Chicago’s Most Powerful Women 2023

According to the study Empower Women, Empower Your Organization published by the management consulting firm Culture Partners, organizations with more women in leadership improve outcomes on financial performance, increase innovation and enhance corporate culture. The formula is simple: to empower women in the workplace, add more women.

Maria Salterio Doughty, president & CEO of The Chicago Network says, “The numbers are not good. We still see these really small percentages of women in executive positions, but for true diversity and parity in leadership, we need to develop women from the bottom up and the top down.”

This month, Better named Doughty to the 2023 list of the most powerful women in Chicago. Joining her are corporate leaders, community advocates and philanthropists who are successfully helming organizations. They were chosen by past listmakers, local luminaries and our readers who not only value their extraordinary contributions, but recognize them as examples of what empowered women can achieve.

Here is our 2023 list of the most powerful women in Chicago (organized alphabetically). 

Claire Babineaux-Fontenot

CEO, Feeding America

Claire Babineaux-Fontenot


According to Feeding America, one in six Americans turned to the charitable food system for help at the height of the pandemic. Today, food insecurity remains a concern. In March, Feeding America CEO Claire Babineaux-Fontenot told CNN, “Every single county, parish in the whole United States has its own challenges with food insecurity. We’re seeing fewer and fewer donations from the public all at a time when people are still in need of help.”

Babineaux-Fontenot joined Chicago-based Feeding America in 2018 when 11% of American households were experiencing hunger. It’s closer to 35% today. As the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief organization the Feeding America network served 5.2 billion meals last year. In an episode of the Powerful Women: Let’s Talk podcast, Babineaux- Fontenot said, “If we can go to the moon, we can solve hunger.”

Before joining Feeding America, the Louisiana native spent 13 years at Walmart, where she was the first Black woman to serve as the company’s vice president of audits and tax policy. A cancer diagnosis in 2015 made Babineaux-Fontenot rethink her life and career. In a profile for CNBC she said she asked herself whether she would be fulfilled if the last thing she did professionally was work for Walmart? “My answer was no. Not knowing all the things I know. Not with my background. Not with my upbringing.”

Visiting Food Bank of Northeast Louisiana


Babineaux-Fontenot, who has been cancer-free for more than 8 years, grew up in south central Louisiana. She was quoted last year saying, “I am the granddaughter of sharecroppers in the deep South on both sides. I’ve got parents who invested so much in me to get to do things they never even imagined.”  

Warren and Mary Alice Babineaux cared for over 100 children through a combination of birth, adoption and fostering. Babineaux-Fontenot does not say whether she is a biological or adopted child, because as a Feeding America representative has said, “to the family, they are all the same.”

Babineaux-Fontenot was named a Time100 Most Influential Person for 2020. She received a National Urban League Women of Power Award in 2021.

Tracy Brown

Chief Content Officer, Chicago Public Media


Chicago is a big news town, but the advantage of covering current events on public radio is the opportunity to dig deep, analyze and contextualize a story. Tracy Brown, Chief Content Officer for Chicago Public Media appreciated the slower pace when she came to WBEZ after years as a news leader at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Dallas Morning News. “We choose the big moment stories and bring a different, distinct news angle to them.”

Prior to joining WBEZ as Managing Editor in 2019, Brown worked for newspapers throughout the south. She was named Chief Content Officer two years ago. “I oversee all the content at Chicago Public Media,” Brown explains. “That includes the strategic vision and operations from hiring to content creation.”

Brown also manages editorial collaborations with the Chicago Sun-Times which Chicago Public Media acquired last year. “There are so many great stories we do here at Chicago Public Media,” she reflects. “We have a unique opportunity to tell stories from marginalized communities that don’t have a voice, and then impact those people’s lives.”


Throughout her 30-year career, Brown faced and overcame challenges. “When I came into the journalism field there wasn’t a lot of diversity in newsrooms,” she recalls. “Early on, I didn’t always have allies or get encouragement and mentoring because there were so few people who looked like me in places of power and influence. But when people tell me that I can’t do something, it becomes important to me to believe in myself and to prove that I can.”

As a single mother to her now adult daughter, Zoie, Brown — a former Atlanta-area President of the National Mothers’ organization Jack and Jill of America, Inc. — created balance between her personal and professional lives. “I wish there were times that I wasn’t so tied to the job and the news cycle — working late, working on weekends — but I’ve always tried to be mindful of what that’s meant to my daughter.

