female trailblazer has had the biggest impact on your career or upbringing and why?

The late Dr. Barbara Penelton, the first African American female faculty member at Bradley University. She was the epitome of strength, grace, and benevolence. As a proud member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., I had the privilege of being mentored by Dr. Penelton and gleaning from her brilliance as an educator and compassion as a leader. Her wisdom made an indelible imprint on my heart that shaped my path in servant leadership.

Marion K. Gross, SVP and Chief Supply Chain Officer, North America, McDonald’s Corporation

Chicago's Black Women of Impact 2019: Marion K. Gross, SVP and Chief Supply Chain Officer, North America, McDonald’s Corporation

What female trailblazer has had the biggest impact on your career or upbringing and why?  

Rosa Parks for being a woman of great strength, courage, and conviction. She taught me, at an early age, that we all have an obligation to right injustice and that courage is within each of us, the heart not the head.

Myetie Hamilton, Executive Director, Epic Academy

Chicago's Black Women of Impact 2019: Myetie Hamilton, Executive Director, Epic Academy

What female trailblazer has had the biggest impact on your career or upbringing and why?

Harriet Tubman is one of my heroes and I deeply admire her strength, brilliance, perseverance, and fearlessness. She was a trailblazer during the time of slavery, and not only freed herself, but subsequently made some 13 missions to rescue approximately 70 enslaved people, family, and friends, using the network of antislavery activists and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad. Her story has influenced my confidence as a woman and the core values that have shaped me as a leader — believing that all things are possible. Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.”  —Harriet Tubman

Claire Hartfield, Senior Education Consultant, 2019 Coretta Scott King Award Author of “A Few Red Drops: The Chicago Race Riot of 1919”

Chicago's Top Black Women of Impact 2019: Claire Hartfield, Senior Education Consultant, 2019 Coretta Scott King Award Author of "A Few Red Drops: The Chicago Race Riot of 1919"

What female trailblazer has had the biggest impact on your career or upbringing and why?

Ida B. Wells is my hero. Her life’s passion was to do all she could to move our country toward providing equal opportunity for all. She kept her eye on the prize and she was everywhere: energizing her own community, collaborating across communities, working locally, nationally, and internationally. And all the while raising a family. A role model for us all.

Rhonda Hopps, Chief Growth Officer, Perspectives Charter Schools

Chicago's Top Black Women of Impact 2019: Rhonda Hopps, Chief Growth Officer, Perspectives Charter Schools

What female trailblazer has had the biggest impact on your career or upbringing and why?

The female trailblazer who has impacted me most is my mother, Pat Swaby. She had the courage and vision to leave Jamaica and move to the U.S. in search of a better life. My mother made tremendous sacrifices to build a new life for me and my sister, who came to America at the ages of 7 and 9 years old, respectively. She worked very hard in low paying jobs without complaint and continuously demonstrated how work ethic and a love of learning could change the trajectory of our lives. Without her persistent push to do the best we could do and to take advantage of the opportunities that arose through our schools, I would not have had the self-esteem to be the only African American woman math major in my class at Northwestern, one of the youngest students in my class at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, and one of the few African American women in a senior role in investment management. I knew that if she could gather up the courage she needed make that trip from Jamaica to this unknown country, then I had everything inside of me that I needed to take on the challenges and opportunities that came my way.

Perri L. Irmer, President and CEO, DuSable Museum of African American History

Chicago's Black Women of Impact 2019: Perri L. Irmer, President and CEO, DuSable Museum of African American History

What female trailblazer has had the biggest impact on your career or upbringing and why?

I’ve been fortunate to have had several female mentors in my 40-plus year professional career, but the one who had the greatest impact was Jewel Stradford Lafontant.

Jewel was a partner at the law firm I practiced with at the beginning of my legal career, my mentor, and the person who introduced me to public service and government law practice. Jewel was the first African American woman to graduate from the University of Chicago Law School, in 1946. In 1973, she was appointed as the first-ever female deputy solicitor general of the United States, and was later considered for appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court. She served in the George H.W. Bush administration as ambassador-at-large and as the U.S. coordinator for refugee affairs. As such, she made a yearly recommendation to President Bush as to the number of refugees that should be admitted to the United States. I dare say that she would be horrified at the current state of refugee affairs and the ongoing immigration battles, and I have no doubt that Jewel would have been on the right side of history.

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Janice K. Jackson, EdD, Chief Executive Officer, Chicago Public Schools

Chicago's Black Women of Impact 2019: Janice K. Jackson, EdD, Chief Executive Officer, Chicago Public Schools

What female trailblazer has had the biggest impact on your career or upbringing and why?  

