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Quad-Cities Lead(h)er Celebrates Five Years Of Making Mentor Matches

Megan Brown-Saldana is absolutely a girl on FIRE, and she’s lighting up the Quad-Cities with warmth, community activism and professional development.

Quad-Cities Lead(h)er Celebrates Five Years Of Making Mentor Matches

At the Sept. 29, 2020 Lead(h)er celebration, executive director Megan Brown-
Saldana (center) poses with award winners Rumaisa Khawaja (left), and Cara Joiner (the 2020 Mentor of the Year).

The 31-year-old executive director of the growing nonprofit Lead(h)er is ready to celebrate the fifth birthday of the women’s mentorship and empowerment organization. Lead(h)er is hosting their fifth-annual Girl on Fire Awards on Wednesday, Sept. 1st at 12 noon, virtually. They honor women who have exemplified the mission of fueling career and community engagement in the workforce.

“Area organizations and businesses are stepping up to make sure all women in our community have access to free individualized mentorship,” Brown-Saldana said recently, noting Lead(h)er is grateful to have the Davenport-based executive search firm Management Resource Group sponsor the Girl on Fire Awards. “The Girl on Fire Awards recognize women mentors and mentees who are making a huge impact here in the Quad-Cities. Thanks to our sponsor Management Resource Group, all virtual attendees can participate for free. All are welcome to join and celebrate 5 years of striking matches for women in the workforce.

Lead(h)er is a local mentorship program fueling career and community engagement for women. To date, Lead(h)er has matched 861 mentors and mentees in the region. Lead(h)er is a free resource due to the generosity of sponsors.

Quad-Cities Lead(h)er Celebrates Five Years Of Making Mentor Matches

Megan Brown-Saldana became the second executive director of Lead(h)er in January 2020.

Like this year, last year the Girl on Fire celebration was held virtually, Sept. 29, 2020, from the Iowa Empowerment Center at One River Place, 1225 E. River Drive. Lead(h)er shared stories from across its matches of female mentors and mentees, and highlighted successes. 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.

For the 5th birthday, they won’t have an in-person party as they hoped (on Sept. 2 with live music and food at Quinlan Court), because of the recent rise in Covid cases. “Now we’re going to do the Girl on Fire Awards the same, but we’ll announce the winners virtually at that time, instead of at the birthday party,” Brown-Saldana said.

“The most important thing for Lead(h)er is that you recognize your mentors and mentees, for the hard work they’ve done,” former mentor Deanna Woodall (vice president of development and growth for YWCA Quad Cities) said. “There’s always another time for a party, and you’re celebrating them all the time.”

About 50 people attended last year’s virtual awards online, Brown-Saldana said. Then in October 2020, there were 40 mentees who applied to Lead(h)er over two weeks. “We have seen a significant increase,” she said. “That’s for a lot of reasons. It’s because of the new connections we have in the community. It’s because of my eagerness to grow our visibility and try to get myself in a lot of rooms and conversations that I wasn’t in before. And it’s because of Covid.”

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Women are facing more challenges in the past 18 months, including remote work and remote learning for kids, Brown-Saldana said. “Women were looking at their lives and were like, I have something to give back and I want to give to my community the way it’s invested in me, or they looked at it and said, I really need somebody to lean on – whether that be professionally or personally, or a combination.”

Quad-Cities Lead(h)er Celebrates Five Years Of Making Mentor MatchesMentors and mentees come to Lead(h)er for different reasons, but they stay “for the magic of mentorship,” she said.

One mentee turned mentor, Courtney Lawrence of Moline, is a professional mom who quit her job last year and started her own interior design studio, www.courtneylawrencestudio.com. She’s also on the Lead(h)er board now.

“She has flourished in that time – gets to stay home, be a mom, give her kids all the love and attention, while running a business and she’s since expanded,” Brown-Saldana said. “She’s an example of a person who can give that back to someone else, and say, ‘Here’s what I did,’ and ‘This is how I prioritized my work schedule and reached out to clients, and how I did marketing.’”

