Industry Watch

Industry Watch: Professional Services

An Industry Watch + features a collection of stories, Q+A's, How-To's and more to give readers a 360 degree look at one topic. This month's topic is Professional Services — below you will find pieces on a local Lean in Circle, women-owned and - operated law firms and women's business resources.

Lean On Me
Women-owned and -operated law firms
Women's Business Resources and Industry Networking Groups

Lean On Me

High-powered group uses Lean In Circle to promote their careers — and the environment for other working women

As a senior vice president at US Bank, Liz Deziel works with high net worth clients; she leads a team of 26 that manages $1.6 billion in loan commitments.

At the end of the day, she hurries home to join her husband, putting together puzzles and reading bedtime stories with their two preschool daughters.

“I don’t have a lot of down time, but I’m happy with the pace of my life,” says Deziel, 36. “I’m at a good stage.”

No matter how busy she is balancing a demanding career and her role as wife and mother, Deziel prioritizes a monthly Lean In Circle.

On the third Friday of every month, she sits down for lunch with a group of six other Twin Cities female executives who are similarly ambitious and accomplished.

“They reenergize me and keep me focused,” Deziel says. “It’s like my personal board of directors.”

The group came together in 2013, inspired by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg; her provocative book “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead,” encourages women to cultivate their careers in a way that will help them climb and also asks them to clear obstacles that hold women back in the workplace.

Sandberg urged readers to set up their own individual Lean In Circles, recommending that they include members who are “…at similar stages of life and/or with shared goals.” Today, there are 29,000 Lean In Circles in 147 countries, groups that meet in homes, at brown-bag get-togethers, even in virtual meet-ups.

Deziel’s circle was initiated by Katy Friesz, 37, senior program officer at the Carlson Family Foundation. Friesz reached out to acquaintances working in leadership positions in nonprofit and corporate sectors.

More to the point, all are married with children ranging from 11 months to 17 years, in the thick of raising children while being major players in their respective workplaces.

“I wanted a supportive conversation with women who are committed to their careers and their families,” says Freisz, a mother of three. “They all have demanding schedules but the fact that we have kept this going for more than three years is a testament to its value.”

Since the circle began, there have been four new babies, four promotions and, for member Trista Harris, president of the Minnesota Council on Foundations, a prestigious Bush Fellowship.

“We’re all competitive, but not in this environment. We’re in different industries or have a different focus so we can be candid,” explains Amy Scalise, 41, vice present of Content and Delivery at Ameriprise Financial.

At a recent gathering at Mission American Kitchen in downtown Minneapolis, participants started their get-together with a quick round robin to note high — or low — points on both the home front and at the office.

One woman celebrated her invitation to speak at a big-deal conference, another shared her successful effort to land Hamilton tickets, while a third bemoaned — eek! — a lice outbreak at her child’s school. There were new bosses, assignments and deadlines to detail.

“I often find that I practice my voice on an issue here; this is the space were I get clarity and courage,” says Robyn Schein, 39, who directs the Family Philanthropy Resource Center at The Minneapolis Foundation.

“Someone will bring a challenging situation she’s going through and often there’s something the rest of us can take from the conversation,” adds Laura Stellmacher, 35, vice president of field compensation for Ameriprise Financial. ”I’ve been asked thought-provoking questions that allow me to think about things from a different angle.”

While Lean In Circles are set up to provide support, they are not meant to simply further the career standing of participants but also to broaden their big-picture vision for equity. Brainstorming ways to move the ball down the field for all working women is baked into the organization. The women take turns picking a topic before the circle meets, sending out a provocative article or video ahead of time to prime the conversational pump.

Recently when it was Deziel’s duty to assign the homework, she emailed a link to a video presentation by Sheryl Sandberg. In her talk, “Men Still Run the World,” Sandberg used facts, surveys and trends to share a sobering truth: While women have made strides, their recent progress to rise to the C-suite is stalled.

“It was a counterpoint to all the rah-rah, look how great women are doing,” Deziel says to open the discussion.

Sandberg’s insight about how unconscious bias limits women’s promotions sparked ideas about leveling the playing field for female leaders.

