Taking the Lead

Fall 2016, News

Trailblazers Reflect on the Dynamic Path of Women in Leadership Roles


In the late 1990s, a group of remarkable Nebraska women were already game changers. One was the first black female police officer hired in the state of Nebraska. Another was one of the first female judges in Nebraska. Another was a champion in supporting local businesses. Yet another was the second woman in the United States to be named executive director of a major symphony orchestra, and another was a head nurse who went on to become the first woman mayor elected in the history of Omaha.

This outstanding group of Nebraska women, with many others, has collectively altered the employment landscape for women, each in her own unique way. They followed their passion, mixed with good old-fashioned hard work, all while remaining connected in their various networks. Over the past two decades, Today’s Omaha Woman (TOW) has featured hundreds of dynamic women leaders, all of whom who have, in turn, inspired others.


For Brenda Smith, who in 1980 became Nebraska’s first black female police officer, it all comes down to education. “Know what your passion is and educate yourself about that particular field,” Smith says. “I feel like I learn something new every single day. Whether it’s from my students, watching the news, reading a book or talking to my grandkids. When you stop learning, that’s when I think you actually die, in a sense,” she says.

After serving 20 years with the Omaha Police Department (OPD), Smith retired as a Deputy Police Chief in 2005 to teach a new generation of students interested in criminal justice at Metropolitan Community College.

The number of women officers in OPD over the past 20 years has remained about the same. In a 1997 TOW cover story on Smith, it was reported that just 19 percent of the police force were women, with a total of 122 female officers. The 2015 OPD Annual Report listed a total of 156 female officers on staff, or 18.5 percent.

Smith, a 1974 graduate of Omaha North High School, was raising a young daughter while going to college and would spend her evenings working in the factory at Lozier Corporation to pay for her education. Her parents didn’t graduate high school, but they still valued education. “ They said, ‘You need your education. We’ll help you in any way we can.’”

She was fortunate that her parents helped with babysitting while her military husband was stationed in Germany. “I could not have made it without my mom and my dad,” she says. “ They were just always there.” She adds that her time working in the factory only further made her realize the importance of getting her education.

“That hot, hard work was like, “Yeah, we’re going to stay in school and we’re going to keep going.”

Life as an Omaha police officer was understandably challenging. “It was tough. You know that commercial ‘Never let them see you sweat?’ Well, my thing was, ‘Don’t let them see you cry over these bruises.’” She remembers her father took her to Seymour Smith Park to teach her how to shoot a gun.

In comparing the state of women in leadership roles in Omaha from 20 years ago to today, Smith says she thinks we’re still cracking the glass ceiling. “We’re still growing,” she says. “We’re not where I hoped we would be in 20 years, but we’re better than where we were. You may find one at Yahoo—so she’s running Yahoo, but how many other people are coming up behind?”

Smith says she has a unique prism through which to view today’s important issues. “I walk in many worlds. I walk in the world as a black mother. I walk in the world as a black female. I walk in the world as a cop. I walk in the world as an educator.”

She says she believes her communication skills and simply being a woman  offering a different perspective helped her to become a better police officer. “We as female police officers, we’ll go in and say ‘Can you tell me what’s going on?’ because we want to hear.”

She says that after she and another woman were promoted to the rank of deputy chief, the department had to adjust. “It not only required us to adjust, but it made the men adjust.”

Smith remembers feeling that her opinions were not always respected by other male colleagues. “It was just so obvious to me that we have to speak up. We have to be more room. Sometimes you just have to be able to stand your ground,” she says. “I remember being angry and upset sometimes for feeling like maybe I’m not being heard, so I would say, ‘Excuse me,’ and I would speak up for myself.”

Further emphasizing the need to be strongly educated, Smith says she also realized she had to know what she was talking about. “You have to show that you can hold your own in those meetings.”


To put it plainly, Joan Squires, President of Omaha Performing Arts (OPA), basically created something from nothing. She moved to Omaha in 2002 and, beginning with nothing more than an administrative assistant and a desk, she built Omaha Performing Arts into the successful nonprofit it is today. She also spearheaded the creation of the Holland Performing Arts Center. In a 2005 Today’s Omaha Woman article, Squires predicted that the Holland Center was going to have a “major impact” on the community.

At last check, OPA’s annual budget is at $18 million and has a $40 million economic impact. “In 10 years, we’ve brought 3 million people through and we’re the largest arts institution in the state,” Squires says.

“ The opportunity to be a part of the Holland Performing Arts Center, which is renowned as one of the best facilities in the country, along with the Orpheum eater, which is spectacular, was really a starting point,” she says.

Joan Squires, President--Omaha Performing Arts

Joan Squires, President–Omaha Performing Arts

“We have really touched the lives and made a difference. I know our organization has really transformed Omaha. It has improved the quality of life. It has given opportunities that didn’t exist and brought in amazing artists and ensembles that had never appeared in our community.”

