7 Inspirational Women Who Are Making A Difference
The founder of The Foundation for Black Women’s Wellness recounts the very personal journey that inspired her to change the discourse around Black women’s health.
“I grew up in a tight-knit, rural community in Virginia. My mother owned a hair salon called The Beauty Hut, where I was her shampoo girl from age 11 until I left for college. The salon was a haven. You walked in and felt engulfed in love. It was women telling their deepest secrets, their joys, their tragedies. Pedigree didn’t matter; these were maids, teachers, professors, factory workers. But when they came in, they were just women healing women.
“The Beauty Hut is where I first observed patterns that influenced my choice to become an advocate. I saw beautiful women lose their lives prematurely from chronic disease. As I learned the language of social inequality, I began to name what I was witnessing. But no one else around me was using those terms.
“I was like, ‘Wait a minute. She was 37. Why would God call her home when she’s got three children she hasn’t finished raising?’ That was a heart attack. It was preventable.
“And then my own mother died at 64. Her death was shocking. Destabilizing. After we buried her, I made a list, starting with my mom’s name. Then all these others came to me: Eva, Hazel, Paulette. When I got to about 40, I dropped the pen. This is wrong. These women were not supposed to go this way, this soon. My spirit told me: You have to act.
“Look up any chronic disease—cancer, heart attacks, diabetes—and Black women are disproportionately impacted. But Wisconsin is the rare state where the life expectancy gap between Black and white women is widening. That should disturb everyone.
“In 2009, I launched Black Women’s Wellness Day. Forty women showed up. It was so emotional, telling our stories and talking about how to turn this narrative around. We started by mobilizing Black women on the ground; building awareness about chronic illness; and promoting health, education and prevention. Then we created opportunities for women to practice those habits—fitness classes, learning workshops and walking collectives.
“The Foundation spends a lot of time training women as wellness advocates and leaders. We see ourselves as a movement—an engine powered by Black women who are self-healing while becoming conduits of healing for other women in their families and neighborhoods. It’s like The Beauty Hut on steroids: a beautiful, warm, inviting community. Twenty years from now, I want to look back and say, ‘Look at what we achieved when we supported Black women. Now Wisconsin is the best place in America for Black women’s health.’ That’s what we’re trying to achieve.”
When her resale clothing boutique, Rung, closed in 2017, owner Ali Hogan didn’t pen a eulogy; she wrote a new chapter. For nearly a decade, the secondhand shop had helped St. Louis women dress for the job they wanted, not the job they had. But over time, Hogan began to realize clothing alone couldn’t move women up the ladder; they needed career coaching, financial services and community support.
That’s when she decided to relaunch Rung as a charitable organization and bring on president Leslie Gill, a born-and-bred Missourian and veteran of the Girl Scouts of Greater Atlanta and St. Louis’ Annie Malone Children and Family Services. In the three years since Gill took over, Rung for Women has expanded from one to 16 employees and set up digs in a freshly renovated $20 million campus. This spring, they’ll welcome their first “cohort members,” a class of women committed to improving their financial stability, with a goal of serving 400 women per year. Here, Gill explains what lies ahead.
Q What drew you to Rung 2.0?
A I started on this journey to build a world-class organization that would help women achieve holistic self-sufficiency. One of our major tenets is helping more women make more money. And this was the first organization I’d come across that invested in the working poor. Most resources are available to people in crisis, because first you need to stop the bleeding. But Rung is designed to work with people who are just one medical bill, one car payment or one job loss away from being in poverty. Think of all the women—the hospitality workers, early childcare workers—who make too much to qualify for government assistance but not enough to get ahead. Then imagine the ripple effect if you invested in them.
Q How does Rung help women stuck in that limbo?
A We offer direct access and training to middle-skilled job opportunities. These are careers that don’t require a bachelor’s degree but pay a family-sustaining wage. We talk to HR reps from employers we know are hiring and find out what they need, then we match those needs with skills curated at Rung.
Q So part of that is introducing women to career fields they maybe hadn’t considered?
A A lot of our work is about exposure. Plumbers make as much as physicians these days. Or think about all those Amazon trucks on the road, especially in a pandemic. You can make up to a six-figure salary as a diesel tech after a six- to nine-month training program. These are jobs women don’t ordinarily think of, but if you’re looking to alter the financial course of your life and you’re willing to put in the sweat equity, it’s life-changing—not just for you but the generation after.
