Fifty years ago, the heads of the industry, CEOs and those pushing the envelope to start ground-breaking business ventures were mostly men. But that picture has been changing for decades. More and more women are taking charge and taking the lead, founding and running a diverse array of businesses and organizations. In Montgomery, there’s clear evidence of this continuing shift, particularly in key areas including leadership, technology and entrepreneurship.
The following local ladies are making powerful positive impacts in this community with their creativity, their drive, their forward-thinking ideas, their ability (and willingness) to uplift and energize others, as well as their commitment to shape a bright future for a new Montgomery and make the city better, not just for their company or their endeavors, but for us all.
LEADERSHIP - MEET:
Why She’s a Big Deal: As the President and CEO of Inspirien, a liability and workers’ comp insurance company, Nekic has grown the business significantly while working to elevate the company culture, promoting teamwork and pulling out every employee’s inner leader. She is also forming a tech company to provide additional support for Inspirien’s customers.
The Trail She’s Blazed: Growing up in a family of entrepreneurial immigrants from Croatia, Nekic saw up close the trials and tribulations of starting a small business. Watching her grandparents and parents, she learned valuable lessons—creativity, flexibility, accountability, ownership, determination and a strong work ethic—and they’ve served her well. After starting in her industry at a mid-size healthcare insurance company and moving up the ranks, she got an email from a recruiter about leading operations for Inspirien. She’d never visited Montgomery until the first in-person interview for the position and didn’t know much about it, but both the role and the city were an instant fit. “As soon as I met with the board, I knew this was the role for me, and Montgomery was the place for me,” she said.
But she didn’t stop at CEO. She recently added entrepreneur to her resume and is forming a company to address a problem Inspirien’s customers and shareholders had at the top of their complaint lists: getting paid. “The solution is still in development, but we are moving it forward,” she said. “Healthcare needs our support, and we want to be the kind of partner that helps them solve their biggest challenges. We believe if they win, we win.” Identifying pressing problems and then working to solve them is Nekic’s definition of “entrepreneur.”
Making an Impact: Nekic took the role at Inspirien because she believed she could make a difference in people’s lives through their healthcare. “Inspirien is owned by hospitals and physicians, so we have firsthand knowledge of the problems facing healthcare today,” she said. “That insight helps us support the industry in its efforts to deliver quality patient care.”
She’s passionate about the customer experience but also about transforming organizational structure. “Traditional hierarchy exists due to a lack of trust, which is detrimental to a highly functioning team, so, when I joined Inspirien, I was committed to building a unique coaching culture that viewed all employees as leaders,” she said. “A title does not make anyone better than another person. At Inspirien, culture is the sum of its people. So, the way we assess the overall wellbeing of Inspirien is through the employees who drive its success.”
Words of Wisdom: Nekic names education and continuous learning as essential elements of her success, but support from mentors has been just as critical. She stressed the importance of a proper mentee mindset to get the most out of the relationship. “When engaging my mentors, I try not to complain, but to seek the ‘WHY?’ I welcome differing opinions to help me decipher what important information I need to understand and make decisions,” she said. “I also encourage honest feedback, because I believe self-reflection and emotional intelligence are critical.”
Making an Impact: She may be the Senior Vice President and Alabama Commercial Lending Executive at Valley Bank, but Caryn Hughes has more than dollars and cents on her mind. She’s a longtime supporter of the Chamber, currently serving as the Chamber board’s vice chair, and is also heavily involved in the community, donating her time and expertise to multiple organizations and projects. She explained how her roles complement each other. “Serving as a member of the Chamber’s Executive Committee has been such an honor and extremely beneficial because it has educated me on the needs of our community,” she said. “I have also had the benefit of serving on several charitable organizations, boards/committees that do so much to help others.”
Hughes is also leaning into the example set by bank leadership and encouraging her team to follow her lead. “Giving back to the community has always been a high priority for my employer Valley Bank,” she said. “I love its commitment to strengthening and supporting the communities we serve. Personally, and through the help of the Valley Bank Team, I believe we have made a difference through participating in financial literacy programs in our schools and volunteering our time and skills to assist various community organizations, as well as through substantial charitable giving.”
Smart Stuff: Her top tip for other ladies looking to benefit the community is a simple first step. “Know your community. It is important to make sure you stay well-informed of the needs so that you can figure out how you can best serve these needs,” she said. “There are endless ways to become involved and, once you do, there is no doubt you will have a positive impact.”
