Chicago’s 25 Most Powerful Women 2019

Bold, inspirational, determined, compassionate: these are just a few adjectives we can use to describe these powerful Chicago leaders. With impressive resumes, accomplishments and success, not only are these women at the top of their game, but they all give back to the community in meaningful ways. From retail and tech to education and even the White House, these 25 inspirational women are generating buzz around Chicago and beyond. 

We asked, they answered: Who mentored you and what was the best advice they gave you? 

Susan Abrams

CEO, Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center 

“I have been mentored by and taken lessons from so many people throughout my career, and in fact, try to learn from everyone I encounter. Two of my favorite pieces of advice include: 1) The more you practice the luckier you get – attributed to golfer Gary Player and repeated frequently to me by my grandfather; and 2) Take smart risks – and always have plans B, C, and D ready – which I learned from Betsy Holden while I was writing The New Success Rules for Women (Random House, 2000).”

Ellen Alberding

President and Member of the Board, The Joyce Foundation 

Ellen A Chicago Most Powerful Women

Anne Burke

Illinois Supreme Court Justice, First District 

Justice Anne Burke Chicago Powerful Women

“I have been fortunate to have had many mentors throughout my lifetime – both women and men – who, by sharing their time and wisdom, inspired and encouraged me to do more and be more than I thought I could. My first mentor was my high school guidance counselor, Sister Henrietta. I have never forgotten her advice: ‘Follow your heart. Do what you love.’ It has always steered me in choosing the right pathway. What I have learned over the years– and what I tell others when mentoring them – can be summed up this way: ‘If it is to be, it is up to me.’ ”

Debra A. Cafaro

Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Ventas Inc. 

Debra Cafaro Chicago Powerful Women

“I’ve been showered with wonderful role models and mentors, so it’s hard to choose from the important advice they’ve provided along the way.  Probably I’d choose Doug Crocker, who offered me the CEO role at Ventas.  When I expressed hesitation about my qualifications, he said: ‘If someone is asking you to do something, it’s because they believe you’ll succeed.  Have confidence and just get in there and figure it out.  You’ll do great.’ “ 

Renée Crown (Mrs. Lester)

Civic Leader and Philanthropist 

Renee Crown Chicago Powerful Women

“My mother mentored me and the best advice she gave me was ‘lead by example.’ ”

Mary Dillon

CEO, Ulta Beauty 

Mary Dillon Chicago Powerful Women

Senator Tammy Duckworth

Senator 

In a note to her younger self featured on CBS News, the inspiring Senator Duckworth wrote, ‘you’ll learn that perfection isn’t what matters. It’s how you respond to hardship and failure that defines you.’ ”

Jeanne Gang

Founding Principal and Partner, Studio Gang 

Helene Gayle, M.D., MPH., 

President and CEO, The Chicago Community Trust 

I was crossing a busy street in a remote area with no traffic signals with one of my mentors and role models. The only way to get to the other side of the  street was to make a calculated decision about the best moment to cross. We started  to proceed  and then I hesitated  as I saw cars approaching.   He said, “Helene, you made a decision.” It was a simple statement, but one I have carried with me. When you are a leader, you often have to make decisions where  there are risks and uncertainties.   Unless you have good reason to change course, better to stick with it than to vacillate and confuse yourself and others around you.    PS, the cars stopped and we made it to the other side of the street.”

Margo Georgiadis 

CEO, Ancestry.com 

Margo Chicago Most Powerful Women

“I am grateful to have learned from many extraordinary leaders who have served as mentors, guides and part of my own personal Board of Directors.  It’s inspired me to be a mentor and encourage the next generation of business and technology leaders, particularly women.  Andy McKenna is an icon in the Chicago business community. I have enjoyed knowing him for many years and serving alongside him as a member of McDonald’s Board where he has had an outsized impact. The best advice he gave me is to proactively invest in cultivating a strong bench of leaders for the long term. Andy was relentless in building a pipeline of talent both inside and outside the company to create momentum and energy in the senior team. He tracked talent coming up the ranks, stayed in touch with leaders who moved on to new challenges, and connected with high potential talent in adjacent spaces. His passion and positivity built trust and provided the foundation for creating high performing teams. Ultimately, leadership is all about people.” 

Julie Howard 

Chairman and CEO, Navigant 

“I have been mentored by a variety of people from all walks of life – personal relationships as well as professionals internal and external to my firm and/or profession. Perhaps the most notable advice I received ‘You will have failures in your career, it is inevitable. How you pick yourself up, use the learnings of your mis-step and re-direct your actions will define your success.’ ”

Dr. Janice Jackson, Ed.D., 

CEO, Chicago Public Schools 

Janice Jackson Chicago Powerful Women

Inspiration: Former Area Instructional Officer for CPS, Dr. Cynthia Barron.  

“Dr. Cynthia Barron mentored me and helped me become the leader I am today through her support, advice and guidance. She taught me that leadership is about making the difficult decisions needed to positively impact the lives of others. It won’t always be fun, it certainly won’t be easy, but if you embrace the challenging times, you will be a more effective, stronger leader.” 

