Meet The Alumni Of United Way’s 35 Under 35 Women’s Leadership Program

Written by: Jennifer Gades

Since 2009, 350 women in the Fargo-Moorhead area have participated in the inspiring United Way 35 under 35 Women’s Leadership Program. In the following pages, we celebrate the 2019 class who have been teamed up with local leaders and dedicated themselves to personal growth and development. They focused on leadership, public speaking and other developmental topics to better serve themselves, their companies and the community. 

Meet nine women who volunteer and impact the program as presenters and leaders. Together, they are growing and empowering our economy and the young female workforce. 

Brooke Erstad, PT, DPT, WCS, CAPP
Title: Co-Owner & Doctor of Physical Therapy 
Organization: Apex Physical Therapy & Wellness Center

Can you give me a brief background on what you do and your journey?
I am a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) specializing in Pelvic Rehabilitation. Physical Therapy is an awesome profession by itself, but the specialty area of Pelvic Rehabilitation has been nothing short of amazing. 

In addition to leading your business, you are also leading your family and children. How have the skills and experiences you have gained transferred over to your parenting style?
Both my business and my family have grown larger than I probably ever imagined! As a business co-owner and mother to four children (age 7 and under), I would now describe my leadership style as Project Manager! I find myself relying on the help of others more often than I used to, but I’ve realized that it’s ok to do that. I don’t have to be the one doing everything on a project around the house or at work, when often someone else will complete it just as well. It’s been freeing to realize that I am still relevant if I delegate tasks and see them through to follow up. That way there is more of my time left to laugh, snuggle, play and be silly with my kids or have a meaningful conversation with a co-worker. In both arenas of my life it has helped to let go of a few things to allow me to place the value of my time on things that bring me joy.

As a business owner, why did you want to get involved with the 35 under 35 program?
I thought the benefits of getting some business training and connectedness would be helpful too, but I didn’t know what to expect. I continue to be so thankful for my time in the program because of the training, connectedness and personal growth that I received, but what has proved even more rewarding is that it is a gift that keeps on giving. I continue to grow my involvement and connectedness through the social media groups, by attending the retreat held to commemorate the 10th year of the program and connect alumnae, and by meeting the great people along my United Way 35 Under 35 journey. 

Stephanie Roers Beiswanger, DC
Title: Doctor of Chiropractic
Organization: Summit Chiropractic

Can you give me a brief background on what you do and your journey?
I am the owner of Summit Chiropractic in Fargo. I opened my clinic 8 years ago with the desire to help people get beyond their aches and pains and improve their overall health and function. 

In addition to leading your business, you are also leading your family and children. How have the skills and experiences you have gained transferred over to your parenting style?
Being a parent and an entrepreneur are both very challenging and yet, rewarding, roles. Being a business owner, you must be adaptable and always be learning and growing. You are constantly trying to learn how to better reach and serve your clients and step outside your comfort zone. I have found this is also true with parenting. Honestly, parenting is not a process that comes easily to me and just like business ownership, there is no manual! I am always responding to new challenges and not always sure if I am making the right decision. Being a business owner has given me confidence, even when I don’t have all the answers. It’s more about understanding the journey, trying your best, learning and continuing on. The same can be said for parenting.

What advice would you give other women hoping to start their own business?
DO IT! It is scary as heck but you’ll never know what you can accomplish unless you step outside your comfort zone. There will absolutely be times when you wonder what you got yourself into. But the important thing is to have faith in yourself. Also, surround yourself with the right people. Find a mentor to guide you through the process and a support network that you can call on to help keep you on the right path. You will absolutely stumble. Just give yourself grace and grit and get back up when you fall. It will be scary, challenging, and hard. Owning a business is no joke. But when you look back, you’ll see the business and life you created. You’ll be proud of yourself (and you should be) and you’ll be a better, stronger person for it.

Smita Garg
Title: Assistant Director of Employer Engagement
Organization: North Dakota State University

Can you give us a brief background on what you do and your journey?
Do: Connect people, advocate and practitioner of inclusion and representation.  

