South Sound Women to Watch 2018

What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail? You’ve probably heard those words before, but what if you really took them to heart? Success is often hindered by the limitations we put upon ourselves. We hold ourselves to such an impossible standard and let fear create a path for us, one that’s lesser than the life we really want. The people featured in this year’s Women to Watch are not exceptions to the rules — they had to face their own doubts — but they are proof of what’s possible when we go for our dreams anyway. Fear and doubt never really go away; you just get better at pushing past it.

See them live Sept. 20 at TREE in Tacoma. Buy your tickets now.

 

Deneen Grant

Sometimes life doles out life-changing events like a row of dominoes — one action creating a ripple that continues for years to come. For Deneen Grant, the first domino that tipped was a relationship that diverted her away from being a choir teacher. However, it led to her dream career: developing leaders.

Deneen Grant

If it weren’t for a guy named Derrick, it’s very likely Deneen Grant would have gone on to become a high school choir teacher.

Derrick was a man from Baltimore she met as a junior at Pacific Lutheran University, and partway into their relationship, she dropped out of school and moved across the country to be with him.

“Shortly after I get to Baltimore, I realize I’m pregnant,” she said. “So, my path just totally turned.”

Not long after their son Dereque was born, the two broke things off, and she moved back in with her parents in Tacoma.

To support herself, she took an administrative assistant job at First Interstate Bank — now owned by Wells Fargo. And it was at First Interstate that the seed for her career in leadership consulting and human resources was planted. A few years into working her support role in the employee relations area, one of the regional employee relations managers of the department, Barbara Baker, offered her an opportunity that officially changed the course of Grant’s life: a promotion to a human resources officer, developing and coaching company leaders.

“She took a risk, and she took some guff for it, because people were like: ‘Why are you promoting an admin assistant?’” Grant said. “She saw something in me and was willing to stick her neck out for me, because she believed in me and helped me believe in myself. The other thing I respect about her was she didn’t just leave me out there. She made sure I was mentored and was able to grow. That woman changed my life.”

Grant worked in HR for 18 years before branching off in 2012 to start the first iteration of her business, Progressive Leadership Group, as a leadership strategist who helps companies align leadership, mission, and vision with the strategic goals of their growing organizations. It was at Interstate Bank that the building blocks for her expertise solidified. And as Grant continued in the industry, she wanted to have a bigger impact at the companies she served.

“I can’t handle being underutilized, and I knew that there’s always a ceiling that I’d hit with my HR roles, where it was like: ‘OK; what now?’” she said. “It was exciting for me to build my own consulting expertise and model, and I get to take it to the people that want it.”

CEOs and executive personnel often have a plan for scaling IT, marketing, and finance, Grant said, but the leadership growth component is often lost. Without it, the business can implode.

Grant is brought in by organizations for short-term and long-term consulting to help senior management teams work together on one shared goal and mentor their employees along the way. For the past six years, Grant’s firm has grown from referrals.

But there’s always one thing in the back of her mind — many people feel like they must overcompensate in their careers for something they feel they’re lacking. In Grant’s case, it’s that she doesn’t come in a “traditional box.”

For one, she’s a person of color, and it’s not unusual for her to be the only one in the room, she said. And two, she doesn’t have a bachelor’s degree — let alone a master’s degree, which many professionals in her industry brandish as proof of competency.

“Although you may struggle with lack of confidence, for whatever reason, you can overcome these challenges and stand apart because of your differences.”

“I’ve spent a lot of time thinking: People are going to find out I don’t have a master’s and they’re not going to listen to me anymore, which is ridiculous when you unpack it, but it’s still something in the back of my mind.”

She recently went to Boston for an educational conference about “Immunity to Change,” which broke up into small groups for a workshop. After she was done speaking, one of her group members, who assumed she had a degree, said, “I loved how you didn’t use any of those $500 master’s degree words. You just kept it plain speak.”

“I felt like saying to him, ‘I couldn’t use them if I had them, because I don’t have them,’” she said, breaking out into laughter. “That was him thinking: Certainly, she could have communicated that way, but it was her choice to be simple with the language. And I thought: ‘Thank the Lord! This is really cool. I don’t have to come with that. I think it’s bugged me more than it’s ever bugged a client, because I’ve literally never had a client say: ‘Show me your master’s.’”