Marva Collins had a profound impact on my career. She was an African American teacher who was dismayed at the quality of schools when she did the unthinkable at the time: found her own school. I looked to her journey for inspiration when I was founding my own school. She showed the world that the sky is the limit for passionate teachers who want to give children the best possible education.

Constance Jones, CEO, Noble Network of Charter Schools

Chicago's Black Women of Impact 2019: Constance Jones, CEO, Noble Network of Charter Schools

What female trailblazer has had the biggest impact on your career or upbringing and why?

My mother, a trailblazer in her own right, has had the biggest impact on both my career and upbringing. She was the only one of eight children to leave our family’s farm in North Carolina and go off to college in pursuit of a higher education. As an elementary public school teacher for three decades, she inspired and fueled my passion for education. Because of her, I transitioned my career from business to education well over 10 years ago. I applaud the courageous steps that my mother took many years ago that has impacted so many lives including mine, which is why I am here today.

Lori Lightfoot, Chicago Mayoral Candidate

Chicago's Black Women of Impact 2019: Lori Lightfoot, Chicago Mayoral Candidate

What female trailblazer has had the biggest impact on your career or upbringing and why?

My mother, Ann Lightfoot. My mother was the first black person to serve on the elected school board in the town where I grew up. She repeatedly won at-large positions in a town that was overwhelmingly white — and as a black woman with a high school degree who worked a series low-wage jobs. She taught me to be tough and to be a leader.

Connie L. Lindsey, Executive Vice President and Head of Corporate Social Responsibility, Northern Trust

Chicago's Black Women of Impact: Connie L. Lindsey, Executive Vice President and Head of Corporate Social Responsibility, Northern Trust

What female trailblazer has had the biggest impact on your career or upbringing and why?

My mother. I learned from her example the skills of resilience, compassion, personal excellence, mental toughness, and the power of unconditional love!

Suzet McKinney, DrPH, MPH, CEO/Executive Director, Illinois Medical District Commission

Chicago's Black Women of Impact: Suzet McKinney, DrPH, MPH, CEO/Executive Director, Illinois Medical District Commission

What female trailblazer has had the biggest impact on your career or upbringing and why?

I have been influenced by many trailblazing women in my career. The one that stands out the most is Mellody Hobson. She is a woman who goes for it EVERY.SINGLE.DAY! She doesn’t accept excuses and doesn’t believe in “no” or “I can’t do it.” I endeavor to apply that same fierce tenacity to my own life and she’s the best at it.

Peggy Montes, Founder/President, Bronzeville Children’s MuseumCommissioner/Chairman, Cook County Commission on Women’s Issues

Chicago's Black Women of Impact 2019: Peggy Montes, Founder/President, Bronzeville Children’s Museum; Commissioner/Chairman, Cook County Commission on Women’s Issues

What female trailblazer has had the biggest impact on your career or upbringing and why?

There are two female trailblazers who have had the biggest impact on my career. The first is Dr. Margaret Taylor Burroughs, founder of the DuSable Museum of African American History, who was my mentor and taught me the values of patience and perseverance in having a vision to achieve my goals. The second is Ghanaian Yaa Asantewa, African Queen of Ghana, who was the last woman ever to lead a major war against British colonists. She has taught me how to have a vision, strategy, and tenacity to achieve my goals.

Dara T. Munson, MPA, CEO, Chicago Child Care Society

Chicago's Black Women of Impact 2019: Dara T. Munson, MPA, Chicago Child Care Society

What female trailblazer has had the biggest impact on your career or upbringing and why?

I was lucky enough to have a group of women around me who influenced my life tremendously as a young girl. My mother was a healthcare executive for much of her career. She was and continues to be a fierce advocate for quality healthcare for all members of our society. During my formative years, my mother was colleagues and friends with women who from my perspective were changing the world for the better; they were mothers, wives, executives, and champions for the greater good. They blazed all types of trails sometimes without knowing it. Having the influence of their positivity and dedication to their respective professions gave me an instinctive license to dream big and to be unwavering in my convictions as related to my chosen field. Their tenacity has supported my goals, fueled my passion, and remains the wind in my sails as I strive to help fundamentally change the world in which our children and young people grow up.

Monica Peek, MD, MPH, MSc, Associate Professor of Medicine, University of Chicago Medicine

Chicago's Black Women of Impact: Monica Peek, MD, MPH, MSc, Associate Professor of Medicine, University of Chicago Medicine

What female trailblazer has had the biggest impact on your career or upbringing and why?