Journey: Entrepreneur, domestic engineer, interpreter, marketer, researcher, work/career/life skills mentor, and community developer.

You prepare employees for the workplace every day, how do you feel that programs such as the 35 under 35 program shapes individuals for success in their workplace and career?  
This program has the power to encourage, inform, motivate, and remind participants of the distinct attributes that women bring to leadership, which impact people interact with others and sets the stage for their own success and the success of others.

You have lived in six different countries, how has women’s roles in the workplace varied across the countries you have lived and done business in?
I have lived in countries which are considered non-progressive in terms of women’s roles and status, and yet have had women in leadership roles such as fierce freedom fighters and heads of state. I have also lived in countries that are considered progressive and yet, struggle with basic issues such as pay equity and maternity leave. It is a complex issue, but the common leadership traits in women that transcend borders are courage, patience, humility, desire to collaborate, and seeking what is ‘good for the most’ vs ‘good for a few.’

Why would you encourage other women to get involved in programs such as the 35 Under 35 program? 
Because of the networking, self-awareness explorations, fun, because of the doors and windows it opens…and so much more! 

What challenges do you find that you help women with the most, in preparing them for success in the workforce?
Each woman brings a different backpack of experiences that have influenced their realities.  However, broadly, I would say lack of confidence, not being assertive, and trying to fit a mold.

How do you hope to make a difference in the lives of the 35 under 35 participants as a speaker this year?  
I hope participants will start approaching inclusion and representation with intention and courage not just in their workplace, but also their family and community.

Katie Ehlis
Title: Owner/ Learning Specialist
Organization: Katie Ehlis Learning & Development

Can you give me a brief background on what you do and your journey? 
I support organizations in identifying their learning opportunities and help them develop a strategy to be successful. I partner with clients all over North America across a variety of industries and am lucky enough to be part of developing their greatest asset – their people! 

What challenges are your clients asking for you to assist them with? What areas of their business are they looking to improve and how are you helping them work toward success?
Most clients are tasked to train their people on something specific, but what we typically uncover is the need to develop a strategic program that is relevant and applicable to a learner’s success. A lot of organizations don’t fully understand the difference between communicating something vs a learning initiative. It tends to all get bucketed as training. Therefore, I try to help them distinguish the difference and focus on how we can best set their people up for success in an engaging and fun way!

What is one tip you give young business men and women looking to grow their own skills in the workplace? 
Don’t wait for someone to ask you if you’d like to be part of something, create that something for yourself! I believe that you are surrounded by opportunities to grow and develop your own skills in the workplace, it just may be something informal. Surround yourself with people who challenge the way you think or the way you do things. Ask to spend time with those in roles or positions you have interest in, ask them to be your coach or mentor. Finally, develop your own professional development plan and share it with your manager/leader… you’ll be surprised how they’ll be willing to support you! 

Chris Thompson 
Title: Director of Leadership and Learning
Organization: State of North Dakota

Can you give me a brief background on what you do and your journey? 
Currently, I am on a one-year civic leave from Microsoft serving as the Director of Leadership and Learning for the Great State of ND. In this role, I am focused on coaching, training and designing leadership development experiences for our current leaders as well as our leaders of the future. 

You are serving as a speaker and mentor for the program this year – what do you hope women will gain and/or what leadership lessons do you hope to share? 
I hope that people will gain an understanding that the way they manage their mind, their strongest muscle, is everything on the way to achieving success. There is an ocean of leadership topics out there and I believe they all are important, but I also am positive that having a leadership mindset is foundational to applying any of these topics in a sustainable way. A leadership mindset to me is one that thinks on purpose, looks for smart risks, fails and learns from that and has the confidence to lead with their values.

What is one tip you give young business men and women looking to grow their own skills in the workplace?
The one tip I give to anyone looking to grow their skills is to focus on massive action vs. passive action. Massive action is taking action until your goal is achieved…no matter if there is a setback, a failure, it’s scary, you grow tired of it, there is something shinier…it isn’t massive action until you stick with it and make it happen. The difference between a successful leader or entrepreneur and someone that dreams about it is massive action.

