Female heads of state government departments speak at Women in Business event

This past April, Governor Asa Hutchinson signed into law the Transformation and Efficiencies Act of 2019, bringing about a historic transformation and reorganization of state government agencies, boards, and commissions – the first reorganization of state government in nearly 50 years.

A cornerstone of this effort was the reduction in cabinet-level agencies from 42 to 15, resulting in a more modern and efficient way to operate state government without cutting any services. Fifteen cabinet secretaries were appointed to lead each agency, and seven of these 15 positions are held by women:

Department of Correction: Wendy Kelley
Department of Energy and Environment: Becky Keogh
Department of Human Services: Cindy Gillespie
Department of Inspector General: Elizabeth Thomas Smith
Department of Parks, Heritage, and Tourism: Stacy Hurst
Department of Public Safety: Jami Cook
Department of Transformation and Shared Services: Amy Fecher

At the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce's eighth annual Women in Business awards luncheon, the seven female cabinet secretaries will share the stage for the first time. Prior to the event, we asked them a few questions to get a glimpse into their work for the state of Arkansas.

cabinet-secretaries-arkansas-asa-hutchinson-2019

In conversation with broadcast journalist Melissa Dunbar Gates (far right), the seven female cabinet secretaries for the state of Arkansas shared with the audience of more than 300 their career paths and other life experiences at the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce's 2019 Women in Business event: (row 1, from left): Secretary Becky Keogh, Secretary Elizabeth Thomas Smith, Secretary Jami Cook, (row 2, from left) Secretary Wendy Kelley, Secretary Stacy Hurst, Secretary Amy Fecher, and Secretary Cindy Gillespie.


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Wendy Kelley
Department of Correction

Read Secretary Kelley’s bio at governor.arkansas.gov/cabinet.

wendy-kelleyWhat was your first job?
I worked at Wendy’s in high school when I turned 16. After law school, my first job was clerking for Judge Ellen B. Brantley who was a probate/chancery judge in Pulaski County in 1987.

How have other positions you’ve held prepared you for the role you have now?
I’ve learned that hard work and being prepared are always key and to be professional regardless of the actions of others.

Tell us about the restructuring that went into effect earlier this year – what were some of the most important goals going into it, and what were some of the biggest challenges throughout the process?
The most important goal was putting the right team in place! It was also important to reassure staff that change can result in a better and more efficient work environment.

What’s one word that describes how you work?
Hands-on

What inspires you?
Inspiring others and knowing you have made a positive decision for staff and/or offenders.

How do you keep yourself organized? Pen and paper, or other productivity tools?
I make lists on paper and in my phone. I couldn’t make it without my Outlook calendar.

What apps/gadgets/tools can’t you live without?
My iPhone and iPad

Favorite book or recommended reading:
Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg

What profession, other than your own, would you like to attempt? Any that you know you would dislike?
Other than corrections, I admire those working as nurses, although I don’t think I could do it!

How do you relax/take a break?
I enjoy working on our tree farm.

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Becky Keogh
Department of Energy and Environment

Read Secretary Keogh’s bio at governor.arkansas.gov/cabinet.

becky-keoghWhat was your first job?
Upon completing a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering from the University of Arkansas, I accepted an engineering position with Exxon Corporation in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I served as a liaison between the production facilities and research organizations to identify, evaluate, and implement new technology and generate cost savings.

How have other positions you’ve held prepared you for the role you have now?
In the positions I have held, I have been exposed to exceptional managers and skilled technical professionals. As one of the first women to graduate in engineering, and often the first woman to serve in a technical leadership role in many of the organizations, I learned to work beyond preconceived expectations to accomplish the goals of the organization as well as my professional development.

Serving at the state environmental agency as an engineer, a deputy director, and a director; serving at the Arkansas Geological Commission as a commissioner; and serving at a large energy corporation that produced natural gas in the Fayetteville Shale as a manager of regulatory affairs directly prepared me to be a strong and educated leader of the Arkansas Department of Energy and Environment.

