Megan Hasselroth wouldn’t be where she is today – the executive director of a Quad-Cities women’s business organization – without influential mentors.

Since January 2020, the 30-year-old Sherrard High School alum has led Lead(h)er, just the second director (and only paid staffer) of the nonprofit since it was started by Melissa Pepper in August 2016.

Cara Joiner, left, Katelyn Darling, and Kelly Hendershot (all Lead(h)er mentors and mentees) celebrated last year at the 3rd birthday at Davenport’s Armored Gardens.

In a virtual 4th birthday celebration, at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 29, Lead(h)er will share stories from across 300-plus matches of female mentors and mentees, highlight successes, and announce the 2020 Girl on Fire Award winners.

The awards honor Mentor of the Year and Mentee of the Year — amazing women nominated by their peers who show exceptional commitment. Lead(h)er offers free mentorship to young professionals, free networking, guest speakers and professional development, as well as an inspirational spark to serve their community.

“I can contribute being here because of the mentorship I’ve received in my life,” Hasselroth said recently. “I’ve had some amazing, loving, cheerleader mentors. And I’ve had some stringent, hard, get-your-nose-in-that-book and show us how smart you are mentors. It’s been a combination of both those things that allowed me to still be who I am – sunny and fun — and be a serious person to run an organization.”

“I’m very privileged to have had mentors in almost every aspect of my life, to get me here at this age,” she said.

Hasselroth earned her bachelor’s degree in sociology at Western Illinois University and got her master’s at Adler University in Chicago, in nonprofit management.

“I had not experienced diversity until I went away to college,” she said, noting she worked a year with AmeriCorps in Davenport, with Big Brothers Big Sisters, serving at-risk youth, matching them with mentors.

“You could say that mentorship comes naturally, because I’ve worked in a couple places, but I didn’t experience life in the same way most people do,” Hasselroth said. “I needed a lot of mentors to teach me how to navigate working with diverse communities.”

Before January, she worked for six years in higher education, as a career navigator, at Eastern Iowa Community Colleges in Davenport and Black Hawk College in Moline.

Last year, she was a BHC advisor for at-risk students, after being matched with a Lead(h)er mentor in fall 2018 and wanting to work in the nonprofit world.

“It was her who helped me along and turned my passion for helping others and my formal education, and helped me turn that into the next step,” Hasselroth said of Amber Wood, former executive director of the Red Cross in the Quad-Cities who now works in community relations for OSF Health Care in Kewanee and Monmouth.

Jasmine Bozeman holds her award for being 2018’s Mentee of the Year.

“I can attribute a significant amount of my current success to my mentor through Lead(h)er,” Hasselroth said. “She taught me that who I am as a person now is OK. I am enough and that being able to help people the way that I have in the past is a great foundation to help women in a similar way, but in a different platform. She kind of like believed in me, when I had a lot of doubts about my skills and abilities.”

“That direct feedback is something I don’t typically get; I need that,” she said. “I’m a person who does best with direct and honest feedback. I get it from her and I get it from Melissa Pepper. Through this goal, I have gained new mentors and been able to mentor others, just in more informal ways.”

“We want to empower women to give back to their communities and to connect with other people in their lives, because mentorship is important,” Hasselroth said. “Connection is the number-one thing that’s keeping people going and when you have someone you can lean on – not only about your professional situation, but your personal situation as well.”

“Here’s how I’m getting through it, and here’s how I’m trying to compartmentalize what’s going on in the world,” she said.

Pepper – since January 2019, the president of Davenport-based Total Solutions, and previously the first marketing director for the law firm Lane & Waterman – is impressed with the new director, who succeeded Sarah Stevens.

Lilie Johnson, left, was 2019 Mentee of the Year, with her mentor, Cara Joiner, Home Care Consultant at Home Instead Senior Care Quad Cities.

“She is so passionate and is really doing a wonderful job,” Pepper said of Hasselroth. “She’s been served a hard hand because of Covid. There’s nothing like starting a brand new job leading an organization meant for connection, to be stuck at home and everybody else as well. She’s made the most of it, and done a really nice job trying to find creative ways to stay connected with the match community and to our donors.”

“She definitely has a strong passion,” Wood agreed. “Megan just has a strong passion for helping other women – lifting them up, women’s rights, the opportunity to help other women connect, build that confidence.

“It seemed like a natural fit for her, to deliver on so many of the passions she studied — whether it be through her work in higher education, her nonprofit past,” she said. “This is a great opportunity for Megan to put her skills and passion together.”

Stevens — also a Lead(h)er mentor — “had a gift for really making solid matches,” Wood said. “The application process doesn’t tell everything. Sarah had a real knack for identifying good matches to make them be successful. She had a passion for helping other people as well. Sarah had done a tremendous job, to start it and really as Megan has continued it, it’s been great.”

