The Chicago Sky has launched a new platform to honor inspiring women beginning in the 2016 WNBA Season. The #RedefinePossible Women’s Leadership Award was created to recognize women that serve as an inspiration to others by making a positive impact in the community and redefining possible for those around them.
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May 19th – Sky vs Dream
For the second straight season the Chicago Sky are proud to honor inspiring women in the community with the #RedefinePossible awards. Our first honoree for the 2017 season is Michele Howard.
Michele is the scholarship manager for Chicago Public Schools and has helped a countless number of students further their education. In her role she supports, manages and drives systematic change to better serve more than 400,000 students in Chicago, ensuring that they have better access to scholarship opportunities. Prior to this role, Michele supported 60 south side elementary and high schools within CPS as a Network College and Career Specialist.
Much of Howard’s passion for furthering students’ education comes from her time working for the MDRC, a nonprofit education and social policy research organization, on the “College Match” Chicago project. The college match initiative helped develop her understanding of the level of support students and families needed to reinforce their academic strength and social capital in order to be considered for selective and highly selective universities.
Everyday Howard is motivated to help better the community around her. Where does this motivation come from?
“Knowing that everybody needs help. No man is an island, and it is so important for us to reach back and help students find their way. It’s about building, and community development. Knowing that everybody has a calling in their life and something that they are created to do,” Howard said.
Howard grew up in a house with secular and Christian educators, so from an early age she was instilled with a good foundation of values. Both of her parents have been driving forces in her career as an educator. She also credits some of her success to Dr. Joyce Brown, who Howard sees as a mentor in her professional career. Dr. Brown took Howard under her wing and introduced her to an opportunity to serve in the third largest school district in the nation.
What does #RedefinePossible mean to Howard?
“Not taking No for an answer. When you know that God has given you the vision, you must believe that you have been equipped to get the victory. Being firm in the calling and passion that is on your life provides the motivation to walk through the valley to achieve what is meant to be yours. You have to be willing to push pass what you don’t know and your fears, because ultimately, the go getters become the heavy hitters.”
May 28th – Sky vs Sun
Rebecca Darr, CEO of WINGS Program Inc, is the second recipient of the 2017 #RedefinePossible Women’s Leadership Award. The WINGS Program is an organization that helps put an end to domestic violence by providing housing, integrated services, advocacy and education to victims. The goal of WINGS programs is to stop the cycle of domestic violence in our communities.
Darr began her tenure with the WINGS Program in 1999 as the Executive Director. In November of 2014, she was promoted to CEO. Under Darr’s leadership, WINGS has become one of the premier agencies in the region by tripling in size and providing more services to victims of abuse and homelessness.
Among Darr’s many responsibilities as CEO is sharing her passion and commitment with the WINGS Board of Directors, to foster the development and implementation of fundraising plans, programs and services that will assist women and children in escaping domestic violence.
Fueled by her passion and commitment, Darr recognized that there was a need for a safe shelter in the Northwest Suburbs and opened the first WINGS shelter in that region for victims of domestic violence in 2005. This accomplishment has allowed thousands of women and children within the region to escape from abusive environments to a safe space via the shelter. In addition, Darr spearheaded the opening of a second shelter in Chicago just last year, making WINGS the largest domestic housing agency in the state of Illinois. Since the opening of the new Chicago shelter in 2016, beds for domestic violence victims have increased by 36%.
Darr is extremely passionate not only on creating successful action plans for the issues of domestic violence, but also serving as a strong voice in Chicagoland area communities to break the cycle of abuse in families.
“To me, redefining possible means allowing young girls to have more opportunities to achieve their dreams and goals. Professional Teams like the Chicago Sky have helped show young women that anything is possible.” – Rebecca Darr, CEO of WINGS Program
June 1st – Sky vs Mercury
Rosemary Swierk is the driving force behind the success of Direct Steel and Construction as Founder and President. Direct Steel and Construction is a general contractor, construction management and owner’s representative firm based in Crystal Lake, IL.
