The year was 1890. Idaho was a newborn state, and a national contest was launched to design the Idaho State Seal. The prize: $100. An unknown artist named E. S. Edwards was declared the winner and soon proved as capable of creating controversy as art. Admittedly, Miss Emma Sarah Edwards had entered the contest using only her initials to ensure an 18-year-old girl in a hoop skirt received equal consideration among her all-male competitors and judges. Today, Emma Edwards Green remains the only woman in U.S. history to create a State Seal.
Individual acts of courage—this is how history is made, how social change occurs, and how Idaho, so rich in wilderness yet home to the fastest-growing population in the nation, continues to shatter stereotypes.
A Republican First Lady, a Democratic State Senator, a geek philanthropist, the first Hispanic woman on the City Council, a visionary music maven, an altruistic financial wizard, a gravity-defying new mom, a revolutionary food guru, a Syrian refugee—the women profiled here, all leaders and innovators, are creating positive change in Boise and beyond.
Like Emma Edwards and many more pioneers famed or unnamed, these women have triumphed over challenges and failure with strength, heart, determination, and hard work. In so doing, they’ve embodied the old saying, “A rising tide lifts all boats.” Idaho may be landlocked, but the tide is rising thanks to these innovators.
Lubna Al Aboud
I left Syria because I want to live,” explains Lubna Al Aboud, a 17-year-old refugee and junior at Capitol High School. “There’s no life there. I cannot get an education. I cannot follow my dream to be a doctor. We could not even find food.”
Lubna, her parents and five brothers were
resettled in Boise nearly two years ago. The
children appear to have adjusted well, speaking English, riding the bus to school, texting, playing video games.
“We feel very grateful for our new life, for the generosity of people in America,” says the teenager. “But we do not understand why President Trump does not like us.”
Soft-spoken and authentic, Lubna shared her life story on a refugee panel at FilmFort last year. It was a story of
falling artillery shells, shattering bodies and windows of hospitals without doctors. Since then, she’s become an accidental ambassador, speaking often for those still trapped in the continuing conflict.
“Everyone is very kind in Boise,’ Lubna insists. “Sometimes people stare. Some kids at school ask if I’m bald. When I tell them no, they tell me to prove it by removing my hijab—but I do not. They’re not bad people. They don’t understand that in my culture and religion, women are considered precious. We wear head-scarves to gain respect, to encourage others to consider the worth of our character and intellect and not judge women by our hairstyle or clothes.”
Her enlightening perspective on this Muslim tradition shines an ironic spotlight on America’s pandemic of sexual harassment. The pertinence is not lost on Lubna. “I wish life was as easy as numbers. I love math. There is nothing to translate. The numbers always add up right.”
The teenager shakes her head. ‘I’m just normal. I like to watch movies, spend time with my friends. I really care about studying because
I have a dream to be a doctor since I was a child. To save even one soul is the greatest thing I have ever dreamed. I would love to go back to help the people of my country, but there are no dreams in Syria anymore.”
For Lubna, and refugees like her, Boise may prove to be a place where dreams come true.
A First Lady, like The Queen Mother and Wonder Woman, is supposed to be different from us. Forever coiffed and smiling, she’s perfected the art of charm with polished authenticity. She wears pantsuits and gowns that cost more than our cars. She’s very passionate but never angry. She even looks good in ugly hats. But what if this is only a media image? What if a First Lady was just like us? A teacher, a wife, a woman with two jobs? Then we’d be talking about Lori Otter, Idaho’s First Lady.
Yes, Miss Lori (her nickname) looks good in hats: specifically, cowboy hats and baseball caps, which she wears for rodeos, parades and lawn mowing. And yes, she has a beauty-queen-smile as a former Miss Idaho, but more so, because she loves working beside her husband, the Governor. That high-beam congeniality quickly flips to frustration, however, when discussing her view from the Capitol Building: the heartbreaking opioid crisis, the relatively low percentage of female legislators, and the economics of Girl Scout cookies.
“My biggest regret as First Lady is that I couldn’t help get that bill passed.” She’s talking about her three-year effort to get a tax relief bill on the sale of Girl Scout cookies passed in Idaho’s Legislature. “It just fries me that they—we—as one of only two states, penalize entrepreneurial young girls. It was a huge lesson for me. I learned that, even as First Lady, if you’re not part of the political process, you’re not going to be part of the solution. This motivated me to become CEO of I-WIL.”
