December 21st, 2009 | 1:00 pm

Against All Odds, Women are Thriving in Michigan – Here’s How

filed under Industry Leaders

Portrait of happy young businesswomanBy Andrea Newell (Grand Rapids, Michigan)

The latest Inforum Center for Leadership report shows that the number of women reaching the boardroom in the Top 100 public companies in Michigan hasn’t improved in recent years and, at 9.6%, is far below the national average of 15.1% (in 2008). 46 companies (46%) have no women directors (up from 41% in 2007). And, as of October 2009, Michigan has the highest unemployment rate of any state in the U.S.

In light of its bleak economic picture and seemingly unbreakable glass ceiling, Michigan’s business climate appears to be a cold one for women. However, these businesswomen aren’t singing the blues. What do they have in common? They work for either a woman-owned business or a large company with a balanced executive suite.

What’s their secret? Collectively, these companies value their female (and male) employees by implementing work/life balance initiatives, supporting mentoring programs, and fostering good communication and a team-oriented environment.

Denise Couling, Attorney, Nichols, Sacks, Slank, Sendelback & Buiteweg, P.C. (NSSSB)
NSSSB is a prominent, all-female family law firm located in southeastern Michigan. Couling was previously a solo practitioner, as well as an employee in a large law firm, and has finally found a home at NSSSB.

“I am still impressed by how different this workplace is from any other I have had the privilege to join. ‘Excellence’ is the standard for client service, yet personal goals, work-life balance and even progress on each individual’s ‘dreams’ is genuinely and overtly encouraged. With seven other attorneys (besides myself), I can look to each and every one of them as a role model. For the sake of our daughters (and our sons), this is the epitome of a ‘smart’ workplace. I like to think of NSSSB as having a gender-neutral standard of excellence that should represent the workplace of tomorrow.”

Patti Wilmot, Executive Vice President of PeopleFirst, Domino’s Pizza
Pizza giant Domino’s is headquartered in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Along with Wilmot, Domino’s executive leadership is balanced out by two more women, Wendy Beck, Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer, and Lynn Liddle, Executive Vice President of Communications and Investor Relations.

“I think a good blend of diversity is really critical for a company, but at the end of the day, we strive to get the best candidate that we possibly can. We’ve been able to promote some women to upper-level management roles – several have been promoted from within the organization. I think it brings the right blend of different thinking at the senior level.”

In a time when many large Michigan companies have been hit hard by falling revenues, Domino’s has avoided any recent, large-scale layoffs and has made it a priority to support work/life balance and employee-centric programs.

“In my department, PeopleFirst, I have five women who are part-time, and I have two very senior women in my organization that job share. We have many programs to promote growth, gain experience, and broaden skill sets for both men and women. We have worked very, very hard to maintain a very strong employment presence in Michigan, and I am very proud of our progress to date.”

In addition to keeping jobs in Michigan, Domino’s has a strong college recruitment program called People Pipeline aimed at attracting the best and brightest from Michigan universities.

Domino’s Women’s Leadership Forum began two years ago when women franchisees wanted to form a group to learn, develop, and network. Now over 200 members strong, the forum is unique as the only program that supports women franchisees and their staff, as opposed to only corporate employees. The forum embraces franchisees nationwide and has events throughout the year, a library of materials, and a mentoring program.

Michelle Crumm, Co-Founder and Chief Business Officer, Adaptive Materials
Adaptive Materials develops and manufactures fuel cells that are field-tested and used by the military. Crumm’s challenge is working in a highly technical field with predominantly male engineers, military personnel, and politicians, and she relies on her balanced executive team to make the best decision about client relations.

“Having a balance of men and women executives is really the best of both worlds. There are times when only a man can walk into a situation, like when we have to deal with the military. My husband (Co-Founder Dr. Aaron Crumm) is a perfect match – they speak the same language, he understands their questions and concerns, and it works out great. On the flip side, I spend all of my time in the political arena to ensure we have political support. In that instance, being different is good. I think I stand out there because I am a female in a predominantly male area and that gets me the attention I need to be heard. Men have very strong talents, women have very strong talents, and I think you just have to know when to put your strongest player in. At any point in time, you just want to have the best person representing you.”