As our third 2017 #RedefinePossible Women’s Leadership Award recipient, Swierk credits her brothers with instilling the confidence and capabilities to overcome any potential gender biases. “Since my childhood, as they would captain the neighborhood games, they would always select me first or second to be on their team. I knew there was no pity party for me: they selected me because of my capabilities and for what I would be able to contribute to the team.
Swierk’s accomplishments can be found throughout the Chicagoland area with the design and construction of numerous industrial, government, and retail buildings. Outside of work, she is a State of Illinois appointee to the Small Business Development Center Advisory Board and has been honored by several notable organizations and publications including; Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, Chicago Woman Magazine, Athena International, Small Business Administration and the Chicago Sun Times. In addition, Rosemary was named Entrepreneur of the Year by Women’s Business Development Center in 2014 and was the recipient of the 2016 EW Enterprising Women of the Year award.
Swierk’s time is devoted to not just work, but also to giving back to the community. Having developed a strong passion for helping other women-owned businesses succeed, Swierk connects with individuals from all walks of life daily. Whenever someone needs personal or professional assistance, she is there to provide support. Rosemary also spends countless hours as a mentor to the Boys Hope Girls Hope program, which is an organization that empowers children through education and holistic support.
So, what does #RedefinePossible mean to Rosemary Swierk?
“#RedefinePossible means that there are no barriers, borders or limits.”
June 18th – Sky vs Fever
The fourth recipient of the #RedefinePossible Women’s Leadership Award belongs to Paige Polakow. Polakow lives a busy life, as she is the Manager of Nursing Operations and also the Manager of the Staffing Office at Northwestern Medicine. Paige is responsible for a multi-million-dollar budget in collaboration with the CNO and CFO, and process improvement initiatives resulting in significant savings for the hospital.
Even with all her work at Northwestern Medicine, she still has time to run CryoPure Spa. Paige and her husband Tom founded CryoPure Spa in 2015. They specialize in localized and whole-body Cryotherapy, Full-spectrum Infrared Sauna Therapy and Celluma Light Therapy. These therapies, according to research and client experience, promote: recovery, inflammation and pain reduction, athletic performance, restful sleep, improved cognitive function, and have other benefits as well. In 2017, CryoPure Spa partnered with the Chicago Sky as the official cryotherapy provider for the team.
Where does Polakow get such a strong work ethic to live such a busy life? She gives all credit to her mother, and also names her mother her biggest role model.
“I grew up with a single mother, who worked a ton of jobs to keep our family together. I didn’t get to spend much time with her growing up, but she did a great job to maintain that motherhood and business acumen that was really outstanding to watch. She was the one who gave me my drive to do what I want to do, and be who I want to be,” Polakow said.
Outside of her work with Northwestern Medicine and CryoPure Spa, Polakow has volunteered with the Chicago Dance Marathon, Veterans, the WWO and the Red Cross. Though, she says her most rewarding work has come from starting CryoPure.
“The most rewarding thing to me is hearing the stories back from people that we impact. When we started CryoPure, we went into it wanting to impact the lives of those who had issues or athletes who wanted an additional form of recovery. What we found though is people would come in sobbing. For example, there was this woman, she was taking eight Advil a day. She was supposed to have a bunch of surgeries. She came in one day sobbing (after treatment) and told us it was the first time in her life she had felt good. Honestly, that gives me chills,” Polakow said.
So what does #RedefinePossible mean to Polakow?
“I think it means as we change through culture there are going to be different barriers that we need to break down. There are going to be different challenges. Right now I think the challenge is to really feel like equals. I hope it means that all of us are coming together to really redefine what is possible in our lives.”
June 25th – Sky vs Mystics
In the fifth edition of this season’s #RedefinePossible Women’s Leadership Award, we honor Kaili Harding. Harding is the President of the Schaumburg Business Association. A position she has held for more than 5 years. Her personal mission is to empower and pave the way for aspiring businesswomen. “I’ve been excited to help bring more leadership development opportunities to women in the Schaumburg area, we’ve developed Ladies Golf Outings, and Women in Business events” Harding says.
