The International Women’s Forum – Alabama Story
Chapter One (Authored by Peri Widener, IWF Alabama President 2019-2021)
Establishing IWF Alabama
In the early fall of 2017, Peri Widener retired from The Boeing Company following a nearly 40-year career in progressively more responsible roles, culminating with an assignment as the Vice President & General Manager of Boeing’s Global Services business. Over that career, Peri had several different assignments in Alabama beginning in 1981 and concluding with her retirement in 2017. The Alabama assignments included helping to establish the operation in Alabama in 1981, leading the Global Missile Defense program in 2001, then as Senior Company Executive for Boeing operations in Alabama in 2004, and finally in establishing and leading a 5000 person Boeing Global Services organization providing engineering and aftermarket services for all Rotorcraft and Fighter aircraft programs around the world (2017).
Like many of her generation, there were few women role models when she joined a predominantly male aerospace workforce in Wichita, Kansas, during the late 70s. Over her career, she appreciated the opportunity to provide a voice, and act as a role model and mentor to others, especially young women.
Upon retiring, Peri began to research organizations that focused on developing the next generation of global women leaders and bringing people together across cultures, continents and careers in order to address important global issues. Her research identified the International Women’s Forum, an invitation only global organization of C-suite women from around the world aiming to develop and elevate women leaders through its Fellows Program and educate its members on important issues around the world through its twice-a-year conferences focusing on pivotal global topics.
That discovery stimulated her effort in the Fall of 2017 to establish a Forum in Alabama.
IWF Alabama Founder Peri Widener
IWF Alabama Formation – The Early Days
After reaching out to the IWF headquarters offices in Washington, D.C. a period of review commenced to determine the feasibility of establishing an Alabama Forum. Following a series of interviews and meetings with IWF leadership over several months, an IWF liaison team was established in the spring of 2018 to aid Peri in establishing the organization in the State. It turns out that there had been other efforts over the years to establish an Alabama Forum, though none were successful. Emily Berlin of the Miami Forum was the principal liaison and sponsor in helping to establish this new forum. Micheline Bouchard of Canada represented the IWF Board and New Forum development, and was responsible for bringing the new Forum successfully into the global organization. Teresa Weintraub was the global President endorsing the effort, and Stephanie O’Keefe was CEO of International Women’s Forum headquarters team.
Through the spring and early fall of 2018, a key group of steering committee leaders for the IWF Alabama Forum was identified, solicited and ultimately approved by the IWF global organization. These women were chosen based on their C-suite roles; their diverse education, experience, cultures, ages and careers; a proven commitment to supporting and developing women leaders; and recognition for impactful efforts in their communities and states.
The IWF Alabama Steering Committee (2018) and Founding Board (May 2019):
President: Peri Widener (The Boeing Company, retired)
Vice President: Anne Marie Reidy, MD and JD (Women4Women ObGyn)
Treasurer: Ginger Harper (IBERIABank)
Secretary: Michelle Gilliam-Jordan (City of Huntsville)
Programs: Deborah Barnhart, PhD (Alabama Space & Rocket Center)
Membership: Laura Huckabee-Jennings (Transcend The Fearless Company)
Governance: Cathy Dickens (COLSA)
Throughout 2018, the steering committee met monthly to progress the work of establishing the Forum. During this time, the committee adopted a strategy of identifying a small group of founding members who were diverse in all ways – cultures, careers, experiences, education, age, interests, talents – and from very different circles of influence within North Alabama. This strategy – supported and recommended by IWF HQ and our IWF advocates – was intended to build a foundation of influential and capable women with deep reach and recognition across a broad spectrum of the community. This then would create a dynamic and diverse group that could make meaningful and impactful contributions to our mission. In addition, this board made a decision to initially focus the organization in North Alabama in order to build a cohesive group of women who could form firm bonds and coalesce to develop a strong base for the organization to grow from. About 30 initial women were identified, nominated and invited to join IWF Alabama as the Founding Class. Ultimately, 24 women comprised this Founding Members group. The initial plan was to then expand IWF Alabama beyond the Huntsville area to include members from across the state, using this strong base as a launch pad. While we did not set a time frame for this goal, we discussed attempting this expansion within the first 2-3 years of the Forum. The global pandemic of 2020 accelerated this expansion timeline. The advent of virtual programming enabled rapid extension of our programming statewide, indeed participants in our programming included 7 other states and 116 other non-Alabama Forum members. This circumstance then supported the expansion of our membership to all major areas of the state by January 2021.
