Some questions don’t fit in a college classroom. They’re too big, or maybe they’re too personal.

Sometimes, your questions are best posed to a small circle of women, all eager to help.

That community of women was at the heart of Friday’s INSPIRE: Women’s Exchange of Knowledge, a new mentoring event added to Illinois State University’s Business Week 2016. INSPIRE paired 55 students with 22 mentors—mostly Illinois State alumnae—for morning roundtable sessions, lunch, and then keynote remarks by the chief diversity officer for Cintas.

“The students asked really excellent, insightful questions,” said Katie Gottesman ’01, founder of CommuterAds and one of the returning mentors. “I would have loved this as a student.”

“The support from the College of Business has been phenomenal.” —Megan Kapala

The event is part of a larger effort to support women within the College of Business. It began in fall 2015 with a screening and discussion of The Devil Wears Prada, focused on breaking down gender barriers in the workplace. A new student organization, called Women in Business, is also off to a running start.

INSPIRE is the centerpiece of those efforts so far. When told about the event and asked to be a mentor, Gottesman thought it was a great idea. Relationship-building is so important, she said.

In the mentoring sessions Friday at Hyatt Place in Uptown Normal, Gottesman tried to be honest with her students about what it’s like to be a woman in business.

“Some of the stories are really encouraging. In all honesty, there are some that aren’t as bright,” Gottesman said. “But part of what you want to achieve today is to take away some of the naiveté, so (the students) can feel well-equipped to deal with some of the challenges they might face.”

Senior professional sales major Morgan Rabas was one of the key organizers of INSPIRE and a member of the Business Week leadership team. That mentoring is the core of the event.

“When I graduate, I may come across a similar situation, and now I’ll know how to handle it or a certain way to approach it,” Rabas said. “By sharing those stories, we can work on bridging that gap.”

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INSPIRE concluded with keynote remarks by Robin Everhart, senior vice president and chief diversity officer at Cintas Corp.

Tracing her own roundabout career path to and within Cintas, Everhart emphasized life lessons beyond just the scope of shattering glass ceilings. But one point she returned to again and again was to pick your battles—a lesson she learned from her black college roommate at their school in the South.

Robin Everhart speaks

Robin Everhart, senior vice president and chief diversity officer at Cintas Corp., was the keynote speaker at Business Week’s INSPIRE event.

Raised as a socially conscious kid by her activist mom and executive dad, Everhart was shocked by the prejudice toward blacks that she encountered during move-in day at college. It was her roommate that gave her the pick-your-battles advice that’s threaded all the way through her career.

“Passion alone doesn’t get results,” Everhart said. “Strategic passion does.”

Everhart’s keynote was at the Normal Theater, where Business Week also hosted the Devil Wears Prada event. One of the speakers on the panel afterward was Kimberly Judson, interim chair and professor in the Department of Marketing. While not directly involved with INSPIRE, Judson said these types of events enable students to have important discussions on the table, which leads to better decision-making and greater personal growth.

Student listens to mentor speak

INSPIRE paired 55 students with 22 mentors (mostly Illinois State alumnae) for morning roundtable sessions.

“I’m hopeful that an event like INSPIRE will truly ‘inspire’ young people to make life and career choices that allow them to positively impact others in the world,” Judson said.

INSPIRE was co-sponsored by Women in Business, the new student organization co-founded by students Kirsten Halverson and Megan Kapala in September 2015. The group, with around 30 members, also co-hosted a successful Women Mean Business event this semester with Gamma Phi Omega.

“The support from the College of Business has been phenomenal,” said Kapala.

INSPIRE is a true extension of their vision for Women in Business, she said. It was “incredibly humbling” to see so many successful Redbird women like Gottesman willing to share their experiences.

“What we’re trying to do is create a community of women that can call on each other even after graduation as they hit different bumps in the road,” said Kapala.

Ryan Denham can be reached at