One of the city’s strongest advocates for women lives in a house full of men.

“My entire household is male — we even have a male dog,” Vanessa Freytag says of her husband, two sons and pet. “The testosterone flows freely there.”

At work, it’s another story. Following five years as volunteer chair for the Women’s Fund of the Greater Cincinnati Foundation, Freytag was named its executive director in July. Leading her to this point have been a series of personal revelations and serendipitously timed opportunities.
The Women’s Fund has four major missions on its docket: to develop women in workplace leadership roles in order to help staunch the area’s brain drain and see to it that corporations have the necessary horizon-broadening diversity within its ranks; to help close the gap when it comes to women’s poverty with an economic security initiative that would help to provide opportunities for jobs, transportation and child care; to grow strong girls by assessing how they’re currently doing in education, leadership training and economic security and then partnering with groups such as Girl Scouts; and to continue to gather data for benchmarking across all of the Fund’s initiatives. For its economic security initiative, the fund plans to invest a half-million dollars into the community over the next three years, by awarding grants to organizations that effect the same ends.

The first came while Freytag worked in commercial banking at Bank One in the mid-‘90s. The bank sent Freytag to a leadership conference that included a focus on leaders as individuals, “because if you don’t know where your compass is pointed, how can you really lead others?”
Freytag still has the piece of paper from that conference on which she wrote “in pencil, because I was too chicken to commit to it in pen, ‘I wish I could find a way to combine what I’ve learned in banking with my passion for women’s issues.’”

Three months later, Freytag, always a member of women’s professional groups, received a call from California. A recent speaker to one of her organizations asked if Bank One would be interested in joining a new nationwide coalition of banks that cater to women business owners.
Freytag looked into it and learned that Bank One’s senior management was, coincidentally, starting to develop the same market segment. The company needed someone to put together the business case, so Freytag volunteered — during a maternity leave — and soon was hired as national director of Bank One’s (which would become Chase Bank) Women’s Initiative.

“There have been a number of times when the stars have just aligned,” Freytag says.

She held the role from 1996 to 2000, then followed her momentum with two ventures that furthered her wish to help women.

The first was W-Insight, a consultancy business she launched in 2000. W-Insight, which taught corporate clients how to market and sell to women, was the response to the frequent calls Freytag received from companies asking for help capturing the buying power of women. Her first clients included Aetna, PNC Bank and Nationwide.

Along the way, Freytag, who grew up in Ann Arbor, Mich. as the only daughter in a family of three children, found a sisterhood in Cincinnati’s Women Entrepreneurs Inc. (WEI), a group that no longer exists.

“I remember walking into the meeting (for the first time) and seeing 60 or 70 business women there and thinking ‘I don’t think I’ve ever been in a room full of so many business women,’” Freytag recalls.

“They took me under their wing,” she adds. “I look at my network file today and more than a third of that I can trace back to that group.”
It was her connectivity with WEI that propelled another venture, this time undertaken with Deborah Dent, president of Willow Creative Group. Dent was lamenting what she saw as a lack of community among business women in the city, and Freytag knew from her own experience and connections that Cincinnati had the female professionals, just not a vehicle to connect them.

Freytag and Dent came together to publish the first Women’s Business Cincinnati newspaper in 2005. The newspaper proved its relevance by starting up and remaining profitable. When the executive directorship opportunity with the Women’s Fund of the Greater Cincinnati Foundation arose, it was clear to Freytag — and to Dent — that Freytag should pursue it.

“It’s in her heart, mind and soul to make sure that women and girls have everything that they dream about available to them,” says Dent.
Freytag laughs when recounting the non-linear route her career has taken, but then concludes “maybe it’s a matter of just being open to the revelation.”

A big revelation for Freytag was that she had to work for a non-profit to truly focus on advocacy. “I kept trying to wrap my advocacy in the business I was in, but at the end of the day … the primary focus had to be the business,” Freytag says. “In a non-profit, the ultimate goal is the social mission. I have had no second thoughts that it (pursuing this post) is the right decision, and I think it’s where I can do the most good.”
Colleagues respect Freytag’s work style.

“Vanessa is hardworking, dynamic — you can count on her,” Dent says. “She’s just a sun person — she always has the glass way full, if not overflowing at all times.”

Dent suspects Freytag’s drive exists, in part, because of the encouragement Freytag had from her mother, a college graduate and metallurgist in the 1940s. “She had a phenomenal role model in her mom,” Dent says. “Both of her parents valued education and didn’t ever restrict her (thinking or dreams). When Vanessa got out there and saw that not everyone has that support and perspective, I think it hit a chord in her.”
In her current position more than ever, Freytag hopes to impact the root causes of problems local women face, such as poverty and the city’s lagging number of women in chief executive spots. Her concern is that “the issues facing women are often relatively invisible.” Women’s issues mustn’t go ignored, she says. Women, as foremost caregivers in society, have an intrinsic impact on their communities.  ■

[CAPTION] Vanessa Freytag at The Women’s Connection in Price Hill, an agency supported by The Women’s Fund.
[CAPTION] Joining in a scrapbooking project at The Women’s Connection.