JOIN US IN HONORING THE 2020 BETTY AWARD WINNERS IN A VIRTUAL EVENT DECEMBER 15TH. AWARD-WINNING JOURNALIST AND AUTHOR ANNA QUINDLEN WILL DELIVER THE KEYNOTE ADDRESS AND JOEL QUADRACCI OF QUAD WILL PRESENT REMARKS.
For the past nine months, we’ve seen people dig in and show up for their community in trying times. But long before the trials of 2020, Milwaukeeans have been leading the way in improving our city.
For the second annual Betty Awards, we’ve focused on seven women doing exactly that. The awards pay tribute to this magazine’s late, formidable former publisher, Betty Quadracci, who founded Quad with her husband Harry. While the group together embody Quadracci’s verve and spirit, each woman also individually captures one of Quadracci’s distinct and celebrated qualities.
Milwaukee Magazine editor and publisher Carole Nicksin gathered the awardees for a virtual roundtable in late September to discuss how they got to this point in their lives and what fuels their passion. Here we present an edited version of the inspiring and spirited conversation that ensued.
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CREATIVE GENIUS: AN ARTIST ON TOP OF HER GAME
Growing up in Sierra Leone, Ferne Caulker was surrounded by music. “We lived up on a mountain where the breeze carried sounds of traditional drums and people singing,” recalls Caulker, age 72. “My father also loved classical music.”
Those early memories would continue to imbue Caulker’s creative life for decades. As a young woman, Caulker, who moved to Milwaukee in high school after her father’s death, studied under master modern dancer Katherine Dunham. But a 1969 trip to Ghana inspired Caulker to take her own, unique path. “I was standing at Elmina Castle, one of the stops on the Atlantic slave trade,” says Caulker, “and it hit me: I can be a connector.”
When she returned to Milwaukee, Caulker developed her own dance form, one that pulled from both ballet and traditional African dance. She called it the “Caulker method” and built her 51-year-old pioneering dance company, Ko-Thi, around it. “It is about rethinking what stories we tell,” says Caulker, who served as the company’s artistic director until January. “What we did was create something new based in something very old.”
STANDOUT SISTER: A WOMAN KNOWN FOR HER SUPPORT OF OTHER WOMEN
Among the pieces of advice Gerry Howze, the executive director of PEARLS for Teen Girls, likes to offer the young women she mentors is one that sits close to home: If I can do it, so can you.
As a teen parent and survivor of domestic violence, Howze arrived in Milwaukee in search of a fresh start. She found one at Aurora Family Services, where Howze was mentored in leadership development. The experience left Howze, now 53, with an epiphany: “I thought, if people without money had access to these spaces, it would literally change the world.”
Enter PEARLS, a nonprofit that focuses on leadership development for girls in grades five through 12. Howze started as the organization’s first program facilitator and later took over as director in 2015. “I learned my lessons the hard way,” says Howze. “And now I get to tell these girls that they don’t have to. I tell them they have greatness in them and that they are worthy.”
TENACIOUS B: ONE WHO EMBODIES BETTY Q’S PERSEVERANCE
In March, Caitlin Cullen lost more than $30,000 in catering business within 36 hours. After that, she was certain she’d have to shutter The Tandem, her Lindsay Heights restaurant, for good. So she decided to use her remaining ingredients to cook 85 free meals for her neighbors who needed them most. The meals were gone within two hours. The next day, the 33-year-old and her staff made twice the amount. They were taken even faster. “It became clear to me that we needed to do this,” says Cullen.
Within a few weeks, The Tandem was running exclusively on donations and cooking upwards of 500 meals each day. In late April, World Central Kitchen, a global nonprofit that provides meals to families in need, committed to covering Cullen’s weekly costs. Over the next six months, Cullen tapped a slew of local restaurants which helped her churn out hundreds of meals a day. When the operation ended in September, Cullen had funnelled $430,000 to 50 restaurants across Milwaukee and distributed upwards of 57,000 free meals. As for what’s next? “I stopped predicting the future in March,” says Cullen. But whatever the direction, Cullen’s compass is clear: Do what feels right.
BRIDGE-BUILDER: INVESTED IN MAKING MKE A BETTER PLACE FOR ALL
As the devastating effects of the coronavirus spread across Milwaukee, Amy Lindner knew one thing for sure: United Way of Greater Milwaukee and Waukesha, where Lindner, age 43, has served as president since January 2018 and CEO since 2019, was built for a crisis like COVID-19. Not only do Lindner and her team partner with over 100 groups across four counties connecting people to housing, food, medical assistance and more, they also create pathways for volunteers to advocate for causes they care about. “At the core,” says Lindner, “people want to be part of the solution.”
