The movement to bring women into leadership roles at high-profile regional companies is advancing right before our eyes.
PUBLISHED NOVEMBER 2023
Here’s an exercise to test your KC Executive Class IQ: Close your eyes for a moment and take about 30 seconds to create a mental image of a senior business executive in any of these fields: construction, energy, engineering, insurance, hospitality marketing, health care, commercial real estate, wealth management or economic development.
OK, are you back? Good. Now be honest with us here: How many of those mental pictures were of men? If you produced a lineup that looks like the cast of “Band of Brothers,” it’s time to adjust your expectations. Some very large shards remain fixed in the framework of corporate glass ceilings, but in the Kansas City region, some very large holes are being punched through that barrier.
The 2023 Class of Women Executives–Kansas City provides ample evidence of that. Among this year’s honorees, you’ll find multiple “firsts,” as in “First Woman to Lead …” distinctions. Some of these are among iconic companies and brands in this region, including Burns & McDonnell, MMGY Global and the Kansas City Health Department; some are the first women to hold various C-suite titles in their organizations.
Earlier this month, a group of this year’s honorees hailing from those diverse business sectors gathered for the front cover photo shoot at Blue KC’s Downtown headquarters. Kansas City being the size that it is, some were already acquainted with each other through corporate ties or past civic affiliations; others meeting for the first time set the stage for potential collaborations and networking in the future.
And that, in part, is why WeKC exists: To help women help themselves and the cohorts following them by making the connections by which they might navigate their own career treks.
This program is unique among Ingram’s suite of recognition honors. Nearly 30 years ago, WeKC was an event in itself, drawing women from across business sectors together to reflect on the state of female leadership in corporate Kansas City. Not until 2002 did the leaders of that movement begin appearing on these pages as honorees, and since that time, 244 of them have been spotlighted.
Since its earliest incarnation, many of the issues confronted by those early conference attendees have been resolved as American corporations have—slowly—begun to intentionally populate the senior leadership ranks and C-suites with women and, more recently, a more equitable distribution of minorities.
Many of those same issues, however, remain, even in sectors where women dominate the ranks of employees—non-profits and health care, for example—but where the top executives continue to be disproportionately male. Astonishingly enough, even when women have reached the pinnacle positions, there remains a pay gap with respect to male CEOs.
True, significant progress has been made on the path to balance and equity. True, too, there’s still plenty of room for improvement. But the momentum is there, and the achievements of this year’s honorees are taking it to another level for the next generation of women in leadership roles.
Precisely as past WeKC winners had done to pave the way for this class.
Katie Briscoe, CEO MMGY Global
“I’m often asked,” says Katie Briscoe, “if I always wanted to be a CEO. The honest answer is: No.” But that’s exactly what she is today, piloting the controls at MMGY Global, the Overland Park-based travel-and-tourism-themed marketing agency. So how did those two competing points get her where she is today? “I first fell in love with this company, its people and the transformative power of travel,” says Briscoe, who took the handoff from longtime leader Clayton Reid close to a year ago. “It was an organization that empowered me to fail forward across a multitude of roles, and in that came tremendous opportunities to grow and develop as a leader.” She recently signed the papers on one of those growth opps when a private equity firm acquired the agency and maintained her in the leadership role, which she describes as defining merger and acquisition strategy for global growth. “Having the opportunity to meet and engage with entrepreneurs around the world and invest in travel-focused businesses has been the thrill of my career,” Briscoe says. She’s a native of Spring Hill, the southernmost outpost in Johnson County, and a KU journalism grad who caught the communications bug early. “I have always been drawn to communications, and studying journalism provided flexibility to develop skill sets in disciplines like advertising and public relations,” she says. “It set the stage in the early years of my career to lean into opportunities in diverse sectors like public health and academia. These experiences made way to a greater focus in integrated marketing and, ultimately, business management.” Pinnacle leadership wasn’t a long-held goal, but you can’t say she didn’t demonstrate a capacity for it. “As early as I can remember, I was labeled a ‘chatterbox’ and ‘bossy,’” says Briscoe. “Today I’m fortunate to be surrounded by a network of successful professional women and we all seem to share that clichéd history. There is something to those early attributes, and I’m glad we’re redefining them for a future generation of girls.” She commands a work force of 600, comprising women by margin of better than two-to-one in 14 global offices. “The majority of our Global Leadership Team are women, half being women of color,” she says. “It has been incredibly important to me that our management and executive teams accurately represent our global population.” That’s one measure of fulfillment; another is the mission. “We get to spend every single day inspiring people to go places,” Briscoe says. “Travel transforms the human experience and that has always felt like a purpose bigger than myself.” And, of course, the trip back home is a key part of the travel experience. “I’m now lucky to travel the world in my role at MMGY Global and even luckier to come home to Kansas City,” she says. “I will never take for granted the quality of life here and the opportunity to raise my family in this community.”
