"THE PEOPLE MUST KNOW BEFORE THEY CAN ACT, AND THERE IS NO EDUCATOR TO COMPARE WITH THE PRESS." -- IDA B. WELLS
BPW Triangle develops a powerful network of leaders to advocate, educate, and cultivate connections.
She Believed She Could Succeed, So She Did
Text and photo by Anna-Rhesa Versola
RALEIGH — Helga Gutmann could be considered a ‘steel magnolia’ with a German accent. Helga moved to North Carolina in 1978 when her employer, a tool manufacturing company, transferred about a dozen employees from their Toronto offices. She was the only woman among them. “I decided I was going to be happy here,” Helga said, remembering some of the early challenges of being a single, young professional woman in a finance department dominated by men. “Here comes a woman, solo, a foreigner. The men were suspicious.” Gutman believed she could prove to herself and others she could succeed. She quickly sought out other business professional women’s groups in the area to begin building a network of support and new friends. After checking out several women’s clubs, only one stood out — the NC Federation of Business Professional Women. Today, the local chapter is known as BPW of the Triangle.
Helga said the president at the time would call her before every meeting to be sure she would be there. It was that personal connection that made the difference. “The other women’s clubs did not do that,” Helga said. “For two years, I was the youngest. The members were mostly teachers, nurses. Those were the professions\ they had at that time.” Helga said membership today shows a greater diversity of professions among working women. And, she appreciates the quality improvement of dinner meals at BPW meetings. Today, dinner meetings are held monthly at the prestigious Prestonwood Country Club in Cary.
“I still remember my first dinner with BPW in September 1978. It was a cold buffet for $3.50,” she said, adding that it was held at a local YWCA in Raleigh “There was a large plate full of cut onions — raw. I didn’t understand it. Maybe it was a Southern thing. I didn’t know.”
By 1985, Helga was elected president of the organization and again she made up her mind to do something. She wanted to rejuvenate the BPW gatherings to make it more inviting to new and current members. She established a social hour during the meetings to encourage members to mingle with others outside of their usual cliques. Helga also believed she could raise the quality of membership by expanding its influence in local politics. So, Helga invited Mayor Avery Upchurch to join. He accepted the invitation and became BPW’s first male, dues-paying member. Upchurch went on to win re-election and later became the longest-running mayor of Raleigh.
Helga is high-spirited and holds fast to her values of integrity, fairness, and compassion for people and the environment. When her employer wanted to stop paying for the cost of her annual membership and meals for the business women’s organization, Helga challenged the action by pointing out how the company covered three-hour business lunch meetings at local golf courses for her male colleagues. The company continued to pay for her dinner costs and BPW membership dues for 20 years, Helga said.
After 40 years as a member of BPW, Helga achieves a lifetime membership this year. She has had numerous achievements, including Woman of the Year award. But, her greatest achievement has been cultivating lifelong friends through BPW.
She believed she could succeed, so she did.