Q What other services does Rung offer?
A As every woman knows, when one area of life is out of whack, everything is out of whack. So we’ll provide daily grab-and-go meals for members and their children. We have a gym on-site, where you can get in a workout. There’s a therapist and an on-site medical center where you can get mammograms, Pap smears and physicals, all under one roof. We have garden beds and fruit orchards for members who want to grow their own food. And every woman is matched to a life coach who helps her come up with an action plan. Where does she want to be in five years, and what’s the path to get there?
Q What is your vision for 2021?
A 2020 was a rough year for everyone, so 2021 needs to be a year of joy and happiness. I hope our community creates both. It’s also the start of a new decade. This is the do-over we all desperately need.
Like many guests on Elizabeth Emery's podcast, Hear Her Sports, the former pro cyclist once had a hard time calling herself an athlete. It took winning a national title to admit she was good.
“When I was growing up, ice-skating and gymnastics were popular, and I certainly didn’t look like that,” says Emery, who began cycling competitively in her 20s. “I felt great, I felt strong, but I didn’t fit the mold.” Back then, she couldn’t have fathomed celebrities such as Venus Williams and Lindsey Vonn. It wasn’t that amazing female athletes didn’t exist; they just weren’t visible.
“Forty percent of athletes are women, but only 4 percent of the media coverage is about them,” Emery says. “When I heard that, I was like, ‘Somebody should start a radio station about women’s sports!’ Then I realized, ‘OK, that’s gonna be me.’”
Emery spent a year researching podcast production and listening to men’s sports talk radio shows before launching in 2016. Her first guest was friend and accomplished marathoner Ruth Coffey. The scores of guests since have included fencers, golfers, speed skaters, rugby players, para-cyclists, mountain bikers, rock climbers, coaches and sports nutritionists. Diversity is key. “There are so many sports available to all different body types and interests,” Emery says. “I cover a range of ability levels so it doesn’t seem like the only way to do sports is going for the Olympics.”
She hopes her podcast encourages women to be adventurous and try new things, even if they’re not sports fans. To that end, she often asks guests about their bumpy starts. “When you see somebody at the top of their game, it’s easy to forget how much work they put into it,” Emery says. “They probably stunk when they first started!”
Emery has recorded more than 90 episodes to date. “Women athletes are really interested in sharing their story,” she says, noting how a podcast’s conversational format gives them “adequate space to express themselves and talk about what’s important to them.” In practice, that could mean anything from trail-running tips to the gender pay gap. Since the start of the pandemic, Emery has also asked her guests why sports matter now and how they practice self-care.
“It’s so important to hear from smart, active, adventurous women,” says Emery. “The women I talk to are doing incredible things, yet they’re just normal people. They’re exceptional because they found a niche and they’re putting in the work.” Strikingly, she observes, 99 percent of her guests also “had that one person who said, ‘You can do it.’” If Emery can pass that same shot of confidence along to listeners, she’s done her job.
DEARBORN GIRL Yasmeen Kadouh and Rima Fadlallah give voice to the Muslim and Arab women of Dearborn, Michigan.
THE GOAL DIGGER Minnesotan social media maven Jenna Kutcher explores how to be a profitable, sustainable and joy-filled entrepreneur.
THE HISTORY CHICKS From Kansas City, Missouri, Susan Vollenweider and Beckett Graham shed light on the side of history too often left out.
FRIENDS LIKE US In Chicago, Marina Franklin hosts chats on varied topics from diverse perspectives—but always with women of color.
The creator of She Rock She Rock, a nonprofit devoted to “empowering girls, women, trans and nonbinary folks through the art of music,” reflects on how she found salvation through rock and roll— and why she thinks other women can too.
“I grew up listening to a lot of church music. When I was about 15, I got into hard rock and heavy metal. But there were no female guitar teachers to take lessons from; it was all dudes. In high school, I got a job at a music store. The owner played guitar, accordion, trombone—a jack of all trades, master of none. Bob taught me everything, from instruments to music theory.
“Eventually I got the idea to start an all-female band. I put an ad in City Pages, and that’s how I met the drummer I played with for the next four years. My mom drove me to Anna’s house in Eden Prairie. We both had big hair, liked Metallica and Pantera, and wanted to be rock stars. The dream was to go on tour with Rush and Primus, but we didn’t have resources or mentors.