Margaret Bowker, Senior VP JE Dunn Construction
You might say that Margaret Bowker’s road to business leadership was rooted in both family and finance: This native of Goodland, Kan., took on her first job when she was 12, hoping to save enough to start investing in the stock market. On the family side, politics, community and philanthropy were also part of the mix. Her father served as mayor, Sherman County Commissioner and state House of Representatives, while her mother, active in the national and local arts scene, was a presidential appointee to the National Endowment for the Arts and held board positions for the Kansas Arts Commission. So young Margaret would was predisposed to leadership roles before she headed off to Lawrence, where she earned a journalism degree at KU. Then came a marketing role at what is now the design firm MultiStudo for 17 years until she answered the call to move from design to construction, leading the marketing efforts for JE Dunn. Again, she’s been part of a leadership team to execute strategies for exponential growth for a now-national concern with 26 office locations and $6.5 billion in revenues. “My father’s entrepreneurial spirit taught me the importance of building equity and ownership,” she says, and she has translated that not only into a successful marketing career, but into sideline ventures that have included real estate, agriculture investments and—how’s this for understanding long-term business prospects?—a partnership in Highland Park Funeral Home. “A good leader,” she says, “needs to hire trustworthy teammates who are better than them and watch them soar. They need to understand that no two team members operate the same, and each has their own style.” Thus, she says, it’s a leadership requirement to clearly articulate goals and help teammates work their passion into their process, allowing them to excel with their own careers. She was in early on the move to women in leadership at blue-collar industries, a condition she attributed more to gender-based career preferences than gender barriers. “I’ve never considered gender a hinderance but rather an asset because of my ability to think broadly, and ability to multi-task while staying focused on company priorities,” she says. That’s why she encourages aspiring young women to build personal resources and a network to take on extra assignments, participate in the dinner, or shine on the business trip. JE Dunn isn’t the only beneficiary of Bowker’s leadership; she boasts a monster resume of civic and philanthropic service, including the board of the Kansas City Kansas Area Chamber of Commerce Foundation, military advocacy committee for the Greater Kansas City Chamber, she’s a member of the Central Exchange, Society of Marketing Professional Services, Society of Military Engineers, and KCADC. Impressive stuff, but only a part of her deep and broad civic engagement.
Marshaun Butler, COO Saint Luke’s Hospital
There are a lot of good reasons why corporate finance managers should think twice before whacking corporate internships to save a buck. Marshaun Butler is one of them. She didn’t grow up in the most affluent part of Kansas City, but she turned her parochial school education and a will to succeed into an internship offer from HCA Midwest Health through the INROADS program that focuses on underprivileged students. That occupied her summers for four years while she was earning her degree at Fisk University in Nashville. “I would come back home and work for Health Midwest and was exposed to many different areas of health-care administration, including accounting, pharmacy, radiology, medical administration, and my last summer was in strategic planning,” she says. The latter is right where she picked up straight out of school. The good fortune from that internship wasn’t the only career determinant, though. “My late grandmother had a health care issue and passed away right before I went to school,” Butler says, “and that sparked my interest because I saw the good care she had from a clinical perspective. I wanted to know how it all worked on the back end, how care was coordinated from a decision-making standpoint, and the operations process to make that care possible.” With that, she was off and running on a career that has taken her to leadership positions at Health Midwest, then Children’s Mercy, and finally to Saint Luke’s Health System, where just this year, she was named chief operating officer. She’s also an example of how women in leadership roles can advance the cause of more aspiring young women. Her mother’s encouragement to always do her best was a spark that would be kindled by two co-directors in her internship program, she says. That program “placed talented minority youth in business and industry and prepared them for corporate and community leadership. That was the mission statement, and 30 years later, I still remember it like it was yesterday,” Butler says. Healthcare, she acknowledges, has come to embrace women in leadership—her boss at the main hospital is Julie Quirin, and Melinda Estes has led the parent health system for a decade, “so I do think everybody has the opportunity to reach their goal. The lanes are wide open for women.” And yet … “There are still many challenges ahead,” she says. “One thing we know, women are lagging and still make up only about 25 percent of health-care leadership positions.” Some of that, she says, can be attributed to burnout, managing the balance of home and career life—and especially the added stress of working in the pandemic era. But, she says, “the future is bright for women in health-care because we are better at recognizing those challenges in front of us today, recognizing those gaps. There’s still more progress to come, but I believe we’ll continue to see women moving into those high positions of leadership.”