Rosemary Bayer, Founder, ardentCause L3C
Bayer worked in IT in an automotive setting before striking out on her own to form ardentCause, a company that helps nonprofits with their technical and management needs.

“It’s clear that having women leadership significantly improves a company’s performance. In my own experience, I have seen many times over the years the immediate value of having diverse teams. The varied opinions and backgrounds are critical to getting all possibilities on the table. Women in particular are often the ones who help build better and lasting communication and collaboration within a team. ardentCause is structured around work teams, not hierarchies. Everyone has an equal chance to be successful. Success depends on what you accomplish, not who you know.”

Maxine Lauer, CEO and President, Sphere Trending
Sphere Trending provides trend insights on consumer behavior, specializing in understanding the uniqueness of each generation.

“I believe that not only Michigan, but America would benefit from more female business leadership for several reasons. First, women have become the primary decision maker in consumer spending and their influence and needs are misunderstood in many areas of corporate America. Secondly, we are about to have a huge milestone in 2009/2010 when females replace men as the majority of workers in the U.S. workforce; in large part due to the impact this recession has had on male employment. Nowhere do we see this trend as strongly as Michigan, where factory jobs and sales positions have yet to be replaced with new careers. Lastly, women will be the force to lead us out of this recession – they have the tools to micro-manage and multi-task to make ends meet.

I started this firm with a dedication to creating a working environment that was sensitive and flexible for today’s working mother; something I never had as a professional 30 years ago. Investing in this type of a work environment not only has made our organization stronger but also more productive in all measurements.”

Catherine Juon, Co-Founder, Pure Visibility
“Pure Visibility is a woman-owned business in a male-dominated field. Our expertise is leading the field of analytics and experiment-driven Internet marketing.  We are one of two agencies in the world to be accredited by every major search engine, and that’s a huge accomplishment for any Internet marketing firm, regardless of the gender of its leadership.

Our recruiting strategy is all about creating a place where people want to work. My co-founder, Linda, is passionate about making Pure Visibility a happy place, and that’s something that weaves it way into everything – from the stuffed animals we pass around at standup, to bright colors on the wall, and impromptu trips to the ice cream store. It’s also part of a belief that we’re capable of making a difference.

If you look at the history of Michigan, it’s full of innovators, and that’s what we need right now. As a state, we’re being forced to realize that business as usual just doesn’t compete in today’s global economy – and if we take that message to heart and adapt – it will ultimately be a good thing.”

“How you treat employees in tough times can be more important.”

Even though the Inforum numbers don’t seem to reflect a changing attitude in large businesses, on a grassroots level there is an understanding that to climb out of its current slump, Michigan needs to recognize and address the needs of its entire workforce and make some substantial changes.

In Crain’s Detroit Business’s Cool Places in Tough Times, American Society of Employers CEO, Mary Schroeder says, “There is a return on your investment in terms of how you treat your employees, and how you treat employees in tough times can be more important than how you treat them in good times.” Out of 191 nominees, Crain’s selected 35 businesses as the coolest places to work, weighting 60 percent of their score on three areas: work-life initiatives, communication, and best practices in tough times.

Terry Barclay, President and CEO of Inforum, says, “As Michigan seeks to reinvent itself, our institutions—businesses included—need to make sure that they are making the best use of all the talent available. For that reason, it matters how well the state’s business community is utilizing the resource that professional women represent.”


  1. Cynthia

    Thanks for the encouragement! Striving to make a positive difference in the lives of children through their parents while providing a work environment that is joyful has been one of our goals. Helping others find jobs in Michigan is another one!

  2. xiaowen

    Thank you! I think this may change with our effort!