Photo of a group of women in the Women's Leadership Initiative walking with umbrellas on the University of Montana campus.
Impact Stories

A women's leadership initiative

Every few weeks or so, a group of women gather for a Fireside Chat with a successful Montanan. Their goal: to learn more about what the path to leadership looks like.

They are there, in part, because of our collaboration with the University of Montana to restart the Women’s Leadership Initiative.

The WLI is part of the university’s—and now our—push toward gender equity. It supports the value we place on making our culture a force for good, both within the credit union and out in the community.

“WLI helped me realize I’m totally capable of taking risks,” said Kelly Webster, who was part of the first WLI cohort in 2015, and who is now chief of staff in the office of UM President Seth Bodnar, as well as a member of Clearwater’s Board of Directors.

“The women in the WLI cohort will be transformed, and they’ll be poised to transform their organizations,” Webster said.

Photo of the clocktower at the University of Montana.

According to Jack Lawson, Clearwater’s President and Chief Executive Officer “Clearwater’s workforce is sixty-five percent female. If we are not fully developing the leadership potential of the women in our team, then we are not at our best. And today, we are not. While our total leadership team is over 50 percent female, if you look just at our senior management ranks, say, from the VP title and up, we are
just 25 percent female. That’s not good enough. We have work to do.”

Photo of Jack Lawson and Niki Phear discussing women in leadership over coffee at a table at a coffee shop.

This year’s WLI cohort is a diverse group, ten chosen from the university and two chosen from among our co-workers.

Rachel Maki, Clearwater’s Community Outreach Coordinator, was initially reluctant to apply to the WLI. But she is
now glad she did. “It was really powerful for me, individually,” she said.

Maki, who started in member services eighteen years ago, said others have also noticed a change in her. “I’ve heard a lot of
feedback,” she said, “that I’m more vocal in my opinions and more willing to speak up, especially on behalf of other people.”

For Erika Sylvester, Manager of our University of Montana branch, her acceptance into the WLI cohort came as a bit of a surprise. “I was assuming that everyone would apply. And, in my head, there were a lot more qualified people out there.”

Sylvester’s biggest takeaways? “WLI has given me a lot of connections and so much confidence in the leader I am,” she said.

Such change doesn’t come easily, said Dr. Nicky Phear, coordinator and a cofounder of the program housed in the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center. In addition to Fireside Chats and monthly Cohort Gatherings, the WLI requires its members to take stock of their strengths and weaknesses, both personally and professionally.

“There’s a lot of hard stuff,” said Phear, who became interested in the WLI through her work on climate change. “When we reach that point where we’re looking in and we see where we need to change, sometimes it’s easier to just turn back out.”

But the effort is worth it, Maki said.

Two women in the Women's Leadership Initiative sitting and talking.

“It’s so our daughters, our nieces, our granddaughters, the women in our circle who are coming up behind us, will have less work to do. So everyone is valued for their voice and their contribution.”

— Rachel Maki
Photo of coworker

Sylvester concurred, adding, “It’s very amazing to work for an organization that values the impact of supporting an organization like the WLI.”

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