You have been involved as a volunteer with United Way for a long time, how has your volunteer experience shaped your career?
I’ve always found that the more I’ve focused my work on others, the more my career has progressed. Whenever I’ve had that combination, I’ve also enjoyed it the most. Volunteering with United Way has been an opportunity to focus on helping other leaders to grow their skills, clarity and confidence. It doesn’t matter that I am positive they will all continue to be amazing success stories. What matters most is that they understand that and are ready to take action until they get there. As I’ve served with the United Way, I’ve taken on larger and more complex roles at Microsoft. I’ve gone after and achieved my coaching certification and taken on a role with the state of ND. Every year, I’d talk with the group about taking risks, failing, achieving goals, moving forward if not only by a step, and I guess since I was saying it out loud, that meant I had to do it myself. 

Sarah Nikle 
Title: Financial Advisor
Organization: Edward Jones Investments

Can you give me a brief background on what you do, and your journey that led you to where you are today?
As a financial advisor with Edward Jones, I work with individuals and businesses to identify and implement strategies to reach their long-term financial goals. We’ve established a process that works alongside clients as their lives and goals change.

What have you drawn from the program and applied to your own business that has surprised you?
I didn’t come into the program expecting to come face to face with the fact I had doubts about my own thoughts and accomplishments. Even less so did I expect to hear from others that had similar thoughts and feelings. Suddenly I found myself on a stage, sharing with others about how I have learned to identify those hindering thoughts coined as “the impostor syndrome.” Most importantly I came away learning tactics to identify those thoughts, avoid comparisons, and concentrate on gratitude. These are principles I now not only apply to my business, but every aspect of my life.

Why would you encourage other women to get involved?
The United Way 35 Under 35 Women’s Leadership Program is a wonderful experience — it is an opportunity to focus on who you are and where you want to go. It’s about growing and learning and giving back all while having fun with a group of women who support each other. The program takes you a bit out of your comfort zone, gives you the time and the space to dig deep on what you want, and a tribe of people to support you in getting there.

Jill Staffne 
Title: Vice President of Human Resources
Organization: Scheels

Can you give me a brief background on what you do and your journey? 
I am currently the Vice President of Human Resources at Scheels and have been in the HR field for over 16 years. It goes without saying, I have always been passionate about helping people and it has fueled my interest in development opportunities focused on leadership. 

You helped design the application and interview process for 35 Under 35 – how does participating in this process positively impact prospective participants? 
I look at my opportunity to lead the application committee as two-fold. I was able to teach women on the volunteer committee best practices of “hiring and selection” while also bringing valuable structure to the application and interview process for this program. With now more than 200 women applying for the program each year, our volunteers have a sound process focused on producing a diverse group of women with varying leadership capabilities, careers and backgrounds to experience the program together. I am grateful for being a part of creating and evolving that process. 

What do you hope the women draw from their experience in the program? 
The success and continued interest in this program shows the value taken from it by the women not only attending, but those involved in coordinating the program as well. The most important take-away from this program, in my opinion, would be confidence. Confidence to ask for a big project at work, confidence to seek out a mentor, confidence to mentor someone else, confidence to speak in front of a group, confidence to take risks, confidence that you CAN have a family and a career at the same time. When you have confidence, you are more likely to reach for opportunities you otherwise thought were beyond your abilities. When you lack confidence, your success and your happiness deteriorate. Women leave the program with a sense of support and “sisterhood” if you will, that give the confidence they need to navigate their personal and professional lives at a much higher level than when they entered the program. 

Why would you encourage other women to get involved? 
When you help other people, it fills your soul with grace and gratitude. The need for grace and gratitude in business and in our personal lives is infinite. Good leaders will pass these characteristics on to the next generation. 