Initial IWF Alabama Membership Recruiting Cocktail Event March 2019
In March of 2019, the IWF Alabama Board hosted representatives of IWF Headquarters and prospective IWF Alabama Members at a membership kick-off program at The Stove House on Governors Drive. This was the first major event held at the Stove House and preceded even the formal opening of the businesses there. Ginger Harper and Anne Marie Reidy led this first ever IWF Alabama Membership Event which was a cocktail party and informational meeting held in the Stove House’s open administration space. Fun fact: Anne Marie’s husband Tommy suggested the venue and nearly 40 women attended this exuberant kick-off event.
From Left: Ginger Harper, Anne Marie Reidy, MD, and Michelle Gilliam Jordan at the StoveHouse kick-off event in March 2019.
Cathy Dickens (in floral dress) speaks to Lauri Fitz-Pegado of the WDC Forum during the IWF Alabama kick-off event.
Two guests join Ane Debro (IWF Alabama Board, center in white jacket) and Dr. Shelia Nash-Stevenson (IWF Alabama Founding Member, second from right) during the kick-off event.
Earlier in the day, tours of The Alabama Space & Rocket Center, The Huntsville Museum of Art and Hudson Alpha were arranged to familiarize our out-of-town visitors with Huntsville and Alabama. None of these visitors – including the former Prime Minister of Bermuda – had ever been to Huntsville.
IWF Headquarters team join IWF Alabama steering committee members for a tour of the Alabama Space & Rocket Center. From left: Susan Smith (then-President, IWF Arkansas), Paula Cox (past President, IWF Bermuda and IWF Global Board Member), Emily Berlin (IWF Florida Board Member and IWF Alabama Advocate), Peri Widener (Founder and President, IWF Alabama), Lauri Fitz-Pegado (IWF Washington. D.C and former IWF Global Board Member), Toni Randolph (President, IWF Foundation and IWF Board Member), Micheline Bouchard (IWF New Forums VP and IWF Global Board Member), Laura Huckabee-Jennings (Founding Member, IWF Alabama and IWF Alabama Board Member).
Touring the International Space Station mock-up at The Alabama Space & Rocket Center. Emily Berlin (left red jacket) and Janis Kearney, center of photo
Micheline Bouchard in front of International Space Station exhibit at Alabama Space & Rocket Center.
Exploring the Saturn V rocket exhibition at the Alabama Space & Rocket Center.
The visitors stayed at The Huntsville Marriott. They were gifted handmade art-glass bowls from Orbix (a North Alabama glass maker) and treats from Morgan Price Candy Company in Decatur, Alabama, to recognize their support in formation of our Forum. Following the day of tours and the afternoon kick-off cocktail party, the IWF visitors and the IWF Alabama Board had a private dinner at The Bottle in downtown Huntsville. The event and the visit were deemed a great success.
Dinner following the March 13 kick-off event was held at The Bottle, on Washington Street in downtown Huntsville. Pictured at left table from far side front to back: Susan Smith (then IWF Arkansas President), Lauri Fitz-Pegado, Kathy Bremer (then President, IWF Georgia), and Cathy Dickens (Founding IWF Alabama Member and Board Member); next row from back is Emily Berlin, Peri Widener, Micheline Bouchard and Michelle Gilliam-Jordan (Founding IWF Alabama Member and Board Member). Right table, left side from front to back: Leslie Siebert (IWF Georgia), Ginger Harper (IWF Alabama Founding Member and Board Member), Toni Randolph (IWF Global Board Member), Janis Kearney (Founding President, IWF Arkansas); Next row from back is Laura Huckabee-Jennings (IWF Alabama Founding Member and Board Member), Anne Marie Reidy, MD (IWF Alabama Founding Member and Board Member), Stephanie O’Keefe (CEO, IWF Global), and Paula Cox.
Gift package provided to all IWF Global visitors from outside of Alabama who attended our March 23, 2019 Forum kick-off event.
A Handmade art glass bowl from Orbix Hot Glass in Scottsboro, Alabama, was given to each of the guests attending the kick-off event, along with a beautiful box of artisan chocolates from Morgan Price Candy Company of Decatur, Alabama.
IWF global representatives who attended the Alabama kick-off included: Emily Berlin, Miami IWF; Toni Randolph, President of the IWF Foundation, IWF Florida; Stephanie O’Keefe, President and CEO of IWF, Washington, D.C.; Micheline Bouchard, VP IWF New Forums, IWF Canada; Lauri Fitz-Pegado, Washington, D.C. Forum; Kathy Bremer, then-President IWF Georgia; Leslie Sibert, IWF Georgia; Janis Kearney, then-President, IWF Arkansas; and Paula Cox, Past President, IWF Bermuda.
