‘One step at a time,’: Women Leading the Charge at Michigan Chronicle’s Pancakes & Politics Finale Panel

Photo Credit: Monica Morgan Photography

“This is a man’s world, but it isn’t much without a woman.” James Brown’s words resonate deeply, especially when reflecting on the powerful gathering on June 18, 2024. The 16th floor of One Campus Martius set the stage for the final panel of Michigan Chronicle’s Pancakes and Politics 19th annual four-part forum. This finale was an absolute testament to the views from the 16th floor, for Michigan and specifically for the city of Detroit, the sky is the limit.

Tuesday’s theme was simple yet profound: Women Who Lead. Leading this innovative conversation were esteemed panelists: Colleen Corken Grant, Market President iHeartRadio; Denise Brooks Williams, Executive Vice President and CEO of Care Delivery System Operations Henry Ford Health; and Jocelyn Benson, Secretary of State of Michigan. These influential women from Southeast Michigan shared their powerful voices and leadership insights. Like with all the panels, the brilliant Chairman and CEO of Sixteen42 Ventures, Dennis Archer Jr., sat as the cemented emcee.

Photo: Chairman and CEO of Sixteen42 Ventures, Dennis Archer Jr.; Colleen Corken Grant, Market President iHeartRadio; Denise Brooks Williams, Executive Vice President and CEO of Care Delivery System Operations Henry Ford Health; and Jocelyn Benson, Secretary of State of Michigan; Michael Bickers, PNC Regional President Detroit and Southeast Michigan; Hiram E. Jackson, Michigan Chronicle Publisher, Real Times Media CEO.

Name something that is an indicator of your grit and drive that says, “Oh, you’re going to be successful.” Jocelyn Benson, who ran the Boston Marathon at eight months pregnant while serving as Dean of Wayne State Law School at age 36, the youngest female dean in the country at that time, had a profound answer. “I was met with this decision: how much of myself do I give up to become a parent? My decision was simply to take it one day at a time and take the marathon one step at a time. I didn’t think I could do it. But my husband was very supportive. I read an article about a woman who had run a marathon with the same due date as me the year before. It was her story that inspired me to keep going. Running for me is such a metaphor for life, one step at a time. Anything is possible, and as women leaders, we set that tone.”

Authenticity matters. Being your true self is what makes diversity work. Women are slaying and showing up as their true selves. Denise Brooks Williams spoke about her first CEO opportunity in Battle Creek. “I picked my family up and moved to Battle Creek. As a career perspective, we go where the opportunity is. It was a huge pivot in my career that people still watch now.” Colleen Corken Grant shared her upbringing in a family of eight siblings. “Spending time with them and understanding how we all fit together and the differences in opinions and skills made me who I am and made me determined that I am more than capable. It was my family that helped me develop my own sense of resilience and grit.”

Oftentimes, women are put in a position to prioritize family versus career. That is a historic approach. How do these women leaders balance the process? Benson shared, “My son is eight, and before I got here today, I had to pack his lunch, set his clothes out for my husband to get him ready. But to me, my family is my sanctuary. To go home and jump on the trampoline with my son and husband at the end of the day, that is my safe space. As leaders, we do have to sacrifice, but treating family as a balance is a critical component that allows us to do everything else. We’re a team.” Grant added, “We’ve been married for over 20 years now, and for us, it’s very last-minute planning, but that’s just how we roll. It’s about having that support system at home that motivates me. If you really are trying to serve the community, they do understand the sacrifice.” Williams reflected on her journey with her daughters, now in their late twenties. “I would be the mom at my daughters’ track meet in a suit. I made sure that they saw me working, so they’d always be at events and in my office, but they fully understood what I was doing and that helped. I celebrate my 30th wedding anniversary soon, and we’ve been together since we were young. He has always invested in my dreams. They’re the center of my world.”

