Opportunity is the first step to independence”
The plan for Emilia DiMenco’s life may sound familiar to the children of working-class immigrants: hard work and a college degree would be the path to a better life for the next generation.
Growing up in south suburban Blue Island with other Italian immigrants, DiMenco excelled in the math and science classes the Servite Sisters in her Catholic grade school emphasized. After working her way through DePaul’s business school, she graduated at age 25 and landed a coveted slot in the management training program at Harris Bank (now BMO Harris).
Then she began breaking glass ceilings.
DiMenco became the first woman senior vice president and, later, executive vice president in the corporate and commercial bank at BMO Harris, leading to “a wonderful” 30-year banking career there.
However, it almost didn’t happen.
A class-action lawsuit by the U.S. Department of Labor and the National Organization for Women against Chicago banks in the late 1970s challenged the different training programs offered to men and women. As a result, banks started recruiting staff differently, broadening the list of universities where they recruited and interviewing diverse students who had not previously made it into their hiring pools. DiMenco believes she would not have been hired but for the impact of the lawsuit. “That really builds the case for public policy to change the way all of us behave,” she argues.
“I attribute my success to sponsors who supported my work on projects and advocated for my promotions,” she says. It was important to her to pay those opportunities forward when she entered top management by opening doors for other women and people of color who, like her, may not have had the customary preparation.
DiMenco continues to foster economic independence for women today as the president and CEO of the Women’s Business Development Center (WBDC) in Chicago, where she seeks to change statistics showing that just 5 percent of federal contracts go to women-owned businesses.
One of the services that WBDC provides to build capacity is women’s business enterprise (WBE) certification. This recognition enables WBE-certified businesses to differentiate themselves when they bid on private-sector and some public-sector contracts.
While women own 38 percent of businesses, “there still isn’t equal opportunity,” DiMenco laments, noting that they face barriers in accessing contacts and capital. “Opportunity is the first step to independence,” DiMenco says. “I am lucky to be able to help women realize the opportunity and achieve independence every day.”
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