By Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz
Kate Bensen calls herself “a builder, a connector.” Networking, for her, “is as natural as breathing.”
So having a standing wine date with a recruiter was in character for the longtime attorney, and six years ago that relationship landed her at the helm of The Chicago Network an amazing group for women in business.
The Chicago Network, founded in 1979, is an invitation-only group of high-ranking Chicago women whose 450 members span the upper echelons of business, academia, science, the arts and nonprofits.
In the landscape of leadership clubs, Bensen, 57, said the group is distinct for fostering “deep and abiding” relationships among women leaders in disparate circles, operating on the premise that connecting a Fortune 100 CEO with a leading architect will enrich everyone’s lives. Criteria for entry are not disclosed, but everyone must demonstrate civic engagement, she said.
Bensen, who became president and CEO in April 2010, did not grow up surrounded by such elite company.
“I came from a household where my mother didn’t go to college, my dad (a Lutheran minister) worked his way through a million jobs to put himself through college and seminary,” she said.
Before her family moved from a blue-collar Chicago neighborhood to Westchester County, N.Y., to care for her ailing grandfather, “I’d never met a wealthy person, I’d never met a corporate executive, I’d never met a Jewish person,” Bensen said. “My whole world exploded, and I recognized that my life was never going to be the same.”
Bensen credits her rise to recognizing when doors are opening, and in her role, she hopes to open doors for others.
Among the initiatives that have rolled out under her watch are two meant to “cultivate the next generation of women leaders.”
One is the Future Leaders program, which invites first-generation female college students at three universities, St. Xavier, the University of Illinois at Chicago and DePaul, to spend two days with the senior management teams at network members’ companies, including Ulta Beauty and McDonald’s. The other initiative is the annual Launch Pad for Women Senior Leaders conference, which nurtures high-potential women poised to climb the ranks.