Northern Nevada females are rewriting the script for the next generation (Women in Business series, part 2)

CJ Manthe is director of the Nevada Department of Business and Industry.

CJ Manthe is director of the Nevada Department of Business and Industry.

RENO, Nev. — Those before her did a lot of the heavy lifting, but Abbi Whitaker, Reno’s newest public relations dynamo, doesn’t shrink when it comes to making her own mark as a standout businesswoman.

“I will always take my hat off to Stephanie Kruse and Valerie Glenn. They were fighting to get their fair share of work when it wasn’t fair and deals were done under the table,” Whitaker said of the two veterans of Northern Nevada’s advertising/public relations community.

Now The Abbi Agency, of which she is president and co-founder alongside CEO husband Ty Whitaker, has emerged as a force for female-owned business.

The Abbi Agency has grown from kitchen table talk 10 years ago to a staff of 30 — “my ‘islands of mystic,’” Whitaker calls them. But unlike the longtimers in Reno’s businesswomen ranks, Whitaker and her charges revel in their nonconformity and rewriting of the rules.

“We don’t own business suits,” Whitaker said. “We say what we think. We have broken out of the old stereotypes. We’re not cute little girls who giggle and wear cute little clothes.”

And as she learned from former Reno and now-San Francisco Bay Area PR executive Carm Lyman, it’s all about presence, especially for a woman.

“She could command a room,” Whitaker said of Lyman.

Whitaker can, too, saying, “In a room full of men, I can dish it out as much as anyone can dish it to anyone. It’s a whole new world.”

‘We are a strong force’

Indeed, Whitaker is rewriting the script for the new generation of businesswomen and is taking the concept of activism to new levels. There are few issues, causes or events that escape hers or The Abbi Agency’s attention. Need a connection in the business community, and invariably Whitaker has a name for you.

What Whitaker and her staff are, she says, is a lesson in community involvement, and they are unabashedly women-centric. Case in point: The Abbi Agency was instrumental in Hillary Schieve’s successful run for Reno Mayor in 2014.

Whitaker is one of many faces of the growing network of women business leaders who are taking control of the conversation, breaking the proverbial glass ceiling, and acting, confidently, on their ambitions.

Tammy Kolvet wasn’t fazed by the male dominance in Nevada’s nascent cannabis industry. She learned from her parents early on that she could excel wherever she wanted.

She’s now vice president and cultivation manager at family-owned GreenLeaf Wellness in Sparks.

“Being a cultivation manager as a woman is very unusual. It’s a very male-dominated business,” Kolvet said. “But I’ve always been a very confident woman.”

That helped get her past the initial skeptics.

“Everyone assumed master growers had to be men,” she said. “They’d say, ‘Oh, you’re a woman.’ I’d interview men for jobs and they’d say, ‘So you’ll be my boss?’

“Some are uncomfortable with that. My favorite thing now to say is, ‘Yes, I will be your boss.’”

Kolvet knows that she will have to keep proving herself, and she’s fine with that.

“It’s always a journey,” she added. “But I do feel as women in cannabis, we are a strong force to be reckoned with. But confidence is the key to success, believing you can do it.”

Challenges of being a woman in business

Melissa Molyneaux believed, too, even after inquiring about maternity leave at Colliers International real estate firm in Reno and not getting the reaction she expected.

“They said, ‘That’s an interesting question. We haven’t had a lot of women who had to do that,’” she recalled.

But she went ahead and made it work “as an independent contractor in a world of clients” and leaned on other women in the Colliers office for support and mentoring.

Molyneaux is now senior vice president and executive managing director at Colliers Reno and she applauds her superior, Tim Ruffin, for never making her feel she was different than anyone else in the office.

But the challenge of being a woman in business is always there, and she’s reminded of it, usually when she attends industry conventions.

“I will bring my husband with me, and sometimes other males will turn to my husband and say, ‘What office do you work in?’” she said. “Yes, there are still stereotypes, but I’m confident enough in my work that I’m a success and I don’t need those people to know it.

“Do I walk into meetings with all men and feel out of place? No. I’m past that.”

On a global scale, U.S. women still struggle, as shown in the 2017 “glass-ceiling index” in the Feb. 17, 2018, edition of The Economist magazine ranking the working environment for U.S. women 19th best — that’s ahead of Germany and Great Britain, but well behind the top three countries, Sweden, Norway and Iceland.

‘Breaking the glass ceiling’

Within Nevada, at least, women are making key breakthroughs into corner offices at several levels of state government, notably the Desert Research Institute and the Department of Business and Industry, which oversees 14 divisions and 12 boards, commissions and advisory committees.

“Early in my career, there was a lack of respect for women in the workplace. Women’s roles were discounted. We were seen as ‘Go fetch coffee’ and could not give opinions on key decisions,” said CJ Manthe, former head of the Nevada Housing Division who was promoted to director of the Nevada Department of Business and Industry last year by Gov. Brian Sandoval. “It’s a lot more equal now. When I’m at business meetings, I look around the table and it’s a very diverse group. You have a much richer discussion and points of view.”

Kristen Averyt, the first woman president of the Desert Research Institute, an arm of the Nevada System of Higher Education, agrees.

“So many women are breaking the glass ceiling. It’s really an interesting time now for women,” Averyt said. “If you’re not engaging females in the sciences, you’re leaving out half the population. With all the challenges we have to face, we need all the best and the brightest sitting at the table.”

That table includes the state’s gaming regulatory agency, the Nevada Gaming Control Board, where former state senator Becky Harris is now chairwoman, a first for Nevada.

“It’s wonderful to see very capable women rise. It’s a changing dynamic,” Harris said.

Bill O’Driscoll is a Reno journalist and former editor of the NNBW. If you have feedback about this story, email us at Look for part three of this series next week, in which female leaders such as Becky Harris and Teresa Di Loreto discuss how women are breaking barriers in male-dominated industries of gaming and construction — and are setting the table for the next generation of businesswomen.


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