A Lifelong Passion – Celebrating Women Entrepreneurs


Consumers' podcast logo with title "A Lifelong Passion - Celebrating Women Entrepreneurs" with an image of this week's guest Judy Welch, executive director of Michigan Women Forward


This week Lynne is joined by Judy Welch, executive director of Michigan Women’s Forward, to discuss its annual event to celebrate local female entrepreneurs.


0:00:06.7 Lynne Jarman-Johnson (LJJ): Money, I’m home. Welcome in. I’m Lynne Jarman-Johnson, with Consumers Credit Union. We have it all for you from finance to fitness. Joining us today is somebody who can really help us out on the finance side. This is Judy Welch, she’s the executive director of Michigan Women’s Forward in the West Michigan Market. Judy, I’ll tell you what, you have so many balls that you’re juggling in the air right now, it’s so exciting, we’re really excited to partner with you on Michigan Women’s Forward, but first, let’s find out a little bit about you, because you’ve got a lot coming your way on this train that we call life.

0:00:42.7 Judy Welch (JW): Thank you, Lynne. I’m the Executive Director of Michigan Women’s Forward, and I’ve been so proud to be associated with this organization for eight years now. It is a community development organization whose mission is really to expand economic opportunity and power the next generation and celebrate and honor accomplishments of women, and that’s what we’re excited to do at MWF, and really when you think of our Michigan Women’s Forward, we really are moving women forward.

0:01:13.0 LJJ: Tell us a little bit about your background, Judy, and how you came to be at Michigan Women’s Forward. I’ve been so excited to have known you for years of volunteer with the organization, and Consumers is really proud to help support women entrepreneurs. Where did your passion begin, and how did you get involved?

0:01:33.4 JW: As I think about my career and some of my upcoming opportunities, I’ve been reflecting on the last 45 years actually, of what I’ve been doing, because I really started working at the age of 14, my father owned a chain of dry cleaners, Uptown Cleaners in Grand Rapids here. And it was an amazing opportunity for me to get involved in the business community, but it was a male-dominated operation, and so it gave me at an early age to think about, how should women move forward at that time. So you know, I ended up going to a couple of years of junior college, and I just up and left to Dallas, Texas and went to move in with my sister, and at that time with only background being in working at a dry cleaners, what was I going to do? Well, again it’s you got to go back to who you know. So one of the board of directors of a large bank was a Lebanese fellow that we kind of knew, and he got me involved in the bank, but I was a receptionist for eight trust officers. Think about that.

0:02:35.3 LJJ: Wow.

0:02:36.1 JW: I did that for about six months and walked into the head guy and said, “I need to be in operations, this is just not me,” he realized that.

0:02:43.4 LJJ: And like you knew it. That’s so cool.

0:02:45.4 JW: You do know it. And so I moved into operations and I started working on the trust operations and moving my way up in a bank and you know, it was really great, and then I moved to Denver again, met a board member after working at a bank, and he said, “I think you’ve got more potential than just being in trust operations,” and so I went to work for his organization and helped small businesses with economic development and small business loans. Became a vice president, and then I got the call from my dad, “Judy, it’s time to retire.” I need somebody to come into the business, and there are five girls in our family, and not one had the business background, so it was me. So I came back and worked with my father and my uncle, soon we bought my uncle out, I became president and there started my entrepreneurship role, which was really great. So I ran the organization, the business, for 19 years, and then realized it was just too much and sold it, and then I thought, “Okay, what’s my next venture?” And again, it’s who you know, so Lorna Schultz was the past director of the Economic Club said, “Judy, why don’t you come help me out at the Econ Club for a little bit and help me do my annual report?” Again, went to an event. Again, who you know? Ran into JC Heisinger and he said, “You know, I think I’ve got a place for you in my organization.”

0:04:10.0 JW: So I started working with JC, did his work. After a year ago, I go, “I want more.” So he said, “Why don’t you move over to the charter schools,” which I did, and then I became a Manager of Education at National Heritage Academies, and did teacher training, opened schools, purchase curriculum, so there was my educational piece, even though I didn’t have the educational background. After eight years, they kind of did a redevelopment, I took a package and I thought, “Okay, what’s next in my life?” Got a call from somebody saying, “We’re looking at bringing in forum, a professional woman’s group from Southeast Michigan to West Michigan. We really think you would be great to help us do that.” There was 12 women from Grand Rapids that said, “We need to do this.” So I took the job in 2005 and became director, Regional Director of Inform, which is amazing professional women’s group that really focused on accelerating women’s careers and networking, which really worked great for my connections from being in the dry cleaning business and also the charter schools. And at one point I was thinking, “Do I really want to work for an old women’s organization?” And I ran into a leadership coach and she said, “You know, Judy, what’s the worst thing can happen? You’re going to have 600 great friends.”

