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The 2024 Rad Awards


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Interested in custom benefits, presenting an award, or becoming a presenting sponsor? Email Kristin Long at [email protected].

Ideas We Should Steal: Women Leading, Together

The 550 women executives in the 45-year-old Chicago Network are changing their city for the better — and creating opportunities for even more women leaders. There is no better moment for a similar effort in Philadelphia. (That’s also why we’re relaunching Rad Girls!)

Ideas We Should Steal: Women Leading, Together

The 550 women executives in the 45-year-old Chicago Network are changing their city for the better — and creating opportunities for even more women leaders. There is no better moment for a similar effort in Philadelphia. (That’s also why we’re relaunching Rad Girls!)

Chicago, 1979. Nine female executives, including Playboy Enterprises’ Christie Hefner, found themselves frustrated by a situation women all over the country were experiencing at the same time: If they were able to reach the C-Suites in their companies — and that was rare enough — they were usually the only women in the room in any leadership role. They rarely encountered executive women in any company in the course of their days. It was, as they say, lonely at the top.

That summer, shortly after the women found each other and started meeting up for professional networking and personal support, they identified 113 other accomplished Chicago women they wanted to know better. They mailed out letters introducing themselves, and then welcomed 99 of them to the first meeting of what became the now 45-year-old Chicago Network (TCN), a unique organization for women in positions of leadership.

“They realized that men had figured this out, because they’d been at it for centuries,” says Maria Doughty, executive director of TCN. “So they decided to start something that would work for them in a similar way.”

Today, TCN has around 550 members, all Chicagoland women in top positions in 11 different industries. TCN’s mission is to empower women to lead. They do that through civic and social events, networking, and clubs within the club. Their two main formal initiatives include training and connecting women to sit on corporate boards; and Launchpad, a half-day forum for emerging leaders, to give them the skills they need to move up the ladder in their fields (and become future members).

But TCN’s impact goes beyond the individual success of its members. The organization is nationally recognized as a locus of influence in America’s third largest city; its members are credited with helping to elect Barack Obama president. (One of its members, Tina Tchen, is head of the Obama Foundation and was a fundraiser for the former president.) Research increasingly shows that having women in leadership roles is good for businesses, as well as for civic life. To be considered for membership, every woman must be actively, civically engaged in Chicago, which means the city is benefitting from the hundreds of women in TCN doing good for Chicago, and whose works are felt across the region.

“The Network formed for women to be peers, with a lot of intentionality around who is a member,” says Doughty. “Once you’re in, you have nothing to prove to anyone. Everyone has run the gauntlet and is top of their game. Everyone is using their leadership skills to further a community and create change and meaningful impact in the region. It’s a free and liberating thing to be a part of.”

Members for life

Much has changed since 1979. But not as much as you might think. While women hold nearly 45 percent of board seats of Fortune 500 companies, only about 8 percent of those companies have woman CEOs, and about 5 percent of those who run private companies worth $1 billion are women. In Philadelphia, there are only three women CEOs among the top 100 businesses; 27 percent of company board members are women — but only three boards are chaired by women. The gender pay gap, meanwhile, is shrinking — but has not yet disappeared.

Nor has the narrative changed much. Women are still overlooked for promotions at significant rates, in part because of bias — perceptions of them as leaders are slow to catch up to research that finds diversity in leadership is best for the bottom line. And, women in the top tiers of their fields in sports and management and philanthropy and business still allude to “impostor syndrome” in their work — including, as I have written about previously, businesswoman Sue Jacobson, who admitted in her rousing speech at the Chamber of Commerce’s Paradigm Awards to being afraid to speak up at her first Chamber board meeting, even decades into her storied career.

“Sometimes as women, when we see a role that we aspire to, we talk ourselves out of it: I have some of the qualifications, but not all of them, so think I should wait. Men will pursue the role anyway,” says Chicago Network board chair Suzet McKinney, CEO of a biotech real estate developer. “One of the wonderful things about being in the Network is hearing the path other women have taken. What are the barriers put up? What are the barriers we put up for ourselves? When I start to exhibit that behavior, I talk myself out of that because of what I have learned from other women.”

“Everyone has run the gauntlet and is top of their game. Everyone is using their leadership skills to further a community and create change and meaningful impact in the region. It’s a free and liberating thing to be a part of.” — Maria Doughty

The founding members of TCN at first invited only other women who were CEOs of large businesses. Today, TCN members include CEOs, current and former university presidents (including Citizen contributor Elaine Maimon, former president of Governors State University outside Chicago), scientists, doctors, architects, authors, lawyers and even an astrophysicist. President Obama staffers Valerie Jarett is a member, as is former Mayor Lori Lightfoot. Each of the 11 sectors has slightly different requirements for membership, but all must be in a high executive position; civically engaged; nominated by a current member; and approved by a membership committee in their field.

Once they are members, they are members for life, so long as they pay their annual membership fee. (Maimon, for example, is still a member even though she now lives in Philadelphia.) Members range in age from 40s to 70s, and are as diverse as the leaders of Chicago’s different industries — which is to say, still primarily White, but increasingly mixed.

There are only a few hard and fast rules: No guilt. “Everyone’s so busy, so if they sign up for something and don’t show up, we let it go,” says Daughty. And, anytime a member reaches out, the recipient is expected to respond within 24 hours, even if just to say, I’m traveling and will get back to you asap. (Everyone I talked to mentioned this rule and said it is universally followed.)

