DORSET — Some of the most prominent women in businesses from Southern Vermont came together to honor and celebrate each other in Dorset on Wednesday.
Celebrating the smarts and savvy of females in the world of commerce and nonprofit agencies, the inaugural Women in Leadership Luncheon was held at the historic Wilson House right off of Route 7. The event, organized by the Southwestern Vermont Chamber of Commerce, in partnership with Berkshire Bank, hosted over 80 people and gave women leaders from Bennington to Rutland an opportunity to network with and recognize one another for their accomplishments.
The Bennington Banner and Manchester Journal’s very own Susan Plaisance was named the Southwestern Vermont Chamber of Commerce’s “Woman of the Year” for her dedication and mentorship within the Bennington community. Kaiya Kirk was also presented with the “Young Woman in Leadership” award, for “outstanding service and leadership” and being “seen by her peers as a woman on the rise.” Carolyn Blitz of Arlington, founder of Old Mill Road Media and Mountain Media, was presented with a “Lifetime Achievement” award for her years of contributions across Southern Vermont.
The luncheon was the brainchild of Berkshire Bank Vermont Regional President Lori Kiely and chamber Executive Director Matt Harrington. Planning for the event began early last winter, and it generated interest quickly, selling out three weeks before the chamber officially posted information about it. The keynote address was given by Laura Walker, who has been president of Bennington College since August 2020.
The event was emceed by Harrington, who opened by recognizing, in jest, that he is in fact not a woman himself, but highlighted the effects that his own hardworking mother had on him growing up.
Harrington then offered the podium to Kiely, who announced Berkshire Bank’s founding of the Center for Women’s Wellness and Wealth. She emphasized the initiative’s focus on women’s financial stability, especially addressing challenges later in life posed by divorce or women simply living longer, on average, than men. She mentioned the center will also concentrate on combating domestic violence, since financial dependence often factors into victims remaining in an abusive relationship.
“We realize that it’s crucial that women understand their financial situation, and have the tools and resources to achieve their goals, and ultimately live happy and healthy lives,” said Kiely.
After Kiely was Walker, whose introduction from Harrington took several minutes just to list her myriad accomplishments, including her time as vice president of the Sesame Workshop (the nonprofit group that produced such classics as “3-2-1 Contact,” “Ghost Writer” and, of course, “Sesame Street”) and leading New York Public Radio to 10 George Foster Peabody Awards during her 23-year tenure as CEO and president.
Walker outlined some of the challenges she faced as both a woman climbing the ranks in her field, as well as being in a leadership role for such a long time.
“This gender job gap is not driven by confidence, as many people thought it was,” Walker said, recounting her experiences, as well as those of her female peers. “I think it’s partially because we as women, in many ways, are expected to do everything. The expectation is that we are going to be responsible for all the tasks, large and small. Women truly are judged more harshly than men.”
She offered inspiration and advice to the rest of the women in the room.
“It’s not about fitting in. It’s about creating an environment where you’re comfortable and your staff is comfortable … and you create a place where you want to be, because you’re spending so much time there,” Walker said.
She also proudly mentioned Bennington College’s requirement for students to partake in an internship every year, with part of the intent being to keep some of the young female leaders they are churning out in the Bennington area.
As the Wilson House is the birthplace of the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill “Bill W.” Wilson, there was one more award appropriately given for “Outstanding Leader & Advocate for Women in Recovery.” Executive Director of the Wilson House and the woman who handled all of the logistics for the event, Berta Maginniss, presented the award to Vermont state Rep. Kathleen James. James was unable to attend but sent her thanks via video.
Harrington said that the luncheon wasn’t a mixer or a member meeting, but more of a celebration than anything; he hinted at the possibility of using the format for more events like it in the future.
“Part of the chamber’s job is to highlight, advocate for, and celebrate the people that we need to,” Harrington said. “We started with women, but that doesn’t mean we won’t do another luncheon for a sector that we feel is underrepresented.”