New Mexico Business Weekly's 2011 Women of Influence

by Christie Chisholm, New Mexico Business Weekly, February 2011

Adriann Barboa

Helping women rise to positions of influence both in their lives and their communities is what fuels Adriann Barboa, the director of Young Women United (YWU). Her organization works to create community for young women of color, holding a megaphone up to voices that are too often overlooked or diminished. 

After seven years with the group, Barboa has doubled the size of YWU’s staff from two people to four and helped bring in $1 million (in addition to $6 million she’s helped leverage for other organizations in the state). She also organizes the 226 women on YWU’s membership list, who enlist in campaigns to end violence against women and bring responsible sex education and health access to teens. 

One such campaign is being executed by YWU’s 21 core teen members, who are visiting public and school-based health clinics across Albuquerque to determine which ones provide the best access to care. Barboa helped secure a $22,000 grant for the project from the University of New Mexico, which is partnering with the teens to analyze and convey their findings.

Barboa has always been interested in working with young people in need of community; before coming to YWU, she worked as a case manager with Youth Development, Inc.’s community corrections program as well as with youth coming out of foster care. And during her time getting her bachelor’s in sociology at UNM, she had a large hand in developing a peer mentoring program called ORALE, which pairs college students with Latino youth at risk of dropping out of school. She says it’s since become the biggest mentoring program in the state.

Another accomplishment Barboa’s particularly proud of is the 2009 passage of House Memorial 38, which works to prevent accidental drug overdose in people just released from jail. By providing detainees with access to a phone, releasing them at a time when they can use public transportation and giving them literature on drug overdose prevention, Barboa says a number of lives will be saved. 

Effecting change can be especially difficult when the organizers are faced with discrimination, which is something Barboa says she sees plenty of. “As young women, as women of color and and young mothers, it changes the way we’re received,” she says. “We have to be more prepared than the average person ... or we’re dismissed almost immediately.” To combat this, Barboa says YWU members travel in groups when presenting a case at a school board meeting or at the Legislature. 

She says the organization’s biggest successes have come when the voices of those most impacted are included. When talking about sex education, for instance, Barboa says it’s necessary to have young people at the table. When discussing incarcerated women, they need to be involved. “We’ve been successful because we’ve looked to a whole collection of voices that can inform the work,” she says. “Not just the experts, but the people impacted.”

Andrea Quijada is the executive director of the Media Literacy Project and the former director and co-founder of YWU. She’s known Barboa for nearly 15 years, and the two continue to work with each other on a regular basis. She says she’s seen YWU blossom under Barboa’s watch. “She’s an amazing networker,” says Quijada. “She’s cooperative, I would say, in the truest sense of the word. She’s visionary, driven, compassionate, grounded.”

Quijada says Barboa is an asset to the community who’s accomplished a myriad of important projects. But the most impressive thing about her? “When the system isn’t working,” says Quijada,” she works to change it.”

 

Name: Adriann Barboa

Title: Director

Company: Young Women United

Community Involvement: Beyond her job, which is comprised entirely of community involvement, Barboa volunteers to help with her 15-year-old son’s sports teams, serves as an election official and does some work with her local cop watch.  

Education: Bachelor’s in Sociology at the University of New Mexico

What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you were starting out?

“In the last few years, the biggest lesson has really been about having the mind, body, spirit piece to our work, adding spiritual intentions. ... Not exhausting women or taking away from their families. I wish I could have started that way back when.”

What woman has been the most influential in your career?

“Ann Caton; she was the director before. She’s been such a mentor to me. ... I still get advice from her regularly.”

If you could do any job other than your own, what would it be?

“We did that work around the youth mentoring project. That was really just mentoring in academics; now I would love to do a youth mentoring project around health and ... job outreach. I also like working with incarcerated youth.”

If you unexpectedly had a completely free hour, how would you fill it?

“I don’t know that I would have a free hour [laughs]. I would say with my kids.”

