Midlands Women: Leaving a Lasting Mark on Industries and Communities

The Midlands area-based women who have “blazed trails” in their respective industries haven’t been content in doing so; they have gone on to launch a variety of spin-off ventures, support organizations and networking platforms, among other innovative offerings, to inspire other leaders and professionals, and to elevate the communities they serve and call “home.”

When then-30-year-old Laurie Hellbusch first bought Spirit World, the previous owner said he thought he’d never sell the business to a woman.

“He didn’t think a woman could be successful, because they wouldn’t be strong enough to stand up to the wholesalers,” she said. “I had a different perspective and took the approach of working with our wholesalers, instead of trying to be combative with them.”

With that being said, Hellbusch had to work harder than her male counterparts to be taken seriously.

“I have a manager here who does a lot of our wine and spirits buying,” she said. “When supplier reps come in to pitch their products, they almost always give their attention to him first and disregard me. He kindly points out that I’m the owner and I sign the checks, and then they include me in the discussion. But it typically takes him pointing that out for them to take me seriously.”

Some other things remain the same, as well.

“Most women that have entered the industry have done so on the wholesale side — selling to retailers, bars and restaurants,” she explained. “But very few retail owners were female.

That has changed a little over the years. There are a few other female wine store owners in our area.”

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To Hellbusch’s knowledge, Spirit World is the only 100% female-owner and -operated spirits store in the area.

“It’s a male-dominated industry and, much like other male-dominated fields, women have to prove themselves to be taken seriously,” she said.

Those women who are in the industry have made an imprint.

“I am one of the founding board members of Omaha Whiskey Fest, an event for whiskey lovers to sample and learn about over 300 whiskies from around the world and to promote Omaha as an important whiskey market,” Hellbusch said. “We will have our second event in February with over 1,500 attendees.”

She also started Coalition of Retailers of Nebraska (CORN), an alliance of locally owned, independent spirits retailers.

“The purpose of CORN is to collectively increase the impact of independent stores within our market,” Hellbusch said.

Additionally, Hellbusch founded Women and Whiskey, a group for women enthusiasts or those interested in the industry to connect and grow in their knowledge. Furthermore, numerous Spirit World employees have gone on to grow their careers in the industry.

“I’ve had several former employees come back and say because they started at Spirit World, they gained the knowledge and experience they needed to get a job with a wholesaler, supplier, or elsewhere, and they credit Spirit World for getting them where they needed to be to succeed,” she said.

“I don’t get upset when an employee moves on for something bigger and better. I consider it a success when we have given someone the skills that they need to advance their career.”

Defying categorization

Readers will probably recognize the name “Ashlei Spivey” from any one of her entrepreneurial and leadership roles within the community. In part, Spivey founded I Be Black Girl (IBBG), as a collective for “Black women, femmes and girls to grow, give, connect and take action.” She also launched and owns the successful (and expanding) Best Burger alongside life and business partner, Universal Allah, among a number of other efforts to build just and equitable communities.

“In general, folks try to put you in boxes,” Spivey said. “You have to be ‘in’ a specific industry, but, I’m a builder and an entrepreneur. I like the challenges and have skill sets that I want to invest in and cultivate.”

And that runs the gamut of restauranteur to social entrepreneurship, entrepreneurial consulting, and supporting the well-being of women and girls and of color.

“I’m really able to leverage my talents,” she said.

When asked about challenges, Spivey noted that Black founders have traditionally encountered barriers to capital access. The diversification of capital is lacking, as is access to resources to address the fundamentals, from identifying niches to finding customers, and to create sustainable organizations with minimal risk and debt.

“The thread through my work is ‘economic liberation,’” she said. “What does it mean to have power and choice? In order to do that, I think about the systems in which we operate. And these systems were not built for me. So, let’s build a new system.”

As an example, Spivey has played an instrumental role in creating entrepreneurship ecosystems within I Be Black Girl via its first-of-a-kind accelerator, The Catalyst. By investing in Black women founders, Spivey indicated that inequity is addressed and the “return” on such an investment includes the ability for entrepreneurs to take care of their families and contribute positively to thriving communities.

She looks at entrepreneurship and community-building through the lens of Black liberation and dismantling oppressive systems.

Particularly true to women of color is the challenge of “imposter syndrome.”

“Women don’t bet on themselves as often,” Spivey said. “Imposter syndrome has shown up for me, and I have shifted my mindset.” She also appreciates the value and power of having a “thought partner,” such as an executive coach who can infuse some intentionality and objectivity into one’s professional and personal journey.

Spivey also urges women to give themselves a little grace.

“Especially in the world of social media, people always put the good out there,” she said, referring to the shiny perfection that is the social universe. “But we’re humans … we’re not perfect. We’re messy and complicated. I have to make sure I give myself grace and the opportunity to fail forward, and to learn from that.”

