Athena Awards 2014: Laurie Zuckerman

By Jennifer Keirn

Original article by

Laurie Zuckerman doesn’t just see the places where women are underrepresented in Akron’s business and civic communities, she puts her skills to work to fix the problem.

They call themselves the Women Up to No Good Again.

This group of women — their new cheeky shorthand for themselves is WUTNGA, which they pronounce wah-TUNG-ga — has been quietly but effectively agitating for change for women in Akron’s civic and corporate circles for more than 20 years.

Laurie Zuckerman, one of the unofficial group’s members, left a career in engineering in 1987 to build a leadership-development consulting firm. As an engineer, she was used to holding her own in a male-dominated environment. But as she got involved in Akron’s civic and business community, she was astonished at how little support there was for female leaders.

Life Lessons

Laurie Zuckerman, Zuckerman Consulting Group
  • Decide what you really want and then remove your internal blocks to having it.
  • Talk to people who can pull, from what you’re saying, the nuggets you can’t pull out for yourself.
  • Take a deep dive into what’s getting in your way. Then go out and tell the universe.
  • When you do those three things, miracles happen.
  • When a woman asks for help, offer it.
  • Many people think of leadership as taking action.
  • Leadership is also about reflection. Take the time to stop and look at the impact you’re having.
  • Make adjustments where needed.

Case in point — when she was accepted into Leadership Akron in 1990, she sat in sessions listening to older white men talking about what they were doing to support Akron.

“I thought, Something is not right here,” Zuckerman recalls. So she spoke up.

Soft-spoken, petite and thoughtful, Zuckerman approached one such man at a break. “How is it you older white men are making decisions for the rest of us?” Zuckerman asked.

“He said, ‘When you have as much money as I do, you can make decisions, too,’ ” she recalls.

That inspired Zuckerman to take action.

A year later, five women — four of whom, with Zuckerman, make up WUTNGA’s core membership today — approached her with plans to start a foundation supporting issues for women and girls. They decided to ask 100 women for $1,000 each before going public.

It took them two years to do it, but in 1993, they had $100,000. They launched the Women’s Endowment Fund as a program of the Akron Community Foundation. It has now grown to more than $3 million.

From the fund’s earliest days, Zuckerman saw a challenge in selecting the grant recipients. “I realized that we were a group of white, middle-class women making decisions about where to give the money,” Zuckerman says.

She wanted to open up their decision-making. “I had this idea for a Women’s Endowment Fund Forum that would bring people together to talk about issues of women and girls,” she says.

Every other year for 16 years, Zuckerman facilitated these forums, which explore issues such as financial literacy and homelessness among teenage girls. The discussions help shape the fund’s priorities.

“Laurie is able to draw out all of the information that’s needed [from others] so everything is on the table,” says Norma Rist, another of the fund’s founders and a fellow Akron-based business consultant. “Her ability to get a group to collaborate is amazing.”

Zuckerman traces her interest in women’s issues back to her childhood on Long Island.

“I grew up in a family that had very clear-cut roles for girls and boys,” says Zuckerman. She cared for her much-younger sister and even had to clean her brothers’ rooms. “Boys’ roles got paid for, girls’ didn’t,” she explains.

She attended Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., as part of its third class that included women. Zuckerman chose math as a major without any idea of what she wanted to do, until she met a civil engineering professor actively recruiting women into the field. She changed her major, then found a cause she was passionate about.

“I wanted to save the world with nuclear energy,” Zuckerman says. She wrote to the engineering firm Babcock and Wilcox, got a job with the firm and moved to Ohio. “At 23, I was doing exactly what I wanted to do.”

When she enrolled in graduate school at the University of Akron a few years later, she discovered that her business courses — not her engineering courses — got her excited. So she earned her MBA, left B&W and started Zuckerman Consulting Group in 1987. Her work emphasizes executive coaching, developing leadership teams, strategic planning and group facilitation. She authored the 1989 book On Your Own: A Woman’s Guide to Building a Business.

She calls what she does “helping people get unstuck” — breaking through dysfunction among teams, facilitating productive meetings, developing the skills to become a leader.

Glenn Leppo of Leppo Equipment began working with Zuckerman a decade ago on his strategic planning. His family-owned contracting equipment business is a male-dominated environment. Yet the managers have embraced her advice.

“Our management team is fairly hard-driving guys saying, ‘We are a lot more productive with her than without her,’ ” says Leppo. “[One manager says,] ‘Whenever I do it Laurie’s way, it works. Whenever I don’t, I end up having to do it over.’ ”

Leppo credits Zuckerman for helping his company double in size over the last four years to $50 million and seven stores.

“Guys [in the industry] are envious of where we are,” Leppo says.

Zuckerman’s leadership style is an amalgam of many women and men with whom she’s worked or served.

When she faced a lull in her business in 1994, Zuckerman called organizational development consultant Kathie Dannemiller, whom she’d only briefly met, for advice. She was surprised to get Dannemiller’s undivided attention.

“She said, ‘Laurie, you are my insurance policy,’ ” says Zuckerman. Dannemiller, who died in 2003, had known women so consumed with their own work that they wouldn’t reach down to help her. This was her way of not becoming one of them.

“I talked to Kathie 20 minutes, and she changed my life,” she says. “I don’t often see myself in that story, but today when women call me to ask for help, I stop what I’m doing and help them. … You don’t want to be one of those women who’s too high up that you can’t reach down.”

It’s easy to see places where women are underrepresented. Zuckerman not only sees them, she takes action.

In Akron’s Jewish community, the representation of women leaders has lagged for decades. So a few years ago, Zuckerman created the Jewish Women’s Leadership Initiative to build leadership skills.

Joyce Butlien of the Jewish Community Board of Akron considers herself a beneficiary of Zuckerman’s leadership.

Shortly after participating in the program, she became board president of Temple Israel, only the third woman to hold the position in 150 years.

“It would not have happened without Laurie,” Butlien says. “She not only gives you the skills, but she teaches you to think about what kind of leader you want to be and how you can bring your values into that.”

Zuckerman advocates term limits in every organization she’s served, a way of preventing complacency with the status quo from seeping into the organization’s thinking.

She prefers project work to long-term board seats. Right now, she serves on the grant-making committee of the Women’s Endowment Fund and on the nominating committee of the Jewish Women’s Leadership Initiative. Her term on the board of Boys & Girls Clubs of the Western Reserve will expire this year.

Zuckerman and her WUTNGA friends will soon be up to a new kind of no good, she says: cultivating female candidates for the CEO offices of Akron’s large corporations.

She can’t say what other civic involvement is in her future; she says she’s waiting to see “what calls to me next.”

“I am privileged to have people open their minds and hearts to me and trust me to support them to become better versions of themselves,” says Zuckerman. “I have a very full, rich life. There’s not much missing in my life. I am so lucky.”