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1996 Service Optimas Award ProfileBRUniversity of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

August 1, 1996
Related Topics: Service, Diversity, Featured Article
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Lynne Hellmer is missing. Several thousand women are packed into the darkness of the Krannert Center auditorium, eyes riveted on a single circle of spotlight where Lynne Hellmer — founder and director of the Biennial Conference for Working Women — should be. The audience emits a low murmur of concern. So far, the opening session has gone so smoothly.

A voiceover announces the cameraman is going to Lynne's home to check things out. The audience's attention darts to the big movie screen over the stage as they see the cameraman climb Lynne's front steps, head upstairs and open the door to Lynne's bedroom — where she's sleeping like a baby (accompanied by lullaby chime music). In comes her son, who asks innocently, "Mom, isn't today the day of the conference?" Lynne sits up in bed, curlers in hair, face clean of makeup — and screams like a true drama queen. The audience roars. For the next few minutes, conference goers are treated to a fast-motion version of Lynne running out the door, Lynne at the beauty parlor, Lynne wobbling on her son's skateboard toward Krannert, Lynne knocking folks out of her path backstage and finally, Lynne herself jumping into the spotlight on stage.

The crowd goes wild.

And Hellmer matches the audience's enthusiasm smile for smile, as she relays her adventures in conference planning. She chats conspiratorially about the roadblocks that threatened each new conference — from doubtful supervisors to dubious loved ones. Every time someone told her she couldn't do it, Hellmer replied in a sing-song voice, "Yes I caaaan!" By the end of the story, the audience is chanting her mantra along with her, cheering Hellmer — and themselves — on.

Next comes Liz Curtis Higgs, a comedian whose repertoire pokes fun at women's everyday trials and tribulations — trying to pull up pantyhose with wet nails, for instance. A trio of singers, The Chenille Sisters, follows, crooning about everything from their love of chocolate to the first attempt at walking in high heels — and inviting the audience to join in.

The crowd again goes nuts.

As the women pour out of the auditorium, rushing to get to their next chosen session, they repeat some of Curtis Higgs' best lines, or hum some of The Chenille Sisters' tunes. Most of all though, they repeat Lynne's response to any naysayers: "Yes I can!" The phrase is immediately the unofficial slogan of the conference, and Lynne Hellmer has been adopted as the unofficial hero.

This year marked the seventh incarnation of the Biennial Conference for Working Women at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Initiated in 1984 as a small, one-time campus event, it has grown to encompass thousands of attendees from eight different states. The conference is so popular that its proceeds allow Hellmer, director of the university's HR development office, to pay 25% of the cost of running her department. The conference is a bona fide hit. But go back 10-plus years, and you'll hear quite a different story.

From lack of funding to lack of support: The Conference is a continual challenge.
Lynne Hellmer is nervous. It's late one spring night in 1984, and she's poring over Lois Hart's conference planning manual, the bible for anyone getting his or her feet wet in event management. You see, Hellmer has gone out on a limb. As she was looking over the programming for the University of Illinois the previous year, she noticed healthy portions of training for supervisory and management — and nothing for the secretarial support folks. With 2,500 such staffers (99% women), this, she thought, was an egregious oversight. HR didn't have a lot of time left on the calendar for long training sessions, so Hellmer came up with a winning improvisation: a conference for secretaries.

Now, there was a passel of little snags here. First of all, no one back then had conferences for support staff. Second, women rarely went to conferences — period. Third, Hellmer herself had never been to a conference, and had no idea what they were supposed to look like. Fourth, her superiors at the time were fairly disinterested in the whole idea. Oh yes — also, the department had just lost all its funding from the university.

Hellmer remained steadfast. Don't know what a conference looks like? Check out a book from the library and follow its instructions to the letter. Lose all your funding? Charge $69 for people to attend. Hellmer hoped for 125 attendees. She got 400. A little nerve-wracking for someone who had never dealt with more than 40 people at a staff meeting. Still, with a lot of overtime and a hand from a part-time secretary, Hellmer pulled it off. As the evaluation forms piled up at the day's end, they had a common theme: "Can't wait for the next one!" What do you mean 'the next one'? thought Hellmer.

