Woman power in Aspen
September 9, 2008
ASPEN ” It takes an exorbitant amount of perseverance, self confidence and guts to break free from the good-old boys club and rise to the top in the Aspen business world.
That was the message from six of Aspen’s most successful business women who participated in a two-hour panel discussion last week in front more than 100 young professionals.
Amy Margerum, executive vice president of the Aspen Institute; Carrie Wells, a leading real estate agent for Coldwell Banker; Cari Kuhlman of United Western Bank; Casey Coffman, owner of Takah Sushi, Helen Klanderud, former mayor of Aspen; and Lily Garfield, owner of CosBar, participated in the discussion hosted by the Aspen Young Professionals Association at the Crystal Palace Grille.
John Sarpa, of Centurion Partners, bravely moderated the conversation among some of the most self confident and accomplished women in Aspen.
“What man would take on six powerful women?” Sarpa joked at the beginning of the discussion. “They could have had a woman standing here.”
But in all seriousness, Sarpa said the group represents just a small fraction of the women who have climbed the ladder of success in the valley. The intent of the discussion was to focus on what it’s like for them to be professionals in a business environment dominated by men.
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They started their businesses and careers as divorced mothers, young entrepreneurs or newcomers to Aspen with little or no connections. They spoke of the challenges they faced, the hurdles they overcame, and the lucky breaks they appreciated along the way.
Most of them said being a woman had no effect on their success in business but it did influence their behavior along the way. The one constant theme was that they all have stayed true to themselves and have followed their passions.
“I knew what I was doing was the right thing at the time,” said Garfield, who opened the CosBar in 1976 and has since opened nine other stores elsewhere. “I had nothing to lose.”
Kuhlman, who opened a bank branch at 29 years old, said she had plenty of sleepless nights fearing she’d have no customers, but she calmed those fears by remembering that she, too, had nothing to lose.
“I was young and if it didn’t work, I could always do something else,” said Kuhlman, who said she refrained from participating too much in social activities with colleagues in an industry that’s dominated by men.
Margerum, who was the Aspen City Manager before taking the job at the institute in 2000, said socializing with male counterparts shouldn’t keep rising female professionals from networking.
Margerum recalled giving a speech to young women working at the Aspen Institute in Washington, D.C., where the topic of socializing with male colleagues was a concern.
“You have to be careful but you have to have a core confidence because they are the power elite,” Margerum said.
She added that her gender was an issue when she was being considered for the city manager job in Aspen. Margerum recalled that one of the local newspapers referred to she and her co-workers in the planning department as “bitches” because it was an all-female office.
The City Council at the time asked Margerum during her interview for the top city job why the planning department was all women. She responded by saying why was the engineering department all men?
Margerum said she remembers getting physically ill before job interviews but would pull it together at the last minute.
“You have to find something that you know, have a passion for and you are good at and you have natural self confidence,” she told the group. “When you have fear, you have to jump into it.”
Margerum is familiar with playing in the professional realm as a woman supervisor in her role as CEO of City Hall.
“It was a good-old boy network,” she said. “But I hired my assistant city manager, who was a real good-old boy. It was very difficult for me but one of the best decisions I made because he complemented me.”
Coffman, who opened Takah Sushi in 1981, said while being a woman didn’t affect how she did business, the cultural attitude among Japanese men ” who were her employees ” sometimes was a challenge.
Klanderud, who quickly rose in the ranks of the mental health industry and moved to Aspen as a single mother of four children in 1968, also faced challenges but didn’t think much of them at the time.
“It was a risk but I’ve always trusted my gut,” she said. “It’s about the passion and just going for it.”
She noted that when she became a Pitkin County commissioner in 1981, there were only two other woman commissioners in the state. And while there are more women in elected positions today, it’s still not enough, Klanderud said.
“I think many women are still afraid to run for political office and I would encourage you to give that a second thought,” she said.
What keeps the women satisfied professionally is being challenged, learning and working with great teams.
For Wells, being successful in the business world and building a strong reputation with clients comes down to establishing strong relationships with them.
“I think we all essentially have our own brand in business and it’s critical,” she said. “I think it’s about business style and not gender.”
But living in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley ” which the women have found a supportive community in both their personal and professional lives ” has made it easier, especially raising families and pursuing their careers. They all said family comes before their careers but noted that pursuing a career as a woman doesn’t mean you are a bad mother.
“Having a family made a better supervisor and manager and it softened me,” Margerum said. “It’s easy to work when you have a community that takes care of you.”
Challenges in their personal lives, like battling cancer, also have made them stronger. Both Wells and Garfield are cancer survivors.
“It distills what’s important and it made me take stock of my values,” Wells said. “I think that has definite correlations in my business.”