Tell us about the restructuring that went into effect earlier this year – what were some of the most important goals going into it, and what were some of the biggest challenges throughout the process?
I am fortunate to serve as the first secretary of the first Arkansas Department of Energy and Environment. Governor Hutchinson's goal in establishing this department was to create effective and efficient, science-based, regulatory programs for Arkansas communities and businesses. The entities under the Arkansas Department of Energy and Environment include highly educated professionals with diverse backgrounds.

One of the most important goals was to break down organizational silos and to improve streamlining to reduce regulatory burden and cost. The biggest challenge is getting others to embrace change and go beyond their comfort zones.

Whether personally or professionally, who has been your greatest role model or mentor?
My parents were great role models in their work, service, and faith. They also taught and inspired all five daughters to believe their opportunities were limitless and to work to achieve success in professional roles.

What’s one word that describes how you work?
Innovative

What inspires you?
People with a pioneering spirit are inspirational to me. They see things differently and aren't afraid to challenge the status quo. In my current role, I am inspired daily at the excitement and leadership of our employees who work to make transformation an opportunity to be more impactful.

How do you keep track of what you have to do?
I do have a number of reminders that keep me aware, and I surround myself with great staff who support me! We are also implementing management systems and tools at the Department.

At DEQ, we have adopted a system of visual management and metrics which identify and track each team’s progress to accomplish tasks and achieve goals. I look forward to implementing this type of system at the Department.

How do you keep yourself organized? Pen and paper, or other productivity tools?
My Apple Watch supercharges my day. I use it to maximize productivity and to keep me organized.

What apps/gadgets/tools can’t you live without?
I constantly am connected to my cell phone and iPad for messaging and email. I also keep informed through social media. On a personal note, I love The Waze app to make daily traveling more efficient and faster.

Favorite book or recommended reading:
Margot Lee Shetterly's Hidden Figures is incredibly inspiring.

What profession, other than your own, would you like to attempt? Any that you know you would dislike?
Photography! I have a great fondness of travel to new locations and always strive to capture something unique or local in my photos.

I have to say that I might dislike attempting to be a judge since I have a twin sister who serves in a judicial role and people already have difficulty in telling us apart.

How do you relax/take a break?
A trip to the beach is always relaxing. At home daily, I enjoy evening walks with my husband, Pat, and our dog, Landy.

We asked this year’s honorees what song they’d consider their “power anthem.” Some of the favorites included “Respect” by Aretha Franklin, “She Works Hard for the Money” by Donna Summer, and “Brave” by Sara Bareilles. What would be your anthem of choice?
My power anthem would have to be Lady Gaga's “Edge of Glory.” I think Arkansas is an amazing place!

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Cindy Gillespie
Department of Human Services

Read Secretary Gillespie’s bio at governor.arkansas.gov/cabinet.

cindy-gillespieWhat was your first job?
My very first job was working retail at JCPenney in the summer before I went to college, and then I always took a part-time job there during Christmas and summer breaks until I graduated.

How have other positions you’ve held prepared you for the role you have now?
I’ve had a very diverse career, and I often realize that I call on skills and experiences from almost every aspect of my professional life to do what I do now. When I took this role, I thought my experiences in government and in health policy would be the most valuable, but I realized recently that I call on skills developed in the 13 years I served in senior management for the Atlanta and Salt Lake Olympics more than any others.

An Olympic Games is a massive operational and logistical exercise, with a budget in the billions of dollars, conducted in a high-profile media and political setting, with the overall goal of helping people strive to be their best. Does that sound familiar? There I learned so much, particularly in the three years after the bribery scandal as we worked to fix operations, build venues, and create a new culture in the organization. I call every day on lessons I learned there on building a mission-oriented, can-do culture; developing performance-based operations for the team; and the importance of transparency in establishing public trust.