Squires says that leadership is not just about business acumen and the strategy you bring to your position, but also includes a focus on relationships. Squires says for those striving to make a difference in their own leadership roles, it’s important to enlist the assistance of many people in the community.

She says she could not have done it without that community support. “We have been fortunate to have an extremely dedicated and committed board of directors whom I rely upon regularly. Their assistance and guidance through this process has really been key.”

Squires recommends to up and coming leaders that they build those relationships with colleagues and peers, both locally and nationally. “I found it extremely helpful to participate on a national level on a number of organizations and committees.”

She also believes strongly in the importance of mentors. “I have a strong commitment to mentoring young women, and to assisting them in that role. I’ve been helped along the way.”

Squires says women have been offered the opportunity to do more over the decades. “I grew up in a family where I was told I could do anything I wanted and I believed them.” Squires believes anyone can be successful as long as they have three things: belief they can do it, hard work and assistance.

As to the possibility of the United States electing its first woman president? Squires asks, “What took so long?”

“I think good leadership is good leadership whatever role it takes, whether corporate or nonprofit or political.”


In a 2012 TOW feature story, Mayor Jean Stothert was at the time serving as Omaha City Council representative for District 5. She said then, “Public service as an elected official is very gratifying, and I pursue it as my way to help make a difference.”

Stothert, the first woman mayor ever elected in Omaha in 2013, finds her role as mayor equally gratifying. “If you can help someone get their street plowed, or their trash picked up or their street repaved… these things are the things that city government does, and if they call me with a problem and I can fix that problem and make their life better here, that is really gratifying.”

She says she loves her job, but that it’s a very hard job. “I think that in itself, good leaders are able to make decisions, and most of the decisions I make are very difficult decisions,” she says.

Stothert says the key to her decision-making process is first studying the problem at hand, soliciting a lot of opinions, making her decision, explaining why she made the decision and then sticking with it.

She says that the only way the “glass ceiling” will ever be broken is if women focus on supporting each other. “I do think that there is such a critical need that women support each other.”

As far as leadership roles, Stothert says women are behind in both salaries and positions. “I think that is data we all know. It’s nationwide and whether it be an elected position, a business, nonprofit, medicine, education, I still think that women are behind.”

She says her biggest critics are other women. “I find that they can be much more critical than men.” She says women need to praise each other’s successes. “I still think we have a ways to go in that.”

Since she has been mayor, Stothert has regularly invited different groups of women in to hear their feedback about different issues. “We’ve had women in business. We’ve had Hispanic women. We’ve even invited the wives of all of the male city directors, just to get their input and work together to say, ‘What can we all do together to make it better?’”

Nationally, Stothert is one of the 18 percent of mayors who are women, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. But when she was elected as the first woman mayor of Omaha, she preferred not to dwell on that fact.

“Let’s just concentrate not on the first woman mayor but concentrate on what I promise to do in my abilities to get that job done. I don’t like to come out and say ‘I am woman, hear me roar,’ but I think by my actions I hope people see that I have the leadership capabilities and I indeed can do this job just as well as the 50 men before me.”

Stothert says leadership is not de ned by age, gender or race. “Leadership is a skill that can be learned. I wanted people to vote for me because they felt like I had the leadership capabilities to run the city.”

The areas most important to Stothert are public safety, city budget, economic development and jobs. She is most proud of her work in public safety. “We have not only increased our number of sworn police and sworn fire since I have been mayor, we provided them with a lot of new resources and in return, you would expect to see improvement in crime and public safety—and we have.”

She doesn’t take full credit for that, citing a great team that includes her police chief and fire chief. “We all work together and the crime statistics have reflected that. Last year, overall crime was down 14 percent.”

She mentions the disappointing number of homicides in 2015: at total of 50. But in 2016, the number stands at 20 as of press time. “That is half of what we were this time last year, so knock on wood. We hope that we can show that the efforts that we have made are showing dramatic improvements.”

When faced with criticism, she says that time cures all. She still works hard to convince people who didn’t vote for her that she was the right choice. Regardless of whether they agree with her, she hopes that they can respect decisions she makes and respect her leadership abilities. “Not just for me, but for all of the women who are going to come into this role after me, because I’m sure a lot more women are going to be Mayor of Omaha.”

She shares advice she gives her daughter, Elizabeth Leddy, 30, who works in Washington D.C.: “I think there’s not one person, man or woman, who is in a leadership position that hasn’t had failures. That’s one thing I tell her all the time—you’ve got to be resilient. You’ve got to bounce back. You’ve got to learn. And you’ve got to move forward.”

Stothert advises Elizabeth to always give it her all and do the best she can. “The more you put into it, the more you get out of it and the more put you put in it, the better you are.”

