What glass ceiling? Meet nine Kansas City women who have blown past gender barriers to become leaders in their respective fields.
President and CEO, American Royal Association
For the first time in 117 years, one of Kansas City’s most prestigious and storied traditions is led by a woman. In 2015, Lynn Parman took the reigns as the president and CEO of the American Royal Association, and she hasn’t looked back since.
As a child growing up in Jefferson City, Parman knew she had what it takes to succeed. A youngest child of three older brothers, Parman says she learned her work ethic from her mother, Loretta, who worked for the Missouri Department of Agriculture for 40 years.
“You could say I have a non-traditional ag background,” Parman says. “But since the beginning of my career, there has always been an agriculture of animal health component.”
With a 15-year background in nonprofit work under her belt, which includes business development roles in both the St. Joseph and Lawrence Chambers of Commerce, Parman also served six years as the vice president of bioscience development for the Kansas City Area Development Council. But perhaps her most notable role was that which she held as a director of the team that launched the Kansas City Animal Health Corridor, an organization focused on creating customized training programs and cooperation within the vast animal vaccine development industry based in the Kansas City region.
Interestingly enough, Parman’s most recent role was as the associate director of community and workforce affairs for Boehringer Ingelheim Vetmedica, one of the largest companies in the KC Animal Health Corridor and her one and only venture into the private business sector.
And while Parman has undoubtedly broken gender barriers in taking on her role at the Royal, she is extremely optimistic about the increasing role women continue to play in agriculture and veterinary medicine. In fact, of the 10 annual scholarships the Royal awards, six of the 10 were given to young women in 2015, and of the veterinary medicine scholarships given out by the Royal, all were awarded to women attending Kansas State University and the University of Missouri last year.
“It’s a very exciting time to be a woman in agriculture,” Parman says. “There are more and more women each year who propel themselves into leadership roles in this industry.”
Parman, no doubt, is the poster child for this concept. But, she says, her career success was not calculated in the traditional sense. In fact, Parman says that every move she has made in her career has occurred because she remained open to opportunity.
President and CEO, MySmartPlans and Marathon Digital Services
Shelley Armato is no stranger to pulling herself up by her bootstraps.
A single mother of three who began her real estate career riding a bicycle from home to home, Armato quickly propelled herself to rookie-of-the-year status, selling 43 houses in 12 months.
“I don’t do status quo,” Armato says.
That’s no lie. Today, Armato is the founder, president and CEO of Marathon Digital Services, a full-service reprographics company from which came MySmartPlan, a construction project management solution that uses a dashboard to organize, update and archive project information.
“I have come to the realization that every job I have ever had has prepared me for such a time as this,” Armato says.
Armato, who has a 15-year background in residential real estate, is now focusing her efforts on transforming the construction industry through one simple concept: transparency.
In 2006, Armato, along with her husband, created a desktop application for construction project management and began operating MySmartPlans out of her 700-square-foot garage. Today, the management system has been used on hundreds of construction projects throughout the United States.
MySmartPlans is a project information management tool that coordinates planning and scheduling and accelerates every step of a construction project for every member of the project team. With one click, clients and contractors can track changes, verify requirements and manage progress. In short, MySmartPlans eliminates construction miscommunication and corrupt billing processes.
“I guess you could call me the Erin Brockovich of construction. Clients are sick and tired of being over budget and under-delivered on construction projects,” Armato says. “It’s a very corrupt industry, and we are working to correct that.”
But for Armato, blowing the whistle on the construction industry hasn’t always been easy.
“Construction is a male-dominated business,” Armato says.
You could say that Armato has built an empire on telling the truth, a virtue she prides herself on day in and day out.
“Construction has the highest divorce rate of any industry. Why? Because contractors have to lie and cheat to compete because there’s no accountability. Well, we are trying to fix all that.”
But for Armato, there’s no better motivator than her children and grandchildren. They are, she says, the reason she is so dedicated to her work.
“I leverage my family,” Armato says. “My goal is for them to watch me as an example and understand that there are no obstacles other than what we allow. That, and to always, always do the right thing.”
President and CEO, Kansas City Sports Commission & Foundation
It was an afternoon no Kansas Citian will ever forget: the confetti, the crowds, the sea of Royal blue. But as the Kansas City Royals paraded through downtown and to Union Station following their incredible World Series victory in 2015, Kathy Nelson was working overtime.
As the president and CEO of the Kansas City Sports Commission & Foundation, Nelson is in charge of each and every major sporting event hosted in Kansas City as well as the attraction and retention of professional and amateur organizations.
