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Omaha Magazine

Leaders and Princesses: Women of Aksarben Advance Nebraska's Workforce

Aug 27, 2021 04:27PM ● By Daisy Hutzell-Rodman
makala mcmorris sits at table with laptop

Photo by Bill Sitzmann    

She’s very bright, she’s a hard worker, and these are exactly the kinds of things we want,” said Terry Kroeger, president of Smith Kroeger and immediate past chairman of the Aksarben board of Governors. “Not only bright people, but people who will roll up their sleeves and do stuff.”

Kroeger said this of Aksarben floor committee member Sara Smits Wilson, but he could have been describing any of the women who serve on the Aksarben committees.

Most people in Omaha know about the Aksarben Ball, an event set in a mythical kingdom of Quivira full of princesses and escorts that brings together the volunteer community of Omaha. The ball, however, is one part of a multilayered structure that is working towards one common goal—creating, and retaining, a quality workforce in Nebraska.

That workforce retention is needed. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the population of the country rose by about 32% from 1990 to 2019 (all 2019 figures were projected). The Bureau also calculated that Nebraska’s population rose by about 22% in that same time period, from 1,578,385 in 1990 to 1,934,408 in 2019. Compare that to the population of Illinois, which rose by 11% (11,430,602 in 1990 to 12,671,821 in 2019); or Montana, which rose by 38% (799,065 in 1990 to 1,068,778 in 2019).

A big attraction for any state is high-paying jobs, and that’s why community leaders are discovering, and rediscovering, a passion for the 126-year-old Aksarben Ball and the committees associated with Aksarben.

Makayla McMorris, executive director, University Communications, at UNO, knew she wanted to be a part of the Women’s Ball Committee when she saw their values align with hers.

“They were really focusing on how to diversify the committee and community support. They asked a lot of our perspective of Aksarben,” McMorris said of her being asked to volunteer for the WBC. 

Her perspective of the ball was based on her first time at the event. While she was in high school, a friend of hers was an escort, and she remembers at that time he was the only Black escort. “It was a beautiful, decked out event, at the same time I didn’t necessarily feel comfortable, so it wasn’t anything I was dying to come back to,” McMorris said.

McMorris works on call 24/7, and crisis communication is a big part of the job. She said she could spend 15-16 hours a day working and still not be caught up. She is also the chair of membership on the MCC Foundation Board, chairs the Omaha Community Foundation African-American Unity Grants Committee, and starts on the KANEKO board this month. When she isn’t doing all of that, she is spending time with her two kids, ages 7 and 11, who are involved in basketball, gymnastics, dance, and track. 

Still, she finds it important to be on the WBC, where she is co-chair for the Pages Luncheon.

“I really started to get into what the mission was, how impactful this one day has been, and the tradition behind it. You could just see the sheer happiness in everyone who was participating. So I started to understand how this could fit with my values,” McMorris said.

The organization of the ball happens during weekly meetings that last four hours and end with lunch before these women go back to their daily lives. Some of them make simultaneous decisions about budgets for the pages and budgets for their departments at work. All the while, they are working on how to build the next generation of employees in Nebraska.

Photo by Bill Sitzmann    

 “One of the things that has been a push is to make this more of a network,” said 2021 WBC chair Laura Enenbach, also an associate professor of nursing at Clarkson College. “[The] princesses and escorts, we want them to stay in the state, and [we need to] have multiple networking opportunities for these college kids.”

That sentiment is echoed by 2020 WBC chair Sam Hohman, CEO of Credit Advisors Foundation. Although Hohman’s primary role should have been advising the 2021 chair, the coming ball features 2020 and 2021 honorees. Like McMorris, Hohman was neither a page nor a princess, but saw an opportunity to make a difference in the state through serving on this committee. 

“We’re changing the why of ‘why do you want to participate in the ball,’” Hohman said, noting that a high percentage of the princesses and escorts attend college out-of-state. “It’s not just ‘mom and dad said so,’ we’re trying to change the value for the participants into it being more because ‘I’m learning more about the opportunities that are available in Nebraska.’”

That’s where Smits Wilson and her fellow networkers on the floor committee come in. At one point, this was a more passive committee, a group of businessmen who met once a month and bounced business ideas off each other. As years progressed, however, so did the committee. With the latest generation of members, the idea was not to be a committee for the sake of networking among themselves—rather it serves the mission of Aksarben. That’s also about the time the men on the committee realized they needed to modernize.

“I straight-up asked [floor committee member Ben Reynolds] ‘are you asking me because I am a woman?’” said Kate Sylvia-Root, an assistant vice president of commercial lending at Security National Bank. Sylvia-Root, Smits Wilson, and Amy Thompson, director of business development at McCarthy Building Companies, joined the floor committee in 2019, the first three women to ever be recruited. 

Reynolds told Sylvia-Root it was her take-charge attitude, including her gumption to inquire whether or not she was being asked because she is a woman, that led Reynolds to ask her to join the floor committee.

