Danielle Gonzalez welcomes the attendees to the event at the new Williams Inn.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — A room full of "glass-ceiling breakers and change-makers" were saluted recently during 1Berkshires' annual Women in Business recognition event.
"One of the things that I love about the Berkshires is how we celebrate one another and honor our accomplishments," said emcee Leah Thompson, director of enrollment at Berkshire Arts & Technology Public Charter School. "Thank you to 1Berkshire for providing us with a platform to honor women in business tonight."
The Good New Business Salute was hosted by the new Williams Inn and featured keynote speaker Julia Bowen, the founding director of BArT, and salutes to four women-owned businesses. Danielle Gonzalez, director of human resources at Williams College, and a member of the 1Berkshire board, welcomed the guests and thanked sponsors by Greylock Federal Credit Union, which also underwrites 1Berkshires' Women in Business Month, and BusinessWest.com.
"It's really great to be here a room full of so many glass-ceiling breakers and change makers," she said.
Saluted were the award-winning Barrington Stage Company and its artistic director Julianne Boyd, which over 25 years has grown from small summer theater with one stage to a year-round, three-stage company with a $5 million budget and annual audience of 60,000; Lenox Fit and its President Suzanne Merritt, U.S. Small Business Administration's 2019 state Woman Small Business Owner of the Year, who purchased the facility in 2014, increased its revenue by a third and has added new services; North Adams Yoga owners Devin and Deborah Raber, who opened three years ago and offer a variety of classes for healthy lifestyles, such as yoga fitness fusion, and have also fund raised for local and national causes; and Your Color Connection, founded in 2003 by Shirley Sparks, Ann LaBier and Sheryl Morrow, it is now run by LaBier and her husband, Warren, and an all-woman staff, with a focus on supporting other local businesses and keeping community in mind, especially LaBier's volunteering with Kiwanis.
The main portion of the evening was a sit-down question and answer with Bowen that was conducted by 1Berkshire President and CEO Jonathan Butler, who first met her when he was working in the State House and later as town administrator in Adams. He is also a member of the BArT board of trustees.
"Because you have a tremendous story to share, you had a very, very impressive and significant accomplishments in your career, there's probably a lot that you can pass along to this group tonight that would have a lot of value," Butler said.
Bowen guided BArT through its first decade and oversaw its expansion in grades and in the physical space of its Adams school building. It now offers middle and high school for more than 360 students from 15 Berkshire communities.
Bowen has served on number of local and state education boards, is a trustee of Berkshire Community College, a member of the board of directors of Lever, and a member of the Mount Greylock School Council. She is currently a leadership coach and consultant.
The Q&A is provided below with light editing for length and clarity.
Question: Not everybody can say that they started a school, but I think it's safe to say you started a school and it's now thriving with nearly 400 students. Over a decade later, talk to us a little bit about how you got your start with BArT.
Answer: I wish that were a sexier story than it is. I have a lifelong commitment and passion for education. ... I had gone into business after college ... I left and came out here and was teaching at Mount Greylock, and it was 2001, 2003, and they had to lay off 20 people — last in first out. ... I'd been hearing about the school and I said, 'Hey, I know I'm going to be hired back at Mount Greylock, but can I volunteer with you for a while,' and they said, 'How about you apply be the executive director?' I said, 'Oh, OK.' I was 30, having no understanding that it was something I could do.
I like to think about that, as I was incredibly passionate about the cause, and incredibly naive about the challenge.
Q: BArT, a little over two years ago, with a brand-new facility, the student enrollment well over 300. Could you ever imagine that when you started?
A: I will tell you when we started, I was really hoping to open the doors for the first time. That was, for those of you who have been around in the community long enough, there was a lot of opposition to the school opening. There was a lawsuit that somebody filed against us. There was a moratorium at the State House placed on the charter schools in Massachusetts. We couldn't secure a building permit. There's a lot of opposition. In retrospect, it seems like a crazy, why would there be opposition to a school that would serve so many students? ... I don't think I ever could have projected 17 years in the future and seen a thriving school community like we have.
I knew we would grow. I knew we had a phenomenal team that we kept building on. I don't know if I would have understood the national recognition. I don't know if I could have predicted that. But really, those first years were, can we open and can we keep running? It was hard.
Q: What are a couple of things that you learned along the way that have made you strong administrator?
A: I first I want to point out, I look out to this audience, I listened to these Good News Business Salutes, and I think about the wonderful talent that is in this room. And I'm somebody who has always recognized and seen that talent in other people. ...