Matching for career and community

Lead(h)her has had 300 matches, including 71 made this spring.

“The need is there; we always have a waiting list for mentees,” Hasselroth said. “That’s what I spend a lot of time doing, is recruiting for mentors. That is our biggest need. Because our mentees come pretty easily.”

In October, they will open another matching cycle, to hopefully do at least 60 more matches.

On the website, leadherqc.org, you can find applications to be a mentor or mentee. There’s a survey where it asks your goals. “Who do you think you need as a mentor?” Hasselroth said, noting it asks about a formal or informal relationship.

Megan Hasselroth became Lead(h)er executive director in January 2020.

She gets background information on applicants, and there is a queue of mentees where she has to match mentors. It usually is 4-6 weeks to get matched, at no cost.

“We’re the only organization in the Quad-Cities that not only offers cross-industry mentorship, but mentorship that is created not through an algorithm. We instead really get to know them as a person.”

The matches don’t necessarily have to work in the same field. Many times, the mentee is looking for specific skills, Hasselroth said.

“Maybe they’re working through a new marketing position, they’ve never done it before and they need someone to help with personal branding,” she said.

“Anything that you participate in with Lead(h)er is free of cost, and that’s important to us because women already have certain barriers to success, and we want to make sure mentorship is something that is accessible to any woman,” Hasselroth said. “We’re really lucky to have some amazing sponsors, some granting organizations.”

There are major donors who support the organization, she added.

“If we have a cost associated with an event or program, we get those sponsored by a generous organization in the community,” Hasselroth said.

She’s currently working remotely and is open to meet people in person. It is challenging to get mentors, since there are some misconceptions.

“Women think they’re not an appropriate fit – that they’re not good enough or smart enough, or have achieved enough to be a successful mentor,” she said. “That takes a little bit of education, meeting with them and telling them, ‘Listen, yes, you’ve got stuff to learn, but you have so much to offer another woman.’”

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“What it means to be a mentor, it’s not solving life’s problems in the snap of a finger,” Hasselroth said. “It’s having that friend, that springboard, that cheerleader, that person who can say this is what I would do; this is what I did in the past that worked, and what I did in the past that didn’t work.”

“That’s what a mentor is all about – if you’re kind and patient and willing to share – that’s all it takes to be a successful mentor,” she said.

Now there are about five mentors and 25 mentees awaiting matches. There are currently a couple mentors with more than one mentee.

“We also have women who do both – they start out as a mentee and after a year, say I could totally take someone on,” Hasselroth said. “I have a lot to give back, so they do both.”

Amber Wood, left, a mentor with her mentee, Megan Hasselroth.

People often underestimate their mentoring abilities before joining, Pepper said.

“They think, what do I have to give someone else? I can’t get my own self together,” she said. “They’ve overcome obstacles in their personal or professional life, or they’re just a wonderful human who has a lot to give. We as women in particular, we feel we need to have a medal around our neck to give our wisdom and knowledge and time.”

“We are strapped for time, we think we don’t have anything else to give,” Pepper (a mother of two boys, 6 and nearly 2) said. “We’re always looking for more. It’s awesome, even though women do feel strapped for time, they still do it, because they are called to lift women up. They want to give back. They want to say, I wish I had someone who did this for me.

“I hear that a lot,” she said. “I wish this had been around when I was first starting. I think that’s a really beautiful thing too, because I think a lot of times women get a bad rap that we don’t help each other.”

“At Lead(h)er, the pie is endless and everybody can have a piece of it,” Pepper said. “Women are really willing in our community to help one another and that’s one of my favorite reasons I’m a part of it.”

It’s up to each match how they want to meet, she said, and it’s not just about furthering career.

“Career and community engagement are linked,” Pepper said. “You can have a really satisfying career. But when you have that community engagement, you’re digging your roots down deep in the community, you have a more beautiful opportunity to advance in your career, while also feeding the place that fed you.

Melissa Pepper, president of Total Solutions, founded the group in 2016.

“I love the combination of career and community engagement, because for me personally, it’s led to a rewarding career and also helped me understand the place we call the Quad-Cities,” she said.

“I understand the nonprofits that are here, how I can use my skills and talents to make the place better than when I found it,” Pepper (who volunteers with the Q-C Chamber, Genesis, and Skip-A-Long board) said. “That’s why I think Lead(h)er is special; it’s not just a professional development mechanism. It’s a way to help women get involved here so they want to stay here, which is very important.”

“Your employers are going to be happy because they don’t have people here just for a couple years. They put their roots down,” she said.

