Women Leaders From 6 Chicago Companies Share Advice For The Next Generation

In honor of International Women’s Day, six women leaders at Chicago companies reflected on their impressive careers.

Written by Olivia Arnold
Published on Mar. 08, 2023
Women Leaders From 6 Chicago Companies Share Advice For The Next Generation
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U.S. politician Shirley Chisholm famously said, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” 

Like Chisholm, the six women featured below did not wait for an invitation to lead. Rather, in an industry where women account for just 25 percent of leadership, they successfully carved out paths to the top, earning high-ranking roles as directors, vice presidents and more. 

In honor of International Women’s Day, Built In Chicago connected with these leaders to glean invaluable lessons from their impressive careers. Celebrated annually on March 8, International Women’s Day recognizes women’s social, economic, cultural and political achievements while pushing for gender equality. 

For those aspiring to leadership roles, these featured women have important advice to share about the power of speaking up, trusting your skills and taking up space. 

 

Kate Pretkel
VP, Special People Programs • EPAM Systems

EPAM Systems provides product development and software engineering solutions.

 

What’s the most important lesson that you learned as you grew your career?

One vital lesson that I learned is to keep going, even if you feel scared or nervous about something. There were times when I felt full of self-doubt about decisions that I needed to make. I wondered if I should speak up, keep quiet or take the opportunity. Ultimately, I stayed curious about what could work and tried things. The determination to keep moving forward got me to where I am today. 

I remember when I received the opportunity to come to the United States for a lead HR role with my company. I asked myself, “What does a woman with no HR experience in the United States have to offer? What kind of value could I bring?” My bosses, however, had confidence in me, and I knew to trust them. 

It was a difficult adjustment moving countries and starting a new job, but when you go through experiences like that, you learn not to be scared anymore and gain confidence that you will be able to figure anything out.

 

How do you stay motivated as a leader, and how do you try to inspire other women at EPAM Systems?

The reality is that it’s not always ponies and unicorns, and sometimes I wake up in the morning and don’t want to get up or feel bogged down with lots of meetings. It’s OK to have an off day. People have their ups and downs. 

After moving to the United States, it took me a while to work with my team and let them know it’s OK to not be OK from time to time, and it’s perfectly acceptable to ask for help. It’s also important to take time to reflect on and have conversations about what makes you happy and keeps you motivated. 

I try to motivate people by creating a safe space for all of my team members, particularly women. 

 

For women specifically, it’s important to take ownership of your path, start leading and encourage others by sharing your experiences.”

 

What advice do you have for the next generation of women in tech?

Unfortunately, there is a low number of women in STEM. Everything in society — from teachers in schools to the ads we see and the books we read — influences how we perceive the world, who we are and what we can be. It’s not just about being motivated but pursuing your dreams and being unafraid, even if it feels like “that’s not a job for me.” A major motivation for me is to show others that it’s possible by creating a world filled with different opportunities for our kids.

For women specifically, it’s important to take ownership of your path, start leading and encourage others by sharing your experiences. Don't hesitate. It's better to do something than not do it and think about it for the rest of your life. It’s important not to give up. 

 

 

Hart Shuford
Consulting Director • Analytics8

Analytics8 is a data and analytics consulting firm. 

 

What’s the most important lesson that you learned as you grew your career? 

The most important lesson that I’ve learned is to keep an open mind and stay true to my sense of curiosity and desire to learn. 

My career path has not been linear but rather a series of twists and turns that have allowed me to build my knowledge and skills in creative ways. My undergraduate studies were in humanities, my professional background is in epidemiology and I’ve worked in nonprofit, academic, public and private sectors. I gained experience through all of it and built my tech and consultative skills along the way. 

If you had asked me in college where I’d be by this point, there’s no way that I would have guessed I’d be a consulting director at a data and analytics consulting firm. I am so glad to find myself where I am today and look forward to surprising new challenges that may come along.

 

How do you stay motivated as a leader, and how do you try to inspire other women at Analytics8?

It is easy for me to stay inspired as a leader because I work with such talented, capable and kind individuals. Each of my team members is unique in their background, skills, interests and aspirations. While I found my work rewarding as a technical individual contributor, I find it far more rewarding to support teams and individuals in their success. 

I am lucky to work for a company that believes in the power of continuous learning and professional development as much as I do. I try to motivate and inspire women at my company by providing encouragement and empowering them to be bold and true to themselves.

 

I try to motivate and inspire women at my company by providing encouragement and empowering them to be bold and true to themselves.”

 

What advice do you have for the next generation of women in tech?

First, trust yourself and surround yourself with people you trust. Early in my career, one of my mentors described building your own “board of directors,” or people you know you can count on to support you as you think through the next best steps. This advice has been so helpful over the years. 

Second, take positive risks to grow and learn, even if it's initially nerve-wracking. Feeling anxious is normal and can indicate that you care about the work and outcome, but it's usually worth taking the risk. Third, soft skills are just as important as technical skills. While technical skills are essential, providing a positive experience for clients builds lasting partnerships. It's not only what you deliver but how you deliver it that makes people remember. 

