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Powerful Women Let's Talk - 053: Judy Welch

Judy Welch Headshot
Judy Welch
Judy Welch

She's a committed leader who understands and values creating, building and supporting others. Executive Director of Michigan Women Forward - West Michigan edition, Judy Welch has worked to expand and implement existing programs across the state.

Powerful Women: Let’s Talk is created by WGVU NPR and made possible by WGVU NPR sustaining monthly donors. Become a sustaining monthly donor now at wgvu.org/donate to support WGVU NPR’s local programs, including Powerful Women: Let’s Talk.

Full Transcript:


>> Produced by women about women, Powerful Women, Let's Talk is a series of interviews with women who are trailblazers and have helped shape our world. Transforming who we are and how we live.


Shelley Irwin: She's a committed leader who understands and values, creating building and supporting others. Executive director of Michigan Women Forward: The West Edition. Judy Welch has worked to expand and implement existing programs across the state, engagement opportunities for donors and all to support women, girls and entrepreneurs. Award-winning in her field, she also believes in spontaneity maybe yes. Oh and she's run a marathon on a whim. So welcome, Judy, to this edition of Powerful Women, Let's Talk.

Judy Welch: Shelley, thank you for having me.

Shelley Irwin: You’re welcome and Judy Welch that is a one and done when it comes to your marathon running?

Judy Welch: Absolutely. It was just on a whim. I was 47 years old. I had just done the Susan, you know, G Komen three day walk with my sister raised a lot of money and I thought that was fun. Thought, what can I do next? So within about 3 months, I ran into Gazelle Sports and they had a sign up for the marathon in San Diego. Sign up in the fall start and running in January. Did the 5th 3rd, you know, race back then and in May ran a marathon or it was a June actually ran the marathon. I finished. It was around 6 hours. Plus you know, I at least finished. I did it and I raised money for leukemia. So, it was a great opportunity but you know, sometimes you just got to do it.

Shelley Irwin: You share your inspiring life, we know there's a next chapter in the making but, I want to stay with current tense. How did you get into the business of advocating for women?

Judy Welch: You know, Shelley I was thinking about that and I started at a very early age. My dad owned a large chain of dry cleaners and I started working when I was 14. You know, he’s from a Lebanese family and I watched how he worked and it was all top down and I was very outspoken. So, I thought you know got to figure out what I'm doing here. So, after a couple of years in deciding what I wanted to do after going to GRCC I took off to Dallas and I ran into an individual who helped me get a job at a bank and I worked as a trust officer for 8 trust officers, a receptionist and I thought, you know, again, I did it and I realized it was for, you know, 8 men and it just wasn't working. So I said I wanted to get into operations and at that time, you know, they allowed me, but I kind of watched my career unfold and seeing the disparities and thought, you know, I've got to do something and I just kept at each one of my jobs advocating and it helped out but, you know, it's something that started at a very early age from how I was raised and you know, for the domination of the, you know, my mom not working and the men doing it and it just worked out really well for me because it just help me in my career today.

Shelley Irwin: Much to fill in between but, I want to get to your work with Inform remind me of this organization that you are quite instrumental with and you did focus upon strategic connections in accelerating careers for women.

Judy Welch: Right. I had a great opportunity with Inforum when we brought it from the Southeast side here. It was about really focusing on women with strategic connection in helping them accelerate their careers and when I thought about when I was actually when I left the dry cleaners after 20 years and I’ll share that later about, you know, I ended up Owning the dry cleaners and buying it off of my dad, but I work for national heritage academies and then when I left there, this opportunity came up for Inform and I thought do I really want to work for you know a group that's just all women thinking about that and I ran into a leadership coach and she said, you know, Judy, when you think about it, you're going to end up with 600 really close friends and that's what Informs all about. It's about your connections and working together with women and the group of women that I met from Inform are still very influential in my life today and it's about putting yourself out there and Inform was and is a great opportunity and it helped women also think about where they needed to be in their careers and accelerating their careers as well.

Shelley Irwin: And yet one of your chapters did include moving on to another woman-based organization lets expand there.

Judy Welch: Right. So, you know, after 8 years of a great opportunity within Inforum, I was approached by Carolyn Cassin at Michigan, Women Forward and I thought, you know, she said can you do the same thing for us at Michigan Women Forward and I said why is that, you know, again, Michigan Women Forward was a statewide organization that really focused pretty much through the Southeast, Michigan even though they did have programming in West Michigan. She said we really need to expand our board. As you know, had a huge strategic planning and said we really need if we're going to be statewide, we need to be statewide So I was offered the executive director position and was able to take my experience because MWF is all about youth and entrepreneurship and helping women and so I took my career from uptown and being an entrepreneur there took my work from the charter schools, took my work from Inforum and put it to work to MWF and really what it did is bring all of the programs and initiatives from the Southeast side to the West Michigan side Lansing, Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo and it's been a wonderful experience.