“One cool story I heard, one woman got matched at the beginning of the pandemic, with someone who felt, how could I have gotten though the pandemic without my mentor?” Pepper recalled. “She was so inspired by it, she turned around and donated to Lead(h)er. It just proves our mentors have been meeting and connecting with our mentees throughout the pandemic. There was no pause on our operations.”

How Covid has changed connecting

The Covid crisis has complicated life for Lead(h)er, as for most of society and business.

“It’s been interesting so far. I don’t think anybody anticipates their very first executive director role as being something that takes place during a pandemic,” Hasselroth said. “I spend a significant amount of time at home, instead of doing all the things I’d love to do, like meeting more of the women in our match cohort.”

Melissa Pepper received the 2019 Quad-Cities Jaycees Young Community Leader Award.

“The silver lining to it, we’ve been super lucky as an organization to continue to fulfill our mission without much change,” she said. “We went virtually right away and have done some great educational opportunities. We’ve had some good turnout and we are actually going in next week for our 4th birthday fundraiser.”

In the past, they’ve only had in-person networking and professional development, so that had to change.

“Those are things that are traditionally done well in person,” she said. “We aren’t able to do that and I had a lot of concerns when I started, about the pandemic and how it was probably going to very much negatively impact our ability to make sure that women are still connecting.

“I was actually incredibly, pleasantly surprised,” Hasselroth said. “Our women are really finding solace within themselves and their matches, but we’ve had some great participation on some of the virtual offerings we have. I think we’ve done that by being really intentional about what we’re offering. Everybody is doing so much virtual stuff right now.

“If we can keep it to a minimum, and exactly what our matches need right now, and do what we do well,” she said. “The in-person thing has thrown a wrench in it, but we’ve adapted well and so has our match cohort.”

With the economic devastation this year, Lead(h)er is needed more than ever.

“We provide some of the tools and connections to grow or find a new position,” Hasselroth said. “Being in a pandemic is a brand-new thing for most people alive today. So, just paying attention to what the needs are of our match community. I assume they’re going to need more robust opportunities in regards to workforce development. They’re also going to need more social/emotional tools, because of what we’re going through.”

All nonprofits are concerned about funding, and Lead(h)er is fortunate to have long-term sponsors, she said.

Souligna Stone is a mentee who formed her own company in 2017.

“We just need to continue to do what we do well, and articulate to stakeholders in the community why this is so important, and what kind of impact it actually has on our economy,” she said.

“It’s been a hard year; people need to reflect on all the good things that are happening,” Hasselroth said, noting they will have three speakers at the Tuesday event. And during the day, they’ll also share success stories on social media every hour.

From the Q-C to the world

One of the birthday guest speakers is Souligna Stone, a 44-year-old mentee paired with Marcy Mendenhall, who’s head of SAL Family and Community Services.

Daughter of East Asian immigrants (her father died by suicide 15 years ago), Stone was the first in her family to attend college and she climbed the corporate ladder – working 20 years in the Q-C, marketing and HR for several companies, including Mediacom, IMEG, and Olympic Steel.

Stone got divorced (she has an 8-year-old son) and was looking for a new direction in life, when she was inspired by Lead(h)er and a guest speaker, then matched with Mendenhall in 2017.

That year, Stone formed her own business — Stone Media Source — as a marketing and branding strategist, corporate consultant, keynote speaker and coach. Based in Jacksonville, Fla., and the Q-C, she works in marketing, sales, employee relations, communications, social media, and leadership development – with clients all over the world.

“I never thought of myself as a public speaker,” Stone said, seeing the courage and bravery of Lead(h)er speakers and mentors.

“All these women were brave enough to share their stories, the way they were able to get through it, be authentic about their stories, help other people to heal, empower,” she said. “You have the power to help empower other people. From that, I was able to create my own mentoring and coaching program.”

“I can speak and heal other people, give them hope, inspiration, motivate them,” Stone said. Of Mendenhall, she said: “She always gave me space, letting me know I was not alone, loving me, and not judged, giving me advice and mentorship.”

“There was something that had been sitting inside me, that fire burns slow,” Stone said. A turning point was when her son was about 3, and she brought him into work one Saturday, sitting with his juice box and crayons at a conference table.

Lead(h)er celebrates its fourth birthday on Sept. 29.

“I thought, this is not my life, how I spend my Saturdays with my son,” she said. “We’re supposed to be on the beach, having fun. We’re not doing this anymore.”

“I created this mentorship because of Lead(h)er,” Stone said. “I love to be more involved with Lead(h)er, to train or mentor, give back to the organization.”