Fourth, value is not extracted from you; it’s something that you bring to the table. Take control of your career and don't fall into a passive mindset. Remember that you are in the driver’s seat of your career and bring something unique and powerful to the table. It's where you should draw your confidence from. Fifth, be mindful of the legacy of women before you and intentional about shaping your own legacy. Leadership requires integrity. 

 

 

Mona Champaneri
Managing Director, Experience and Product Service Line • Kin + Carta

Kin + Carta is a digital consultant agency for businesses that focuses on speed to value and return on investment.  

 

What’s the most important lesson that you learned as you grew your career?

I’ve learned three major lessons as I grew in my career. The first was the value of knowing what you stand for and what you don't. It's crucial to have a clear understanding of your values and priorities, as this helps guide your decision-making and ensures that you stay true to yourself. If you know your priorities, you begin to trust your gut, as your intuition can often be a powerful tool in making tough decisions. 

Secondly, persistence and consistency pay off more than working hard. Consistently putting in the effort and actively listening and engaging, day after day, is what leads to success in the long run. 

Finally, learn the value of being curious about people and their drivers. Taking an interest in others and understanding what motivates them can help you build stronger relationships, communicate more effectively and ultimately be more successful in your career.

 

How do you stay motivated as a leader, and how do you try to inspire other women at Kin + Carta?

As a leader, staying motivated and inspired is a continuous effort. It doesn’t just happen to you. You need to work to earn it. To maintain my motivation, I remind myself that this journey is finite. It will one day come to an end, and I need to make the most of it while I'm living in it. With this in mind, I try to cherish and be present for every moment with my team, conversation with a client and meeting that I attend.

The driver comes from knowing that learning is a lifelong journey, and I never expect to know it all. In fact, I recently started learning to read music and play the piano at the age of 43, which has been an exciting new challenge. 

As for inspiring other women, I believe it's essential to get comfortable with listening to your own voice and opinions. Women in leadership often put everyone else first and diminish the value of their own perspectives, but their opinions matter. They can make a real difference in the work and solutions we create. I try to lead by example, encouraging other women to trust their instincts and speak up with confidence.

 

I try to lead by example, encouraging other women to trust their instincts and speak up with confidence.”

 

What advice do you have for the next generation of women in tech?

As a woman in tech, my advice to the next generation of women is to believe in yourself and your abilities. There will be obstacles and challenges along the way, maybe even career changes. It's essential to have confidence in who you are and your skills and talents. 

I also encourage women to seek out mentors and build strong relationships with other women in the workspace. Having a support system helps you navigate difficult situations and provides guidance and advice when needed. It's also crucial to stay curious and keep learning, as the tech industry is constantly evolving and there is always something new to discover. 

Lastly, I urge women to be proactive in creating a work-life balance that works for them and not feel guilty for taking time for themselves. Remember, you have the power to make a difference, and the world needs your unique perspectives and talents. Go out there, make your mark and know that you have a community of support and inspiration behind you.

 

 

JC Chupack
VP, Product Marketplace • Provi

Provi offers a platform that connects people in the alcohol industry including bartenders, sommeliers, shop owners, sales representatives, brand managers and more. 

 

What’s the most important lesson that you learned as you grew your career? 

One of the hardest and most important lessons that I have learned in my career is that you are your biggest advocate. You’re the only person who will focus and dedicate wholly on you, your development, direction and ambitions. You are the major champion of your own growth! 

As women, we’re told to champion other women and our team, be 100 percent supportive and empathetic, and achieve high outputs. As a high-growth leader, I also needed to preserve time and space to focus on myself. Finding a balance between celebrating the “I” and “we” is important. 

In my career, one of the best lessons came from a senior vice president when I was a mid-level product leader. I would describe products, features and launches. In that description, I would always focus on the “we,” spotlighting the team and the group delivery rather than my successes and individual contributions. My leader taught me to advocate for myself and when to celebrate the team’s wins versus when to shine a light on my individual accomplishments.

A lot of this stems from confidence, being proud of your skills and what you bring to the table. Women should remember: You are more successful than you think!

 

How do you stay motivated as a leader, and how do you try to inspire other women at Provi?

In order to maintain equilibrium in the tech world, I focus on calendar management and always set time aside to think and reset. I’m strategic with my time and create blocks in my calendar to execute deliverables and maximize transition times for mental clarity. Giving myself a break between meetings and work has enabled me to be clear-headed and a great leader. 

In a work-from-home environment, it is as simple as getting a glass of water, brewing a cup of tea, walking or stepping outside of the house for fresh air and vitamin D. Those brief transition periods are enough to keep me locked in to tackle the next task required of me amid a day of mounting responsibilities. 

To ensure these transitions are prioritized, I keep meetings short and actionable, set aside blocks focused on work and simply say “no” when I get booked back to back. 