“That’s when I found the band L7. They were a four-piece hard rock band of women who wrote awesome songs and didn’t care what they looked like; they just had that punk attitude. When they played a 21-and-up show at First Avenue, the lead guitarist snuck me into the concert. It was life-changing.
“When I was 19, I studied bass guitar at McNally Smith College of Music. Once again, there were no female bass, guitar or drum teachers. I was so mad. Where were all the women?! I knew three in the metal scene who were shredders, yet there were thousands of men. It motivated me to fill the gap.
“I became music director at School of Rock, a nationwide chain, in St. Paul. One of my electric guitar students, Sam, was 13 and trying to form an all-girl band. I really wanted her to meet other bandmates. That propelled me to start the Girls Rock camp, which grew into She Rock She Rock. Sam was the first person to sign up and eventually became my co-executive director.
“We started about 80 to 90 percent music-oriented, with workshops on self-defense and eating disorders. But over the years, it evolved into 60 percent music, 40 percent social justice. We do a lot of work with LGBTQ, and we’ve introduced sliding-scale tuition and a We See You Scholarship, so any youth with marginalized identities can come to camp for free.
“I’m also really passionate about our adult programming. So many women who come to She Rock say things like, ‘My brother played electric guitar in a band, but my parents made me play the flute’ or ‘I wasn't allowed to play drums because girls wore skirts and couldn’t spread their legs in public. I’m 60 now, and I’ve wanted to do this all my life.’ That’s heartbreaking.
“At both the women’s and girls’ Rock n Roll Retreats, campers are put into bands. These may be people who’ve never touched an instrument before—but a couple of days later, they’ve written an original song and they’re on stage playing to 150 people. We’re showing them they can take risks and don’t need to apologize for making mistakes.”
After graduating with a media degree in 2009, aka “the worst possible time to try to find a job in journalism,” Blair Brettschneider joined AmeriCorps and landed at a refugee resettlement agency in Chicago. As a tutor, she met Domi, a Burundian teen born in Congo and raised in a refugee camp in Tanzania. At 18, Domi had a third-grade education and struggled to learn English. She also cooked and cared for her siblings. Domi’s story wasn’t unique. Many girls stopped attending the agency’s after-school programs in eighth or ninth grade. Some parents worried about their daughters’ safety commuting after dark. Other girls needed to work or do chores.
Brettschneider saw a need for a girls-only program offering more than tutoring. She and a coworker kicked off with 10 girls from 10 countries gathering socially on Fridays. They practiced English, played games, took photography lessons, baked pizzas and learned about reproductive health.
The energy was magical. “I just knew this had to be something more than 10 of us in a moldy basement,” Brettschneider says. “There was something powerful there.” With a nonprofits-for-beginners book from the library and $2,000 from her grandparents, GirlForward was born.
A decade later, the organization spans summer camps and after-school programs, plus a satellite branch in Texas. It welcomes girls who are undocumented or seeking asylum, as well as referrals from traditional resettlement agencies, and imbues them with self-assurance they carry for life. Take Razia, an Afghan refugee who had never been to school before her family arrived in the U.S. After Razia attended GirlForward’s summer camp, her teacher described a child transformed, walking taller and with more confidence. “This program is incredible,” she told Brettschneider. “It’s really making an impact.”
And so it might be a surprise to learn that Brettschneider passed the leadership baton and left GirlForward in 2019. Now she’s helping to develop ad strategies for progressive campaigns and organizations. “If we don’t address the systemic challenges, nonprofits like GirlForward can only do good for a limited number of people,” she says. “Now I want to be part of solving the root issues.”
When Alyza Bohbot’s parents founded Alakef Coffee Roasters in 1990, it was one of the Upper Midwest’s first specialty roasters. Her father, who’d immigrated to the U.S. from Morocco after meeting and marrying her American mother in Israel, was the “coffee connoisseur” in the family, Bohbot says. She explains that the robust European-style cup he preferred “just didn’t exist in northern Minnesota in the 1980s.”
Though Bohbot had fond memories of helping her dad smooth labels onto Alakef’s coffee bags, she never imagined taking over the business. That changed about five years ago, when her parents announced that they were planning to sell the roastery. Bohbot saw the opportunity before her. While her parents had built a respected and profitable company, what differentiated their brand early on—like selling organic, fair-trade beans and roasting to order—was now commonplace. Bohbot wanted to carve a new path.