But hey, what do you do when 400 secretaries from your campus are spreading the word about this amazing experience they had: a conference just for them, just for their issues. Titled Champions of Effectiveness, it included a full-scale, office-technology trade show with a keynote presentation by Anne Montgomery, author of "The Secretary's Administrative Handbook." Back then, the event focused less on personal issues and more on technical: file management, record management and so on. But for the majority of these women, it was the first time anyone had bothered to send the message that their work — and they — merited attention.

Once is not enough.
Hellmer couldn't back down from the challenge — and need — to keep the conference going. She decided to start holding it every two years. "The reason for two years was that if I was going to do something like this, I needed time to have fresh ideas," she says. "But I also wanted to make sure the conference would be viewed as a special event rather than a regularly scheduled program. I wanted to make people wait for it."

Hellmer herself admits she made some critical mistakes in the second, 1986 conference. She reduced the number of conference offerings from 12 to four. She raised the registration fee from $69 to $85. She hired a professional speaker without ensuring first that the audience would be interested. They weren't: Only 200 women registered. "I knew I had to make some changes," she says. "I either had to kill the program entirely or make some drastic changes."

So Hellmer defined her goals: Make the conference bigger and better; make it a must-see; break out of the previous boundaries of the university's secretarial staff. For the 1988 conference, she put out the call to her sister institutions, with the lure of their becoming educational affiliates. "I didn't even know what that was; I made it up. But it sounded good," she admits. Hellmer told HR at these institutions that they'd have to pay no money for their attendees — they'd even get a percentage of the profit, depending on how many people they sent. In return, all the new affiliates had to do was provide an advisory board member who would give Hellmer feedback on the needs of women at their institutions. With seven new educational affiliates in addition to her campus, the 1988 conference, Peak Performers: Making the Internal Decision to Excel, attracted a crowd of 900. Twenty-five workshops covered topics such as work/life balancing, proactive leadership, PC networking and goal-setting.

Peers take notice.
The 1988 conference marked a major turning point: More managerial-level women attended, more universities called to get involved, and more women at the Urbana-Champaign campus began taking personal pride in the event's success. "It began to be their conference," says Hellmer. "Everyone else was coming and exclaiming how wonderful the University of Illinois was, what generosity and hospitality the university extended to all its sister institutions. It built this tremendous pride among the women of this university."

Hellmer pounced on this advantage. To grow the conference even more, she needed a bigger facility. The Krannert Center for Performing Arts — the jewel of the campus — would do. It took some wheedling by the troop of women now involved, but they got their way. Hellmer also needed more staff for the conference — and she got that to. As the 1990 conference edged into its planning stages, volunteers piped up. Hellmer gave everyone jobs to do at the event — which would have more than 2,000 attendees. Some volunteers would take tickets, some would usher, others would assist attendees with disabilities.

How do you get a group of green volunteers to think and act like seasoned event planners? In a training session before the conference, Hellmer spelled out her demands to the women: Don't come looking for me during the conference. Solve the problem yourself. "I told them, 'Think of it this way. This is my wedding day. It's a very special day. You are all my bridesmaids. It's your job to make sure the wedding goes smoothly. Don't tell me the groom hasn't shown up. Do whatever it takes. Nothing can't be solved. Go for it.'

Everyone exclaimed how wonderful the University was. It built tremendous pride among our women.

Involvement empowers.
For a lot of women, this is the only time they've ever been in a position in which someone says, 'Make the decision.' They ran with that — and they did a beautiful job." By giving the volunteers ownership of the 1990 conference, Hellmer ensured they'd take pride in making it the best one yet. Open Lines: Making the Communication Connection sold out in just 15 working days. More than 1,000 women had to be turned away. Those who did participate attended 17 different workshops on assertiveness, image enhancement, time management and using humor in the workplace. Kate Rand Lloyd, Working Woman editor, gave a keynote speech on reaching for greatness.

