When Anne Pramaggiore was named the CEO of ComEd earlier this year, she became the first woman to hold both the title of president and chief executive officer at the energy giant -- and the job was a long way from her days working retail after getting a degree in theater.
Pramaggiore knows what it takes for a woman to make it to the top in an untraditional way. She shared the story of her success with the attendees at the 100 Influential Women breakfast at Harper College on Friday morning. The breakfast was a fundraiser for the school's Women's Program, which supports the employment and educational goals of up to 500 women a year who are single parents, former full-time homemakers, English language learners or other nontraditional career seekers.
Most of the program participants are between 40-60 years old and more than half have experienced some type of abuse, said Kathleen Canfield, director of the program.
"The years go by, the workforce and the economy turns, but the need has not changed," said Canfield, who added that the program which was once supported by a state grant, is now run entirely through donations and scholarships.
Pramaggiore, the event's keynote speaker, said programs like Harper's are necessary to help lift up women in a difficult economy.
"Providing a platform for women's success empowers the whole family," Pramaggiore said.
In spite of statistics that women only make up 3 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs and only 17 percent of the U.S. Congress, Pramaggiore said she is optimistic about the momentum women are gaining around the world.
She pointed to the number of women in the Illinois General Assembly -- 30 percent -- and the success of American and international women at the 2012 Olympics as examples.
To continue that success and build on the momentum, Pramaggiore said women need to forget the rules they were taught and control their own futures.
"Color outside the lines. Failure is good for success," said Pramaggiore, who lives in Barrington. "Reject the expected, be bold and take some risks."
Pramaggiore said she took several risks throughout her career, including going back to law school and working at ComEd.
"Sometimes you have to take a leap of faith and take a leap off the beaten career path," she said.
Pramaggiore also told women to learn to hold their ground, trust their judgment and not be afraid to fail.
"But at the end of the day, it's all about people," she said. "Answer the call to help other women."
The 100 Influential Women breakfast is a fundraiser for the Harper College Women's Program. The program raises money for scholarships and counseling and other support services for women returning to school.
One alumna of the Women's Program is answering that call as she continues her education to be a counselor for women like herself.
Cathy Clarke, of Hoffman Estates, said she had several abusive relationships in her past. When her second marriage ended and Clarke was supporting her four children on a minimum-wage job and groceries from the food pantry, she said she knew she needed an education, not a man, to improve her life.
Clarke graduated from Harper last year with a 4.0 GPA while working part-time. She is now going to Elmhurst College.
"Coming here completely changed the trajectory of my life," Clarke said. "My circumstances do not define me, nor do they confine me."