Meet the Women Inspiring Chicago Tech Professionals to Hit New Heights

Chicago’s women in tech look to these professionals for career inspiration.

Written by Michael Hines
Published on Mar. 07, 2022
Meet the Women Inspiring Chicago Tech Professionals to Hit New Heights
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Where do women in tech go for professional inspiration? Some look to trailblazers who are well-known for being one of the first or few women to shatter a specific pane in the glass ceiling. For Julie Myerholtz, chief information security officer (CISO) at Grainger, that person is Dawn Cappelli, a cybersecurity expert and groundbreaking CISO. For Sara George, a PMO manager at Cisco Meraki, Madeleine Albright helped her forge her path.

That said, professional inspiration doesn’t have to originate from the highest rungs of the career ladder, though. For many, it’s actually closer to home. Toacca Rutherford, a product owner at JPMorgan Chase, has been consistently inspired by her mother, who in addition to raising her and her brother, earned a PhD and built a career as a school psychologist.

Women in tech have no shortage of professional role models. And in celebration of International Women’s Day, we’re highlighting a few of them here. Continue reading to learn more about the women behind the women who are shaping the future of Chicago tech.

 

Julie Myerholtz
Chief Information Security Officer • Grainger

 

Building a career in a niche section of the male-dominated tech industry can be daunting without a professional influence to look to. While women leaders in cybersecurity have consistently been in short supply, Julie Myerholtz, chief information security officer at Grainger, found her career inspiration in a trailblazing CISO who got her start developing software for nuclear power plants in 1980 and has worked in cybersecurity since 1988.  

 

Looking back on your career so far, is there a woman who has consistently inspired you? 

Dawn Cappelli, the CISO at Rockwell Automation. She’s well known in the cybersecurity industry and is an inspiration to many. Dawn was viewed as an industry leader at a time when women were not part of information security. At Rockwell Automation, she implemented a best-in-class security program in a very high-risk area that deals with a lot of operational technologies. 

Dawn was known for coaching and providing guidance to other CISOs while establishing herself and holding her own as a senior female leader. Many women in cybersecurity looked to her to learn how she did it. As I think about my role at Grainger, I’m inspired by the opportunity to help other women pursue exciting, career-defining work and give them mentoring and guidance that helps them grow into strong leaders.

 

How have you incorporated the lessons and achievements from Cappelli’s life and career into your own?

Dawn came up in her career during a time when she was often the only woman at the table. Luckily, Grainger is one of the most diverse and supportive companies I’ve ever worked for, and I am proud to be one of the many women in leadership. We are building next-generation tech that connects millions of essential businesses to products they need to keep their operations running. We value a culture where everyone can bring their passion and expertise and grow their careers. 

As a leader, I feel strongly about sharing what I have learned and helping women speak up and advocate for themselves in a productive way while still being their authentic selves. I believe that women need to learn to be comfortable being uncomfortable and just keep going.

 

 

Francesca Silva
Product Strategy Principal • Kin + Carta

 

Every time Francesca Silva has faced a major moment in her career, she’s used the values instilled in her by her mother to meet the moment. Silva, product strategy principal at Kin + Carta, spoke about how those values — empathy, kindness and a strong sense of self-worth — have shaped her career.

 

Looking back on your career so far, is there a woman who has consistently inspired you? 

I’ve been most inspired by my mom, which has been the case since before I could even put the ways she was inspiring me into words. From a young age, she instilled in me the values of empathy, kindness and resilience. More importantly, though, she instilled in me the unique value of being myself. As she managed her professional and personal lives, she always led with empathy. She asked questions to better understand, responded with kindness, had a steadfast resilience and always held hope and found a way forward. 

She was a nurse working in a hospital long before I came into the picture, and I can only imagine her giving that same level of care to her patients. She also worked in pharmaceutical sales and was a leader among her peers and in her industry for the same aforementioned qualities, always courageous in her own self worth. It is these same qualities that I have carried with me my entire career and seek to share with others.

The values my mom instilled in me have been instrumental in my own development and career.”

 

How have you incorporated the lessons and achievements from your mom’s life and career into your own?

The values my mom instilled in me have been instrumental in my own development and career. They haven’t acted as a catalyst so much as they’ve been a steadying force at each and every step I’ve taken. Whether it’s a new client, project, role or even a new job, I am always grounded and centered by leading with empathy, treating others with kindness and knowing my own self-worth. We all contribute unique value to our friends, families and teams, and the ability to recognize that in both yourself and in others is a powerful tool to drive greater collaboration and establish more common ground. 

