Now more than ever, businesses, nonprofits and government agencies rely on strong, energetic leadership to thrive during challenging times.
At Better, we think it’s important to recognize the leaders who are building businesses, serving as public servants, and leading nonprofits, all of which inspire positive change in the world — whatever the arena.
That’s the motivation behind our list of the most powerful women in the Chicago area. We used both our own research and recommendations from those outside our company to compile this list that includes a CEO of a Fortune 500 company, a leader of a nonprofit that responds to 2,000 disasters a year, and Chicago’s mayor.
These dynamic women are at the top of their respective industries, and yet each also find time to support nonprofits and civic organizations. Despite the recent challenges we’ve all faced in the past year, many on this list offer words of wisdom for future leaders and are looking forward to a bright future.
Here is our 2021 list of Most Powerful Women in Chicago (organized alphabetically):
As president of Chicago Cares Inc., a nonprofit volunteer service organization, Bluhm inspires people to work together to tackle challenges. The non-profit builds stronger communities through volunteerism and is credited with creating, managing, and leading hands-on service projects that meet Chicago’s critical social, education and environmental needs.
Since 2017, Chicago Cares has engaged 14,275 volunteers across 1,069 projects in neighborhoods like Auburn Gresham, Belmont Cragin, Bronzeville, Chicago Lawn, Englewood, Hermosa, Little Village, and North Lawndale.
About her role in co-founding the non-profit, Bluhm told the Chicago Tribune: “I really wanted to instill that ethic that writing a check is not a substitute for actually getting out there and understanding your community. And you can’t fully understand your community until you get out there and see it firsthand. You talk to people. (You) feel it. (You) touch it.”
Brewer is the CEO and member of the board of directors of Walgreens Boots Alliance, a global leader in retail and wholesale pharmacy. But that’s far from all that she has accomplished. Forbes reports that Brewer was the first woman and first African-American to serve as COO of Starbucks. She also was CEO of Sam’s Club where she brought in such services as advance online ordering of groceries. In 2019, she became the only Black woman to sit on Amazon’s board.
She tells young people to aim high.
“As you’re embarking on your careers, please do dream big and do not place limits on your dreams or aspirations based on others’ or society’s expectations of you. Be your whole, authentic self, and bring both your head and your heart to your decisions in your work to achieve your dreams.”
A Chicago native, Dillon is CEO of Ulta Beauty where she and her team have overseen the company’s rise to the Fortune 500. Since she took the reins in 2013, the company has more than doubled revenues. It also boasts an associate base that is 92% women and a board of directors that is one of the most gender diverse of any large company in the nation.
Dillon will step away from Ulta in July to become the next chair of the Economic Club of Chicago, which fosters meaningful connections among Chicago leaders to encourage dialogue on important economic and social issues and encourage the next generation of leaders.
Discussing lessons she imparts to young people, Dillon told The Chicago Network: “I encourage each to make the most of all work or related learning experience, as each will begin to shape you. For example, my first job at Osco Drug helped shape my view about the valuable insights that our store associates — those that are closest to the guest — can offer to continuously improve our business and serve our guests. Those associates have been instrumental in our success as a team.”
Duckworth knows what it means to overcome challenges. As one of the first women in the U.S. Army to fly Blackhawk helicopters, she lost both of her legs and partial use of her right arm in 2004 when her helicopter was hit by an RPG.
Before being elected to U.S. Senate in 2017, she served 23 years in the Reserves, and she continues to advocate for soldiers and veterans. She delivered a message of strength in 2017 to graduates of George Washington University.
“There will be hard times when you get hurt or lose someone close to you,” she said. “But those challenges, those struggles, those are what make our successes possible. We are not successful in spite of our challenges, we are successful because of our will to overcome them.”
It was a pivotal moment for women in hockey when Faulkner was named president of business operations for the Chicago Blackhawks in December 2020, and the team cited her leadership, passion for analytics and customer-focused strategy that positioned her to be one of the brightest leaders in the industry. She directs the consumer-facing, revenue-generating and brand aspects of the Blackhawks.
She talked with NBC Sports about how she prioritizes connecting with fans to learn their needs.
“One of the things I’m known for in the industry is I joke about my strong sneaker game because I spend a lot of time during events talking with fans: standing in line with them as they’re entering the building, going to the box office, watching the employees get checked in, talking with them on the concourse and really understanding what their journey is like. Why are they fans? Why did they decide to come? What are things we can do better? ”
Gayle has served since 2017 as president and CEO of The Chicago Community Trust, one of the nation’s oldest and largest community foundations. Under her leadership, the Trust has adopted a new strategic focus on closing the racial and ethnic wealth gap in the Chicago region.
