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How Rung for Women is empowering St. Louis women to land better jobs

Carmen Ward, founder of Becoming Carmen LLC and member of the first Rung for Women cohort, works in her home office located in St. Louis’ Penrose neighborhood on Monday, Nov. 29, 2021.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Carmen Ward sits in her home office in the Penrose neighborhood of St. Louis. She's one of about 115 women who enrolled in Rung for Women's first one-on-one coaching program last March. For her, the journey is all about self-discovery and self-love.

Rung for Women is already out of space.

Since its official launch last year, the St. Louis nonprofit has been flooded with demand from women looking for a career boost.

Nearly 1,000 women applied to participate in Rung for Women’s first cohort, which only enrolled about 115 last March. The program is meant for women making less than $50,000 a year, and it’s designed to help them pivot careers and make more money.

Women consistently earn less than men, and the gap widens over time, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But Rung’s free, part-time program is trying out a new strategy to empower women to climb the economic ladder and become self-sufficient.

The program lasts up to 2½ years and is customized to each woman’s needs. It starts with a six-month, one-on-one coaching period, in which women set goals around career development and overall well-being, then it transitions into career building and job training. Members dedicate five to 10 hours a week to working with personal coaches and training.

Rung also provides wraparound services — such as free meals, child care, a gym and counselors — to help alleviate common barriers women face in the workforce.

The organization's president, Leslie Gill, said that the program is a bold experiment in the St. Louis region and that initially, she wasn’t sure whether it would work. “The one big question we wanted to answer from the very beginning is if we build it, will they come?” she said. “It's a pretty significant time commitment that you as a member have to be willing to make, because we're not going to do the work for you.”

After six months of coaching, the majority of members surveyed said the program increased their confidence, empowerment and self-love.

“We are finding that it's very attractive, and we're oversubscribed,” Gill said. She hopes to break ground on a second building on Rung’s campus in the Fox Park neighborhood of south St. Louis later this year. At full capacity, the program will coach up to 200 women a year.

The big-picture goal is to help 80% of Rung members reach a family-sustaining wage within five years, or nearly $29 an hour for a single woman with a child in Missouri.

But what have women taken away from the program so far? St. Louis Public Radio followed along with three women from very different backgrounds over the first nine months of the program to see how it shaped their lives.

Here are their stories:

Carmen Ward, founder of Becoming Carmen LLC and member of Rung for Women's first cohort, reacts while talking about her background on Monday, Nov. 29, 2021, at her home in St. Louis’ Penrose neighborhood.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Carmen Ward, the 43-year-old founder of Becoming Carmen LLC and member of Rung for Women's first cohort, reacts while talking about her personal background last November at her home in St. Louis’ Penrose neighborhood.

Carmen Ward

Just a few years ago, Carmen Ward was in a dark place.

“I had quit a job that was not in my purpose,” said Ward, a 43-year-old who lives in the Penrose neighborhood of north St. Louis with her adult son Paul, who has autism. “I was deep in my depression. I was angry, I was bitter and I was broken.”

A friend who works at Rung for Women suggested Ward apply to participate. Getting accepted into the pilot program was the boost she needed to help pull her out of that negative space.

Two weeks in, she started a personal coaching business called Becoming Carmen to help other women like herself. Ward continued working on it when she enrolled in Rung’s full program in March 2021, but she prioritized taking care of herself.

“Now that I know that I can be this dope businesswoman, now let me pull up to the Carmen table and take care of the internal things that will also make my heart joyful,” she said.

Ward has spent most of her life doing social work and has also worked in sales. She enrolled in the program hoping to find a job that aligns with her passion for advocacy work, but her journey with Rung is also focused on self-discovery.

About four months into the program, Ward began spending a lot of time in Rung’s community garden.

On a humid August day, she harvested a big stack of ripe cucumbers, while her son Paul hung out inside the building. She’s grateful that Rung has always made space for him when he tags along with her, even though it doesn't have any specific services available for him as a young adult.

Carmen Ward smiles as she holds up a ripe cucumber harvested from Rung for Women's community garden. "I find my way here every day that I can now, it just ministers to me," she said.
Corinne Ruff
St. Louis Public Radio
Carmen Ward holds up a ripe cucumber harvested from Rung for Women's community garden last summer. "I find my way here every day that I can," she said. "It just ministers to me."

Gardening became a healing tool for Ward while she navigated car and money troubles.