What the group sparked a fire in her was to make more of an impact –“not just in the community, but nationally and internationally,” she said. “You are brave, have enough love for yourself, love your life, knowing that God has a purpose for you. It’s loving and respecting yourself, loving your life, how do you make it.”

Stone sees Mendenhall not just as a mentor, but sister and friend.

“There’s greatness in all of us. My job is to help you uncover all these layers,” she said, comparing it to a caterpillar who re-emerges as a butterfly.

“There’s a responsibility to pass on, to change someone’s life, to make sure everybody knows about it,” Stone said of mentoring. “There are these lives I would have never been able to touch; that’s the power what mentorship means to me. Someone sparked that in me, gave me that hope, affirmation to just have courage, to share my story authentically, where everybody has power, when you’re the most authentic.”

Learning and growth is two-way street

Amber Wood has been a mentor to two matches since 2016, and it’s been very rewarding.

“I learn as much if not more than those I’ve been matched with,” she said. Her first match moved to get a new theater job in the Seattle area.

With Hasselroth, it’s “been a crazy whirlwind to watch things happen and unfold my role as a mentor,” Wood said. “It’s not a special skill set I bring. The biggest thing about being a mentor is listening — helping build confidence in the mentee.”

“I encourage her and support her, connect her with resources that may be able to help her accomplish things,” she said. “The friendship and support I’ve gotten has been an extra add.”

During Covid, it’s about being creative – “whether it be through Zoom, other ways to connect,” Wood said. “Each match has found their own groove. We’ve texted back and forth, a couple video calls, socially distanced opportunities to get together for coffee.”

“We’re two women supporting each other,” she said. “The mentor/mentee titles a lot of times are arbitrary. It’s about the friendships you make throughout the process. You continue moving forward, even if the formal mentor relationship ends, I don’t see our friendship ending.”

Wood calls Hasselroth fearless.

“She isn’t afraid to tackle the projects, even the hard ones, and that’s been inspiring to me to watch that unfold,” she said. “Just don’t be afraid to try new things; I continue to encourage her that way. She thrives from feedback.”

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“With the pandemic, she has done an excellent job in trying to quickly pivot to meet the needs,” Wood said. “We’re all still learning in the process. The great thing about an organization like Lead(h)er, all volunteers — whether board members, committee, mentors and mentees – we’re dedicated to the mission of the organization, all learning together.”

Melissa Taylor, the board chair, is audit senior manager for Deloitte & Touche in eastern Iowa, and involved with the group about three years, first as a mentor and on the board since mid-2018.

“I have had mentors throughout my career and they have been essential in lot of different ways, helping me grow personally and professionally” she said. “They’ve been essential to my career development. I wanted the opportunity to give back.”

“Our mentor/mentee relationship is giving on both ends,” Taylor said. “It’s not just from the mentor. Both benefit from the relationship. In many ways, I have been mentored by my mentee. She’s helped me grow in several ways.”

One way has been looking at life from a different perspective, she noted.

Melissa Taylor is current board president.

“I work for a large global organization, and have the benefit of a handful of resources within my work environment, and it’s something not everybody – especially small organizations — have the benefit of,” Taylor said. “Something Lead(h)er definitely brings to the table – a wide breadth of knowledge and experience we can provide to our mentees and mentors.”

“Covid has been challenging for everybody,” she said. “It has allowed us to rethink how we conduct some of our events, how we connect with others. I would say we haven’t missed a beat.

“Maybe how we do it, what it looks like is a little different but the underlying goal of bringing our community and matches together hasn’t changed.”

They still hold virtual quarterly huddles, to bring women together for networking and speakers.

“It’s exciting to be able to say we’ve been around for four years and we’re still standing,” Pepper said. “And we’re still relevant, more than ever. Women still need that sounding board, that mentorship to say, let’s get through this. We’re here for you. The ways we can serve our community are more important than ever.”

“The coolest thing about Lead(h)er is, everybody gets something a little different,” she said. “We’re raising up women in leadership positions, and Megan is a great example of that.”

“We’re here for women to achieve the goals they set for themselves. That hasn’t changed in four years,” Pepper said. “Mentors have been tremendously helpful for me, as I’ve grown in my career over four years. It’s very exciting that women still see Lead(h)er as something that’s needed. What a cool thing, an exciting way to help our community.”

Tickets for Tuesday’s celebration are $25, so Lead(h)er can continue to fuel career and community engagement for women in the workforce. Additional gift levels are available for your convenience, at Eventbrite.com.

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Jonathan Turner has been covering the Quad-Cities arts scene for 25 years, first as a reporter with the Dispatch and Rock Island Argus, and then as a reporter with the Quad City Times. Jonathan is also an accomplished actor and musician who has been seen frequently on local theater stages, including the Bucktown Revue and Black Box Theatre.