Challenging times require leaders with courage, strength and authenticity.
At Better, we think it’s important to highlight women who exhibit those positive attributes as they build businesses, lead cultural institutions, guide non-profits and serve as public servants.
That’s the motivation behind our list of the most powerful women in the Chicago area. We combined our own research with recommendations from those outside our company to compile a broad list that includes a museum director, a president and CEO of an aquarium and a chief financial officer who oversees a nearly $17 billion municipal budget.
These women are excelling in their careers while also giving back to their communities with their support of nonprofits and civic organizations. Their stories compiled in brief below are beacons for a bright future.
Here is our 2022 list of Most Powerful Women in Chicago (organized alphabetically).
Lauded by Mayor Lori Lightfoot as a key leader on her team, Jennie Huang Bennett holds the city of Chicago’s top fiscal job. As chief financial officer, Bennett oversees the city’s $16.7 billion budget and has helped the city navigate the economic challenges brought on by the pandemic. According to the City of Chicago’s website, Bennett has extensive experience in managing financial turnarounds, driving cost efficiencies, managing large complex capital structures, developing governmental budgets, generating revenues through creative solutions, and finding paths toward financial stability.
Previously, Bennett was CFO of the Chicago Public Schools where she was credited with helping steer the school system out of a pension crisis which had saddled the municipal government with $1 billion in debt. Bennett and her budget director reduced it by $162 million in three months. While speaking before the City Club in November 2021, Bennett mentioned some recent public-private partner achievements made during the pandemic. They include creation of the $100 million Chicago Small Business Resiliency Fund, which is easing the financial burdens placed on the small businesses, and Chicago Connected, a program launched in June 2020 which provides no-cost, high-speed internet service to eligible Chicago Public Schools students and their families. As of its one-year anniversary, there were about 64,000 students across 42,000 households being served by the program.
As a first-generation college student from a small village in England, Louise Bernard attended the University of Manchester thanks to a government grant. Unlike many of her peers, she’d hadn’t traveled a lot and was thrilled to take a research trip to New York in her senior year. When she visited the New York Public Library to do research, she had no idea that one day she would work there as director of exhibitions. That trip taught her she could do nearly anything, even become museum director at the Obama Presidential Center, a position that she accepted in 2017. Known as a scholar and cultural producer in the museum community, Bernard is spreading the word about the nation’s first Black presidency. “I look forward to bringing President and Mrs. Obama’s remarkable story to the broadest possible audience, and to highlighting the crucial role of civic engagement in a way that is meaningful and inspiring to local South Side residents, and to people across the country and around the world,” Bernard said. She received a bachelor’s Degree in Drama from the University of Manchester, a masters’ degree in Theatre History and a master’s degree in English Literature from Indiana University and a Ph.D. in African American Studies and American Studies from Yale.
Rosalind “Roz” Brewer has chalked up a lot of firsts in her business career, not the least of which is joining Walgreens Boots Alliance as Chief Executive Officer in March 2021. Her other inspiring firsts including being named in 2019 as the only Black woman to sit on Amazon’s board, and serving as Starbucks’ COO from 2017 to 2021, during which she established racial bias training for employees in more than 8,000 stores. Prior to joining Starbucks, Brewer was CEO of Sam’s Club where she helped bring in such conveniences as advance online ordering of groceries. Her other experience includes serving as President and Chief Executive Officer of Sam’s Club, a membership-only retail warehouse club and division of Walmart, Inc., from February 2012 to February 2017. Brewer is the daughter of GM assembly line workers and is a first-generation college student who started her climb to success as a chemist at Kimberly-Clark. She graduated from Spelman College and currently serves as chairman of its board of trustees. She also is a board member of VillageMD, World Business Chicago, Business Roundtable and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture. In honor of International Women’s Day, she recently noted on Linked In that women have helped her along every step of her career. “I’ve been fortunate in my career to have had so many inspirational women in my corner to teach me everything from how to execute with excellence to how to be the best version of myself at work,” she said in a post on LinkedIn.
A local girl makes good is Rita Sola Cook’s story. She was named president of Bank of America Chicago in December 2021. Cook, who lives in Mokena, is responsible for connecting the banking and investment resources offered through the bank’s eight lines of business to people and companies across Chicagoland. She also leads the effort to deploy Bank of America’s resources to address social concerns, strengthen economic opportunity, and build strong communities, as well as support the health, safety and engagement of local employees. Cook earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting from Governors State University and joined Bank of America in 1997. Prior to her current position, she was Division Executive for the Midwest and the Mid-Atlantic regions of The Private Bank. Cook is proud of what she’s accomplished in her career. “I am proud of taking calculated risks to propel my career forward across multiple areas of the bank,” she says. “I’ve been able to leverage my transferrable skills to take on new opportunities and product management.” Her advice for young leaders is “to pay it forward when you can, understand that decisions you make are largely based on facts, and you might not have all the facts, so it’s important to always be listening and learning.”
Bridget Coughlin didn’t start out yearning for a career in science. Instead, she was planning a career in theater. But that changed when she took her first science class at Knox College and decided her true passion lay in science and research. Coughlin went on to earn a doctorate in biochemistry from the University of Iowa and an executive MBA certificate from the Kellogg School of Management. Today, she is president and CEO of the Shedd Aquarium where she provides strategic oversight and direction to all activities. Coughlin is credited with developing innovative experiences that educate, entertain and enhance visitors’ experiences. Before joining the Shedd, Coughlin was vice president of Strategic Partnerships & Programs at the Denver Museum of Strategic Partnerships & Programs. While in Denver, she established the National Institute of Health-funding Genetics of Taste Lab, a community-based laboratory that gives guests the chance to participate in scientific research. Coughlin says the path to success starts with being curious. “The best CEOs and leaders I know never set out to be one,” she says. “They set out as curious, figured out what they could learn from others, leaned into ambition, strived for impact and new project. That’s the recipe to be a leader. Leadership is passion-fueled.”