Wendy Doyle, President & CEO United WE
At non-profit United WE, Wendy Doyle lives out a commitment to helping women achieve career success and elevate their status in the business world. An inspiration to see others succeed came when she was growing up in Warrensburg, where she saw two women, in particular, who left nothing to chance with business leadership—her mother and grandmother both owned their own enterprises. “That bred my passion for empowering women to achieve their full potential,” says Doyle, United WE’s president and CEO for the past 11 years. “My mother ran a second-generation accounting business in a time when this was unusual for women. From a young age, I witnessed her resiliency, perseverance and strength. Witnessing this drive within my own family gave me the entrepreneurial spirit.” Unfortunately, she’ll need every bit of that spirit to address an intractable challenge—even in her own sector. “A study by the American Association of University Women found that women make up 75 percent of workers in the non-profit sector, but women hold far less than 75 percent of leadership positions,” Doyle notes. “The larger the organization, the greater the gap in women’s leadership. It’s not just a matter of titles; there’s a financial aspect to it, as well. “Unfortunately, the non-profit sector is not immune to the gender pay gap, either,” she says. “Female CEOs experience the same 18 percent pay gap as women in corporate settings. … This work is more important than ever and requires the investment of women and all allies.” The tools of her leadership trade that sustain her fall into three buckets, she says. “No. 1, Adaptability and Authenticity: From individual growth to organizational change, adaptability and authenticity are crucial for continued success. I have prioritized innovation, which often results in new endeavors and opportunities. Without adaptability, innovation loses momentum.” Second comes civility. “As a nonpartisan organization, we believe there are ways to advance us all by working together with respect. While our points of view or ways of action may be different, we are often working toward similar goals. Through civility and collaboration, we can progress issues that matter most, including gender equity.” Finally, there’s celebration: “At the end of every week, I ask my team to reflect and celebrate what we’ve accomplished,” she says. “It’s a moment of pause that reminds us all of the progress we have made. It’s a time to not only celebrate our accomplishments but also those of others working by our side.” Doyle, who earned a degree in English from Rockhurst, began her career in PR, where, she says, “I enjoyed the work but felt something was missing. I had a mentor who left the firm to work for a non-profit, the National Kidney Foundation. She explained it was similar work, and that it might align more with my moral compass—and she was right.” As a servant leader, she says, the non-profit sector is an ideal fit for her leadership style at United WE, where she’s at the forefront of all economic policies that impact women and their families. “Empowering women to achieve their full potential,” she says, “is my life passion.”
Christa Dubill, VP/Chief Communications Officer Blue KC
Christa Dubill precisely draws the line connecting her KU journalism degree to her duties as chief communications officer for the region’s largest health-insurance provider. Those dots are not far apart: “My journalism interests spawned later in my college career,” she says, “but once my eyes were opened to the idea of researching, reading, gathering facts, meeting people, learning from them, connecting details, and communicating to inspire, inform, motivate and maybe create change—I was hooked.” Those same skills have proven invaluable after transitioning from a broadcast media career to the insurance world. Her story by now is a familiar one with WeKC honorees: Growing up in Independence, Kan., “I was the oldest of three children and was often in a role of leadership from a young age caring for my siblings,” she says. “One of the biggest factors contributing to my success as a leader is my mom’s constant support that we could do anything if we set our minds to it. She nurtured a positive attitude and creativity.” She also provided young Christa encouragement to try new things, including sports, with sometimes-mixed results. “I failed at times, but my mother encouraged me to always get up and keep working hard. I faced many challenges, but each time, learned and strategized how to best navigate the path forward with a positive and creative outlook. Perspective is everything.” The path from Johnson County Community College to KU was a journey in its own right, from full-ride art major to education major, then PR, then journalism before securing her degree and embarking on her TV news career as reporter and anchor. She was good enough, in fact, to prompt one station to trigger her buyout clause before she could take a job in Kansas City. “The road hasn’t always been easy, but I wouldn’t change any of it,” Dubill says. “Adversity is what makes us all stronger.” She left a world of constant bad news after losing both her parents in 2017, then Blue KC came calling. “It was a perfect next step,” she says. “I was able to use the communications philosophies I’d developed over 20 years, partnered with my consulting experience to build a corporate communications department. We have a great team at Blue KC and I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished together.” Her tools for getting that done are numerous: empathy, effective communication skills, creative problem solving, decisiveness, good social skills, self-awareness, the ability to motivate, positivity, and integrity. “Typically, those who have these qualities are trusted, which is at the core of strong and effective communications,” Dubill says. She has learned much from others along her way, and synthesizes some of it for aspiring leaders: “I would give them the same advice I’ve gotten from others along the way. Live life with no regrets. Go after the things you want to obtain, and if one door won’t open, look for a different building and try doors there.”