Her voracious pursuit of collecting skills at educational conferences, and her perfectionist approach, is part of who she is and how she’s tried to overcompensate. But over time, she has learned to be a little gentler with herself. A degree isn’t necessarily the end-all-be-all.

“When you are purposed to do something in life, God will put the desire in your heart and will equip you to do it,” she said. “Although you may struggle with lack of confidence, for whatever reason, you can overcome these challenges and stand apart because of your differences.”

When you’re feeling stuck or frustrated: I eat coconut milk ice cream — chocolate hazelnut flavor.

Listening to: Entrepreneur on Fire, a podcast with John Lee Dumas.

Guilty pleasure: I’m almost addicted to TV. I’d say my guilty pleasure is binge-watching.

Best advice you’ve received: Fail fast. Just get it over with.

Reading: Immunity to Change by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, because I’m just learning how to facilitate that process. I’m also reading Simon Sinek’s Leaders Eat Last, about how you build trust in organizations.

What legacy do you want to leave in life or business? I want to help other people grow and achieve their goals. I’m really, really, really into supporting folks.

What are the top three qualities that make the best leaders? Cares about people; mission- and values-driven, great communicator.

 

Emily Welbourn

At 27 years old, the unimaginable happened to Emily Welbourn — she had a stroke in the middle of a distance race. The first four years were mostly Welbourn fighting to get her old self back, but she’s arriving at a place of peace and happiness with her post-stroke self.

Emily Welbourn7:10 p.m., May 21, 2013.

It felt like a knife was slowly peeling its way across the contours of her brain, from the outer edge of her left eye down to the nape of her neck. The pain was so sharp and sudden when she crossed the one-mile marker, Emily Welbourn thought a piece of shrapnel had ricocheted and lodged into her eyebrow. She tried to brush it away, but nothing was there.

Even five years later, the details of that day are so clear. It was unseasonably warm in New York, and the race edged along the University of Rochester campus. At the time, Welbourn was living and working in Shanghai and had spent the whole year training and qualifying to run in this race.

But something was wrong.

She felt exhausted, and the hot, aching line across her skull throbbed ruthlessly with the rhythm of her heartbeat.

No more than 10 minutes after crossing the finish line, the ischemic stroke Welbourn was having was paralyzing the entire left side of her body. Half of her face drooped, and her left limbs dragged along as she walked. Someone at the race noticed Welbourn wasn’t OK and alerted the paramedics. An ambulance took her to a nearby hospital, just in time to receive a life-saving drug that is likely the reason Welbourn was able to regain use of her left half. Had she not been in a public place when the stroke happened, she likely would have died, she said.

Welbourn never returned to Shanghai. Instead, all her belongings were shipped to the United States, and she moved in with her parents in Boston for a year and a half to recover physically, financially, and emotionally.

It was a month or so after Welbourn’s initial stay at the hospital in New York that she saw her brain scan for the first time. On the left side, it looked like a white hole where 24 percent of her brain had died from lack of blood flow and oxygen caused by her stroke. There it was: the first physical, tangible confirmation that she had changed. Her brain has grown some new pathways, but she’ll never be the same.

“There was a mourning period, because it’s like, all of a sudden, I became an amputee. That’s what’s so hard. No one can see this in my brain. I can’t see this in my brain either, but I was still mourning it. When I saw that photo, it was like meeting this family member that died for the first time. I just broke down.”

Only she can feel the residual side effects. It’s like she’s wearing a glove on the left side of her body. For years she couldn’t feel the difference between textures, and it was only a few months ago that she felt her skirt brush against her left leg for the first time. Multitasking is a challenge. She drove in silence until listening to music while driving was tolerable. And she recently discovered she needs at least 10 hours of sleep a night, in order to be at her best. Without it, she quickly loses her train of thought, stumbles into doorways, and is prone to debilitating migraines.