Note: Across this formational period, there were changes to the board due to changes in professional commitments that resulted in our Final Founding Board:
The Final Founding Board, IWF Alabama (Dec. 2019 – June 2021):
President: Peri Widener (The Boeing Company, retired)
Vice President: Anne Marie Reidy, MD and JD (Women4Women ObGyn)
Treasurer: Ginger Harper (IBERIABank)
Secretary: Ane Debro (Alabama A&M)
Membership: Laura Huckabee-Jennings (Transcend The Fearless Company)
Leadership: LaFreeda Jordan (University of Alabama Huntsville)
Programming: Candy Burnett (Huntsville Hospital Foundation, retired)
Governance: Cathy Dickens (COLSA)
Communications: Ruchi Singhal (NEXUS Energy)
Member-At-Large: Michelle Gilliam-Jordan (TARCOG)
The Founding Membership Class:
Peri Widener – Vice President & General Manager (ret), Boeing Global Services
Anne Marie Reidy, MD – Owner, Women4Women OBGYN
Ginger Harper – Senior VP, IBERIABank
Ane Debro – General Counsel, Alabama A&M University
Laura Huckabee-Jennings – CEO, Transcend the Fearless Company
Candy Burnett – President (ret) Huntsville Hospital Foundation
Ruchi Singhal – Senior Program Manager, TVA
Cathy Dickens – Senior VP, COLSA
Michelle Gilliam Jordan – Executive Director, TARCOG
Leann Barr – VP HR (ret), American Cast Iron Pipe
LaFreeda Jordan – Asst Vice Chancellor, UAH
Stephanie Kennedy Mell – Owner, Church Street Family
Kelli Powers – President, Decatur-Morgan Hospital
Debbie Redmond-Hyder, MD – Pediatrician & Owner, Pediatrics Providence
Belinda Savage-Edwards, MD – Neurologist & Owner, Rehabilitation and Neurological Services
Leslie Sharpe – Shareholder, Maynard, Cooper & Gale PC
Dana Claburn – Senior VP, Southern Power
Tina Watts – Community Investor, Boeing
Debra Jenkins – Founder, Merrimack Hall
Deborah Barnhard, CEO of the US Space and Rocket Center
Allison Dillon-Jauken, Executive Director, Arts Huntsville
Shelia Nash-Stevenson, Engineer, NASA
Paula Steigerwald, CEO (retired), Huntsville Botanical Garden
Lori Womack, Owner, Womack & Associates (CPA)
Virginia (Suzi) Young, Vice Chancellor for Research, University of Alabama
IWF Alabama is Formally Recognized as Global Forum April 2019
Upon completing the successful membership recruiting event on March 13, 2019 and having the Founding Board approved by IWF headquarters in Washington, D.C., IWF Alabama was formally welcomed to the global IWF organization on April 9, 2019 during the IWF Global Conference in Barcelona, Spain. During a dinner meeting that evening with other members of the IWF Global board and members of the Presidents Council, IWF President Deborah Trudeau of Canada welcomed IWF Alabama as the organization’s newest Forum and recognized Peri Widener who was in attendance as its Founder and first President. IWF Alabama was again recognized as IWF’s newest forum the next day by President Trudeau during the full conference attended by more than 1,000 members representing 32 Forums from around the world.
Peri Widener and then-IWF Global President Deborah Trudeau of Canada at 45th IWF Cornerstone Conference in Barcelona, Spain, April 2019
IWF Alabama Steering Committee Transitions to Board; Initiates Meetings
With the recognition of IWF Alabama as a Forum, the steering committee took steps to organize the first membership meeting and hold an election of officers on June 11, 2019. Due to limited resources, the board sponsored this first membership meeting with donated wine, champagne and hors d’oeuvres at a meeting room at the Bryant Bank Building. The members elected officers and directors of the Founding board at this meeting. In addition, the members provided feedback on the types of programming and social activities they would like from the organization. Out of this meeting grew our initial approach to hosting evening educational meetings interspersed with select social events. The initial membership fees were established at $250 per year, with members paying separately for programs and social activities.
In 2020, the board made a decision to evolve its dues approach to include a flat fee membership program. Beginning in June of 2020, dues were set at $500 and included all costs for program attendance, program speaker costs, annual membership meeting expenses and fees for an IWF Administrator. This revenue was supplemented by $7750 from several sponsors: GLoBIL Consulting Owner, Peri Widener; Candy Burnett; American Cast Iron Pipe Company (Speaker Sponsor); and Colonial Bank.
