The Importance of Three Letters

In Feature Stories, October 2016 by Christa Miller1 Comment

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There are many powerful women in Raleigh—our mayor Nancy McFarlane, food impresario Ashley Christensen or Shaw University President Tashni Dubroy, to name only a few. However, when it comes to women who carry a title starting with a capital “C,” the group becomes substantially smaller.

As reported by CNN Money, a mere 14.2 percent of top five leadership positions in S&P 500 companies are held by women.  And out of 500 companies, only 24 have female CEOs at their helm. But in the Tar Heel state, women received rare accolades this summer when it was revealed that Susan Devore, the CEO of Charlotte-based healthcare company Premier, is the highest paid executive among the state’s biggest public companies. But this story isn’t about equality.  It’s not a rallying cry for more women to hold executive-level posts.

What we sought, and found, were many amazing C-level women executives holding esteemed posts in our area with grace, with humility and with an acceptance that striking a work-life balance isn’t always easy but certainly something worth striving for.


Donna Sylver

CFO, Raleigh-Durham Airport Authority

If you were to read all of Sylver’s credentials, you’d have to use nearly every letter in the alphabet.  That’s because in addition to her current post as Chief Financial Officer, Sylver holds a master’s degree, is a certified public accountant and currently holds the title of both senior vice president of RDU and CFO.  This Raleigh native and Broughton High School graduate breezed through math and accounting courses in high school, and that’s sort of when it clicked, she says.

“I knew I had a natural tendency toward math,” she says. “But I didn’t set out to be a CFO. I didn’t quite know where it would take me.” But what Sylver did know is she had this nearly unquenchable desire to work hard and to make something of herself. “I always knew I wanted to work. I wanted to be a leader, to bring value and to be successful.”

Today, Sylver’s confident stride in red heels lets you know that she is always on a mission—leading the behind-the-scenes work to manage the finances of an airport with more than $1 billion in assets. Sylver says with a smile: “Travelers see just a fraction of what transpires here when they come through our terminals.  But there is so much more they don’t see behind the scenes that it takes to operate an airport of this size and scale.”

About 10 million passengers each year come through RDU, and that figure is steadily climbing, at a rate of about 4 to 5 percent each year.  “We are a vital part of the Triangle’s economy, and we want to be good stewards of this operation,” she adds.

Sylver is celebrating two years with RDU and she relishes the idea of learning a whole new industry.  Sylver started out in banking where she learned to be tough.

“I had a mentor in my first banking role who was CFO,” she says. “He took a risk hiring me and really brought me along—taught me how to be tough and how to play hard ball when I needed to.”

Why was Sylver a risky hire? Because banking at that time was a white, male-dominated industry, she recalls.  “That was my first real experience with leadership … and with toughening up.”

But a much softer side is revealed as she recalls her first mentor, her mother.  A self-driven entrepreneur, Sylver’s mother never finished high school. But what she did have was a relentless passion and drive to start businesses—some successful, some not—from catering to providing grocery-shopping services. “I would watch her go out and lead a business; she was just phenomenal,” Sylver says. “Then she’d come home, cook dinner, serve my Dad. She was everything—a tough leader and a ‘soft’ woman.”

Sylver’s mom didn’t back down from her education either, going back for her GED at age 65.

“I realized from her that it takes drive [to] propel you forward,” she says. But Sylver acknowledges that it doesn’t always come easy and that women especially get pulled with multiple demands. Although her own career kept her climbing, she cautions her two adult daughters about finding balance and prioritizing.

“You have to keep it in perspective: God, family, career,” she tells them. “Life isn’t totally about career and work.”

Today, Sylver manages the responsibilities that go along with every CFO: financial reporting, debt oversight, budgeting, annual reports.  But she also oversees the management of the organization’s procurement arm and its risk and safety division. 

With the terminal 2 re-build completed, and the renovation of terminal 1 nearly done, Sylver says the organization is nearing the tail end of its 20-year master plan. So what’s next? “A runway project,” Sylver says, upgrading existing runways and potentially building new ones to meet growth. At the end of the day, Sylver says it’s all about making RDU a welcoming and vital part of our area.

“That’s our mission: to provide a world-class experience for those who travel through here,” she says. “It’s important. Oftentimes, we are that first impression to represent our region.” —C.M.


Jenny Black

President and CEO of Planned Parenthood South Atlantic

Jenny Black was in fourth grade when she was gifted a blank journal. “I started writing my autobiography,” laughs the Raleigh native. “I remember getting started and thinking I really had something to say.”

As head of the four-state, 15-center Planned Parenthood affiliate, Black has plenty to say now, but she is careful in her communication.

“This piece of advice springs to mind,” she says. “‘A whisper at the top becomes a roar at the bottom.’ The things that I do have ripple effects. [As CEO] I’m very, very mindful of my actions reflecting my words.”   

Black, 46, is an alumna of St. Mary’s and graduated from NC State in 1992 with an English degree. She credits her liberal arts and humanities education with much of her success. “I learned how to think critically and how to read and decipher complex information,” she says. “Critical analysis is something that’s sorely lacking.”

After graduation, she did paralegal work for a small Raleigh law office that represented clients who had been discriminated against by their employers due to their race or gender.