Lawrence, a married 30-year-old with two kids (ages 3 and 1), said recently: “I got involved with Lead(h)er because I was seeking a mentor who could help me grow professionally and also introduce me to new organizations in the community that I could get involved with. I enjoy the connections I’ve made and the opportunities I’ve been presented with. The women in the Lead(h)er community are truly the best and most supportive.

“It’s been a dream of mine to start my own business,” she said. “Over the years of being matched with my mentor, our conversations led me

Quad-Cities Lead(h)er Celebrates Five Years Of Making Mentor Matches

The Lead(h)er fifth birthday and Girl on Fire awards celebration will be online Wednesday, Sept. 1, starting at noon.

to a place where I was confident in my decision to do so. It’s been the best career decision I’ve made! I recommend others get involved if they are looking for that ‘what’s next,’ looking for a little push or guidance, or simply just looking for someone to bounce ideas off of. Having a mentor/mentee as a resource is truly a gift.”

About 15 percent of people involved in Lead(h)er are both a mentor and mentee, Brown-Saldana said, adding that mentorship is a two-way street.

“There isn’t anything superior about being a mentor, except for life experience,” she said. “A person could get anything they wanted out of being a mentor. Name a skill you want to work on and name a skill you’re really good at, and I will find someone who wants to learn from you and someone you can learn from. Because it takes both people.”

Brown-Saldana has been a mentee (with Amber Wood as her mentor) since 2018, prior to becoming executive director in January 2020. Wood works in community relations for OSF Hospitals.

“I leaned heavily into the reasons I couldn’t,” Brown-Saldana of becoming a literal leader for the nonprofit. “That’s a character trait of mine, that I focus on the things I’m not good at. I constantly am saying these are not my strengths, and that’s why I have Deanna. Amber was the

Quad-Cities Lead(h)er Celebrates Five Years Of Making Mentor Matches

Mentee Marcie Ordaz (left), mentor LuAnn Haydon and Megan Brown-Saldana.

first person who helped me reshape that and reconfigure that, and say, those are things you’ll work on. But what about all the things you’re good at? That make you different from other people.”

Her mentor helped give her confidence to get and succeed in this job. “She supports in totally different ways now,” Brown-Saldana said.

The group also has expanded its board recently (to 11 members) by bringing on three women who were mentees, including Lawrence.

“I think another great thing about Lead(h)er’s board is that they have males on there, who are strong advocates for mentorship and women’s leadership,” Woodall said, noting her husband Rob is on the board.. “They support the mentor-mentee relationship. That’s a good thing, because you have a different perspective. I’ve always thought that was great.”

The birthday party always celebrates everyone who has given to Lead(h)er of their time and resources, Brown-Saldana said. They also have had several male mentors, she said. “Mentorship is for everyone, and often times, that is connecting with people and organizations outside of Lead(h)er.”

“Do you know what really benefits men? A powerful and educated female workforce,” she said. “Equality is like what we should have. We talk about empowerment, and women don’t need to be empowered. Power has been stolen from women.

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“When we talk about empowering women, it’s giving them the support and services they need to level the playing field,” Brown-Saldana said. “Having men in our community who also want to support an equal playing field for all – that should be what people do. So typically, most men you’re gonna find, are very supportive of what we do.”

“At the end of the day, anything you can do to uplift women, uplifts everyone,” she said. “What mentorship does is help you find the things

Quad-Cities Lead(h)er Celebrates Five Years Of Making Mentor Matches

Brown-Saldana (right) with her mentor, Amber Wood.

within yourself, refine them and grow with them to have a successful life.”

“Boards that operate between male and female operate at a much higher level than ab all-male or even an all-female board,” Woodall said. “Same thing with your leadership team. If you’ve got a male and female leadership team, your results at the end of the day are going to be much higher than if you had an exclusively all-male leadership team. Because males and females and meant to work together and support each other.”

Both Lead(h)er and its much older sister, the YWCA, have a mission of working to empower women. Last fall, they formally announced their partnership, and sharing of office space, at the aptly named Iowa Empowerment Center, 1225 E. River Drive, Suite 110, Davenport.

