Women leaders share advice, success stories, and goals for the future at the Inaugural Women’s Summit

July 20, 2021The Bottom Line

Kentucky Chamber president and CEO Ashli Watts kicked off the Women’s Summit by sharing her excitement for this first-ever event calling it the perfect opportunity to celebrate, learn, and provide support for one another.

She talked about her journey of becoming the first female CEO of the Kentucky Chamber in the organization’s 75 years. She shared a question asked of her many times during her process of becoming CEO that made her understand how women are perceived as leaders – “how will you balance your family and your position?” Watts soon realized that her husband, nor other male leaders, are typically asked that question.

Watts talked about the struggles women have faced this past year and how the pandemic impacted the workforce, and said it is critical to get women back into the workforce and stop letting them fall behind. “The Commonwealth has a bright future if we work together,” Watts said.

Kirsten Hawley, Senior Vice President of Brown-Forman Corporation, welcomed the Women’s Summit as the presenting sponsor of the day, sharing her company’s dedication to advancing the Commonwealth and its diversity and thanking the women in the room for their leadership and commitment to making a difference.

Neeli Bendapudi

University of Louisville President Dr. Neeli Bendapudi had a conversation with Renee Shaw of Kentucky Education Television about her role as the leader of a major university, teachable moments she has learned throughout her career, and advice for women leaders.

Bendapudi began by thanking the male attendees in the room and stressing the importance of men supporting and encouraging women in leadership.

As a woman and a minority, Bendapudi is among the one percent of university presidents. She explained her role as being on a “glass cliff” and shared the experiences of being a female in her role.

When asked about what she would tell her teenage self, Dr. Bendapudi said she would tell herself to dream big and don’t worry so much about what other people are thinking.

Women in Business

Women CEOs from diverse businesses across the Commonwealth shared their impactful stories, had candid conversations about the struggles they have faced, and gave advice for other women leaders.

Susan Elkington, President of Toyota Motor Manufacturing of Kentucky, said the most important thing she has told herself throughout her career is, “If not you, then who?”

Elkington shared a story of the struggles she experienced as a mother having overseas assignments, until another mother walked up to her and thanked for being a role model for her daughter.

As a woman in a male-dominated industry, she credited her success to resilience and encouraged young women to get experience and exposure and establish trust and relationships.

MCM CPAs and Advisors Executive Chairman Diane Medley said her advice would be, “you can have it all, just maybe not all at the same time,” she also suggested prioritizing what is most important.

When asked if there was anything she would do over, she said no because she would be afraid, she would be a different person. Medley encouraged young women to not be afraid to take risks, to make deep friendships, and be vulnerable. “They will like you if they know you, and they will like you.”

HJI Supply Chain Solutions Founder and Owner Alice Houston said her advice is to “remain authentic and stay true to your values.” Huston encouraged young leaders make sure that they are passionate about the kind of career they want to do, not to fear failure, and to seek mentors.

Women in Politics


Women in various political roles from across the Commonwealth shared their motivations for getting involved in public service, their experiences in Frankfort, and the importance of serving as role models for young women interested in running for office.

On the balance between elected office and family, State Treasurer Allison Ball said “the question is can you do those things at the same time and can you do them well?” She said it takes intentionality and commitment.

“You can’t be what you don’t see,” said Ball when talking about being a role model for other women looking to serve.

Divisiveness was a key topic discussed by panelists.

State Representative Joni Jenkins shared her motivations of wanting to be a voice for their voiceless and her experience in Frankfort in working in a bipartisan manner on diverse issues.

Kentucky Supreme Court Justice Michelle M. Keller talked about the heightened divisiveness over the past year, “We can lead ourselves back to a place to civil discourse…and we can respect each other’s differences. We’re just a little lost in the woods right now.”

Both Justice Keller and Rep. Jenkins shared instances of disagreement with colleagues, but when walking out of the room, they still respect one another and remain friends.

Panelists shared advice of practicing respect, not overthinking, not having to have everything figured out, and much more.

Presentation of the Inaugural Woman in Leadership Award

The Women’s Summit included the inaugural presentation of the Woman in Leadership Award to Kentucky’s first female Governor Martha Layne Collins

Presenting the award was Kentucky’s Lieutenant Governor Jacqueline Coleman, who spoke about the governor’s impact on the Commonwealth. “The greatest investments to Kentucky’s economy came when we had a woman in charge,” said Coleman, noting Gov. Collins’ work in bringing Toyota and other large companies to Kentucky.

In her speech, Collins, encouraged Women’s Summit attendees to set goals and work together for a better tomorrow. She said she was happy to receive the award, and proud of the Kentucky Chamber and their work, and is excited to see what is to come.

“There’s so much talent and vision in this room, and maybe we haven’t cashed in on it like we should yet,” Collins said. “We’re going to all keep working…and if they tell you, ‘it can’t be done’…just show them.”

Elaine Chao

Elaine Chao shared her powerful story of immigrating to the United States when she was eight, to attending Harvard University, to her career in public service.

When describing her roles as a non-profit leader for organizations like United Way of America and the Peace Corps, she said her passion has led to her success.

“I think we all grow into positions of leadership,” Chao said as she shared her experiences as the U.S. Secretary of Labor and U.S. Secretary of Transportation during pivotal times during the nation’s history.

Chao’s advice to attendees was, “so long as you never give up, you will find what your heart desires.”

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