Leslie Duke, CEO-Elect Burns & McDonnell
From her youth, Leslie Duke was inspired in varying measures by art (thanks to her mother), by building things (thanks to her father), by a heapin’ helping of Texas—and by a cohort of female leaders she considers the real pioneers in the industry. “While there were not a lot of women in engineering when I started my career, my generation came after the true trailblazers in our field,” says Duke, who in January will become the first woman to lead the region’s largest design/construction firm. “I appreciate the pathway they cleared for my generation to find our authentic leadership route. And I will maintain it for the next generation of female leaders.” Duke was born and raised in El Paso and lived all over the state—including Houston, Dallas, Abilene, College Station and Lubbock—before moving to Kansas City this summer with her husband, Travis. In her youth, Duke says, her mother would take her to art classes at the El Paso Museum of Art, and activities like building a playhouse with her father sparked an interest in structural engineering. At Texas Tech (which has produced a couple of other notable alumni in this area of late), she pondered architecture, but a professor and mentor steered her toward engineering, recognizing her combination of artistic sensibility and what she calls a natural affinity for math and science. “The first time I went into my college engineering classroom, it was a natural fit,” she says. She joined Burns & McDonnell in 1999 as a structural engineer and considers herself “a pragmatic problem-solver.” “I love engineering because you can create something from nothing,” Duke says. So, what can 5,000 local employees, and thousands more around the world, expect from this new leader? “Everyone wants a leader who they can trust and who will stand up for them,” she says. “Teams founded on trust are efficient and effective. Teams needing more trust struggle and limp. Leaders should not take the credit when things go well, knowing it is all a team effort. However, I will take 100 percent of the blame if something goes wrong. Above all, as a leader, be a good person all of the time. As Ted Lasso says, ‘Doing the right thing is never the wrong thing.’” She’ll take the reins from Ray Kowalik, who is retiring after seven years of leading explosive growth at the firm. “Ray’s done an absolutely incredible job, and I’ll inherit a phenomenally healthy company,” she says. “As good as we are, there are always places to focus on taking us to the next level. I intend to prioritize emerging markets.” As her career comes full circle with the trailblazers she talks about, she has a few words of encouragement for those who might one day hold her in that same regard: “Spending more time on where you want to go, what you need to learn and who can help you, and less time on what roadblocks you are facing, is important.”
Molly Howey, President GO Topeka
Certainly, the Mommy Track phenomenon is real. But absolutely, it need not be determinative. Case in point: Molly Howey. She’s the president of Shawnee County’s economic development arm, GO Topeka, and she knows what she’s talking about when career and motherhood don’t neatly align. “Like a lot of people in the economic development profession, I didn’t plan to have this career,” she says. “Before I started at GO Topeka, I was actually on a bit of a career break. I had been in a B2B marketing firm and decided to take a couple of years off to stay at home with my kids before they entered school.” When she decided to jump back into the workforce, she saw the opportunity at what was then Topeka’s Chamber of Commerce and thought it would be a good way to meet people, get involved in the community, and find her next job. “Little did I know I would fall in love with the industry and the mission behind this work,” she says. The inclination toward leadership started during her childhood, influenced by her father’s brand of entrepreneurship. “He always pushed me to do my best and work hard, but above all, be respectful,” Howey says. “I also grew up in a small town. That may seem like an odd connection to leadership, but it gave me an opportunity to get involved in a lot of things and be on a lot of teams. Understanding the unique roles of each team member is still the core of my leadership strategy today.” As much as the mission inspires her, what really drives her are the personal connections she’s developed in that role. “The people make this region special,” she says. “There’s something about the get-stuff-done mentality in Topeka and the true care we have for one another and our community. The keys to her own success, she says, are listening and empowering. “Being able to have honest conversations about a person’s aspirations and come alongside them and put them into places to grow is extremely fulfilling for me, and one of the reasons I love leading,” Howey says. “I think my team enjoys my leadership style and I’ve seen major growth in the people I support which further solidifies that style is working for our team.” That she’s been able to achieve success in a business sector still vastly dominated by men is gratifying, as well. But that balance is shifting. “When I started in economic development, men outnumbered women by far,” Howey says. “There are certain aspects of the job that I think still suffer from gender barriers, but I have been blessed to have male leaders around me who have recognized that and helped to remove those barriers for me and for many other females in our community.” To encourage more of that, she has some guidance. “It probably sounds cliché, but be hungry and humble—not too humble, though. Build relationships with people whom you can learn from and whom you can pour into as well. Leadership is not a one-way journey.”