TECH & INNOVATION - MEET:
Why She’s a Big Deal: Tuck is the CEO/President of Program Management and Technology Services, Inc., a company she founded after retiring from a successful career with the federal government. PMTS supports agencies within the federal government by providing a vast array of IT and program management services.
The Trail She’s Blazed: Tuck drew on the vast IT background she gained while working within the government to start PMTS. As a minority woman in the tech space, she understands why increased diversity in her industry is important. “It means more ideas based on different backgrounds, perspectives and experiences. Bringing more women in an industry that is inundated by men would do just that. To achieve this, we must first improve our digital readiness score,” she said. “Digital readiness captures key attributes such as the ease of working from home, availability of public services online and inclusive access to the internet.” In a recent measurement, Alabama’s digital readiness landed in the bottom five. “If we could bring up that score while simultaneously focusing on improving our tech talent diversity, we could make leaps and bounds,” Tuck said. She knows of what she speaks: During COVID shutdowns, Tuck’s company allowed more than 50 percent of its staff to work from home and didn’t experience any interruptions in the business’ ability to deliver services.
Making an Impact: PMTS employs 24 people, 16 within Alabama, and Tuck hopes to expand that footprint and employ more people in our area. PMTS also actively recruits interns from local colleges to prepare them for the workforce. She stressed her belief in technology as the tool for a brighter future. “Technology encompasses our way of life and will continue to do so,” she said. “If we don’t keep up, then we will be left behind. So, we invite all those who have a similar purpose of educating others about IT and growing business opportunities to join our efforts in improving and shaping our community so we are ready for the future.”
Words of Wisdom: Tuck named the Small Business Administration, a good accountant and loyal employees as among the resources she’s relied on. She shared this advice for any woman aiming to make her own impact. “Stay focused on your vision. Work hard and understand that everything is a process; it’s not going to happen overnight,” she said. “And find good mentors who are currently successful in the area you are pursuing.”
Making an Impact: Borg is the Executive Director of the Alabama Business Technology Foundation, and as such, is intimately involved in growing the tech talent our workforce needs and ensuring students can land good jobs. “I want every student going to any Alabama college or university and getting a STEM degree of any facet to have the opportunity for an internship, apprenticeship or employment. These students are Alabama’s future professionals, and we need to let them know they are wanted by our business industry,” she said.
Borg is currently creating a database with the guidance of the Foundation’s Business Advisory Board to reach this goal. “It is the key that will allow a single student to be seen by multiple businesses throughout Alabama, and it will be the key for a business to search multiple students going to any Alabama college or university to fill vacancies they may have for internships and/or job placements. I also know that our database will be one of the best tools for our workforce industry, new and existing. Our motto is and has always been, ‘Develop Them Here, Keep Them Here!’”
Smart Stuff: Borg pointed to her Chamber involvements as helpful waypoints on her journey. “As a Chamber Ambassador, the Chamber has been one of the best tools for me in terms of networking and creating long-lasting friendships. I don’t think our organization would be where it is today without the support from our Chamber or Chamber members,” she said. “Having a well-structured Business Advisory Board has made my job so much easier. But the best tool by far, is believing in what I do.” And that’s the wisdom she wants to pass along to others. “Believe in what you do. If your heart is in it, then you know you’re on the right track,” she said.
EDUCATION - MEET:
Dr. Kemba Chambers
Why She’s a Big Deal: Chambers is the first minority female president of H. Councill Trenholm State Community College and has overseen expansion of the institution’s business entrepreneurship and computer science programs while also beefing up the college’s partnerships with local industry.
The Trail She’s Blazed: Once a high school math teacher, Chambers moved into higher education as an instructor at Chattahoochee Valley Community College. Next, she earned her Doctor of Education in Higher Education Administration and became Interim Division Chair of Math and Science. It was the first step in a path that advanced her within the Alabama Community College System, where she served in multiple leadership roles (dean, vice chancellor and more) at multiple institutions before becoming President of Trenholm.
Making an Impact: “I am only doing what I love to do,” is Chambers’ humble response to being called a trailblazer. “I hope that my consistent dedication to Trenholm State allows our community to see the great things that we are doing,” she said. “I along with the dedicated employees of the college will ensure that we are pivotal in the River Region by offering instructional and workforce training programs so that our citizens are able to fulfill their short- and long-term goals.”