“I felt like my world was just crumbling around me and the only thing that was around me was this,” she said, pointing to the garden. “I had my therapy and I’m talking to my transformational coach, but it wasn’t enough.”

There’s a lot about her situation that Ward can’t control, but she’s been learning how to take things day by day and communicate what she needs to her coach. Since the program rolls out at her own pace, she’s been able to prioritize immediate needs in her life over career goals.

“I’ve learned how to be bold and courageous, and I wouldn’t have been able to find this, had I not started doing things differently,” she said. “And one of those things is just playing in the dirt.”

Eight months into the program, Ward’s life has changed in many ways, big and small. For one thing, she’s a lot happier — and so is her son.

“I think he is happy to see, in his own way of how he expresses it, me not so sad,” she said. Paul has started to notice how the positive changes in her life have allowed her to “present him with more and love him in different ways.”

She recently started a full-time job as the community and outreach coordinator at Navigate STL Schools, a nonprofit that helps parents find educational options for their kids. She’d worked with the organization as a contract employee since 2020.

At Rung, Ward shifted onto the career track and worked on developing advanced professional skills, such as how to establish herself as a leader in a job.

She has also become a fierce advocate of the program. The No. 1 thing Rung has given her is self-confidence, she said, and it’s something she tries to pass on to others.

“For me, it is to love myself, it is to recognize that I'm enough. It is to recognize that I am beautiful, that I am worthy, that I deserve it,” she said. “Affirm yourself.”

Kelsey McClure, a participant in the first Rung for Women cohort, smiles for a portrait on Monday, Nov. 29, 2021, outside of her home in St. Louis’ Fox Park neighborhood.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Kelsey McClure, a 34-year-old participant in the first Rung for Women cohort, at her home in the Fox Park neighborhood of St. Louis last November. "Rung taught me to provide for myself," she said.

Kelsey McClure

After Kelsey McClure graduated from Webster University in 2010, she was more interested in traveling than pursuing a traditional career path. So she got work visas and lived in places like New Zealand, always falling back on bartending and her knowledge of craft beer.

When the pandemic grounded her travel plans, the now 34-year-old ended up living right around the corner from Rung’s campus. She also helped open a new restaurant in the neighborhood, called The Lucky Accomplice, and began bartending there.

But during that time, she decided she didn’t want to be a bartender anymore. She remembers calling her brother and asking if she could crash at his home in Idaho while she figured out what to do next. But later that day, she got a call from Rung, accepting her into the program.

“This is the opportunity, the break that I needed in St. Louis,” McClure said. Her goal in the Rung program is to find stability and figure out a way to stay in the brewery industry in a less public-facing way.

Kelsey McClure, a participant in the first Rung for Women cohort, holds up a lager she helped brew on Monday, Nov. 29, 2021, at her home in St. Louis’ Fox Park neighborhood. McClure helped brew the beer as a collaboration between the North Carolina-based Trophy Brewing Company and a hop company based in Riwaka, New Zealand –– where she previously lived.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Kelsey McClure holds up a lager she helped brew as a collaboration between the North Carolina-based Trophy Brewing Company and New Zealand hop farm Eggers Hop Growers — where she recently started a full-time job.

“I want to be able to think about my life not as an immediate need or a quick fix, but in terms of longevity,” she said. “Which is wild for me to even say, because having a five-year plan is something that I have never been able to do.”

As the program ramped up, McClure began working with her personal coach to set goals for herself, starting with something small: getting a bed.

She’d been sleeping on a camping mat she uses for hiking trips. As someone who spent years constantly moving on to the next thing, McClure has never put a lot of effort into making her home comfortable. But she realized that she can’t expect to move forward in her career until other aspects of her personal life are taken care of, including getting a good night’s sleep.

Five months into the program, her counselor has also helped McClure unpack how her past experiences have shaped her ability to succeed in the workplace — and she’s made a big realization. As someone who has experienced sexual assault and harassment in the service industry, working in a public-facing job in that environment isn’t the healthiest option for her.

“I have learned how to name and understand what feelings or uncertainties I have with the industry and my position within it,” she said. “That way, I can actually solve that problem.”

Last year, McClure and a few other survivors of sexual assault started a group called St. Louis Against Sexual Assault to bring awareness to the issue in the alcohol industry. Now, she’s the vice president of the group.

“That work is really challenging on a deeply personal level,” she said. “It is hard at times when you want change, but you have to be patient about it because you first have to take care of yourself.”

Eight months into the program, McClure said Rung has taught her to identify and listen to her needs, and that gave her the confidence to hold out for a job that supports a healthier lifestyle.

