05/09/2014 11:48 am ET Updated Jul 09, 2014

Women in Business: Q&A with Danielle Ahlstrom, Aftermath Services

Danielle Ahlstrom is a Field Supervisor for Aftermath Services, the only national US company specializing in crime scene cleanup and biohazard remediation. After a tragedy, like a suicide, murder or unattended death, Danielle leads a team responsible for remediating the property to a pre-trauma condition and providing families and property owners with compassionate assistance.

Danielle studied criminal justice and law enforcement with a goal to take over her family owned in-home hospice business. Instead, her love for criminal justice and enthusiasm for making a difference fueled her motivation to transition from assisting those in the later stages of life, to assisting families who had experienced the loss of a loved one.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I was raised by my grandparents who owned and operated a hospice care business as well as an assisted living facility that cared for disabled adults and the elderly. I began working for my grandparents when I was 13, so I learned about the importance of using compassion in my work at a young age. As I grew into leadership roles I learned how to communicate and manage employees.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at Aftermath?
As a caregiver, I saw dozens of families go through the grieving process as they said goodbye to their loved ones. Death can be extremely difficult for people; emotions are high and behaviors can be extreme, so I learned the appropriate ways to respond and communicate with families experiencing a loss. In my current role as a Field Supervisor, I work with people who are forced to cope after a tragic situation, such as a suicide, homicide or even an unattended death. What I learned about compassion and maintaining professionalism at my previous job has set me up for success as a Field Supervisor for Aftermath Services.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
Maintaining a work-life balance wasn't easy at first. As a Field Supervisor I am on-call 24/7, because you never know when someone will be in need of death or crime scene cleanup services. When I began working at Aftermath, all I thought about was work. But when you work with families who have lost a loved one you realize what's really important. For me, that's spending quality time with my family and friends. I have learned to delegate tasks and projects as well as prioritize my time in and out of the office. Instead of thinking about work when I am with my family and friends, I enjoy my time and remind myself not to take the little things in life for granted.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Aftermath?
The best part about my job is helping others and making a positive difference in their lives. When people are dealing with tragedy, it's hard for them to see still see the good in the world. Every time our team helps a family get on the path to recovery, I am reminded why I do this work - it's truly rewarding.

The biggest challenge was finding a work-life balance. I always have to keep a bag packed for work, and my personal shopping trips have become a lot shorter. I am more cautious about how and where I spend my time because I know that I could get called for a crime scene clean up or biohazard cleaning job at a moment's notice.

What advice can you offer women who are seeking to overcome gender boundaries in traditional 'male dominated' fields?
One of my favorite quotes is, "The strongest action for a woman is to love herself, be herself and shine amongst those who never believed she could" - author unknown. This quote says it all. Don't pay any attention to how others view you. Whatever goals you may have, you should always strive for success and exceed the expectations of those around you. Set the bar high for yourself no matter what the height has been set at by others. I am a firm advocate for believing in yourself because if you don't, who will?

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Confidence. If you don't have confidence people will walk all over you. I am very outgoing and when I walk into a room I always have my head up because body language is the first thing people pick up on. With that being said, first impressions can potentially make or break you so go in at 100 percent and give them something to talk about; whether it is good or bad, at least they're talking.

What are your thoughts on Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In book and movement?
Sheryl Sandberg makes many good points in her book, Lean In. One that stands out the most to me was her assertion that men do hold women back, but that we also have tendencies to hold ourselves back as well. This stood out to me because it is true. We can sit here and blame men all day for holding us back, but what if part of the problem is that we are scared of defeat and of ourselves? Sheryl Sandberg also discusses things that really made me think about how lucky American women are to have the positions and the opportunities that we have compared to those in other countries. With the right amount of support and understanding from both women and men, I think the movement has the potential to break down some existing gender boundaries.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
Mentorship has definitely made me a more patient person. In mentoring others, and being mentored myself, I have learned to be quick to listen and slow to speak. It has taught me that you never know what a person is going through and that you can't judge a book by its cover. Everyone has their own struggles and it can either bring you further down or empower you to stand up and do better.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I don't have one specific female leader I admire - there are so many empowering women in the world! One I did come to admire in school is Clara Barton, the founder of the American Red Cross - I have a respect for her beginnings as a school teacher and how she went on to help others as a Civil War nurse. Also, I admire Coco Chanel for her monumental influence in women's fashion. She went from being born into poverty to opening a small hat shop and eventually developing one of the top fashion brands in the world. These are the kind of women I admire the most, the ones that start with just a simple idea or gesture and turn it into something the world can't live without. They are truly inspirational.

What are your hopes for the future of Aftermath?
My hope is that we keep evolving as a company and continue to focus on what's important, the families. There are many misconceptions about the biohazard cleanup industry and I am proud to lead the way in educating insurance companies, death care professionals and the general public about the care that must go into respectful crime scene clean up. I am honored to work alongside many remarkable employees who are dedicated to helping families in time of crisis.