As you grow as a leader, more of your work will require focus, time, strategy and energy. My advice for other women is to consistently practice resetting yourself and time management so you can focus on your goals. Balance mental, emotional and physical breaks for your health and well-being.

 

My advice for other women is to consistently practice resetting yourself and time management so you can focus on your goals.”

 

What advice do you have for the next generation of women in tech?

This next generation of women is so much more connected and supported than my generation was. If harnessed appropriately, that connectedness holds great power. 

My advice is to use this connection to support each other and build each other up. As a woman, building and supporting other women — both cis and trans — is incredibly important. You have to be there for our sisters; build a community to support each other. Be thoughtful of the challenges other women are going through in governments and industries where they are not as supported. 

The next generation is poised to continue crushing barriers and improving the experience for women to grow and develop professionally. Together, we can help more women step into that director role, then VP, SVP and eventually C-suite. We can break societal pressures, build up each other's confidence and see more emerging women entrepreneurs and founders. 

 

 

Foxtrot office
Foxtrot

 

Nora Boneham
Product Director • Foxtrot

Foxtrot operates neighborhood cafes and convenience stores that offer everything from local beers and fine wines to chef-prepared meals and everyday essentials.

 

What’s the most important lesson that you learned as you grew your career? 

Recognize when you’re in the wrong job and have the courage to make a change. After graduating from college, I went the corporate route in an investment role. I felt like I wasn’t using my full skill set and, therefore, I wasn’t reaching my potential. I went back to graduate school to pivot my career. 

After that, I landed in the right role, a tech product manager, but it was at the wrong company for me. When I joined Foxtrot, everything clicked. Before, I didn’t believe people when they said they loved their jobs, but I’m that person now.

Despite the windy path, I’m so grateful for learning what I didn’t want to do and having the guts to keep looking because it ultimately got me to the role that I’m so happy in today.

 

How do you stay motivated as a leader, and how do you try to inspire other women at Foxtrot?

Talk about what’s going on in your life outside of work, especially if you’re not on your “A game” because of it. When other leaders openly talk about the stress of their sick child or take time off because of a news event, these moments make our relationship stronger. I want to work harder for people who recognize that I am more than my job and support flexibility when needed.  

Similarly, it’s fun to celebrate the successes, such as engagements, babies and graduations. I try my best to lead by example when it comes to this and, sometimes, that means sharing a few (maybe too many) photos of my kids.

 

Always give credit where credit is due. It goes a long way in keeping the team motivated and engaged when you properly recognize individuals for their hard work.”

 

What advice do you have for the next generation of women in tech?

You rarely achieve success on your own. Always give credit where credit is due. It goes a long way in keeping the team motivated and engaged when you properly recognize individuals for their hard work. After all, they deserve it!

 

 

Lindsey Thrift
Head of Product • Focused Labs

Focused Labs develops business-focused software and digital products.  

 

What’s the most important lesson you learned as you grew your career? 

Early in my career, I was taking on a new industry with gusto and wanted to excel as quickly as possible. I asked my coach for suggestions on where to learn more about the details of this industry. He lightheartedly said, "You should invest in new hobbies and learning outside of work." 

He went on to unpack that over-indexing in a single area limits our creative ability to see problems and opportunities from new perspectives. Rather than spending my personal time doubling down, I'd likely find more success renewing my mind's eye through unique and different ways of looking at challenges. I went on to do things that scared me, like learning to rock climb which taught me to trust my gear and focus on the next move. 

This has served me in understanding the foundations of my practice and how to take my time moving through challenges one step at a time. There have been numerous lessons beyond this that crossed the bounds of hobbies and non-work interests into my professional successes.

 

How do you stay motivated as a leader, and how do you try to inspire other women at Focused Labs?

I surround myself with people who raise the bar. The people in the circles where I spend my time outside of work inspire me. They put in the work to make themselves better, don't settle for being the victim of circumstance and aspire to leave the spaces they occupy better than they found them.

Leadership and growth are challenging. When you see challenges as opportunities, you can muster the courage and strength to keep going. Keeping company with others who share that approach to life and work keeps me going. 

I try to hold myself to these same expectations when it comes to inspiring others. Striving to be both a force for good that is inspiring and an approachable human who acts vulnerably and authentically is my MO. It is always my hope and aspiration that other women in my company are inspired by my success and have a profound sense of support to turn their own challenges into opportunities.

 

There's no need to become someone you are not to succeed ... The tech world needs what you have to offer.”

 

What advice do you have for the next generation of women in tech?

Own your impact, potential and contributions, holistically and openly. If you have confidence in your individuality, you can fill the gaps that teams and organizations have and help them achieve their greatest collective potential. 

In the past, there were plenty of messages about how “to succeed like a man” — and those days are gone. There's no need to become someone you are not to succeed. Surround yourself with allies, get a coach or mentor who is strengths based and take your journey one step at a time in the way that is most authentic to yourself. The tech world needs what you have to offer.

 

Responses have been edited for length and clarity. Images via listed companies and Shutterstock.

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