Forging a strong workforce by getting input from area businesses has been a core focus for Chambers. “We have committed ourselves to meeting with community stakeholders to determine what instructional and workforce training programs are needed at the college,” she said. That’s led to the expansion in Computer Information Systems, Business/Entrepreneurship and Culinary Arts/Hospitality Management programs. And there’s more coming, with conversations between Trenholm and partners like Baptist Health outlining plans for an increase in healthcare program offerings to meet this industry’s demands.
Words of Wisdom: Chambers attributes her success to her original role model and mentor, her father, who was also a dean and a president within the Community College System. She equally credits the females who went before her. “I will never forget my first time seeing a female in an administrative role. It was great to see someone who looks like me and their successes,” she said. “This is something that I hope others can see in me.” And she’s always on the lookout for that special “something”. “If I see that ‘it factor’ within others, I believe it is my job to ensure that they also see it within themselves.”
ENTREPRENEURSHIP - MEET:
Why She’s a Big Deal: This California native came to Alabama to attend Tuskegee University. After graduation and armed with a B.A. in English, she began her teaching career with Montgomery Public Schools. In the midst of the pandemic, she turned a bleak season into a creative business called House of Hicks.
The Trail She’s Blazed: After attending Tuskegee University, Hicks stayed in Alabama because her husband was already established here, but she also felt like she could do some good in the River Region. She shared the motivation behind her business, which spreads Hicks’ love of Black culture with its stylish jewelry, curated book and poetry collection and more. “House of Hicks, LLC, more specifically SamCol by Hicks (a trademark company under HOH, LLC) was inspired by my children at a very dark time in my life,” she said. “I was coping with postpartum depression while trying to balance being a wife, mother and an educator during the pandemic. Not only was SamCol by Hicks in some respects a savior for me, it was a way to translate my love and commitment to the Black community and the culture of growing up in Los Angeles into something tangible and sacred.”
Making an Impact: Hicks believes she’s making a mark in Montgomery and stresses that confidence is a crucial ingredient, one she’s passing along to the young minds she’s helping mold. “I am extremely confident, and I try my best to instill that into my students, friends and family,” she said. “I thrive because I believe in myself, and that is the biggest impact that I’ve made thus far.”
Words of Wisdom: Hicks listed networking as an essential building block of her success but also noted that local resources like the Chamber’s Lab on Dexter and business organizations such as Buy from A Black Woman have been indispensable. Speaking to other aspiring women, she reiterated her confidence claim. “I can’t say this enough but believing in you is KEY. Aligning your passion, heart and reason is the positive-impact formula,” she said.
THE LAB ON DEXTER - SHE SAYS:
A Member Testimonial
“I launched my business a few weeks before December on Dexter Pop Up shop. The idea had been in my heart for years, but when the Lab opened, I knew I had the resources to be successful. I’ve attended every BYOB (Build Your Own Business) event because I wanted to learn, and the professionals were ready to help. I sold out of my T-shirts during the pop up, and now I’m back in production. I’m grateful to the Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce and The Lab on Dexter for being a resource for entrepreneurs.” -- Vickie Jones, CEO, Faith Filled Tee’s, LLC
MAKING IT HAPPEN:
The Chamber has long fostered and supported entrepreneurship and innovation in our community. But with the formation of its Lab on Dexter, it has taken these efforts to the next level, offering resources, opportunities and the physical space entrepreneurs and change-makers of all stripes need to plant seeds, start conversations, share ideas and grow new ventures. Lab programs and events are all designed to bring the next big things to life, and it is using a powerful combo of tools to accomplish its goals.
- EDUCATE the community with the latest training and tools.
- INNOVATE with partners across the social and tech innovation ecosystem.
- COLLABORATE with community members to create innovative solutions.
- ACCELERATE small businesses with training, resources and technology tools to grow their business.
- INCUBATE small businesses by providing small business suites and co-working space.
Co.Starters – March 31 - This 10-week small business program will equip entrepreneurs with everything they need to start something, providing the tools necessary to turn an idea into action and bringing people together for networking, learning and more.
Connect With the Lab
For general info: Dr. Nichole Thompson, Executive Director, firstname.lastname@example.org
For membership and co-working space inquiries: email@example.com
Plus, be sure to watch The Lab’s website and social media channels and join its mailing list to stay up to date on upcoming events and to find ways you and your business can get involved.