0:05:28.2 JW: And I have. Inform was an amazing opportunity, we grew it to 600 members, it’s still growing strong. I was there for eight years, and at that point I was turning 60, I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. And I thought, “I think it’s time I really grew Inform where it needed to be,” so I left ding-a-ling-a-ling got a call from Caroline Gaston who said, “Oh, I heard you’re not in Inform anymore. We’d really like you to come to Michigan Women’s Foundation.” Formally, it was… Michigan Women Forward was formerly Michigan Women’s Foundation, and said, “We’d like you to do the same thing. You bring MWF more presence to the West Side,” and I thought about it and I thought, “I’ve got some more life into me,” and that’s when I started. And the goal was to open an office and bring all the programs and initiatives from the Southeast side to Lansing, Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo, which we have done, and it’s been a wonderful ride because it has touched every part of my career, and so that’s kind of where my life is. [chuckle]

0:06:29.3 LJJ: You know, Judy, I know that you have announced that you’re going to be retiring, and for those who are listening, especially younger people who are looking at such a drastic change in how we are working right now, the knowledge of where your heart and passion is. How important is that as people grow their career?

0:06:50.8 JW: You know, passion is everything, passion is what gets you up in the morning, passion is what leads you. And you need to have that. You can get up and go to work, but your passion, people see it in you, and it’s why I believe I’ve been successful in all of my careers because I’ve been passionate about growing the dry cleaners, I was passionate about growing the schools, I was passionate about Inform, and always helping accelerate women, all through every piece of my career I’ve been very proud to help mentor and celebrate women and watch them grow. So, passion is what has helped me be so successful, and people see it in you. They hear it in your voice, they see it in everything you do, and I just love watching women grow and connecting and mentoring and seeing the opportunities because back in the day, when I was going through it, I didn’t have anybody. When I ran the dry cleaners, I was always thought of as the wife of somebody or what do you mean you’re running a dry cleaners, women don’t do that. The insurance man patted me on my head, and boy, he was gone the next day, and that just drove me to really help continue the effort of empowering women.

0:08:07.3 JW: I will continue, even though I’m going to retire. It’s scary, it’s bittersweet. I know it’s time, I think everybody needs to know when it’s time to exit and I’ve had an amazing career, I love MWF, and I will stay connected and continue to support any way I can in the community to continue to move women forward.

0:08:29.0 LJJ: Well, let’s talk about an event that’s coming up, we’re very excited in the Kalamazoo market, tell us about the event and how people can get involved, whether you’re at the lead, people still can volunteer and get involved.

0:08:42.1 JW: Oh, I’m going to still help recruit. So, Michigan Women’s Forward is proud to have had women up and celebrates invents. We have these women of achievement and courage events across the state. We held our Grand Rapids and Detroit one in April, and we have our Kalamazoo one on September 29th at the Radisson. It is virtual and also limited tickets in-person, we have honored women and we’ve honored over 159 women across the state so far for these events. In this particular event, we’re honoring Pam Enslen, she’s a partner with Warner-Norcross+Judd and has been very active in the community of Kalamazoo and all over. And we’re also honoring Belinda Tate, who’s the Executive Director of the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts. And when you look at why do we honor women, we look at women who have sustained commitment to community service, professional excellence and/or philanthropy, they have a proven track record as a mentor or a role model, and really notable achievements in her profession, field or community influence that demonstrates her ability to empower and again, move women forward. So out of the 159, these two women will be a part of that group, so it’s on September 29th at the Radisson.

0:10:05.4 JW: And we’re going to not only highlight women, but also showcase the work we’ve done in the Kalamazoo community with our entrepreneurship and our young girls are developing the next generation, so we have a partnership with the Can-Do Kitchen in Kalamazoo. Can-Do Kitchen is the only food business incubator in Kalamazoo, they support a really diverse regional food system since its creation, and their core work is focused on what I love, building foundation and lowering barriers to food entrepreneurs. So we have a couple of loans that we have just given out in the Kalamazoo area, plus several more that we had last year when we had a resilience fund, and we realized there was, with COVID, a big disparity in entrepreneurs being able to move forward during this pandemic. So again, we’ll highlight all the work we’ve done in the Kalamazoo region with entrepreneurship, that’s a big part. Micro loans, technical assistance, anything we can do to support women entrepreneurs, and we also develop the next generation of leaders, so we have a wonderful partnership with the Kalamazoo Michigan Chapter of The Links Incorporated who runs our youth program.

0:11:14.1 LJJ: That is awesome Judy. Well, I’ll tell you what, congratulations on everything. We’re looking forward to the event on the 29th, the Can-Do Kitchen is our business partner here at Consumers Credit Union, so that’s exciting too, to hear about this. I’ll tell you what, Judy, one big congratulations too. I know that you’re a nominee for The Athena award, which is a wonderful tribute to your leadership in the marketplace, so congrats on that. And congrats on your retirement. I know that for you and I will continue on, and friendship is that way, and I love the fact that when you talked about Inform, you said, “What’s the worst that can happen? I can have 600 friends,” and that is the truest statement of any position that you’re in, you truly can have colleagues that become your best friends, and we are proof positive of that, so thanks for taking the time today.

0:12:06.8 JW: Oh, thanks for having me. And don’t forget to sign up, just go to miwf.org and click on the link for the Kalamazoo event, we hope you can join us and celebrate some amazing women.

0:12:17.3 LJJ: Thank you, Judy. Hey everyone, thank you for listening. We sure appreciate your time today, thank you, Jake Esselink for all your production skills. If you have a topic that you would like us to share, please send us our way we will track down these just unbelievable guests that we have every single week. I’m Lynne Jarman-Johnson, with Consumers Credit Union. Money, I’m home.


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