“We get so busy in the moment that we’re not forward thinking,” notes Schein. “This was a reminder that we need to keep raising the issues to keep moving forward, for ourselves and women more broadly.”

“It’s not enough to have high expectations,” puts in Harris. “We still have this huge pay gap. We have to step back and look at the data. We have to make sure women get the credit for their referrals and relationships when it comes to promotions.”

As a waiter came to remove plates, the women settled their bills, gathered their briefcases and hugged their goodbyes until the next month.

Heading back to finish her day at the office, Deziel found that she felt recharged.

“Stepping away gives me perspective,” she says. “You see women who are like you and see how they handle professional challenges and push through on their career path. I would absolutely encourage any woman at any stage of her career to find a Lean In Circle. There is value in those relationships.”

Women-owned and -operated law firms

According to the American Bar Association (1), more U.S. women practice law today than at any point in recent history. In 2015, 35% of American attorneys were women, up from 28% in 2000. The legal profession has a way to go before it’s truly representative of the populace, but with women accounting for nearly 48% of law school enrollment in the 2013-14 academic year, we’re closer than we’ve ever been.

For our Women Who Lead issue, we sought perspective on the challenges and rewards of business ownership from three experienced Minnesota lawyers who own and operate their own small firms as principals or partners. None of these women focus exclusively on women clients or women’s issues, but all bring insights and experiences to their work that their male counterparts can’t match. Here’s what they had to say.

Carolyn Agin-Schmidt, Law Office of Carolyn Agin-Schmidt — Criminal defense

On going into business for herself: “When I came back [to a previous position at a larger firm] from maternity leave, I was downgraded to part-time status and told I would be completely downsized after six months. Unconsciously or not, I was perceived not to be as relevant anymore. I said, ‘What the heck, I’ll start my own firm,’ and it was the best decision I ever made.”

On flexibility and control: “I’m happier when I can control my own work and schedule — I value flexibility and balance. I’ve thought about running for judge, but don’t necessarily want to go back to a situation where I lack flexibility. Picking your kids up from day care or school isn’t slacking off.”

On empathy: “A lot of my clients are women. Many feel that they don’t receive personal attention from male attorneys. In one case, a client came to me because her previous lawyer told her that she’d have to do jail time, then asked her why she was crying. So many male criminal defense attorneys are brilliant and skilled, but people need more than that sometimes.”

On mentoring: “I encourage other women to [open their own practices] if they’re not happy in their current professional situation. I also regularly nominate new members to the Inns of Court [a legal networking organization], and encourage younger attorneys to join professional organizations such as the Minnesota Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.” [Agin-Schmidt is a past president of MNACDL.]   

Lymari Santana, Mack & Santana Law Offices — Family law

On choosing law: “My dad took me to his law school classes a few times and it was exciting to be in that environment as a kid. [Later, in the Army,] I was assigned to several different jobs and worked in different areas of the law: legal assistance, prosecution (on the military installation and federal court) and administrative law. I enjoyed representing my own clients, getting to know them, guiding them through the litigation process, helping them through the difficult problems they were facing, and I enjoyed the litigation work itself.”

On the allure of family law: “I started practicing family law because I wanted to continue to help people. Firm partner Laurie Mack-Wagner and I both have a passion for our practice and we find our area of the law fascinating — close to 13 years later. We have the privilege of helping people through some of the most difficult issues they will face in their life that affect the most important matters in their lives: their children, their jobs, their financial security and their property.”

On the upsides and downsides of running a small firm: “The biggest challenge of running a small firm is that we manage all aspects of the firm: marketing, employee and firm management, collections. We must wisely manage time and resources to run the business side of the firm and do our work for our clients. The main advantage is that I am my own boss and I get to decide all aspects of the work that I want to do with my partner.”     

On helping clients through tough times: “We know that family law issues will likely bring drastic life changes, so we offer our clients compassion and strength in times of personal crisis. We place great emphasis on assisting our clients to plan for the future.”

Susan Bowden, Bowden Cyr PLLC — Family law & personal injury (pictured above)

On why she does what she does: “What I love about the law is that you’re always learning something new, because the law is always changing. I clerked at a personal injury law firm in law school and learned that [personal injury law] is all about helping real people with real injuries in times of need.”