Not only did she join, she became a co-chair, focusing—along with her friend and fellow chair Matt DeBoer—on engagement and networking events. They created a new event that will be held immediately following the Aksarben Royal Court Luncheon on Friday, Oct. 22 (the ball is Oct. 23). At this new event, princesses and escorts will have the ability to chat with any of the 100 leaders on the floor committee, talking about potential job opportunities and internships that will lead to retaining the next generation of skilled workers in Nebraska.

The members of the floor committee come from a range of businesses. There are lawyers and advertising professionals, but there are also owners of warehouses, accountants, and more. Each person is there to serve as an ambassador of the types of jobs available in Nebraska.

“They want folks who are going to take advantage of the networking,” Thompson said.

Sylvia-Root agreed, adding, “We want to make sure someone interested in, say, media, has the ability to network with someone in the media industry.” She continued that although they are starting this event during the ball activities, the goal is to get it into the community, especially in underserved areas.

Photo by Bill Sitzmann

Networking in, and educating, underserved areas will be a key component of helping to find a future workforce. While the state is gaining in population, the concern is that Nebraska is trading a highly educated workforce for one that has little-to-no training beyond high school. The Aksarben Stakeholders Meeting report, presented in May 2021, stated that 55% of white Nebraska residents, and 74.2% of non-white residents, have less than an associate’s degree. That means fewer highly skilled employees, and fewer highly skilled jobs, coming into Nebraska.

That’s why proceeds from the Aksarben Ball go to scholarships. The Career Promise Scholarship partners with Metropolitan Community College to help students enrolled in designated high school career academies attend college, then achieve a position in a high-demand, high-paying career in Nebraska. Those careers range from forklift operators to bookkeepers.

The Aksarben | Horatio Alger Scholarship is restricted to colleges and universities in Nebraska to encourage retention and growth here. Educational initiatives also include the Nebraska Tech Collaborative, the Northeast Nebraska Growing Together initiative, and a budding Central Nebraska initiative.

That’s good news for people like Jamie Gutierrez, owner of Midwest Maintenance and member of the Aksarben Board of Governors. She brings first-hand knowledge of how drastically retention and growth are needed in this state.

“My presence in South Omaha and my passion behind South Omaha are a big part of why I am here,” Gutierrez said. “We’ve been talking about workforce development, and we have a talented, passionate, community of immigrants who love Nebraska. Let’s help them raise their families here.”

Gutierrez is one of two women governors. She’s also the first Latina governor, and one of a handful of women to ever sit on this board. The leadership also includes two female councillors, Samantha Mosser and Mindy Simon. Gutierrez's multicultural perspective is much appreciated as the organization works to attract and retain talent. 

“We have to be competitive in this state,” Gutierrez said. “You know who loves Nebraska? Other people in Nebraska.”

Those other people in Nebraska are more non-white than they used to be. The Aksarben Stakeholders’ Meeting report noted that between 1990 and 2019, the populations of Blacks, Hispanics, and other people of color ages 0-17 rose by more than 100,000, while the population of white youth declined by more than 60,000.

Keeping a skilled workforce in Nebraska helps on local and national levels. Fellow board of governors member Leslie R. Andersen, president and chief executive officer of i3 Bank (formerly Bank of Bennington), has served on the American Bankers Association board and has personally shown people the quiet strength of Nebraska and its philanthropy.

“I was showing someone in town from D.C. the riverfront a few years ago,” Andersen said. “He was shocked that it was all private dollars. I said ‘that’s the way Nebraska rolls.’ That’s what drew me to this board, that it was statewide.”

Like the other women on the boards, Andersen is a mother, and an executive. She’s an active volunteer on other committees. Yet she makes time to devote resources to this board, including being the treasurer, which helps the foundation.

“I don’t think the foundation gets the recognition it deserves,” Andersen said. While the boards work hard, the foundation is the facilitator of the work being done to keep employees in the state. 

The foundation employees are talking to people across the state. They are working with colleges, universities, and business leaders. They are the people, day in and day out, working on connecting the dots between the high school students, college students, and employers to create highly skilled employees.

They bring back people like the aforementioned Smits Wilson, who lived in Washington, D.C., before returning to Nebraska. She and her husband discovered the good life is as achievable, if not more, here in Omaha, and she is passionate about bringing in, and retaining, quality employees.

“I take it upon myself to bring up what is happening,” Smits Wilson said. “Almost 10,000 kids in this state graduate and don’t go on to college [annually]. We lose 1,500 outbound graduates. We gain 1,500 non-graduates.”

With the help of the scholarships garnered from the ball put on by the women’s ball committee, the networks created by the floor committee, and the employers on the board of governors, the Aksarben Foundation is making this state economically viable for all. 

Visit aksarben.org for more information.

This article originally appeared in the September 2021 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.