Many words can be used to describe women.
They are strong, creative, intelligent, beautiful, spiritual and full of emotion, passion and purpose. It doesn’t matter if she is a doctor, lawyer, business owner, housewife or even a former Miss America.
On Wednesday, around 300 local women came together to celebrate all of the qualities and characteristics that make women who they are during the biennial Jackson County Women’s Conference at Pewter Hall in Brownstown.
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The event, organized by the Greater Seymour Chamber of Commerce, also serves as a way to empower women and provide them with opportunities to network with each other.
This year’s keynote speaker was 2009 Miss America Katie Stam Irk, a Seymour native. It was the second year Irk, an entrepreneur, Realtor and author, has spoken at the event.
“I can’t believe it has been 10 years since I was Miss America,” she said.
In that decade, Irk said she has weathered numerous moves and career changes and had three children.
“I think about all of the decisions I’ve had to make over the last 10 years,” she said. “I think about all of the high points, and I think about all of the lows and challenges.”
After a year of serving as Miss America, Irk had to pass on her crown in 2010, leaving her unemployed, she said.
“A lot of people think, ‘Oh, she was Miss America, she accomplished something great, she’s set for life.’ No, not at all,” she said. “Or ‘She was Miss America, she’s got it all figured out. Life is just going to work out for her.’ No. That’s not how it is.”
When she came back to Indiana, Irk said she didn’t have a place to live, she didn’t have a vehicle and she didn’t have a job.
“I didn’t know where to start,” she said. “No one teaches you or prepares you for what life after Miss America is like. I had no idea what it meant to be self-employed. I didn’t even have my college education completed at that time.”
Irk said she had many obstacles to overcome, and it didn’t matter what she had accomplished. What was important was to find joy in all aspects, the positive and the negatives, in her life and to accept it all as a blessing, she said.
Although she had opportunities available, she didn’t know which ones to follow, so she tried many different avenues.
In 2016, she had started her sixth business and was actively pursuing four other endeavors, she said, all on top of being a wife and expecting her third child.
“I couldn’t think straight because I had pursued too many opportunities,” she said.
Through writing her thoughts and feelings down in a journal, Irk said it dawned on her that her life was overwhelming.
Knowing she wasn’t Superwoman and was unable to do all of the things she was trying to do, she realized she was lost.
Her identity had become not who she was but what she did, she said.
“So many women and men, too, we define ourselves by what we do, especially in the society that we are in now as women take on more leadership roles,” she said.
Irk had defined herself as being Miss America but came to the conclusion that she didn’t have purpose.
“What is passion without purpose?” she asked.
So she started looking inward and relied on her faith to figure out what she was supposed to do with her life.
“I started reading my Bible more. I started being much more prayerful,” she said. “I started having great conversations with mentors.”
Irk said she learned her purpose was to make others feel special.
“God didn’t care what I did. He didn’t care what titles I had or where I lived,” she said. “He wanted me to make people feel special. That is the purpose he gave to me, and that completely changed my life and my identity. I was no longer a former Miss America. I was no longer a mom at my wits end. I was no longer a woman trying to find her way in the business world.”
Her purpose was to seek out other people and pursue them in friendship and mentorship in order to make them feel special, she said.
She said women should not feel guilt or shame, whether they work full time or are a stay-at-home mom. But they should have conviction, she added.
“Conviction is when God is calling you to change something about your life,” she said.
With that in mind, she dissolved two of her businesses and stopped a lot of her additional activities.
“You are not a culmination of your successes and your failures,” she said. “You are a culmination of your purpose, your God-given purpose. That is your identity.”
Other speakers at Wednesday’s conference were Dr. Joyce Spurgeon, a psychiatrist at Schneck Mental Health and Wellness, Seymour attorney Denise Connell and professional photographer Jamie Marshall of Seymour.
Throughout the day, attendees could browse and shop at 25 different vendor booths and get ideas for their wardrobe at a fashion show featuring clothing and accessories from local dress shops, boutiques and stores.
Brianne Miller of Seymour said this was her first time to attend the conference, and she’s glad she did.
“I enjoyed the vendors and speakers and of course Katie Stam Irk,” Miller said. “She is so poised and well-spoken, and even if she was Miss America at one time, she is still just like us. I really took to heart her words about finding a purpose as part of your identity.”
Miller said the conference is great for local women.
“Because it’s women empowering women,” she said.
The event coincides with National Administrative Professionals Week, and several local businesses paid for their female employees to attend.
Ashley Sargent of Seymour attended the conference with a group of her co-workers from Cummins Inc. and said she appreciated all of the behind-the-scenes work that went into it.
In its first year in 2007, the conference only drew 30 people, said emcee Rexanne Ude, director of the Schneck Foundation. Last year’s event saw a crowd of more than 180.
“I loved the whole event, from visiting with co-workers and friends to meeting new people and of course meeting and listening to Katie speak,” Sargent said.
While listening to the speakers and talking with other women, Sargent said she realized something important about being a woman.
“What I got out of it was that women are strong and powerful and deal with a lot of things in life,” she said. “Sometimes, we need to look back and organize what is important and what is not. I also learned that through life, you will have seasons of not knowing what to do, but that’s OK.”
Lori McDonald of Seymour also enjoyed the event.
“It’s a good thing,” she said. “Women gathering together to learn and share as well as inspire one another.”
McDonald said she went specifically to see Irk and was not disappointed.
“She made each and every person there feel special,” McDonald said. “The other guest speakers were informative and charismatic, as well.”
She highly recommends women register for the next conference in two years.
Sargent said women of any age and background should attend.
“You are surrounded by others who have been where you are and can relate and guide you through life,” she said. “It’s nice to also have a day celebrating women.”