Lead(h)er and Hannah Howard are on fire.

The nonprofit mentorship group and its passionate new leader marked its seventh anniversary with a dazzling Birthday Party celebration that honored outstanding women and their contributions to the community. The event was held on Sept. 23rd at Mercado on Fifth in Moline, including a silent auction, wine pull and the annual Girl on Fire awards.

The 2023 Mentor of the Year is Samantha Widener, left, and Mentee of the Year is Emily Cummings.

At the celebration, three remarkable women were honored for their sparkling achievements and commitment to mentorship and Lead(h)er’s mission. Each winner received a custom glass trophy (depicting a rising flame) from Davenport-based Hot Glass Inc.:

  • Mentor of the Year: Samantha Widener (manager of regional talent acquisition for UnityPoint Health) was honored for consistently going above and beyond to guide and support her mentee (Brooke Keck) in 2023. Widener supported her mentee with outstanding empathy, leadership and charisma. She jumpstarted her mentee’s involvement in volunteering and networking in the QC community. Her dedication to mentorship has had a profound impact on her mentee’s personal life and career, making her a true inspiration to the Lead(h)er community.
  • Mentee of the Year: Emily Cummings (regional manager for Birth to Five Illinois) was recognized for displaying remarkable determination and growth under her mentor, Irene Borys. Borys nominated Cummings for her outstanding achievements and continuous commitment to personal and professional development which make her a shining example for others to follow. Not only was Emily a model mentee, but she now has also become a mentor to another QC woman.
  • Found(h)er of the Year: LuAnn Haydon (retired former manager of John Deere Pavilion) is one of the visionary leaders behind Lead(h)er and was recognized for her tireless dedication to empowering women and creating opportunities for those women. Her warm demeanor and willingness to mentor so many individuals through big and small ways alike, have transformed countless lives in the Lead(h)er community.
LuAnn Haydon (center) with Jackie Celske (left) and Marcie Ordaz.

Haydon is just the third winner of the Found(h)er award, after the original founder Melissa Pepper, and last year’s winner, Beth Grabin, who’s been instrumental in the group’s growth, Howard said Wednesday from Lead(h)er’s new office in the Royal Neighbors of America headquarters in downtown Rock Island.

The birthday party event was also a fundraiser, with a silent auction and wine pull. Necker’s Jewelers was major sponsor, and they donated a $1,000 gift card for one lucky winner out of those who bought a $25 wine tasting.

“That was so exciting, and to see her face – a woman from Ascentra Credit Union, and her face just lit up,” Howard said. “It was a very special event.”

A Brick & Motor Boutique jacket that was auctioned at the Lead(h)er 7th Birthday Party celebration.

Brick & Motor Boutique of Rock Island donated a custom jean jacket with the “Strike a Match” logo for the silent auction.

Howard is just nine days into her new job, most recently serving as the director of business services and community development for the Greater Muscatine Chamber of Commerce & Industry.

“Lead(h)er is unique in the not only do we have a board, but they’re very engaged and very passionate,” she said Wednesday of the organization that fuels career and community engagement for women in the workforce. “Not all nonprofits are fortunate to have.”

They have an events committee and a golf outing committee, for example. The match program is free for participants, thanks to sponsorships and donors.

In 2022, 118 women were matched in the Lead(h)er “Strike a Match” program (free for participants), and so far this year, 98 women have been paired, bringing the total to 1,110 since 2016.

“The very cool thing about the Strike a Match program is, it’s a very unique process,” and it’s customized specifically by each pair.

Lead(h)er executive director Hannah Howard in her office at the Royal Neighbors building in Rock Island, Sept. 27, 2023 (photo by Jonathan Turner).

“We are so excited to have Hannah take on this role. Her energy, community engagement experience, and fantastic communication skills make her a great fit,” Anika Martin, Lead(h)er board president, said. “We can’t wait for our match community and all of our community partners to get to know her.”

New careers take root

The 32-year-old Muscatine native (who still lives in the Pearl City), graduated from Iowa State with a degree in forestry and animal ecology, thinking she’d become a park ranger.

Howard has worked with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources doing rare plant inventories; in Maine for a carbon study, and in summer 2013, with the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation (protecting natural areas across the state).

She started her career with Trees Forever, working in southeast Iowa with volunteers and community groups on tree and native planting projects, to make communities greener and brighter. Howard did that for three years and found her passion, but wanted to focus on a tighter area.

Howard is a 32-year-old Muscatine native who graduated from Iowa State University.

One of her biggest mentors (Joni Axel, a board member of Nature Conservancy in Iowa) urged her to work for Nature Conservancy. Howard became community and outreach coordinator, for four years.

“They’re the largest environmental nonprofit in the world, that have chapters in each state in the U.S. and also have programs around the world,” she said. “I got to still work with a small, focused Iowa nonprofit.”

Howard worked in Muscatine, with 4,000 acres in the county that nobody knew about. “They didn’t have anyone in the state that was specifically doing outreach work,” she said. “That was really exciting for me to come on and work in the part of the state I called home, which I didn’t know was the most biologically diverse part of the state.”

The Mississippi, Iowa and Cedar rivers all converge there, and Nature Conservancy preserves rare, federally threatened species of wildlife, Howard said.

