These six inspirational women share their personal hardships and triumphs. Read about the journeys they’ve taken and the lessons they’ve learned. And come to our South Sound magazine live event to see all six inspirational women live on stage from 6-9:30 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 28, at the William W. Philip Hall at UW Tacoma for drinks, bites, and networking. Click below to get your Women to Watch tickets.
It took nearly 30 years, but the woman who cared for Tiffany Bluhm at an orphanage in India found her through mutual contacts. They met for 30 minutes at a Starbucks in late May, right before the woman flew back to India. She told Bluhm that she had such a “heavy heart” to foster a baby, and two days later Bluhm was dropped on her doorstep.
“The minute I was abandoned, she was there,” Bluhm said, who gets emotional talking about the life-changing experience. Before that meeting, Bluhm didn’t know anything about her abandonment and was moved to hear that the motherly woman never stopped looking for her. Out of the roughly 900 kids she had taken in, she’d never forgotten Bluhm.
The Tacoma blogger’s soon-to-launch book, Never Alone, takes readers through women’s greatest struggles, her own adoption, the adoption of her Ugandan son, and weaves together a message that God doesn’t cause people’s pain; he’s the healer of it. If you lean into your pain, it can become your greatest strength, she said.
Her book, which will be available February 2018, began as a blog with a hope to uplift and encourage women. The blog brings readers messages of faith, family, marriage, and adoption. Her family is the epitome of a melting pot, and it’s partially what’s driven so much attraction to her blog — that and the chronicles of her and her husband adopting Jericho. It’s rare to be adopted and have an adopted child, she said, and people are really interested in family.
Bluhm is visibly passionate about three things: people, writing, and speaking. And she’s found a way to merge them all. Right after high school, she moved to London and then Manchester to work in church ministry. After returning to Western Washington in 2008, she worked in community outreach in Tacoma for seven years. In that role, she was writing thousands of words in Bible studies and prayer guides, but wanted to do more with her writing.
“I remember being 7 years old and being excited by a blank sheet of paper and knowing I could fill it with words,” she said. “Words challenge us; words spark joy within us, and I always knew words on paper — or a screen — would play a big role in my life. … Writing has always been an outlet that made me come alive, and not only that, but it met the needs and hearts of other people.”
About a year after launching Tiffany Bluhm, she pitched her novel during a publishing conference in July 2016 with hundreds of other hopefuls. Five days later, she got an email from Abingdon Press. After a conference call between her and management from Abingdon, she was offered a book deal and asked to create a video Bible study.
She also hosts a wildly successful women’s Bible study group, Sip, which runs seasonal study groups once a week for five weeks at The Table in Tacoma.
“So during all this time after I left my full-time role (in community outreach), I felt prompted to start a women’s ministry that was different,” she said. “We started out as 25 women, and now we have a mailing list of 250, and it sells out in about 10 hours.”
Each session starts with wine and small bites prepared by a chef, and Bluhm leads a discussion. They query all the women about what’s top of mind for them, and Bluhm designs topics — their session on friendship was among the most popular.
Faith has been at the core of who she is since she was a teenager, and she’s preached around the globe in some vastly different venues. At the core of writing and speaking is serving people, she said.
“You’re inviting them into a reality that may be more vivid and bold than their own,” she said. “In a world where women feel overcome by grief and loss and rejection, a message of hope is life-changing.”
Soyeon Yi thought being one of the top 300 candidates for South Korea’s first space program would be a great line on her resume, something that would help her stand out in the hundreds of candidates as she stepped into the job market. She never thought she’d be selected to conduct research in space, let alone be the first female South Korean astronaut.
Yi was a Ph.D. student at the prestigious Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, researching how to separate DNA molecules. Like many other Ph.D. students, she was battling depression because her research wasn’t moving along like she anticipated. She worried she wouldn’t be able to complete her Ph.D. and was considering dropping out.
“At the time, I thought I was a loser, and then I read an article about a Korean space program. Even the article wasn’t very clear. It just said the Korean government was discussing it,” she said. “I thought, ‘Oh, what if I can do experiments not in my boring lab, but in space?’ … I had never thought about space before, but it seemed interesting and fresh. It’s the first time in Korean history, and I want to be a witness. I want to be a contributor even if I wasn’t the final person (selected).”
Her friends encouraged her to try out, convincing her that she would stand out among the other 36,000 candidates, because she’s a woman and she’s athletic.