Casey Steele

Casey Steele 
Title: Owner and Baker Lady
Organization: Square One Rental Kitchen, Love in the Oven Bakery

Can you give me a brief background on what you do and your journey?
Well, I am an architecture graduate turned childcare assistant turned baker, who then also became a shared kitchen owner. Such a clear path, right? I decided to take on an enthusiastic hobby and start my own baking business in 2010 – Love in the Oven Bakery. The YWCA graciously allowed me to rent their kitchen to create my product and from that experience came the concept for Square One Kitchens – a shared kitchen designed for food startups. 

What skills do you feel you have used the most in your own business since being in the program in 2017?
When surrounded by determined females from a variety of backgrounds you learn a thing or two. Many of the women in my class had very successful corporate careers with a technical emphasis. To say that I sometimes operate on a ‘wingin’-it’ basis in my small business is a slight understatement, or at least it used to be. Though I still go with my gut on several decisions, I’ve learned planning and foresight really pay off. Learning from them helped me develop policies, formalize my business and find a new level of professionalism that has shown me growth I could not have anticipated without their input and feedback.

You faced the unthinkable hardship of a fire in your business. How do you feel this affected how you lead and act in the workplace day-to-day?
Going through an experience that nearly destroys your business brings about an array of emotions. Instead of calling it quits I maintained my steady level of stubbornness and knew I wanted back what we had built. The unfortunate situation made me truly reflect on how I much I enjoyed the work that I was doing and the business I was building. Through the support of the community, I further realized how valuable and appreciated this business was and is. I found new levels of confidence in myself and a higher appreciation for the services we provide. Through this experience I realized I am a valuable resource as a business owner and want to share my knowledge with others so they can fulfill their food business dreams while bringing new culinary experiences and products to the area. 

Ashley Hahn
BNG Team, Barks & Recreation, Blush Photography, Digital Account Manager, Co-owner/Barkologist, Owner/Lead Photographer

Can you give us a brief background on what you do and your journey?
From reliability test engineer to barkologist, I feel like I’ve done it all. My background in Electrical Engineering has shaped my mindset and developed the critical thinking skills I utilize in every area of running my two businesses, Barks & Recreation and Blush Photography. Aside from having a mind for business planning and management, my compassionate nature leads me to consider the needs of my customers, be they four legged or two. Since I believe empathy is an important aspect of being an entrepreneur, I’ve poured my soul into creating a hospitable pet-centric place where I’d feel comfortable leaving my own fur kids. Within three years, Deborah Hemstad and I transformed Barks & Recreation from a pet sitting business into a luxury pet resort with an innovative daycare enrichment program (opening March 2019). I’m ecstatic to tie in my photography business by including a studio in the new pet resort where I can focus more on families, pet portraits and adoptable dogs!

You are in the process of starting and opening a business. How do you feel the program prepared/shaped you for this new adventure? 
I grew up an athlete who thrived competing against other women. The United Way 35 Under 35 Women’s Leadership Program showed me the benefits of lifting up other women instead of judging or comparing myself to them. The program helped me build confidence in myself, see my potential and shifted my focus towards what really drove me towards greatness. I’m so grateful for how it helped me realign (or finally realize) my life’s mission and goals which resulted in a career change.

What has surprised you the most about your entrepreneurial journey? 
How supportive everyone has been. I’ve always had the caretaker-type personality. It was initially hard for me to reach out and ask for help. My family really stepped up to help with our own dogs plus my two-legged son (I was pregnant when we started building Barks & Recreation – oh boy!). A lot of people think it would be so great to be your own boss. The reality is you end up working longer, harder, and for less (or even no) pay at times. The funny thing is, when you pursue your true passion like I have, none of that matters. It doesn’t feel like work that I have to do. It’s something I freely want to do. And enjoy doing. 

If you’re going to fail, fail fast. Not every idea pans out. My mom has always said, “It’s not a failure. It’s just a test that didn’t work.” Sometimes you pour in so much blood, sweat, and tears that you get emotionally attached to an idea or startup. 

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Jennifer is a University of Minnesota journalism graduate. She has worked in publishing industry as well as in sales and management for over 10 years. Jennifer is currently the Associate Publisher of Fargo Inc!.