Susan Stephenson is one of the most accomplished and highly visible women in the Memphis business community. She is the co-founder of Independent Bank, the city’s second-largest bank as ranked by assets and one that largely steered clear of the mortgage mess that dogged competitors during the financial bust.
Susan Stephenson, president of Independent Bank, became the first female CEO of a Tennessee bank in 1995, when she was tapped to head Boatmen’s Bank. (Photo: Lance Murphey)
She has served on the board of directors of the Memphis branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. She’s a member of the Society of Entrepreneurs and she’s on the board of the Women’s Foundation for a Greater Memphis, among her myriad community involvements.
Her long career began by accident. She moved to Memphis after being certified to be a schoolteacher and through a confluence of factors moved into banking.
An overview of her banking career, which included becoming the first female CEO and chairwoman of a Tennessee bank in 1995, when she was tapped to head Boatmen’s Bank of Tennessee, shows at least a few recurring themes.
Her career contains the typical mixture of luck – being at the right place at the right time – coupled with the initiative to seize the day and the self-awareness to know both what she’s capable of and how much more she’s willing to learn.
Stephenson will be the keynote speaker Feb. 28 at the Women and Business seminar hosted by The Daily News, sister publication of The Memphis News. Some of those key elements of Stephenson’s career are what might resonate the most with attendees interested to hear about what women face in the corporate world in Memphis. They’re good takeaways, because while not every woman will end up running a successful bank, they can follow Stephenson’s lead of surrounding themselves with mentors, ignoring conventional wisdom and seizing the moment when colleagues or superiors are willing to take a chance on them.
“I’ve really been a beneficiary of some people who have given me extraordinary opportunities,” Stephenson said. “And I know how very fortunate I have been. I’ve benefited enormously from all the women who paid their dues for a long time before I ever came onto the scene. I’m not only in their debt, because they created a foundation that let people see women had the capacity to do things, but I’m also in their debt because the world wasn’t ready for them to have the opportunities they created for me.
“There are some extraordinary women in leadership in our community in banking. We have a lot of women who have been part of my journey through this community, through this city.”
Those are likely to be among the topics addressed at the newspaper’s seminar. Women leaders representing a variety of fields will be represented on a panel of speakers. Besides Stephenson, the panelists will include Jackson Lewis attorney Pamela Irons, CBIZ Women’s Advantage national leader Nancy Mellard and Natasha Donerson, CEO of Success Unlimited.
The seminar is part of a regular slate of seminar events hosted by The Daily News for thought leaders, the business community and the general public. The Feb. 28 event will be held starting at 3:30 p.m. in the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art Auditorium.
CBIZ MHM Thompson Dunavant, Mid-South Drug Testing and Jackson Lewis LLP are the three companies sponsoring the event, and a wine-and-cheese reception with the speakers and panelists will follow the presentation.
It will be a timely discussion. A new survey from the National Association of Women Business Owners shows women entrepreneurs believe 2013 will see more women become business owners than ever before. Census data also shows a similar pattern. There were 7.8 million women-owned businesses in the U.S. in 2007 that generated $1.2 trillion in revenue, up from 5.4 million women-owned businesses in 1997. The Census’ 2012 numbers will be released next year, which is when a picture will emerge of how those totals of women business owners have been impacted by the recession.
Shante Avant, deputy director of the Women’s Foundation for a Greater Memphis, said women leadership “under-girds our work.”
“Every year we recognize women leaders in a unique way,” Avant said. “We have a Legends Award for women we recognize who’ve made extraordinary commitments to the community to make it better. We honor those women by selecting a local woman artist who creates a one-of-a-kind piece of art in that legend’s honor. And then we also choose a writer who tells the story of the honoree and how the art was created.”
Companies from community banks to large multinationals have been moving recently to promote women achievement. Magna Bank, for example, recently promoted four executives – three of whom were women. Lisa Foley, executive vice president of retail banking at Magna, addressed some of the strengths she thinks women have in the business world.