After months of discussion, the nonprofits decided to partner together to reach more Q-C women. Woodall, the YWCA’s first vice president of

Quad-Cities Lead(h)er Celebrates Five Years Of Making Mentor Matches

Brown-Saldana, who earned her master’s at Adler University in Chicago, in nonprofit management, worked in higher education for six years (at Black Hawk College and Eastern Iowa Community Colleges) before coming to Lead(h)er.

development and growth (since January 2019), works out of the Davenport riverfront location, which opened in October 2019.

“It just seemed like a very natural fit,” she said recently. “It just kind of came together. We support one another, by offering a lot of things to the mentors and mentees under the YWCA umbrella, and vice versa.”

“Lead(h)er previously looked at community connections as a leading value, and it’s something the women in Lead(h)er report as a reason they get involved with the organization. We always try to make sure there are close relationships, as referral sources for different supplies or classes, or support for women and women in the workforce,” Brown-Saldana said

“The YWCA is really the vehicle that gets women to us,” she said. “We like to partner to make sure the women in our community, and specifically women in the workforce have what they need to be successful.”

A good example of that was the Y Web Career Academy recently graduated its first class (for IT training), among their continuing education programs, Woodall said. “I will reach out to them all and say, here is an opportunity for you to get with a mentor in the IT field, to help you build your career. And the same thing with our Google IT certification program. Once they’re done, we can hook them up with Lead(h)er.”

Brown-Saldana said the nonprofit is now solidifying all things necessary “to make sure we can have equitable, long-lasting change in the community.”

Becoming a leader for others

The 2020 Mentee of the Year was Rumaisa Rahman Khawaja, a life, relationship and personal development coach at Mandala Integrative Medicine, who’s also been a mentor since fall 2017. In late 2019, she started her own transformational life coaching business, and is known as “Coach Ru.”

Quad-Cities Lead(h)er Celebrates Five Years Of Making Mentor Matches

“Coach Ru” — a transformational life coach who has recorded over 100 episodes of her “Real Talk” podcast — is now battling breast cancer, and taking her own advice about showing resiliency, strength and courage.

“You create what you want; you create your situations,” Khawaja said after last September’s award, noting she moved to the Q-C in 2015 not knowing anyone. “You go for it. My intentional word was never in a million years would I think I would get this award.”

“If you don’t know where you’re going, how do you know how to get there?” she asked. “So, there were highs; there have been lows. You find people who really support you on the lows and those highs. I found that community. I found that community through Lead(h)er; I found that community in the Quad-Cities.”

Now 45, the Indian-American Khawaja and her husband have a five-year-old daughter. Coach Ru joined Lead(h)er in 2017, and was matched with mentor Deanna Jensen-Valliere.

“I wanted people to know about Mandala, so she was like a perfect match,” Khawaja said. “We made sure to see each other once a month, but it became much more. She became a friend. She’s one of my sisters. We would meet for coffee and we had double dates with our husbands. She’s said, we give each other that support, that love.”

Her mentor helped her get out into the community, and has been a strong mental support, including events she’s done. “With Mandala, she’s like a walking advertisement. We support each other’s businesses,” Khawaja said. “They do a really good job in the matching process. I’ve been a mentor; I’ve had three mentees. I think it’s also what you put into it. If you’re gonna do it, go all in.” She’s been a mentor since 2017, including for friends.

“I think people are trying to survive,” she said of pandemic life. “There’s a lot of stress and anxiety. You don’t know who else may be going

Quad-Cities Lead(h)er Celebrates Five Years Of Making Mentor Matches

Deanna Jensen-Valliere is mentor to Rumaisa Khawaja.

through some things. I grew up in a family, people don’t share anything. You keep it hush hush. But I’ve always been a person, I want to share.”

Khawaja used to work for Universal Pictures in L.A., but wasn’t happy. Lead(h)er inspired her to grow the most in her career, fueling the confidence and courage she needed to coach other people in their careers. “Learning to know you’re not always going to make someone happy, or focusing on the people you have served,” she said. “It’s knowing my boundaries.”