 

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Kristine Meurer

One of the best things that ever happened to Kristine Meurer was losing her job. Early in her career she was working in Detroit as a high school athletic trainer. Then the car industry went under in Michigan in the early ’80s, devastating the local economy. Meurer went on unemployment and looked around the country for any job she could find. A position opened up in New Mexico. 

“I can look back on my life and see tipping points,” she says. “But if I put my finger on one thing, it was actually getting laid off. If I didn’t, I would probably still be in Michigan. It was the best thing that ever happened to me.” Meurer says she’s since had offers in other states, but she’s always refused them. Now she’s in love with New Mexico, her husband (who she met here) and her job. 

Meurer fills two big roles at the New Mexico Public Education Department. She’s the director of the School and Family Support Bureau, and for the last six months she’s also served as the acting assistant secretary for the Student Success Division. Filling two more-than-full-time roles is a challenge, but the recession has trimmed the department to a 30 percent vacancy rate, she says, which means everyone has to take on more duties.

Meurer has taken on a lot of different roles over her career, from teaching swimming to mentally and emotionally disabled kids when she was in high school, to teaching gymnastics and sports medicine, to working as a special olympics volunteer instructor and a Red Cross CPR instructor. Before she got a job with the state, she was an athletic trainer at Albuquerque Public Schools. Then a position for a health education and health occupation coordinator opened up with the state and she liked the idea of “looking at things with a broader view,” she says. She got the job and has been filling different positions within the department ever since. 

To put it simply, her job is to make sure kids have the support system they need to succeed. That means ensuring they have access to things like good nutrition, physical activity and health services. Meurer accomplishes that by working to get bills passed and funding allocated through the Legislature, as well as providing technical assistance to schools around the state. 

Just last year, the Legislature passed a bill requiring that health education be taught by certified health educators. Previously, teachers from other areas of expertise have been asked to teach the courses, but “you don’t want algebra taught to a child by someone who isn’t certified to teach algebra,” she says. “Health education should be the same.” Meurer worked for 20 years on getting the legislation passed.

Another victory for Meurer and her department is the nutrition guidelines adopted for schools around the state four years ago. The rules outline what can be sold “competitively” to students at schools and school-sponsored events, ensuring that healthy options are available. “New Mexico is touted as having some of the best standards in the nation,” she says. 

Meurer thinks she’s been successful because she chooses her battles wisely, she says. “I ask myself: Is it worth losing my job over if I step out too far? If the answer is yes, I go for it. I’m willing to do things I think should happen.” Another component, she says, is finding champions who can carry an issue to make sure policies are enforced. 

“She’s very passionate, very no-nonsense,” says Laura Kesselman, president of Kesselman-Jones, Inc., a communications firm. Meurer and Kesselman have worked together on various events over the last 16 years. Kesselman says some of Meurer’s best qualities are that she never gives up and she’s able to inspire others. “She’s a visionary. And she’s able to get everybody on board with her vision.”

Meurer has faced a number of challenges in her career, though, especially when she was starting out. When she first became an athletic trainer, it was when the field was still heavily male-dominated. Gaining acceptance on the part of other coaches was difficult, she says. A number of people didn’t want to hire her because she was female. She remembers one interviewer in particular, who told her, “Before I start this interview, I want you to forget everything you’ve ever heard about Title IX,” she says. “I had to prove myself in ways men didn’t have to.”

 

Name: Kristine Meurer

Title: Director of the School and Family Support Bureau; Acting Assistant Secretary for the Student Success Division

Company: New Mexico Public Education Department

Community Involvement: Serves as a sign language interpreter every Sunday at her church and sits on a task force with the Archdiocese of Santa Fe for people with disabilities

Education: Bachelor’s and master’s from Eastern Michigan University, PhD from the University of New Mexico

What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you were starting out?

“That things take time.”

What woman has been most influential in your career?

“I would say my mother. My mother had a fifth-grade education, and she wouldn’t let me stop. She supported me in all I wanted to do.”