She believes the time is ripe for increasing social equity, and Chicago can lead the way.
“I’m an eternal optimist. As we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, I believe we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to double down on our commitment to confront the Chicago region’s racial and ethnic wealth gap and ensure that we don’t return to the status quo,” she said. “As one of the most philanthropic and civically-minded cities in America, I am hopeful that we will rise to this moment to advance equity across our region and ensure that no community is left behind in our economic recovery.”
Lightfoot made history in April 2019 when she won a runoff election to become mayor of Chicago and the city’s first openly gay mayor.
Prior to serving as mayor, Lightfoot was a senior equity partner in the Litigation and Conflict Resolution Group at the law firm Mayer Brown, was president of the Chicago Police Board, and served as chair of the Police Accountability Task Force.
Lightfoot devoted much of her life public service and urged graduates of Northwestern University in 2020 to do the same.
“My challenge to all of you is to use this collective moment to energize whatever you do around the notion of public service and the responsibility we all share,” she said.
Dr. Suzet McKinney
A nationally recognized public health expert, McKinney in January joined Sterling Bay, a real estate investment and development company, where she is principal and director of the Life Sciences Division.
She oversees the company’s relationships with the scientific, academic, corporate, tech and governmental sectors involved in life science, as well as facilitates the growth of life science tenants in Sterling Bay developments.
She previously was CEO and Executive Director of the Illinois Medical District where she managed medical research facilities, labs, a biotech business incubator, universities, four hospitals, and more than 40 healthcare-related facilities.
“I would advise today’s up-and-coming leaders that nothing trumps hard work and dedication,” she said. “I don’t subscribe to the notion that different generations approach work and career differently. If you want promotion, rewards, etc. you must work for it. And most importantly, cultivating leadership skills isn’t just about you. Leaders have a responsibility to be civically engaged and to give back to others, so decide what you are passionate about and find an organization or a community that will welcome you in as a volunteer so that you can give back to someone (or some cause) less fortunate than you.”
Joining the American Red Cross of Chicago & Northern Illinois in 2016, Roldán was tapped in 2020 to become CEO of the new Illinois region, which is the non-profit’s second largest region, covers 88 counties, and responds to more than 2,000 disasters annually.
Roldán previously served as Executive Director of Erie Neighborhood House, which was founded in 1870 to strengthen low-income, primarily Latino families through skill-building, access to resources and advocacy.
Roldán is proud to be just one of many working to create a better world.
“The voices of today’s leaders are compassionate, fearless, and more powerful than ever before,” she said. “I do not have advice, only to remind them how much we need their voice, perspective, and conviction. I only hope to continue to be asked to walk alongside them.”
Wright is the CEO of the Chicago Sun-Times, the oldest, continuously published news publication in Illinois. As a mover and shaker in the journalism industry, she is responsible for implementing the company’s digital transformation.
Wright believes young people can sometimes create a positive change simply by staying the course.
“I believe that the next generation’s workforce switches jobs too often,” she said. “Leadership muscle is strengthened when one experiences success and disappointment and true wisdom is born from disappointment. I would encourage people to see more of the organization’s shortcomings and try to help overcome them before leaving a post so quickly.”
As managing partner at Cleveland Avenue, a privately held Chicago venture capital firm focused on the food and beverage industry, Zopp is continuing her lifelong work to expand economic opportunity in underserved communities.
At Cleveland Avenue, she focuses on investing in and developing minority and women-led entrepreneurs and their companies. Zopp has significant experience in a broad range of areas including banking, consumer products, retail, regulated industries, human capital, crisis and risk management and government and community relations.
Zopp, who previously was president and CEO of World Business Chicago, told the Chicago Sun-Times about her new position.
“I have a tremendous opportunity to do hands-on the work that I’ve been … pushing for at WBC, which is supporting minority- and women-owned entrepreneurs and growing those businesses here.”
View past Chicago’s Most Powerful Women lists.
More from Better:
- Bill Gates Says We’re On a Path to Climate Disaster — But He Has a Plan to Avoid It
- Give Time, Things, Support: 6 Chicago Nonprofits to Help This December
- Honor the 2021 American Red Cross of Illinois ‘Extraordinary Heroes’ Now and Double Your Impact
Annemarie Mannion is a freelance writer and former reporter for the Chicago Tribune. She earned a Master’s Degree in Journalism from Northwestern University and a degree in English Literature from St. Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana. She is especially passionate about covering nonprofits. Whether writing about work to reduce the harmful effects of bright lights on sea turtles or covering volunteers’ efforts to address the health care needs of children in Guatemala, she loves spreading the word about initiatives that have the potential to change the world for the better.