Over the years, I’ve attended press conferences, graduations, receptions, and concerts at Volkswagen Chattanooga’s conference center, but I’ve never before seen it decorated entirely in pink. The event was the first ever Volkswagen Women Who Rock Awards Brunch. After having my picture taken in the photo booth wearing a pink Volkswagen hard hat, I meandered through the crowd waiting to hear from the keynote speaker, Julie Baumgardner, CEO and Founder of Chattanooga’s family oriented nonprofit, First Things First.
We watched profiles of the award nominees on the overhead screens as we listened to each of their favorite songs. It was a musical lesson in diversity. True to Volkswagen’s techie mindset, the playlist could be downloaded on Spotify. After much munching and brunching, we were brought to attention by Shireena Avery, the Volkswagen Diversity Sponsor to the featured Employee Resource Groups (ERG). The Women Who Rock program got underway with Megan Herndon, President of Volkswagen’s Women in Motion ERG.
Megan began with a video from the national LeanIn movement which showed women supporting and inspiring other women. It certainly inspired me as the founder of Chattanooga’s LeanIn chapter. Our small Southern city has been up there with the trend setters for almost ten years when Volkswagen opened its doors and Megan first began working for the company. Giving back to those who supported her through school and motherhood, Megan developed this ERG in 2014 to 1) integrate women’s perspectives into the workplace, 2) network with forums and opportunities to share ideas on issues, and 3) have a voice together in the community that Volkswagen has made home.
Thanking the officers of the ERG, Megan compared the women to an elephant herd where the females form a supportive pack. They gather around a birthing mom to protect and celebrate just as Volkswagen women do when giving birth to new ideas. Congratulating the women on their determination and tenacity, Megan explained that this event was intended to revitalize the women’s ERGs by motiving new members to build on their passions and involve their talents in the “girl squad herd”.
Next to speak was Ashley Harris, President of the Celebrating Working Families ERG. Whether caring for children, elderly parents, or family members with disabilities, this ERG is dedicated to supporting care givers, bridging the gap in being a worker and a family caretaker, and fostering work-life balance. Addressing the diversity of perspectives in the ERG from single moms, to LGBTQ families, and stay-at-home dads, the group speaks and listens to the tough issues and provides resources: life event recognition, policy reviews, holiday stress seminars, and recreational activities.
The ERG presidents were perfect introductions to they keynoter’s question, “What is it about Women Who Rock?” Julie Baumgardner, a Woman Who Rocks herself, then proceeded to explain exactly what makes a woman who rocks. Baumgardner talked about the inspiration of national icons beginning with former First Lady Barbara Bush who was funny, tenacious, and strong in hugging an AIDs child. She spoke about how General Motors CEO Mary Barra rose from the ranks to become Americas first automotive industry woman CEO. Robin Roberts was also on the list as part of the twelve women who pioneered as TV women sports anchors. Naturally, the list included Oprah Winfrey not only for her spectacular career, but for founding the Leadership Academy for Girls in Africa which gave girls in underdeveloped countries the opportunity see what is possible.
Closer to home in Chattanooga, Baumgardner spotlighted Pat Summitt. Coach Summitt’s University of Tennessee women’s basketball team, the Lady Volunteers, won eight national titles. Summitt won 1,098 games, more games than any other NCAA Division 1 basketball coach. Several Chattanooga Women Who Rock also had a shout out. Dr. Elaine Swafford, currently the CEO-Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy/Chattanooga Prep School, was described as a “Force of Nature” with a passion for education. Cara Hicks, the founder of the MOMentum Network was commended for using her experience as a teenage single mother to help others in similar circumstances. Sabrina Butcher, the founder of LUCYdoes LLC, was commended for becoming a management consultant following a career in mechanical engineering with industrial corporations.
When the Volkswagen award winners were announced by Sr. Vice President of HR Nicole Koesling and Executive Sponsor Knut Hilles, the crowd gave a rousing reception to their own Women Who Rock. They expressed admiration for Volkswagen women and their ability to be creative and innovative, think outside the box, and juggle family, work, and, sometimes, school. the awardees included a team member (Cassie Reardon), a team leader (Princess Ward), a supervisor (Melinda Jackson), an assistant (Tara Mickens), a specialist (Thyais Leonard), and a manager (Kee Kee Mathis).
Volkswagen’s emphasis on Diversity & Inclusion was evident as was the determination to bring more Volkswagen women into leadership was clear. Cecilia Flores, V.P. of the Women in Motion ERG, told us in her closing remarks that a mentorship program would begin shortly. It was an inspiring conclusion to an inspirational event for Volkswagen women, women guests in the audience, and beyond. Women in the automotive industry and other industries where women have not traditionally been featured will hopefully be inspired, too.
Baumgardner’s words will resonate with all of these women, “May you continue to be consistently strong and pave the way fro the women behind you and leave a legacy. And for that – you rock!”