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A Seat at the Table

March 29, 2021 - -
Rita Vest, Kelly Abney, and Robin Bray

As the workforce has become more diverse and more women enter the workforce, organizations must create spaces that enable the participation of all. While the corporate landscape changes and adapts, family-owned and operated businesses are a step-ahead on this front. Research indicates that family businesses with women leaders are more welcoming of contributions from women, encourage higher participation from women, and even show enhanced performance of the company overall. For the Family Business Center (FBC), Rita Vest, Kelly Abney, and Robin Bray are leaders in their respective companies and testaments to the strength of women leadership in a family business. Their collected and shared insights here are crucial, not only to the development of family businesses but also to a larger community conversation.

Rita Vest, president and CEO of Vest Advertising, understands that part of that strength can be attributed to supporting female employees to be open about any issues they face. “I have an open-door policy. We do have daily and weekly meetings so that…we talk about our updates, but also problems they may need to overcome and guidance to handle certain situations, both as women and part of the business,” Vest says. “I think it is so important for we, as women,…believe in ourselves because we have this fear that keeps us back.”

This sentiment is common among women in the workplace, as Kelly Abney knows. The College of Business alum graduated in 1983 and, as she entered the workforce, felt that women were often underrepresented and ignored in the professional landscape. “When I was coming up, women weren’t really in the boardroom, and if they were, they weren’t necessarily welcome. So, even when I got to the table, I felt like I had to really fight for my position in a way that was palatable. I believe that from that standpoint, even when I got to the table, the expectation was to be seen and not heard.”
As President of Mira, a local brand resource management company started by her parents, Abney knows the value that her experience and encouragement have for the next generation of female leaders. She has passed the family business lessons she’s learned over to her daughter and nieces as they pursue leadership roles. “I have found that as a female leader, the most important component is in how you present yourself. I have taught [them] to have confidence when they walk into the room and to be present.”

The value in diversity doesn’t only come from meeting metrics on paper for diversity initiatives but from encouraging everyone to share their thoughts. “…I have instilled the confidence to speak up when they have something to say. I believe that showing the confidence and guts to share their opinions openly and freely gives them a feeling that they belong at the table.”
The phrase “business isn’t personal” was coined to reflect a common belief that mixing human emotions into a professional setting weakens the practice. However, it’s the empathy and human experience that family business offers as its strength in supporting employees and connecting with customers.

“The innate nature of business is to compete. As women in business, we tend to set aside our inherent nature of caring in order to compete in a world that is sometimes uncaring. However, I bring this caring nature to the table,” says Robin Bray, president and CEO of Bray Property Management. “Logically, I want my business to profit, but at the same time, I think that now more than ever, we need to bring those emotions and a sense of caring to the table if we want to make the world a better place.”
As active members of the FBC, Vest, Abney, and Bray have all participated in CEO roundtable discussions and carried the lessons learned forward in their own leadership practice. They understand that by participating in these spaces, they’re enabling others to engage and succeed as well.
“I think I would be happy if my legacy is that I made an impact,” Abney says. “I have been very lucky to have had many wonderful people in my life and have tried to pay that forward.”