Choosing Purpose Over Percentage

By Olivia Halverson and Rachel Coats
Photography by Sarah Unger

Local Women Leading and Thriving in Male-Dominated Industries.

Today, women comprise nearly half (47.7%) of the global workforce. Many have forged successful careers in statistically male-dominated industries. Some, like the women whose stories you’re about to encounter, have paved new paths to become leaders, executives, entrepreneurs, and trailblazers in their fields. Here, we learn about the “aha moments” that set these women on their professional paths, the deeper meanings they cultivate in their roles, the legacies they strive to live up to, and the ones they are actively leaving behind for future generations of women in the workforce.

Jody Riggs, CPA, CFP®, RICP®, CLTC®, CKA® 

Private Wealth Advisor, Riggs & Associates

Jody Riggs knew from a young age that she would work with numbers.

After spending a few years in the corporate finance scene, however, she realized a key workplace value was missing from her life – helping people. “I longed for a way to combine my analytical skills with my love of people,” says Riggs. Shortly after moving to Chattanooga, she answered an advertisement for a financial planner position. “Once I learned that this vocation would provide a framework to help people make wise financial decisions that had a lasting impact, I knew I wanted to build a lifelong career around it.”

Today, Riggs is among the 27.7% of financial advisors who are women. As that percentage continues to grow, Riggs encourages women in the industry to lean into their empathetic and nurturing instincts in the name of building lasting client relationships. “Financial planners have the rare opportunity to engage with people concerning their most vulnerable information, which includes not only their finances, but often their health and family dynamics, as well,” says Riggs. “While high levels of competency and professionalism are fundamental to serving clients, effective advisors must also be able to offer empathy around client needs, goals, and fears,” she continues. “Although I do not want to overgeneralize, I do believe that women may possess a proclivity toward relationship-building. It is perhaps our gender’s leaning toward nurturing that creates an environment conducive to building lasting working relationships.”

For 30 years now, Riggs has been building just that – lasting relationships with clients and colleagues, as well as mentors and mentees. “It is a joy of mine to talk with young women about their professional futures,” she shares. “I encourage them to be lifelong learners and to seek out a mentor. I still draw from the wisdom of my own professional mentors on matters related to work-life balance, navigating change, managing people, and staying true to my faith in all I do.” At the heart of it all, Riggs believes that the most important part of her work can be summed up in three simple words: “Love people well.”

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Reverend Louisa “Lou” Parsons

Church Rector, St. Francis of Assisi Episcopal Church

From an early age, Louisa “Lou” Parsons was very involved in the church.

“I joined the children’s choir as soon as allowed,” she recalls. “Church camp and youth groups were an important part of my formation, and throughout my adult years, I was always involved in church and community service.”

When Parsons was 16 years old, a clear and unexpected thought came to her that she was called to be a priest. “I sought advice from Chaplain Al Minor at the University of Tennessee Knoxville, and he explained that our church did not ordain women,” Parsons says. “Still, as he believed this was a genuine call, he promised to be available to talk about this and check in with me through the years.” Thirty years later, when the Episcopal Church was welcoming women into ordained ministry, Minor presented Parsons for her ordination to the priesthood.

Today, Parsons is among the 12.9% of pastors who are women. Despite the shortage of women clergy, Parsons has been fortunate to grow in wisdom and faith from several female mentors, both ordained and lay ministers. “One woman who had a profound influence on me was Chaplain Aline Summerlin. Longtime head of pastoral care at Hospice of Chattanooga, Aline led by reminding others how important they were and by calling us to be our best selves.”

Those lessons live on in Parsons today as she herself strives to lead from a place of love, knowing and showing others how much they are loved by God. For women who desire to follow a similar path as Parsons, she shares this note of advice: “While this is a challenging career path, it is one we do not take alone. While God’s timing is not the same as our hoped-for schedules, God is faithful. By embracing prayer and scriptures, we can make room to listen for God’s guidance and follow that lead.”

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Heidi Hefferlin

Architect, HK Architects

Heidi Hefferlin was drawn to architecture for two reasons.

The first is simple – “I love to build things,” she says. “Bringing an idea to life in a permanent, lasting way like architecture always appealed to me.” Secondly, Hefferlin adds, “I saw the potential to change and improve people’s lives through buildings.” These realizations came to her at the age of 11 when she was visiting her uncle, an architect, in Zurich, Switzerland. “I fell in love with his house,” Hefferlin recounts. “It elegantly combined his love of architecture and animals. I got to see the drawings and models in his office. We even went to an architectural exhibit at the polytechnic university and saw what the students were doing,” she adds. It was in those formative moments that Hefferlin knew she wanted to be an architect.