Marvia Jones, Director Kansas City Health Department
She holds a doctorate in behavioral psychology and a master’s in public health, so Marvia Jones approaches health care from a different perspective, and her patients, if you will, include every resident of Kansas City: She’s the director of the Kansas City Health Department, tasked with understanding and addressing the public-health needs for more than 500,000 people who call the city home. A native of Tallahassee, she came to the department in 2019 in a violence-prevention and policy role, then became the first African American woman named to the leadership of the department early last year, a fitting stop after 15 years in public health roles. “I loved the mission of the health department,” Jones says. Over the past 10 years, she says, the department has been demonstrating how a person’s health status depends upon much more than individual decisions—including the social conditions of the community. “I know that “institutions” sometimes get a bad reputation, but I’ve always admired the power of institutions to shift thinking and conditions in a big way,” Jones says. “That’s one of the reasons that the role of director appeals to me. This role allows me to guide an amazing team of passionate professionals toward work that will impact generations of Kansas Citians.” Leadership came to Jones early, as the oldest of four children two young parents still “learning to make their way,” she says. “I provided most of the educational and socioemotional development to my siblings. I was always developing workplans and educational tools for them.” Before learning about the field of public health, she says, she had considered becoming a physician, which shaped her degree track at Florida State. “After learning about the field of public health and completing two summers of internship as an employee health and safety manager at a transportation company, I decided to change course,” including her graduate work at KU. Her leadership style, she says, starts with data. “I measure the anticipated immediate, short, and long-term effects of any decision,” she says. “When other people are involved, I also work to arrive at decisions and approaches where the quality of relationships are maintained.” To build and maintain those relationships, she says, “making time to listen is key. I dedicate quite a bit of time toward listening to staff—hearing about their concerns and ideas. It’s also important to follow through on commitments.” “Leadership in general, requires the ability to listen to feedback and be reflective are key traits. Being able to communicate the vision for the organization is also key. My team has been pretty vocal about valuing these traits.” What guidance does she have for young women who aspire to leadership roles? “Find the type of life partner who will equally share child-rearing and home-management responsibilities,” she advises. “This greatly impacts your ability to pursue your goals. Also, we can leverage all of the traits that are traditionally thought of as “feminine” to be great leaders—we don’t necessarily have to lead in the same way that a man would.”
Connie Kamps, Director of Property Management Hunt Midwest
Two tons of peanuts. Think about what it takes to personally deliver those to clients. If you need tips on getting it done, check in with Connie Kamps. As director of property management for Hunt Midwest’s real-estate development arm, that’s one very tiny piece, albeit a time-consuming one, of what it takes to lead. It takes about a week for her to personally deliver those snacks to tenants, “but their employees love it and I get to spend time with the business owners and managers,” Kamps says. “So many times, you limit your contact with customers to lease negotiations or go visit when there is a problem, but it’s so important to remember to connect on a personal level, too.” She’s a Kansas City area native who says leadership roles pulled her in as far back as Winnetonka High, where she won the Big W award given to seniors who have displayed various leadership traits. She started working at 16 and was regularly presented with opportunities to take on more responsibility, she says, so “I always said yes. Working at Worlds of Fun was my biggest inspiration, apart from the influence of my parents, and I’ve taken the work ethic I learned at the park with me throughout my entire career.” That paid off after she earned her degree from Missouri State University, coming home to work for park president Lee Derrough, who brought her along after he became president of Hunt Midwest. The management track soon opened up, first with SubTropolis, then in the property management role for the world’s largest underground operation, which during her tenure has grown from 3 million square feet to more than 8 million. Because she says she must make speeches every day, good communication skills have been paramount, Kamps says, as has the willingness to accept new challenges and new responsibilities. She has also learned that “it’s OK to be a follower,” she says, noting that good executives “inspire others by being a good employee, co-worker, and team leader.” Other keys to success: “Be self-motivated and stand up for yourself,” she says, “lead by walking around—don’t rely on emails and phone calls—it is good to be seen by your co-workers and staff. (And) continue to learn every day—and don’t limit yourself to professional learning, volunteering your time is important and a way to provide balance in your life.” A self-described collaborator at heart, “I like to understand what the end goal is and work with the entire team to chart the various ways we can accomplish that goal,” Kamps says. “We don’t always follow the exact path of our original plan, but we all understand what the goal is at the end of the year. There are usually bumps along the way and you adjust and keep on working toward the end goal.” She also finds motivation in the results of her work. “Success is the best motivator,” Kamps says. “When you work for a company that you love and with a great team, it’s easy to stay motivated.”