Still, Hellmer's challenges weren't over. It's important to remember that she truly was blazing through uncharted territory. With every move to grow the conference, there were people who were against it. For instance, by 1990, the conference was arguably big. But Hellmer wanted even more people to know what was happening there. The top administration at the time didn't quite agree. Reporters would show up. The story would work its way into newspapers and magazines, and on to TV. Things could get out of control in the tidy, bucolic campus of Urbana-Champaign. Hellmer sent out the press releases anyway. And people outside the university system began to take note.

The 1992 conference, Second to None, saw repeated clashes between Hellmer and top administration. Although the conference was performing a huge service for the university system's women, each side had a different idea of how big and bright it should get. At times, Hellmer considered ending the event altogether. "There was just a very visible lack of support for what we were doing."

Soon after, however, the structure of the university began to shift — marking the second crucial turning point for the conference. First of all, Hellmer's unit, Human Resources Development, split off from the personnel office and became an independent department. Then the top administration began to turn over, yielding some new, progressive leaders. One was Michael Aiken, the new chancellor, who was the first to demonstrate support by giving the opening welcome at the 1994 conference, Creating Possibilities, which attracted 4,000 women from eight states to hear seminars on optimism, energy engineering, high-impact communication and "singing your own song."

The other important new influence was Hellmer's current boss, Charles Colbert, vice chancellor for administration and HR. "Charles has been extremely supportive," says Hellmer. "He gives me the license to operate — and that's what had been missing all of that time. If I had a good idea and knew how to do it, I needed to be left alone to go with it. He was comfortable enough that he was willing to do that."

Finally, the conference was allowed to reach its full potential. Today, it's a big money-maker, a pride of the campus — and has earned HR Development university-wide respect. A lot of it has to do with Hellmer. Says Colbert: "She has a lot of energy, and is very innovative. She's willing to take a risk. I like those kind of people. She's the kind of person you can't mess with. I think it would be a mistake for anyone to do that."

As Hellmer could tell him, you don't grow a conference from 400 local attendees to 4,000 nationwide attendees by listening to all the "you can'ts." You do it by saying, "Yes I can!"

Top-rung speakers perform small-session duties: The 1996 Conference is a hot ticket.
Gloria Steinem is brushing her hair. And Lynne Hellmer is backstage with her, thinking I — me, Lynne — am watching Gloria Steinem brush her hair. Talk about a good answer to, "What did you do today?" Upon her introduction, Steinem strides to her podium with an almost regal step and, in a deep measured voice, welcomes her audience. Her calm, cerebral manner is a world away from the opening session cheer- and sing-alongs. In her hour-long seminar, she speaks of many things: that each year of higher education sees a woman's self-esteem plummet due to systematic sexism; that 90% of human history is in the period we deem "prehistoric" and worth little attention — even though this period was also pre-racism and pre-patriarchy; that women who work at home should be recognized for their economic contributions, because what they do truly is a job; that there's no country in the world where women are equal; that in the last election, only 39% of eligible voters voted; that everything we do has power.

Steinem was only one of 13 speakers at the 1996 conference, Winning Strategies, but because of her name power, she may have thrown the biggest waves. Throughout the day, you could hear sidenotes to women's conversations: I sat in the chair next to Gloria Steinem. I walked up the same steps as Gloria Steinem. I shook hands with Gloria Steinem. (Steinem backed up her rhetoric when she insisted Hellmer take part of her speaker's fee to set up scholarships for two university women to attend every conference from now on.)

Although Steinem was perhaps the Big Name, the remaining cadre of speakers was never in danger of being overshadowed. To name a few, there was Maria Arapakis, who authored "SoftPower! How to Speak Up, Set Limits and Say No Without Losing Your Lover, Your Job or Your Friends." There was Carl Hammerschlag, M.D., whose best-selling book "The Dancing Healers" was made into a 1992 PBS miniseries. There was Connie Podesta, who made her mark with a one-woman play, "Journey."