Navigating new challenges can be intimidating and can rattle your sense of self. Being able to come back to the things that I know I can control — no matter the circumstances — has helped propel me in moments of uncertainty. I would not have developed into the person or teammate that I am today without my mom’s influence and inspiration.

 

 

Toacca Rutherford
Product Owner, Chase • JPMorgan Chase

 

Toacca Rutherford was inspired to break into tech by a psychologist, her mother, who grew up in the segregated South and overcame all obstacles to earn her PhD. Rutherford, a product owner at JPMorgan Chase, spoke about how her mother’s drive to give back professionally has inspired her to donate her time to professional societies and as a mentor.

 

Looking back on your career so far, is there a woman who has consistently inspired you? 

The woman who inspires me the most is my mom, Dr. Carolyn Bailey. She grew up in the South during segregation, graduated from high school and a Historically Black College and University , and completed advanced degrees at public universities. She was the first in her family to earn a PhD! The courage and bravery to pursue a field that she didn’t know much about — or have examples of in her community — is profound for me.

As a school psychologist, she advocated for children in public school systems for more than 30 years, and her work ethic showed me how to be a working mom. I saw her personal sacrifices and how she always strived for excellence. The expertise she gained over the years was not only through her career but also in her personal life. 

My brother was diagnosed with autism over 40 years ago, and my parents immersed themselves in learning to raise a child with special needs. They supported him as he made his way through high school, after graduation as he built his career, and advocate for him into adulthood. My mother continues to impart her wisdom to me every day.

 

How have you incorporated the lessons and achievements from Dr. Bailey’s life and career into your own?

My mother created her own path and didn’t have, proximate to her, professional role models until she was well into her career. As her career progressed, she created or was active in communities that allowed her to nurture relationships, sharpen her skills and give back.

When I decided to pursue engineering and a career in tech, my mom encouraged me every step of the way. I also forged my own path and have created, sponsored and am active in communities that allow me to build relationships, invest in my skills, extend my network and give back. I have collaborated and partnered with organizations like the National Society of Black Engineers, Information Technology Senior Management Forum, Per Scholas and Diverse by Design to increase the representation and advancement of underrepresented groups in STEM.

My mother’s lessons and achievements through advocacy have also helped me be more resilient through career challenges and to advocate for myself and others through mentoring. Certainly, the lessons on being a working mom, having a strong work ethic and the pursuit of excellence that she instilled and modeled have been vital to my success.

 

 

Sara George
PMO Manager • Cisco Meraki

 

Sara George is not a politician. She is a PMO manager at Cisco Meraki. But George’s career inspiration comes from Madeleine Albright, a trailblazing figure in United States politics. George met with Albright during college, and she said this encounter shaped how she approaches her work to this day.

 

Looking back on your career so far, is there a woman who has consistently inspired you? 

I have always been inspired by Madeleine Albright, best known as the first female Secretary of State. Dr. Albright is also a professor, businesswoman and seven-time New York Times bestselling author. Dr. Albright’s incredible accomplishments in male-dominated fields, not to mention as an immigrant in an adopted land, show me the possibilities of what I can achieve. Her story gives me the courage to persevere in the face of new challenges no matter how foreign my environment might feel to me. 

 

How have you incorporated the lessons and achievements from Albright’s life and career into your own?

I admire Dr. Albright’s tenacity and her example of what it means to dare to take up space in a world where it’s easier to move aside, especially as a woman. I was privileged to meet her during graduate school and was challenged when she asked my opinion on a current political topic. I gave what I believed was a diplomatic response, stating that I could see many sides to the issue but was quickly admonished with a recommendation to make up my mind and hold an opinion. While the feedback initially felt like a rebuke, it was invaluable in demonstrating two things to me. 

First, diplomacy does not mean riding the waves of others’ whims but working with others to advance a real stance. Second, I am allowed and in fact need to take up space in holding and asserting my own views. While I had always strongly believed in the idea of women’s empowerment, I realized in that brief conversation with Dr. Albright that I wasn’t living it for myself. Now when I step into a room, I am intentional about coming with a perspective and ready for it to be shifted with new information but unafraid to bring it to the conversation.

 

 

Angie Ruan
VP of Technology • Chime

 

Adena Friedman is the CEO of Nasdaq and the first woman ever to head a global stock exchange. That’s not what makes her Angie Ruan’s career inspiration, though. Ruan, the VP of technology at Chime, worked with Friedman at Nasdaq and said it’s her empathy that inspires her and has made the biggest impact on her career. 

 

Looking back on your career so far, is there a woman who has consistently inspired you? 

