Melissa Pepper made a career change two years ago and saw the importance having two people mentor her through the process.
Reflecting on the experience, she wondered if other women would benefit from having someone guide them in their careers.
She discovered the answer was yes.
With the help of others, she founded Lead(h)er, a nonprofit organization that's signature program, Strike a Match, had a goal of matching 100 young women with other female professionals in one year. That was August 2016. A bit more than a year later, they have 122 matches and everyone loves the results.
“It makes you feel needed,” said mentor LuAnn Haydon, who is retired. “In my generation, we did not have mentors. But this is an opportunity to give back.”
“I am absolutely thrilled to have crossed this threshold, especially ahead of our target date,” said Sarah Stevens, executive director. “Through their participation in Strike a Match, these 100 women are now enabled to build networks that are both supportive and empowering. As a result, they are connected with local leaders across professional sectors and corporate affiliations, creating a more vibrant, connected Quad-Cities workforce.”
Pepper worked in donor relations at the Mississippi Valley Regional Blood Center and moved into a job in marketing and client relations at the Quad-City law firm of Lane & Waterman. Determining if other women liked the idea of such a program was a long process, she said.
“I must have had 100 cups of coffee sitting down and talking to people,” she said. “I wanted to see if there really was a need.”
By November 2015, she realized there was. In March 2016, she said the program had a soft launch and by August of last year, people began signing up.
Today, she is chairman of the board and Stevens is the only paid employee.
“I hear it in the community, people are so grateful for this,” Pepper said. “We are pretty unique even on the national level.
“We have people re-entering the workforce, people moving into the area, people who work for big companies, people who work for small businesses with one or two employees, people who are starting their own business," she said. "We have people who are teachers, work at banks, hospitals, all different types of industry.”
Karen Dahlstrom of Moline loves guiding her mentee, Kirby Vyncke. Dahlstrom is the executive director of admissions at Augustana College, Rock Island. Vyncke is member relations manager at MRA, the Management Association.
They met at a community event before either signed up for the program. It was a coincidence they were paired together.
“It was meant to be,” Vyncke said.
“We both are in recruiting and naturally, it is a fit,” Dahlstrom said. “This organization has that magic of matching women. We never would have crossed paths again if not for Sarah (Stevens).”
They meet at least once a month, usually in the morning for coffee, where they talk about everything from jobs and career aspirations to juggling home and work.
At first, Dahlstrom wondered what she brought to the table as a mentor. She is only three years older than Vyncke. But soon she discovered it is about sharing from both women.
“It sounds so incredibly simple,” Dahlstrom said.
It boils down to being friends and offering advice, encouragement and common experiences.
“Every time I meet with her, it brings — professionally and personally — energy. I leave so energized. I am so ready to conquer the world,” Vyncke said of Dahlstrom. “I like her confidence, being able to talk to her, her stories, her words of wisdom. So also raises good questions.”
Haydon retired three years ago from Deere & Co., a career spent largely in marketing and managing the then-new John Deere Pavilion. She is matched with Courtney Lawrence of Moline, a corporate trainer at Modern Woodmen of America.
Lawrence is thrilled with how she was paired.
“I heard about it and thought it sounded neat,” Lawrence said. “It is a new opportunity to meet new people.
“She is just able to offer a lot of great advice, how to make the most of situations. And I just know she is there to inspire.”
The feeling is mutual.
“The first time I talked to her, I had a smile on my face because she was telling my story. It has been awesome working with her,” Haydon said.
Stevens said she already has another 13 women applying to receive mentoring, and they hope it will continue to grow in many ways.
“We don't turn anybody away,” she said. “It is an intentional relationship with a set of goals.”
And it is mutually beneficial.
“I had a mentor come back and said she has gotten just as much as she has given,” Stevens said.
“It is not just a mentorship, but a friendship,” Vyncke said. “I do not ever see it ending. She is stuck with me.”