Fergus Falls mom turns unexpected twists of life into women’s empowerment program
Stephanie Hoff launched "I CHOOZ" to help women visualize where they are going
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
It was the interview portion of the 1983 Minnesota Petite Sweetheart pageant, and 5-year-old Stephanie (Opatz) Hoff stood confidently on stage, eager to share her ambitions with the world. One by one, each girl chimed in with a response. “Lawyer”, “doctor” and “teacher” were the typical answers. Then the spotlight shifted to Stephanie: “Wonder Woman!” she boldly declared. The crowd erupted in laughter.
“I remember thinking, ‘Why is that funny?’… I honestly felt like that was something you could do,” Stephanie recalls. “At the same time I was like ‘oh OK, people think it’s great that I’m going to be Wonder Woman. Then I am for sure going to be Wonder Woman’.”
It was the kind of validation that fueled Stephanie to believe she could dream big.
“At a very young age I recognized that when I feel strongest is when I was making someone else proud,” she says.
While Stephanie knows she is fortunate to have had that kind of support, she also knows she may have been too reliant throughout life on what others told her she should do or be.
Today, she is flipping that script, empowering women like herself to embrace life on their own terms. The Fergus Falls, Minn., mom recently launched a program called “I CHOOZ”, designed to give women the courage, the confidence and the compassion to define their own paths and their own definitions of success and happiness.
Katie Couric effect
Stephanie’s mom was just 16 when she gave birth, and throughout Stephanie’s life she was part of a unique family dynamic. Her parents divorced when she was 2. Her dad had other children of his own and her mom had another child as well when Stephanie was 7. Immediately, she took on the protector role with her baby brother, Michael.
“At 7 years old, I actually was Wonder Woman. I was maybe too little to save the universe, but this kid … I had his back,” she says of her brother. “To this day there is nothing, and I mean nothing, I couldn’t physically, emotionally do to protect him.”
While Stephanie jokes that she never fully let go of those Wonder Woman ambitions, it was another influential female figure who later became the focus of her career plans. In eighth grade, Stephanie took an interest in broadcast journalism and was convinced she would be the next Katie Couric. So convinced that when Stephanie was in college, she did her senior documentary project on women in the media and she got to interview Couric, then the NBC Today Show host, in New York City.
As Stephanie listened to Couric and many other women describe life in broadcast journalism, the reality started to set in that the life she had glamorized for so long was in fact filled with sacrifice, struggle and hardship. The 24-hour news cycle was unrelenting. The women would talk just as much about their nannies as they would about their husbands and families, she recalls.
Although everyone had been so encouraging of her journalistic aspirations, Stephanie knew becoming a mom and having a family was what she wanted, more than any news assignment or any job. And so, upon completing her college degree at the University of Minnesota Morris, Stephanie abandoned her TV news aspirations and found a new path a bit closer to home.
At 21 years old, Stephanie was named executive director for the Fergus Falls Chamber of Commerce and married Nathan, her high school sweetheart. They remain in Fergus Falls where today Stephanie is director of communications for Otter Tail Power Company.
Path to motherhood
Stephanie had her journey to motherhood all mapped out.
Just like she knew she was going to be Wonder Woman and like she knew she was going to be Katie Couric, she also knew she was going to have her first baby at 28.
“And then I didn’t. And I didn’t at 29 and I didn’t at 30,” she says.
She was devastated. Stephanie felt as though she was failing at the one thing she was put on this earth to do. Several years of invasive, painful and draining fertility treatments finally led to a successful in vitro fertilization (IVF) transfer and the birth of her daughter, Ayla. Two more IVF attempts in later years were unsuccessful, and despite considering adoption, Stephanie and Nathan decided their family would be complete with just one child.
“We had made it through a lot, and we just wanted to be able to keep our attention on this gift in front of us,” she explains.
Stephanie says she still wishes she could have given Ayla, now 13, a sibling, but she says she and Nathan take heart in the miracle they were given: “She is a gift we didn’t even know we could have. We just feel so honored to be her mom and dad.”