Shelley Irwin: Women helping women, men helping women succeed. How are we doing?

Judy Welch: It's a slow process. You know, I when I think back at you know how we've been doing over the years. You know, things are just slow. So first of all, women need to put themself out there and trust each other and I think that's one of the issues with women helping women. You need to trust each other and you need to lean on women and I was thinking about one of my most amazing mentors was a male when I was at National heritage academies, my boss. he helped me become a better person. So, I think women just need to find mentors. They need to put themselves out there and they need to just trust each other and just not be catty, because there's room for all of us. There's room for everybody.

Shelley Irwin: You mentioned a part of your work has been to work with girls. Are girls helping girls?

Judy Welch: Boy, that's tough. We just got done with 2 virtual camps. One that's for high school, one from Middle School and it’s tough. I think, you know, social media, I think that everything out there is a catch to young girls when you see it. So we just have to continue to work with our youth and these are women that are not traditional don't have opportunities and help them understand that there is a role model because a lot of them come from single families and don't have that and so MWF is really helping these young women know that there's an opportunity for them in different careers and different opportunities but, you just have to ask and you can't look at everybody else, you have to look within yourself to get where you are.

Shelley Irwin: Let's continue the topic of today's entrepreneur. You took a risk, obviously entrepreneurs I think take risks your you're MWF programming had your members take risks. Talk about taking a risk.

Judy Welch: Entrepreneurs absolutely. Entrepreneurs do what they do because they do take a risk but, they also need to put themselves out there and ask for help. I think there's so many entrepreneurs out there that just need to say and look outside and say I need to ask for help and, you know, within MWF, we have all these opportunities because you know, we look at the digital divide. We look at the issues with entrepreneurs and the social media and their websites. So, we want to help them there. We want to help them with their opportunities for their book keeping so we're doing back office opportunities for them to help them understand that finances are important we want to help them with, We have this whole calling a laptop program going digital where we're going to be providing 75 laptops to different entrepreneurs to help them. You just got to ask for help and there's so many amazing entrepreneurial opportunities here in the state that can help people move forward, bring their idea and then let us sit down with them because it's not always about the money. We do provide microloans for a nontraditional funding for entrepreneurs and most of it goes to low to moderate and women of color. There's a huge divide for women of color getting on microloans and that's what we want to do. So, we want to be able to help businesses become successful and healthy and we want them to be able to be bankable at some point but, you know, you just got to take that risk and ask and just say, you know, is this a good idea or isn't it a good idea and what do I need? Don’t jump and sign a lease until you've talked to somebody about it. Don't jump to do this and just put 5,000 on a credit card until you’ve talked to somebody about it.

Shelley Irwin: Where does your passion play its role for you and for others? So, you have this passion.

Judy Welch: Passion is huge and if you don't have passion, you just won’t make it passion is what gets you out of bed every morning and passion is in your voice. So, when you're talking to whomever, if you're talking to your donors and supporters, if you're talking to your entrepreneurs your passion comes through because they know you're there for them and I learned at a very early age my dad was so passionate about what he did and our family and you know, he taught us that and again without passion. You can't do what you do.

Shelley Irwin: Stay with your dad and the cleaner occupation. This is part of your work ethic, I trust. Give me some more examples here.

Judy Welch: So, my dad had 3 brothers and they started their dry cleaners in 1932 and they just they grew it from nothing. Absolutely nothing. It was funny because I thought I'd never be in the dry-cleaning business. I just wanted to be a banker but, you know, after I left for a couple years and was in Dallas and Denver and really had some great opportunities my dad wanted to retire and the only way he could retire was to have somebody in the business. Well, there's 5 girls in our family. So, I have 4 sisters and nobody else wanted to be in there. My dad wished he had a boy, but he didn't. So therefore I was the one because I had the banking background because, you know, when I left, you know, after a couple years and went out to Dallas and Denver and got into the banking business and I watched him and I watched how he worked hard and that's kind of where I got my work ethic and that's, you know, where I learned and then I watched after my dad retired and my mom went to work and she had an amazing work ethic. It was not traditional for, you know, kind of the wife's to go to work but, she did and when I came back to run the organization with my dad. He was in production and my uncle who was his partner was in the office so because my male cousin was a male he was able to be in operations and I had to be in the office but, it was clear after about 6 to 8 months that I was blowing everybody away both in the production side and even the office side. So that's when my father decided it was time to buy my uncle out and that was an experience and I became president at that time and that was an experience where I saw, you know, the support of my dad, but also saw that, you know, there was this discrimination of a female can only do this and a male can only do this and it wasn't true and after that we kind of changed the whole trajectory because I was in a total male operated situation because there was no other female president in dry cleaners anywhere but, it was great because I was able to join some organizations and help people understand that women can do this and that's what really helped fuel me for the future about empowering women and showing that women can do this and it's helped me in every piece of my career, at the charter schools, at Inforum and at MWF.