“Over the past 15 years of my time in business, I’m seeing more women leaders emerging. They are getting more opportunities for career advancement, strong leadership opportunities, and are really being listened to in the Board room. I’d say the Midwest is starting to lead the way for more women leaders, specifically in my industry. There is a growing number of women in not-for-profits, and to be quite honest men are probably the minority in our region,” Harding said.
Aside from being a leader in the business world, Harding also takes opportunities to contribute to her community. She works with various organizations and serves on a number of different not-for-profit boards. Harding volunteers time to the American Diabetes Association, serving on the National Advocacy team, and the Executive Committee of the Step Out Walk where she is the Chair of the Champions Committee, which raises nearly $1 million each year in the Chicagoland area.
What inspires Harding to be such a driving force in the community? Her answer is simply her family. “The biggest reason that I want to help other people in our community is to be a role model for my children. I have five kids, the two youngest girls (9 and 10) really look up to me, and I think I am probably their biggest role model right now. Because of that I want to lead by example. I want to show them how fulfilling it can be to give back to others and give selflessly,” Harding said.
Perhaps what makes Harding so deserving of the #RedefinePossible award is throughout all her accomplishments in the business world and in the community, nothing is more rewarding to her than seeing others achieve success.
“None of my personal awards are as rewarding as seeing other people achieve success. I get a lot of joy nominating members of my Association for industry or local awards, and mentoring young professionals. This year one of my daughters won an Outstanding Youth Award in Elmhurst. She was nominated for the work she did for Type-1 diabetics by collecting supplies for children living with diabetes in under-developed countries. Seeing that type of recognition happen for other people is really heart-warming” Harding said.
So what does #RedefinePossible mean to Harding? “To me it means being able to think outside the box because there is so much respect now for those that disrupt the norm. Women especially need to be confident to speak up and be the change for their community.”
July 8th – Sky vs Lynx
Veronica Appleton has always been passionate about advertising. However, when she first entered the field and struggled to find employment, she realized that there were bigger things for her to conquer.
“There was a moment where I had an internship and it was great, but it was difficult looking for a full-time role,” Appleton said. “I wondered if it was the color of my skin, my skills, aiming too high; I’m not exactly for sure what it was.”
Her solution: Changing her focus to advocating for diversity & inclusion and finding ways that people can grow within the industry.
Appleton is currently the Assistant Director of Diversity and Inclusion at We Are Unlimited, an advertising agency with foundational client McDonald’s and works as an Adjunct Professor of Intercultural Communications at DePaul University. Appleton was previously the Project Manager and Co-Chair for Global Culture and Inclusion at FCB Chicago.
In addition to cultivating positive culture across brands and agencies, Appleton is also a multicultural children’s book author. Her first book, Journey to Appleville, highlights a life where kids can be inspired by the opportunities around them and where possibilities are endless.
Out of all her professional accomplishments, Appleton believes her most rewarding work is visiting local grade schools to conduct various activities with youth. She gives kids an opportunity to write out their life goals, where they can then take the written goals home to show their parents and/or guardians.
“I’m able to connect with students who are passionate and just need a little push or an example that they might not have at school or at home,” Appleton said. “If I did it, you can do it. There’s room for everyone to succeed.”
Appleton is most inspired by her mom, who sent her to private schools where she learned how to speak a second language at 8-years-old.
“My mom actually nominated me for this award,” she admitted. “My mom has been a single parent and provided me with a life she did not have. Outside of developing me, she’s someone that I can talk to and learn from. She inspires me everyday.”
Appleton also consistently resorts back to the bible. She believes anytime she is faced with a challenge or a situation, she thinks back to her faith and the fact that God will pull her back. An important phrase for her to live by is “God has a plan for you.”
“I don’t have all the answers, so I rely on Him a lot. I ask him to provide me with guidance and for directions,” Appleton said.
As a #RedefinePossible award winner and as a woman of color, Appleton believes it’s important to set examples and to make sure that “women who look like us are meeting and exceeding set expectations.”
“To me, #RedefinePossible means giving someone an opportunity to be what they’ve either dreamed about, thought about or acted on, and providing people with a strong opportunity to achieve those goals.”
Final advice that Appleton would give to people trying to break barriers in their perspective industries can be found via the link here.