If you could do any job other than your own, what would it be?

“I like what I do. I’m not sure I would want any other job. ... I can’t retire because I can’t think about what I’d do.”

If you unexpectedly had a completely free hour, how would you fill it?

“With my family. I don’t get to spend enough time with my family.”

 

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Mary Montaño

Mary Montaño works in the secular world of grant writing and fundraising, but she lives in a much more ethereal, artistic one. She raises more than $1 million every year for Goodwill Industries of New Mexico as its fund development manager, but when asked about her proudest accomplishments, her immediate response is, “When I can connect people with the arts so they can benefit from it in a deep, transcending way.” As an example, she speaks lovingly about her master’s thesis, which she wrote at the University of New Mexico on zarzuela (Spanish musical theater). Writing a 330-page thesis on a zarzuela manuscript collection that had originally been found in an Arizona dumpster was “like opening a box of treasures no one even knew was there,” she says.

It’s not surprising, then, that Montaño has spent most of her career working in the arts. One could practically write a thesis on her hefty list of accolades, which include writing a book on New Mexico Hispano arts and crafts (Tradiciones Nuevomexicanas: Hispano Arts and Culture of New Mexico) that’s used as required reading in courses around the state, including a class Montaño teaches at UNM; co-writing flamenco curriculum that was the first of its kind in the U.S. and funded by the National Endowment for the Arts; and receiving a Bravos Award for Excellence in Literary Arts from the Albuquerque Arts Alliance in 2005.

Before coming to Goodwill, Montaño worked as a grant writer for the National Dance Institute of New Mexico, where she helped the organization grow from an office out of the director’s house into a cluster of studios, offices and performance spaces that teaches thousands of kids in the state.

She says her position at Goodwill, where she’s been since 2005, is the first non-arts related job she’s had. She was lured into the nonprofit to establish a development program, and she ended up really enjoying it. At some point, however, she’d like to do some freelance work for arts organizations on the side. When she came to Goodwill, it was only taking in about $65,000 in grants every year. In 2010, it received more than $1 million in grants, in addition to an annually reoccurring $2 million it gets for low-income seniors. Montaño is obviously proud of what’s she’s accomplished. “I have to work for a nonprofit,” she says. “I need to feel like my life is making a difference.”

One person Montaño has made a difference for is Dr. Patricia Repar, director of Arts-in-Medicine, associate professor of internal medicine and associate professor of music at UNM. When the two met in 2002, Montaño taught Repar how to write grants, and it’s a process that’s stuck with Repar over the years. “No one since has been that clear or methodical or instructional with regard to grant writing as Mary has with me,” she says. “And that says a lot, because I took a lot of grant writing courses.” She says it sounds like a small thing, but it’s indicative of Montaño’s character. “She’s authentic,” she says. “She doesn’t flaunt it, and she doesn’t demean others in front of her. [That’s] a quality of a great leader. When you’re lifted up by another person, you feel yourself expanded, you feel yourself becoming a bigger person, a person you want to be.”

Montaño says the secret to her success is “looking at the opportunity in its broader context” and being able to provide measurable results. For instance, when asking for grants for the National Dance Institute, Montaño wouldn’t just write about “warm, fuzzy stories,” she says. She’d also use numbers to show that kids enrolled in classes were more likely to succeed in school.  

Fundraising in New Mexico can be difficult, she says, because there aren’t as many “old moneyed families” as there are on the coasts. One of her missions is to bring charity to the forefront of people’s minds. “People need to be more aware of the value of charities in their community,” she says. “It’s what makes us human, what separates us from the insects.”

 

Name: Mary Montaño

Title: Fund Development Manager

Company: Goodwill Industries of New Mexico

Community Involvement: Serves as the advisor to Los Reyes de Albuquerque Foundation, El Museo Cultural de Santa Fe, Institute of Spanish Arts and Opera Southwest, among others

Education: Bachelor’s in music, master’s in music history and literature at the University of New Mexico

What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you were starting out?