TCN isn’t a mentorship organization, per se, though it does do some mentoring; it’s not a social club, although socializing is a big part of it; it’s not a business networking group, though many women do find jobs, or hire fellow members, or raise money. It is, instead, a meeting place for peers who have achieved a high level of professional success, are deeply engaged with the city, and are willing to dive in together to solve problems both personal and citywide.

TCN hosts about 70 events a year, most of which are in person, and often center around a member’s expertise or connections. Last Valentine’s Day, for example, a member who is Chief Information Officer for Chicago’s biggest hospital arranged for TCN members to watch a live open heart surgery, performed on a woman by a female surgeon who narrated what she was doing. She followed up with a presentation about heart health in women from puberty to menopause, which ended with a call for everyone present to pass on what they learned to women in their companies and lives.

Maimon says she has benefited from having confidential conversations with people in different fields about running a large organization, and used her connections in TCN to implement programs for students at her university. McKinney, a member since 2017, recalls a casual conversation she had with another member about the difficulties with being a working mother. Realizing other women face the same struggle, they decided to host an event and invite other TCN members to join in the discussion. That one event became a series, looking at the issues with working and parenting children at different stages in their lives, and solutions for making it easier.

“What the network stands for is to empower and support professional women, but in any aspect of their lives — social, professional, civic, personal,” McKinney says. “That’s what this was about.”

Sifting for values

McKinney first learned about TCN in 2012, when she was a deputy commissioner in the city’s Department of Public Health. At the time, she wasn’t senior enough to warrant a nomination to TCN. But she was invited to Launchpad, the forum designed to equip emerging female leaders with the skills, knowledge and strategies to advance their careers. (One tip Doughty learned at Launchpad, for example: You won’t make it to the highest positions in a company if you never have a role requiring you to oversee a profit-and-loss sheet.)

“It was the first time that I had been in a room with so many other women like me — advancing their careers, trying to understand what it would take to become an executive,” McKinney recalls. “But it was also the first time I had the opportunity to be in the presence of so many executive women at once. I was so struck by all these high level, high powered women encouraging one another, sharing information, supporting one another and being a resource.”

In addition to Launchpad, under Daughty’s leadership TCN has put a greater emphasis on helping its members secure seats on corporate boards, through training, help with resumes and other materials and through a database of interested members that can be easily searched by companies looking to fill seats. Daughty says the website gets about 600 unique visitors a month, and she has traveled around the country to promote it and the women she represents. Both are part of an effort to increase the numbers of women in executive roles in Chicago companies and organizations.

“Unless we see more diversity of who’s sitting on corporate boards, we will not see meaningful change in the C-suites,” she notes.

Unlike other similar-minded organizations — including Philly’s Forum of Executive Women — membership in TCN is exclusive in a way that sifts for values: While it is nonpartisan and decidedly nonpolitical, the group is unwavering in its insistence that every member be involved in civic work beyond their jobs and families. (Volunteering at their kid’s school doesn’t count.) Daughty says they will reject a woman’s application if her civic service is not significant enough — and then work to connect them with organizations that can use their help and fit their skills.

We have a head start with making this happen here. My feeling is that Judee von Seldeneck has been carrying the weight of this for all of us for so long. It’s time for the rest of us to carry the ball instead.” — Sue Jacobson

“You cannot be a true and effective leader if you are not also giving of your time and talent to those that don’t have the same opportunities that we have,” says McKinney. One result of this is that members are exposed to ever more issues and solutions that are affecting Chicago and its region. “I’ve seen nonprofits and other civic causes come to my attention that I didn’t know existed here in Chicago,” McKinney says. “It not only broadens and expands our impact professionally, but civically as well.”

Now is Philly’s time

There is a reason why The Citizen is partnering with Leah Kauffman to bring back the Rad Awards this year, celebrating kickass women making change and empowering each other in Philadelphia. We are in a moment when women in Philly are ascendant. (Nominate a Rad Girl here, and then join us July 17 for the Rad party.)

Still, there is work to be done in harnessing that ascendancy. Judee von Seldeneck — longtime businesswoman who founded and ran Diversified Search for about 30 years — was a founder of the Forum for Executive Women, which currently has 600 members, but has far less of an impact civically on Philadelphia. Von Seldeneck was also part of a circle of powerful local women in the late 90s — including Midge Rendell, Rebecca Rimel and Stephanie Naidoff — that gathered regularly to, as she put it in a Citizen column last year, “try to influence the workings of the Philadelphia political scene.” Von Seldeneck continued:

I’m disappointed that the generation behind me and my generation hasn’t picked up the torch and carried it forward. There is a whole new generation of powerful Philadelphia women, whose voices have to be heard. These are different times for women and for Philadelphia, and we have an opportunity to provide new proven leadership and innovation.

The election of Mayor Cherelle Parker last year is one giant step in this direction. On her inauguration day, Jacobson and Visit Philly CEO Angela Val (a Citizen board member) rallied 100 women CEOs in Philly to put their names to a full-page Inquirer ad welcoming the new “Madame Mayor.” They included Von Seldeneck, Val and Jacobson, as well as The Enterprise Center’s Della Clark and CHOP CEO Madeline Bell, Center City District’s Prema Katari Gupta and Civic Coalition to Save Lives’ Estelle Richman, Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Sasha Suda and St. Joe’s University President Cheryl A. McConnell, among others. It was an impressive list.

“We have a head start with making this happen here,” Jacobson says. “My feeling is that Judee has been carrying the weight of this for all of us for so long. It’s time for the rest of us to carry the ball instead.”


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