Powerful Women Let's Talk - 021: Bonnie Nawara

Nov 9, 2020

Bonnie Nawara

A small business owner, a former Director of Planned Giving, and now the CEO of Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women, meet Bonnie Nawara. She is the recipient of many awards, gives back to her community, and loves to sing even though she says she can't carry a tune. Be inspired with words from Bonnie on this edition of Powerful Women: Let’s Talk.

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Full Transcript

Powerful women, let's talk is made possible in part by Family Fare, keeping it real. Produced by women about women. Powerful women, Let's Talk is a series of interviews with women who have helped shape our community and transform who we are and how we live.

A small business owner and director of Planned Giving, today CEO of Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women or “GROW” Bonnie Nawara admits she's met her professional challenge. Bonnie is the recipient of many awards gives back to our community and did you know she loves to sing but, can’t carry a tune? Welcome to you, Bonnie Nawara to this edition of Powerful Women, Let's Talk.

Thank you, Shelly.

Well, let's start off by you singing a tune and we can be the judge of whether or not you can keep a tune, how’s that?

Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me, really?

Just teasing. Start off with humor, humor is a blast.

Nobody would want to listen to the rest of the interview.

Oh, we’ve got good listeners out there. Bonnie, obviously I want to talk more on the deed you know, that's half the fun of a of our conversation, we want to be inspirational to that listener. So, let's talk a bit of careers, plural 101 and perhaps the elephant in the room. You truly were challenged as a small business owner or the director of Planned Giving for a large nonprofit. Bet you did a good job but, let’s talk about this word challenge or being challenged and what brought you to where you are today.

Sure. I was in fact challenge challenged by being a small business owner. I mean I knew nothing about running a business. Happened to- at the time I was married, and my ex-husband had a great idea and decided he wanted to go into business, so he started researching franchises. So, we bought a printing franchise and after we signed on the dotted line, he looked at me and the idea was when we were buying the franchise, he was going to leave his job he was going to run the franchise. I was going to remain where I was and after we signed on the dotted line, he said “I can't do this, you have to do this,” so I became business owner. And I loved it but, it had reached a point. I had done it for 20 years, and it just reached a point where I was bored. I needed something different I like. I know myself well enough to know that I like taking things and building them and then when they reach a certain point it's time for me to exit left.

But, *inaudible* Plan Giving you know was still challenging.

Yes, yes plan giving was challenging in that it was it was Planned Giving. I mean it dealt with you know trusts and estates and I knew nothing about that and so they trained me and I aligned myself with a lot of specialists in the area so they actually hired me for my people skills the ability to connect and I do that well and so it was easy for me right? But it was it was repetitive it was the same thing day in day out and it just wasn't challenging enough for me and so after 6 years of doing that I decided to once again see what was out there and the position for GROW came up and I got hired and it's  definitely a challenge, been challenge a good challenge

Let’s expand on that, yeah talk about GROW.

Yeah, I've been with GROW for 10 years, I mean GROW has been around in our community for 31 years so I was hired 10 years ago to really bring some synergy to the organization, I mean it had lost its synergy and that we have done, I mean it's been quite a ride. I mean we have become, and we became the first communities, first micro lender we became the country's first CDFI, so we are really evolving from an agency that provides technical assistance, to a lending agency with strong technical assistance surrounding the clients.

Bonnie how do we know that we're in the right career job for us for women, we know that? Does it take 3 times and you're there?

You know that's a great question Shelly and the only thing I can tell you is based on my own experience and that is you know I've had many interesting careers over my span of 60 some years. I will tell you that with GROW, I know it's a perfect fit because A. everybody that I talked to in the community will say to me “you're so good for that job,”” you're perfect for that job,” and then the second piece that comes into play around that is things happen when I need them to. I mean it's pretty amazing. I mean I was looking for a financial administrator and we were having difficulties finding one, a qualified one and I happened to be talking to a friend and said I’m looking for this and she goes “wait a minute I got a really good friend that you know is a financial administrator I think she’d be perfect” and so it just came together.

What is your leadership style and how did you develop it?

My leadership style has evolved over the years, you know I started leading when, I stated leading in the mid 70's. And I was in the trucking industry was the only female parts manager in the entire United States and so my leadership style was very autocratic more male than female and so and it served me well, but over the years I found that particularly if you're dealing with you know if you’re dealing with different generations of employees. You can’t be autocratic and can you can't be more male than female, I mean you have to be a, you have to be a blend. And so, I've really, I really had to adjust and adapt to that because it's not my normal leadership style. Does that make sense?

It makes sense. You have been rewarded, awarded in our community so I’m going to put you on the spot a little bit and ask you: what's been one of your significant awards and how does it feel to be recognized? And then let's segue into and I’ll lead the question the importance of tooting your own, your own horn appropriately.

Sure. I think one of the I mean I've received many awards and I'm very grateful. Most recently and was a finalist for Athena and that was huge for me right, but I think probably the award that I did receive that really impacted me or affected me the most is I went through leadership rapids in 1997 and in 2005, I was named by my leadership class as an extra extraordinary leader and so that speaks volumes because if you've been through leadership Grand Rapids I mean it's really great program, it’s through the chamber. But, you bond with these people, you spend a whole year together every once a month and, and you bond with these people and to be named by my whole group I think there were maybe 25 people in my group, to be named as the extraordinary leader of our group was pretty cool.