Kristie Keast, Chief Executive BlueScope Steel
Women who achieve C-suite status in the construction sector often trace the genesis of their career interests to childhood experiences with projects like Tinker Toys or Lego blocks. Kristie Keast’s fascination with it began not with brick, mortar, steel or timber, but with … people. “I’ve always been fascinated with understanding people,” says the North American CEO of the mammoth Australian company BlueScope. “My father, who owned his own business, instilled that fascination in me. He was always looking out for people and taking care to recognize their contributions. So the high value she assigns to her charges is largely his influence. “I see people not merely as resources with specific abilities, but as individuals with unique talents and perspectives,” Keast says. “I’m grateful that I can see them as people first, rather than defining them solely by their capabilities. This has proven immensely valuable to me.” The people side of things, in fact, was the pathway to Keast’s ascendancy to North American leadership earlier this year, having previously served as global chief people officer for an enterprise with 160 locations and 16,500 people. Keast’s pre-pandemic arrival in KC marked her second stint here; she and her husband had come here nearly 20 years ago after the Butler Manufacturing acquisition. Her charges here can expect to see in her a defining leadership trait: Listening. “Learning is a close second, for sure,” she says, and she considers creativity, emotional intelligence and disruptive thinking among the critical skills in effective leaders, as is cultivation of a risk-ready mindset. “The courage to pursue new ideas and take calculated risks is paramount,” says Keast, who was raised in Melbourne. “It’s not just about keeping pace with rapid transformation, but surpassing it; setting the stage for continuous innovation and long-term success.” Having determined years ago that KC made an ideal location to raise a family, she’s delighted to be back in a setting where business collaboration seems to come more easily. “There’s a clear sense here that partnerships are valuable. And despite its size, the city offers a strong pool of talented professionals, enabling us to build the capable teams so vital to the sustained growth and success of our operations.” What guidance does she have for aspiring young executives? “First, you must know yourself very well; understand what you bring to the table and stay focused on expanding your capabilities and expertise,” she says, something that requires seeking and integrating feedback from a broad range of sources not just the ones you think will stick to the positive. The second thing I have found to be important is being willing to put your hand up for opportunities and step out of your comfort zone—I like to think of this as choosing growth over comfort. Creating a career path sometimes involves taking steps you weren’t planning on and risking disappointment when you don’t get a role you wanted.”
Regan Lemke, Chief of Staff Polsinelli, PC
You can be smart. You can be competent. You have all the hustle in the world. But the lever that helps elevate someone into a leadership track, says Regan Lemke, chief of staff for Kansas City’s biggest law firm, is this: “Having people who champion you,” she says. “They might not look like you, they might not have the same career path. Mine, in fact, was a man, with a different career path. But being open to that and listening to feedback and finding people who champion you can truly help you make big gains and leaps in your career.” Born in Miami, she spent most of her youth on her grandparents’ farm near the Linn County burg of Parker. Blended family dynamics helped expose her to taking charge of things early in life after her parents’ divorce. “I was the oldest of three, and our stepfather had kids too, so just having lots of brothers and sisters, plus two fulltime working parents, and being oldest, it was sort of a natural introduction to leadership,” Lemke says. “I just took that role, making sure everyone got to practices or was being fed—the older sister role carried through my entire life.” She did well enough in high school to secure a prized slot at the U.S. Naval Academy, studying there for two years. “That introduced me to public service and what it meant to be part of something greater than yourself,” she says. She came home and enrolled at KU, where she says she chanced to land in a class on public administration, and the elements from her background clicked. Having accompanied her stepfather on his rounds as a code enforcement officer, she says she learned what civil service meant on a local level, so after that classroom experience, “I was all in from day one.” After graduation, she took a job as a municipal budget analyst in Portsmouth, Va., which provided additional perspective. “I would say that, for any organization, if you understand where the money is flowing—and how it flows—you learn so much about the things that are important, and what the values, spoken and unspoken, are.” In 2008, she came back to this area, and held various jobs in civic and startup organizations—including her own business working with executive recruiters—before landing at Polsinelli in 2018. “I did not have a specific plan, and never said that by this age, I wanted this title,” Lemke says. “For me, it was always about what experiences have I had and what do I still need. The only way to fill in where something was needed was having mentors around who could help give me that feedback I needed.” The No. 1 thing women should bring to leadership, she says, is the ability to truly listen. “Listening in everything you do. You can walk in with a big stick and say ‘this is how we’re going to get things done’ or you can walk into that same room, listen to the way people are articulating a problem, listen to where people want to be vs. where you are, and have the ability to translate that and piece things together and show a path forward,” Lemke says. “Those are the hardest things to do, and it requires engaging with others not always aligned with you to create that alignment. There’s nothing really scientific about it.”
