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Grand Rapids Women Who Inspire Us to Lead

Grand Rapids Women Who Inspire Us to Lead

Throughout March, we celebrated some of the brave, compassionate, and creative women who inspire us to lead. In honor of March being Women's History Month, and March 8th being International Women's Day, we felt compelled to highlight women in our community who are stepping into their power and encouraging other women to do the same.

Meet some of the women who inspire us to say #LeadLikeHer:

Lead Like SARA 

“I always thought that a leader is someone who knows where to go and walks there even if no one follows them. By walking, I am exercising my choice to participate, build, and create.” 

Sara Proano-Motta has long served in the non-profit sector and is currently the Community Engagement Manager at Kent District Library.

Sara's leadership is inspired by her great aunt, who was strong amidst violence and scarcity; her friend Steph, because she went from survivor to thriver; and her boss, because she leads by example.

As a female leader, one of the most significant challenges Sara has faced is having people doubt her intentions, capacity, and vision.

Sara offers three important reminders for women who lead:

  1. You cannot get there alone.
  2. It’s ok to make mistakes—to cry, be angry, and doubt—but don’t forget to love. The opposite of love is fear, not hate; hate is just the absence of love. So, don’t forget to love.
  3. Define success according to your values—not money or numbers—and remember that the most important opinion about you is your own.

Lead Like BARBARA

"It’s a great time in history to be a woman. Pursue your dreams and never give up on yourself or your goals!"

Barbara Welch is an entrepreneur, financial educator, and community leader. Her leadership is fueled by a desire to make a meaningful contribution to the world and help it become a better place for all people.

Barbara has been inspired by countless trailblazing, brilliant, elegant, and confident women—both past and present. There are simply too many to name!

One leadership challenge Barbara has struggled with is cultivating patience. She's learned that it is best to slow down and be deliberate. And when she does this, she finds that she is more productive and people enjoy working with her more.

Lead Like ERICA

"Find what lights you up and never stop chasing it. Don’t worry how things will work out, just know with all of your being that it will. Trust the process."

Erica Lang is the brilliant artist behind Woosah Outfitters and the co-owner of Outside Coffee Co.

She has been inspired by many women over the years, including her Aunt Julie who is an artist, too. Growing up, she encouraged Erica to pursue her passion and not to worry about how things will work out—emboldening her to focus on love, not fear.

Another incredible encouragement has been Erica's fiance and business partner, Kelly McPhee, who is patient, determined, and empowering.

As a young female entrepreneur, one of the most frustrating leadership challenges Erica has encountered is not always being taken seriously. She shares, "Mansplaining is a real thing. I have learned that not everyone will listen or believe in your vision and that’s okay. This has challenged me to believe in my vision and be confident in the decisions I make regardless of others. It has taught me to trust my intuition."

Lead Like FLORENCE

"Don’t shy away just because you are afraid to be judged by those who don’t share the same point of view. But most importantly, don’t be afraid to fail!"

Florence Ndayisenga was born in Rwanda but fled when conflict broke out in 1994. She lived in the Congo, Burundi, and Tanzania before being resettled with her daughter in Grand Rapids.

Once in her new community, Florence began tirelessly learning English and working, and she eventually received a full-tuition scholarship to study International Development at Calvin College. Now, she is a Refugee Case Manager at Bethany Christian Services.

Florence leads because she wants to see a positive change in the world, sharing: "When you talk about changing the world for better, it may sound unrealistic given the severity of the problems. But I have come to learn that even if you impact one single person, it matters—and that motivates me to lead."

Many women have inspired Florence, including Maya Angelou, Olave Baden Powell, and the Kenyan environmental activist Wangari Maathai.

When it comes to the challenges of being a female leader, Florence says: "I grew up in a culture where women are expected to be submissive, so the greatest challenge I’ve encountered is rising above gender stereotypes. It’s not easy to rise above societal expectations. You have to be strong and persistent and remind yourself that it’s okay to be different."

Lead Like AMY

"If you want to be a leader, you can! Start small and see where opportunity leads you. We, women, are powerful, beautiful, and inspiring! Surround yourself with people, stories, and songs that inspire you and, in turn, you will inspire others." 

Amy​ Henderson is the Volunteer Coordinator at Dwelling Place, a dedicated Cross-Cultural Partner at Treetops, and an amazing ally in our community.

Amy believes that everyone has gifts to contribute and, for her, leading is one way she shares her gifts with others.

When Amy was little, she was inspired by Annie Oakley, Judy Garland, and Anne Sullivan (Helen Keller's teacher) who were all powerful, innovative, and beautiful women.

Presently, she is inspired by all women or self-identifying women who use their voices and gifts to share love, inspire hope, and provoke social change in the world.

