Accomplished area women relay their stories at Investing in Women event

Chancellor Phyllis Wise at Saturday’s Investing in Women event, hosted at the I-Hotel.

By Abrar Al-Heeti

Rep. Rodney Davis, R-13, hosted his inaugural women’s event, Investing in Women, on Saturday at the I-Hotel in Champaign. The event was open to the public and people from across the state attended.

The event’s organizers seek to give women the opportunity to network and to share stories about their own successes and challenges in their lives.  

Accomplished women from around the community spoke about their inspirations, dreams and the attainment of their professional and personal goals, before giving advice on how others can achieve their own goals and reach their fullest potential. 

This keynote session featured Rep. Susan Brooks, R-5; Chancellor Phyllis Wise; lawyer Loretto Kennedy and WCIA-3 Morning Show News Anchor Cynthia Bruno.

Susan Brooks

Before being elected to the House of Representatives, Brooks was senior vice president and general counsel for Ivy Tech Community College. Prior to that, she served as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Indiana under former President George W. Bush.

Brooks said what has been most rewarding in her career was being approached by some people in the Republican Party who asked her to run for Congress, which was not something she had previously planned on.

A challenging time in her career was when she was deputy mayor and her candidate lost the election, leaving her without a job.

“It took a few months to figure it out,” she said. “But it wasn’t like I was just gonna be depressed — you have to get out there and network and talk with people and push yourself out there day after day and figure it out.”

Because of the several career changes she’s had in her life, Brooks said if she knew what she knows now, she would advise her younger self or her staff about “being open to possibilities — working very hard in whatever position you’re in, and then when the timing is right, or when an opportunity presents itself, having the guts to go through the door. You might not be successful, but it’s OK to fail and to learn.”

After being a criminal defense attorney for 13 years, Brooks now has to work with lawyers in her office she once had cases against. Thus she learned the importance of interacting with others in a respectful manner and not taking anything personally in her profession. They’re just doing their job, too, she said.

“You never know who you will be working with someday,” she said. “You may be working side by side with those people, or you may need to go to those people when you have a career change.”

Phyllis Wise

Wise has been the chancellor at the University since 2011. Before coming to Illinois, she was executive vice president and provost at the University of Washington, where she served as interim president in 2010.

She said she wishes she had been more assertive and asked for advice even earlier in her career.

“Always look for the people you emulate and respect and use them as advisers and mentors,” she said. “People usually are very generous, and they’re more than happy to share their experiences with you.”

Wise said what is most rewarding about her job is the opportunity to learn something new every day and be stimulated and challenged by the people around her.

What’s been challenging for Wise is the fact that she’s been at five different universities throughout her career, which has led her to move frequently.

“With every move, you leave behind great friends,” she said.

But fortunately, Wise added, this University and community have been very welcoming to her.

“I’ve just sort of been embraced from the day I’ve moved here.”

Loretto Kennedy

Kennedy works for the Chicago law firm Chuhak and Tecson. She focuses her law practice on litigation and working with corporations, start-ups and individuals to help with corporate matters.

She said she believes women need to overcome their fear of “bragging” about themselves on resumes and applications.

“I think that it’s OK to brag,” Kennedy said. “And sometimes I think that we, as women, don’t always recognize that there are places where it’s OK to talk about how wonderful you are. You need to make sure that you sell all that you have to offer.”

Kennedy is a founding member of Women Helping Women at her firm, a bimonthly networking initiative they host at the office, which she said has been the most rewarding professional experience.

Kennedy, a breast cancer survivor, said being diagnosed was the most challenging thing she’s faced.

“That was a turning point in my life,” she said. “It has refocused my lens in a way that I could never have imagined, and in a way that makes some things seem so much more crystal clear … the way I approach life, the way I approach my relationships, and how I challenge myself to do new things.”

Cynthia Bruno

Bruno is a journalist whose work has been honored by the Illinois Broadcasters Association, the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association and the Associated Press. She is also on the board of directors for Champaign County’s United Way and is involved in the Junior League of Champaign-Urbana.

She said she would tell her younger self, “It’s OK for your dreams to change. What you think you’re going to be can change over time because your priorities are going to change.”

She personally never saw herself staying here in Champaign. But she then realized that “it was OK to not make the next jump if I didn’t want to, and to not be going to a bigger market in news.”

Bruno said the most challenging aspect of her profession has been accepting the emotional side of herself in her career. She tried to push that away for a long time because she thought it would cause people to think less of her if she wasn’t a “tough-as-nails” journalist who wasn’t bothered by the tough stories she told.

“When I’m out in the field and I’m interviewing families who have gone through something really difficult, I feel for them,” Bruno said. “I’ve learned that people responded better to my stories when I let them in, because I was helping them understand how this family felt.”

In September, WCIA will launch a brand-new news show created for women, by women. The idea was something Bruno pitched to her managers about a year ago.

“That has definitely been the most rewarding part of my career, is growing something from the ground up,” she said.

Abrar can be reached at [email protected]