Yi made it to the top 3,000 candidates and then the top 300, and then the final 30. Her depression slowly lifted, and she started regaining her self-worth and excitement for the work she was doing.
News about being selected as one of two Koreans that would launch into space came on Christmas Day 2006, and she spent the next year in Russia training for the 11-day research venture in international space. Those 11 days were way too short, she said. It was like camping, “You unpack and then realize it’s time to pack again.” But she felt so grateful to be a chosen as a representative of her country, and it gave her a new perspective on life.
“My country and my job were my whole world until then,” she said. “Then I go up and look down at the Earth and realize how small my country is.”
Yi wasn’t prepared for the stardom that waited when she returned to Korean soil. She was booked for one speaking engagement after the next, and said she couldn’t escape to the bathroom without being recognized by fans who clamored to get her picture or autograph. It wasn’t the life she envisioned for herself, so she resigned from work and took a sabbatical to the United States, studying business at the University of California-Berkeley.
She and her husband met as mutual friends at UC Berkeley, and when he proposed, it cemented her stay in America.
Her husband’s work as an optometrist brought them to Puyallup, where she’s had a myriad of part-time work while searching for a full-time career that’s a good fit for her. She teaches occasional physics classes as an adjunct professor at Pierce College in Puyallup. She also helped organize an advanced S.T.E.M program for high school students to give them a glimpse into life in that field — something she’s very passionate about.
It’s been difficult, searching for work that’s meaningful to her, but the love and support she has from her husband balances that out.
“All my friends said, ‘How can you leave your job in Korea? Everyone in Korea knows you and you have a good salary, even if it’s not the best. How can you leave your job in Korea and now you’re living in Puyallup?’” she said. “Career-wise it’s kind of hard. But my personal life always supports me, and it makes me smile and gives me energy.”
Lisa Hallett’s husband, John, deployed to Afghanistan just weeks before she gave birth to their third child. She remembers talking to him on the phone on Aug. 5, 2009.
“I’m feeding the baby while I’m talking to him, and he says, ‘I’ve never heard Heidi cry,’” she remembers of that conversation. “And I said, ‘Oh, don’t worry about that; you have a lifetime for that.’ And that was our last conversation.”
John was among 41 soldiers in his brigade at Joint Base Lewis-McChord who lost their lives that year. When his unit returned the following year, Hallett of Dupont said it was a very important part of her journey to accept John wasn’t coming home, but also celebrating with the larger military community and honoring the men who were coming back. Hallett had prepared for a year without her husband, so his death hit her in recurring waves of grief — their first Christmas without him, the month he was supposed to return briefly from deployment for R&R, the two funerals they held for him, and when the rest of his unit returned.
A few days after she’d gotten the news of his passing, she remembers going on a run with her friend, something she’d always used as a tool to get herself through the hardships of military life.
“It was the first time I’d had a chance to connect with myself,” she said. “You’re feeding the baby; you’re caring for the kids. I remember literally sitting on the curb of the sidewalk, tying my shoe and the glare of the sun. I just remember that run, and then of course we had a funeral to plan.”
John and Lisa grew up together. They went to the same Catholic elementary school in California, and in high school she jokes that she dated all his friends. It wasn’t until they both went off to different colleges that they reconnected. They married in 2003, and he was deployed three weeks later to Iraq.
The 2009 deployment was only his second and was part of the early surge of American troops in Southern Afghanistan. She says she misses everything about him. His unconditional love, the way he made her want to be better person, but most of all, she grieves John’s absence in her children’s lives.
“I will be OK,” she said. “But there will never be anyone as extraordinary as John was.”
As a way to cope, Hallett ran. Throughout 2009, she met with a group of women who ran weekly as a way to connect with each other, and in February 2010, they met formally in a Burger King parking lot.
“After that first week, it evolved and then we started to call out the names of soldiers who’d made the ultimate sacrifice, diversified our routes and started to train for the Seattle Rock ‘N’ Roll marathon,” she said.
They called themselves Run to Remember, which has since become Wear Blue: Run to Remember, and each week they had anywhere from two to 22 people show up for the Saturday runs. In summer of 2010, when all of the deployed units returned, Hallett said they recognized a need to create a healthy and active space to support the military and their loved ones.
“Words aren’t always adequate to show gratitude and support, but with running you don’t have to find the right words,” she said. “You can run side by side and become a living memorial and a powerful source of strength that helps move people forward in their lives.”