Inaugural Board Retreat Held in August 2019; Becomes Annual Tradition
On August 23, 2019, the board held its inaugural planning retreat at Transcend The Fearless Company, owned by board member Laura Huckabee-Jennings. This meeting grew out of a desire to dedicate time to laying out a strategic direction and vision for the future of IWF Alabama. Out of this meeting also came board operating principles and a plan for the first year of IWF Alabama operations.
Laura Huckabee-Jennings leads the initial IWF Alabama board planning retreat in August 2019 at Transcend the Fearless Company
Organization Establishes Operating Rhythm; Positions for Growth 2020
The following year, the board met on August 14, 2020, and reached agreement on a strategic plan and direction for the future of IWF Alabama. This work included:
Mission, Vision and Path statement
Establishing Board/Committee Structure
Cementing a Forum Planning Cycle
Identifying the Membership Process and Goal
Validating an Annual Calendar
Agreeing on Governance and Succession Planning Process
Growth and Robust Programming Despite a Pandemic 2020-2021
We celebrated the start of a new year in 2020 with a festive tour of Pizzelle’s Confections at Lowe Mill in Huntsville, Alabama, followed by an evening of wine and light bites at Stovehouse. At Pizelle’s – a business owned by two sisters – owners Caitlin Lyon and Michelle Novosel treated us to a tour of their kitchens and demonstrations of chocolate making. There were chocolate boxes to go! This was an interesting conversation centered around the challenges and successes of starting a business. At the time, we did not know this would be our last in person meeting for more than a year due to the COVID-19 outbreak. The rest of the Spring 2020 meetings were held virtually, and our Programs Chair Candy Burnett did a heavy lift in shifting our plans to meaningful virtual meetings that spanned the spectrum of social cocktail events to programs on Change Resilience.
By summer, IWF Alabama had implemented a robust and interesting 11-program agenda that resulted in more than 55% of our members participating, up from 32.5% the prior year. In addition, we had 116 IWF program participants who were not from Alabama, and 7 other US states represented at our meetings. The programs ranged from Marsha Samson Johnson addressing our Annual Meeting, to celebrating Women’s Equality Day with a virtual walking tour of the Huntsville Suffragist Movement, learning about energy efficient Tiny Homes, meeting CEO Of Belle Chevre for a virtual cheese tasting and conversation on chasing your passions, hearing from Dr. Shelia Nash-Stevenson on growing up a small town girl in Alabama to getting her PhD and leading NASA program initiatives, being inspired by Debra Jenkins story of creating Merrimack Hall to support special needs people, gaining insight on the Information is Power program about breast cancer genetic testing from Dr. Sara Cooper of HudsonAlpha, going inside the FBI with our own Shannon McGarry who talked about the importance of combatting terrorism and contributing to Global Security, and getting an inside look at the Business Council of Alabama from its first female CEO, Katie Boyd Britt.
Despite a virtual schedule, we were all inspired and connected by these meaningful programs … and so were others around the United States!
Members gather at Pizelle’s to hear about the founding of the woman-owned chocolatier and desert company.
Major Membership Growth and Program Expansion 2019-2021
Even with the challenges presented by a global pandemic, IWF Alabama made significant strides through 2020 and 2021 in growing its membership and implementing important new programs aimed at developing the next generation of female leaders.
Under Laura Huckabee-Jennings’ leadership, the first membership committee was established with LaFreeda Jordan, Ruchi Singhal, Laura and Peri Widener. A rigorous two-stage membership process based on IWF best practices was established, and the First Class of new members was recruited. This group of 24 new IWF Alabama Members joined the existing Founders Class of 24 in January 2021, doubling our membership numbers. The first annual new member orientation program was held on January 5, 2021, and featured Rebecca Barfknecht (President of the IWF President’s Council) and Helen Rule virtually (President of IWF).
As part of our IWF Alabama culture and strategic planning, we focus on creating a Forum that is diverse in all ways, including careers, ages, race, interests and experiences. The 2021 Membership by career sector spans 14 different fields from accounting, aerospace, arts, banking, biotech, consulting, education and government to healthcare, hospitality, law, manufacturing, non-profit, utilities/energy. Nearly 25% of our members are in their 40s, 40+% are in their 50s and 20+% are in their 60s which is a very balanced experiential baseline. More than 34% of our members are women of color which is slightly higher than the demographics across the state.
In addition to expanding our membership statewide, doubling our membership size and welcoming a diverse and talented group of members, the membership committee also hosted three Annual Membership Meetings in June 2019, 2020 and 2021. Each meeting focused on gaining member insight about our organization, holding small group brainstorming conversations, connecting members and conducting the annual business meeting.