She recently turned down a job that was great on paper — it came with a good salary, a car and health care.

“But ultimately, it would put me back into the bar restaurant industry, which is just something that I'm not interested in doing anymore,” she said. “It does not provide the healthy lifestyle that I have grown into.”

Eventually, McClure found a job that ticked all of her boxes. Now, she’s working from home for a New Zealand farm, coordinating hop sales to U.S. craft breweries.

She said her biggest payoff from the program is the relationship she’s grown with herself.

The program coordinators understand that, “if you are where you need to be personally, then all of those other things will follow,” she said. “The culmination of that is, I got to where I needed to be to be able to say no, and to prioritize myself, and then other things have fallen in line.”

Sydney Ojeikere, 26, and her mother Yvette Boyd-Ojeikere, 56, on Monday, Dec. 6, 2021, at the Rung for Women headquarters in St. Louis’ Fox Park neighborhood. Sydney was part of the first cohort of the program working to elevate women’s personal and professional lives through mentorship and coaching.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Sydney Ojeikere, 26, and her mother, Yvette Boyd-Ojeikere, 57, pose for a portrait last December at the Rung for Women campus in Fox Park. Sydney was part of the first cohort of the program and she persuaded Yvette to join the next group of women.

Sydney Ojeikere

Sydney Ojeikere felt like she was on the right track when she was accepted into Rung.

The 26-year-old grew up in Spanish Lake with a mix of cultures that she said makes her resilient. Her dad is from Nigeria and her mom is American, of Puerto Rican and Dominican descent.

She’s always trying to look out for her family, especially her sister, who has autism, and her mom, who’s battled cancer and other health problems. Shortly before beginning the Rung program, Ojeikere had gone through a lot of therapy and felt ready for the opportunity to better clarify her career path.

At the beginning of the program, Ojeikere was a contract marketing consultant for Wells Fargo — her second contract job out of college — but her goal was to land a salaried job. “Contract jobs give me a lot of anxiety honestly, just because the contract might end, you might get dropped off or whatever,” she said.

On a warm, August evening five months into the program, Ojeikere sat in a conference room on Rung’s campus, bubbling with news to share. “So much has changed,” she said.

Sydney Ojeikere, 26, of St. Louis, on Monday, Dec. 6, 2021, at the Rung for Women headquarters in St. Louis’ Fox Park neighborhood. Sydney was part of the first cohort of the program working to elevate women’s personal and professional lives through mentorship and coaching.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Sydney Ojeikere poses for a portrait last December. “I do feel like a different person,” she said, adding that the best part of the program for her has been, “stepping into my power, listening to myself and trusting myself.”

She recently moved into an apartment of her own in the Central West End, and she landed a new job as a project manager at Anheuser-Busch. It’s exactly what she wanted: a salaried position with paid time off, great benefits and a 401(k).

For months, she had been anxious about why she wasn’t getting many interviews.

“Me being a Black girl with natural hair and being worried that I was going to get judged or not get a call back because I dyed my hair blonde randomly. I was just overthinking it,” Ojeikere said. “So it’s just great to get confidence put back in me — like, ‘If they’re worried about your hair color or your skin, that’s not the job for you. That’s not the company for you.’”

Nine months in, Ojeikere has soaked up a lot of lessons about self-confidence. She said what stands out most to her is “stepping into my power, listening to myself and trusting myself.”

Being able to let go of things has helped transform her into a different person, she said.

That contagious feeling of self-empowerment pushed her to persuade her mom, Yvette Boyd-Ojeikere, to join Rung. The 57-year-old is the one who encouraged Ojeikere to apply to the program.

“I said, ‘Wow, this might be good for Syd.’ Because I always, I would say have lived my life in the last maybe 20 years through Sydney’s eyes,” said Boyd-Ojeikere.

She has said no to a lot of things in life in order to take care of her other daughter, Courtney, who has autism. She’s been afraid to take risks or even apply for a new job in case it doesn't work out.

But now Boyd-Ojeikere is part of the next wave of women going through the program.

She isn’t sure exactly where this journey will take her — or if she even wants a new job. For the first time in a long time, she’s putting herself first. "I just want to have more time to just slow down, know that I matter, [that] I’m not a superwoman, I can’t do it all.”

She’s looking forward to building a community with other women who are rediscovering themselves too.

Follow Corinne on Twitter: @corinnesusan

Corinne is the economic development reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.