Shelley Irwin: You come from a large Lebanese family. Do I picture the likes of my Big Fat Greek Wedding?

Judy Welch: Oh my gosh, exactly like that. We laugh every time when we get together, you know, it's just we are very much like that.

Shelley Irwin: What about doing things, Judy, on a whim moving to Dallas, running a marathon, saying yes to podcasts and other opportunities, is that recommended?

Judy Welch: I recommend it to anybody. You have to put yourself out there and if you don't, you won't get to the next level. No pain, no gain as they say. You have to be able to experience some of these things and to know if that's what you want to move forward. So, you know, I know I don't want to run a marathon again and I loved running the business when I did, it was an amazing experience and now I can talk to entrepreneurs about it and feel it and see it, you know, so doing these things, these experiences help you continue in your work journey and so, you know, I recommend every young person needs to experience something, they need to put themself out there. They need to get involved. As I look at mentoring young women, I say get involved. You can't just sit on the sideline. There's so many amazing nonprofit boards you can get involved in, there are so many opportunities in small government boards that you can get on just get yourself out there.

Shelley Irwin: How soon would you like a young lady to do this in her life?

Judy Welch: Immediately. I mean, you know, that's why we're teaching middle school young women, that's why we have the camps for middle school to teach them the opportunities that are out there for them. We do one specifically on STEM, you know, to help them see that there are opportunities. You know, if you can't afford to go to college there's opportunities and manufacturing to make a lot of money. There's all kinds just we have to we have to show individuals what's out there.

Shelley Irwin: What’s out there next for Judy Welch?

Judy Welch: Well, actually, Shelley it's kind of funny because I'm retiring.

Shelley Irwin: Oh, the big R word.

Judy Welch: Yeah.

Shelley Irwin: I'll start with congratulations.

Judy Welch: Thank you.

Shelley Irwin: But because of your work ethic, your energy, your passion for life. I don't see you on the front porch rocking. What's in the head?

Judy Welch: You know, I’m going to sit back for a little bit. I want to continue to be involved in the community. I love Michigan Women Forward and will stay involved but, I need to slow down. I think the pandemic has shown a lot of individuals kind of what's next in their chapter and I don't think retirements at a certain age. I just think, you know, when it's time and you know, when you need to take yourself to the next journey and this is for me and it's been an amazing ride with MWF and we've had one of our best years we’re really supporting entrepreneurship and we're supporting the community and it's time for the next gen to take it to the next level and I believe strongly that that MWF of has the right people on the bus to do that.

Shelley Irwin: You know, some women fail retirement, but we want you to at least sleep in on that Monday morning. Do you have a go to motto?

Judy Welch: I have a couple. One that has really stuck with me lately has been, you know, your tongue is sharp be careful what you say because your words you can't take them back. So, choose your words wisely today.

Shelley Irwin: Wonderful. All right. Well, I guess we will conclude and your clothes look pretty well pressed. So, the cleaners been good to you. You touched this community. So, continue touching and I thank you for your time here on our Powerful Women, Let's Talk podcast Judy Welch.

Judy Welch: Thank you. Shelly and for all you do for the community.

Shelley Irwin: And thanks for listening to this edition of Powerful Women, Let’s Talk. I’m Shelley Irwin.


>> Produced by women about women. These powerful podcasts focus on powerful women and how their strength transforms who we are and how we live. Want to hear more Powerful Women, Let's Talk? Get additional interviews at WGVU.org or wherever you get your podcasts. Please rate and subscribe. Powerful Women, Let’s Talk is produced by WGVU at the Meijer Public Broadcast Center at Grand Valley State University. The views and opinions expressed on this program do not necessarily reflect those of WGVU, its underwriters or Grand Valley State University.


Shelley Irwin is the host and producer for The Shelley Irwin Show, a news magazine talk-show format on the local NPR affiliate Monday through Friday. The show, broadcast at 9 a.m., features a wide variety of local and national news makers, plus special features.