Nelson is one of only four female sports commission presidents in the entire country and was recently selected to serve on the National Association of Sports Commissions Board of Directors, an honor reserved for only those at the very top of their games.
Undoubtedly, Nelson’s 25-year background in broadcast and cable television as well as her freelance sports production jobs have propelled her to her current role with the Sports Commission. She even won a regional Emmy in the early 2000s for her production of an NFL game, and she was the first female to do so.
In 2010, Nelson was selected as the director for Women’s Intersport Network (WIN) for KC before taking her current position with the Sports Commission just a year later.
“As a female leader, I also look for good networking and training opportunities to help me continue to grow in my career and find ways to invite other females to the table.”
However, despite her success, Nelson admits that being in the public eye often seems to be an open invitation for criticism.
“People make comments about my choice of clothes, makeup or my hairstyle,” Nelson laughs. “I am doubtful that my male equals hear the same. At times I have noticed that when one of my male counterparts speaks up on a sports topic, they are immediately seen as an ‘expert’ or trustworthy. If I offer my opinion on the same topic, I’ve felt like some feel I’m just trying to fit in. It’s definitely a challenge, and these types of situations are becoming few and far between.”
For Nelson, the key to success has been threefold.
“I try to be authentically me and be accountable and trustworthy,” she says. “I try to truly listen to people. I learn so much from others around me, which has really been the reason for my career growth.”
Thanks to the Sports Commission’s hard work, Kansas City will host the Big 12 Men’s Basketball Championship through 2020, plus national events like the U.S. Figure Skating Championships and the NCAA Division I Women's Volleyball Championship in 2017.
Founder, Kansas City Women in Technology
For years, Jennifer Wadella has felt like an outsider — that is, until she decided to do something about it. Having spent her career in technology working for a variety of startups and small businesses and ultimately landing a job at a major Kansas City-based ad agency, Wadella became acutely aware of the gender bias in the city’s tech industry.
“Being told you don't look like a programmer constantly creeps into your psyche,” Wadella says. “Not to mention growing up being told math and science is for boys. It can be difficult not to succumb to the idea that you're not smart enough due to your gender.”
Wadella, now a software developer for Fire Engine RED, decided to take matters into her own hands and in 2013 founded Kanas City Women in Technology (KCWiT), a nonprofit organization with the mission of growing the number of women in tech careers based on the knowledge that the technology field has the highest dropout rate for women in mid-level careers.
But for Wadella, quitting was never an option.
“I grew up always running around with the boys and was typically the leader of the pack,” she says. “I have always been unafraid to make my presence known, which can be a struggle when you're a minority."
Confidence and hard work, says Wadella, make all the difference.
That’s why a big part of KCWiT’s focus is on helping women gain confidence in their respective technological fields through programs such as Coding & Cocktails, a hands-on series that teaches the basics of front-end development, an in-demand skill; and Coding & Cupcakes, which is geared toward mothers and their daughters.
“The world is not fair,” Wadella admits. “I learned that very early in life. Even though you work your ass off, it does not mean the right people will notice and treat you accordingly. You have to be strategic; you have to make sure your efforts are seen by the right people."
Cheptoo Kositany Buckner
Executive Director, American Jazz Museum
If there’s one thing Cheptoo Kositany-Buckner understands, it’s the power of relationships.
And as the recently appointed executive director of Kansas City’s American Jazz Museum, she has her sights set on restoring the relationship between the museum and the beloved city in which it resides.
“The jazz museum is for the people,” Kositany-Buckner says. “It’s about preserving the heritage of a bygone era and providing access to information. Collaboration is the key. We must connect the museum with the community in order to move forward.”
Thankfully, Kositany-Buckner is no stranger to moving forward. The former deputy director of the Kansas City Public Library, she was instrumental in developing innovative programming and establishing the library as a place for civic engagement. Her experience will most likely help address the criticism issues surrounding the almost 20-year-old museum’s exhibitions not being nearly as interactive as those of other facilities.
Kositany-Buckner has served on the board of the Black Archives of Mid-America, and in January 2015 she received a President's Award from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City. She has also received the Lucile H. Bluford Special Achievement Award from the Kansas City Chapter of the NAACP.
Born and raised in Kenya and one of 11 children, Kositany-Buckner credits her upbringing for her ability to accomplish whatever she sets her sights on and her innate knack for communication and problem solving.
“Running the museum is a diplomatic position,” she says. “You must be able to engage with anyone and everyone.”
As a child, Kositany-Buckner watched her mother work diligently to build schools and empower women in the still male-dominated society, showing them how to purchase land and create organizations that serve the community at large.
