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First 'Women Leading the Way' panel event held in Huntington


Huntington – The Women’s Impact Network Committee of the Huntington Regional Chamber of Commerce hosted the first “Women Leading the Way” event Thursday at the Guyan Golf and Country Club.

The event consisted of a lunch and panel made up of the 2022-24 West Virginia Chamber of Commerce Board (WVCCB) officers. They include chair Susan Lavenski, vice chair Maribeth Anderson, secretary Kathy Thomas and treasurer Anna Dailey.

“The West Virginia Chamber of Commerce has been around for 85 years and this is the first time ever that all four of the officers of the board of directors have been women, so we wanted to host this panel to honor them and learn from them,” said Tricia Ball, president and CEO of the Huntington Chamber of Commerce.

Ball says the Huntington Chamber would like to make this an annual event. She was also a moderator for the panel and is the second female president of the Chamber in its 130 years of existence.

The panelists shared an overview of their careers, filled with both highlights and lowlights that shaped them, and gave advice for women in the workforce.

“Not only are you very accomplished in your careers, but you also seem to be amazing mothers. You all have children that have gone on to do amazing things, so I love to see that you have excelled both personally and professionally,” Ball said after the panelist’s self-introductions.

Anderson, who is also a yoga instructor at BDY Studios in Huntington, said she believes in having a soft front and strong back, meaning that she is approachable, friendly, nice and polite, but no one can run her down. She said you get a strong back by working hard, preparing yourself and knowing your stuff.

The women shared stories from their careers of times when they persevered against people who didn’t want them to succeed.

Thomas said during her first job in banking at the age of 22 in 1989, her boss carried an issue out over a couple of weeks, “saying something without letting me know what he was saying,” and eventually saying what he meant in a room full of other men.

Thomas said she was “crushed and horrified.”

The next day she said she went to human resources, thinking they would discipline her boss in the way he deserved, but after hearing her complaint, the HR employee said “OK, well good luck.”

Thomas is proud that she left the company and had another job in banking, all in that same week. Her boss told her that she “would never work in banking again.”

“I learned something new in that you always stay true to yourself and do what you think is right, and you’ll come out on top. And I did and I came face to face with him maybe six months after that. And he stared me down and gave me the stink eye and I gave it right back,” she said. “I had to learn that and it was different then; if a man did that now they would be taken out of the building.”

When Anna Dailey went to visit her high school guidance counselor in Tullahoma, Tennessee, she told him that she wanted to attend Vanderbilt University. He responded that she had “no business taking the position of a man” and that her future was getting married, having children and maybe going to community college.

“I went home and I told my parents and my father said ‘You can go anywhere you can get in.’ So I appreciate the men in my life too,” she said.

She graduated from Vanderbilt in 1975 and went on to be one of the first female graduates of West Virginia University College of Law in 1979.

What the chamber can do to promote women in the workforce was also a topic of discussion. Ball pointed out that West Virginia has some of the lowest rates of women-owned businesses and lowest workforce participation rates for women in the country.

“Well, there are a couple of things that I know that have happened: one, the chamber took a lead on child care legislation so that businesses would get a financial tax break if they would implement child care,” Dailey said, citing Nucor as an example.

She said they are also doing more to educate high school girls about career opportunities in higher paying fields like coal, oil, gas and technology.

Getting more women elected into the Legislature was also mentioned. Rashida Yost, the only female candidate for the governor of West Virginia, was in attendance at the event.

“It’s to inspire women and any motivations and inspirations would mean 1,000 miles for every woman. We need advice, we need motivations. We give advice, we give motivations. It’s two-way traffic and events such as this would be so beneficial to every woman so that it would touch our lives and give that inspiration that we truly, truly need. As a candidate for this governor, I’m the only woman in the race. The best advice I can get to know that I’m on the right track, would be from events such as this, whereby it’s priceless to see other women’s achievements and to also know that it could happen to me,” Yost said.

Lavenski purchased Charles Ryan Associates in 2015 after a 17-year career there, with three other partners. She is the CEO and majority owner.

The previous owner had sold the company to some investors a few years prior to 2015, so she was buying it back from those investors. She and her partners put together presentations to take to banks to request funding. They visited at least four different banking institutions and all of them seemed to be very impressed. She was even told by one bank that it was the best presentation of a business plan they had seen all year. None of them were willing to invest, except for one bank. Her company paid off its loans off on time, is debt free and has a zero line of credit.

“Guess who stands in line, who calls me how many times a year to say, ‘Will you come back to me?’” she said.

She also talked about modernizing the culture at Charles Ryan Associates by allowing employees to work from home, relaxing the dress code in the office and being flexible about work hours.

“I remember coming in, I was getting off the elevator with puke on my suit. You know, I had a binky coming out of my purse and I thought ‘This is crazy.’ And I remember saying to myself getting off that elevator on the eleventh floor, ‘If I ever run this company, I’ve got to do something different’ and, fast forward, I’m blessed enough to be able to run the company,” she said. “So one of the things that we really try to do is say, you know, if somebody’s working from 8:30 to 5:30 and they’ve gotta pick their kid up, go! And then if you need to do something and you work 18 hours, take the next day off.”

There were more than 100 people at the event.


Story by Maggie Susa, The Herald-Dispatch



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