Idaho Women in Leadership (I-WIL), which has partnered with Zions Bank, has two missions: to support women moving into corporate leadership positions and to inspire and educate women—Democrat, Republican and Independent—to run for office. And win.
“Women have driven the results of every election in the last 100 years. Yet, they’re not equally represented because they don’t step up and run for office. And sadly, the few elected women in our Legislature are often divided by party lines, so their strength is divided.”
These words sound more like the seeds of a powerful campaign speech than the reflections of a soon-to-retire public servant. Then again, Lori Otter is not at all what you’d expect in a First Lady. She’s much more.
Think back to 2009 when the impossible happened every day—when the housing-fueled bubble burst and banks toppled.
For many people in Boise and beyond, the meltdown still haunts them. Suzi Boyle, one of Boise’s most successful mortgage brokers, then and now, was no exception. Watching helplessly as hundreds of clients lost everything broke her heart.
“Five percent of the industry took the entire country down,” Boyle explained recently. “The hardest part of my job now is people don’t trust mortgage brokers. I have to explain that I helped write federal loan legislation to help prevent another disaster.”
Boyle is 5 feet, 3 inches tall, and hapa; her mother was Japanese, and her father Caucasian. Raised in Burley, Idaho, a graduate of Boise State University,
she made an unlikely career choice because she wanted “to help people in Boise get a home. But even when business was good, it’s never been easy.” Then again, compared to the challenges Boyle has faced in her personal life, gender discrimination in a historically male jungle is a mosquito bite.
When she was 38, her father and mother were murdered in their home in Burley. Then, after Boyle spent five years recovering from a stroke at age 50, her husband, Michael Hummel, suffered a traumatic brain injury in a car accident. “Resilience,” Boyle said, “can’t be taught. It’s only learned the hard way.”
This financial altruist, community advocate, and devoted philanthropist expressed reluctance when invited to be in this article: “I’m not sure I deserve
to be included with all these amazing women.”
When asked why, she offered humbly, “I guess
I have a very high standard of achievement for myself. I’m just not there yet, but I’m working on it and hopefully, helping others along the way.”
Boyle embodies qualities common with the women in this group and many more unmentioned: humility, purpose, compassion, resilience, and courage. These are human qualities that define
true success for all of us, male and female, despite
Tango, the sad, sensual, elegant and melancholic dance that originated in Buenos Aires in the 1880s, has bled into the soul of Eileen Barber.
Barber, who is the co-founder of Keynetics, the largest privately held tech company in Idaho and parent company to both Kount, Inc. (a provider of fraud and risk management solutions) and ClickBank (one of the largest online retailers), is a professional tango dancer and board member at Tango Boise. In the past year, she launched Ochos, a social dance venue and tapas bar. And, although tango and tech seem like an odd mix, for Barber, it makes perfect sense.
“The arts are important to me,” said Barber, who served as past president of the Idaho Shakespeare Festival and believes that the arts and artistic expression help teach creative problem solving, which she sees as a key component to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) jobs. “We started our software business in a 6-by-12 garage 20 years ago,” recalled Barber. “It was about seeing trends and identifying patterns.”
Barber has taken a step back from day-to-day operations at Keynetics but is still committed to solving problems. Most recently, she donated $250,000 to Boise State University (BSU) for the Kount Tutoring Center in downtown Boise—a move she said was motivated by her goal of engaging more women in the field of technology. Nationwide, there are projected to be 2.4 million unfilled STEM jobs this year, and women are presently filling only 24 percent of them.
“Programming requires diversity of thought and creativity,” stated Barber, who believes that young women need to be exposed to it earlier and is committed to supporting that process. “If they can see it, they can be it,” she said emphatically, citing her work with educators in developing a robust AP Computer Science program at the high school level and introducing programming to fifth-graders. In 2009, Barber also helped establish the Keynetics Inc., Computer Science Scholarship for Women, followed by the Ada Lovelace Computer Science Scholarship for Women in 2013 (in honor of the world’s first computer scientist, Ada, Countess of Lovelace). But perhaps her proudest tech moment to date will be watching her daughter, a music minor, as she graduates with a computer science degree from BSU.
Lori Shandro Outen
Not your typical CPA, Lori Shandro Oüten knows the tax code, was a specialist in the taxation of insurance companies, has consulted with start-ups, and started her own business. But, what sets her apart from her field is the simple fact that, in her spare time, Shandro Oüten helped launch and produce Treefort, a five-day music festival that runs annually in downtown Boise every March.