“Doing that work, representing the truly aggrieved, gave me a profound sense of justice,” she says. “I had this sense that there were working people—especially women—who face a lot of barriers accessing justice. When I came to Planned Parenthood 17 years ago, I had this very deep sense that my work was about removing barriers to health care and how intertwined that is with removing barriers to justice.”

For the better part of two decades, Black has made it her mission to help knock down these barriers—for women, as well as a growing number of male and transgender patients—in her career with Planned Parenthood.

“Being a nonprofit, that inspires a lot of passion and confidence in supporters,” she says. The passion that stirs the organization’s supporters, however, also provokes hostility from the other side.

“A quote that I’ve been thinking about lately is Michelle Obama’s DNC speech, which was so powerful to me, ‘When they go low, we go high,’” she says. “In the past year alone, we have seen our opposition go lower than ever in coming after us. We are sticking to our values; we are sticking with our patients. We’ve seen more patients this year than we’ve ever had. We’ve had more donors this year than we’ve ever had.”

Black joined Planned Parenthood of New Mexico in 1999 as vice president of operations and patient services and was promoted to CEO, then led Planned Parenthood of Maryland for almost three years before returning home to North Carolina. She is the first CEO of the newly formed Planned Parenthood South Atlantic, which was created through the 2015 merger of two smaller affiliates.

“I think a new CEO is not going to hit her stride until she has chosen her leadership team,” she says. “That doesn’t mean a new CEO steps into her role and fires anybody. What it means is that I have made a conscious decision of my leadership staff.”

Two-thirds of her leadership team worked at Planned Parenthood pre-merger.

“This leadership team is one of the most talented I have ever worked with,” she says. “They have a deep heart for the mission and a clear vision of the future.”

Black believes that a successful leader should model the company’s values, including making time for family. “Planned Parenthood strives to create and support healthy families, and I try to model that in my personal life,” she says. “I have a husband and a child who are very important to me. It’s very important to have breakfast with my child and say goodnight to them.”

—Cameron Walker


Dr. Linda Butler

Chief Medical Officer, UNC Rex Healthcare

What do a nuclear engineer and a physician have in common – besides many years of study?  If you’re Dr. Linda Butler, a lot.  That’s because she is both.  Today, Dr. Butler is Chief Medical Officer for UNC Rex Healthcare—a 660-bed hospital that treats some 34,000 inpatients each year.  With a gentle handshake and a brisk walk to her nearby office suite, Butler was quick to share how her career all started and that, remarkably, she didn’t set about to be a healthcare leader at all.  Rather, it was her love of math that drove her toward engineering.

“I got [a math] award and this boy, a classmate, told me that I shouldn’t have—that girls aren’t good at math,” she says. Fifteen years later, Dr. Butler became just one of 15 graduates of the NC State nuclear engineering program and the only woman in her class.

“If you’re determined, you will succeed,” she says. But the road wasn’t completely straightforward for Butler.

“I wish I could say I had some grand plan,” she says. “I did not know in kindergarten that I wanted to be a physician.” What did Butler know? That she had exceptional math skills, leading her to focus on engineering. But then something changed, something unexpected and unplanned.

In the early 1980s as a college junior, her father became ill.  As Butler helped him to navigate his medical care, shepherding him through doctor’s visits, something clicked.  An interest in medicine began to bloom, and she started taking pre-med classes.  Although Butler still graduated with her engineering degree, she later attended medical school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 

Butler’s parents were hard-working immigrants.  Coming from Germany, first to Canada—where Dr. Butler was born—and later moving to the U.S.  Their philosophy was simple: work hard.

At 5 a.m., you’ll find Butler on her elliptical machine checking emails.  Even on vacation, Butler says her ‘OCD tendencies’ mean she cannot be totally disconnected.  “My husband knows I’m a lot better off if I get my hour or two each day to field emails” she says, recalling a recent trip to Ireland where there, too, she checked in frequently. However, she’s learned how to find a formula that works best for her and her family.

“Finding that work-life balance is key,” she says. “I may not have been there every day as a stay-at-home mom, but I did whatever I could—volunteering, visiting the classroom, taking part in their activities.”

Her children are now grown, aged 20 and 25, and both are in healthcare related lines of work, but it wasn’t always smooth sailing. Butler recalls in their younger years how the children got jealous at times of her job.  How a trip to Disney yielded a run-in with a patient, and her own kids complaining that vacation time belonged to them—not her patients. 

You have to learn to forgive yourself, she says. “There will be boxes that don’t get checked,” she adds. “You don’t have to sacrifice one for the other.  It’s not mom versus career.  You have to be able to delegate, and you have to accept help from others.”

Excited about what the future holds in healthcare, and eager for the move toward more preventative care versus hospitalization, Butler continues to lead and has blazed a trail—whether she admits it or not.

“I am never one to back down from a challenge.  And I’m happy to say – I have no regrets,” she says

The next big undertaking for Dr. Butler and the team at UNC Rex Healthcare is the opening of a new heart and vascular hospital on its Raleigh campus next spring, an eight-story, 306,000-square-foot facility with a focus on innovation, research, education and prevention.  —C.M.

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  1. Women can also have an easier time getting/staying ahead in their careers by getting the skills and training they need in addition to showing professionalism.

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