During their first marathon, they asked the emcee to call out the names of the soldiers who had been killed in action and lined a portion of the course with American flags. The Wear Blue nonprofit running community has expanded to 45 chapters across the country, and more than 150,000 runners will honor hundreds of fallen service members this year.
Hallett has also upped her training and started participating in Ironman competitions. Her first one in 2013 fell on the four-year anniversary of John’s death, and it was an incredibly emotional experience for her. She’s since completed four Ironman competitions, including an Ironman World Championship and five ultra-marathons. In November, she’s traveling to Arizona for another Ironman.
If she could impart anything to others, it’s to allow yourself to grieve around people.
“I felt like my grief made other people uncomfortable, and real grief is nothing like you see in the movies,” she said. “To counter that, I put on a pair of emotional Spanx, if you will, and every time I walked out of the house, I tried to keep it all together. I thought I knew how to make people more comfortable by responding tightly by saying, ‘We’re sad, but we’re doing OK.’ I think I masked it for myself and robbed myself of the grief. Throw the emotional Spanx out the window, and allow yourself to be real and raw with others.”
Landing the opportunity to own the first Chick-fil-A branch in Tacoma was a whirlwind of excitement for Lynnae Schneller. When she traveled to the company’s headquarters in Atlanta to learn how to run the restaurant, she was eager to get to work. But the day she came back, she found out her husband had lymphoma.
The prognosis was devastating. He had dozens of tumors throughout his body, and was unable to work throughout the rigorous treatment process. It was a scary time, she said — because of her husband’s health and because their livelihood was resting on this new business venture. But the restaurant was a success — they had the second-highest sales in Chick-fil-A history on opening day in spring 2015. Her husband responded well to treatment and completed his last chemotherapy treatment in June.
Schneller had heard whisperings of a Chick-fil-A opening in Tacoma in 2014 and thought it was the perfect opportunity to bring a brand into a new market without starting a business from scratch. She co-founded Lynnae’s Gourmet Pickles — now called Mrs. Pickles Gourmet — with her sister-in-law Aly Culliane after leaving her corporate job at Enterprise Rent-A-Car. The pickle business was created from her great-grandma’s coveted pickle recipe, and Schneller thought of it as an interim job, but business took off. They started out in farmers markets and then moved to wholesale, delivering the pickles to locally owned grocery stores before being picked up by Fred Meyer and Haggen in 2013.
“I realized I love building something out of nothing,” she said. “I love being able to create what I want in a company. This is not what I thought I was going to be doing 20 years ago.”
In September 2013, they were featured on an episode of Shark Tank, where they were told by investor Barbara Corcoran that in five years, they will want to have full ownership of their company. They didn’t get any offers, but Schneller said it was a great learning experience.
“It was amazing,” she said. “We went in with no expectations. There are some companies where it’s their last chance. We saw it as a fun opportunity. We thought, ‘What a cool once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.’ We got some great exposure.”
Mrs. Pickles is now in 42 states, mostly in smaller specialty stores, and Schneller stepped away a few years ago to focus solely on running Chick-fil-A.
She’s got her eye on opening another Chick-fil-A in the coming years, and in the meantime, she’s focused on creating a strong culture and prioritizing leadership development for her team.
When it comes to career changes, fear keeps a lot of people from pursuing the job they want, but Schneller said you learn so much more by moving forward. Starting the pickle company was a risk, and they had to learn the business as they went along — the same applied to Chick-fil-A.
“At some point, you just have to jump, and it may work out and it may not,” she said. “You can spend years and years prepping, but you learn so much by just doing it. Failure is not the end; you just keep moving forward.”
“Taking risks doesn’t mean you’re without fear. It means you’re fully aware that it’s there, but you’re willing to suffer failure because what you’re trying to achieve is so important.”
Words of wisdom from Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland, who’s made it her mission to turn the city’s reputation around, and is a strong advocate for women in public office. Strickland was born in Seoul, Korea, and moved to Tacoma in 1967, when she was about 4 years old. She was sworn into the mayor’s office in 2010, after serving as a city councilmember. Her main platforms have been revitalizing the public education system, fixing Tacoma’s pot-holed streets, and raising the city’s national and international profile — all of which have been pretty successful.
High school graduation rates have gone up several percentage points; the city passed the first streets improvement measure in 40 years; and a couple years ago, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Lincoln High School, the city’s most diverse school. Her husband, Patrick Erwin, is also the school’s principal.