The feeling is mutual.
“I really love my family and I couldn’t be happier,” Ayla says.
In addition to work, motherhood and community, Stephanie also is passionate about fitness. She’s devoted to CrossFit, a high-intensity fitness program and lifestyle that incorporates elements from several sports and types of exercise. She started in 2016 and says it’s been a way to not only stay physically fit and active, but also a great release for stress. This has been especially important during some of the more difficult times over the past decade, which included dealing with serious family mental health issues, her father’s death, and the suicide of her half-brother Cody, who was in his early 20s.
“(CrossFit) was where I found an outlet and space and the physical and emotional release and all the things. It was one of the things that kept me strong enough (through this time),” she says.
Finding her lane
By 2019, Stephanie was getting her life back on track. Then came her end-of-the-year job review and the words that changed everything: “Stay in your lane, Stephanie.”
The words were barely out of her boss's mouth when Stephanie’s mind began racing: “‘Stay in my lane? What lane? I don’t have a lane. I do all the things in all the lanes. I have capacity for more than what you perceive as my lane’.”
Reflecting on it now, Stephanie knows this was her boss’s way of giving her permission to focus and not take on everyone’s problems. But what she heard in the moment was something entirely different. “It really lit me on fire,” Stephanie says. The words were a catalyst for her to take action.
Leading up to this, Stephanie had been mentoring other women and what came up again and again was how these women viewed and defined success. More specifically, how society says success looks one way, but the reality is that’s not always what makes us happy.
“In 2019 women in my personal, social and professional spaces found themselves on a bit of a treadmill, running so hard and so fast they lost sight of what they were chasing,” she says. “In 2020, a global pandemic put a hard stop to those treadmills. Women found themselves surrounded by space and time that was remarkably unfamiliar; a bit scary, and a bit freeing.”
And so it clicked: Stephanie did need to stay in her lane, and her lane would be helping other women. She enrolled in a professional coaching course and got to work on her “I CHOOZ” method, which stands for:
- Zoom In
To find her own peace and path, Stephanie needed to follow her own process of clarifying the situation and what was actually said rather than what she perceived, hearing those automatic thoughts and observing how those thoughts made her think and feel. Then she would need to operate in a way that could move her closer to who and what she truly wanted to be and finally zoom in on the results of her actions.
Now she wants to help others do the same.
As part of the “I CHOOZ” program, Stephanie offers a guided digital course to help women visualize where they are going, how they are going to get there and show up for themselves. She also plans to do public speaking and workshops.
Stephanie worked through the Greater Fergus Falls Entrepreneur Initiative, a free program that coaches startups . She debuted “I CHOOZ” this past spring at the Entrepreneur MasterMind Series, which emphasizes peer-to-peer mentoring for entrepreneurs and business leaders.
Stephanie was the ideal person to kick off the MasterMind Series, according to NeTia Bauman, CEO of the Greater Fergus Falls Corporation, because “she exemplifies the grit and determination required to not only start a business but to switch careers when necessary.
“If you need to dig deep into who you are to pave the way to get where you want to be, Stephanie has the energy and passion to guide you through the process,” Bauman says.
Though Stephanie is just getting started, her goal is to direct a portion of the money she makes in this new business venture to set up an endowment called “I CHOOZ Today.” This will help women who might be going through a challenging time to pay for a gym membership.
“Hopefully that’s one little part of them getting back onto a road to recovery - whatever that might be from,” she says, noting how important physical activity has been for her own mental health.
None of this was on Stephanie’s roadmap all those years ago. While she did end up winning the interview portion of the petite sweetheart pageant that day in 1983, she never did become Wonder Woman, nor did she become Katie Couric. But along the way she found something even better: a passion for helping other women choose their own path and defining success on their own terms.
For information on how to sign up for the “I CHOOZ” program, go to www.stephanie hoff.co .