Mary Dowell is a well-known figure in the Milwaukee business community. She played a central role at Johnson Controls Inc. for nearly twenty years. Before retiring from the company in 2015, Dowell was vice president of foundation affairs and global community relations.
However, climbing the corporate ladder in Milwaukee was a long and difficult journey for Dowell. Raised in the rolling hills of Tennessee in an all-black community - with the exception of her next door neighbors, many of her experiences are rooted in childhood memories of playing with the white girl next door through the fence in the backyard. Throughout the years that fence has become symbolic, representing barriers of racism, sexism and more.
Her new book, Playing Through the Fence: Stories from 19 Women Who Challenged Stereotypes, Prejudice and Other Barriers to Achieve Career Success, focuses on just that. It is part memoir and part self-help book.
"One of the things that I noticed as I was (working) was that people always wanted to know what resources were available to them to be good leaders, to be their maximum, optimum self...so leadership development became a focus for me," Dowell explains.
"Twenty-plus years I was in the work force, and you can imagine a female in the workforce, a person of color in the workforce - I had my share of challenges," she says. "I'm not going to pretend that it was easy, it was not. But what I will say is that I was always determined, I knew what I want. And that's what leadership is - being able to look within yourself and say, 'What is it that I want?'"
Along with Dowell’s own story, the book includes a collection of testimonies from women of different backgrounds in Milwaukee, and across the United States. "I wanted to make sure the book appealed to a broad audience. I want people to pick it up and read a story that they can (relate to)," she says.
One thing all of the women in the book have in common, Dowell says, is perseverance.
She also stresses the importance of mentors in her book. A good mentor, Dowell says, is someone you can talk to, rely on, give you advice and support you. "We mentor each other all the time, we just don't think about it... I believe in always reaching back and pulling someone else up," she says.
If you find yourself struggling, Dowell suggests that you first identify your goals and then attain the right support system in order to move forward and become a leader. "Once you decide what it is you want, you can get it. It might not be a straight path, it might not be easy, but you can get it," she says.
"I lived through some 'no's' along the way, more than I care to admit," Dowell adds. "But there was always something in me to push me forward to say 'yes.'"
Mary Dowell is the principal of MJ Dowell & Associates. She will be speaking about her book at the Milwaukee Business Journal Author Series on April 25th.