Angie Long, Chief Investment Officer Palmer Square Capital Management/KC Current
Most women who achieve WeKC status get there through a well-defined career channel. Angie Long’s eligibility came from either of two tracks. One is through her work as chief investment officer and portfolio manager for Palmer Square Capital Management, one of the Kansas City region’s biggest wealth-management firms. With more than $28 billion in assets being managed, she could arguably be the region’s most influential woman in that space. The broader public, however, may know her as part of the ownership team for the Kansas City Current, the city’s entry to the National Women’s Soccer League in 2021. She’s knee-deep in those ventures with her husband, Chris, and shares ownership of the team with him and a third high-profile woman, Brittany Mahomes, wife of Chiefs’ quarterback Patrick Mahomes. With Palmer Square, the Longs are the two principal owners, and she has major responsibilities for all investment-related activities. In that capacity, she’s been sizzling: Just a decade ago, Palmer Square was sitting on about $546 million in assets, a dazzling return of 5,100 percent. It’s grown big enough to branch out internationally with the opening of Palmer Square Europe, based in London. Performance like that helped the Longs position themselves not only to secure the Current franchise, but to move ahead with construction of the world’s first-ever soccer stadium built specifically for women—without coming to taxpayers hat in hand to fund the $117 million facility, CPKC Stadium. She earned her bachelor’s degree in economics from Princeton University, but demonstrated her competitiveness on the rugby field, helping the Tigers win a pair of national championships and earning All-American honors in 1997. That winning mentality carried over into her career. “In order to win a championship at Princeton, we as a team, needed clear goals and objectives to achieve together” Long says. “I’ve always been a person who is goal-oriented. I knew from the age of 5 years old that I wanted to go to Princeton. You have to think big to achieve big.” And she has: She was named a managing director for JPMorgan Chase & Co. when she was just 29 and earned responsibility for leading its North American Credit Trading unit and is widely regarded as one of the 100 most influential women in wealth management. To young executives with similar aspirations, she advises: “Life is not always a linear path. Your career journey won’t always be a linear path. At some points in your life, your career will be the one and only focus. But it’s OK to have moments that you slow down. There will be peaks but also plateaus. Embrace those moments and don’t quit on your career goals. You don’t have to opt out entirely. Find the balance you need in those moments and then continue to advance again.”
Lisa Murray, Chief Investment Officer Kauffman Foundation
Anyone on the investment team at one of this region’s icons of philanthropy who believes that Lisa Murray is a demanding taskmaster is close, but they might be off by just one generation. While she believes her leadership instincts were fueled by a youth dedicated to field hockey, lacrosse and ice hockey—yes, as the only girl on her team—“my Dad also set very good example,” she says. “He worked very hard, and I had three brothers, so he expected all of us to work incredibly hard, with high expectation. At the time, I felt the pressure, but knowing that somebody believed in you and thought so highly of you, it really did push us all to succeed.” As the CIO for the foundation, she leads a team that oversees investing strategies for $2.5 billion in assets. To that task, she brings a commitment to collaboration and to the view that M. K himself had on acquiring talent: “He was known for saying you should hire people smarter than you are, and it’s good to follow that,” Murray says. “People rise or fall to the level of expectation you have, so hire a smart, creative team, bring a collaborative approach and set high expectations.” Part of her took kit to foster that collaboration is a debate-format series of discussions that take the form of a Bulls/Bears investor workshop. Her charges will gather as a team, defend the best investments to fund and the ones that aren’t expected to perform as well—and often, she says, challenging their own assumptions by being assigned to argue the opposing position. “We are motivated to generate the best returns for the overall portfolio,” she says. “Nobody is focused on one small part. The second thing, and we talk about it a lot, is how to have debate culture, but not one that is personal.” The Bull/Bear format, she says, “really just fosters an environment where you can productively debate.” That approach is part of a broader commitment throughout the organization to pay homage to the legacy of the man in whose name they work. Going back decades, the staff recognized that Kauffman—who died in 1993—wouldn’t be around forever, and it would be incumbent on future teams to carry his dream forward. “We do try, everybody on the team, focusing on different elements of the market—public equity, hedge funds, private equity—we’re all responsible for bringing our views to bear on the entire portfolio. Everybody is expected to weigh in to make sure the team makes the right decisions.” And those decisions are what funds millions of dollars in annual philanthropic donations around the city and country, supporting entrepreneurship research and, especially, education. Murray is a living example of how Kansas City business leadership earned the reputation for bolstering success among the next generation of leaders. She and her husband, a native of Lawrence, returned here 10 years ago, and it didn’t take long for this Princeton/Harvard whiz to identify the foundation as the best career choice. Her predecessor, in fact, responded to Murray’s inquiry about roles there with an invitation to coffee and deeper discussion. Murray’s grasp of investing at that level and leadership traits, took over from there.
