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Pepper launches nonprofit for women's growth

Melissa Pepper nonprofit
Melissa Pepper

An Augustana alumna is using her experiences with campus leadership and love for her community to launch a nonprofit that will connect young women with mentors and each other.

Melissa Flowers '09 Pepper is the founder of the new Quad Cities organization, Lead(H)er.

"Lead(H)er's goal is to connect women who are looking for that next step and don't know where to start with someone experienced, who has done it," Pepper said. "The outcome of Lead(H)er is to have more young women volunteering, sitting on a board or starting their own businesses, because they had guides to show them the way."

A communication studies and English graduate, Pepper is the director of marketing and client relations for a law firm in Davenport, Iowa.

She has wanted to start a non-profit since she was a student. One catalyst was working with Augustana's Dr. Ellen Hay on a civic engagement project called “Speaking the Truth: Educating African American Women About Breast Cancer." Pepper incorporated a spiritual message along with health information for women from a congregation in Rock Island. The presentation was received favorably and the women saw themselves as more likely to seek mammograms.

Pepper also credits some of her inspiration to Sheryl Sandberg's book, "Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead."

"(Sandberg) talks about how women are less likely to ‘seize the day' for themselves," she said. "And there's newer research to suggest that millennial women are burning out, they're leaving the workforce... They put so much pressure on themselves and they overwork. So how can we combat that with something outside of work that gives them passion and fills their bucket?"

Lead(H)er's programming includes Liftoff Panels, which are interactive discussions with leaders in the Quad Cities, personal career goal-setting via social media; small group (H)uddles led by board members; and the cornerstone of their efforts, Matches. Matches pairs young women with experienced leaders at community networking events throughout the region, igniting future relationships.

The nonprofit is only a few months old, and is set to begin with the hire of an executive director. Working alongside Pepper, its board consists of three other Augustana grads: Courtney (Tinoco '08) Jones, Sam Schlouch '10, and Emily Shenk '02 Demay, as well as four volunteers.

"My major role right now is spreading the word, finding strategic partners, and telling our story to all who will listen. It has been incredibly rewarding to galvanize support from key leaders throughout the Quad Cities," Pepper said.

A native of Byron, Ill., Pepper stayed in the Quad Cities after graduation and has grown to love it. She hopes Lead(Her) will help keep young women in the Quad Cities.

"It's such a fun, vibrant community. Why not use your talents here?" she asked.

"There are some pivotal moments that define my career at Augustana, like deciding to change from a pre-physical therapy (so not a fit for me) to English and communications majors. And then there are these little snippets of how life is at Augie, going up the Slough path, going to chapel, classes in Old Main, studying ‘slough side' on the third floor of the library..."

Campouts with Campus Ministries, Augustana Choir's tour of Colorado, and speaking at graduation are just a few of the college memories Pepper said she always will treasure.

"I often tell people younger than me, don't make such a stringent career path that you're not able to veer off of it," she said, encouraging all students who are exploring opportunities to think about how their strengths and passions can guide them.

— Rachel Reiter '18

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