March is Women’s History Month but across America people use the occasion to celebrate women for more than just past accomplishments. The month gives us a chance to focus on the important roles women play across our country. It is certainly true that we should not limit this recognition to just one month out of twelve, but as the father of two nearly grown daughters I always appreciated the special focus so that they could see strong role models outside of their immediate circle.
Greater Peoria is blessed with amazing female leadership at all levels, but particularly in the public sector. In 2021, Rita Ali was elected the first female (and Black) mayor of the City of Peoria, our largest city. In her first year on the job she has worked with her Council and staff to position the City for investment, ignited conversation and action around equity, addressed crime, and taken on bold initiatives like creating passenger rail options to Chicago. About 30 miles south, one of our smaller communities, Delavan, is working on its own plan for growth under the leadership of Mayor Liz Skinner. When not working for the State of Illinois, Emily Davenport leads the board of Logan County. Two of our institutions of higher learning are led by amazing women: Dr. Sheila Quirk-Bailey of Illinois Central College and Dr. Jamel Santa Cruze-Wright of Eureka College. And our nonprofit sector boasts great leaders like Jennifer Zammuto of the United Way, Christell Frausto of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and Leigh Ann Brown of the Morton Economic Development Council (to name just a few).
Maybe more surprisingly, though not to those of us who know them, are the women who lead some of our businesses. Manufacturing, construction and engineering firms are not the types of companies in which you expect females at the helm, but in Greater Peoria we are blessed with some great examples. In manufacturing, Jo Ellen Dunbar is the CEO of Quality Metals and Danette Swank is the CEO of Philipi Hagenbuch. Leanne Skuse is the President of River City Construction, one of the largest construction companies in Central Illinois. And Karen Jensen is the President and CEO of Farnsworth Group, a full service architecture and engineering firm with offices in multiple states. Greater Peoria is also home to one of the largest independent eye care companies in the country, led by Diana Hall (who also gets to take credit or blame for hiring me as GPEDC’s leader four years ago). And last, but certainly not least, national retail and commercial real estate developer Cullinan Properties was founded and is lead by Diane Cullinan Oberhelman.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the strong women who help lead Greater Peoria EDC: Sally Hanley, Lenora Fisher, Kari Rauh, Kathie Brown, Melissa Oliveri, Grace Clucas and Linda Krendick. I daily see their dedication and passion for our region and their jobs.
Celebrating the women leaders in our community is important in March and year round. In Greater Peoria, we are fortunate to be reminded every day of the strength, wisdom, care and intelligence that so many of our female leaders possess.