Nicky Marone, author of "How to Father a Successful Daughter," spoke on women and risk. Her belief, she told attendees, is that women in particular suffer from learned helplessness: the belief that there's no connection between one's actions and the final outcome of events. Many women, she says, are raised that way.

Marone urged women to switch from a mindset of helplessness to one of mastery-orientation. For example, women who've learned helplessness attribute failure to internal factors, such as lack of intelligence or ability. Mastery-oriented people attribute failure — when appropriate — to external factors, such as bad timing or bad luck. If a tire pops on the way to an interview, a woman with learned helplessness would spend the rest of the day chastising herself for not having miraculously foreseen it. A mastery-oriented woman would fix the tire and head to the interview, knowing the annoyance was not her fault.

Susan RoAne, a University of Illinois alum and best-selling author of "The Secrets of Savvy Networking" and "How to Work a Room," spoke on women's need to network. It had been 29 years since she'd set foot on her campus, and in the audience was her college roommate's daughter, a senior at the University of Illinois. "I always quote my grandmother, 'Pick up a phone, send a note,'" she says. "But to have [my friend's daughter] in the room, I was able to say to the 200-plus women, 'She's here because her mother picked up a phone, and I sent a note over the course of 29 years.' If you asked me what was significant, that was a living, breathing, true example of how you network."

How does Hellmer get such enthusiastic, energetic, involved speakers to come from San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York City to a college campus in Southern Illinois? For one thing, all the speakers marveled over how well they were treated — and how much fun they had. For another thing, she simply won't settle. "I look for speakers who are really top-drawer," says Hellmer. "Every speaker we hire is actually a keynote-level speaker. I've got them doing break-out sessions."

A changed woman: The Conference touches its guests.
Kim Bandy is elated. The benefits counselor at the University of Chicago is heading out the door after a full day at the conference. She has just seen Les Brown, the inspirational closing speaker. Bandy is just one of the thousand-plus women at the closing session moved by Brown's account of his life story. It began with his birth to a young, unmarried mother in a condemned building. It continued with his adoption by a generous, loving — and poor — woman. By the time he entered school, he was labeled educable mentally retarded. But a teacher in high school changed all that, gave him hope that with enough work, he could succeed. And he worked. Hard. And he succeeded. Brown kept working until he had what he wanted — recognition as a nationally acclaimed motivational speaker. His motto: It isn't over until I win. Bandy feels Brown was speaking directly to her.

She's not a newcomer to the conference. She's been here before — and it's always given her a shot in the arm right when she needed it. Currently, Bandy serves on the conference's advisory board, acting as a liaison between Hellmer and the University of Chicago campus. Bandy tried to get as many women as she could to go — particularly focusing on the nonprofessional women — because she remembers several years ago being in their shoes. She had been pushed to go by others who had gone before her. "When I went I can actually say that it did change my life," she says. "I felt so much better about myself. All of a sudden, the unreachable became reachable. I can't say enough about something like that; I really can't. Sometimes on a job, someone will give you enough to feed you. But it's rare they actually show you how to use the tools to feed yourself."

She returned to campus reenergized and appreciative: "I was so honored that an employer would have thought enough of me to sponsor me to participate in something like that, that they had to have seen something in me to actually even think about sending me."

Others have been equally moved by the conference. In 1992, a university called ahead of time to explain that one of its attendees would need some extra assistance. The woman suffered from terminal brain cancer and was restricted to a wheelchair. Her friends weren't, in fact, sure she'd even make it to the conference. But she did make it, fueled by a single wish: To have one of the speakers, Wally "Famous" Amos, sign a copy of his book, which had been a personal inspiration to her.

Unfortunately, halfway through the day, the woman's friends contacted Hellmer to ask if she had a place backstage where the woman could rest. She would leave after lunch, already exhausted. She would miss seeing Famous Amos. Hellmer relayed the message to Amos, who promptly gathered all the speakers and marched down to the backstage room where the woman was resting. He autographed his book and stayed for lunch with the woman, as did all the speakers. "That moment gave her strength," says Hellmer. "She stayed through the entire conference and sat in the front row for Wally's session, which for her, was addressed right to her. What a wonderful and warm person Wally Amos was to do that. He could've said, 'Just give me the book, I'll sign my name.' No, he took the time to do that. She died several months after, but the fact was we could make a difference for her."