“I’m from a small, rural town in Georgia with a population of about 3,000. I used to envision coming back home and working at the weekly newspaper. As the Chief Content Officer at Chicago Public Media overseeing one of the largest nonprofit newsrooms in the country, I get to lead and to mentor and to have impact in a very different way that’s beyond my imagination.”

Brown also serves as a board member for the Local Media Association; as Chair of the University of Georgia, Alumni Board, Grady College of Journalism; as a longtime member of the National Association of Black Journalists; and is a University of Georgia graduate.

Cecilia Conrad, Ph.D.

CEO, Lever for Change; Board Director, Ex Officio Senior Advisor, Collaborative Philanthropy and Fellows, MacArthur Foundation


As a professor of economics, Dr. Cecilia Conrad was inclined to make material easier to comprehend; however, as a Black woman in a male-dominated discipline, she was advised to present in a more complex way. “I had to first establish my credentials,” Conrad explains. “Sometimes that meant making things more complicated than I would have liked, but that showed students I knew what I was talking about, and they should listen to me.”

And now, more than just students are listening. After 31 years in academia as a professor and an administrator, Conrad transitioned into philanthropy founding Lever for Change, an affiliate of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in 2019.

Conrad, who earned her Ph.D. in economics at Stanford University, grew up in Dallas, Texas, where she attended segregated schools. She graduated from the all-women’s Wellesley College in Massachusetts with a B.A. in economics and a newfound sense of confidence; “People told me, ‘You can’t expect to do that well given who you are,’” she recalls. “That was actually provocative for me. Hearing that kind of feedback helped me build my own self-confidence.”

Cecilia Conrad and the Lever for Change team meet to set goals for the organization | Courtesy of © Tipping Point Photography


Lever for Change has distributed more than $1.5 billion in philanthropic grants. Conrad and her team recently set a new goal of dispersing another $1.5 billion by 2025. “When I look at the portfolio of what I’m helping through Lever for Change, I feel lucky,” she comments. “It feels great to address so many important issues.

“One of our goals is to increase the number of organizations that receive grants that may not have gotten funding in the past, but are still doing bold and impactful things,” Conrad adds. “We have so many problems to work on. Finding the donor who’s interested in each critical problem is what’s exciting to me.”

Conrad serves on the boards of Bryn Mawr College, the Poetry Foundation, IES Study Abroad, the National Academy of Social Insurance, the Hypothesis Fund and the African Center for Economic Transformation.

Maria Salterio Doughty

President & CEO, The Chicago Network


As the daughter of Italian immigrants, Maria Salterio Doughty barely spoke English when she entered kindergarten. Today she is the president and CEO of The Chicago Network (TCN), a nonprofit networking organization for Chicagoland women at the highest levels of leadership in business, the arts, government and academia. “I’m definitely the product of the American dream,” she says. “My parents had little formal education, but they were incredibly successful.”

Although she had been a director at Allstate Insurance for 23 years, Doughty did not qualify for membership at TCN. “I think it was good for me to come in not having been a member,” she comments.

Membership is by invitation only and limited to those women who meet strict criteria as top leaders in their industry. Among the more than 500 current members are Ellen Alberding, President of The Joyce Foundation; Katherine Baicker, Provost of University of Chicago; and Larita Clark, CEO of Metropolitan Pier & Exposition Authority.

Maria Salterio Doughty with attendees at the TCN 2021 Launchpad Women’s Leadership Summit


“The work that we’re doing in the Chicago Network is truly extraordinary,” Doughty explains. “We’re amplifying the voices of the most senior women across 11 different sectors of Chicagoland. That effectuates change in terms of our vision of gender equity and parity. This is where I need to be.”

With early aspirations of arguing in front of the Supreme Court, Doughty earned a Juris Doctor (JD) at Emory University School of Law. She worked for small law firms for several years before joining the corporate litigation department at Allstate Insurance, following the birth of her first child — one of two now adult sons. “Then I did the unthinkable,” she adds, “I left the practice of law and the corporate sector and moved into this nonprofit space. It was a big risk, but I am completely content. ”

Doughty is Board President of the Illinois Coalition Against Domestic Violence, co-leads the Illinois Task Force on Employment and Economic Opportunity for Persons with Disabilities, and sits on the Board of the Latino Policy Forum.

Christine A. Leahy

Board Chair, President & CEO, CDW


Christine A. Leahy started working at Computer Discount Warehouse (CDW) 20 years ago serving as the company’s first general counsel. Founded in 1984, CDW is a leading global provider of full-stack IT solutions and services including networking, mobility, cloud computing, security, software management, data center management to help organizations in business, government, education and healthcare. It is one of the 10% of Fortune 500 companies run by a woman. 