Nice. Obviously, you can't carry the certificate around with you all day long, but is it important that we let others know that there have been awards in our lives?

It's important yes that we let each other know that there have been awards in our life and as I say that Shelly I smile because I don't do a great job of that I think and I think that's you know just part of who we are as women. Not to categorize, but who we are as women is, we just do what we do best and we get rewarded for it, but we don't necessarily talk about those rewards.

Who do you look for, for inspiration or even mentorship?

*inaudible name* has been to many of us, has been a great mentor in our community for inspiration you know I read one of my friends just told me about the new Falling Forward book by John Maxwell. I haven't started it, but I have the book. I have some you know, standbys one of the books that I've read and gone over and over again is called Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway.  Just you know it's just when you begin to doubt yourself and you really need that pick up to empower yourself again.

How do you keep your team motivated?

Especially during Covid times we've been doing things like a couple weeks ago we had a team picnic except for it rained and we had to be inside. We were going to go to John Ball Park. I was really excited about it and we had a team picnic and we bought food from one of our businesses and we had little limericks  for everybody like “I was clean” I forget exactly what it was but, I was “clean the keeper of the keys” when it comes to money finding money for the organization so we all had limericks written about us and we shared that you know during Covid. We took mental health days, I sent them, juice and cookies and we have a monthly or I'm sorry weekly team meetings just to talk about where we’re at you know? It's hard right now during Covid because people are just, I mean every everybody is struggling and everybody comes from different place in regard to how they respond to it so.

Do you recommend a young Bonnie Nawara gets involved in her community?

Yes, by all means find something that you have passion around and volunteer start off. Sometimes you’ll start off at a committee level and move into a board position. Even beyond what I've done with GROW, I volunteered for probably, I don’t know? Probably the last 10 years with the Wyoming Mentorship Program and I started with her  when she was, I think she was 8 and now she's 16 and so I you know I take or to the movies and we're just, she's my bud and you know I started out volunteering to help her with the reading and her math. Well, that went by the wayside very quickly and then we just started doing fun stuff together

Nice. Like singing right?

Yes, exactly.

Did you always want to be a litigator?

Yes.  The reasons I think I would make a good litigator is because I'm always challenged by puzzles and especially if there's somebody on the other side saying “no that's not right,” then it's like oh I think it is let me just figure it out. So, I think I would have been good at that.

You grow a garden, but you give most of the produce a way?

Usually to the wild critters that are around my house. I can tell you a story. I am planting corn this year. I was very excited about the corn because I love corn on the cob, so I was very excited and I came home one day and my corn had been totally decimated. I mean the stocks were bent over there were no ears left on the stocks and the squirrels have gotten into it and I was so angry.

You ran your first and I have to a quote you and only at this point, 5k at the age of 60, what drove you to do this?

Because Gazelle Girl. It was the very first year that Gazelle Girl happened. We were a recipient of the funds, one of the recipients of the funds and I just thought if I'm ever going to do this, I’ll do this and I ran walked it and my good friends that were with me. They came back and got me and I so I finished the last leg of it and actually ran the last leg of it and ran across to the finish line so that that was kind of cool and I've done every Gazelle Girl Since then and sometimes I run walk, but not run. Not like you Shelly Irwin.

You held a job no other when a woman in the US has ever held, I don't know the answer to this, what is the answer?

I was the very first female parts manager for class 6 and 7-- the big semi-trucks you see on the road in the United States and this was in the late 70's to early 80's and how I got that job is I was hired originally as cashier for the parts department and you know, so I was in  the parts department and I just started learning how to look up parts for trucks and then pretty soon I started waiting on that counter and I got pretty good at it. And you know and because I was in a primarily a male dominated world, I had to work harder at it and then I have been around or maybe 6 or 7 years and the current parts manager decided he was leaving and so I went to the CEO of the company and asked  for the job and you know I had to persuade him that I could do it, but I did it and I did a good job at it and I still maintain relationships from those days today.  Yeah, it's cool.

But you had to work harder.

I would go to national conferences and I’d be the only female there. You know, I’d go to national conferences and these were the days when they showed slides and they’d put you know scantily clad women in the slides amongst like the new engines that would come out and I remember having a conversation about that with the CEO of *inaudible* engine company at the time saying I think this should not be in there so they did change it so.

Bonnie do I call you Benita?

No, my name is bonnie. Everybody asks me if my real name is Benita but, its not.

How do you create the next chapter?

That is a great question Shelley. One I've been actually thinking about a lot lately you know. Like I said, I’m in my 60's and so what is next for me, you know? GROW is doing great work, no pun intended but we continue to grow. So, I'm actually you know looking at that and thinking about that at this point my life.

Until then back to the office you go right? Do you have a model that drives you daily?

I do. Want to know what it is?

I ask the questions you give me the answer.

Okay, life can only be understood backwards but, it must be lived forwards that's my motto because It’s so true I mean you learn so much from your past experiences, but you have to move forward. Right?

Would you do anything different? I don’t think so.

Thank you for this conversation, CEO of GROW: Bonnie Nawara.

Thanks Shelley.

That does it for this edition of Powerful Women Lets Talk. Im 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 are Grand Valley State University. Powerful Women, Lets Talk is made possible in part by Family Fare, keeping it real.