Tell us about the restructuring that went into effect earlier this year – what were some of the most important goals going into it, and what were some of the biggest challenges throughout the process?
DHS was less impacted by the restructuring this year because we began our transformation in 2016, when we began the shift to shared services for key common functions, and the restructuring of divisions to consolidate similar operations and align programs so they are beneficiary-focused rather than program or provider oriented. Our goals were to improve performance, improve the quality of the services, and shift to a “ONE-DHS” team culture that focused on aligning all we do across the agency to improve the lives of the people of Arkansas, instead of operating in silos.

We’ve learned a lot of lessons on this journey – and we are certainly not at the end of the journey! Our biggest lesson is probably that improving performance and operations is a never-ending process, not a one-time effort, and that striving to do more is an important element of a strong, mission-oriented culture.

Whether personally or professionally, who has been your greatest role model or mentor?
My mother. She taught me from a child that you can do anything if you work hard and have the courage to try.

What’s one word that describes how you work?
Focused

What inspires you?
The smiles and happy tears I get to see when we have helped to make someone’s life better – whether it’s a client who is sharing how someone helped them or one of our employees who is telling me about a life they touched that day.

How do you keep track of what you have to do?
In my head largely, with reminders written on the wall or in the calendar. I’m used to a high-paced environment with multiple issues/projects going simultaneously. My assistant keeps my day organized, and I go from meeting to meeting to meeting to meeting…all day.

What apps/gadgets/tools can’t you live without?
My iPhone goes everywhere I go, but I largely use the basics – email, phone, notes, etc. The one exception is that we’ve begun using Power BI for our daily operational dashboards and reports, and that app allows me to see what’s happening with key operations daily from my phone or iPad, as well as my computer. We’re expanding this across the agency, and it’s exciting to have the information at my fingertips.

Favorite book or recommended reading:
I recently read Measure What Matters by John Doer – very inspiring.

What profession, other than your own, would you like to attempt? Any that you know you would dislike?
I would love to try to teach at a college one day. My original career “plan” was to get a Ph. D. in communications and become a university professor. Unfortunately, or fortunately, I got side-tracked over 30 years ago when I took a job on a campaign, wound up moving to Washington, D. C. , as the newly-elected Congressman’s press secretary, and never got back to my original plan. So hopefully one day I’ll get a chance to try teaching.

How do you relax/take a break?
Gardening and cooking – both are creative and allow me to experiment. I’m from Georgia, and I love to go to Jekyll Island, off the coast of Georgia, which is largely still natural marshes and ocean. It rejuvenates me to spend time there taking photos and biking.

We asked this year’s honorees what song they’d consider their “power anthem.” Some of the favorites included “Respect” by Aretha Franklin, “She Works Hard for the Money” by Donna Summer, and “Brave” by Sara Bareilles. What would be your anthem of choice?
“The Climb” by Miley Cyrus

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Elizabeth Thomas Smith
Department of Inspector General

Read Secretary Smith’s bio at governor.arkansas.gov/cabinet.

elizabeth-thomas-smithWhat was your first job?
My first job out of law school was serving as deputy prosecuting attorney for the Sixth Judicial District (Pulaski and Perry Counties). Over the nearly eight years there, I handled everything from traffic cases to housing abatements, drug cases, gang cases, and violent crimes.

How have other positions you’ve held prepared you for the role you have now?
Interestingly, the positions I have had over my career have paved the way to this position. Is this where I thought I would be 20 years ago? No. This position didn’t even exist.

I was hired by Governor Hutchinson as his first chief counsel. My work as an attorney in various capacities in the state of Arkansas over my career served as the perfect training ground for the position as chief counsel. He hired me from the University of Arkansas System where I served as associate general counsel on the UAMS campus. In addition, I covered all the utility regulatory work for the UA System. The time in the Governor’s office as chief counsel coupled with my prior medical, compliance, and regulatory experience prepared me well for the position as Medicaid inspector general and also as the secretary of the Department of Inspector General.

