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Lori Chillingworth once came home to find a path of oats strewn from the kitchen to her grade-school son in front of the TV.

There was nothing else to eat.

"That was almost a breaking moment for me," said Chillingworth, then a Key Bank employee and single mother. "It was like, are you kidding? I can't even afford to have a snack when you get home from school?"

So Chillingworth started taking night classes offered by the American Bankers Association. She eventually landed a job at Zions Bank, where she is now an executive vice president.

Not everyone can take such a fast turn, acknowledges Chillingworth, who oversees small-business banking, "but I would sure like to get more women believing that they can."

This week, Zions is promising to do just that.

The company is bankrolling a new Women's Leadership Institute with an initial donation of more than $50,000. Former Utah Sen. Pat Jones is the institute's CEO.

"Our business world is realizing," Jones said, "that we have to tap the full capacity of women in order to keep our economy going."

The institute held a fundraising dinner Wednesday night, before a kickoff event Thursday. Other sponsors, including Workers Compensation Fund, have given smaller donations of about $7,500.

The nonprofit's mission is wide-ranging. It aims to draw more Utah women to the workforce, to top business positions and to public office.

And Jones is challenging the Utah managers of Goldman Sachs, American Express and other corporations to recruit more women at all levels.

The longtime legislator and others recognize the state has a public-relations problem when it comes to women's well-being, employment and education. Reports in recent months have pointed out the state's female residents are worse off than their counterparts nationwide when it comes to wages, availability of affordable child care, career growth and work in high-paying science and technology jobs.

Gov. Gary Herbert and Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams see the need to flip that image. Both spoke at the event to stress the importance of involving and encouraging female employees.

The negative news reports "have made people a little uncomfortable and created some urgency," said Chillingworth, chairwoman of the institute's board. "We don't want to be a bad place for women."

Chillingworth and others note their push involves women and "enlightened" men in equal numbers.

They hired speaker Jeffery Tobias Halter, author of "Why Women: The Leadership Imperative to Advancing Women and Engaging Men," to headline the group's fundraiser.

Nationally, 14 percent of corporate CEOs are women. But in Utah, the rate is just under 5 percent.

The state fares slightly better with its overall rate of female managers — 32 percent, as opposed to 38 percent nationally, according to a 2014 study from Utah Valley University's Women and Leadership Project.

"Clearly we can all do better," said Jones, a Holladay Democrat who retired from the Legislature in January. "You need to have a critical mass of women [who are executives]. It's nice, but not good enough, to have just one."

Jones' new initiative isn't the first to tackle the negative headlines. The UVU-based Real Women Run has nudged Utah women into public office in recent years with a series of trainings on how to raise campaign money, negotiate and manage a staff.

Management professor Susan Madsen, director of UVU's Women and Leadership Project, also has led a series of workshops on body image and confidence-building for students and others.

Salt Lake City's YWCA has joined in with job training for women.

Madsen, for her part, applauded Jones' undertaking, saying its hefty bankroll would link with her own projects to sustain more long-term, ongoing trainings that UVU cannot afford on its own.

Pam March, a Salt Lake City florist, among the first to benefit from Zions' initiative for female entrepreneurs, also praised the effort. But, she said, Jones and her colleagues have much work to do.

As women, "we have to work three times as hard," said March, owner of Every Blooming Thing. "We have to be more aggressive and more brilliant."

Twitter: @anniebknox