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Real Mom: Gwen Cooper

The Let’s Get Real profiles are very personal to me. As a woman who identifies herself as a mom first and entrepreneur second, I find that it's often hard to feel justified in that role when so many women around me make a different choice. We all make our sacrifices. I appreciate the very small handful of women on my journey who have appreciated the delicate balance between motherhood and career. This month’s profile is one of the best.

I met Gwen Cooper almost 10 years ago while coaching soccer. Her youngest son was on the team with my daughter and I liked her instantly. She was new to Louisville and I was new to coaching soccer. She moved here from Florida and I needed to know why anyone would leave a beach! Like many, it was a career move, and in her new role at a nonprofit, she needed marketing help. I specialized in PR and marketing so she and I began working together. Both of us learned a lot during that time, but I am forever grateful for the way she showed balance to a young mom who was just learning to balance.

Today I’m happy to share all about my friend, Gwen. Gwen was recently named CEO of Patient Services, Inc. and while I’m sorry to lose her here in Louisville, Virginia seems to get some of the best people.

Gwen’s professional journey into the career of healthcare began in 1999 and her time at the Arthritis Foundation and Community Health Charities of Florida really helped shape her perspective on how people live with healthcare challenges. But her journey into understanding the ins and outs of the system wasn’t all professionally motivated.

“I wanted to get on the care/provider side when we moved to Kentucky in order to better support my brother-in-law who has a traumatic brain injury,” she said. "I had always worked on the voluntary health agency side, not the provider side, and I knew I had to understand the whole system in order to navigate healthcare services personally and grow professionally."

Gwen’s career has taken her through many aspects of patient care from behavioral health, to end of life care, and it has all been very different. However, all of these roles have prepared her for this new path where she has the opportunity to put her skills together to work for patients and their families.

Now, with many years of experience behind her in the nonprofit arena, she has learned something that has been invaluable to her success.

You can’t be successful in nonprofit if you don’t advocate for your mission and truly care for the people you serve,” she said.

Caring passionately for the population she serves isn’t something she struggles with, but Covid-19 did raise some concerns for the vulnerable populations.

“It made life very busy, quickly. My primary role when everything broke was lobbying and advocating for important policy changes. My goal was to ensure hospice care was included in all the critical language,” said Gwen.

In a time where there seemed to be a lot of division, she was overwhelmed by the support and efficiency that she saw among senators, congressmen, and trade associations.

“We all worked as one unit to make sure the language was unified, accepted, and in the hands of the right people… it was so rewarding to realize that relationships built over years, could be leveraged and that I had become a trusted source for them.”

But Gwen is more than just a trusted source in the healthcare and political arena, she’s also a trusted source to her friends and family. She and husband, Barton, have been married for 18 years. Their son Caden is 13, and Gwen’s son Clay, who is 29, serves in the Army National Guard. As a family they spend a lot of time together, hiking, boating, and exercising.

Gwen says with the pandemic, and now the community unrest in general, the worlds of our children have been limited to just us.

"Suddenly our kids are faced with mortality. They’re worried about us. And then they’re trying to figure out what to do with all this free time without friends, school, or sports. But, I think this will teach our kids resilience. This is a great time to teach our kids practical things that we often can't find time to teach".

As long as I’ve known Gwen, Bart, Caden, and Clay have been her top priorities, but she has also continued to grow in her career, always moving on to bigger roles, taking on more responsibility, and changing the face of her community. You would think that would mean less time to be mom, but it doesn’t stop her from showing up at games or taking long hikes. So how does she find the balance?

“My team is me and Bart - our jobs have different seasons and we know when to be flexible for each other. The older your kid gets does NOT mean they need you less. I know it goes fast - this time is short and I’m not going to miss out on it. You make it work.”

Gwen also says she always picks companies that are willing to allow flexibility, and as a CEO, she also allows flexibility.

There is no such thing as the work/life balance. Sometimes there’s more work, sometimes there’s more sports, family, school, etc. It’s moving back and forth. I firmly believe your family comes before your career - I haven’t been fortunate — I’ve picked the places I worked and I’ve built the teams. It’s by design and respect that everyone is a grown up and can find their balance to accomplish shared goals.

Gwen’s ability to see the whole picture is one of the things I loved about working with her. As a young mom, she recognized I could have made another choice, but I chose mom first. Sometimes we worked on projects in the evenings, sometimes during work hours, but she knew my work ethic and I knew her expectations. If you’re a mom who wants more time with your family, it starts by taking control of the companies you choose and the teams you build.

So as a professional woman, how do you build those teams and how do you find those circles? We hear a lot of talk about women supporting women in the workplace. However, one on one, women express a much different experience. I was eager to hear how women have encouraged Gwen in her career.

“I have a great network of successful women, but a small circle of those I trust to be my sounding board. My dad always said - you can know a whole lot of people, but if you can count true friends on one hand you’re luckier than most.”

Gwen says women can support one another by just giving the relationship you want to have, but don’t expect anything in return and never make gossip part of the relationship.

“Don’t gossip and don’t break confidentiality because you can’t get it back. Don’t do it, and don’t tolerate it from others.”

She also shared some advice that can be applicable to all of us:

  • You CAN build a network of people just because you’re a nice person

  • Let the past be the past - move forward, but take the lessons

  • Once you lose respect for someone you can’t get it back (this goes both ways)

  • Choose who you trust carefully - it’s ok to keep some relationships strictly business

One of my favorite questions to ask people is what does success look like for them? At 40, I feel like I should be at the top, but in many ways, I feel like Im just getting started. I love Gwen’s take on her journey.

Success is about being in the right place at the right time, and being content. My confidence did not grow until my mid-40's. It came because I worked hard and finally realized I could do anything I wanted, so I got my master’s degree by 53. You have to look at the full picture … it’s being able to do what you want to do WITH your family not INSTEAD of your family.

In addition to her family and professional roles, Gwen is a volunteer for the American Lung Association because of the impact it has had on her family. She also picks one or two nonprofits throughout the year to serve and regularly supports the work of the National Hypoglycemia Support Foundation.

Thank you Gwen for being an inspiration to the women around you!

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