Treefort has been praised for being intimate and authentic—a festival that has stayed true to its roots and remains a celebration of what makes Boise great. In this respect, it is clear that Shandro Oüten’s intensely directed, yet calm and genuine presence helps guide the mission of the festival, which was recently named the City of Boise’s Cultural Ambassador for its role in connecting Boise creatives with other communities around the region, the country, and the world.
“Treefort has exceeded all our expectations and has truly become a community-built festival,” said Shandro Oüten, who attributes its success to passion and timing. “It is amazing how many people have come forward in the community to offer their talents and passion.”
Treefort, which Shandro Oüten formed in partnership with co-founders Drew Lorona and Eric Gilbert, has grown from a three-day festival with 137 bands and 13 venues when it launched in 2012 to a five-day festival featuring more than 447 bands at over two dozen venues.
“My favorite aspect of Treefort continues to be watching the creative crossover that buildS between all the different forts each year,” said Shandro Oüten, who cites nine different forts (which are akin to franchises run under the umbrella of Treefort), including Alefort, Yogafort, Storyfort, Hackfort, Filmfort, Skatefort, Comedyfort, Kidfort and Foodfort. This places Shandro Oüten at the epicenter of one of the biggest creative cultural movements in Boise.
“My role is really to encourage people to cultivate what they are good at and what they love doing,” she said. It is what brings her the most joy, and, fortunately for Boise, her passion for music has helped create a vehicle to bring the community together to share their love of Boise and engage the city on a larger stage.
Meg Carlson intends to save the world with a food group: fat.
“Not the bad kind,” says the CEO of MELT, purveyors of a plant-based butter. “Good fat. Organic. Palm fruit, sunflower, flax seeds—natural fats that support brain function. It’s polyunsaturated fats in processed foods, carbs and sugar that convert to saturated fat in your bloodstream.”
Research has shown that too much animal-based fat, starches, and refined flour can stop your heart. Carlson put those stats on the dinner table and proved the philosophical principle of Occam’s Razor: when two explanations arise for an occurrence, the simpler one is usually better, even when you’re talking about butter.
A 30-year veteran in the Idaho food industry, Carlson brings more than philosophy and heart-healthy recipes to the free consults she provides to hundreds of startup food entrepreneurs at Boise Trailhead and Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO), a national network of entrepreneurs.
“There’s a radical shift happening,” she tells aspiring foodies. “Outliers are disrupting aging corporate structures.”
That means mom’s handwritten grocery list with Campbell’s Tomato Soup has been replaced by the generation with online carts Googling free-trade avocado-turmeric toast. They care about what they’re eating, where it came from.
What’s Carlson’s best advice for aspiring outliers? Be passionate, and talk to people who have tried, failed, and succeeded. Have a business plan and don’t expect to become a millionaire in three to five years. Know the risk is high and the return low in the short term, but the experience is invaluable in the long run. And finally, don’t forget to stop, breathe deep, and remind yourself why you started the journey.
Carlson’s most profound advice, however, is not advice. It’s wisdom. The kind that only comes from experiencing great personal tragedy: the suicide of her 19-year-old-son.
“You grieve the loss of a child your entire life. But from that experience I found three things that could help me endure and move forward: one, a strong faith in God, as my husband and I couldn’t bear the pain alone; two, accepting support from family and friends; three, a clear and meaningful purpose. Luckily, for me, my work is also my purpose: helping families make the choice to live healthier lives.”
Cherie Buckner-Webb is a fifth-generation Idahoan who comes from a long line of pioneers and forerunners. True to her heritage, she is a leader for her generation: She was the first woman of color admitted into the Junior League of Idaho, rose to the top of her field while climbing the corporate ladder at Boise Cascade and Hewlett-Packard, and was elected Idaho’s first African American State Legislator in 2010, winning the seat with 68 percent of the vote. Two years later, she won the Idaho Senate seat (in 2012 for District 19) and was named the Democratic caucus chair shortly thereafter.
“My mother was a strong-willed, free-thinking black woman who was not afraid to disturb the peace,” said Buckner-Webb, who recalled the time when a local hate group burned a cross in the front yard of their north Boise home. She was in the first grade at the time and remembers her mother boldly displaying the cross on the mantle as a reminder and an act of strength, an experience she credits with motivating her into human rights and civil discourse.