That’s holds true for Lindner, too. Her work sits close to home. “I have seen people in my own life who have lived smaller, harder lives because they didn’t get the help they needed,” she says. “It’s amazing what happens when people can do the work and get treatment. To be able to be part of how people figure that out is a really powerful thing.”
RISK-TAKER: THIS FEARLESS FEMALE NEVER SETTLES FOR THE STATUS QUO
Juli Kaufmann’s professional ethos boils down to a simple, driving question: Why? “I ask the question because I want different outcomes,” says Kaufmann, president of Fix Development, a commercial real estate company with a focus of sustainability and community-building.
Why, for example, don’t developers build in low-income neighborhoods? Or, why shouldn’t new construction be welcoming to all? Such questions have led Kaufmann to help build more than $25 million in Milwaukee-area projects, all of them impressive, innovative and located in some of the city’s most neglected communities. Among them, Sherman Phoenix, a food hall housed in a former bank that was damaged during the 2016 riots, and The Tandem, Caitlin Cullen’s Lindsay Heights restaurant. The risk that comes with disrupting the status quo is precisely what motivates Kaufmann. “Risk is a sister to belief,” she says. “What I’m more concerned with is the risk of doing nothing at all.”
GROUNDBREAKER: SHE TREADS BOLDLY WHERE FEW HAVE GONE BEFORE
Money never intimidated Melinda Wilke. “My dad owned several businesses – semi-truck rentals, mechanical repairs – and he’d always shared his general ledgers with me,” says Wilke, the 42-year-old wealth management advisor and founder of Wilke Wealth and Investment Planning. “They were logical and gave me comfort. I was handling my parents’ tax returns by the time I was 12.”
As she got older, however, Wilke found she was an anomaly. Not only was her field dominated by men, but so was her client base. While most men easily discussed money matters, Wilke found that women considered the topic intimidating and taboo. Wilke decided to address the discrepancy by hiring women and educating them, too. Two years ago, Wilke created Wine, Women & Wealth, a quarterly seminar that has taught over 200 women how to take control of their financial futures. “One day, I hope to see every woman walking a little bit taller because she feels confident about money,” says Wilke. Until that happens, Wilke is here to help.
THE QUADRACCI FAMILY AWARD
Each year, Betty and Harry Quadracci’s children – Richard, Kathryn, Joel and Elizabeth – select an honoree whose accomplishments they feel would resonate with their mother
When Katherine Gehl decided to sell her family’s Germantown-based dairy company, Gehl Foods, to a private equity firm in 2015, it was one of the hardest decisions she’d ever made. Gehl was the fourth generation to run the company, which employed nearly 350 people. “I loved my company,” says Gehl, 54, “and I knew if I could live to 150, I would keep running it. But I lost my mother when I was 23, and that left me the idea that life is short.”
So Gehl turned her focus to what she calls a political duopoly. “Time is short for the security of our democracy,” says Gehl. “I realized that I needed to focus on that now. I wanted to be on the court instead of in the stands.”
Over the past several years, Gehl has worked with No Labels, a group committed to bipartisan solutions; co-founded the nonpartisan Wisconsin group Democracy Found; and advocated for a new election system that creates space for more candidates and competition. She co-authored a book on the subject, The Politics Industry, released in June. Though the road is a long one, Gehl has no regrets. Working toward political reform, Gehl says, “is a game worth losing.”
Carole Nicksin: Thank you all for being here today. I’m really excited to get this conversation going and I will start by asking: What accomplishment are you most proud of? Is there something that embodies what’s most important to you and the work that you do?
Caitlin Cullen: I’m jumping in because I’m usually terrible at answering these questions, but I have one this time. This summer, when we were feeding folks out of the restaurant, we landed a partnership with the World Central Kitchen, José Andrés’ global food relief organization.
Since we were already doing so well off of donations, we were able to reroute almost $450,000 to area restaurants that were going to go out of business. That made me feel really good.
Gerry Howze: One of my proudest accomplishments has been the fact that I’ve been at PEARLS close to 20 years now. And in that time, I feel so very proud that I’ve been able to serve thousands of girls and help change the trajectory of so many lives.
