by Rachel L. Richardson
Passing the Torch
The early months of 2023 saw a transition in the leadership of the Valbridge Women’s Council (VWC) as Michele Wood passed the torch to Jennifer Benton, an appraiser with the Southern Michigan office. Wood, Vice President, People and Culture, officially marked the transition in the February Zoom meeting with the VWC members—sharing a brief history of the VWC, thanking the prior presidents and those who serve on the VWC committees, and welcoming Benton into her new role.
In her presentation, Wood shared: “I did not feel qualified or ready to (be the president of the VWC) when it happened, but so many of you stepped up and stepped in to make me feel both, and to have an absolute blast doing it. There was never one single moment of regret or second thoughts. And what I want to pass along from that lesson is to encourage you all to lead.
“Lead in whatever ways you dream of and can. Don’t wait to feel qualified or ready. You will learn it as you go, and if you are as lucky as I have been, there will be incredible people there with you every step to help you become a better leader and better version of yourself than you ever could be alone.
“Do that often, take those chances and opportunities and then reach back and bring others with you who don’t feel ready or qualified. That, I hope, is the enduring legacy of this organization.”
- As of February 2023, the Valbridge Women’s Council has a new President!
- As president, Benton has a vision to empower Women’s Council members through three initiatives, while helping them earn more, save more, and raise more.
- Benton intends to build on the existing professional development avenues available in the VWC with the addition of a professional speakers’ club and a women’s leadership retreat.
- In her first act as president, Benton worked with the Community Involvement Committee to launch the first annual March Madness fundraiser.
- She also plans to launch an annual gala to raise funds for the Bonnie A. Mitchell scholarship and honor its namesake and the fund recipients.
Benton herself has experienced this legacy and is eager to carry it on. “Michele has this knack for calling you to action,” she says, “and of gently nudging you into roles that she thinks you’re ready for, but you may not know you’re ready for yourself.”
“Initially I was just trying to connect with other women in the company (when I joined VWC),” Benton shares. “I would not have guessed that I would be president two years later, but I feel like I’ve been sucked in—in a good way,” she laughs. “It has been everything I wanted it to be and more.”
A History of Growth
Describing it now, Benton explains her involvement in the VWC was like a “snowball effect,” gathering momentum with time. At first, she joined to connect with other women in the company, attending the presentations (Val-Talks) hosted by the VWC Mentorship Committee. Soon, though, she joined the newly minted DEI Committee and even co-presented a Val-Talk on work-life balance.
From witnessing her involvement in the DEI Committee, Wood said of Benton: “I was instantly struck by her poise and intelligence and her warmth. She had great instincts and wonderful ways with the people in those meetings. When she came to Houston on a personal trip, we had the chance to have lunch together and I ‘suggested’ that she step into the recently vacated chairperson position on the DEI Committee. She didn’t hesitate, and she has proven to be the leader I hoped for every day since. It seemed only natural that she step into the larger role of president, and boy are we all so lucky that she has.”
After joining the DEI Committee as co-chair with Jennifer Dewberry (Director of Client Services with Valbridge Property Advisors | Minneapolis-St. Paul), Benton and Dewberry presented on the committee’s behalf at both a Val-Talk and the national Valbridge conference in Charlotte, SC, this past year.
While at the national conference, Benton says she was “adopted” by the Kansas City office. “I feel I can pick up the phone and call them for anything at any time,” she explains, “and you know, when you’re supported, it encourages you to be more ambitious about taking on opportunities—because you know you have the help if you need it.”
“I found myself getting more and more involved—and more comfortable,” Benton shares of her experience in the VWC. When the possibility of becoming VWC president presented itself, she adds, “I thought, It’s an amazing opportunity. I feel like sometimes you just have to rise to the occasion when an opportunity like that is presented to you.”
For those in Team Blue who have perhaps thought about joining the VWC but haven’t yet, Benton encourages: “I don’t think there are any cons (to joining). There’s nothing to lose here, only things to gain. You can pick your level of involvement: it’s fine if you just want to drop-in and learn things occasionally through the monthly Val-Talks. To be honest, that’s how I began my involvement with VWC. You can start there, and you might even end up president of this organization,” she says with a laugh. “You have no clue how far it’s going to take you. Once you start interacting with the other members, you’ll find it’s a very unique and supportive professional group.”
“The Women’s Council gives a sense of community to a career that could otherwise be very isolating,” she affirms. “The connection with this vast network of super smart and successful women is something I haven’t been able to find at any other company I’ve worked for.”
“We are capable of doing really hard things,” Benton adds. “And we have a wonderful support network behind us.”
