Women leaders drawn to New Albany

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO
April Domine, superintendent, New Albany Schools

Nancy Ferguson has been the mayor of New Albany since 2003-and her two predecessors were also women. Working as curator of the local historical society, she discovered how far back the strong legacy of female leadership in the city ran. Right after women received the right to vote in 1920, Martha "Metta" Babbitt became mayor of New Albany and residents voted female council members into five of the six positions. These women put in place the city's first bylaws, and the first streetlight.

"They were determined to improve their town," says Ferguson, and the many female leaders in New Albany today keep this progress in motion. Women lead New Albany's ambitious efforts to provide nationally-recognized education and health- care, and women are at the helm of the city's government and many of its thriving businesses.

Nationally, women make up nearly 47 percent of the U.S. labor force, but fewer than 5 percent are Fortune 500 CEOs and just under 15 percent are executive officers according to Catalyst, an international nonprofit organization expanding opportunities for women and business. The picture of the New Albany workforce looks very different. Though the city hasn't tracked the number of female executives per capita, it's clear that the number is much higher than the national average. The mayor, deputy city manager and community development director are women. A woman serves as executive director of the Chamber of Commerce and the school superintendent is female. Many businesses based in New Albany, from newer startups to 50-year-veteran Limited Stores, have female CEOs and top executives.

Maybe it's the city's emphasis on partnerships and relationships. Perhaps it's the focus on supporting entrepreneurs, or that it's home to strong retail and beauty industries. But whatever the reason, New Albany has a strong network of female leaders working together to make it a great place to live and work.

Jennifer Chrysler, the city's community development director, helps draw new businesses to New Albany and maintains strong connections to many of the female businesses owners and executives. She says many local women have noticed and talked about this strong support network of available resources.

"There's a relationship aspect to women in business that's just different," Chrysler says. With nine years of experience working in New Albany, she sees it as a place where people who value relationships thrive rather than just a place they come to work and punch a time card. And she says in New Albany's case, a lot of these people are women.

"You look around and realize you're surrounded by so many women. It's refreshing to have that diversity in the workforce and in the community," she says.

Many of the female leaders in New Albany point to the community's collaborative spirit and the synergy this creates as the top reason they appreciate living and working in New Albany. Chrysler says the early public-private partnership between the city and The New Albany Company set the stage for this relational type of community. This emphasis on partnership is what people and businesses see when they come to New Albany, says Chrysler, and it makes the city unique. Chrysler helped to create 1,800 jobsin New Albany during the recession and aggressively pursues businesses for the community by connecting them with potential partners. This has helped make New Albany home to many industry-changing efforts such as the creation of a beauty and consumer packaging campus unlike any other in the nation. Having all of the different players in one location offers advantages like minimizing the carbon footprint of shipping materials cross country. It also makes business owners like Tara Abraham, chairman and co-CEO of contract packaging company Accel, excited to be part of something that's "a first." The city entices companies by fostering relationships, listening and meeting needs. Mayor Ferguson notes this extends to things as simple as putting a mailbox in front of a company if it asks. And these efforts are noticed by the city's female executives.

Entrepreneur Tammy Krings, founder and CEO of TS24 and the AllStar Travel Group, built a custom space for her business in New Albany four years ago after previous locations in Westerville and at Easton.

"Women are very collaborative, and we feel it's important that we're heard and taken seriously. And we felt that from New Albany," she says. The way she was treated and the intimacy she felt from the New Albany Company made a big difference to her as she chose the location.

For business owner Tonia Irion, knowing that the city listens to local businesses and residents was key to her company's decision to relocate to New Albany two years ago. Irion is president and co-founder of e-Cycle, a business that offers companies a responsible, secure and profitable approach to recycling cell phones. One of the three reasons she and her husband created their business was to give back to the community they live in, and that's something they see New Albany doing.

"In each case it hasn't been 'what can you do for us?' but 'what can we do for you?'," she says.

Limited Stores already called New Albany home when Diane Ellis succeeded Linda Heasley as CEO and president in August 2013, but already she appreciates what the community's active public/ private partnership means for her business. She values the proactive efforts of city government officials and others, and their willingness to brainstorm about ways to make New Albany a place to continue to grow businesses.

"It's why things are able to happen here so much faster than other areas," she said. "The movement happens in a more accelerated and coordinated fashion."

After working in New York, the Pittsburgh native also finds New Albany "a little bit more like home" with its community nature and welcoming residents. The smaller geographic size of the city also puts larger businesses like Limited Stores physically near smaller businesses, which further breeds partnership.

"Being neighbors two blocks down creates some opportunities that companies otherwise wouldn't have access to," Ellis says. For Limited Stores, it means access to some of the innovative services provided by other New Albany businesses.