One of the things I really needed to learn was what skills I had ... one really big key learning is that I did have skills. So really kind of learning how to step into what skills I did have. I think another was, at 30, my impression of a leader is that that's the person who's in charge, that person knows what to do. And just give that person the responsibility and everything was going to be fine. If only, right? ...
I will tell you, the most significant professional experience I had was in our fourth year as the school was really struggling and, and I had a baby, my first baby. I had to be out for three months. ... And I had to give up responsibility. I had to ask for help. I had to get other people engaged. I had to really rely on the whole team and, lo and behold, the school did much better. ...
I think that key learning was the importance of building a team and having a whole team of people who are excellent at their jobs and that work collaboratively together. And then the other really key learning that I think's been probably most influential for me in many ways now is don't wait for somebody else to do it. Step in and do it. ... For us, it was creating a school to serve a student body that was historically underserved or marginalized. It was creating that school, even in the face of that opposition I described, it was being being able to stand strong in my values. And if I could always come back to those values, I had the energy to just continue to make it happen.
Q: What's your favorite accomplishment from your years at the school?
A: I would say the greatest accomplishment is that the team is still there. I left a little bit over two years ago, and everything I see coming out of the school is fantastic. And it's better than when I was there. ... I take some of that ownership that I was able to create a place that continues to thrive. And that is, that is to me, the greatest thing that I could have done.
Q: I'm shifting gears a little bit to entrepreneurship. You were actually one of the first chairs of Lever. Can you speak a little bit about what got you involved in that work?
A: I had known [Lever Executive Director] Jeffrey Thomas around town I had known the work he had done it Williams. ... I just admired his work from afar. I also knew Jack Wadsworth, who was one of the original founders of Lever as well. ...
[Wadsworth] was interested in economic development, I was interested in education. And I kept saying, well, you're not going to have greater economic development unless you have a better educated population, you need to support education. And he would say, well, we need to have a better ... stronger education system but, you need to have businesses here for people to move here to come to those schools. ...
He said, we just need to be able to start a couple businesses a year over time to build up more opportunities. And I said you have to talk to Jeffrey Thomas. And that was the only credit I can take for anything ever because Jeffrey is the one who's been actually doing the work. I helped see the idea and connect to the right people who really have the passion and the wherewithal to do the work.
Q: So when you look back at Lever about five years later, how do you feel about that work that's being done now?
A: I'm blown away. I'm absolutely blown away. For those of you who may not know all about Lever, they actually held a phenomenal summit here, an entrepreneurship summit here. And what I see Lever doing is mining, and Jeffrey in particular and his team, which is a very small team, mining the talent that exists here in the Berkshires, and entrepreneurs find their way to Jeffrey or Jeffrey seeks out the entrepreneurs, or doing they're doing the entrepreneur work to help companies innovate from within. ... I know there's so much talent here. ... we all know that there's declining population, but rather than wallow in that or worry about it, I see Jeffrey and the Lever team saying, so what are we going to do about it to change the narrative? How do we keep hope? How do we move forward? And how do we improve where we are?
Julia Bowen was executive director of BArT for 13 years before opening a leadership consulting business.
Q: Is there an area or two of you could point to where you think there's still potential for startup businesses?
A: I think the question should come to you or to Jeffrey. But one of the things that I am especially amazed by is people who do think about that so strategically ... I'll come off my Lever stumping, but really kind of focusing on health care, the creative sector, advanced manufacturing, the strengths that we already have in the Berkshires and doubling down in those areas, creating that innovation from within. ...
I think that's one of the really amazing things about being in a smaller community, the way we can collaborate and identify those opportunities and then support each other in taking advantage of them.
Q: As a very successful woman leader in business in your career, I think we can speak candidly that we have some barriers to overcome. So from your perspective, how do you think we're doing [in the Berkshires]? What trends do you see?
A: I don't necessarily think there's anything different about the Berkshires than other places. I also can't say that I study it tremendously. But I do see women in very important leadership positions. If you look at Williams College, certainly the president but her senior staff. I look at your President [Ellen] Kennedy here from BCC and many of her senior staff. I see women leaders who are honored tonight and ... that to me is just a symbol or a signal that the opportunities are here and there are some really amazing women in our community.
Q: Do you think there's certain industries or sectors that are doing a better job than others?
A: I'm just kind of speaking from what I feel like I see. I work with MountainOne and I know that they've done a lot of recruitment of senior level stuff who are women, not because they're women, but I know there are a number of senior women on the senior staff there. So I don't I don't know if I could say which sectors are better or worse?
