The women honored at the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce Women in Leadership event told different stories about their paths to leadership roles in Columbus, but all returned to a theme of work ethic, integrity and collaboration as keys to their success.
More than 300 guests filled the Clarion Hotel and Conference Center banquet room to honor Jodi Engelstad, Laura Hurt, Kelly Benjamin and Kevina Schumaker.
Each was introduced by colleagues and friends and then took the stage to talk about leadership, Columbus, families and the unexpected turns that led to surprising opportunities and challenges.
“It’s inspiring,” said Julie Orben after listening to the honorees’ stories. Orben, a Duke Energy account executive, knows three of the four honorees personally.
Although each had a unique journey and message, all four had themes that were interwoven in their stories — hard work, integrity, respect and collaboration, Orben said.
“And being yourself,” she said.
Christine “Tina” Vujovich opened the event talking about how she had met with each of the honorees before Thursday’s luncheon to learn how they became not only leaders in the workplace but also in community service.
Vujovich, who retired in 2009 from Cummins as vice president for marketing and environmental policy after 31 years with the company, told the audience that her Cummins job almost didn’t happen.
The local woman, who would become a key figure in the company’s strategy and compliance for emission regulations for diesel engines, nearly didn’t interview with the engine maker after she finished a master’s degree in environmental engineering from University of Illinois in 1978. Cummins was hiring, but the sign-up sheet said the company was looking for mechanical engineers.
But after getting to know a Cummins recruiter, she was encouraged to sign up for an interview, although at the time she remembered thinking, “What does a diesel engine company want with an environmental engineer?’”
It turns out Cummins was hiring engineers to figure out how to address the increasingly stringent emissions standards for diesel engines. The Fortune 200 company was looking to exceed expectations and become an environmental leader in emission reductions, Vujovich said. The challenge for Cummins employees was to satisfy customer demands, meet and exceed the environmental requirements and make money doing it, she said.
The challenge was difficult at times and there was uncertainty, but the company didn’t waver, she said.
In talking in broader terms, Vujovich said true leaders are individuals you would follow through the fog — and not just because you want to find the clearing.
The leaders she was talking about would set a goal, encourage others to get behind the initiative, identify risks and plan a successful outcome together.
“And communicate, communicate, communicate,” she said.
When the plan is in motion, working with team members to utilize their strengths and collaboration is crucial, she said.
Vujovich described Cummins’ success with exceeding emission regulations as a group effort, coming through the fog and convincing customers and competitors that Cummins’ determination to protect the environment in everything the company did was the correct path.
From surprise to opportunity
The four honorees also told stories of challenges to overcome, including surprises that turned into opportunities — and about how they fell in love with Columbus.
Schumaker, a real estate developer and manager who came to Columbus from Lafayette after marrying business owner Hutch Schumaker, said she truly loves the city.
“I proudly call it my home,” she said. “I believe the best is yet to come for our own little piece of paradise.”
She serves as chairwoman of the Heritage Fund — The Community Foundation of Bartholomew County, and she and her husband chaired last fall’s pre-K initiative for Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp.
Vujovich described her as someone who has 20 degrees of separation from almost everyone — yet “she will find you and make you do something.”
Hurt and Benjamin each gave personal accounts of experiences that changed their lives — Hurt coming to the tiny town of Clifford as a foreign exchange student from Mexico without being fluent in English or mid-’70s culture — and Benjamin, who as a deputy prosecutor took on a 20-year-old shaken-baby case to find answers for a grieving family.
Each used individual experiences to urge the audience to not give up, work hard and to stand up and not just talk — but to do something.
“When faced with a difficult situation you can’t change, resolve to make it work,” said Hurt, who is president of Our Hospice of South Central Indiana.
Benjamin, a child support magistrate and BCSC board attorney, reminded listeners that being a voice for those who can’t speak for themselves can be a powerful purpose.
She asked the audience to care about each other and to never forget that how you treat people matters — what you say and how you act is important — and showing respect to all is paramount.
Engelstad, senior financial adviser with Engelstad Wealth Advisors, also talked about falling in love with Columbus and building a business through partnerships in the business community, and finding a way to give back.
Describing herself as someone who follows the Golden Rule, she urged audience members to not be afraid to get involved in the community to help make it better.
“Find an organization that aligns with your values and get involved,” she said. “Find a mentor,” and perhaps more importantly, “be a mentor,” she said.
Marlene Weatherwax, the chamber board’s chairwoman, looked on as a group of Hurt’s co-workers took a photo after the luncheon. She said the stories from this year’s group of honorees were amazing.
“I was listening to the advice they gave and was making a mental note,” she said. “They were all great.”