Another relative newcomer to New Albany enticed by the city's partnerships is Courtney Orr, executive director of the New Albany Chamber of Commerce. After working in Florida for nine years, Orr says she was intrigued by the economic development and other progress happening in New Albany. She found that the partnerships and relationships seemed so automatic and organically grown. "Relationships with ease" and without friction.

"Maybe it's just luck that New Albany has some strong ambition, but it's composed of people who are very ambitious in their own right," Orr says.

The city aims high, going after big businesses and lofty goals. And the city's many female leaders reflect this big-dream mentality. Home to only about 8,000 residents, the Columbus suburb has placed women in the driver's seat of its efforts to become a national leader in both education and healthcare.

New Albany-Plain Local Schools set the goal to become one of the nation's top-performing school districts and hired Superintendent April Domine in 2011 to work toward this objective. Domine says the city is constantly imagining what the future can look like, which is exciting to her and other leaders with innovative, visionary and entrepreneurial spirits. She sees that characteristic in other female leaders in the area.

"It's a community of participation," she says. "People are not siloed, they are out and working."

The city also aspires to be one of the healthiest communities in the nation, and Tracy Ingram took charge of this effort as executive director of Healthy New Albany for the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in 2013. She was drawn to the community by the opportunity to take research from OSU and apply it in a practical and groundbreaking way, "having an impact on the health of the community in a way that's never been done before." Ingram spends busy days in her temporary office in the Phelps House as she prepares for the opening of the Philip Heit Center for Healthy New Albany later this year, a partnership between Healthy New Albany, OSU Wexner Medical Center and Nationwide Children's Hospital. Ingram says she is impressed by the groundswell of community and volunteer support for this project and other efforts in the community.

"The women in New Albany seem to have a larger vision beyond themselves," she says. "We're all doers-making changes and impacting; moving things in revolutionary ways."

Partnerships between the city and businesses, and among businesses, may be a hallmark of New Albany, but the city's female executives also appreciate the personal camaraderie they feel with other local leaders. The New Albany Women's Network helps local women build relationships and share resources more formally, but the city's professional women interact on many fronts. The chamber's Orr sees this on the Chamber of Commerce board and throughout the community.

"I think women are amazing...I'm biased," she says with a laugh. "Getting women together is a powerful scenario. It's inspiring and motivating. Women feed off one another for that."

Business owners Irion and Abraham both serve on the Chamber of Commerce board. Abraham and her husband moved Accel to New Albany in 2011, and it is now one of the city's top 10 employers. In addition to serving on various boards with other female executives, Abraham also crosses paths with other women leaders at philanthropic events, through trade organizations or even at school functions with their families. She lists several local female leaders and then pauses: "There's just leader after leader after leader," she says. "They seem to pick each other up and bounce ideas off of each other. We have so many options with so many brilliant female leaders."

Schools Superintendent Domine says the striking characteristic she has seen from leader to leader in New Albany without exception is a willingness to work together, and that "all of the momentum you see here is a function of that collaborative spirit." She came to New Albany excited to be part of a place that is reaching and stretching and creative about what a community could be if all parties worked together.

"There are brilliant, talented, visionary women in the community that are changing their industries," she says.

Many of New Albany's female executives were also drawn to New Albany by the opportunities the city offers to help them give back, balance work, family and leisure, and maintain a healthy lifestyle even with busy work schedules.

Community Development Director Chrysler says the city is consciously creating an at- mosphere where people can have balance, support and amenities.

"You can be a mom, be a business per- son and look out for your own health," she said.

Ingram with Healthy New Albany will be helping local residents improve their health, but the move to New Albany has been a positive experience for her family as well. When she applied for the position of executive director of Healthy New Albany in 2013 and learned more about the community, her husband told her "whether you get this job or not, let's head over there." She got the job and they made the move to New Albany. She says she and her husband loved their previous community, but are "in love" with New Albany-from the farmers market to a local lecture series to the support she receives to make New Albany the healthiest community in the country. "I'm so excited I could pinch myself."

The many other women working hard to move New Albany forward also remember to take advantage of the amenities it currently offers. The beautiful architecture and golfing opportunities initially drew Mayor Ferguson and her husband to the community in 1996. Ellis of Limited Stores is "blown away by what a beautiful town it is." CEO Krings says she smiles when she looks out her window at white picket fences while talking on the phone to an employee in Shanghai. E-cycle President Irion appreciates the city's focus on being environmentally conscious. Superintendent Domine especially enjoys the city's arts and cuisine.

"Everything that is important to me for my quality of life is in close proximity here," Domine says.

And this is not by accident. New Albany is being built on a strong master plan, and Community Development Director Chrysler enjoys the energy and momentum within the community as she works on a daily basis to move the community toward its goals. She notes how much she enjoys the stories and success of the many women she works with and the time they take to care for her and one another.

"I'm inspired on a daily basis by these families," she says. "I have a full-time family and a full-time job, and I'm surrounded by so many women who have walked this path before me."

Mary Sterenberg is a freelance writer.