Women in Co-op Leadership

women in coop leadership
SDAC’s Women Leadership panel (L–R) Savannah Woods, Student; Judy Stulken, Agtegra; Melissa Maher, Moreau-Grand Electric

Deadwood, SD (Sept. 11, 2018) - The South Dakota Association of Cooperatives (SDAC), of which CBH CO-OP is a member, held its 75th annual meeting. There was a full slate of agenda items, but one stood out in particular: the Women Leadership panel discussion. Three women panelists, representing three businesses in the cooperative system, discussed their journey into leadership. The commonality among all three is their professional approach in addressing their roles in the workplace and in leadership—simply stated, “We are here to work, and we accept our responsibilities without gender discrimination.”

All three women were adamant in the benefits of being employed in cooperative business sectors where an independence from quarterly earnings and shareholder profits are not the controlling hand. Melissa Maher, CEO, Moreau-Grand Electric Cooperative, Inc. would rather answer to and work with a democratic elected member-controlled board of directors. In her 34-year tenure at the Timber Lake, SD-based electric cooperative, she climbed the ladder starting at the secretary rung, then onto member services before reaching the CEO position.

Judy Stulken, Sr. Vice President, Organizational & Member Development for Agtegra, with absolute directness said “there are not enough people to hire. Period.” From her decade-long employment and her vantage point in HR, she reiterated “cooperatives usually do not have layoffs and therefore provide stable employment. One can grow a career faster in a co-op than in a corporation. Pension plans, health benefits, training and development, and an overall investment into the people are available so that the employee can contribute effectively back into their cooperative.” Furthermore, she stated there is a need to talk to children early in their grade school years about cooperative employment to attract their talent.

The perspective of an SDSU junior student, Savannah Woods added to the discussion. As an ag-business major, Woods gained experience working as an intern for Soil Works LLC and Tabor Timber Co-op. This self-proclaimed outdoors woman said, “I love to get dirty and see the rewards of the growing season.” She went on to say that a “woman’s employment in agriculture is a respectful position.” Furthermore she said that, “any business, not just ag businesses, should have a women-friendly environment.” As she explained it, she was not talking just about maternity leave (which by federal law allows fathers to take leave as well) but rather inviting a woman to do the same job along with all the job duties a man does. According to Woods, that is truly “equal pay for equal work.”

Making tough and intentional decisions is not gender-dependent either. Case in point: in 2010, Moreau-Grand Electric faced three separate weather-related disasters bringing down over 2,000 electric poles altogether. Of course, Maher knew that the 17 customers facing a January South Dakota winter without electricity could be disastrous, and they did get power restored within a week. But the storm, coupled with her position, came at the personal cost of Maher, a wife and mother of two and grandmother, as she was away from her home for 13 days straight. For Maher, she has always felt that “as a woman, I had to work harder to prove I can do it.” That proves to be Maher’s leadership style.

Finally, the unofficial consensus of SDAC’s membership after the panel discussion was a calling for more women to run as directors for their respective cooperative.