Today, a mere 17% of registered architects are women, but the lack of representation in the industry didn’t deter Hefferlin from her pursuits. “My mother raised me to believe that I could do anything … Because of this upbringing, I never saw being female as a limiting factor,” she shares. In fact, Hefferlin sees many of the more traditionally feminine qualities as being advantageous in her role. “Women are great listeners and collaborators – two of the main traits needed to be a successful architect,” she says. “Ultimately, to build the best structure for your client, you have to be able to listen and collaborate to fully understand their needs and wants.”

Nowadays, with 38 years of industry knowledge and experience under her belt, Hefferlin has the privilege of being the mentor for young female architects that she never had. “I am an open book,” she shares. “Early in my career, people wouldn’t share information about budgets, contracts, or building methods,” she explains. “They kept young architects in the dark, but today I foster the careers of young architects and designers by letting them see all facets of the business.” Hefferlin is proud to say that her firm, HK Architects, is 40% female and majority female-owned.

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Alexis West

Executive Chef, Canyon Grill

Alexis West has always had a passion for food.

It was her love of cooking for others that inspired her to become a chef, a plan that was validated during her college search. “When I was researching colleges I might want to go to, I kept finding myself looking at culinary schools instead,” West explains. Taking that as a sign, West decided to move forward with the plan and pursue a future in cuisine.

West is among 12.5% of executive chefs who are women. At just 25 years old, she’s also very young for her position. The average age of an executive chef is 40 years old. In spite of the bent statistics around gender and age representation in the culinary arts, West pursued her dream holding firmly to the belief that women should follow their passion no matter what it is. “My biggest struggle in this industry is being a 4’10” 25-year-old woman stepping into a chef position and having the confidence to know that I can handle it,” she shares. “Respect is earned despite your gender. And to be a respected leader, the only thing you can do is work exceedingly hard to show your peers the passion you have for food.”

In addition to being her profession, cooking is a source of joy for West. She aspires to model her life after Christina Tosi, an American chef who, according to West, is a “successful, bubbly woman who bakes for the fun of baking.” West explains, “This is what I strive to do: to merely cook for the enjoyment it brings me and my guests.”

For all young women looking to pursue a culinary career, West shares a bit of advice. First, she says, “Never act as though you know more than someone else, and always be prepared to learn even if it’s by making mistakes.” She continues, “There are always struggles to overcome no matter your gender, size, or age. Your passion and your support from coworkers and guests is what will help you to persevere.”

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Stacie Liles

EMS Lieutenant, Hamilton County EMS

Working in Emergency Medical Service (EMS) calls for a lot of quick thinking and acting.

For some, that’s what makes the job seem so challenging. For others, like Stacie Liles, it’s that exact high-energy atmosphere that draws them in. “In EMS, you never know what kind of call you will run – you can get anything medical or trauma,” Liles shares. “Most people don’t realize how much we can do during a transport to the ER,” she explains. “Paramedics are true healthcare professionals trained to provide advanced care and treatment for life-threatening injuries and illnesses.”

Liles benefited from the life-saving care of paramedics herself at the age of 12 when she was in a serious vehicle accident with her dad and brother. “I was transported by ambulance to the hospital, then spent several weeks in ICU,” she shares. “I can remember bits and pieces of that experience, but I mostly recall being amazed at all the people around helping me. I knew then that I was going into the medical field.”

It’s becoming more and more common to see women in EMS, but the field remains male-dominated as only 31.6% of paramedics are women. Liles appreciates the different dynamic women tend to bring to EMS. “Women have a different communication style, and we are especially good at multitasking,” she shares. Liles makes it a personal priority to foster strong communication dynamics in her crews. “I think it’s important to have a good working relationship with your colleagues and develop trust,” she explains. “I make sure I lead by example so that I maintain the respect as their supervisor.”

Before becoming a leader in the field herself, Liles trained under the inspiring leadership of EMT instructor Patrice Schermerhorn. “Patrice was one of the first paramedics I did a clinical with. Her knowledge of medicine and her compassion with patients set the tone for how I wanted to be successful in this role,” Liles shares. To all women who are considering a career in EMS or medicine in general, Liles says, “Don’t let fear stop you from pursuing your calling.”

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Celeste Murphy

Chief of Police, Chattanooga Police Department

A passion for people and protecting the vulnerable is at the heart of Chattanooga Chief of Police Celeste Murphy’s service in law enforcement.

Police dramas and documentaries inspired Chief Murphy to pursue a career as a police officer with the Atlanta Police Department, where she rose in rank for 25 years before becoming Chief of Police for the Chattanooga Police Department in April 2022. “Becoming Chief of Police is a dream come true, as I’ve worked my entire career for this moment. I have a passion for people, and working in law enforcement allows me to touch families and change lives,” she shares.