She grew into a fundraising role with the nonprofit, but with COVID was forced to work remotely, doing cold calls and Zoom meetings with potential donors.

“I’m very much a people person and an extrovert, so that was hard for me,” Howard said. “I was asking people – their businesses had been affected by COVID, and then the derecho hit (in August 2020). Most of our donors we were responsible for, were affected by the derecho. It was so hard to ask people, will you continue to support us?”

Howard came to Lead(h)er after working two years for the Greater Muscatine Chamber of Commerce & Industry.

In 2021, she was recruited to join the Muscatine Chamber, to meet with people, sign up new members, celebrate small businesses, and host ribbon-cuttings.

“Fundraising was really heavy on me; I felt I wasn’t able to do the level of fundraising that the organization needed,” Howard said of her old Nature Conservancy job. “I needed a little change, so I took that job. It was so exciting jumping in, hosting ribbon-cuttings.”

Being a Muscatine native, it also was thrilling to work with local entrepreneurs to help make their new business dreams come true, she said, citing grant funding and connecting to other resources. The Chamber also helped promote the businesses.

Finding her own career spark

Howard has had jobs in causes that matter to her personally, and found Lead(h)er late last year, when she was feeling burned out and needed a mentor. She sought a spark to light her fire again.

She was matched with Nicki Brus, Visit Quad Cities’ business growth and service manager. Howard attended her first Lead(h)er Huddle (networking event) in January 2023 at Royal Neighbors on the fourth floor, where she met Brus for the first time.

Nicki Brus at Visit Quad Cities is Howard’s mentor.

“It was such a special event; I was new to the organization, new to the match program,” Howard said. “They had a panel of really powerful women.”

She wasn’t matched with Brus just because of their jobs, but their personal interests overlapped – they both love to camp and the outdoors. “We’re both very extroverted, like to have fun and laugh,” Howard said. “That is very unique in that this program is able to match people in a unique way.”

At the Lead(h)er Huddle, LuAnn Haydon then looked her in the eyes and wanted to know about her and help her.

“I was able to see how special this organization was,” Howard said Wednesday. After the summer, she was so tired from her job and heard about the Lead(h)er director opening.

“It was like fate just kept pushing me to it,” she said, noting board member Marcia Erickson suggested that she apply.

Howard felt confident in fundraising, networking, public speaking, marketing, and social media. “I was familiar working with nonprofits, working with boards of directors,” she said. “Coming from the Chamber, it was perfect.”

“The biggest roadblock for our organization is finding the mentors,” Howard said, noting they have a waiting list of mentees seeking matches. “It is such a need, in every community and every organization.”

Challenges and benefits

Often, women in leadership roles are stretched so thin, personally and professionally, that it’s a challenge for them to find time to commit, she said. The Strike a Match program is an 18-month commitment, and Lead(h)er recommends the pair meet at least once a month.

Lead(h)er held its 7th Birthday Party and Girl on Fire awards celebration Sept. 23, 2023 at Mercado on Fifth, Moline.

“We want to develop a deep bond and show a mentorship power that is longer than a few months or a year,” Howard said. “Many matches go on; some matches have gone the entirety of the program, over seven years, five years. It’s a very powerful thing.”

Some mentees have grown so much, they sign up to become mentors, like Cummings. Mentors also don’t have to be older, Howard said, noting that fits for mentees who are making a career pivot into a new field.

Key areas mentors can help with are how to advance in your career, how to ask for a raise, get a promotion and to juggle the work-life balance.

“Empowerment and confidence is a big one, because any woman out there – including myself – needs more confidence,” Howard said. “And needs to either get the skills to stretch for new things, or have somebody that says, ‘You’re ready to do this, even if you don’t think you’re ready’.”

Men not only usually earn more than women in the same position, but statistically, men typically ask for more money in the application process, she said. “There are so many issues and our mentorship can address many of those. There also needs to be more conversations – so many organizations are making strides, to have more women leadership in their companies, have more women on their boards.

“We’re just not there yet,” Howard said.

Howard shows off Lead(h)er’s new office space (which includes a board room) in previously unused first-floor space at Royal Neighbors’ headquarters at 230 16th St., Rock Island.

“We just encourage women in the Quad Cities to consider being a mentor,” she said. “If you know somebody who would be an amazing mentor to someone, please ask. A lot of times, a lot of people don’t get involved until there is that one-on-one ask, where it’s someone who knows you personally or professionally.”

Lead(h)er provides both professional development and promotes community engagement in volunteer opportunities, she said. Women have volunteered at Mercado, at the John Deere Classic and other organizations.

The Rock Island-based Royal Neighbors and Lead(h)er seem a match made in heaven. The female-focused RNA is not only a membership organization that offers life insurance and annuity products, but is driven by its mission of supporting women and serving communities, making social impact the cornerstone of their work.

“Royal Neighbors of America is a fantastic partner,” Howard said. “Not only have they allowed us to have office space in their building, they allow us to have our board meetings here, as well as Lead(h)er events on the fourth floor in their community space. That’s a huge step up for our organization that they’re providing.”

New applications for matches will open online Oct. 1, available HERE. Howard added that Lead(h)er is always looking to expand its partnerships. For more information, contact her at hannah@leadherqc.org or visit the website HERE.