Hellmer herself has made the difference for people through the years. On her desk is a stack about five inches high of thank-you letters from conference attendees. They say things like: "Now I realize I can do anything I put my mind to" and "I was exhilarated and inspired; I thought, yes I deserve a standing ovation."

From personal tragedy to personal triumph.

Some women have an even more personal approach. One of the most moving experiences Hellmer recounts was from this year's conference — but began two years ago at the 1994 conference. That year, as Hellmer was looking over evaluations, one woman wrote that her son had died the week before, and she didn't want to come to the conference but did — and was glad. Hellmer called the woman, who told her that the conference was the first day she'd been able to break out of the grief and start regrouping her life. That seemed to be the end of the correspondence.

Then on May 1 this year, a young woman approached Hellmer at the conference and hugged her. Now, Hellmer gets lots of hugs, so this wasn't unusual. But when the attendee reintroduced herself as the woman who'd lost her son, Hellmer began to cry. "It did something to me," she says. "Here she was; she was real. She had come back. The conference had impacted her on such a personal level that she wanted to make sure she'd told me and hugged me. And I'm thinking, there's a lot of them out there. It's the only time I've ever been moved to tears by somebody's personal experience at a conference. I know it has nothing to do with work [per se] but it has to do with how they feel about themselves, and how they feel about life and yes, that does spill over in their whole attitude about everything."

As for Bandy, she'd been playing with the idea of starting a side business — either a doctor's billing service or a home day care — but had been hesitant before the conference. No more. Now she's considering going back to school. And she's networking like crazy to get more information on both topics. "I came back and talked to my sister and said, 'You know what? If you don't have it today, it's no one's fault but your own, because there's nothing but opportunity out there.' The conference jolted me, and I just became alive again."

Letters say things like: Now I realize I can do anything I put my mind to; I was exhilarated and inspired; yes I deserve a standing ovation.

Hellmer is looking to the future also. She started planning the 1998 conference the day after the 1996 one ended: "This time I don't want them to leave the opening session laughing. I want them set up ready to learn. And I want them to leave the conference laughing and repeating things that were funny on the way out the door. I'm always tweaking things with this conference. I never want two conferences to be totally alike."

She'd also like more men to come (there are generally only about a dozen such brave souls in attendance), and is always surprised when some women oppose that. "I say no," say Hellmer. "We work with men. Men are our partners. Men can be our greatest supporters, and vice versa. I think it's important that men are part of our agenda, because they're part of our lives." And it certainly isn't as if "the guys" aren't interested. Hellmer says after each conference the men in management meetings are all talking about it, talking about the women in their offices being so charged up — and admitting a little jealousy at not having been a part.

As for the topics themselves, they'll generally focus around the same subjects: communication issues, self-esteem, assertiveness, professional issues, goal-setting. Topics have two crucial agendas: They must appeal to everyone — top administrators as well as groundskeepers; and they must be inspirational. "What's important to me is that I leave people feeling that they can do it," says Hellmer, "that they can overcome obstacles. That whatever way they want to grow it's totally within their power, and they don't have to wait for someone's permission to grow or develop or go after things they want."

Hellmer herself has taken her own advice: She went back for her master's degree in human resources development after the 1994 conference, and is almost finished. Her last unit: an independent study course in which she'll mentor a woman dean from either a university in Poland or in Kenya. The subject on which she'll mentor: "I'll teach the woman how to do this conference, and transform it into another culture," she says.

Lynne Hellmer may have been "missing" from the opening session of the conference. But no one can say she's missing from the Biennial Conference for Working Women — her heart is 100% in it.

Personnel Journal, August 1996, Vol. 75, No. 8, pp. 32-43.

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