“To be fearless, and there’s nothing to lose from being fearless.”

What woman has been the most influential on your career?

“Erin Brockovich. And Nancy Pelosi; I think she’s very courageous. She stuck by her guns and did what she thought was right. Gabrielle Giffords. Barbara Boxer. Any woman who will get out into politics.”

If you could do any job other than your won, what would it be?

“I would probably be on stage if I could get paid enough. Oh, and I’d also like to spend a month on the staff of the Obama White House.”

If you unexpectedly had a completely free hour, how would you fill it?

“Reading.”

 

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Michelle A. Coons

Michelle Coons likes to see a business grow. It’s her favorite part of her job, and that’s a good thing, because as the regional commercial banking manager of Bank of the West’s Southwest division—which requires her to oversee four offices in New Mexico, Arizona and Oklahoma—Coons is responsible for a whole lot of business ($550 million in outstanding loans and assets’ worth).

She’s always been the type of person who likes to make things happen. In her senior year at Sandia High School, she was voted “most active” out of her entire graduating class. Since the age of 22, after entering a management training program at Wells Fargo, she’s been churning that enthusiasm into numbers. She climbed the ladder from internal credit analyst to commercial lender. And in January of 1999, at the age of 38, she was hired as the president of Wells Fargo’s Santa Fe branch. Over four years, Coons oversaw four mergers and acquisitions, and through those acquisitions she grew her bank’s worth from $40 million to $400 million. 

In 2006, an old rival of Coons’ hired her into her current position. George Stanfield is the division executive of the Southwest region at Bank of the West. He’s known Coons for more than 20 years, and for most of that time, they competed with each other for clients. Four years ago, he was looking to fill the banking manager position and knew he wanted to hire her. “She’s well-known, and she dedicates a lot of time and effort,” he says. “When you do that, you make a name for yourself. And in this business, it’s all about personal relationships.”

Relationships are exactly what Coons points to when asked about her successes. She says at each step of the way up the ladder, she’s worked hard to build and maintain relationships, and it’s paid off. It also proved useful soon after Coons was hired at Bank of the West. Another employee who had vied for her position approached her a couple months after she started, telling her he was leaving to start his own bank and taking four other employees with him. Coons stayed calm. “I called a personal friend who had done a little banking but was just smart,” she says. “I asked her to step in and cover my back until I could get staff hired, and she did.” Coons and her division emerged on the other side of the turmoil without making any big mistakes, she says.

It’s obvious that Coons loves her field, but one thing she wishes is that more women worked in it. “In my thirties, it seemed like there was a larger number of women in banking,” she says. The women who are in the business are mostly in the retail or branch manager side of the industry instead of in commercial lending, she says, adding, “We need to figure out how to attract more women.” 

Even though the ratio of men to women is uneven in her field, Coons is adamant that she’s “never, ever felt discriminated against.” It seems like if she had, she would have made sure it didn’t last.

 

Name: Michelle A. Coons

Title: Regional Commercial Banking Manager, Southwest Division

Company: Bank of the West

Community Involvement: Among others, sits on the board of the Robert O. Anderson Schools of Management National Advisory Board, the UNM Foundation Board, the New Mexico Women’s Forum and United Way of Central New Mexico

Education: BBA with a concentration in finance and general management from the University of New Mexico

What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you were starting out?

“I have many more contacts. When you’re a new commercial lender trying to break in, it’s difficult when you don’t have any big networking circles. Staying in communication has been an advantage.”

What woman has been most influential in your career?

“Thelma Domenici. At the age of 79, she became the chair of the UNM Foundation, continues to write her column, throws the best parties for women and stays active in giving back to the community. I want to be just like her at that stage of my life.”

If you could do any job other than your own, what would it be?

“It was a long time ago, and I just don’t have time to pursue it, but when I retire, I’ve always been fascinated with photography, particularly black and white.”

If you unexpectedly had a completely free hour, how would you fill it?

“I would either go work out or have a pedicure.”