HER Speak Up! series launches with lessons learned from past year

HER Speak Up! Series

The Gazette’s HER Speak Up! series presented by Farmers State Bank launched April 8. The online event, “Looking Back While Moving Forward,” featured three community leaders who spoke about their take-aways from a challenging year. Each was invited to share their experiences because they faced unique circumstances and challenges throughout 2020, and each managed to turn what could have bee a devastating blow to their role and their business into opportunities.

Briana Smallwood from Vivian’s Soul Food, Dusty Swehla of Panda Marie, and Lori Ristau from the Iowa Health Care Association spoke with The Gazette’s Quinn Pettifer about what they’re eager to leave behind and which new habits will stick with them going forward.

Watch the replay here:

Smallwood, who owns Vivian’s Soul Food in southwest Cedar Rapids with her husband, Jerome, said future challenges feel “knock-out-able” after she faced the challenge of keeping a small business afloat in a pandemic. Looking ahead, she realizes she needs to take full advantage of how technology can help her small business thrive. “We had to figure out apps and how to meet our customers where they were,” she said.

Taking time to celebrate the small wins helped Smallwood get through the past year, from her daughter doing well on a virtual test “to every member of my staff remembering their masks today,” she said. At the same time, she learned to give others grace when they made a mistake or used a harsh tone because she recognized there were so many unseen challenges people were facing.

Lori Ristau, Iowa Heath Care Association senior vice president of strategic communications and executive director of the IHCA Foundation, has been inspired by the IHCA’s members, including nursing home staff. “They didn’t give up on their patients, and that motivated me every day to help them,” Ristau said.

Ristau had to rethink all of her regular communication strategies, which was challenging even for a communications professional. She not only increased the frequency of communication with the people she serves, but also established a new digital platform. Although it was born out of necessity, she said it will be helpful in the future, even if things return to “normal.”

Dusty Swehla, owner of Panda Marie in Hiawatha, a holistic services business that offers yoga, reiki and more, went outside of her comfort zone in 2020. She began offering yoga classes and workshops online and continues offering them virtually today. That has had an unexpected upside. “It encouraged some people to try it who wouldn’t have otherwise,” she said.

And over the past year, she didn’t always pretend to be cheery online when she wasn’t actually feeling that way. “Sometimes I was a mess, and people could relate to that,” she said.

Both Swehla and Smallwood talked during the Speak Up session about how thankful they are that the community supported their businesses.

Some people even reached out to Swehla out of the blue to ask how they could help.

Smallwood was able to expand to a second location in February — Vivian’s Express Grill in the Fountains in northeast Cedar Rapids — an amazing feat she couldn’t have foreseen when the pandemic first hit.

All of the Speak Up! panelists talked about the importance of giving grace to others — and to yourself.

“Be kind to yourself. Put on your oxygen mask first,” Ristau said.

Smallwood was juggling calls from the restaurant and family member interruptions during the Zoom event, which was relatable and a perfect example of why grace and patience are needed right now. When things get stressful — as they inevitably will as we work to get back to normal — “Just breathe. Understand that you don’t have to answer everything right now,” Smallwood said.

The next session in the HER Speak Up! series is scheduled for July 8 with more details announced soon. Watch a replay of part of the April 8 session online at her.today.

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