Ferne Caulker: My biggest thing has been transitioning my dance company Ko-Thi, now in its 51st year, to the next generation. I’ve transitioned into being a dance whisperer, or the person that the new team, who are in their 30s and running the dance company, whose opinion they ask for. And most of the time they take it. That’s a good place to be.
Amy Lindner: I think about my time at Meta House [a nonprofit that works with women struggling with addiction and abuse] and those women who were brave enough to make it to the door. They were there to do the work and see their lives transformed. I want that kind of transformation for every person who needs it across our region. That will be the work that I’m most proud of.
Melinda Wilke: Seven years ago, when I had my son, I was running two offices that I owned, and my own financial planning business. At that time, there were no women who had that role and kept it after having children. When I was pregnant, I remember a lot of different men asked me, “What are you going to do?” I said, “I’m going to do exactly what you did. I’m just going to keep going and take maternity leave, too.” What’s crazy is I actually created the first maternity program in our industry. And what’s proven true is that women are actually more successful in our industry with having kids. You can be successful and have babies.
Katherine Gehl: For me, it was just deciding to live life full-out. I sort of got lost after college because all the way through college, it’s just like you’re playing the same game as everybody else and you’re just supposed to do that game well. I was not fully making the best use of my time, not living full-out. When I turned 35, I made the decision to play what I always call “games worth losing.” Living at that level of risk, that is what I’m most proud of.
Nicksin: Juli, you’ve talked about how you are wired to be an entrepreneur and a risk-taker, too.
Juli Kaufmann: The thrill of innovating and getting something new is in my DNA, but I also think for all of us here, we are just people who believe in a North Star. We’re constantly facing barriers, but you know the only option is to plow through it, work around it, and to innovate through it. For me, I have also been able to take risks because I had sisters who were standing by me saying, “That’s not crazy.” Having other crazy women around allows risks to happen.
Nicksin: You said that you feel like each of [the women here] have something that they just saw needed to be done, and so they took it upon themselves to do it. What was that thing for you?
Kaufmann: I just constantly don’t understand why stuff is the way it is. I care about the planet and I care about people, so I’m naturally motivated by helping all people have a prosperous, happy and healthy life and a planet we can live on.
Nicksin: Does anyone else have something that inspired you to take the path that you took in your life?
Wilke: Mine was super easy. Growing up, I was doing anything to bring money into the house so that we could pay for gym clothes or buy milk for that week. It was really hard. I knew, no matter what, I was going to make sure my family didn’t have to struggle every day. And if I learned to do that, I also wanted to teach other families to do the same.
Howze: I got pissed. My upbringing was the opposite of Mindy’s. I was born into an upper middle-class family, but after my parents died, I wound up making lots of really bad choices. I ended up on welfare, and the way that I was treated because I was a poor, Black, single, young mom pissed me off. I decided that I wanted to find ways to help ensure that people who wanted to better their lives would get treated with dignity and respect. And now, when young women say they don’t know where to start, I always tell them to start with what pisses them off the most and figure out how to address it.
Lindner: When I think about Milwaukee and diversity and equity and inclusion, and everything that everyone here has accomplished, it’s clear that when people get the full ability to do what they’re awesome at, the collective awesome is so inspiring. I don’t think we can comprehend what our community would be and feel like if every single person were equally empowered to follow their own passions or use their skills to their full ability. In Milwaukee, we’re playing with a quarter of the deck, when we need the full deck to solve the problems our community needs us to solve.
Cullen: For me, I walk around Milwaukee with my white skin and my master’s degree, and I can do whatever the hell I want, and nobody ever stops me. How is it that I’m allowed to do whatever the hell I want where half of our city can’t? I’m motivated by, like, equipping a young army of people who are able to assert themselves in the places where I’m allowed to do it. Everyone should be allowed to.
Nicksin: That’s a great segue. I’m curious to hear what each of you think is the best way for us to make Milwaukee a more inclusive and equitable place for everyone.
Cullen: I was raised like a boy. I came out of the womb gay. I was raised without the constraints that a lot of us, I think, were raised with. It’s hard for me to have these conversations about women and business because I’ve never felt that way. But I think that’s something that is important for this next generation of young women. Not teaching them swagger, because they have plenty of it on their own, but showing them how to project that kind of confidence.