In 2019, we elected our first Board and Officers and sought member thoughts on the organization’s future.
In 2020, we heard from Marsha Samson Jackson of Atlanta on the importance of Sowing Seeds for the Future, and we spent time connecting with one another during a difficult year.
In 2021, we celebrated a new board, increased membership growth, discussed our future and heard from Liz Huntley on Gamechangers.
Founding Board Characterized By Accomplishment and Dedication
The Founding Board of IWF Alabama came together in a short three-year span to create something special for the women of our state in a space where nothing of this type or magnitude previously existed. Over this small period, the organization attracted a membership size that rivals Forums that have existed for many years.
The Mission of IWF Alabama is to Advance Women’s Leadership and Champion Equality. To this end, our Forum focused on attracting a diverse membership, supporting one another, highlighting our own members through programming, establishing a Leadership Committee at the Board level and helping to develop the next generation of female leaders through a community outreach initiative with Girl’s Inc.
Anne Marie Reidy, MD and IWF Alabama Board VP led this first ever community initiative. She and the committee she established created a successful mentoring program with Girl’s Inc. that resulted in a 10-week program for Girls from 4-7 grades. Over that time, a different IWF Alabama volunteer led the girls in sharing their stories and completing their program projects that day. At the holidays, IWF Alabama surprised the girls with books from the Huntsville Historic Foundation. All tolled, 27 girls benefitted from the outreach program.
Another important aspect of establishing IWF Alabama was providing a solid financial basis for developing quality programming, delivering special activities such as social gatherings and community outreach and thus attracting high quality members. With Ginger Harper’s leadership as Treasurer, we established a solid financial base and tripled our revenues from 2019 until today. We have built a strong revenue stream for the future to ensure we can continue with innovative programs and special events curated especially for our members, such as our annual June membership meeting.
Michelle Gilliam Jordan served the IWF Alabama board in two key roles, first as Secretary in year one where she established a strong tradition of communication with the board and documentation of our start-up, and then as advisor to the President in her Member-at-Large role. Her depth of leadership and service in nonprofits were pivotal in positively shaping a successful foundation for a new nonprofit organization and steering us with vision.
First Ane Debro and then Ruchi Singhal were instrumental in creating a communications program for our members that includes a monthly newsletter, electronic messaging and social media. This communication was a key link for keeping our members informed, especially during our virtual pandemic period. In addition, Ane served as board Secretary where she established key virtual processes and systems that enabled smooth operations during the pandemic and further connected the board and members.
LaFreeda Jordan was named to the board as Leadership Chair in early 2020, and in short order had established a committee and developed a focus for this effort. The leadership program underscores and supports the IWF Alabama mission to develop the next generation of female leaders and our strategy to provide specialized leadership focus and education to members.
Taken collectively, the work of this board under circumstances of a 100 year pandemic has been nothing short of remarkable. Not only did we come out of this period unbowed, we came out stronger!
A Gamechanging Gift for the Future – Establishing an IWF Fellows Program Scholarship for the Alabama Forum
The 2021 annual membership meeting was held on Thursday, June 10, virtually in light of the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic. The theme of the meeting was “Be a Game Changer” and this was reflected in Peri Widener’s final remarks as President, and in the message of our keynote speaker Liz Huntley of Birmingham.
During her remarks, Peri recognized the outsize contributions of the 2019-2021 Board in exceeding all performance plans in spite of a pandemic. She presented each board member with a handmade art glass memento engraved with their name, role and IWF logo. Incoming President Anne Marie Reidy received a personal gift from Peri, an engraved President’s gavel. Emily Berlin’s efforts as the IWF sponsor in helping to give the IWF Alabama Forum a solid and successful launch were also recognized with a special personalized art piece.
At the conclusion of her IWF Alabama President’s remarks, Peri announced her personal $30,000 gift to establish an IWF Fellows scholarship directed to the Alabama Forum. In addition, she pledged another $35,000 in a dollar-for-dollar gift challenge to the members of IWF Alabama (who must achieve the match by August 2022). Anne Marie Reidy, MD, owner of Women4Women pledged $10,000 of the $35,000 challenge during the meeting. Taken in total, this will endow a $100,000 Fellows Scholarship Program directed to the IWF Alabama Forum which enables them to send one Fellow to the training program every five years FOREVER!
The new board was recognized by incoming President Anne Marie Reidy, MD. This board assumed their new roles on July 1, 2021. And with this action, a new page is turned to begin the second chapter in the IWF Alabama story.