She recommends Lead(h)er for the invaluable connections made. :The matching process is outstanding,” she said. “Whether it’s career, whether it’s connection, social, just go through the process. And it’s free. It’s someone you may not have met in the community. What do you have to lose?”

Beyond a normal friendship, the mentorship and resources are tremendous, Khawaja said. “It’s resources with different organizations. And when it comes to businesses, if you’re looking for a job, there are so many resources, so many business connections. You get what you make out of it. You either show up or you don’t. We all have a choice.”

Besides Covid, the past year has presented another challenge – she was diagnosed in May with breast cancer and moved with her family to Chicago about a month ago, staying with her in-laws, in Oak Brook. Khawaja is having weekly chemotherapy infusions at Northwestern and plans to be finished in December. From her cancer journey, she’s had to take her own advice and accentuate the positive.

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“There’s so much love surrounding me, so much kindness,” Khawaja said. “Because I’m halfway through my cancer journey, I have three or four months to go. I made it this far, I’m counting it down, so many days.”

“To be able to take it one day at a time and be patient is important,” she said. “I have to allow myself to be OK with resting.”

She’s still coaching through her treatments, but knowing her limits has been huge, Khawaja said. “I’m trying to be this great mom.” She’s looking forward to beating cancer, and coming through healthy on the other side. “Mindset is everything,” she said. “Mindset is huge for many people. We can either be a victim to it, or we can look at it as such a blessing. We were going to move to California and be gone. This is allowing us to spend more time with our family, receive this love. I truly believe, you can handle anything.”

“I look at this as a six-month blip in my life,” Khawaja (whose mother battled depression and schizophrenia) said. “It’s a six-month blip that’s going to change myself and my family forever. But it will definitely propel me to help more people and look back and say, holy crap – you grew up with a mom with mental illness. How did you turn out OK? There were moments where it was a little iffy. I really love my life. I’m really grateful.”

She praised Lead(h)er’s Brown-Saldana for making the job her own. “She’s a go-getter. She’s got energy and is doing new things,” Khawaja said. “The board has changed a lot. She’s learning how to take feedback. It’s gotta be hard when you’re the director and you’ve got to take so many opinions.”

She has done 102 episodes of her podcast “Real Talk with Ru,” since October 2018, working on one new episode a week. “It’s fun. It’s just another avenue, kind of an accountability thing. It’s just another avenue,” Khawaja said. She’s also writing a book over the past year, a memoir plus tools for living.

“I really think it’s important for people to know, not every day is happy,” she said. “We all have a story. Sometimes, we need to read something that’s, ‘I feel this way too.’ That’s a way to learn, I’m not alone. It’s OK to share.”

Offering lessons on leadership

Management Resource Group is the primary sponsor of the Sept. 1 Lead(h)er event, and MRG president Lauri Flanagan will be the keynote speaker, to talk in part about the history of women in the workforce.

“She’ll talk about how far we’ve come and how the workforce is going to look so much different going forward, and how women have to invest

Quad-Cities Lead(h)er Celebrates Five Years Of Making Mentor Matches

Lauri Flanagan, president of Davenport-based Management Resource Group, will be keynote speaker for the Sept. 1 event.

in that to be successful,” Brown-Saldana said. The award winners will get five free coaching hours from MRG, she said.

“We have never had the Girl on Fire Awards themselves sponsored, and what’s really important is this journey that Lead(h)er is on, that the women are on,” Brown-Saldana said. “It’s about what these women are really great at, in giving back. But also what is Lead(h)er is going to do in the long run for our community. Management Resource Group wants to be part of that narrative and they want to instill the coaching aspect and the workforce navigation aspect, that is really strong in mentorship.”

She hopes that by the group 6th birthday, they can show progress women made in their careers because of the MRG coaching.