Tell us about the restructuring that went into effect earlier this year. What were some of the most important goals going into it, and what were some of the biggest challenges throughout the process?
The goals were to bring all agencies under one roof, reduce expenses, create a common identity for the agencies within the Department, and increase visibility of the Department to increase “case load.”

Some of the challenges included physically moving all personnel of the department to accommodate the additional staff members and determining where the people, furniture, equipment, and IT will be placed – all while continuing to work! Having the Department located in three separate locations is a challenge to creating the common identity. Combining the different agencies that had not worked together in the past is a challenge when we each didn’t know much about the other agencies. We are learning about their missions, work, and personalities in order to create common goals and visions.

Whether personally or professionally, who has been your greatest role model or mentor?
Governor Asa Hutchinson

What’s one word that describes how you work?
Dedicated

What inspires you?
Results

How do you keep yourself organized? Pen and paper, or other productivity tools?
Outlook calendar! I can’t live without having everything in one place – even children’s school projects and activities have to be listed so I can keep track of what needs to be going on at home in the evenings as well as for the Department. I also take notes on legal pad, and I still keep paper files. I haven’t taken the time to search for the best productivity tool.

What apps/gadgets/tools can’t you live without?
My iPhone – my life is in there.

Favorite book or recommended reading:
David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell

What profession, other than your own, would you like to attempt? Any that you know you would dislike?
An ER doctor. Or a florist. I really am willing to do just about anything. I’m allergic to dogs, so dog groomer would have to be the job I would not be willing to do.

How do you relax/take a break?
I usually have my “me time” early in the morning and go for a walk. On Friday nights, I’ll put my feet up and watch a movie at home with my family.

We asked this year’s honorees what song they’d consider their “power anthem.” Some of the favorites included “Respect” by Aretha Franklin, “She Works Hard for the Money” by Donna Summer, and “Brave” by Sara Bareilles. What would be your anthem of choice?
“Ain't No Stoppin Us Now” by McFadden & Whitehead

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Stacy Hurst
Department of Parks, Heritage, and Tourism

Read Secretary Hurst’s bio at governor.arkansas.gov/cabinet.

stacy-hurstWhat was your first job?
I was a lifeguard and worked in the snack shop at a local pool in Pine Bluff. I also did some babysitting for family friends.

How have other positions you’ve held prepared you for the role you have now?
I worked in development and nonprofit management at Arkansas Children’s Hospital Foundation for 12 years. There I learned leadership and management skills, developed an ability to ask, and learned how to work with stakeholders across the state. I served as an elected representative for 12 years on the Little Rock board of directors and I learned how to be a good public servant, including the importance of being accessible and responsive.

Throughout my adult life I’ve served on many nonprofit boards, and I’ve gained a deep appreciation for the value of our state’s natural and cultural resources. Since marrying Howard Hurst in 1993, I’ve learned a lot about small business through my association with one of Arkansas’s oldest businesses, Tipton & Hurst. I’ve worked at Tipton & Hurst in various capacities and have learned many things that assist me in my new role, including how to manage costs, the importance of marketing and branding, and the huge value of good employees.

Tell us about the restructuring that went into effect earlier this year. What were some of the most important goals going into it, and what were some of the biggest challenges throughout the process?
For our new Department, the Governor’s vision and resulting legislation combined the departments of Arkansas Heritage, Arkansas State Parks, Arkansas Tourism, Keep Arkansas Beautiful and the Capitol Zoning District Commission. I continue to learn from staff and stakeholders, and our transformation continues to move forward. One of the most difficult things for me is the challenge of overseeing a large number of staff at various locations. Our goal continues to be providing a high level of service to our customers while working toward a less costly government.