“I have deficits that will never go away,” she said. “Sometimes I think: I wish my face was still lopsided, so that at least people would know. … Because people would be like: ‘I don’t understand why this was so hard for you,’ or ‘why didn’t you come to this?’ … I didn’t almost die just so I can die, because I pushed myself too hard again.”

“You just have to show up, and if your best wasn’t as good as your best was yesterday, that’s OK, too.”

Slowly, she’s reconciling with her new reality. She moved back to Washington in late 2014 to be closer to her brother and his young children and volunteered and worked for the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women as the South Sound business development director and national spokesperson. Just this spring, she started a new position at the University of Puget Sound as the assistant director of annual giving.

The first four years after her stroke, Welbourn pushed herself to the maximum, thinking: If she worked hard enough, eventually the side effects would go away. She ran the Boston Marathon in April 2015, a major milestone that acted as proof that she was still as good as her pre-stroke self. But the Portland Marathon she ran in October 2015 pushed her over the edge. Despite mounting anxiety about running it in the midst of her busy schedule, she decided to compete anyway. It was her worst time by far, but hitting that wall also helped change her perspective.

Taking a few months off work for medical leave in February 2017 after having foot surgery and dealing with residual post-stroke symptoms also was a major milestone in relearning self-care, and what that looks like in her new body. Welbourn, a life-long perfectionist, is learning that it’s OK to not be perfect.

“There have been so many turning points since the stroke, and maybe achieving things that maybe aren’t as impressive on paper, like I’ve learned a new sleep schedule for myself, or I’ve learned I love gardening,” she said. “I get joy from it and no one else gets joy from me gardening, but that’s OK. Those things have been good turning points.”

2 p.m., June 15, 2018.

Welbourn’s new office in Jones Hall is basked in sunlight. She’s getting used to the campus and the hum of the leaf blower outside her window. In her post-stroke world, drinking a La Croix, having a conversation, and hearing the leaf blower are three things she’s multitasking. Her thoughts sometimes disappear abruptly as she’s explaining them, like someone plucked them from her midsentence. It’s a Friday, and the day is waning, which means her brain starts to lag a bit.

But it’s OK. She’s OK with the intermittent silence. Tomorrow is a fresh start — that’s her new motto. “You just have to show up, and if your best wasn’t as good as your best was yesterday, that’s OK, too.”

Currently Reading: Before and After Getting Your Puppy by Ian Dunbar

Guilty pleasure: Tortilla chips – I have a problem with portion control. (That or ice cream, regardless if it’s morning!)

Currently listening to: Leon Bridges’ Coming Home album.  

What do you do when you’re feeling stuck or frustrated? Go for a walk or run, even just around the block.

Best advice you’ve received: You’re your own person; do what’s right for you. My mom gave me this motto when I was 6.

What’s something you can’t live without? ChapStick.  

What legacy do you want to leave in life or business? Your life doesn’t only belong to you. Be there for your family always, show up for your friends, volunteer for a cause you value. Your time is valuable to others, not only to you. We have a responsibility as citizens to look out for one another, and we get to do so.

 

Susan Russell Hall

It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you don’t set any limits for yourself — that’s what local artist Susan Russell Hall realized when she took up running in her 50s. She’s since run more than 210 races.

Susan Russell HallSusan Russell Hall started running in her 50s, and it made her feel like she could do anything.

Hall is vibrant, energetic, beautiful, and she looks like an enviable woman who’s been running marathons her entire life. But Hall is quick to contend that she was never the sporty one. She was the artsy kid who hated recess and pored over her sketchbook.

During and after college, Hall worked at local hospitals doing medical illustrations, primarily documenting surgeries for children with congenital heart defects. Over her 27 years going between surgical rooms, she sketched procedures for more than 6,500 cases. Hall watched as surgeons worked on patients, and she created detailed, pencil-drawn diagrams for the parents, so they could understand what was happening.

In 2005, she stopped being on call for Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital and Swedish hospitals and stepped into a role as the president of the Tacoma Art Museum, which she’s still involved with today. Now she spends much of her time in the light-filled studio attached to her home in Lakewood, making encaustic and pyrograph art. She’s been featured in more than 100 solo and group shows, and her work is displayed around the community.