In general, Stothert says that being transparent, taking ownership in her role and having good communication are other factors that are important in leadership. She counts her husband, Joe Stothert, M.D., as an important mentor in her life. “He is an incredibly hard worker. He still is. He works about a hundred hours a week. He’s the one who told me a long time ago, ‘Don’t strive to be liked. Strive to be respected.’ And I always remember that.”

She is thankful for the members of her staff, who sometimes work on Sundays without being asked. Stothert says she gets to work with people she admires every day. “ They’re all hard-working, honest, good to work with, have a good sense of humor and dedicated.”

Stothert is excited about the idea of having a first woman president. “Before I even knew Hillary Clinton was running for president, if I talked about leadership, I would always bring her into the conversation. Even though I don’t agree with her politically, she has overcome a lot of obstacles in her life, both personal and private, and become very successful. You have to admire people for that.”


In 1998, Patricia Lamberty was named District Court Judge for Douglas County in Nebraska. A 2001 TOW cover story on Lamberty reports that she chaired the Women’s Fund Task Force for Domestic Violence in 1995. Today, Lamberty believes there is a lot more awareness of domestic violence compared to 20 years ago.

“Other issues I feel there is a lot of public awareness on is sex trafficking and pay day lenders. Some of the issues that the Women’s Fund has been dealing with, I think there is a lot more public awareness on these issues than there was 20 years ago.”

At age 73, Lamberty is still fully engaged in the world she loves—even sitting on the bench occasionally by filling in on cases here and there. “I am regularly called back to the bench,” she says. “I get regular requests to fill in when a judge is absent or if they need coverage.”

Now that she is semi-retired, Lamberty continues to lead by serving others. It’s hard to imagine a judge spending her free time chauffeuring someone to a doctor’s appointment, but Lamberty spends her days doing just that for a refugee family from Burma. Her church, the First Central Congregational Church, sponsors Karen family that spent 20 years living in a refugee camp in Thailand before relocating to Omaha last year. The family has three children, ages 10, 7 and 4.

The church group furnished the home, including purchasing a washer and dryer and several months ‘worth of groceries to help the family get adjusted to life in Omaha. “It’s been a very interesting experience. It’s delightful family,” Lamberty says.

Things look much different now than when she was one of the only female students in her law program at Creighton Law School in the late ‘70s. After college, she joined a private law firm. “It was difficult for me to relate to the other male attorneys because they weren’t used to having a woman attorney,” she says. “It was difficult for the staff who were all female to treat me as their supervisor if they weren’t used to having a woman lawyer in the firm. There was an adjustment period for everybody.”

Lamberty says that she did not have women role models while growing up. “I’m certain that my daughter and my granddaughters would have a different answer. My mother was a farmer’s wife and not educated. As I went through law school, our professors were mostly male and there were not that many women law school graduates when I went to law school. That’s changed.”

As a judge in district court, Lamberty says she was always treated with respect. “From1998 to this date, I have always felt like I was treated as an equal by my male district court judges. It’s never been an issue. ” However, Lamberty says it was a struggle going through law school while raising three children. “I couldn’t have done it without the support of my husband.” The couple, who have been married for 56 years, were high school sweethearts.

Although as a judge Lamberty has to remain politically neutral, she is excited that there is a woman running for president. “I also think it’s exciting that we have a woman mayor in this city. It just shows that we’re making progress on the whole area of women in leadership,” she says. “It’s a change and exciting that we have women who are running for various offices, whether it’s the mayor or city council or the county board or President of the United States.”


Anne Branigan, Senior Vice President of Innovative Services with the Omaha Chamber of Commerce, has played a major role in the changing landscape of Omaha, one business at a time. In her role at the Chamber, she has helped the people and businesses of Omaha grow and prosper for more than 20 years. Branigan also served as Women’s Fund of Omaha board president for two years.

She is driven daily by the notion of making a positive difference for others. Branigan says that when she reflects on each day, she thinks about where she has helped other’s achieve success. “Have I provided the necessary information, connections and coaching to make something better?”

Branigan is also driven by the Chamber’s vision and mission. “I believe my actions help our local businesses, this community and the folks I work with succeed.”

Branigan says that compared to 20 years ago, women are more visible in a variety of leadership roles. “It was not unusual for me to be the only one, or one of only a few, women in the room during a meeting more than 20 years ago.”

She says there are more women leading boards, committees and companies. “But I think there is still a significant way to go before we are operating as a fully inclusive community.” Besides recommending that people lead in whatever role they happen to be in and finding ways to bring value to your employer, Branigan recommends squelching fear.

“Leading is certainly not always easy; at some point you will definitely have an “oh no!” moment. The key is getting through it and positively moving on,” she says. “Find a confidant, motivational reading or a healthy practice that helps you be brave and puts the big picture in perspective. Then take a deep breath and move forward!” These are just a few of the women making a difference in leadership roles in Omaha. Together, women leaders in small companies, big corporations, elected government positions and nonprofit leadership roles are leading the way for the next generation. W



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