Q: For any young women that are aspiring to take on larger roles and leadership, grow in their profession, what types of lessons have you learned in your career that you would share or advice would you have?
A: Certainly, don't wait for someone to offer you a position. Don't wait for somebody to ask for your opinion. And, as hard as it is, you just need to step up and fill that. I know that I have, at times, felt that I wasn't heard because I was a woman or I wasn't respected because I was a woman. And when I actually really sit back, I realized, I think it's more that I've experienced gender based internalized oppression. I've basically allowed myself to believe that as a woman, I couldn't speak up, I couldn't speak out. And when I
I really when I reflect on it, and when I realized I did speak up and speak out, I was heard. ... So speak out.
Q: Do you feel like [the Berkshires] is heading in the right direction in the last decade?
A: I feel really strongly about Berkshire County ... my husband actually works in New York City and when I chose to leave BArT, we didn't even consider moving. In fact, we didn't consider moving until somebody said to us, does this mean you're going to move and we were like, oh, we should probably think about that — and then why would we move? I am so strong on Berkshire County. ... [talks about the collaboration between organizations] ...
When I talk to counterparts in other parts of the state or other parts of the country, it's a lot harder to do that in a bigger community. And so I feel the work that 1Berkshire's doing, the work that our our higher institutions are doing, the work that our companies are doing to support each other, like I am so sold here, and I think that women have a voice in all of that and I think that collaboratively, collectively, we're moving in the right place."
Questions from the audience:
Q: What do you think's unfair about education here?
A: It's not recognizing the challenge of the expenses of rural education ... So anything from public transportation to get students to BCC or to get parents to, the schools for conferences. It isn't as robust as we want it to be. That creates a really big challenge and schools, whether it be BCC or MCLA, needs somehow make up for that. So I think that's just a small example. But I think there's also there's an element of a rural tax that will end up paying to operate schools at the same level as some of our urban counterparts can operate. That's maybe a little bit too in the weeds, but I feel like that is something that is really real for those who are leading schools.
Q: Could you speak a little bit about mentorship and how some different mentors have helped you along on your path.
A: I had fabulous mentors, certainly before coming here before entering into education. I had a phenomenal mentor when I started teaching in Mount Greylock, an older, more experienced male math teacher, I had multiple phenomenal mentors on the board at BArT, women and men. ... I find the mentors that are able to bring me back to what are my values, what what's important to me ... when they would help me think through difficult situations, those facing your work. And they might have been technically my boss as the board, but really helping me reconnect to make sure I'm aligned with myself. My values are in alignment. And that really helps me act and behave in a way that felt true to me.
Jonathan Butler asked questions ranging from the founding of BArT to the outlook for women in Berkshire County.
Q: How, through different partnerships and relationships, were you able to overcome the opposition to BArT?
A: The source of that tension way back when really came from both financial kind and charter schools were created to ultimately be competitors to district schools. They were created to innovate and then disseminate that back into the district school. So those two things are kind of in conflict, right? Let me tell you why I'm better than you, and now let me tell you what you need to learn from me. It doesn't really work. And so it just sets charter schools up to have a difficult relationship from the get-go with districts. ...
I think the board was a safe group and passionate about the work. And there were very few local partnerships that we had but what we had was a lot, a lot, a lot of quiet support behind the scenes and people telling us please keep going, how can I help but I can't be public. And that I think is what just kept us buoyed to know that we were on the right path and we were doing the right thing. ... We had a couple national partnerships ... but our local partners were pretty limited. That was something that really came over time.
Q: What are you doing now?
A: I really was aware that I couldn't be the mom I wanted to be, I couldn't be the professional I wanted to be, couldn't be the wife I wanted to be, I had really no time left for myself. And I said, I need to step back and reconstruct my life. ... I definitely feel privileged that I was able to do that. I know that's not something that everyone can do. But I did step back and say, I've gotta I gotta find a different course. I worked with a coach, a professional coach who works largely in education. But I hired her personally to help me figure out what's next. And that was a phenomenal experience, so phenomenal that I said, 'I want your job.'
I went and I got certified as a professional coach, and began building my own business. So I have my own business now doing that and I largely working with education and nonprofit leaders and supporting them both in their journey as leaders. But for many of them ... you can't really distinguish — for all of us — what's your personal or professional life because they're so intertwined. And so the work becomes much more holistic as I work with various clients. And then I also run a training program for charter school leaders in Massachusetts.
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