“I saw what just one woman could do for a community of people, and I was inspired by it,” she says. “One person really can make a difference.”
And that’s precisely what Kositany-Buckner plans to do right here in Kansas City, a city that is laced in a rich jazz heritage and thirsty for it to be brought to light in a tangible way.
In fact, her vision for museum partnerships extends beyond Kansas Cityshe even has plans to capitalize on the museum’s affiliation with the Smithsonian and the National Endowment for the Arts to bring exhibits and performances to Kansas City.
"Kansas City is our biggest customer right now," she says. "We've got to make sure we're using the city's money so they can see that we're changing what is happening in the district and the jazz museum.”
And although Kositany-Buckner has her work cut out for her, she also understands the importance of staying true to herself.
Assistant Fire Chief, Kansas City Fire Department
Donna Maize grew up in the fire department. The daughter of a fire captain, Maize admits that it was “in her blood” to become part of the fire department.
“I entered the fire service straight out of college on June 22, 1992,” Maize recalls. “I skipped classes at the University of Central Missouri to drive home and take the written test one day that April. As graduation approached, I just couldn’t see myself in the corporate world and knew my purpose was to help others like my father before me. I’ve always admired and respected him, and the people he worked with were such a big part of our lives as I grew up. I really couldn’t see myself doing anything else.”
After joining the department, Maize worked in a plethora of atypical jobs in order to climb the figurative “ladder.” Besides spending time in the field as a firefighter, fire apparatus operator and captain, Maize also spent time as a fire instructor, equipment officer, battalion chief of the Hazmat division, deputy chief of special operations, and technical services before moving into her current role as assistant fire chief.
Maize readily admits that her position within the fire department is a bit of an anomaly. In fact, the Bureau of Labor reports that while approximately 306,000 persons are employed as career firefighters, women account for only about 11,000. According to Maize, women are underrepresented in the fire service, paid less and not promoted as often.
To that end, Maize is a champion for opening the topic of recruiting and retaining more women in fire service at any chance she gets — especially at the management level.
“It is especially important for women to be willing to take on challenges and opportunities when presented,” Maize says.
"I took on assignments that others didn’t want. I participated in national educational programs such as the Executive Fire Officer program through the National Fire Academy and most recently graduated from the University of Kansas with a Master’s of Public Administration degree. I’ve worked in the field at all levels for a firefighter and pulled my own weight.”
You can’t argue that Maize has earned her position with the fire department, but rising to the top wasn’t without its obstacles, Maize says.
“It is challenging for women to have confidence and to find their authoritative voice in a male-dominated field,” she says. “Women have to learn techniques to adapt and overcome some of the physical challenges of firefighting — using leg muscles versus relying on upper body strength to pull hoses, for example. The perceptions that to be successful in a male-dominated career, a woman has to know more, do more, perform better and be stronger are real at times.”
Vice President of Network Management, UnitedHealthcare
It may have taken Patti Grozdanich a little longer to get to her destination, but she sure has enjoyed the journey.
Today, Grozdanich oversees the building and maintaining of United Healthcare’s network of contracted health care providers in Kansas, Northwest Missouri, Nebraska and Western Iowa. She also participates in the health plan leadership team, which handles strategic planning and policy development.
But holding a leadership role in the ever-changing field of health care management was not always Grozdanich’s dream. In fact, she spent 12 years working as a school psychologist before deciding to change her career path altogether.
After much research, networking and thought, Grozdanich began taking night classes at the University of Kansas while still holding down her day job. Eventually, in the early 1990s, she decided to jump in with both feet and pursue the field of health care administration as a full-time student.
“I was in my mid-30s, and I had two young children,” Grozdanich recalls. “I squeezed school and studying in every nook and cranny of my day — late nights, early mornings, whatever it took. It was crazy and scary and exhilarating all at the same time.”
As she wrapped up her schooling, Grozdanich was required to do an internship, and after much consideration, she decided to pursue one in managed health care. She was hired as Blue Cross Blue Shield’s first intern in the field of managed care for a three-month summer internship and from there was offered a full-time position upon her graduation.
From there, Grozdanich took on a few other health care management jobs before landing in her current position with United Healthcare, where she has worked since 2003.
And while it seems that Grozdanich propelled herself rapidly to the top of the managed health care world, she admits that her chosen path has had its obstacles — most notably, balancing work and family life.
However, Grozdanich says she wouldn’t change the sequence of events given the choice.
And being a woman in upper-level health care management, Grozdanich says, is an opportunity that is becoming increasingly more open to women.
“In the past 10 to 15 years, I have seen a large jump in the number of women in executive positions in the health care industry,” she says. “It’s a process and an evolution, but we are moving in the right direction.”
