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Common threads: hard work, volunteer spirits

Since Mississippi’s 50 Leading Business Women program kicked off back in 1997, an amazing 450 women have been honored as standouts in their professions and in their communities, where they are valued for their giving spirits. The 2005 class rose to the occasion, with women hailing from all sectors of the business world from catering to telecommunications to plant manager.

“I am just amazed at the caliber of women still being chosen,” said Carol Burger of United Way, a member of the Class of 2000 and advisory committee member.

To the delight of the 2005 class, this year’s 50 Women program kicked off with a twist — the second-annual Girls’ Night Out. The winners gathered August 17 at the elegant Fairview Inn in Jackson for a relaxed night of good food and spirits. The next day, they met again for seminars and a luncheon in their honor at Eagle Ridge Conference Center at Hinds Community College in Raymond. This was the ninth-annual program hosted by the Mississippi Business Journal (MBJ).

That morning, each woman stood up and told the class a little about her career and volunteer work. After hearing the wide array of successes, Sara Jane Hope said she was inspired to go out and do more. “It was great getting to hear about what each of these women has done,” said Hope, a winner this year and vice president of training and development at Valley Services Inc. in Flowood.

“They are accomplished in so many areas — not just in their businesses,” said Robbie Bell, MBJ special projects director. “It is a great testament to the strength of Mississippi’s business community and the female contingency in particular. I hope to be able to continue watching it grow in scope and excellence; although right now, I am just dazzled by the 50 Leading Business Women of 2005.”

Later that morning, the women had the opportunity to participate in two seminars. Stephanie Davis, president of Let’s Get Organized, gave these busy women some vital advice on “Conquering Chaos.” Linda Berry, president/CEO of LBA International Inc., demonstrated “Power Communications” and how to deliver effective, persuasive communication under performance pressure.

After the morning sessions, the women enjoyed lunch and music provided by harpist Grace Halsey. This year’s keynote speaker was D’Auby Schiel, chairman and CEO of Coast Community Bank. Schiel, the 2005 Business Woman of the Year, is Mississippi’s first female chairman of the board and CEO of a Mississippi bank. She was also the first female executive vice president of a full-service bank in the state.

Schiel told of her scrappy beginnings as one of five children, growing up poor in Alabama. Little did she know that her accomplished banking career would take root from a suggestion by her grandmother, U.U. After high school, Schiel had to get a job because her family needed money, and her grandmother told her she should go to work for a bank so she could meet a rich husband.

Schiel got a job as a runner making 75¢ an hour at Merchants National Bank in Mobile, the first girl runner they had ever hired, and then was promoted to executive secretary. Because she was in direct contact with customers, the bank put her through “charm school” where she learned grammar, how to dress and a good work ethic.

“Today, we’re hesitant to talk to our employees about these things,” she said.

Over the years, Schiel continued to climb the corporate ladder in different banks until 1979 when she became chairman and CEO of Jefferson Bank in Biloxi.

Schiel told a story about her early years in Mobile, and she has carried this experience with her throughout her career as a lesson in dealing with young employees. A hurricane was blowing in, and Schiel and a male co-worker wanted a better look, so they went out on the roof. To their dismay, the door closed and locked behind them and they were stuck out on the roof in the middle of a hurricane. Her co-worker went to pieces, but Schiel gathered her wits and managed to flag someone in the office building across the street, who called her bank and sent someone up to unlock the door.
For weeks, Schiel was terrified she would be called to personnel and fired, but that day never came. She got to keep her job and keep moving up.

“Have a little patience with young people,” she said, “because on that roof might be the chairman of the board.”

Networking that lasts

Bell said the 50 Women program has become much more than an awards event. “It’s an ongoing organization in which the recipients stay in touch with each other,” she said.

When Schiel needed a leader for her bank’s retreat for senior officers, she called on Dr. Beverly Smallwood, a Hattiesburg psychologist, who she met and befriended during last year’s program.

The women will gather again January 19 at the Business Woman of the Year Luncheon, which is held during MBJ’s Mississippi Business & Technology Expo at the Mississippi Trademart in Jackson. Current and previous classes will meet up to renew friendships and find out who was selected as the Business Woman of the Year for 2006. The luncheon consistently sells out with more than 500 attendees.

This year’s 50 Leading Business Women program was sponsored by Barefoot Cellars, BellSouth, Cellular South, Mississippi Economic Council, Southwest Airlines, St. Dominic Hospital and Women’s Business Council Gulf Coast.

Contact MBJ Staff Writer Kelly Ingebretsen at kelly@msbusiness.com.

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