Lori Chillingworth shudders when she recalls the sexism she witnessed at the beginning of her banking career.

"I'd see women come in to apply for a loan, and bankers would ask, 'Does your husband know you're here?'" says Chillingworth, who serves as executive vice president of small-business lending at the $19 billion-asset Zions First National Bank in Salt Lake City. "Are you kidding me?"

Chillingworth has since made it her mission to empower women financially and professionally. The winner of this year's Community Impact award — which Chillingworth accepts on Thursday as part of our Most Powerful Women in Banking and Finance program — aims to cement her legacy with the recent launch of the Women's Leadership Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to helping Utah women gain prominent roles in politics and business.

The institute is the joint brainchild of Chillingworth and Zions President and Chief Executive Scott Anderson. Each felt that putting more women in leadership positions would benefit society as a whole.

"We need women running companies, sitting on boards and having a voice in the political environment so that the things that matter to women and families and communities are being heard," says Chillingworth. The alternative, she observes with an audible note of derision, is to be stuck listening to presidential candidates like Donald Trump hold forth on topics like immigration while largely ignoring issues of importance to women and families.

Having established their shared vision, Chillingworth and Anderson asked recently retired Utah state senator Patricia Jones to head up the institute. Chillingworth became executive chair of its board, and Zions made a $250,000 donation to fund the nonprofit for its first two years.

The institute was launched in May with the ElevateHER challenge. Representatives from 65 major Utah employers, including Goldman Sachs and American Express, pledged their commitment to goals such as increasing the percentage of women in senior positions and encouraging female employees to run for public office.

Watching the room of largely male leaders take the seven-point pledge "was one of the biggest highs I've had in a long time," Chillingworth says. "Especially when you realize the quality of the people in the room who understand that we have a problem and they're here to help us fix it."

Now the institute is helping each company create mentoring programs, analyze pay gaps at their organizations and take other steps to fulfill their pledges. In addition, the nonprofit provides training to prepare Utah women to sit on corporate boards and run for political seats at the state and federal level.

Zions views itself as a model for other companies. It started a formal mentoring program for women in 2009 — since expanded to include men — and of the more 500 employees that have participated, roughly 35% have received promotions. The bank, a unit of the $58 billion-asset Zions Bancorp., also has four women on its 11-person executive management team.

"My goal is to ensure that we have a mentoring program, career-development program and training program in place so that our [women] officers are building their skill levels and increasing the strength of their performance," he says. "Then we can increase the numbers."

The Women's Leadership Institute is only the latest in a long string of initiatives that Chillingworth has developed to benefit women and other frequently underserved demographics. She joined Zions in 1997 to start the Women's Financial Group, which offers women financial planning assistance as they work toward their personal and professional goals. She was also a founding board member of the Pete Suazo Business Center, which helps people in Salt Lake City's Latino community navigate the process of taking out small-business loans. And over a decade ago she rolled out the bank's Smart Women Grants program, which awards $3,000 to 10 Utah women each year to support their projects in business, education, the arts and community development.

"If you talk to the women, it's unbelievable what $3,000 can do for their companies," says Chillingworth.

That was certainly the case for Haley Freeman, who received a grant from Zions last year to self-publish a picture book on healthy body image and self-esteem for girls in elementary school. She says the grant has helped her message of body positivity reach a wider audience.

"It's opened doors for me to speak in elementary schools and talk with younger kids," she says. "At five years old, girls are already coming home from school and saying, 'I don't like my body.' So there's a great need for this."

Chillingworth says her focus on women's empowerment is partially rooted in personal history. Back when she was a single mom working as an administrative assistant at KeyBank without a formal college degree, she took night classes at the American Institute of Banking for two-and-a-half years in order to qualify for a job in commercial lending.

"I tell women, 'If I can do it, you can do it,'" says Chillingworth. "Everything I've done in my career has been to try and help women be more successful."

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