Leahy was named CEO in 2019. In January 2023, she was unanimously appointed Chair of the Board of Directors. Under her leadership CDW has outpaced market growth with net sales growing from $16 billion to approximately $24 billion.

In a 2018 interview with the Chicago Tribune, Leahy said, “I’ve never been a person who sits down and plots my life. What I do think about are the environments I like to be in. I love being part of an organization with clarity and a cause.”

Leahy speaking at Children’s Home & Aid Day of Gratitude


Leahy is a graduate of Brown University, She earned her Juris Doctor (JD) at Boston College School of Law and completed the CEO Perspectives Program at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, as well as the Women’s Director Development Program at Kellogg. 

Leahy is on the Board of Junior Achievement of Chicago where she served as Co-Chairperson for the 2021 Chicago Business Hall of Fame. She is also a member of the Board of Trustees at Children’s Home & Aid and co-chaired that organization’s 2019 Champions for Children Luncheon. She sits on the Board of Directors at Target and is a member of both the Economic Club of Chicago and The Chicago Network

Leahy founded and sponsors CDW’s Women’s Opportunity Network, a business resource group that provides resources to CDW’s female coworkers interested in exploring, growing and becoming change-makers in the field of technology.

Nicole R. Robinson

CEO, YWCA Metropolitan Chicago


Nicole R. Robinson was named CEO of the YWCA Metropolitan Chicago in January 2022 after almost six years in leadership at the Greater Chicago Food Depository. She is one of the four co-creators of Chicago’s Food Equity Council that identifies and advances Chicago’s Food Equity Agenda.

A lifelong resident of the city, Robinson claims 4 neighborhoods as home — Roseland Heights, Inglewood, Altgeld Gardens and Bronzeville, where she currently resides. Calling herself the product of the 4 Ps — public schools, public parks, public libraries and public benefits — Robinson believes both her personal and professional experience have prepared her to lead the YWCA. “I didn’t set my sights on becoming a CEO, but my experiences have collectively built the perspective that helps me be the right leader for the right moment we’re in,” she says. “The YWCA is at the intersection of all the challenges that Chicago has, but also all the opportunities.”

Robinson began her career at Kraft Foods before becoming Senior Director, Community Involvement and Foundation President at Mondelez International — the parent company of brands like Nabisco and Cadbury. Now she’s applying what she learned through that work to her role at the YWCA. “We adopt a lot of the principles of what makes a great business operate,” Robinson explains. “We call ourselves a nonprofit, but we’re an enterprise that invests our money back into the community — our shareholders.

“The YWCA is 146 years old,” Robinson reflects. “I know I stand on the shoulders of a lot of great women who have made great progress for women; however, there’s more work to do. We want to bring economic equity to the community, close the wage gap, provide access to mental health services and make sure every child has everything they need to be successful and grow.”

 Robinson has been recognized by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Business Civic Leadership Center for her philanthropic work. She is a Board member of Court Theatre.

Megan Ross, Ph.D.

CEO, Lincoln Park Zoo


As an undergraduate at James Madison University Megan Ross discovered she could spend her life doing something she loved — observing animals. “A woman in the psychology department talked to us about studying animal behavior,” Ross recalls. “My jaw dropped, and I thought, people pay you to watch animals? That’s a job?”

Now, it’s been Ross’ job for 30 years. She has been at the Lincoln Park Zoo since 2000 and after six years as Zoo Director she became CEO just 18 months ago. “The Lincoln Park Zoo has been around since 1868,” she says. “I’m only the eighth institutional leader here.” 

She’s also the first scientist and woman in the role. “I was brought on as a Ph.D. curator for birds 23 years ago. That was very new at the time,” Ross explains. “Now my main focus is care, conservation, community and culture, and how we can use data and science to make sure we are being intentional in how we are impacting the world in a positive way for animals and for people.”

Megan Ross, Ph.D., speaks at the opening of Pepper Family Wildlife Center, home to eight endangered African lions


The Lincoln Park Zoo animal welfare science team is implementing touchscreen research and an app Ross developed called ZooMonitor to give the animals agency over their care. ZooMonitor is in use in over 400 institutions in more than 50 countries. “Right now we’re asking the gorillas, chimps and macaques to answer questions like, ‘Do you prefer blueberries over grapes? Do you like asparagus or broccoli?’” Ross said. “Knowing what the individual animals like gives the scientists the opportunity to give them some choices that in the future may include the habitats they occupy and the animals they interact with.”