Connie Lindsey 

Executive Vice President and Head of Corporate Social Responsibility and Global Diversity and Inclusion, Northern Trust 

Connie Lindsey Chicago Most Powerful Women

“I have had many mentors throughout my career, each offering advice, expertise and counsel based on where I happened to be on my career journey.  My favorite mentors taught more by their example than words.  Some of the best advice I have received: ” 

  • “Be yourself, everyone else is taken” 
  • “Lift as you climb” 
  • “Change is inevitable, growth is optional” 
  • “You are worth more than the value of what you can produce” 

Eileen Mitchell

President, AT&T Illinois 

Anne Pramaggiore

Senior Executive Vice President and CEO, Exelon Utilities 

Anne Pramaggiore Chicago Most Powerful Women

“I’ve been lucky to have had several different mentors in my life and career, including former ComEd CEO Frank Clark and Exelon CEO Chris Crane. While each certainly had their own unique perspectives and experiences to share, all of them imparted on me the importance of focusing on people. While we expend significant effort on questions of strategy, execution and funding within business endeavors, people are the key to driving and accelerating the mission to create an optimal result. With the guidance of my mentors, I’ve learned that true leadership requires a mix of right and left brain capabilities, a little bit of guts and a lot of heart.”

Penny Pritzker

Chairman of PSP Partners and former US Commerce Secretary 

Penny Pritzker Chicago Most Powerful Women

“I have been blessed to have a number of fantastic mentors throughout my career, so it is difficult to name just one. But  the  most important  lessons I’ve learned from them is that true fulfillment comes  from  building something  that has a positive  impact  on community,  whether it be a business, a cause, or in government  and  that  being a good mentor means keeping the ladder down for others so they may rise.” 

Laura Ricketts

Director, Chicago Cubs Major League Baseball Club, and Chairman, Board for Chicago Cubs Charities 

Laura Ricketts Chicago Powerful Women

Dr. Jo Ann Rooney

President, Loyola University Chicago 

Joanne Rooney Chicago Most Powerful Women

“A mentor is someone who is able to listen intently and be present in ways that help you to hear and reflect on your own voice and identify your path forward. Throughout my diverse career, and even as a student, I have benefitted greatly from a number of people who encouraged and supported me to take risks, affirm my passions, and challenge my own thinking. Working in education where lives are transformed every day, I hope to identify opportunities to extend the same active listening, care, and support, to others.” 

Shirley Ryan

Philanthropist, Founder Pathways.org 

Shirley Ryan Chicago Most Powerful Women

Karen Sauder

Vice President, Google 

Karen Sauder Chicago Most Powerful Women

“My father was my first (and best) professional mentor. He taught me  integrity  is the most important quality, in life and business. Today someone might describe that as building  your brand but his message was much more about fairness and truthfulness, especially when no one is watching.”

Helen Zell

Executive Director, Zell Family Foundation 

Helen Zell Chicago Most Powerful Women

“I grew up in a small, tightly knit nuclear family with loving parents who were also extraordinary role models.  If ‘mentorship by example’ qualifies, the accomplishments I find most fulfilling today are a reflection of what I admired about my Mother and Father.”

Andrea Zopp

President and CEO, World Business Chicago 

Andrea Zopp Chicago Most Powerful Women

“I have been blessed to have several mentors over the course of my career, and I have received critical guidance from them. One piece of advice that has stayed with me is the importance of being your own advocate. If you don’t believe in yourself, how can you expect anyone else to?” 

Lori Lightfoot

Mayor, Chicago 

Mayor Lightfoot recently celebrated her 100th day in office.

Michelle Obama 

Former First Lady, Author 

Obama cited Valerie Jarrett, who is no stranger to our Powerful Women list, as a source of inspiration in a 2019 tweet: “Valerie was one of my earliest, and best, role models for how to be a confident woman and mother in the workplace. She helped me while I was , and I’m so proud to see @ValerieJarrett helping others find and use their own voices.”

Pallavi Verma

Pallavi Verma Accenture Most Powerful Women

Senior Managing Director – US Midwest, Accenture 

“My first mentors were actually my parents, who both worked for Fortune 100 companies when I was growing up.

They taught me how to manage through difficult situations, how to navigate different personalities, how to develop your own leadership style and most importantly, they taught me to have a strong work ethic.

Through my professional career, I’ve had a number of mentors and sponsors. Whenever I had the opportunity to choose a mentor, I would always choose one that was the opposite of me, with the idea that I could learn from those that were different from me (and that maybe I could teach them something too).

The best coaching I ever received, was that people love to give advice, and they will rarely say no to a cup of coffee. I’ve bought a lot of coffee along the way  and have used that approach to get advice on how to achieve my goals. And, in that simple way I was able to ask for what I want, while also getting buy-in and ideas from the individual I was asking.”