During challenging times, the 10 women named to our Black Women of Impact List for 2022 have taken the helm of a range of different important institutions and have provided what is most needed to guide us forward in a positive way: energetic, caring and visionary leadership.
At Better, we think it’s important to take the time to recognize these stand-out women who are building businesses, serving as public servants, and leading non-profits and cultural institutions.
That’s the motivation behind the creation of our annual Black Women of Impact List, which spotlights just a few of the women in the Chicago area who are striving every day to build a better world despite the difficulties the past couple years have brought.
We used our own research, recommendations from those outside our company, and nominations from past honorees to compile this list that includes a law school dean, a physician at a major teaching hospital, a leader of an arts museum and seven more.
These dynamic women are at the top of their respective fields, and yet they also find time to support non-profits and civic organizations. Several on this list also offer words of wisdom for future leaders or a favorite quote to inspire as we all look forward to a bright future.
Here is our list of Chicago’s Top Black Women of Impact in 2022 (listed alphabetically):
Kimbra Bell Balark
During the Covid-19 crisis and every day, Kimbra Bell Balark makes a difference in the health and lives of her fellow Chicagoans. She is an accomplished internal medicine physician and clinical assistant professor of medicine at Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine. In 2021, she was named medical director at the Bronzeville Advanced Outpatient Care Center.
Providing care for patients and teaching medical students and residents are passions for Balark. During the Covid-19 crisis, she frequently volunteered with Northwestern’s Covid-19 hotline and was a virtual speaker at seminars to help minimize the impact of the pandemic on vulnerable populations. She advises Black young professional women to persevere. “Sometimes you find yourself thinking, ‘Is this really worth it?’ she says. “The answer is ‘Yes. It is.’ Keep your eye on the prize and persevere and be sure to surround yourself with a strong support network.”
Never has the supply chain been more in focus than during the pandemic. As senior director of Strategic Sourcing for McDonald’s Corporation, Hope Bentley deals with supply chain challenges and helps to keep McDonalds thriving. A dynamic and experienced supply chain professional, Bentley was named to her current position in 2019. She also is a board director for the Chicago Urban League and U.S. Farmers and Ranchers in Action and is matchmaker for Big Brothers. Her favorite quote is “Never just work for money or power,” from Marian Wright Edelman. Recalling reading the book, she says, “I devoured her book “The Measure of Our Success” shortly after college. Her quote for me meant aligning my efforts to what I’m most excited about. I’ve had to make tough decisions in my career and aligning my priorities has centered me during those times. I’ve been blessed to work with great people solving incredible challenges.”
Named as president of the Poetry Foundation in 2021 after a nationwide search, Michelle Boone brings a wealth of experience in community engagement and service. She previously held leadership positions at several major Chicago institutions including at Navy Pier where she was chief program and civic engagement officer. As a cultural affairs commissioner for the City of Chicago, she took a leading role in development of the city’s 2012 cultural master plan and organized more than 2,000 programs and special events. Boone is a board chair for Art Alliance Illinois, board secretary for the Graham Foundation, vice chair of Americans for the Arts, board member for The Arts Club of Chicago, board member of Timeline Theater and a volunteer for South Shore Works, arts and culture committee. Her favorite quote comes from Shirley Chisholm, who said, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.”
Chicago native Samantha Chatman feels right at home at ABC 7 Chicago where the award-winning journalist is an investigative reporter and anchor. She also is a member of the I-Team, which alerts viewers to scams and helps them make good financial decisions. Chatman grew up in Hyde Park and joined the station in 2019. Previous to returning to Chicago, she worked in Dallas/Fort Worth and in Louisville. She started her career at WEEK-TV in Peoria. But Chatman says she’s glad to be back in Chicago. “These are my people. It’s my duty to make sure they’re abreast of what’s going on around them. I owe it to the people watching to have their backs.” Chatman also is an associate board member for Make-A-Wish Illinois and After School Matters, respectively.