“Mentoring is empowering women,” Woodall said. “Whether the mentor is empowering their mentee, but also the mentee is empowering their mentor. That, right there, the way we’re married together, is perfect.”

Brown-Saldana became a mentor last fall, and her mentee wants a better grasp on navigating her job in a school system that doesn’t always benefit the people who need help the most. “In my previous life, I worked in higher education, in the school system, and that was something that was really hard for me. I always felt I was the problem and not the solution.

“What I hope to offer her is, how she can feel like the solution,” she said. “It’s really like a journey for both of us – knowing that I am six years

Quad-Cities Lead(h)er Celebrates Five Years Of Making Mentor Matches

Deanna Woodall, vice president of development and growth for YWCA Quad Cities, has been a mentor for three women.

ahead on that journey she’s on, and in a position where everything I say is taken with a lot of respect, and I didn’t always have that. It’s given me perspective on my own journey. It’s also I can help her by saying hey, this is real life; here’s what I can recommend. I did this, don’t do that.”

“The mentee brings a naivete, and they’re so young and spongy – not young necessarily in age, but young in their careers,” Woodall said. “I was a mentor; I am no longer, but watching people become successful is hugely empowering. To think that you had a role in that is hugely empowering. Just like having kids.”

Flanagan has worked for MRG (which has just five on staff) for six years. Her firm specializes in executive search, coaching, career search and consulting.

Flanagan has enjoyed being an informal mentor in her career. “Looking at the historical context of women in work, we’ve come a long way,” she said. “The challenges we’re experiencing today, where organizations are having difficulty finding people, and there’s a whole host of reasons why that’s the case. It’s not gonna go away.”

Women are less mentored than men, Flanagan said, and “that’s why it’s really important that Lead(h)er exists,” she said. “I always feel like it’s nice to have someone outside the organization so you have some external eyes looking at what you’re doing, so they’re not so deep. That’s why it’s really important.”

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“And just women supporting women is a great thing,” she said. “To be able to give a hand up I think is super important.”

Women are not mentored as often because they simply don’t ask for the help, Flanagan said. “Sometimes at organizations, it’s not offered. There’s not many organizations that have that internal system. We don’t get promoted or hired for certain things because they think we’re less committed. We have too many challenges in our life. Even if you have a supportive partner, you’re still the one that has the majority of the kid-organizing, home stuff, you name it. That’s just continues to persist, and I think the pandemic has shown that again, all these women leaving the workforce is due to the fact that they’re having to manage the school. They’re having to manage someone who’s sick or elderly, or

Quad-Cities Lead(h)er Celebrates Five Years Of Making Mentor Matches

2019 Mentor of the Year Deanna Jensen-Valliere and 2019 Mentee of the Year Lillie Johnson.

whatever. The overwhelming majority are women, and this last year has been interesting.

“The big component of this last year is, millions of women have left the workforce and so now what?” Flanagan asked. “It’s an interesting landscape now, for sure.”

The mother of two kids in their 20s, Flanagan stayed home to care for them up until about seven years ago. “In today’s environment, where everybody’s looking for somebody, the people who are willing and able, I think the challenge today is, everybody wats to work from home,” she said. “I definitely think those skills are transferrable.”

“I think women in general need somebody to say, yes you can,” Flanagan said. “What Lead(h)er is doing is important, not just for women but in general. It’s great that we have this women’s based organization in the Quad-Cities.”

Women overall need to project more confidence in their abilities, and not be so worried about what everyone else thinks, she said.

“Whether their goal is to be the CEO or an individual contributor, do that the best that you can do – because we don’t need all CEOs,” Flanagan said. “We don’t need all vice presidents. There are some people who are exemplary at what they do and are necessary to their organizations.”

“Choose your comfort level, whatever that is, and be the best you can be at that,” she said. “Not everybody wants to lead an organization.”

Since the Girl on Fire Awards will be hosted virtually, prior registration is required at www.leadherqc.org/birthday. Learn more about how to get involved at www.leadherqc.org.

Quad-Cities Lead(h)er Celebrates Five Years Of Making Mentor Matches

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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.
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