Sheryl Sandberg made the biggest impact on me earlier in my career. She broke through the glass ceiling and built an outstanding career as a woman, mother and prominent leader in a transformative technology field. She has also been courageous, perseverant and outspoken in devoting so much of her time to impacting and influencing the world of women. My latest inspiration is Adena Friedman, CEO of Nasdaq, who I worked closely with as a senior executive. Along with being an incredible business leader, she is transforming the world of corporate governance by successfully convincing regulators to encourage more women to be on public boards. 

One of Adena’s most-impressive leadership qualities is empathy. I will forever remember the moments when Adena would say in public, “What do you think about this, Angie?” or, “I appreciate Angie’s leadership approach.” Her impact is unparalleled.

One of Adena’s most-impressive leadership qualities is empathy.”

 

How have you incorporated the lessons and achievements from Friedman’s life and career into your own?

“What do you think?” is one of the most powerful phrases that I have incorporated into my life. It allows me to listen to and value others and give them a huge boost to their confidence. The impact of asking this question habitually is tremendous. More often, people share with me that they have never felt so motivated and driven in their last few months under my leadership than ever before. As a leader, I am proud to be able to help people reach their highest potential.

 

 

Kim Kross
COO • Elevate K-12

 

ClassPass is one of the most recognizable names in tech, but there was a time when the company was a fledgling startup. Kim Cross, COO of Elevate K-12, said that ClassPass CEO and founder Payal Kadakia is a source of inspiration because of the work she put in to build her business. 

 

Looking back on your career so far, is there a woman who has consistently inspired you?

I would highlight Payal Kadakia, the CEO and founder of ClassPass. Her efforts to combine her passion with technology really inspires me. Her ability to take a real-life problem and intertwine it with a technological solution gives us all inspiration that daily challenges can be overcome with the power of a good idea and a good team.

 

How have you incorporated the lessons and achievements from Kadakia’s life and career into your own?

Absolutely. First and foremost, what I love about Kadakia’s story is her tenacity to try and try again to get it right. Her journey started in 2011 and evolved into the reality it is today, which happens through systemic reflection and continuous improvement. This is a quality that my team and I weave into our everyday to ensure we are continually improving the customer experience, our processes and product delivery. A great idea without evolution will be missing its product-market fit. 

 

 

Liz Francis
HR Operations Manager • M1

 

Career inspiration for Liz Francis comes from her close friend and daughters’ caretaker. The HR operations manager at M1 Finance said Paola has enabled both her career success and provided support during her early days of motherhood. But her own ambitions stand out even more. 

 

Looking back on your career so far, is there a woman who has consistently inspired you? 

To those who know me, it will be no surprise that the woman who most inspires me is my friend, sister by choice and my daughters’ caretaker, Paola. She immigrated from Guatemala when she was a child and the challenges and trauma she faced could have buried her. But she was a seed, growing where she was planted. She carries the weight of the world on her shoulders and holds up the spinning plates of all of her family’s expectations. 

Her dream is to become an electrical engineer, but every time she goes back to school there have been immense obstacles, from the loss of her mother to in-person learning not being an option due to Covid-19. But still she persists. She is a rock for her friends and family.

When I succeed, it’s because of her support.”

 

How have you incorporated the lessons and achievements from Paola’s life and career into your own?

My professional success would never have been possible without Paola. I have the greatest gift in the world. While I scoot off to work, I never worry about my twin daughters at home. When my daughters were babies, I had the hardest time trying to pick their little wiggly bodies up at the same time. Paola showed me her technique and it was like a lightbulb went off in my head. A few years ago I won an award at work for high performance, and my first thought was, “I would not be standing here without Paola.” When I succeed it’s because of her support.

We’ve talked a fair amount about us being her last family, but the unspoken story is that she will always be our family. There are times when I doubt pursuing my own leadership dreams, but I remember that this isn’t just for me. It’s for my daughters and for Paola. And when she’s ready to make the next step in her career as an electrical engineer or otherwise, wherever she lands will never know how lucky they are.

 

 

Lauren Kugler

 

Lauren Kugler learned a lot as a child by visiting her mom at work, and by locking herself in her home office and playing “work.” Mastery Logistics’ VP of product said she didn’t fully understand it at the time, but her mom was teaching her to focus on what makes her happy and to be fully engaged, both at the office and at home.

 

Looking back on your career so far, is there a woman who has consistently inspired you? 

It was and still is my mom who inspires me to always want more, achieve more and find a way to do it all. She created and grew a very successful career — which she is still doing to this day — in the leasing/finance industry while raising three children. As young as I can remember, she took me to her office, shared with me what she did and showed me how to be a professional and a mom. 

