Cindy Wallis-Lage’s passion for science was instilled in her from her grandfather, who was a science teacher. “His love of science, and his introduction of the that to me, sparked my interest in having a career that dealt with the environment, and I was able to further develop that in my studies at Kansas State University,” she said. But she credits her grandmother for her strength and tenacity. “My Grandma was raised on a Kansas farm during the depression. She is currently 95 years old and has always been a strong influence in my life,” Wallis-Lage said. Inspired by her grandmother’s sense of determination, she held her own in her engineering studies.
“I was often the only female in some of my classes, but I didn’t let that deter me from completing my education and from obtaining a career in the field,” she said, and she believes her competive nature didn’t let that deter her success. Her personal drive to be at the forefront of the water and wastewater industry paved the way for success for Black and Veatch. “I have had the opportunity to work with some great mentors, teams and collaborators, to work on some awesome projects around the world, to gain a real understanding of the diverse clients and the diverse sets of challenges that they face, and to help implement innovative solutions that truly impact communities,” she said.
She’s authored many pap-ers, technical articles and textbook chapters in her field.
“I think business is realizing that leadership and innovation aren’t dependent upon race or gender,” Wallis-Lage said. “When you are working side by side with other experts in the business and global water industry leaders, gender is not an issue—the common purpose and passion
for solving water issues takes precedence.”
Wendy Guillies believes when enough bright, committed people set out to change something, they usually succeed. Her work with the Kauffman Foundation—where she’s currently the interim CEO—leads to research and forums to help shed light on the opportunities and barriers for all entrepreneurs, including women.
A communicator from the get-go, Guillies got her start in public relations in health care and worked her way through the ranks in marketing/communications, including time working for two large hospitals in Los Angeles. Following the guidance of her father, who was a former newspaper publisher, she moved into public relations. She’s glad she listened. Her last health-care job was as marketing communications manager at GeoAccess, an Overland Park-based fast-growth health-care technology firm that was founded by two entrepreneurs, then was sold to a division of United Healthcare in the early 2000s.
“I left only because I had an opportunity I couldn’t turn down—with the Kauffman Foundation,” she said. “I couldn’t think of anything better than applying my communications skills to an organization trying to help more entrepreneurs start and grow companies like GeoAccess. It didn’t take me long, however, to appreciate all the Kauffman Foundation does for this community and beyond—especially our education work.”
Her love and passion for helping others continued to grow through programs like Fast-Trac and Founders School
and 1 Million Cups. As well as Pipeline, a program the foundation supports that is aimed at providing the knowledge, skills and networks for entrepreneurs.
Her work is making an impression: “I’ve had the pleasure of seeing first-hand how Wendy leads an organization,” said Jan Kreamer, who chairs the foundation’s board. “She is a natural strategist who never loses sight of the big picture in the midst of day-to-day decision-making.”
When she got her start in banking, Dana Abraham worked with a tight-knit group of four women. They would role-play for interviews, coach one another and even share professional wardrobes.
“That was an influential time in my early career, and I still pass along the lessons I learned there to female colleagues today,” Abraham said.
That start in the banking world came early, too: Her first banking job helped cover education expenses. Now she has come all the way to the top of her division, heading up the wealth-management operations for the region’s second-largest locally owned bank. As president of the Investment and Wealth Management division, Abraham is responsible for delivery of comprehensive financial services to high net-worth clients.
Her parents, who influenced her to carve her own career path, infused her with a strong work ethic. She earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration with a concentration in both accounting and economics from the University of Louisiana-Monroe. Before joining UMB, Abraham worked for Bank of America for 18 years, rising to senior vice president within the Premier Banking and Investment division. For Abraham, the banking world is more than transactional, it’s personal: “The ability to do business with a client through the many different stages of their life, getting to know their individual story and helping them manage through major financial decisions is something I’m passionate about,” she says.
She believes the glass ceiling exists not only in her industry but also in every industry. And although women continue to advance faster in some sectors—and 8.6 million women own businesses in the U.S—fewer than 5 percent of Fortune 500 companies are led by women. That’s reflected in the public sector, as well, with fewer than 20 percent of the seats in Congress held by women.
“I think it’s more than just a gender issue, I believe it’s a diversity issue,” Abraham said. “We need more diversity to make the best decisions possible for our employees and for the customers all companies serve,” she said.
Adaptability is the name of the game in Maria Will’s book. As self-described Marine Corps brat, she lived in six different states by the age of 13. “When you move time and time again, and you start a new school, you have to build relationships
and build confidence, do things to set yourself apart from the others,” she said.
Her ease in building and maintaining relationships has helped her stay connected in a fast-paced sales environment for an IT company, but it’s a skill she developed early in life. “I still have relationships from third grade when I lived in South Carolina,” she said.
A strong work ethic pushed her forward as she worked and commuted to put herself through college at the University of Central Missouri. She got her start in information technology consulting at Triple I. From there, her career continued to blossom through management and sales positions with CA, Cerner and Raviant Networks before landing at JMA in 2008, and is now vice president for technology solutions. “I had the good fortune to work at several large corporations; each one gave me insights in to what might work and what doesn’t work,” she said.
Her experience in selling hardware and software helped cement all the different technologies together and helped drive the technology solutions division she is currently responsible for. When JMA was looking to expand and grow, Will came on board and was able to build a team. Her team’s success directly relates to her ability to develop colleagues of diverse backgrounds into a cohesive working group.
