Jessica Ishmael Named to the Bold Women of Business Class of 2023


Jessica Ishmael
Where do you live?
Company or Organization
Southwest Michigan Symphony Orchestra
What is your job or role there?
Executive Director
How do you think that Bold Women of Business demonstrate being bold?
Bold women are brave, authentic, spunky, and willing to take risks. They commit to and own their decisions and are open to learning from others and their experiences.
Bold women are often defined by a number of descriptors. Please choose from the following descriptors to produce the top three that you would say most exemplify your personality?
Please provide an example of when you feel you were at your very best in taking action on the job or in your role.
I find that I thrive best in situations where there are opportunities to connect with others on a personal and human level. Not too long after having left a long-term abusive relationship, I relocated to start a new job that was my first leadership role. It wasn’t long before it became clear that my staff team had been through a very difficult period that left them disorganized, anxious, and disconnected from each other, making communication and collaboration very difficult. From the get-go, there was a very heavy cloud. For any organization to move forward, innovate, and succeed requires a strong team. A strong team requires healthy relationships and communication, those things necessitate trust. Head and heart had to co-navigate. Having a very good idea on a personal level the type of anxieties they were individually and collectively experiencing, I decided to meet them where they were at. While feeling like this would either turn out to be the smartest or the stupidest thing to do professionally, I took ownership of my story and vulnerabilities and openly shared a summary of my own backstory with them to reveal our common ground. It took a lot of time and energy, but I made room to hold space for them, to listen, to connect. We used humor wherever we could to bring each other brevity and get through tough spots. My focus and priority was them: compassion, consistency, and accountability were key to cultivate an emotionally safe work space where they felt seen, respected, supported, and encouraged as a whole person, not just a cog in the wheel. The communication opened up. The team work and collaboration came. Innovations began to emerge. The positive changes among the staff reflected in our whole environment and customer service to the point it was noticed and repeatedly commented on by our patrons. Beautiful things happen when we give ourselves and others grace and let ourselves be human beings with each other.
What’s the funniest thing that ever happened on your road to success?
At my first full-time job, birthdays were a big deal. There was a co-worker who had started a “tradition” several years prior of loudly delivering this god-awful tacky garden gnome to every birthday person, and the recipient had to keep it displayed on their desk at all times. The only way to get rid of it was to either add some type of decoration to it, or wait (sometimes weeks) until the next birthday. If you tried to hide or return it, without fail it turned up like a bad penny and was back on your desk. As you can imagine, some people were NOT a fan. Still the ‘new hire’ only a couple months in, I found a partner in crime from another department, and together we devised and successfully carried out a kidnapping plot – complete with creating a diversion to “Mission: Impossible”-level extract the gnome from display on someone’s desk and get it out of the building without being seen. The gnome-owner co-worker went on a week-long search and “interrogated” all of the staff. My accomplice and I stayed mum for *4 YEARS* while the gnome remained hidden in my home garage, and kept straight faces and played along when we overheard team members express relief about the gnomes disappearance. When I knew I was going to be leaving that job for another opportunity, I devised a midnight return. I left the gnome just outside the staff-entry, surrounded by several empty wine bottles and a tearful note about how things didn’t work out with the Travelocity Roaming Gnome. Upon my return to work for an afternoon shift, I found the gnome-owner coworker, thrilled at its return, had brought in cake for everyone in celebration. Our Director told them they should keep the gnome safe in their own office from here on out. A few days before my last shift, I happened to be alone in the break room with the Director when she brought up how surprised she was by the gnome’s return after all this time. I threw a sideways grinning look at her. In hushed surprise, “JESSICA!!! ALL THIS TIME?!” Holding up a finger to “shhhh,” I walked out grinning. I never heard her laugh so loud.
Who most inspires your personal drive for success every day?
It’s not really a who, but a what: I love seeing a spark in others, and either being part of making that spark happen, or fanning a flame that’s already there. I love seeing others succeed in ways that empower them and bring them joy. Because I want them to experience that joy, no matter how small a step it may be (because small is doable and they add up over time) I like figuring out what is something I can do to help them get to where they want to go.
What is your best advice to women in Southwest Michigan looking to succeed, as you have, in business?
My best advice is from a mentor of mine: Leadership is not about you fitting into the suit. It’s about having the suit tailored to you. Authenticity and being comfortable in your own skin matters.
What does your selection to the ranks of the Bold Women of Business from Moody on the Market mean to you?
The very notion of being included with so many impressive go-getters and mover-shakers is so humbling. It is an honor and a privilege.


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