The importance of role models does not go unnoticed. What is the importance of women to be role models and specifically Black women to be role models for those behind you? Williams emphasized, “I take it very seriously. They look and say, ‘Oh wow, she can do it.’ You can have a family and be successful. What we see, we can achieve. I emulated a lot of women, and I hope that women now look to me and do the same.” Benson, who worked in sports, shared advice from her mentor. “No matter what you’re struggling with as a woman leader, there’s always going to be women who have more power than you. Learn from them. At the same time, there are going to be women who have less power than you. Help them. I know what feeling small feels like, so I am always reminded that I can help those who feel like what I once felt. I get to say this now where every political leader here in Michigan is led by women, and I get to have a powerful sisterhood within them, and I never feel like I am alone. We learn from each other.” Grant, at 54, expressed how it took years to be herself professionally. “Growing up, I couldn’t be emotional, and I had to say all the right things at the right time. It took me years to just be me. To show love in all that I do, and for me, that represents who I am. It took me a long time to get there in a professional setting. You don’t have to be rigid all the time, and that’s okay. I’m full of joy, so now as a role model, I try to teach people to be who they are.”

Dennis Archer Jr. posed a question to Colleen Grant as a third-generation media mogul. Were there ever times that you felt pressure to get into media? Grant responded, “My father would come home at 6 o’clock sharp every day, and the news would come on. He’d talk about the newscast every day, and for me, it just came naturally as a kid. It just feels so natural. It’s totally natural to be in media.”

Photo: Colleen Corken Grant, Market President iHeartRadio; Jocelyn Benson, Secretary of State of Michigan; Denise Brooks Williams, Executive Vice President and CEO of Care Delivery System Operations Henry Ford Health.

These three women, leaders in their own right, have one goal. They each have an obligation to inform and uplift within our community. Benson, who started her career in Selma, AL, has witnessed a plethora of threats due to her fight for the integrity of our election process and democracy. “Even though violence awaits, we as women stand at the front line because that’s who we are as Americans, and it is our duty. We care about the operations in our industries. We all have to lock arms and metaphorically stand at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge and press forward.”

Before the ending of the panel, Archer made it a focus to ask, “What advice would you give your 8-year-old self?”

The answers poured out, first from Grant, “Focus. If I was a bit more focused, I would have had more time to impact.” Williams followed, “You are going to be just fine. Do not be so serious. It’s okay. Have more fun, live a little.” And finally, Benson, “Don’t lose faith, keep the faith, and whatever you do, do not give up.”

In closing, the floor was open to questions. “As we are thriving and overcoming sexism, racism, BS-ism, what can we do practically to make it easier for women to run for office? Practical training, funding, and mentoring?” asked Rochelle Riley. “We see a bunch of incompetent men run for office and have the support, but how do we get women to rise to the top?” Benson followed, “It was women who believed in me early on and enabled me to be where I am today. We have each other’s backs. At least half, if not more, of my funders are women right now. When women support each other, there’s nothing we cannot do. We can redefine what’s possible for our state, community, our families, our economy, our democracy, and we’re going to keep doing that because we rise together.” Grant added, “If we want to be a better future, we have to have positive conversations, and that means women must lift men up too. It is important that we have a positive outlook on men as well as us women.”

When it’s all said and done, these women are reminders that their contributions and those alike are the backbones of progress. For those unable to attend in person, the Michigan Chronicle, in collaboration with media partner WDIV, ensured that this conversation and the full Pancakes and Politics four-part forum reached a wider audience through a live broadcast. This partnership allows viewers across Detroit and beyond to witness the pivotal dialogue shaping the future of innovation in the region. The live broadcast, accessible at michiganchronicle.com/pancakesandpolitics, provided an opportunity for a broader audience to engage with the insights and strategies discussed by the panelists.

Photo: Hiram E. Jackson, Michigan Chronicle Publisher, Real Times Media CEO.

Looking ahead, the conversation continues at the next Pancakes and Politics Forum next year for the 20th anniversary. Michigan Chronicle Publisher and Real Times Media CEO, Hiram E. Jackson has one goal in mind: to create a space that curates conversation around what truly matters to catapult our community, our city, our state.

“I wish my daughter was here,” said Jackson. “This has been an amazing panel. Every man in life needs a woman in their life to help us take our blinders off. Men must be proactive in seeking women mentors.”

The Michigan Chronicle’s Pancakes & Politics Forum IV was more than just an event; it was a testament to Detroit’s potential and a blueprint for its future. The insights shared by the panelists provided a clear roadmap for transforming our city and state. With continued dialogue, strategic investments, and a commitment to inclusivity, Detroit is on the cusp of a technological renaissance, diversity empowerment, population, and economic mega growth, with determined and dynamic leaders at its forefront that will redefine its identity and set a new standard for innovation in the Midwest. It starts here in Detroit, and Pancakes & Politics has the best seat in the house to this transformation.

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