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Women in Leadership: Jessa Nelson

By Katie Ring on Tuesday, August 7, 2018


Student and Women in Leadership group leader Katie Ring had the opportunity to talk to Jessa Nelson, assistant professor in Northwestern’s school of business, about her experience in business and leadership. 

Nelson holds a Master’s Degree in Organizational Leadership and a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology and Biblical Studies from the University of Northwestern. She has been the Chief Executive Officer of the Arthur-Rose, LLC, a health care facility she developed in New Richmond, WI since 2006. She is an U.S. Army veteran, serving 11 years as a Combat Engineer Officer in the Wisconsin National Guard and has taught on an adjunct basis within the School of Business at University of Northwestern since 2015. 

First of all, what does the issue of women in leadership look like to you personally?

Women have proven themselves to be intensely competent leaders over the years. I think women are becoming better advocates for themselves. There’s that background question of “should Christian women be in leadership?” That’s almost a ridiculous question, because there are so many great examples of women in the Bible who were leaders and entrepreneurs.

What does a Christian female leader look like to you?

I think one of the most important attributes of a Christian female leader is the ability to go to God first, and this can be hard because, in my experience, women tend to vent, and not always to God. I’ve certainly had that challenge myself. I think the questions about the effectiveness of female leaders come from that pregnant pause we sometimes have when making decisions, and that can sometimes be a problem. A great leader can make decisions quickly.

How can the church support women who want to lead?

One of the biggest things is to evaluate a person just on their skill level. I really hope that we can be open-minded enough, as a Christian community, to hire the right person for the entire community, whether those skills come from a male or female. We tend to look at women leaders in the church as just being Sunday school teachers, but women are fantastic at hospital ministry or counseling ministry. Women can be great office administrators and office leaders and managers, and in many cases, far better than men can. I think Christian organizations need to open their eyes wider about where they need help and who might be the best fit for them. 

As a businessperson, how do you think companies can support their female employees?

Support from an employer means coming alongside the employees and trying to find the next step. My job is to make sure my staff are the best employees possible, whether that’s through training, opportunities for education, or even just saying we can do this task better. There’s been a massive shift in the last couple decades where employees want more from their employers. I think we can create problems when we isolate women, because sometimes putting women in a separate category is half the problem. We need to look at employees as employees. How are we moving them up? How are we moving them forward? Not just building up their confidence, but their skills.

Was there a moment in your career that surprised you in terms of how men and women were treated differently?

As an assertive woman, I’ve been surprised by how I’m perceived differently than my husband. He’s just seen as showing good management and getting things done if he’s really assertive or direct with a contractor, for instance. If I would do the same thing, I’m perceived differently, and not in a positive way. We just had a case where I was shutting down a contract on a printer. No big deal, right? But I was getting nowhere with it. The salesperson who manages our account was being extremely difficult. I asked my husband to do me a favor and talk to the salesman for me. He called them and said “Just so you know, if you’re hearing from me, it’s because my wife thinks you’re treating her differently than you would treat a man. That doesn’t look good for your company.” Of course, I got a call back within an hour. That’s happened a couple of times. Even as a CEO of a company, even as a professor, there are still times when I feel like the response I get is different because of my gender, and I don’t know if that’s my perception or if that’s accurate.

What advice would you give to women who are in similar situations, or perceive they’re being treated differently because they’re female?

First of all, make sure your competency speaks for yourself and you’re doing the very best job you can, because that earns you a platform to speak on what might need to change. Two, compare notes to make sure your perception is not off. If you have interactions with someone who is undermining you, and you think it’s because you’re a female, you have to be objective about that. That might mean running a couple situations by somebody else to see if they feel the same way. Third, be direct. It’s okay to ask the question. You could say “Look, I’m a competent employee, but I’ve been passed over for a promotion three times. I can’t help but ask if it’s because you’re not taking me as seriously as you might be taking some male candidates.” Fourth, it’s okay to walk away. There are some businesses that are always going to operate with this discriminatory or chauvinistic attitude. Sometimes you can’t change it, and you know what? There are greater opportunities somewhere else. A door is going to open to a culture you love.

What woman most inspires you and why?

I have been surrounded by strong, independent women my entire life. My mom started at a bank as a teller, and she became the VP of a Fortune 500 bank just by working her way up. My grandmother was the head of the teachers union and president of the American Legion Auxiliary in the whole state of Wisconsin. On my husband’s side, my mother-in-law co-owns ACR Homes as an entrepreneur. Those truly are the people I look up to, and I’m blessed that most of them are alive. Growing up, some of the biggest influences in my life were seniors at my church, who were constantly praying over me. They chose to pour themselves into me, and that was a big deal. I greatly admire them because they propel people forward and they get things done. I don’t think I’d pick one particular hero; there are things I admire about all kinds of women in leadership.

What is the most valuable advice you’ve been given?

The 24-hour rule. If I have to make a big decision, if something’s just not sitting right, if some situation arises that I didn’t anticipate, give it 24 hours. If somebody comes in and files a complaint about something ridiculous, I give myself 24 hours to simmer. Most big decisions can wait, like if we’re going to pursue a lawsuit or make a big capital expenditure or let somebody go.

Do you have any more advice for women who want to pursue leadership roles?

When people ask me how they can change an environment where females are being limited, the first thing I do is make sure they’re good at their job and if they’re doing their best. I think we get that backwards so often. We can look back at Paul’s journey. He made a point of saying multiple times in his letters “I have worked alongside you, I have supported myself.” That’s what I’d look at. Support yourself first. That’ll open up plenty of ministry opportunities where people see that you’re going to be that diligent employee, and you’re going to take it seriously. It’s hard to focus like that, but it’s what you need to do. Now, is every Christian going to be the best at everything? No. You’re limited by some things, so be honest about that. There’s a humility that comes along with that leadership pursuit, and it’s really necessary.