My favorite childhood game was locking myself in her home office and playing “work.” As I continued to watch her, my dream became bigger than a successful career, though I also wanted to have a family. In the third grade, I even drew a picture of myself with three daughters as part of a “what do you want to be when you grow up” assignment. Baby girl No. 3 is due in June!

My mom inspires me to always want more, achieve more and find a way to do it all.”

 

How have you incorporated the lessons and achievements from your mom’s life and career into your own?

Over the years, I realized that she really taught me that by focusing on what makes you happy and being your best self, your children will do the same. If you work hard and put in the time, good things will come. I’m a better mom because I work. There is also no such thing as balance. You just have to find a way to be present in certain areas of life without feeling guilty about missing out on the other parts. 

I love my job and am absorbed with my work day as soon as I drop my girls in daycare and until I pick them up. When we are home, I’m obsessed with being a mom. Of course, sometimes those two areas cross paths and then all bets are off! Now that I’m sitting in my mom’s shoes, I can only hope to lead by example the way she did for me. 

 

 

Avant office
Avant

 

Jena Acuff
Director, Technical Product Management • Avant

 

Jena Acuff didn’t know it then, but her first job out of college would introduce her to her career inspiration. Acuff, director of technical product management at Avant, spoke about how her mentor of 15 years imparted four leadership best practices that she still follows today.

 

Looking back on your career so far, is there a woman who has consistently inspired you? 

I’ve been very fortunate to have Randi Schochet as my mentor, the head of brand for Zeta Global. Randi has inspired me throughout my career and showed me early on that I could balance having a family and a career. I was lucky enough to find myself on Randi’s team when I joined American Express after graduating college and almost 15 years later we are still very close. We even had the opportunity to work together again at Digital Reasoning — the company I was at prior to joining Avant — where I lead the technical product management team. Randi’s greatest accomplishment is the impact she has had on the people she has coached and mentored.

As a people leader at Avant, I am able to put Randi’s four leadership best practices into action.”

 

How have you incorporated the lessons and achievements from Schochet’s life and career into your own?

What energizes me about my role as a people leader at Avant is that I am able to put Randi’s four leadership best practices into action. The first is “be authentic.” Even after a serious meeting with Randi, you would leave laughing and with a smile. She invests in getting to know the members of her team, which enables a collaborative, transparent and positive work environment. Next is “focus on what matters.” There are only so many hours in the day, so you need to figure out where you can make the biggest impact while creating boundaries that allow you to focus on the right outcomes. Randi is an advocate for her people and always makes sure her team’s work is aligned with impact. 

Then there is “find solutions.” Randi taught me early on to focus on problem-solving, taking a bias for action and being an instigator for change. She leads by example and is not someone who settles for the status quo. Finally we have “put the customer first.” No matter what, you need to put the customer first. She holds all of her teammates and colleagues accountable to the customer.

 

 

Vanessa Jupe
Senior Vice President of Product & Design • Clearcover

 

Professional inspiration can come from both leaders and colleagues, as Vanessa Jupe proves. The SVP of product and design at Clearcover spoke about how a former boss at JetBlue and colleague at H&R Block inspired her and shaped how she approaches both leadership and tough career conversations.

 

Looking back on your career so far, is there a woman who has consistently inspired you? 

In my twenties, I had the good fortune to move to NYC and work for JetBlue. I worked in Andrea Spiegel’s department for a year, who was VP of sales and marketing. I loved her approach to open, connected leadership. Every morning the entire department would fill a conference room and share things that were on their minds around marketing campaigns and competitive insights they’d seen from magazine clippings, billboards and more. When I made the decision to leave the company, she told me she would have tried to retain me if I’d been open with her about looking. Though that was many years ago, I still remember how she made me feel cared for. 

Another woman I admire is a peer I worked closely with at H&R Block, Crystal Anderson. We were paired up on a project and bonded around our passion for emotional intelligence and leadership. She has since moved on to lead product and design at MX. Her work ethic, resilience, ability to see the big picture while caring for the details and vulnerability are all qualities that inspire me.

 

How have you incorporated the lessons and achievements from Spiegel and Anderson’s lives and careers into your own?

Some of what I have done with my own teams has been inspired by Andrea’s connected leadership. I try to connect with my employees one-on-one and understand what inspires them. I listen to their concerns and remove barriers to ensure their success. I also love the opportunity to bring the entire department together to plan for the future, learn and have fun. 

Crystal has also inspired me to be a more open and vulnerable leader. I don’t have to always have all the answers. I can be open, listen, learn and look for ways to improve.

 

 

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