Amy has found that her biggest leadership challenges are often rooted in fear. However, she has realized that listening, being patient, and sharing love are three things that have helped her overcome her fears and be a better person.

Lead Like CHRISTINE

"Be who you are, dream big, hang out with positive people, and do not let anyone tell you that you can’t do it. And above all, love one another."

Christine Ingabire grew up in Rwanda but was displaced by the conflict, fleeing to the Congo, Zambia, and Malawi before being resettled with her two young sons in Grand Rapids.

Now, 19 years later, she is the College and Career Coordinator at The Refugee Education Center (REC) and the founder of the Uruyange dance group for Rwandan youth.

Christine is very humbled to lead by mentoring young girls at REC and is grateful that God has given her the ability to guide others.

Through her work, she has learned that everyone has unique skills and talents. It brings her joy to watch the girls she mentors grow stronger and explore the opportunities that living in the U.S. offers.

Lead Like ELEANOR

"Your womanness isn't a weakness. Society says 'be strong like a man.' But it's time to remind women that we have power and we have to continue to lift each other up!”

Eleanor Moreno is a community organizer and advocate, using her skills to further the mission of local organizations including Kids Food Basket and The Other Way Ministries.

Eleanor leads to open doors for other people, realizing that she wouldn't be the person she is today if it weren't for the many women who went before her.

Her greatest inspiration is her mom, who managed to raise four kids as a single parent. Also, she adds, “I can't forget all the amazing women who continue to support me and are some badass leaders in this community.”

One of the greatest challenges she has encountered is trying to lead in spaces that are dominated by white men, sharing: "As a Queer Afro-Latina, I am still finding a balance between asserting myself and not coming across overbearing, but also being unapologetic.”

Lead like JUANA

“Remember that you have the right to define success for yourself."

Juana Williams is the talented Curator at Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts.

As a leader in the art industry, she hopes that her work will inspire “other women, especially women of color, to work toward similar careers and feel that a career in leadership is attainable. Visual art is such a powerful medium for affecting change, and I believe that increasing the number of women in leadership positions in the art industry will change the narratives that are displayed through art history and bring forth a much broader, more diverse understanding of our cultures, histories, and societies.”

Juana is inspired by women who decide every day to be their authentic selves, speak up for themselves, push back against prejudices, and uplift other women.

One woman who has been particularly inspiring to Juana is the visual artist Elizabeth Catlett.

“Catlett was an artist who faced many adversities because she was a Black woman. She managed to have a very long and successful career, despite stumbling blocks. She mastered multiple mediums, always creating works around subjects she felt were important, and always uplifting her community... her never-ending focus on uplifting other Black women are what inspires me the most. She succeeded on her own terms, despite many challenges, and that makes me believe I can do the same.”

One of the leadership challenges Juana faces is being a young Black woman working in a position historically held by older white men.

“The museum world is changing, but not at a fast-enough pace that I feel completely welcome to lead," she shares. "I’m a naturally ambitious person, but as a woman in a position dominated by men, I definitely feel pressure to be the best. I have to make concerted efforts not to let myself become overworked.”

Lead like MELISSA

"Be intentional about who is in your inner circle and seek out good mentors; these are the people who will speak truth into your life and help you grow. Healthy relationships and community are so important!"

Melissa Mashni is a doctor at Cherry Health, a non-profit committed to providing health care to those who may not otherwise have access.

Melissa feels lucky to do what she is passionate about, and she hopes to show other young women that it's ok to pursue their passions even if they don't exactly fit the expectations placed on them by culture.

Many remarkable women have inspired Melissa over the years, including:

• Her mom, who inspires her in how she has learned to balance strength and grace.
• Beth Potter and Patricia Tellez-Giron, Melissa's mentors in residency and two amazing physicians who modeled to her the type of physician she wants to be.
•Lina Abujamra, a doctor and founder of She Gives Hope, whom Melissa has worked with in Lebanon to serve Syrian refugees.
• Tasha Blackmon and Leslie Pelkey, the CEO and CMO of Cherry Health, who are compassionate and intelligent women doing great work in Grand Rapids!

One thing Melissa has struggled with as a female leader is self-doubt—believing she is not good or smart enough. "When I start to feel that," she shares, "I usually find rest in that I believe I am exactly where God has led me and that He will continue to be faithful."

Lead like ASHLEY

"A loud voice doesn't mean you're a leader and a quiet one doesn't mean that you aren't one."

Ashley Wierenga is a marketing consultant and lifestyle blogger. When it comes to leadership, she is motivated by a quote from Rupi Kaur that says: "I stand on the sacrifices of a million women before me thinking what can I do to make this mountain taller so the women after me can see farther." Ashley is also driven by all the women who came before her who fought for a seat at the table.