The female trailblazer who has most affected my career AND upbringing was my mother. A first generation college graduate, she forged the path and made a way for her two younger brothers and countless other cousins and family members to attend college and graduate school. She worked in higher education her entire life and instilled in me the importance of education as a powerful tool of justice and equality. The greatest gift my mother gave to me was in making the myriad of obstacles that faced me, a young black girl growing up in Tennessee, invisible to my eyes. I didn’t realize that black people weren’t supposed to be excellent or that girls weren’t supposed to like science. I was free to grow to be my best self, my truest self, without the mental shackles that life would have otherwise placed on me. I have my mother (and my father) to thank for my every success.

Angelique Power, President, The Field Foundation of Illinois 

Chicago's Black Women of Impact 2019: Angelique Power, President, The Field Foundation of Illinois

Photo by Nolis Anderson — @nolis

What female trailblazer has had the biggest impact on your career or upbringing and why?

Laysha Ward was my first boss and quickly became my first mentor and is still a dear friend. To this day she is one of the few black women in senior leadership and on a corporate executive committee. Over 20 years ago as we were both rising through the ranks, she shared with me the hidden chess game played inside corporate America from a black woman’s savvy perspective. She helped me navigate complexities, landmines, sand traps, and barriers. She supported me stretching into new roles and encouraged me to hold space at the table, not fade into the wallpaper. She even gave me my first series of business suits from her own closet. This isn’t to say she was soft on me. She quizzed me on my numbers, pushed back on ideas that needed more heft, and set a high bar for performance knowing I’d set my mind to exceed it every time. She continues to blaze trails today and while I make my own way in the world, I know I am now able to hold space for many others because she held it wide open for me.

Toni Preckwinkle, Chicago Mayoral Candidate

Desiree Rogers, Chair, Choose Chicago

Chicago's Black Women of Impact 2019: Desiree Rogers, Chair, Choose Chicago

What female trailblazer has had the biggest impact on your career or upbringing and why?

My grandmother Marie Smith. She started a connection of daycare centers in the early ’60s to ensure the women across the city of New Orleans had a safe place to care for their children.

Ayoka Noelle Mota Samuels, Center Director, Gary Comer Youth Center

Chicago's Black Women of Impact 2019: Ayoka Noelle Mota Samuels, Center Director, Gary Comer Youth Center

What female trailblazer has had the biggest impact on my career or upbringing and why?  

This trailblazer is actually my mother. Melva Jean Bryant-Samuels was a woman who literally did it all. She was an old-school CPS teacher in the ’70s and ’80s. I watched her advance her career in the Chicago school system starting out as a dynamo teacher in under-resourced schools in the ’70s, get promoted to work at the new and promising elementary school Ralph Metcalfe in the ’80s, go back to school to get two master degrees (one in library science) to become the school’s librarian to only turn around and become one of CPS’ first regional librarians for the city. She did all this while raising four children, maintaining a loving relationship with my dad for over 40 years, being an active member of AKA, her church, our family organization, numerous organizations, and battling breast cancer for the last 17 years of her life. She surrounded me with other Black women and men who served as my mentors when she was alive and continue to do so six years after her transition — talk about being intentional and thoughtful and leaving a strong legacy. This Black woman is an amazing role model for me. She expects me to build on her legacy to be the best woman I can be. As an ancestor she put me on her shoulders so I can firmly stand. I owe it to her and my other ancestors to be great. I work every day at that — she certainly did it. So can I.

Irika Sargent, News Anchor and Attorney, CBS Chicago

Chicago's Black Women of Impact 2019: Irika Sargent, News Anchor and Attorney, CBS Chicago

What female trailblazer has had the biggest impact on your career or upbringing and why?

I am inspired by so many women including Ida B. Wells, Sojourner Truth, and Zora Neale Hurston, who broke barriers paving the way for women like me.

Carmita P. Semaan, Founder and President, Surge Institute

Chicago's Black Women of Impact 2019: Carmita P. Semaan, Founder and President, Surge Institute

What female trailblazer has had the biggest impact on your career or upbringing and why?

The word trailblazer immediately calls to mind visions of women tearing down walls, sacrificing themselves, and elevating opportunities for others to reach their highest purpose. I can think of no more accurate description for my hero — my mother. I am my mother’s daughter in every way and despite the countless mentors, colleagues, and sponsors along the way who have supported me, there has been no single greater influence on my life and my life’s work than Wanda P Burnette. She suffered a debilitating stroke at 29 — just four months after giving birth to me — which nearly took her life. Her strength, resilience, and unwillingness to complain or lower her expectations greatly shaped who I am. She saw and acknowledged my gifts, held me to the highest standards, and did whatever she could to support me — academically, emotionally, and spiritually.