On the pros and cons of a smaller firm: “We have two partners, two of-counsel attorneys, and two support staffers. With a small team, you’re always on call in an emergency. You also have to devote time to running the business in addition to practicing law. We’re fortunate that the entire team is in it for the good of the whole — and, because we’re like a family, we’re flexible when it comes to adjusting schedules for family matters.”

On her approach: “We believe in managing expectations and being upfront with our clients when we first meet. It’s not our job to tell them what they want to hear, and we’re not shy about telling potential clients that we’re not a good fit for them. Outcomes are never guaranteed. You can’t overpromise and then underdeliver.”

On working with women clients: “We don’t market to or target a specific audience, but people do notice that our two partners are women. We frequently get comments when meeting clients for the first time, and past clients have told us they sought us out because of who we are.”

[Note: Answers are edited for clarity and brevity]


Women's Business Resources and Industry Networking Groups

Women’s Business Development Center (WBDC)
The Minneapolis hub of a Chicago-based organization, WBDC certifies women-owned businesses, a requirement for various government and corporate contracts. Other services and programs that support and accelerate women’s business ownership include meetings at major corporations that hire many vendors.
Contact: Natasha Fedorova, Program Director (pictured above)
2021 E Hennepin Ave, Suite 200, Minneapolis.

Active in the Twin Cities and Greater Minnesota for more than three decades, WomenVenture provides “women of all ages, cultures, races and income levels with the tools and resources to achieve economic success through small business ownership.”
Contact: Elaine Wyatt, Executive Director 
2021 E Hennepin Ave #200, Minneapolis.

National Association of Women Business Owners – Minnesota (NAWBO-MN)
This well-regarded national organization’s Minnesota chapter “provides a local avenue for women entrepreneurs to connect with their peers.” At NAWBO-MN, “women business owners, large and small, join together for regular networking, educational programs, mentorship and support.”
Contact: Buffie Blesi, Executive Director

Women Presidents’ Organization
WPO is a nonprofit membership organization for women presidents, CEOs and managing directors of privately held, multimillion-dollar companies. It has networking, mentorship, professional development and more.
Contact: Sue Hawkes, Minneapolis Chapter.

Business Women’s Circle (BWC)
Business Women’s Circle is built around the concept of “PEERpower,” which “provides a confidential and collaborative setting for business women to act as trusted peers coming together monthly to share, coach, question, advise and inspire. Because [BWC meetings] are facilitated by a professional, using a proven process, women work on their business with the support of others.”
Contact: Lani Basa, Chief Facilitator

Women Leading in Technology (MHTA)
An event series sponsored by Minnesota High Tech Association, Women Leading in Technology empowers women technology professionals and executives to reach their full potential and inspire those around them to do the same. The most recent event, “Driving Gender Equality in the Workplace,” asked hard questions about what’s needed to achieve true gender parity in middle and upper management ranks.
Contact: Margaret Anderson-Kelliher, President, MHTA

Women in Networking (WIN)
Comprising “a mix of female entrepreneurs, business owners and key players in business to business services,” Women in Networking is “designed to be motivating and rewarding for women who value and actively practice the principles and process of networking and lifting up other women in business.”

Women Entrepreneurs of Minnesota (WeMN)
WeMN is dedicated to providing “personal, professional, and business growth opportunities for entrepreneurial-spirited women leaders through networking, mentorship and education.” It also serves as a business development organization, with “opportunities for entrepreneurs and businesses to promote their products or services through fun and lively demonstrations and presentations in various market segments within the Twin Cities.”
Contact: Amalia Moreno-Damgaard, Interim President 
P.O. Box 16003, Minneapolis.

Team Women MN
Founded by a U of M women’s basketball coach, Team Women MN is offers a supportive environment for mentoring, networking and professional development for women entrepreneurs and business leaders.
Contact: Pam Borton, President
5775 Wayzata Boulevard #700, St. Louis Park.

One of the international women’s business organization’s newest chapters, Ellevate Minneapolis-St. Paul is part of “the most expansive and diverse network of its kind…made up of successful, motivated and passionate professional women from various industries and walks of life with one common belief: that investing in themselves and in other women is good business.”
Contact: Jennie Clarke & Sarah Hartman, Co-Presidents