“When I made the decision to run for mayor, one, it was because of my love for the city,” she said. “Two, the fact that I’d considered this my hometown — I’ve lived here longer than anywhere else. And three, to be honest with you, I was tired of hearing people talk trash about the city.”
So, she did something about it. But none of that happens without being confident in yourself, taking a risk, and trusting your intuition. She was encouraged to run for city council by her former middle school counselor, Brian Ebersole, who was the Tacoma mayor at the time and was also the speaker for the House of Representatives in Olympia. Her mind jumped to her qualifications. What boards has she been on; with whom had she volunteered? Women are the minority in public office positions, and it’s not because they don’t win elections, Strickland said; it’s because they don’t run. Women especially tend to scroll through a mental checklist of all the reasons they shouldn’t run for office, or how it could negatively affect the people around them. Men are more inclined to jump on an opportunity and finesse the details as they go along, she said.
There are also some lingering notions of leadership that can make it seem like men are more equipped for the job. Ten to 20 years ago, Strickland said, it was all about projecting strength. For decades, men and women have had this hyper-masculine idea of leadership.
“When I first ran for mayor, people would say, ‘Oh, I think you’ve got the right stuff. You’re intelligent, dedicated. I think you’ll do a good job. But are you tough enough?’” she recalls. “Tough enough? How many men get asked that question?”
But, Strickland thinks leadership ideals are shifting to emotional intelligence instead of a steely presence.
Strickland is a firm believer in trusting your intuition, even if you’re the lone voice. She’s hired two city managers during her tenure, and one of them hadn’t held the position before. She remembers they had a range of applicants, some of whom had experience as a city manager. In the end, she went with her gut — an applicant that felt like the right fit, even though their resume didn’t flex like the others. She says trusting your intuition typically leads you down the right path, and if you ignore it, you may regret it.
Her term expires at the end of December, and Strickland said she’s open to all possibilities. She likely won’t run for another office position unless it’s something she’s passionate about. Her background is in marketing and communications, so she could go back to the private sector, too.
“Whatever I end up doing next, I’m confident being the mayor of my hometown is the best job I’ve ever had and the most fun I’ll ever have.”
Portland-based Candice Russell competed on American Idol Season 11 and self-released an emotional album during the most difficult years of her life. Shortly after graduating high school, she was diagnosed with Graves’ Disease, an immune system disorder. It explained why her high school track records were plummeting, why she was always so overheated, and her rapid heart rate.
The treatment is typically simple, but she was allergic to the medication and had to undergo radioactive iodine treatment. Once she thought she was nearing the end, she was diagnosed with Graves’ Eye Disease (also referred to as thyroid eye disease) — something only a small percentage of Graves’ patients develop. Tissue started to build behind her eyes, pushing them forward. Her optic nerves were pulled so far forward that it hurt, like a jolt from a shock collar when she looked side to side. She dealt with it for years before having optical compression surgery.
“That, I think was the hardest thing to deal with,” she said. “(After the surgery) it was very painful. I couldn’t open my eyes for like the first week because it hurt so much. I was home in recovery for about two months.”
The lifelong singer and recent songwriter hadn’t undergone eye surgery when she auditioned for American Idol and made it through to Hollywood Week.
“I felt like my disease was really holding me back,” she said. “I didn’t look my best, and I probably didn’t even sound my best. I felt like I wasn’t pretty enough to do this, and I’m tired. (During those years) I felt like I had to put my dreams on the back burner.”
But it wasn’t long before Russell came out even stronger with something to say; Her first album, So Much More, released in 2013. The album is raw, but it’s also uplifting, and features a loving tribute about her grandparents’ love for each other when her grandma was dying from cancer. Her music is incredibly personal, an attribute she looks up to in other artists.
“I go back to five years or six years when I was in a really dark place,” she said. “I was so discouraged because of everything that I was going through. I remember turning on certain songs, and they helped me get through that day. I don’t think there are enough songs out there like that. I want to reach those people who are having a dark day or a dark year. I want to inspire and encourage people, and why not do that with my talent?”
Her latest EP, Ignite, was created in collaboration with songwriter and producer Kenny Lamb and engineer Chris Rowe — both of whom have worked with high-profile artists. She has a few other songs in the pipeline to self-release, so stay tuned. You’ll also be hearing more of her on the Discovery Channel. She just signed an agreement with the channel to use her music.
Though her journey in her music career hasn’t been easy, she said she could never give up on it, and that’s her advice to everyone. “There’s more for you on the other side of this mountain that you’re fighting,” she said. “Just keep fighting.”