This week, the Frederick County Chamber of Commerce’s Women in Business Committee launched the first SHE Week, a celebration of women in business that became an instant hit.
So much so that what started as a way to honor women the week of Women’s Equality Day, which was Aug. 26, soon turned into one of the chamber’s yearly signature events.
“It’s for any woman who’s a leader in her own way,” said Rachael Pashkevich, co-chair of the WIB Committee. “Everyone has a story to tell, and we wanted to encompass that through a variety of events that would speak to different people in different ways.”
Throughout the week SHE Week — SHE standing for strength, heart and equality — hosted seminars and networking events. One event, “Frederick’s First Females,” highlighted four local women who are leading the way in their industry speaking in a panel-style forum. The panel was held Wednesday night at Hood College.
The four women were County Executive Jan Gardner; Cheryl Cioffi, COO of Frederick Regional Healthcare System; Monica Pearce, owner of Tenth Ward Distillery and Maj. Gen. Linda Singh, the first African American and first woman to lead the Maryland Army National Guard.
The panel was moderated by Elizabeth Burmaster, president of Frederick Community College, who asked the panelists about the challenges they face in their respective industries and what women in their lives inspired them.
Burmaster first asked the panel what advice they would give to their younger selves.
Singh would tell herself not to be so wound up. Gardner would tell her younger self to be brave, confident and fearless, and to seize your power. For Cioffi, she would remind her younger self that a good night’s sleep is important.
“I would have told myself to find somebody to vent to early on,” Pearce said. “I realized, probably a year in, that my friends and family didn’t care anymore how tired I was.”
Another question asked was what’s the biggest challenge women face in their respective industries.
“There’s a lot more elected women in office today than there was when I first got started,” Gardner said. “But in 1998, when I first ran for office, believe it or not, I had women, generally older than me, tell me, ‘you should not be running for office, you should stay home and take care of your children.’ And I heard that a lot. Today, you would never hear that.”
In her current position, though, she still senses a “quiet lack of respect.”
“I will go somewhere with a group of people and they’ll assume that one of the men is the county executive,” she said. “And I’ll introduce myself as the county executive and they’re a little bit surprised. So there’s an assumption still that the men in the group are the people leading the group.”
Pearce said that while she doesn’t experience challenges from peers in her industry, she does experience challenges from customers.
“What we do get are more customers [that] we call the dreaded mansplainers,” she said, to laughs from the audience. “This has never happened with a woman customer to me, ever, but customers that are men will interrupt you, will tell you what they know about the products and not listen to what you’re telling them.”
Rick Weldon, president and CEO of the chamber, said the aspect that excited him most about SHE Week was how any woman could have been spotlighted, at any of the events, and would have an inspiring story to tell.
“We have this really cool panel of amazing women, but I could schedule dozens of panels over dozens of nights using the women that are in this audience,” he said before the event. “Every one of them has an amazing story of how they balance family life, work life, priorities, goals and dreams.”
But the four women who sat on the panel are just another example of women breaking the glass ceiling and showing that they deserve a seat at the table, Weldon said.
“If you look at what these women have done, no male, gender or leader can ignore the fact that there’s a higher level of energy and focus coming out of this group,” he added.
Weldon said that it’s all in how women network and share with one another that can’t be replicated, not even with men.
“We’ve got to blow through the mythology that says the good old boys that built Frederick are the same people that are going to expand and transform [it],” he said. “That’s not true.”
That message was echoed all through the week as women came away encouraged and inspired to take charge in their roles and make a difference in their communities.
“I took away, don’t take myself too seriously, forgive myself, don’t aim for perfection and just aim for being present and aware and accountable with good intent every day,” said Tricia Strite, director of marketing and sales for Visiting Angels, a home health care service in Frederick County.
Strite attended the panel and other events during the week on a recommendation from her boss to learn and see powerful women in different roles.
“They’re doing meaningful things in their lives in this community and this environment,” she said of the women she met through SHE Week events. “That is something to be recognized and appreciated and embraced.”