Whether personally or professionally, who has been your greatest role model or mentor?
Personally, probably my mother. She has always been a hard worker and enjoys being productive. She is not a good idle person, even at the age of 85. I learned the value of determination, perseverance and hard work through her example. Professionally, Governor Asa Hutchinson has been a role model for me because of his thoughtful and prudent leadership. He wants to hear all sides before making a decision, and the immense energy that he devotes to his role is amazing.

What’s one word that describes how you work?
Intentionally

What inspires you?
Several things – Nature, being reminded of the good in people, hearing an excellent speaker, iconic historic structures.

How do you keep yourself organized? Pen and paper, or other productivity tools?
I make handwritten lists and use my iPhone calendar as a tool. I also have a very effective executive assistant who I lean on regularly, Ms. Elaine Lienhart.

What apps/gadgets/tools can’t you live without?
Life360 helps me keep an eye on my two kids. Of course, my iPhone calendar and Outlook email. Texting is so easy and efficient, as well as a great way to communicate with my kids and family. The maps app on my iPhone is essential for all the travel I do across Arkansas. I also use the Delta and American apps to make airline travel easier.

Favorite book or recommended reading:
The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. It’s a thought-provoking read.

What profession, other than your own, would you like to attempt? Any that you know you would dislike?
I like business and would enjoy helping grow Tipton & Hurst. Although I originally thought about going to medical school, I now think I would not be a good doctor.

How do you relax/take a break?
I enjoy walking on trails and soaking in nature, sightseeing in new locations. Traveling to see my kids in Washington, D.C., and Chicago is always fun, or taking a family trip somewhere enjoyable.

We asked this year’s honorees what song they’d consider their “power anthem.” Some of the favorites included “Respect” by Aretha Franklin, “She Works Hard for the Money” by Donna Summer, and “Brave” by Sara Bareilles. What would be your anthem of choice?
For inspiration and centering, “Great is Thy Faithfulness” by Thomas O. Chisholm and William Runyan. Also, “I Want You Back” by the Jackson Five always puts me in a good mood!

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Jami Cook
Department of Public Safety

Read Secretary Cook’s bio at governor.arkansas.gov/cabinet.

jami-cookWhat was your first job?
In high school, I worked at a video store. My first job in law enforcement was at the Newport Police Department.

How have other positions you’ve held prepared you for the role you have now?
I have learned something beneficial in all of the positions I have previously held. I believe you can learn wherever you are.

Tell us about the restructuring that went into effect earlier this year. What were some of the most important goals going into it, and what were some of the biggest challenges throughout the process?
The greatest goal is to operate in a more effective and efficient manner by creating strong partnerships between divisions, other departments, and most importantly the citizens of the state. The biggest challenge is ensuring we are continuously transparent with personnel in messaging the changes, processes, and purposes of transformation. Communication is key, even in the smallest changes.

Whether personally or professionally, who has been your greatest role model or mentor?
My daddy, retired Sheriff Jim Bishop

What’s one word that describes how you work?
Energetically

What inspires you?
God. My faith is my driving force.

How do you keep track of what you have to do?
I have a great team, and we all help each other.

How do you keep yourself organized? Pen and paper, or other productivity tools?
A combination of pen/paper, calendars, emails, and a great executive assistant

What apps/gadgets/tools can’t you live without?
My phone

Favorite book or recommended reading:
The Purpose Driven Life by Dr. Rick Warren

What profession, other than your own, would you like to attempt? Any that you know you would dislike?
I’ve always liked coordinating events, so something like a travel agent would be fun! I would most dislike anything relating to science.

How do you relax/take a break?
Travel and reading

We asked this year’s honorees what song they’d consider their “power anthem.” Some of the favorites included “Respect” by Aretha Franklin, “She Works Hard for the Money” by Donna Summer, and “Brave” by Sara Bareilles. What would be your anthem of choice?
“Let It Go” from Frozen

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Amy Fecher
Department of Transformation and Shared Services

Read Secretary Fecher’s bio at governor.arkansas.gov/cabinet.

amy-fecherWhat was your first job?
My first job was at the Taco Villa in Morrilton when I was 16.