Hall, who keeps pretty busy with her work and volunteering, started running only because one of her friends quasi-badgered her into it. Her first thought was: “I can’t do this. What are you, crazy?”

“I only started running in the fall of 2009, and I don’t think you could call it running,” she said. “I got on the treadmill for three minutes and thought I would collapse afterward. When you start, it’s not easy. … You feel like you’re all arms and legs, and you can’t breathe.”

From there, she began running four days a week, and signed up for her first mid-life race in February 2010 and her first triathlon in August 2011 and eventually started working with a trainer. Hall said when she first started, her only goal was not to die.

“I mean, I was just so excited that I could do it,” she said. “Then I realized I was starting to get faster and move up in my age division (during races) and was placing in the top three, and then I was winning my division. It was like, ‘Oh my gosh! I think I can do this.’ I just thought: ‘How many times have we thought about something and then never tried it, because we were sure we couldn’t do it?’”

In her last nearly 10 years of running, she has completed 20-plus marathons, at least 37 half-marathons, and a 50k. Since 2010, she’s run in more than 210 races. But her proudest accomplishment was completing the Abbott World Marathon Majors, six of the “largest and most renowned marathons in the world,” taking place in Tokyo, Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago, and New York City.

“If your dreams don’t scare you a little, they’re not worth having.”

Over a “runners breakfast,” Hall and her friend chatted about their sport with Kathrine Switzer at the Westin in New York just before the marathon. Switzer is a household name in distance running. In 1967, she became the first woman to compete in the Boston Marathon as a numbered participant, hiding her gender when she registered as “K.V. Switzer.” A photographer from The Boston Globe captured the moment a race official assaulted her, trying to rip off her race bib. That moment changed women’s running forever.

Switzer and Hall had met at the Boston Marathon in 2017. Switzer participated that year for the 50th anniversary of her first Boston Marathon run. Hall was in the same starting wave as her.

“I think what I was so impressed with is, like, the whole world is her neighborhood,” Hall said. “She’s gone around the world breaking down barriers for women to run.”

Running has completely reshaped Hall’s perspective. She’s in the best shape of her life, and no longer subscribes to the notion that her life has this arbitrary expiration date — that after hitting a certain age, she can’t do anything anymore. It’s been empowering in a way she could have never anticipated, and it’s gotten her through a lot of hard times. She paints when she has no words, and she runs to find them.

Hall has found this incredible source of strength and decided nothing is going to hold her back.

In the last couple years, she decided to put in a big submission to create some paintings for MultiCare, because: Why not? She won the bid to create a handful of larger-than-life encaustic paintings.

“I’m like, ‘Oh my God. This is going to weigh like 7,500 pounds,’” she said. “I don’t think anyone has made an encaustic this big before. I just went into my office and thought: ‘I never thought I could run a mile, and I’ve run all these races, and I’ve run a marathon. Of course, I can do this. I just have to do one brush stroke at a time.’”

Hall is 61, and her next big goals are to run a marathon on every continent, and she’s currently working on a series of pieces that represents her running career. To up the ante a little, she wants it displayed somewhere in New York.

“If your dreams don’t scare you a little,” she said, “they’re not worth having.”

Favorite book: Into the Magic Shop by James Dote

Listening to: Classical music

Guilty pleasure: I don’t know. I don’t feel guilty. One of my biggest pleasures is going out and having a slow, happy run, where I say hi to all the dogs, and all the people, and look at everything.

Go-to running shoes: They always change, but right now, New Balance.

Something you can’t live without: Paint brushes, running shoes, and I should throw in a sports bra.

What legacy do you want to leave in life? There’s this quote, that’s like: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a personal battle that you know nothing about.” I guess just holding a place of kindness, and compassion, laughter, and hugs.

 

Kim Archer

It took more than 10 years for Kim Archer to pursue her dream of being a full-time musician. Now that she’s doing it, Archer wants her music to be an anthem of change for the America its people deserves.