“Sometimes the biggest impact you can make in your life is what you do locally,” she said, adding that she is thrilled to be serving Idaho and is encouraged to see women standing together in support of their beliefs, whether for education, gender equality, social or economic justice.
Buckner-Webb believes in people and the power in uniting people. She is also an accomplished jazz and gospel singer. She has recorded with the late great Gene Harris and her debut solo album “By His Grace” won the Idaho Excellence in the Arts Award in 2004. Perhaps this is why her voice so often lifts people up. Her personal mantra is “leave a legacy” and she believes this inspires, no, requires her to stand purposefully to confront and interrupt any of the violence, oppression, abuse, disrespect and discrimination that she sees in the world.
“I come from a generation of consciousness
raising,” said Buckner-Webb, who admits she may have more of her mother’s “Disturb the Peace” motto than she originally thought. “It wasn’t, ‘go out trouble making.’ It was: ‘When you see something that is not the way it should be, don’t be timid, don’t sit back, don’t cover your mouth, don’t bow your head. Stand up and interrupt that behavior.’”
As the first Latina elected to the Boise City Council, Lisa Sanchez made the Idaho history books on Nov. 7, 2017. She had never run for political office before but won more than 44 percent of the vote.
“I am proud to be of Mexican descent,” said Sanchez. “When we do something, we don’t do it for ourselves, we do it with each other and for each other.” These are qualities she would like to bring to her role on the City Council. Her goal: to bring everybody to the table.
Sanchez recognizes that it will take solid leadership to accomplish this task. She knows because she had strong role models growing up. “I was literally drowning in powerful women,” said Sanchez. Her mother, Janie Ortiz, was honored by two Idaho governors. She was appointed to the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs by Gov. Cecil B. Andrus in 1995, and was awarded a posthumous commendation for all her public service work by Gov. Butch Otter in 2017. (Sanchez notes that this represents both a Democratic and a Republican governor, and proudly states that her mother saw all people equally, without making divisions between people, communities, politics, or conditions.)
Sanchez herself was the first Latina to serve as both student body vice-president and president at Boise State University (BSU) and, more recently, was the only Spanish-speaking civil rights investigator for the Idaho Human Rights Commission (2008 to 2013). But it is her mother and grandmother to whom she gives credit for inspiring her journey into office. “My mom had a ‘never give up’ spirit,” Sanchez said. “They both had very little, but the way they led their lives was by experiencing value in their community.”
Sanchez learned from their examples that leaders roll up their sleeves and get to work. There was no waiting for a program or permission, and no recognition was needed.
“My mother had the trust of the people,” Sanchez said, adding that it would be her greatest honor to live up to her legacy while in office.
Dance is a metaphor. The gravity- defying arcs, bound by skin and bone, sing to our soul in a language everyone can see. With each swirl and dive, a dancer allows the audience to believe humanity must be more than our quotidian lives. If you doubt, go see Lauren Edson dance. She will convince you with a single sweep of her arm that, assuredly, we must be angels, learning to soar.
How many artists have faced the question within or presented by others: “Why don’t you get a real job?” More importantly, how many artists find the answer to the question before they give up and become a barista or a banker? Lauren Edson created her answer in three letters: LED.
Edson, 33, founded this creative Boise-based consortium with her husband and musician, Andrew Stensaas, in 2015. Together they’ve built a world-class theatrical experience that includes dancers, musicians, original and genre-bending musical compositions, and, sometimes, wild animal masks. The masks are for the audience.
Whether playing to sold-out audiences at the Morrison Center, Egyptian Theater or Treefort, every performance feels too big for its venue, as if there is simply too much talent to fit on one stage. And in the middle of it all is Edson, 101 pounds of anti-gravitational magic. Just try to take your eyes off her. She is the leaping heartbeat of the entire, pulsing production.
Edson started her dance career with the obligatory exodus to New York, hoping to land a paying gig with an established company. Then came Chicago. Then Portland. Ironically, she found her dream day job right here in Boise when she sent an audition tape to choreographer Trey McIntyre.
“I felt honored to express Trey’s artistic vision. He’s an amazing choreographer. But the longer I danced with him, for him, the more I yearned to express my own vision. When he moved back East, I stayed. And then everything began to unfold.”
Unfolding seems the perfect word to describe Edson. Her life is her family is her art is LED, and it’s all unfolding, like wings, destined to carry them all to greater heights.