Businesswoman Turned Glass Ceiling Into Window Of Opportunity

Tony LaRussa The Tribune-Review, Greensburg

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) 25 years ago Li Connolly was working for a big accounting firm before she set out on her own. At that point, Connolly says there were few female mentors when she started out and the women who wanted to advance faced a choice of either making an absolute commitment to the company or having a family.

Greensburg

Li Connolly figured she would spend her entire career working for an accounting firm after she earned her degree from Duquesne University in 1989.

And while she did spend nearly three years with a major company, it was clear at the time that there was little room for a woman to advance in a profession that was dominated by men.

So instead of dealing with the frustrations of trying to break through the glass ceiling, Connolly decided to team up with her father to start their own accounting company.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the launch of Avalon-based Connolly Steele & Co., which employs 17 people.

"When I began working in accounting, there was an expectation that women weren't going to be staying with a company for very long," she said. "It was subtle, but the feeling was that we would be getting married and start having babies and leave."

Connolly said there were few female mentors when she started out and the women who wanted to advance faced a choice of either making an absolute commitment to the company or having a family.

"There really wasn't an opportunity to balance work and family life," she said adding that there were no female partners in her firm at the time and only one senior manager who was a woman. "I really didn't like being in a position where I wasn't in control my own environment."

Connolly, who had performed clerical duties for her father's accounting practice since seventh grade and was still helping him out during nights and weekends, said the time seemed right to make a change.

"I really didn't want to keep working a full-time job and a second job with my dad, so we talked about it and decided to start our own company," she said.

Connolly said her father, Lewis Steele, who is 81 and remains active in the business, insisted that she take top billing in the company name. Her husband of 30 years, Mike, serves as the head of the firm's technology division. The couple has three adult sons.

She said running her own business gave her the chance to take a different approach with her clients.

"It was an opportunity to help other businesses while being a business owner myself," she said.

Connolly said while the gender-based discrimination she faced early in her career fueled her desire to advocated for women, the seeds were planted in high school.

"I attended Avonworth High School for two years but my parents didn't feel I was being challenged enough," she said. "So they enrolled (me) in The Ellis School."

Connolly said the positive experiences she had at the all-girls school created the foundation for being an advocate for women.

"It's an environment where girls' voices aren't drowned out," she said. "I was really influenced and molded there. I give back to women because of those experiences."

Running her own firm allowed Connolly to create an internship program that helped launch the career of a number of young women.

She also has been active for many years in the Avon Club, a 75-year-old organization dedicated to supporting the community and women's issues. Connolly also has been active with the Boy Scouts by teaching merit badges related to personal finance and business. Her three sons all achieved the rank of Eagle Scout, the organization's highest honor.

Connolly is featured in the recently released book "Twenty Won." The book. written by Kelli Komondor of Port Vue, is an anthology of 21 female entrepreneurs sharing stories of business resilience during the 2020 global coronavirus pandemic.

In addition to guiding clients through the pandemic's financial pitfalls during the past year, she has been working to help businesses get the grants and loans available to help them survive.

"This has been a devastating year for businesses, especially small ones, and I don't think we've seen the full financial impact yet," she said. "We've worked hard to gain expertise in the (federal) Paycheck Protection Program and other programs available and have been reaching out to clients to help them in any way we can."

___ Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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