Building a Net(work)

Before Cella Quinn sold her the investment services business that bore her name in 2017, she had around 46 years of experience in the financial space. Through those years, she was the first woman broker at Omaha Merrill Lynch (1972), the first woman in Smith Barney’s Chairman’s Club and the first woman president of the Rotary Club of Omaha (downtown Rotary).

“I was a broker with a major Wall Street firm, and I reached a place where I was maxed out in terms of time available to handle my clients; there was a lack of resources, such as up-to-date computers and software, and inadequate clerical help,” Quinn recalled. “I just felt ‘blocked.’”

Then, she heard celebrated inventor, scientist and social entrepreneur Sir Ray Avery speak about the importance of 30,000 days.

“If you live 30,000 days, you’ll be 82,” Quinn explained. “He was big on running his own doomsday clock, tallying how many days he is likely to have left on earth and forming goals accordingly — and advocating that we do the same.”

Then 52, Quinn was catapulted by Avery’s words to leave the brokerage firm. She started her own investment firm. She could do things “her way.”

“I corralled more resources, specifically with computers and software that fit my practice,” she said. “I hired the assistants I needed and made more money, for my clients and myself.”

Harnessing what is oft-cited to be wisdom from professional motivator, Jim Rohn, Quinn considered the notion of how one is the “average of the five people you spend the most time with.”

“I thought it was bigger than that; I’m the average of all the people who surround me,” she stated.

Networking lends itself to this statement.

“Women need to support each other, women need to help each other,” Quinn said. “We could do more, and we should do more than we do.”

For Quinn’s part, she co-founded Omaha Network 42 years ago as a monthly breakfast group where women entering exec levels could get to know each other.

“That was in 1979 when the female population in executive suites was sparse,” she said.

Since then, the Omaha Network has supported many new friendships, ideas, and resources. And the Good Old Girls Business Network (GOG) for small business owners and Women of TEN launched in 1992 and 2001, respectively.

The “TEN” refers to how they initially met on the 10th of the month.

“It is for Omaha’s female movers and shakers, women in top tiers of running their businesses and corporations,” Quinn said. “When a female executive moves into Omaha, it is hard for her to make friends or network with employees. TEN meets monthly for dinner and has evolved into an instrumental and active peer group.”

Retaining Leadership, Corporate Footholds

The Institute for Career Advancement Needs (ICAN) is always taking a look at both current and future leadership trends that play into the new business and talent landscape, according to President and CEO Susan L. Henricks, and how that affects women in business or how they can take advantage of opportunities — to grow, advance and “lead with intention.”

“What we’re seeing is that companies in Omaha are needing to take a fresh approach to how and where they recruit and retain employees — along with a new approach to where do people have to be located,” she said. “It can be across the board — some in office, some in-home.

“Allowing employees to potentially choose,” Henricks continued, “extends into evolving recruiting practices, how and where to recruit. Some companies are now recruiting outside of the city to access talent that could now work remotely.”

Another “current trend” watched by ICAN is characterized as the “great resignation.”

“People are choosing to leave the workforce or are leaving organizations because they
can now successfully work remotely for others,” she said. “These trends are causing companies to take a much deeper look at hybrid flexibility and scheduling for women and men in business, along with how well-being and overall life experience plays into the employee expectations and culture.”

One-piece answers an important question: “How to ensure women retain a foothold in ‘Corporate America’?”

“For example, will women opt for remote work in greater numbers than men due to home or family interests? If so, will this be a benefit or a pause in advancement of women’s parity in the workforce? Will it lead to pay inequities? A lag in positions? A lack of visibility?” Henricks said. “It will be important for organizations to create presence and opportunity for all team members and how to measure work and success by results, versus hours in an office.”

Henricks urges employers to be “mindful” of giving high-achieving remote workers the visibility that they need for advancement and development.

“This will be especially true for women if they choose to work remotely,” she asserted.

When asked about ICAN’s role in these important conversations, Henricks highlighted its signature annual ICAN Women’s Leadership Conference. An opportunity for women to focus on their careers, learn new skills, pick up new ideas, and inspiring trends to maximize their potential and success, she said the conference typically welcomes more than 3,000 attendees (both women and men).

The next “hybrid” conference will be May 18, with theme, speaker, and registration details to launch in January.

“In addition to the ICAN Women’s Leadership Conference, ICAN also holds a series of leader development programs for the individual, team, and organizational level,” Henricks said. “Our four-month Defining Leadership program, kicking off again in February, is a great program and resource to develop and invest in a women leader to rise and advance in the workplace and in life.”

Customized leadership development programs, Henricks added, can be built and tailored to organizations’ unique needs and talent goals.