Penny Spence, Executive VP and CFO Stowers Institute
Penny Spence’s collegiate introduction to basic macro-economics wasn’t the head-scratcher it is for a lot of students. Thanks in part to a great teacher at Emporia State University, she says, “it all made sense to me. … Basic courses like psychology, sociology, world history—that was all rote and arbitrary for me, and wasn’t my strength, for sure.” Playing to her strengths, she began her trek into the world of corporate finance, a path marked by stops at some of the region’s biggest hometown brands: Black & Veatch, Hallmark and Lockton. Then, in 2004, she landed at the Stowers Institute for Medical Research, where she directs the number-crunching as chief financial officer and executive vice president for the region’s most prominent biomedical research entity. Leadership, it turns out, came naturally to this Olathe South product, who honed her competitive spirit on that school’s volleyball and basketball courts. “People would always say that I was mature beyond years, even as a young teen,” Spence says, often taking her for several years older than her true age. She started baby-sitting when she was just 10, and that work ethic prevailed through college and beyond. “My Dad was pretty instrumental in helping form my work ethic. He taught me that in order to achieve the things you want in life, you’ve got to work hard for them. That positioned me for leadership-based roles.” Fresh out of college, and before securing her MBA at Avila University, she formed no grand master plan to become a CFO, “but as I proceeded through my career,” she says, “I realized I had this knowledge to share with folks and ways to help develop other people, and I saw that as a great opportunity for me. I got a lot of joy out of seeing people on my teams do well, grow and develop—that’s the part I really like.” Her oversight duties are somewhat non-traditional; in addition to finance and accounting, she’s tasked with benefits, IT and the operations team, so the bulk of the non-scientific staff reports to her, including the finance team of about 20. After working in the for-profit world, she saw new vistas with the merging research institute. Business, she says, has evolved from days when gender barriers to leadership were more fixed. Still, she says, “I think women today have to take a different approach. Historically, we’ve tried to pretend to mirror how men lead. That generally doesn’t go very well. I think as females, we have to be more pragmatic, develop strong relationships, and be able to demonstrate our value and not just our potential. But I don’t think it’s fair to say there are no constraints on women reaching leadership roles; that’s not true either.”
Tamria Zertuche, CEO Ferrellgas Partners
You have to give Jim Ferrell credit for understanding the strategic value of an acquisition: When the long-time CEO of Ferrellgas Partners orchestrated the purchase of the Blue Rhino propane brand in 2004, he also brought on board Tamria Zertuche, who was then the senior director of information technology. Nearly 20 years later, the full dividend on that investment was realized when he handed her the reins to the company. “His mentorship and guidance informed what my idea of a CEO was,” Zertuche says. “For me, the challenges, the relationship building, and the leadership required to be a successful CEO were extremely motivating.” A native of Milwaukee with Midwest roots, she believes “that being a leader is something we choose. Leadership takes many things, but among them are discipline, motivation, and character. I was lucky to have parents and early teachers who expected core leadership values and helped guide me to realize those values.” One can trace that line all the way back to the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and found outlets for her budding leadership interests with academic clubs Gold Key and Mecha, the latter of which aims to support Hispanic students. It was important in her development, she says, because “as a young Hispanic woman seeking a degree in computer science, I did not have many role models. … I found great support and a talented network then and now. Many have gone on to be leaders.” As a result of that experience, she says, “I always suggest to students in high school and college to find that group of people that you can count on to push you toward your goals and support you the entire way.” That’s a theme common to her reflections on leading one of the nation’s largest propane distributors, a company with $2 billion in revenues. “The great thing about Ferrellgas/Blue Rhino are the leaders who have the wonderful ability to really find talent within the company and then create a career development path for their rising stars,” Zertuche says. “This, coupled with my approach to academics, my MBA and PhD programs, prompted me to pursue a position of accountability and responsibility in the company.” In that capacity, she says, “good leadership is at the heart of a successful family, team, community, and of course businesses and organizations. When I think of leadership, I think of those characteristics we possess that create trust, create confidence in ourselves and others, and the ability to help bring clarity to a mission, goal, and situation.” Her own style, she says, is defined by being an evidenced-based decision-maker. “I use data to support every aspect of decision-making in my life,” Zertuche says. “I am very introspective and really buy into the concept of continuous improvement through being a lifelong learner. Problem-solving gives me energy and makes the days more interesting.” That she has earned the CEO’s chair is testament to the company’s commitment to creating a culture of inclusion—a little more of which, she says, might benefit the broader industry. “I do believe that progress is being made in sectors where leaders are focused on choosing the best person for the role,” she says. “If we simply hire on merit, then diversity will naturally occur.”