We are passionate, collaborative and fun individuals dedicated to supporting the growth and development of women leaders in Central Minnesota!


Kristi Ackley | Co-Founder & Co-Chair

Kristi believes that when women support each other, amazing things happen! She wants to do everything she can to foster stronger connections and empowering relationships to build a better future for everyone.

Kristi is a founding partner of Fair Winds Consulting, which helps organizations increase their effectiveness through fundraising consulting, community engagement, and organizational development. Prior to founding Fair Winds, she was the Community Philanthropy Manager at the Initiative Foundation, where she worked with volunteer boards to help them accomplish fundraising and community impact goals. Kristi also served as a cryptologist and career counselor in the U.S. Navy for nearly 12 years, which was invaluable in her leadership development, understanding of organizational structure and the importance of culture on morale and team effectiveness.

While she loved serving her country and traveling the world, she’s very happy to be back in her hometown! Kristi serves on the Women’s Center board and is very active with the kids ministry at her church. She holds a degree in business management with a minor in accounting, and lives in Baxter with her husband, Levi, and their son Alex.

Julie Work Photo

Julie Anderholm | Treasurer

Living in small-town Minnesota is the best, but being a woman in the business world can sometimes feel like living on an island with little support or mentoring sources. Julie joined the Advisory Board because she believes the Women’s Leadership Fund will provide the much-needed support for women leaders. She is excited and honored to be a part of it!

Julie is an independent financial consultant working with nonprofit and for-profit businesses. Her past experiences include working with the Small Business Development Center in Rochester, the SBDC in Brainerd, as well as various health care organizations. She is active at the Brainerd YMCA as a fitness instructor and serves on the Finance Committee for both the Y and the Crossing Arts Alliance. Julie is also a member of Lutheran Church of the Cross, where she has served as a Sunday School teacher, confirmation leader and mentor. Julie has three grown children and lives in beautiful Nisswa with her husband.

Jessica Schilling Brigman

Jessica Schilling Brigman | Member

Jessica is thrilled to be part of advancing women’s initiatives in rural communities and to be giving current women and the next generation support to help them be their best!

Jessica is a contract administrator with Marco Technologies. After studying and working throughout the United States for many years, Jessica is thrilled to be living back on her home turf in Fort Ripley. Her prior experience includes working as an attorney on the legal team of a software company, years of private law practice in the areas of estate planning and estate administration, as well as a trust officer managing various types of trusts, including supplemental needs trusts. A long-time passion for service, Jessica has volunteered with the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life, The Hope Lodge, Senior Neighbors, Bras for a Cause Lakeshore, Gilda’s Club (Club Red and LaughFest Cabinet), and the Michigan Women’s Foundation. She lives with her husband (Christopher), dog (Gramma), and cat (Miss FuzzyButt).

Jill Carlson- Blue

Jill Casper | Secretary

Jill is Director of Training and Community Relations for Mid Minnesota Federal Credit Union, where she is responsible for community outreach, financial education and staff training. A passionate advocate for women and the Brainerd community, Jill is chair of the Brainerd Women’s Fund, a board member of the Brainerd Chamber, vice chair of the Crossing Arts Alliance, and is an active member of Rotary. She holds an undergraduate degree in organizational behavior and a master’s degree in management and leadership. She lives in Nisswa with her husband, Troy, and their five children.

Barb Downs

Barb Downs | Member

Barb spent 45 years working in sales, nonprofits, business consulting and training. As someone who spent decades in a male-dominated industry, Barb learned to navigate a workspace that didn’t always understand or accept her because of her gender. As a result, she is deeply committed to helping women gain confidence and achieve success in their professional lives. Barb’s nonprofit work includes serving as program director for Second Harvest Heartland in St. Paul and as a grant writer for the Initiative Foundation in Little Falls. She is retired from the workforce but continues to work passionately on improving our community, including serving as vice chair of the Horizon Health Board of Directors, as the Pierz Lions KidSight Chair, and as a mentor with Kinship of Morrison County. She enjoys gardening, quilting, weaving and cooking. She lives with her husband and his chihuahua, Dosey, who tolerates Barb if there is no one else around.

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Maria Surma Manka | Co-Founder & Co-Chair

Maria has been a member of a women’s peer advisory group in the St. Cloud area for many years and it has transformed her business and her life. She is passionate about bringing meaningful resources and facilitating supportive connections for women leaders in rural areas of Central Minnesota.

Maria is a public relations consultant and owner of Two Rivers Communications, helping companies and nonprofits tell their stories through meaningful content. Previously, Maria worked for Tunheim, a public relations agency, and was a blogger for several top environmental news sites. Maria also runs www.workationwoman.com, where she shares ideas and tips for families wishing to work and live abroad. She is the author of Next-Level Digital Nomad: A guide to living and working abroad from anywhere (even with kids!). Maria serves on the St. John’s Outdoor University advisory council. She lives in North Prairie with her husband, two boys, a dog, and the occasional herd of sheep.

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