In 2020, only 13.1% of full-time law enforcement officers were female. The number of women in law enforcement leadership is even smaller – 8.3% of all Chiefs of Police are women. Chief Murphy believes the women who make up these percentages bring valuable insight to the cities they serve: “Representation matters, and women are needed in law enforcement to bring perspective.” She reflects on her growth as a woman in law enforcement, sharing, “I used to work to be better than my male counterparts. Now, I work to better myself.”

Chief Murphy is encouraged and inspired by colleagues who are defying statistics and forging new paths in law enforcement leadership: “I stand on the shoulders of so many women, including my dear friend DeKalb County Sheriff Melody Maddox, Atlanta’s first female chief, Beverly Harvard, and Atlanta’s first female LGBTQ+ chief, Erika Shields, just to name a few.”

As she looks forward to her first year as Chief of Police, Chief Murphy hopes to lead the Chattanooga Police Department to “be a progressive, professional, personable, and polite police department.” She wants to dispel the notion that “police are only working a job” and show the community that, including herself, “Many are here because they care about people.” Chief Murphy hopes to see more women enter the law enforcement field with this authentic care for others, offering wisdom to women who are considering a career as a police officer, or any position they are passionate about: “Work hard to better yourself and go after what you want. But make sure it’s all for the right reasons.”

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Jessica Sebastian Van Mason, MD

Board-Certified Allergist, Chattanooga Allergy Clinic

Growing up, Dr. Jessica Van Mason was always intrigued by her science classes.

And caring for people was something Dr. Van Mason’s parents consistently modeled for her growing up. “A career in medicine felt like the natural way to blend those two things,” she shares. During her medical residency, she worked with several patients who had high-risk asthma and other allergic diseases. “I could see that these patients benefited greatly from continuity of care and individualized treatment plans and that there was such a dramatic improvement in their lives when the right plan was made,” she shares. “Helping people breathe better is such a privilege and still one of the most rewarding parts of my job.”

Today, Dr. Van Mason is among the 32.6% of allergists who are women. While the number of women in medicine and immunology continues to grow, Dr. Van Mason recognizes the impact that representation can have on improving the culture of a field. “There is still a large gender gap in leadership positions as well as ongoing gender biases,” she says. “The more women practice in the field, the more opportunities can be available for mentorship and transforming the culture.” Dr. Van Mason knows firsthand the value of having professional female mentors to look up to. “My mom became an attorney in India when female attorneys were definitely in the minority,” she shares. “She has always been my example of how to balance the many facets of life.”

Now, after seven years of successfully diagnosing, treating, and caring for her patients, Dr. Van Mason serves as a role model herself for women coming up in medicine. Her advice to them? “Make sure you are choosing a field or specialty based on what is right for YOU. While the opinions of your spouse, parents, colleagues, and the weight of your student loans may try to persuade you, it’s so important to choose what brings YOU joy,” she emphasizes. “Even the most difficult days can be rewarding when you are in your actual dream job.”

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Cara Roberson

President, SimplyBank

With an affinity for numbers and analytical thinking, working in finance was a natural fit for SimplyBank president Cara Roberson.

“While I didn’t originally plan to work in banking, I was fortunate enough to work as a part-time bank teller at then-First Bank of Tennessee (now SimplyBank) and gain valuable learning experience and exposure to the industry while I studied accounting at UTC,” Roberson recounts. She spent her first two years out of college working with a public accounting firm on audit teams serving various banks in the region. This position deepened Roberson’s understanding of and interest in the financial sector and propelled her into an opportunity to join SimplyBank full-time in 2012.

After working there as an internal auditor for six years, and then chief financial officer for four, Roberson was promoted to president, joining the ranks of the 32.9% of bank presidents who are women. She offers sage words of advice to women pursuing a similar career path in bank leadership: “Be intentional about staying motivated to learn as much as you can about all aspects of the industry … Never be complacent to just know how to do your particular current role or do things because ‘it’s always been done that way.’ Challenge the status quo in a traditional banking world for more efficient and innovative ways of doing business. And always operate with integrity and character.”

Considering why more women should feel encouraged to pursue careers in the banking industry, Roberson articulates its benefits: “Banking is a specialized industry and affords constant opportunities for learning and growth, broadening skill sets and relationships, as well as creating connectivity to your community and surrounding areas.” Roberson is grateful for her bank’s statistic-defying team makeup and hopes to mentor future women entering the industry. “While banking leadership in general is predominantly male, SimplyBank is uniquely blessed with female owners and leaders … I’m honored to be part of a prestigious group of women in bank leadership and look forward to helping future banking leaders also find a love and career in this industry.”

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