Living Unapologetically: Our Fearless Leaders Celebrate International Women’s Day

Let’s say you pulled a list of one hundred Chicago-based tech companies. How many would you think were led by women?

Without any research, your guess might be a bit high. But, in fact, a recent study from the Illinois Technology Association found that only 6 percent of companies in Chicago have female CEOs.

At Solstice, we are humbled to know that we’re part of the 6 percent, with Kelly Manthey as our fearless leader. And it doesn’t stop there: Of our five executives, three of them are women.

As a technology firm, promoting a diverse and inclusive environment is the key to the culture Solstice strives to create. Solsties are welcome to show up as their full selves at work, and International Women’s Day celebrates that gender should never influence people’s success in their personal and professional lives.

In honor of International Women’s Day, we interviewed a few of our accomplished leaders — Kelly; Marisa Mann, chief operating officer; and Sharon Ray, chief people officer — who shared what this day is all about.

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How did you become interested in a career in technology?

KELLY MANTHEY: It wasn’t until my second year in college. I was in business school and it was time to pick my major. In the late ’90s, the internet was just hitting its stride, and there was a technology path being created in the business college that applied computer science coding skills to solving business problems. This ultimately became known as the management information systems major. It was love at first sight for me. The mix of business, process, strategy, and technology was exactly what I wanted to play in.

MARISA MANN: I’ve always loved solving problems. I wanted to be a doctor, but couldn’t because the sign of blood spooks me. Because I excelled in math and science, my parents guided me toward engineering, and I later chose a focus in civil engineering because buildings and the environment resonated with me quite a bit (it also helped that the University of Illinois was number one the year I was accepted). During my education at the University of Illinois, I was exposed to computer programming and AutoCAD (engineering design), both of which intrigued me. Solving big business’s and technical problems was my calling because I found that I could translate well between the two languages.

SHARON RAY: Throughout my career, I've had the opportunity to work with technology in many of my roles in human resources, and I have been fascinated with how technology changes the nature of work and improves processes.

 

What are some unique challenges you’ve faced as a woman in the workplace throughout your career?

MANTHEY: I can’t say there were any roadblocks others imposed on me; my biggest challenges have come from within. That little voice in my head would challenge me about what a mother/sister/daughter/wife/friend is “supposed to” look like or “should” be doing, and even now, I wonder what the “should” and “shouldn’t” lists look like as a CEO. Ultimately, I’ve learned every day how to trust my gut more and accept myself and my choices. I don’t need to be like anyone else, I just need to own who I am.

MANN: Different seasons of life have brought with them different challenges. Within the College of Engineering, I was the only female out of 60 students in the class. It was a challenge to find ways to get help while not showing weakness to male peers.

Throughout my career, I have been used to working in male-dominated industries. I’ve had to thoughtfully seek out supportive mentors and sponsors.

Over the course of my studies, I felt as though I was missing some key education and an outside point of view as I was developing my career path. Between having my two children, I decided to go to the school of my dreams: Northwestern Kellogg, where I completed my Executive Master’s in Business Administration (EMBA). I was one of the youngest females to pursue an EMBA in my class. I continued working to prove to both myself and my peers that I belonged there among the top leaders in the enterprise.

With respect to family life, I often experienced the challenge of my peers thinking that I was only doing the “family” thing. Because of this, after having children, I worked extra hard not to miss a beat elsewhere.

RAY: I had a wonderful opportunity to move across the country to undertake many roles in many different markets. However, I was a single parent with small children. Each time I moved to a new city, it was a challenge not having any family to help set up my home, start a new role, and ensure the children were adjusting to their new environment. Although it was a challenge to coordinate all facets of our life, this was a great opportunity to learn about new environments and interact with new people.

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Are there any assumptions about women that you would like to change?

MANTHEY: This is more of an observation I’ve made throughout my career than an assumption, but I think there are a lot of well-intentioned efforts to create the “women in [X]” to drive awareness and a sense of belonging for us. I’ve always felt that these tend to create even more distance and separateness for us. Although I appreciate being around those similar to me and appreciate the focus on diversity, I’d like more inclusion efforts to happen behind the scenes as part of a normal process. For example, some of the best tech events I’ve attended have had females carefully woven into the keynote agendas without separate “women in tech” breakout sessions. Lists that curate top executives or thought leaders in a space can find and include the women in those roles that may go unnoticed versus creating a separate list just for women. We just want to be part of the mainstream. It helps for others to see us there.

MANN: Women have unique skills and strengths when represented on a team. Sometimes, if women come off as being strong or showing emotion, we are seen as being bossy or emotional, and this is an assumption I would like to change. Rather than using some characteristics to define women, people should look deeper into our strengths. Diversity brings different perspectives that make our solutions even better.

There are also assumptions around women as mothers. When couples have children, they need support. I would love to see us be supportive of all parents for their needs and help them achieve balance. Families are a good thing, and we should foster them. Opportunities are there and should remain available for individuals to choose to take advantage of them, always remembering that saying “no” is OK.

RAY: I would like to change the assumption that women must choose between their careers and their families. We can do both with help and support from our families and friends. It takes a village.

 

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Do you have any advice to share with women beginning their careers, or what you would tell your 20-year-old self?

MANTHEY: Be yourself unapologetically. Practice healthy doses of self-awareness and situational awareness to know what pieces of you are needed most at that moment. But don’t ever confuse your differences for shortcomings. Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you and keep momentum going. When you are tired, it’s OK to take a break. Life moves quickly—doors open (and close) when we least expect it. Take the shot and trust yourself enough to know that you’ll figure things out. You always do.

MANN: Be an active advocate and an architect for your career. Define a vision for yourself today, who you want to be in five years, and, if you are very ambitious, plan out the things you want to do decades ahead. Always learn from courses (TED, podcasts, etc.), networks (women’s groups), and books (a few of my favorites are here).

RAY: This may sound like a cliché, but I would tell women today that there are so many opportunities to learn and grow in the professional world. Be open to feedback and coaching. Always ask yourself: “How can I improve my skills?”

 

What’s it like being a woman working at Solstice?

MANTHEY: I can honestly say that I am living my best life. I am part of something that I can bring my whole self to every day. My coworkers have become a meaningful part of my life. We’ve supported each other through our life stages alongside our career stages. I must give a dozen hugs a day, and I typically say “I love you” in conjunction with handing out good news or promoting people. It’s challenging work, and I can hit lows just like anyone else. But every day there is something that reminds me of what an honor it is to be around these people and to have the opportunity to serve them.

MANN: I enjoy being a woman at Solstice. I appreciate the ability to bring my whole self to work. Being able to hold myself to a high standard yet having boundaries to meet my personal and family needs are important to me. I love that we have personal products in the restroom to support and not hide our needs. 

We continue to work toward building diversity among the executive team by finding ways to support, uplift, coach, and encourage each other through managing our work-life balance. As we continue to go through different phases, it is important to be able to articulate our needs, which will help define both why and how we continue to be our best selves. 

RAY: It is amazing working for a woman-led company. The values we embody speak to the core of being your best in all parts of your life. I am truly able to bring my whole self to work, and I am able to honor what it took for me to achieve my career goals, which is not a typical path.

 

We’re proud to be part of the 6 percent, but there is still work to be done. We’re taking the advice from Kelly to live “unapologetically” today in furtherance of a better tomorrow.