“There are a bunch of incredibly talented, smart, generous women who could lead this council,” Wood echoed as she officially marked the presidential transition. “Benton is definitely one of them and, I think, the perfect leader at the perfect time. I have learned as much watching her in the last year and a half as I have studying leaders who are much more seasoned. She is going to inspire so many and accomplish so much on our behalf. I could not be more proud of what we have all built, nor more eager to see what comes next.”
A Vision in Three Initiatives
Looking ahead, Benton shared her vision for her two-year term, building on the existing legacy of the VWC. “I want to provide the members of this organization with the tools and the resources to maximize their talent and earning potential, whether you’re an appraiser or in an administrative or managerial role here,” Benton says. “I want us to earn more money, save more money, and raise more money. That is my focus.”
Professional speakers’ club
To foster professional development, encourage the VWC members, and unlock opportunities such as conference presentations and other speaking engagements, Benton intends to establish a professional speakers’ club within the VWC.
“I want there to be a really strong push for professional development,” Benton shares. “I want us to be leaders not only within the company but within the industry.” This club will be geared toward training participants in how to put these presentations together and book these events. “It’s the potential to increase some income and establish yourself as an expert in the industry,” she explains. “I think a lot more Valbridge women could get involved in that.”
Women’s leadership retreat
Benton also shared her excitement for establishing a women’s leadership retreat.
“I see this as more of a biannual event, because it’s a pretty big endeavor with everything else going on within VWC,” she remarked. “But a long weekend, maybe somewhere like Sonoma or Scottsdale, and I see the majority of the itinerary dedicated to professional development. That would include having experts come in and teach professional development workshops, along with having inspirational women share stories about their success and provide some wisdom for the journey ahead. The retreat would also include some type of service project—perhaps volunteering at a women’s shelter or participating in a Habitat for Humanity building project over the weekend. And last—but certainly not least—we’d definitely set aside time for fun teambuilding exercises. (If we’re in Sonoma, we’re going to a wine tasting!)”
The third initiative that brought a sparkle to her eyes, builds on a trademark program established during Wood’s presidency: the Bonnie A. Mitchell Scholarship. To be used for professional development, scholarship funds are available for VWC members through the program that honors the late Bonnie Mitchell—a trailblazer for women in the appraisal profession, and mother to our own Larry Mitchell, MAI and Senior Managing Director of Valbridge Property Advisors | St. Louis. The Bonnie A. Mitchell Scholarship Committee is the latest to form in the VWC, and has created a framework for the fund’s use.
Building on this foundation, Benton plans to establish the BAM Scholarship Gala, she envisions as “our signature, annual fundraising event.” Planning to host the event during the national conference, she foresees a gala open to both Valbridge attendees and other movers and shakers in the CRE space, an event featuring a black tie atmosphere with hors d’oeuvres, champagne, and dancing.
“I want it to be the event,” she adds with a smile. “We would open it with a series of awards and acknowledgements, highlighting people throughout the Women’s Council who really stepped up in the organization over the past year. And then obviously we’re going to honor and talk about Bonnie A. Mitchell, how she was a trailblazer in the industry and what her legacy means to our organization, and then maybe even have some of the scholarship award recipients talk about how having access to that type of scholarship has helped them reach a career goal.”
March Madness Fundraising Tip-off
While it was not on the initial slate of proposed plans for her term, Benton and the Community Involvement Committee have launched a new, annual fundraising opportunity that will benefit various causes in the years to come. The inaugural March Madness Bracket Challenge raises funds for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society—a poignant choice for our own Karl Finkelstein (MAI, MRICS, and Senior Managing Director with Valbridge Property Advisors) who has recently lost a friend to a battle with blood cancer.
While meeting in early March to discuss the cause, Benton suggested connecting the fundraising endeavor to March Madness through a bracket challenge. Benton was excited by the idea but unsure if it could be ready in time. Spearheading the Community Involvement Committee, Erin Hagenston took the idea and ran with it, Benton says. “You can’t talk about this without mentioning how much of a superstar Erin is,” she adds. “She has gone above and beyond to put this thing together, (and) even designed the logo.”
“I think it will get some good traction,” Benton says of the fundraising event. “This is my first endeavor as president, so I’m pretty excited about that.”
Before signing off, Benton took a moment to explain her leadership style to help set the tone for the coming years.
“Time is of the essence,” she notes. “I am brief. I am concise. So I like to get to the point and get things done. I’m not a micromanager. I think the best thing you can do as a leader of this organization is to find talented people who are skilled and self-motivated, appoint them to leadership roles, give them the autonomy to make decisions, and just get out of their way. I strongly encourage people to bravely bring forth their new ideas. That was another trademark of Michele’s leadership style and that’s something I want to see continued.”
Benton can be reached at email@example.com.