Kim ArcherKim Archer grew up in Greencastle, Indiana, a small town in between Indianapolis and Terre Haute. It was, and still is, the quintessential Midwest town, with its brick-faced buildings and steeple-topped churches. Archer’s family lived in the country, and she was raised on Carole King and Jim Croce records. On Saturday mornings, she and her mom would dance around the living room to American Bandstand.

Her dad played the rhythm guitar in a band, and her mom loved to sing and listen to disco, Motown, and pop music. Music wasn’t just a pastime for Archer. It became like a limb she couldn’t live without.

“From the time people asked what I want to do when I grow up, I always said I wanted to be a singer,” she said. “I want to be in a band, and that’s what I’ve always said. So, I’m doing what I’ve always wanted to do, but it took me a while to get there.”

Archer tried to do the 9-5 corporate grind. She went to college and graduated in ’95 with a journalism degree and worked in marketing for nearly 10 years, while performing nights and weekends at local haunts. And then, one day, her longtime musician friend, Jeff Derby, called her up and said she had to move to Tacoma. She arrived in Washington for a visit during a rare streak of cloudless sunshine, and music was alive with barbershop singers performing on the streets of Pike Place Market in Seattle. One of the singers pulled her from the crowd outside the bustling Starbucks and into their lineup right before they started belting out solos.

“I just let it rip,” she said. “And people started gathering. It was a surreal moment. It was like, OK, this city knows what to do. People are listening and interested. I remember thinking: ‘That’s it.’ I walked out into the middle of the street and called my mom. I said, ‘Hey, I wanted you to be the first to know I’m moving to Tacoma.’”

She arrived in Washington with a one-way ticket on July 14, 2004. In 2008, Archer left the corporate world for good and has been pursuing music full-time ever since. With a full band or as a solo act, Archer has made a name for herself under the moniker Kim Archer Music and has brought her corporate talents into the mix. Lately, she’s helping local venues market themselves, volunteers with nonprofits to organize shows, and is producing for other musicians. The last full-length record she released was in 2011, and she is slowly chipping away at a new project — one that’s a little louder than her last.

“From the time people asked what I want to do when I grow up, I always said I wanted to be a singer.”

Archer’s musical history, listening to opinionated artists who wrote emotional protest lyrics, has come full circle with the current political climate being so divisive and volatile. The difference between her and her predominantly white hometown feels starker than ever. Archer was adopted as a baby by her white parents and didn’t experience much of black culture until she was in her early 20s. Indiana is notoriously conservative, which was another reason she left.

“My family is wonderful, and I love them dearly, and they’re supportive, but even as of late, with some of the social and political issues we have going on, we’ve had some tough conversations. Our experiences out in the world are different,” she said. “Some of the people I went to school with and some of my cousins, it’s like, we definitely don’t agree on some things.”

It’s not like one song will change the world, she said, and it’s probably not going to change people’s thoughts or beliefs either, but at the very least, it creates a space where people can put down their barriers. Archer is taking up arms against the violence and political warfare with her music.

“You can’t change somebody, but you can plant a seed,” she said.

Reading: Things That Make White People Uncomfortable by Michael Bennett

What do you do when you’re feeling stuck or frustrated: Go for a walk in Point Defiance.

Guilty pleasure: Chocolate. Dark chocolate — like 82-86 percent.

Best advice: Professionally — Always keep your solo show tight. Personally — To have something you’ve never had, you’re going to have to do something you’ve never done before.

What legacy do you want to leave in life or business? That I truly loved people.

Something you can’t live without: My wife, Sandi Funk.

What’s your childhood anthem? Rhinestone Cowboy by Glen Campbell. My uncle bought me cowboy boots, and I would run through the house screaming, “like a rhinestone cowboy.” I was stuck on that song for like a year.

 

Brooke Fox

In an era of filtered personas, radio-show host Brooke Fox feels like a proverbial breath of fresh air.

Brooke FoxBrooke Fox feels like a fast friend, which is likely why she has such a fan following on MOViN 92.5’s Brooke and Jubal in The Morning. Her light-hearted, jocular quips and pleading advice are a welcome comedic break for many adults hustling kids to school or dashing to work. And what makes the show so addicting is its hilarity and authenticity. Fox is quick to dismiss the notion of being a “radio personality.” On and off the air, followers are getting the real her, in all of its unfiltered glory.