Juliana Stratton, Lieutenant Governor of Illinois

Kimberly Taylor-Smith, Director, Community Partnerships, AbbVie Inc. 

Chicago's Black Women of Impact 2019: Kimberly Taylor-Smith, Director, Community Partnerships, AbbVie Inc.

What female trailblazer has had the biggest impact on your career or upbringing and why?

Oprah Winfrey has been a significant influence on my career and upbringing. I have long admired how she has leveraged her voice to bridge differences and celebrate diversity during some of our most challenging times as a nation. She has served as an inspiring leader and champion of education parity for students in high need communities. Similarly, in my current role at AbbVie and formerly with City Year Chicago, strengthening K-12 education in underserved communities has long been my personal and professional passion. Her powerful representation of what it means to be an active and present participant in your commitment to give back continues to inspire my life works.

Manika M. Turnbull, Ph.D., VP, Community Health & Economic Impact Officer, Health Care Service Corporation

Chicago's Black Women of Impact 2019: Manika M. Turnbull, Ph.D., VP, Community Health & Economic Impact Officer, Health Care Service Corporation

What female trailblazer has had the biggest impact on your career or upbringing and why?

2015 and 2018 were particularly impactful years for my career. In 2015, I was named vice president and chief diversity officer, and in 2018 I accepted a new role as vice president, community health and economic impact officer at Health Care Service Corporation (HCSC). But I would be remiss not to acknowledge what guided me from captain of James Madison University’s NCAA Division I women’s basketball team to creating alignment across ongoing community and civic investment efforts in partnership with the Blue Cross and Blue Shield® plans HCSC operates in Illinois, Montana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas. I can sum it up in two words and one person: servant leadership and Mother Teresa.

The Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership defines a servant leader as one who “…focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and communities to which they belong.” Mother Teresa was similar in this regard. Her story of servant leadership has provided me a sense of inspiration for getting back to the basics and taking stock of what’s truly important in life and reflecting on what I want my legacy to be. Am I doing all that I could be doing to help others? To help society? To help others to help society?

For me, my faith and spirituality are my compass. Through the story of Mother Teresa it has become even more evident — from my journey on the hardwood in Harrisonburg, Virginia, to the corporate offices in Chicago, Illinois — as long as I follow my compass, I will arrive at the place where I’m destined to complete my journey.

Melissa Washington, Vice President, Government Affairs and External Affairs, ComEd

What female trailblazer has had the biggest impact on your career or upbringing and why?

I’m very fortunate to have had numerous phenomenal women in my life that shaped who I am today, including my mother. I attribute my resiliency and thoughtfulness to her. In addition, my third grade teacher Ms. Jackson‘s tenacious encouragement of me reinforced my belief that I could do or be whatever I desired.

Amanda Williams, Artist

Chicago's Black Women of Impact 2019: Amanda Williams, Artist

Photo by Ann Ryan Photography.

What female trailblazer has had the biggest impact on your career or upbringing and why?

It was impossible to single out one trailblazer! Obviously my mother, Edith Williams, a former pioneering executive at HCSC/Blue Cross and Blue Shield, is the woman that most shaped my upbringing. She gave me a daily example of what it means to blaze trails in ones’ industry. In the Arts, there is no bigger female force for ensuring that past, present, and future black abstract artists are written into art historical canons than Pamela Joyner, the “activist collector.” She serves as a model for how we can all aspire to reimagine what is possible with courage and vision.

Monica L. Woodson, MBA, Chief Executive Officer, Albany Park Community Center

Chicago's Black Women of Impact 2019: Monica L. Woodson, MBA, Chief Executive Officer, Albany Park Community Center

What female trailblazer has had the biggest impact on your career or upbringing and why?

My grandmother, Celia Trotter Woodson. While she was not famous and stood at a whopping 4’9”, her influence on my career and upbringing is unparalleled. She moved with a quiet strength and grace that I like to think I inherited (along with her love of lipstick and shoes). My grandmother was a homemaker all of my life, but in addition to taking care of my grandfather and raising my father and aunt, “Mom” as I called her, managed the family finances and properties in Michigan and Tennessee. Managing money was one of her specialties and her head for business was impressive. Growing up, she taught me to treat everyone with respect, regardless of their “position” in life and that there was no one I could not engage in conversation; these are lessons that I carry with me daily. She had a profound sense of right and wrong, and was able to make her position clear without raising her voice, and while I sometimes struggle with the “not raising my voice,” the example that she set, in ways both great and small, influence the way I carry myself in my personal and professional lives. Celia Agatha Trotter Woodson was very much the CEO of our family and I like to think that my ambition, drive, determination, and focus comes from the countless hours spent watching her, talking to her, and learning from her.

 

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