Ross is hoping to refine the word zoo. “We’re going to be the advocates and the caretakers of wildlife for the future,” she says. “This is a place where science happens, where kids connect with nature and people can enjoy being a part of the natural world.”

Ross is on the Board of Directors of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and is a member of the Asian Songbird Trade Specialist Group — part of the International Union for Conservation tasked with preventing the extinction of songbirds in Southeast Asia threatened by illegal trafficking.  

Jennifer Steans

President & CEO, Financial Investments Corporation & Board Chair, Navy Pier


When Jennifer Steans contrasts her professional opportunities with those of her mother, she recognizes how fortunate she is. “My mom was an incredible musician,” Steans explains. “She got herself into the Boston Conservatory to play piano, but her father wouldn’t let her go. … My dad was a very strong father figure, but he did not give my sisters or I any career direction,” she adds.

Unsure of what to pursue, Steans became a teacher; “It was a great first job. Having to be on your feet in front of a tough audience all day taught me lots and lots of skills.”

After two years in the classroom, Steans enrolled in the J. L. Kellogg Graduate School of Business at Northwestern University where she earned an MBA. She worked as a consultant before finally agreeing to join her father in founding the private equity firm, Financial Investments Corporation. “I had to get enough self-esteem to have the guts to go work with my dad. We worked together for 25 years until his death in 2019. In all those years, I think we had three fights,” Steans recalls.

Steans Family Foundation board meeting


Although she recently celebrated her 60th birthday, Steans has no plans to retire. She is, however, shifting the way she does business. “I have lots of different interests,” she says. “Now I spend half my time on nonprofit and civic work. It’s really important to me and luckily, I’m at a place where I can do that.”

Steans is a Life Trustee and past Chair of the Ravinia Festival, a Trustee for The Steans Family Foundation, DePaul University, RUSH University Medical Center, World Business Chicago, The Civic Federation, The Commercial Club of Chicago, Phoenix Pact and the YWCA of Evanston/North Shore. “The common theme right now with the organizations I’m involved with is around equity and leveling the playing field,” she says. “I’m passionate about that.”

In February, Steans became the Board Chair for Navy Pier. “The Navy Pier is all about equity. We call it the People’s Pier for a reason. It’s free for everybody and we’re supporting Black and Brown owned businesses by bringing as many as we can onto the Pier.”

Kecia Steelman

Chief Operating Officer, Ulta Beauty


Kecia Steelman has had a long and varied career in retail. She started at Target 30 years ago, moved on to Home Depot, spent five years in leadership at Family Dollar and joined Ulta Beauty in 2015. Steelman sees synergy between all these businesses despite their different product lines.  “Understanding your consumer — connecting and listening to their asks, needs and desires — is important whether you’re buying something for your home or something for yourself,” she explains. “While they’re very different businesses, it’s the human connection that’s important.”

As Chief Operating Officer, Steelman oversees Ulta Beauty’s store and services operations, supply chain, IT, Ulta Beauty at Target and enterprise-wide optimization efforts. “I am personally responsible for 53,000 associates in our stores. That’s something I do not take lightly.”

Visiting an Ulta Beauty location in Wheaton, Illinois


Ulta Beauty has more than 1,300 locations throughout the U.S. “We’ve gone through massive growth,” says Steelman. “We’ve almost doubled in size since I joined nine years ago. That can make an employee feel disconnected from the company and the vision, but it’s important to make sure we’re bringing them along in the journey. … When I go into a store, I ask a lot of questions and then really listen. That creates the full circle moment for our associates. They know they matter and they’re important to our overall business.”

Steelman began her career immediately after high school. “I would have loved to do the traditional college route, but it just wasn’t in the cards for me,” she says. “I never allowed not having a college education to take my confidence. I think it gave me a little bit more tenacity, a little bit more grit and a little bit more drive to really push myself.”

She eventually earned a B.S. in Business Management. “I learned early on in my career to not get in my own way, to not hold myself back from being truly successful. It’s really important to be intentional about what your goals are.”

Steelman is the Chair Elect for the Adler Planetarium Board of Trustees and sits on the Executive Committee of the Metropolitan Family Service Board of Directors.

Read our extended Q&A with Steelman.

See our 2022, 20212020 and more past Powerful Women Lists.

More From Better:

Susan Yem is an internationally published writer who likes telling other people’s stories. She enjoys writing about parenting, education, and how individuals achieve greatness in their chosen endeavors.

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