Women's leadership institute grows, moves to hub of Innovation district [video]

Women's leadership institute grows, moves to hub of Innovation district [video]

June 24th, 2017 by Dave Flessner in Business Around the Region

Holly Ashley

Holly Ashley

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

Chattanooga Women's Leadership Institute (CWLI) is moving into the hub of Chattanooga's Innovation District after more than doubling its membership in the past couple of years.

CWLI, which was started in 1996 to help develop and expand women leaders in Chattanooga business and government, is eager to tap into the startup and technology communities forming in the Edney Building and other nearby sites in the central city. The women's group is located on the seventh floor of the 11th Street structure in the Society of Work, which offers flexible office and meeting space for a variety of open office organizations.

"CWLI requires a work space that can allow our employees and members to collaborate most effectively and relocating to Society of Work in the Edney offers just that," said Holly Ashley, executive director for the women's group. "We are thrilled to be around a strong community of innovators and entrepreneurs."

CWLI has increased its membership by more than 150 percent since 2014 and now has more than 670 members from four different generations of professional women. The institute offers mentors, networking, finance and development programs to help more women move into higher-level positions in both the public and private sector.

Marlena Palmer, programs manager for CWLI, said the 14 committees and various programs offered by the institute provide both specialized training and a chance for networking.

"It's really awesome to see the organic relationships that develop among our members and we're excited about the chance for collaboration with others in this building at CoLab, the Society of Work, Tech Town and other groups that are here," she said.

Kelly Fitzgerald, founder of Society of Work, said having CWLI as a tenant should help both the institute and the other tenants in the Edney Building.

"Our community is built around collaboration and connections, and our members' accelerated business growth demonstrates how effective working together is," Fitzgerald said. "According to a recent member survey, 30 percent of members hired new employees in 2016, over 80 percent had professional collaborations with other members and 75 percent of those people didn't know each other before they joined Society of Work."

Stefanie Crowe, chairman of the Chattanooga Women's Leadership Institute in 2017, said research shows that CWLI members benefit from interworking with other women leaders and participating in training and mentoring programs to develop leadership skills.

A survey of CWLI members earlier this year found nearly half of the respondents said they lack professional and personal development opportunities or miss having more women in existing leadership roles who can inspire, mentor and sponsor younger leaders at work.

"Our organization has evolved substantially over the past 21 years, and our focus now is to expand exponentially opportunities for women in our region by spotlighting solutions and best practices that push past women's leadership barriers," Crowe said. "Heightening awareness and providing companies with tools to address systemic issues will help reduce instances of discrimination and bias. Studies continue to surface with evidence that gender-diversity leads to a higher level of performance; the companies that don't invest in this effort will not thrive."

CWLI is looking to add another staffer and to help encourage more racial and cultural diversity among its female members to match that of the Chattanooga service area by 2022.

For all CWLI's success, however, Ashley said female executives still often face cultural and attitudinal challenges that have limited the move of women into top jobs. Although women comprise a majority of college graduates and nearly half of all workers, only three of the 18 members on the city council and county commission in Chattanooga are women and men still dominate the CEO jobs of Chattanooga's top businesses.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6340.