Howze: I’ve thought about this a lot. At PEARLS, we teach girls through community service that if you’re not a part of the solution or issues that are important to you, you are part of the problem. How are we being a part of the solution? Or how are we being a part of the problem? And then what are we doing about it based on what we come up with?
Gehl: It’s critically important that everybody look at their own individual mindset and actions and responsibility, and their own power to make a difference. But that also has to come back into the institutions, and the processes, and the systems at large. It’s up to each one of us, no question, but I also never want to let off the hook the systems that keep the existing power structure or dysfunction in place.
Caulker: I don’t think that anything is going to change. We can say Black lives matter. Change is occurring, of course it is, but in terms of it being at the root level, down underneath the soil, we’re going to have to completely change our educational system. We’re going to have to rewrite the history books. We’re going to have to rewrite the imagery. It’s going to have to become more inclusive of who Americans actually really are.
I was not born in this country. My mother was American, and my father was African. I spent 13 years of my life in Africa and everybody wanted to come to America because this is supposed to be the country of freedom where your dreams could be fulfilled. But how is that possible when the people who are at the top “don’t have color” and have not been educated?
Education is the key. It triggers curiosity. It triggers energy, synergy, passion. A sense of not being alone. That’s what education does.
Wilke: It is amazing what education does. I see it from more of a woman-man thing in my world. I will have couples coming in and the man knows where all the money is. The women, however, they’re not dumb. They’re amazingly bright, but they weren’t brought into the conversation. So, it’s by default that the woman doesn’t learn about these things and then doesn’t ever get invited to the table. That’s why, as an all-female team, we never have a [client] meeting with a husband and wife team if one of them is missing.
Caulker: I feel that I was blessed because women in my family, on both sides, were very much a part of the center of the community. I grew up knowing that women were actually the doers. But I still think that as women, we have a long way to go yet. And minority women have an even longer way to go; we fight three or four battles at the same time. What I do feel happy about is that I’m seeing young people bonding. I just hope that it solidifies to the point where a lot of young women of all races are holding hands and realizing that if we don’t work together, this is not going to change.
Nicksin: I want to get into a little bit about how each of you chose the career that you have. What would you tell your younger self now? What advice would you give her?
Cullen: We as a country have gotten really afraid of failing, and that is toxic. It’s really bad for us. I have made countless mistakes. I think we have to be willing to fail and be courageous. We have to be willing to try something because otherwise we’re just going to keep doing the same shit, and that is clearly not working.
Gehl: I recently went into political innovation and I was like, “How come once again I’m in a career where there’s only men in the room? How did that happen? Where are all the women?” The older I get, the more I see that if people do not take care to be recognized for their accomplishments, they do not end up with the same platform of influence. It’s always good to say “we” and recognize everybody, but I’ve noticed that women who said that all the time didn’t end up as powerful as they would have been. I think there’s something actually unselfish about being willing to say “I.” I tell people to take up space and say, “I did that.”
Howze: What I would say to my younger self is: You are enough just as you are. That there is no such thing as perfect, and you are perfect in your imperfection.
Lindner: One question I get is some version of a young person asking me, like, “How do I become you?” I dislike that question so much, even though I know it’s coming from a lovely place. And the answer I try to give every single time is like, don’t try to be me, try to be the best you. My advice is, I’m not your North Star. You’ve got to find your own North Star.
But I also want to say I’m still thinking about Ferne’s comments. I’m really cognizant of how much easier my path was than it otherwise would’ve been because of women older than me. Particularly, but not only, women of color who fought battles that I don’t have to fight.
Caulker: I go back to Lena Horne, who wrote this quote that I keep near me all the time. She said, “It’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s how you carry the load.” And when you start looking around, it’s how you observe how other women carry their loads.
Kaufmann: I would add that as much as I rail against systemic oppression, I’m also going to start making personal choices. Like to change racism, I have to be a better white person. I have to figure that out because it’s on me. Every speech I give now, I will talk about white privilege because that’s the opportunity I have. I’m also going to make personal choices like hiring a Black accountant. I am also going to seek out women. We recognize these systems are powerful and we find so much power in the sisterhood. We all know the load we carry, like Ferne said, and we see it all over.
Howze: Margaret Mead has a quote that’s one of my favorites: “Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” So, I say, rather than talk about it, let’s be about it. Let’s cultivate and nurture communities of young women who know their worthiness and have no problem standing in their own power. Let’s forge ahead. Let’s not wait for somebody to give us permission.