Gwen Perry Davis
At a time when public institutions and other organizations were struggling figure out mask mandates and other pandemic-imposed hurdles, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago named Gwen Perry Davis as COO in 2020. Her new role included taking charge of strategic and creative aspects of the museum’s operations. She directed the museum’s response to Covid-19 including establishing protocols based on local and federal requirements for cultural institutions. Perry Davis joined MCA Chicago in 2011 as deputy director of development and advanced to senior director of development where she led the museum’s entire fundraising operation. Perry Davis is also known as an advocate for MCA’s art and artists.
Michèle Dean Alexandre commitment to excellence is evident in her most recent accomplishment. She was appointed to the post of dean of the School of Law at Loyola University Chicago, effective July 15. Dean Alexandre, who earned her Juris Doctor from Harvard Law School, was selected following a nationwide search. A recipient of Fulbright fellowship, Dean Alexandre has devoted her career and scholarship to civil rights law, including issues of sustainability, economic independence, gender equity, and social justice. She currently serves as Dean and Professor of Law at Stetson University College of Law. Dean Alexandre is expected to play a critical leadership role in preparing students in the School of Law to be ethical advocates for justice and equity in an increasingly diverse and interdependent world.
Nickol Hackett is a champion of diversity in the financial sector, and serves as chief investment officer and treasurer at the Joyce Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to investing in policies to advance racial equality and economic mobility for the next generation in the Great Lakes region. In this crucial role, she oversees an investment program for endowment assets of $1 billion in support of the foundation’s grant making. Previously, she was executive director and chief investment officer of the $10 billion Cook County Pension Fund. She serves as vice chair of the board at MCA Chicago, and supports other non-profits including Chicago Scholars, the Greater Chicago Food Depository and Firebird Community Arts. She encourages young people to help others advance. “Knowing that we are measured in fullness and not in singularity, we are the sum of our experiences and contributions. One way to enhance that fullness is by making advocacy part of our professional and personal ritual. We each possess the ability to advocate and create space for others at all points in our career. It is simultaneously an act of power and humility that fosters leadership through generosity,” she says.
When Mayor Lori Lightfoot appointed Erin Harkey as acting commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) in October 2021, she said the department would be in good hands. Just a few months later, Harkey was named commissioner and Lightfoot praised her long experience as a champion of culture in the city. Previously, Harkey moved up through the ranks at DCASE where she started as a projects administrator, then became deputy commissioner for programming and then first deputy commissioner at DCASE. She also was a senior policy advisor for Arts in Culture in the Mayor’s office where she advised on cultural policy and arts strategy across city departments and agencies. In addition, she previously managed public art programs at Los Angeles County Arts Commission and the Arts Council for Long Beach. Harkey holds two master’s degrees in Public Art Administration and Urban Planning from the University of Southern California (USC) and a bachelor’s degree in Marketing from Howard University.
As the first Black CEO to lead the Metropolitan Planning Council, Darlene Hightower brings more than two decades of experience leading civic organizations and initiatives to a council that was founded in 1934 to fight against inequity. Whether through good roads, safe drinking water or diverse communities, the council’s mission is to build a region where all residents can reach their full potential. Hightower was chosen for her current role based on a track record of building innovative programs to address systemic inequities in the Chicagoland region. At Rush University Medical System, where Rush was vice president of Community Health Equity, she oversaw the implementation and evaluation of an array of community programs aimed at improving health and advancing equity. She’s pleased to be at the council. “The mission of the organization, which is to create a better, bolder, and more equitable future for everyone, allows me the opportunity to combine my personal passions and blend them with my professional experience and goals,” she says.
As CEO of Family Focus, Dara Munson dedicates her talents to bolstering families and children. Upon merging with the Chicago Care Society in January 2021, Family Focus, became the longest operating social service agency in Illinois. The organization, which was founded in 1848, has a mission to invest in families and their children through innovative programs and services that also are grounded in anti-racism and social justice. Munson, who hails from Detroit, is the former CEO of the Child Care Society, a past president and CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metro Detroit, past COO of Girl Scouts of Southeastern Michigan and past Senior Director of United Way of Southeastern Michigan. Munson thrives on serving Black and Brown children, youth and family. She also works to end structural and systemic racism to ensure that all children have opportunity. “The work I do has rarely been easy, but it is undeniably essential to strengthening the fabric of our community. To that, I will always hold myself accountable,” she says.
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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.