“In my opinion, you tend to see women in more detail-oriented and service roles than you do men,” she said. “Men are typically in more commercial, large real estate deals.”
More broadly, she added: “You tend to see women work that much harder to get where they want to get. A lot of hours spent to prove yourself. And obviously to prove yourself, you’ve got to achieve the goals that were expected of you. Women just seem to dig in the trenches just a little harder.”
Jenny Cowell is a marketing professor who teaches in the Master of Business Administration program at Christian Brothers University. (Photo: Courtesy of Christian Brothers University)
Christian Brothers University is training women for that very world. Hayley Isaac, associate director of graduate business programs for Christian Brothers, said women are “never one-dimensional in the business world.”
“These ladies are balancing responsibilities at work, with family commitments, with charitable organizations, as well as school and other priorities for excelling professionally,” Isaac said. “One of the pillars of a CBU education is the mantra, ‘enter to learn, leave to serve.’
“With our program, students are encouraged to build relationships as they would in their work groups. Bringing a collaborative element to graduate business education allows our students to excel and apply relational and analytical skills immediately in their professions. That focus carries forward into a broad range of companies in Memphis focusing on women.”
At Memphis-based International Paper Co., Quinn Thompson – director of IP’s global diversity and talent acquisition – said the company’s diversity and inclusion efforts are sponsored from the very top of the organization. IP, she said, is intensely focused on both attracting women to the company and then making sure they’re able to develop and grow within the organization once they’re on board.
“So there are a couple of things we’ve done,” Thompson said. “Several years ago we started a women’s diversity forum, and that’s bringing a group of women together. We started out in our sales organization – they had a very limited number of women in sales – so we started bringing those women together. And talked about what’s working for you, what’s not, and let’s share some things we have that are tools within the organization.”
IP has other mentoring programs focused on bringing women from all levels together and helping them advance.
CBIZ relatively recently launched its own professional development and networking program for women executives in the firm’s Memphis office. Megan Murdock, client development manager at CBIZ, said 50 percent of the firm’s office is comprised of women. That program lets them know there’s a network for them within the firm and that there’s a support system for them. The umbrella term that encompasses a variety of CBIZ’s networking and other programs is its “Women’s Advantage” focus. Implemented in 2007, it was created in response to the need to recruit, retain and advance more women in the field.
Dixon Hughes Goodman has a similar program – a leadership initiative that is spurring the firm toward a goal of attracting, hiring and promoting women advancement through the firm. Not only that, but that program is looking to grow the number of women who are managers and partners at the firm.
The career advancement line is not as straight – or even as long – for many women in the legal field. One female partner at a Memphis law firm said she speculates that more women are recognizing that large law firm life can be demanding in a way that impedes on the traditional view of home life. Some accept that, while others are opting for alternative legal careers.
Jill Steinberg was the first leader of the formal women’s initiative at Baker Donelson law firm.
The industry is not oblivious to the issue. Attorney Jill Steinberg was the first leader of the formal women’s initiative at the law firm of Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz PC.
“In the last few years the legal world, I think, sort of patted itself on the back and thought we’d really broken through the glass ceiling,” Steinberg said. “But you’re beginning to see again published articles nationally about women lagging behind in compensation and becoming equity partners and in being tagged as leaders in their law firms.”
Steinberg said when Baker Donelson developed its women’s initiative, the firm studied similar programs around the country. Law firms at the time were increasingly looking to set up such programs to develop women into leaders and to support them in becoming dealmakers and help address issues like alternative work arrangements. To implement its own program, Baker Donelson carries out programs unique to specific offices.
“The Nashville office might do a wine and chocolate tasting to allow people to network with other women business leaders and women clients,” Steinberg said. “The Memphis office has (participated in the) Viking Cooking School. And we invited our women clients to that event. New Orleans has their own program.
“Each office has a budget and their own committees to develop programs that are helpful and specific to their office.”
Beyond that, Baker Donelson has firm-wide things like a program called Baker Reads, a video-conference book club.
All unique, separate programs, but all pushing toward the same goal.