“It’s important to have all voices heard and the doors open, so no one is afraid to bring up an idea or a suggestion,” she said. She believes that with women in higher leadership roles and higher numbers in college enrollment today, they have more opporunities than ever before.
“Over the past 40 years, I believe women have come a long way in leadership positions across all industry and continue to uncover the possibilities of the role we play as a women entrepreneurs or having a seat at the board,” she said.
For Mary Lynn success isn’t defined in living to work. It’s working to live.
Success for her is deeply rooted in her biological and professional family. Those roots run through two main channels. Her work ethic came from her parents, two entrepreneurs who left their own roots behind in her hometown of River Falls, Wis., and headed south for Kansas City to start their own business. The second family connection is found in the close relationships and dedication of the Soli Printing team, relationships that in some cases span decades.
Mikhail got her start in retail after obtaining a marketing degree from K-State.
“I started out in up-scale retail because I’ve always had an appreciation for things made with beautiful workmanship or artisanship,” she said. That knack for creativity and quality overflowed into an art project with her daughters and turned into a handmade candle business she started in the ‘90s called Pure Illuminations, which were featured in Halls, Jacobsons, Giorgio Beverly Hills, and the Biltmore Estate, to name a few.
Her business leadership lessons at Pure Illuminations helped her for the crucial role she would step into after losing her sister Paula to cancer. “Paula played an incredibly important role in the success of Soli Printing and my decision to come back into the family business was initially an effort to help fill the void that was felt by the family and the business.”
“Looking back, I can now clearly see that the seemingly arbitrary experiences in different seasons of my life were actually the step-stones that prepared me for the next thing coming,” she said.
Through that time she worked closely with her team to get to know all parts of the business. Eventually Mikhail persuaded her husband, Kamal Mikhail, to join the business as CEO, lending his expertise in strategic planning and finance.
She believes that in running a small business, the most important thing is really taking the time to understand each customer’s needs and exceed their expectation. “I think what sets us apart is we really care about our client’s image because it’s a representation of who they are. It’s our job to make sure every detail is right so our customers can breathe easy knowing Soli Printing will deliver their projects on time and with excellent quality.”
Mary McNamara was all-in: “I took everything I had: Wiped out my 401(k) at age 47, took my personal savings and wiped that out, remortgaged the house as far as I could, and maxed out the credit cards.” That was to acquire her interest in Cornell Roofing & Sheet Metal six years ago. Not the most conventional approach to small business finance, perhaps, but an effective one: She’s used her financial acumen as a trained accountant to put the business on a growth track, “about 2 times from our lowest annual sales to where we’ll be this year,” she says, and she’s now the owner.
Hers is the soul of the true entrepreneur: She saw an opportunity and let nothing stand in her way to capitalize on it. Convinced that she could make better business decisions than executives she’d seen in her accounting career, she made the leap: “If fail, I fail on my own,” she said.
McNamara’s journey to business ownership—and in a sector dominated by men—had a parallel with her own father’s career. A CPA in Detroit, he had switched careers to become a roofing contractor in Chicago, and “watching a 50-year-old guy make a major career change,” she said, made an impression.
She moved to the Kansas City area in 1983, and became one of the first three employees at a commercial roofing manufacturer, rising to vice president of finance over the next 17 years. At that point, it was no longer an entrepreneurial venture, and she missed the challenges of early-stage growth.
One of the biggest lessons she’s learned as a woman operating in a man-centric sector is that old ways of thinking die hard. “I had one banker tell me one time, say it right to my face, that you’re not a traditional business owner in this sector, so we don’t think you’re an appropriate risk to take. Fortunately, I found a banker who understands our business and what we want to do,” McNamara said.
“One thing I’m proud of—and my friends laugh at this—but for the first time since 2007, I have a personal savings account.”
Taking chances on dreams is what drives Camille Roberts. Naturally good with numbers, this entrepreneur with an artsy side explored many avenues before she landed in the realm of customizing store fronts for clients like Tory Burch and Nike.
Her great attention to detail and artistic eye helped her flourish in the realm of retail storefronts. The company that once operated out of the garage, where she and her husband would cut and pack product is now one that is now filling a 30,000-square-foot workshop where they fabricate entry doors, colorful aluminum structures and wall panels.
“If you want to succeed in any business, you have to be open to all opportunities of forward thinking,” she said.
Roberts didn’t start out in retail or even in fabrication but it was accounting that served as the main driver while she pursued her other passions.
“I just naturally fell into the accounting field. I liked numbers, solving puzzles, putting pieces together,” she said.
When she made the move from Jefferson City to Kansas City, she was searching for something outside the normal CPA firm, and decided to follow a new path with her love of cooking. She went back to Johnson County Community College for a hospitality-management degree. “While going to school, I worked for a temporary accounting agency and at Border’s Books in their espresso bar to pay the mortgage,” she said. “I also worked on a business plan for a coffeehouse.” When that pursuit fell through, she met her husband, Jon, while working for the accounting agency. From there, the rest is history. The duo started their business in 2002 and it has been growing steadily ever since.
“I think there’s a huge opportunity for those who want to work at it,” Roberts said. “You have to be smart, engaged and open to opportunity and change. I work all the time on the balancing act.”