Her aha! moment came at a breakfast for the International Women’s Coffee Alliance in Seattle, where Bohbot heard a story about a couple who owned a coffee farm in Colombia. After the husband died in war, the wife applied for a bank loan to fix a piece of broken farm equipment. She was denied solely because she was a woman. “It was so eye-opening to me,” Bohbot says. “I’d spent my entire life in and around the coffee industry and had no idea this inequity existed.”
The more Bohbot dug into injustices in the trade, the more her mission came into focus. One of the big issues facing female growers is access to childcare. A higher-paid milling position at a coffee farm, for example, might require working late shifts—an impossibility for many mothers. “I realized how significant it is that women have access to a fair marketplace, resources, education and financing,” Bohbot says. “I felt moved to do something.”
Bohbot launched City Girl Coffee in 2015 with the goal of sourcing beans from small, women-owned or managed farms and cooperatives. She also donates a portion of proceeds back to the countries where her coffee comes from— Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Peru, Brazil, Indonesia and beyond. The formula has been a success. Several major national retailers carry City Girl, and a direct-to-consumer coffee subscription includes more premium offerings. As the company continues to scale, responsible and sustainable sourcing remains a top priority. “We work with farms that pay fair wages and create safe environments for their workers,” Bohbot says.
The ripple effect has been immeasurable— impacting not just specific women, but entire communities. “When women have access to finances and education, infant mortality rates go down, the GDP goes up, and the community around them flourishes,” says Bohbot, noting how women tend to invest more in schools, day cares and medical facilities than men do.
“One of the women from a cooperative in Guatemala said it’s because of roasters like us that they’re not just producing coffee, they’re making honey, jewelry and clothing,” Bohbot says, beaming. “She’s not just a mom, or a wife or a daughter—she’s a contributing member of her family and proud to help put food on the table. That’s everything you hope for when you start a company like this.”
You can find City Girl Coffee at Target, Whole Foods and other major chains, or subscribe to have organic beans (and good feels) shipped to your doorstep regularly.
In a college class, Veronika Scott designed a coat for the homeless that could convert into a sleeping bag. That project became a business, Empowerment Plan, which has since distributed more than 43,000 coats. Scott explains how she pulled it off— and created 90 jobs for the formerly homeless in the process.
Q How did your childhood shape Empowerment Plan?
A I grew up in poverty. We had food stamps, but we were constantly moving or being evicted. Empowerment Plan creates opportunities I wish my parents had been given. It also breaks down ideas of what homelessness looks like. Growing up poor, people saw me and my siblings differently, as if we were doomed to repeat my parents. You feel like you’re digging out of a hole, and that’s one of the hardest things to break.
Q So what happened next?
A I presented a basic business plan to my dean at the College for Creative Studies. And he goes, “Great, let’s get you in front of Carhartt.” I grew up in a situation where nobody started businesses; that was for people with money and connections. I didn’t think I was the right person to do the work. But that’s the power of mentorship. Carhartt donated the industrial sewing machines, fabric and $1,600 that got me started. They also helped evolve the coat into the durable product that it is now—water-resistant, with incredible insulation, and a pocket where the sleeping bag folds up when not in use.
Q How did Empowerment Plan become more than a coat?
A I was developing the prototypes with input from residents at a shelter. One day a woman started screaming at me, “I don’t need a coat—I need a job! What you’re doing is pointless.” She was right. The coat was a Band-Aid. The real impact is hiring the people who need the coat in the first place.
Q How do you think about hiring?
A We don’t care about résumés. We want to know what you are going to do with this opportunity. What are your goals and aspirations? We know the powerful generational impact a job like this can have. You can see the drive a mother has to create a better life—not just for herself, but her whole family.
Q Explain your 60-40 model.
A Empowerment Plan is a two-year program. Sixty percent of our seamstresses’ paid time is dedicated to coat production. The other 40 percent goes to support services: meeting with a case manager, getting a GED, going to a domestic violence support group. Homelessness and poverty are not just financial issues. People don’t get into this work because they love sewing. This is about creating security and helping them build confidence so they can pursue other careers. Every person we’ve employed has moved out of the shelter permanently and maintained that stability, even years beyond us.