Ashley has found inspiration from so many women, including: "Women who bravely stood up when it wasn't popular. Family members who inspire me to live with heart and be kind, and friends who encourage me to pursue my craziest dreams. And local business owners who are creating a more vibrant culture for everyone who lives in our community.”

The biggest challenge Ashley has experienced in leadership has been other's perceptions.

“Some people are intimidated by a woman who isn't afraid to assert her leadership," she shares. "I've had people tell me 'as a woman, you should know your place.' This is so opposite from the mindset I was raised with. As a kid, I remember my dad saying to me: 'You're strong-willed. A lot of people will say that's a negative thing, but I think you're going to channel it into something powerful instead. Don't be ashamed of who you are and how God created you.' It gave me the agency to not be afraid of my desire or ability to lead."

She used to agree with the belief that leadership equals being in charge. However, as she has gotten older, Ashley has realized "the bold strength in those who lead from behind the scenes and the ones who lead with small but robust voices.”

Today, Ashley values the various leadership styles she have witnessed, and encourages other women to lead in a way that feels organic to them. No matter what your leadership style is, just jump in and LEAD. "The world needs to hear what you have to say."

Lead Like KHARA

"Be who you were created to be. Find potential in the people around you and lend your voice and courage there. Do so with joy and fervor and aloha, remembering your interconnectedness to all of humanity."

Khara DeWit is a numbers whiz, the owner of an accounting firm, a mom of three, and an engaged community member.

Her upbringing in Hawai'i has shaped her understanding of leadership. "Growing up, the spirit of aloha was deeply ingrained in me. Aloha is me being a part of all, and all being a part of me. This motivates me to lend my nerdy love for numbers and systems in a way that benefits my community as a whole."

Khara's mother and grandmother were her first examples of strong, gentle, and courageous leadership. Khara is also inspired by "the #bossladies in my life who boldly pursue their passions and use their voice in their spheres of influence. And the moms in my life, who are ALL working moms."

One challenge Khara has wrestled with for years is her identity as both a mother and an entrepreneur.

"I got stuck thinking you had to choose between the two," she shares. "I had to let go of self-doubt and the 'shoulds.' Pursuing my choice to do both/and has helped me reclaim the truth about my unique creativity and worth. I hope to teach my sons to advocate for a society in which women enjoy the same rights and privileges as men. And, in turn, teach them their unique position as men to hasten change for women."

Another challenge Khara has experienced as a female leader is the lack of diversity and representation in the accounting industry, where only 24 percent of employees at CPA firms are women and just 9 percent of partners and principals are women. Amidst this, Khara hopes to model what it looks like to show up fully as a woman of color and a business owner.

Lead Like SYLVIA

"There are many ways you can take to achieve your dreams. Do not allow society to dictate how to get there. Everyone's life journey is unique and powerful in its own way!"

Sylvia Nyamuhungu is a Community Connector here at Treetops and a senior at Calvin College! Through her work at Treetops, Sylvia walks alongside the teen girls in our community who are working to make Grand Rapids home.

Sylvia is motivated to lead by the many passionate people in her life. "I am surrounded by people my age who want to contribute to their societies and not let injustice rule or the mistakes that happened in the past to happen again," she shares.

She is also motivated by her parents, who remind her what resilience and hope look like, and her coworkers at Treetops and the teens she works with "who are full of life and big dreams they want to achieve."

Sylvia's mother has always been her greatest inspiration. "She has shown me what it looks like to put others first, to speak my truth, and be an advocate for those who do not have the opportunity to advocate for themselves."

Lead Like KATHLEEN

“Work hard, seize opportunities for growth, and look for a career that ultimately brings you contentment and happiness.”

Kathleen Carney is an English Language Teacher at East Kentwood Freshman Campus!⁣

She leads through teaching and is motivated by knowing how influential teachers are in student’s lives. “I play an important role in guiding young people to be successful members of society,” she says. “I try to lead with integrity, even when the going gets rough. Hopefully, my students see this.”

Kathleen’s mother has always been her greatest inspiration and was the one who encouraged her to pursue teaching.

“I remember being with my mother up in our attic when I was a child,” Kathleen recalls. “I opened a shoebox full of pencils, erasers, scissors, and more. As I was marveling at all the items, my mother told me that she had been a teacher before my twin sister and I were born. It was at that moment that I knew I wanted to be a teacher!”

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Looking back at the month of March, we're feeling inspired and grateful for all the remarkable women leaders in our community. Every woman has leadership abilities, endless potential, and unique gifts to offer. So, let’s offer those gifts and offer them freely! Together, we can create a world where all women and girls have the opportunity to live to their fullest potential.

Thank you for celebrating women all month long with us! And if you haven't yet, make sure to snag a limited-edition We Are The Women Tee in blue or Zipper Pouch while supplies last!