How have other positions you’ve held prepared you for the role you have now?
With every position throughout my career, I have learned more about people, personalities, and work styles. To be an effective manager, you must know your team and play to each person’s strengths. We do not all approach our work in the same way. Having a diverse team only makes us stronger.

Tell us about the restructuring that went into effect earlier this year. What were some of the most important goals going into it, and what were some of the biggest challenges throughout the process?
There were three goals set forth by the Governor for transformation:

  1. Efficiencies
  2. Improved management of people
  3. Improved delivery of services to the citizens

There were many challenges. Here were some of the biggest:

  1. Grouping entities around a common mission – finding the right balance
  2. Communicating the plan effectively
  3. Special interest groups and their buy in
  4. Legislative support to pass the bill

Whether personally or professionally, who has been your greatest role model or mentor?
Governor Asa Hutchinson. I have worked for Governor Hutchinson on and off since 2005. He has taught me many things:

  1. Always listen to your detractors and bring in all sides of an issue before making a decision.
  2. Do the right thing, even when it is unpopular.
  3. Grace – extend it often.

What’s one word that describes how you work?
Relentless

What inspires you?
Finding a way to solve a problem that people believe cannot be done and getting results.

How do you keep track of what you have to do?
Notes and spreadsheets. I keep a running list of projects and tasks that are my responsibility or my team’s. It is a great accountability tool. And I always set deadlines. A project without deadlines will linger.

How do you keep yourself organized? Pen and paper, or other productivity tools?
The busier you become, the more important this is. I always have a “To Do” list. I rarely accomplish everything on the day’s list and add new things daily. The list is sometimes paper and sometimes electronic. And I live by my calendar on my iPhone.

What apps/gadgets/tools can’t you live without?

  • iPhone – Calendar, email, text, and calls when necessary
  • Apple Watch – Counts my steps and helps me find my phone when I misplace it.

One of my favorite new apps is called “Day Count. ” It will count down to any date/event you select. I currently have the number of days left in the Hutchinson Administration programmed into this app and look at it often. It motivates me to work harder each day.

Favorite book or recommended reading:
One of my latest favorites is The Power of Moments by Chip Heath and Dan Heath.

What profession, other than your own, would you like to attempt? Any that you know you would dislike?
I think I would have enjoyed being in the FBI or CIA. I would hate any job that required repetitive tasks. I enjoy variety and new challenges.

How do you relax/take a break?
I try to take time to rejuvenate my mind, body, and soul regularly. I like to read, reflect, and just rest. My faith helps me find peace and hope.

We asked this year’s honorees what song they’d consider their “power anthem.” Some of the favorites included “Respect” by Aretha Franklin, “She Works Hard for the Money” by Donna Summer, and “Brave” by Sara Bareilles. What would be your anthem of choice?
“Overcomer” by Mandisa

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About Women in Business

The Conway Area Chamber of Commerce's annual Women in Business awards luncheon honors individuals in the Conway area who have excelled in leadership and community service and who have inspired others on both a personal and professional level. For more information about the event, visit conwaychamber.org/women-in-business

Conway Area Chamber of Commerce 2019 Women in Business Honorees - Conway, Arkansas

The Conway Area Chamber of Commerce recognized the achievements of some of Conway’s finest at the eighth annual Women in Business awards event in December 2019. Congratulations to this year’s honorees (seated, from left): Jamisa Hogan, Kids World Child Care Center; Velda Lueders, Coldwell Banker RPM Group; and Melissa Allen, CAPCA. Standing from left are Rebekah Fincher, Conway Regional Health System; Rita Birch, Arvest Bank; Donna Seal, LCSW; and Cinda Montgomery, Yours Truly Consignment Inc.