Radio consultants often try to prescribe certain roles to co-hosts — “he’s the funny one, she’s the mom, he’s the single guy” — but that doesn’t work, she said. Nobody is just one thing.

“So, yeah, I can be the mom, and I can be the reasonable one, but I can also be the person who was in a sorority and had a really freakin’ good time in her 20s, you know?” she said. “I can be both of those things, and that’s OK. I think that’s a little different from other radio shows where they say, ‘No. Stick to your character because then people know who you are.’”

Fox said being in a male-dominated industry was frustrating during her early years in radio. After being laid off in Portland, she shopped around a pitch to create a female-led morning show similar to one she was part of in Spokane. Before she found someone who believed in her and the idea, she fielded comments like, “Women aren’t funny,” “You don’t need to be the funny one,” or “Women don’t like hearing other women’s voices.”

“I mean, it was frustrating,” she said. “Anytime you’re told you can’t do something because of a reason that’s completely out of your control is frustrating. … But that time was really crucial to who I am.”

For the most part, Fox said, she’s been lucky with employers embracing who she is and viewing it as an asset to the show.

Fox and Jubal Flagg launched their morning show in 2011, with comedian Jose Bolanos joining them shortly after. Their audience widened a couple years ago, when they became syndicated. Now that the show is reaching a wider audience, the internet trolls have also become louder on the trio’s social media and text board. Radio is one of the few forms of media where listeners can interact in real-time with the hosts. Ninety-nine percent of the time, Fox said, those messages are encouraging.

“What I love hearing is when we have moms with teenagers, and they’re not getting along with their kid, and this gives them the one space where they both can share a common interest,” she said. “They know, no matter what’s going on, they can get in their car in the morning with their kid, and they can both laugh no matter what type of fight they’re in.”

But then there are the ruthless commentators. It’s silly, she said, but those are often the messages she remembers most. Sometimes it’s hurtful, but she’s gotten to a point in her life and career where she can shrug it off.

“They know, no matter what’s going on, they can get in their car in the morning with their kid, and they can both laugh no matter what type of fight they’re in.”

As the mom of two young kids, she takes fans through the highs and lows of being a full-time working mom — from having to breast-pump in the office to sweet afternoon snuggles with her babies. For the most part, her work schedule has been a blessing, but when her son was still an infant, the 5 a.m. call-time was brutal.

“The sleep stuff legit makes me feel like I’m losing my mind,” she said. “The sleep-deprivation stage felt horrendous, but now, I’m just so fortunate. I get to be home at 2 o’clock. Sometimes it’s exhausting, and I just want a half hour to myself, which I think every mom feels. But I feel fortunate to be a full-time working mom and spend that much time with my kids.”

For anyone who feels like they’re still trying to figure it all out, Fox said, she’s right there with you. She isn’t sure where her career might take her. For the time being, she’s exhaling and just enjoying the ride.

“I think this community, in terms of the Puget Sound, has been awesome,” she said. “I think they like to laugh, and I think they’re all really funny and really smart. If anyone tells them otherwise, they should kick them in the shins. It’s just been a great place to do radio.” 

Favorite art in your home: My grandfather was a magician, and I have some of his old magic posters from the 1930s.

When feeling stuck or frustrated: Scream. No (just kidding). I think exercise and yoga have helped me through a lot of tough times. I also call my mom and cry.

Guilty pleasure: I sleep with stuffed animals. It’s a Glow Worm and a Pound Puppy, and I’ve had them since I was 2. Right now, they’re on the dresser because my husband is really anti-stuffed animal, which I think is an atrocity.

Finding time for yourself: I don’t really know. Last night I stayed up for a half hour and read a book, but then I missed out on sleep and am a little tired today. So, you sacrifice sleep? Is that the wrong answer? I think that’s what you have to do.

Favorite artist on the radio: I’m really digging Khalid right now (his entire album is amazing), and I love the Bruno Mars and Cardi B jam “Finesse.”

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is an assistant editor at South Sound magazine. Email her.
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