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Looking forward, reaching back


Naturally, you find plenty of achievement and confidence among the Des Moines Business Record’s Women of Influence for 2004, but anyone looking for inspiration in their stories will discover less predictable details, too.

Their routes to the top have included humble beginnings, false career starts, at least one premature retirement and, in a couple of cases, enough relocations to fill an address book.

Few of these women grew up in Des Moines. Whether it’s due to coincidence or something more meaningful, nearly all of them saw opportunities to have an impact on Central Iowa after arriving from someplace else.

Each of them has a unique story to tell, but several themes stand out: the ability to overcome obstacles, an eagerness to be involved with the community in a variety of roles and a sense of obligation to reach back and help those who are still striving.

“I hope my legacy in this community is that I have become a role model to young people,” said Renee Hardman, who grew up in a single-parent minority family in suburban Chicago and now holds the title of senior vice president of human resources at Bankers Trust Co. “I want to give them hope that they can achieve whatever they set their mind to.”

Dawn Taylor, a Sioux City native and an outspoken advocate for Iowa’s Latino community, said: “Des Moines has been good to me, and I want to give back. If you don’t reach out and give back, I think you miss so much of life.”

As for the willingness to go wherever necessary – and the ability to take it all in stride — take a look at Ellen Gaucher’s route to Central Iowa. She moved from the East Coast to Michigan, then here to work at Wellmark Inc. “I think sometimes you make a decision,” she said, “when you’re at a certain point in your career, that work has to come first. There were a lot of times that I missed events that the kids really wanted me to be at, but I really feel as though I’ve been able to do anything I wanted. I’ve had a fabulous career and great opportunities, so I don’t really have anything to complain about.”

Or how about Michele Griswell? She and her husband, Barry, moved constantly during the first 17 years of their marriage before settling into Des Moines. It was easy, she says now, because they looked at it all as an adventure.

Teresa Wahlert lived in Omaha, New York, North Dakota and Arizona as she climbed the corporate ladder – and went back to work recently after she thought she had retired for good. Wahlert also went through the “emotional roller coaster” of working while her children were small. But, like Griswell, she doesn’t regret the career choices or the moves. “My children today would tell you they’re happy they had the experience,” she said. After all of those new schools and new neighborhoods, “they meet people very easily.”

Wahlert may have learned a lot about the corporate world by competing against boys and men in sports. But all the women in this group have had to go up against males all along the line.

“Many of the jobs I’ve held have been in predominantly male workplaces, and I’ve used it as an opportunity to be different,” said Cynthia Eisenhauer, director of the Iowa Department of Management. “I felt like, as the one woman administrator among a team of men, it almost gave me a license to be a little more creative and innovative, and I took advantage of that.”

As you would expect, these 10 active and community-minded women can fill pages with the lists of their volunteer efforts.

While Kay Runge deals with the construction of an expensive downtown library and the renovation of branches as well, she serves as an adviser to the University of Iowa and sits on the board of Wells Fargo Bank.  Peg Armstrong-Gustafson not only runs a business with her husband, but also volunteers for the Festival of Trees every year, works at the Variety telethon and handles various duties at Windsor Heights Lutheran Church.

Gloria Burnett, after her moves around the country finally ended, got involved with the Des Moines Ballet, VSA arts of Iowa and the Blank Park Zoo, where she has helped implement a number of significant improvements.

Janis Ruan has been an active volunteer for more than 30 years, stepping forward to help groups from the Cub Scouts to the Junior League of Des Moines. She currently sits on the board of directors of the Salisbury House Foundation and the Greater Des Moines Community Foundation, and in the past has been on the boards of the YMCA of Greater Des Moines, the Des Moines Metro Opera, Orchard Place and the Des Moines Ballet.

“You name it, I’ve done it,” she said.

That’s the kind of spirit that infuses the 2004 Women of Influence.

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