Outside of work, Grozdanich spends her time as a board member on Missouri’s Make A Wish Foundation and volunteering with other local organizations such as Operation Breakthrough and Susan G. Komen Greater Kansas City.
But despite her impressive career advancements in a male-dominated industry, Grozdanich is quick to give credit to her team at United Healthcare — a team that she says has an unprecedented longevity, especially considering the turnover that often takes place in the managed health care industry.
“There’s a lot of turnover in this type of work because these jobs are very difficult and stressful,” Grozdanich says. “I have developed and put together a team of great people with a very long tenure, which is a definite asset in a field where the ability to build and maintain relationships is crucial. We work very well together.”
Rachel Hack Merlo
Community Impact Manager, Google
Rachel Hack Merlo, a native Kansas Citian, is perhaps the city’s biggest advocate thanks to her community-building work with Google Fiber.
In addition to leading efforts related to digital inclusion and entrepreneurial community engagement, Merlo’s job basically boils down to this: make Kansas City better each and every day.
As the point of contact for local governments and other partners, Merlo works cross-functionally with divisions of Google Fiber to keep the Kansas City work on track, and she oversees local community affairs.
And while Merlo’s work with Google Fiber is relational in nature and not entirely technology-based, she says she does see a shift in the role women play in the information technology industry.
Especially in Kansas City, Google strives to promote and support programs that are designed to engage young women in technology and fuel interest in career paths similar to Merlo’s. For instance, Google Fiber has spearheaded a Create Your World program for children in 5th through 8th grades that gives them the opportunity to try coding in a fun, explorative environment as well as supported the App Camp at UMKC, a high school camp that has a growing number of female participants every year.
Prior to joining Google in 2011, Merlo was president of the Software and Information Technology Association of Kansas, a trade association that is now part of KCnext. She was also executive director of the American Advertising Federation-Kansas City, and held public relations and advertising positions at Worlds of Fun/Oceans of Fun and Visit KC, respectively.
Merlo serves on the boards of directors of Central Exchange, Visit KC, Kansas City Kansas Area Chamber of Commerce, Kansas City Startup Foundation and the Women’s Center at the University of Missouri – Kansas City. She is also a member of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce’s Centurions class of 2016.
“I learned to say ‘yes’ very early on in my career,” Merlo says. “That’s what has gotten me to where I am. I took every opportunity I was given and tried to learn from those new experiences. Volunteer for things at work, get your hands in new projects that are out of your comfort zone, and pay close attention to what makes you tick. That’s the sweet spot.”
Director of Community Affairs and President and Executive Director, Sprint Foundation
Debby Ballard has her priorities straight: family, people, community.
That is precisely why her role as the director of community affairs and president of the Sprint Foundation is a perfect fit for her.
“I grew up understanding the importance of giving back,” says Ballard, the daughter of a Baptist minister and a kindergarten teacher.
In her leadership roles, Ballard essentially operates as the bridge between Sprint and the local community on a philanthropic level.
Ballard is responsible for Sprint’s local and national community outreach efforts, as well as employee volunteerism on a local level (including Christmas in October, a citywide service project), employee giving campaigns, and charitable and corporate giving. Ballard also heads up Sprint’s Philanthropic Initiative as well as managing employee and corporate giving to the United Way, which locally receives $2 million annually from worker contributions, and matching donations from the Sprint Foundation. In addition, each spring, Ballard initiates a weeks-long food drive to benefit area families struggling to put food on the table.
“The best part of my job is being able to get out into the community and see the impact that Sprint’s dollars have right here in Kansas City,” she says. “We are literally changing people’s lives every day, and I am lucky enough to see it firsthand.”
But Sprint’s charitable giving reaches far beyond Ballard’s backyard, as the company also operates a national Internet safety program aimed at keeping kids safe online as well as a No Texting While Driving Awareness, both of which fall within Ballard’s wheelhouse.
Just this fall, Ballard was honored with one of the Kansas City Chamber of Commerce’s highest awards, the ATHENA Leadership Award, for her work with the Sprint Foundation as well as her past roles as chair of the Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey, the Kansas City Zoo and president of the Jackson County Links. Ballard is currently chair of the Central Exchange, an organization aimed at engaging women in personal and professional development by providing leadership training and networking opportunities.
“It is very important to me to be able to mentor young women —especially women of color — and help them achieve their personal and professional goals,” says Ballard, who dedicates time to mentoring eight to 10 women. “Having a mentor who believes in you, especially as a woman, is crucial. We have to be each other’s cheerleaders and never ever give up.”