Rohini Dey has a Ph.D. in Philosophy and a master’s degree in Economics, but she’s better known as a restaurateur who is breaking culinary ground and helping other women succeed. Her restaurant, Vermillion in Chicago, puts a delectable spin on Indian food that features Latin influences. In recognition of her creativity, Dey was named MenuMasters Innovator of the Year for 2022 by Nation’s Restaurant News, an award that recognizes an individual who has made a significant contribution in the foodservice industry for raising the standard for menu and concept innovation. Dey became a restauranteur through an unusual route. In addition to her Ph.D., she is a former World Bank and management consultant for McKinsey & Co. Early on in the pandemic, Dey started Let’s Talk Womxn, which brings together female independent restaurant operators to share concerns and best practices, collaborate and provide emotional support. The network has now expanded to 13 cities. Dey shared some thoughts about leadership with Authority magazine in 2019. “Be your own best self-advocate,” she said. “Hunkering down, doing good work and hoping the world will stop and notice doesn’t work. Women especially have to get out there, meet people, cultivate mentors, share our contribution, ensure we get credit, and ask for what we deserve.”
In a 35-year career leading consumer-driven businesses, Chicago native Mary Dillon has certainly made an impact. Dillon currently serves as Executive Chair of the Ulta Beauty Board of Directors, following her eight-year run as the company’s Chief Executive Officer. In July 2021, she became the 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. Dillon’s business career has been nothing short of transformational for the company she led. Dillon and her team are credited with tripling Ulta Beauty’s market capitalization to more than $18 billion, doubling revenues and guiding the company to become a leading Fortune 500 retailer. She also steered Ulta Beauty’s Board of Directors to become one of the most gender diverse of any large public company in the nation, and was a proponent of the establishment of the Ulta Beauty Charitable Foundation to support women and families. As a business, civic and philanthropic leader, Dillon serves on the Board of Directors for Starbucks Corporation, KKR, Inc., and Save the Children. She also is the Chairperson for the Retail Industry Leaders Association, and an executive committee member of The Business Council. Dillon’s first job was at Jewel/Osco and that experience laid the foundation for her career. She says it “helped shape my view about what valuable insights that our store associates, those who are closest to the guest, can offer to continuously improve our business and how we serve guests.”
“Play as hard as you work and keep close to the people who keep you most grounded,” is Helene Gayle’s advice for maintaining work-life balance and one which she follows herself 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 developed a new strategic focus on closing the racial and ethnic wealth gap in the Chicago region. Gayle was born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y., earned a B.A. in psychology at Barnard College, an M.D. at the University of Pennsylvania and an M.P.H. at Johns Hopkins University. Previously, Gayle was president and CEO of CARE, a leading international humanitarian organization. A public health physician with expertise in economic development, humanitarian, and health issues, she spent 20 years with the Centers for Disease Control, working primarily on HIV/AIDS and at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, directing programs on HIV/AIDS and other global health issues. The causes she is most passionate about “focus on social justice, especially racial and gender equality,” she says. Her advice for younger leader “is to make sure you stay focused on what you think your life purpose is and let that guide you.”
Named president and CEO of the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago in August 2021, Dorri McWhorter has a long history of being an agent for positive change. Prior to her current role, she served for eight years as CEO of YWCA of Metropolitan Chicago where she was credited with transforming the organization from a traditional social service organization to 21st Century social enterprise that plays a critical role in many initiatives across the region. With McWhorter as its guide, YWCA Metropolitan Chicago expanded its service footprint to 10 new locations, completed seven mergers and acquisitions, implemented paid family leave and developed a retirement plan to include retirement options for thousands of childcare providers and small business owners. She takes pride in being a socially-conscious business leader and serves on the board of directors for Common Impact, 1871 (a technology business accelerator), Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Civic Consulting Alliance, Civic Federation, Chicago Center for Arts and Technology, and Forefront. McWhorter received a bachelor of business administration degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a master of business administration degree from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. McWhorter advises up and coming leaders to be authentic. “Stay true to who you really are,” she says. “It will take you far.”
“Entrepreneurship is scary and demanding,” says Suzanne Yoon who doesn’t for a minute regret launching Kinzie Partners, a Chicago-based private equity firm that invests in lower middle market companies in the manufactured products, consumer and business services industries. Her long-term vision when she started the company in 2017 was to advance the use of technology, data analytics and innovation to unlock value for companies. Her vision was lauded in 2020 when the firm was recognized as the Female Founded Firm of the Year. Yoon brings more than 20 years of expertise in investing in and advising middle market companies. Before founding Kinzie, she served as a Managing Director of Versa Capital Management, where she led transaction development throughout North America. Prior to that role, she was a Senior Vice President of CIT Group. She also co-founded LaSalle Bank/ABN AMRO’s Corporate Restructuring Group and held positions in distressed loan portfolio management and advisory at LaSalle Bank and Ernst and Young’s Corporate Finance group, respectively. Yoon’s advice for young leaders is to “take a seat at the table. Be bold, be visible and contribute. Also, the people that you surround yourself with matter – leverage the collective power of your community, foster the connections you have with individuals and organizations, and always remain open to learning from those around you.”
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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.