Above & Beyond

The 2024 Above & Beyond

Recognizing the women blazing new trails across the commonwealth

From left to right: Desireé Chang, Christine Toretti & Sully Pinos

From left to right: Desireé Chang, Christine Toretti & Sully Pinos Commonwealth Media Group; j.jae Photography; Catherine Roque, YCEA

Power abounds in Harrisburg, of course, and in city halls, law offices and corporate boardrooms throughout the Keystone State. 

But as City and State Pennsylvania's 2024 Above & Beyond list makes clear, women across the commonwealth exert their influence through myriad forms of capital – sometimes in ways that intersect. This year's edition features women whose grassroots arts and cultural organizations have become powerful engines for economic development and social justice – and others whose skills in one arena, often politics, make them powerful change-makers in areas like medicine, higher education and cross-cultural understanding.

Some of these women were born into activism; others found their mission by circumstance or brought the immigrant's perspective to shape and grow their adopted Pennsylvania home.

However they differ, what all these women have in common is the power to inspire.

Natalie Ahwesh

Executive Director, Humane Action Pittsburgh
Natalie Ahwesh / Provided

Natalie Ahwesh took in stray dogs and cats as a child living in Pittsburgh’s Ohio suburbs. She became a vegetarian at 13. Years later, she was a math teacher and a fixture at Pittsburgh animal shelters when a 2022 grant created a full-time director position at Humane Action Pennsylvania.

Ahwesh still can’t believe her lifelong passion is now her profession. “It never occurred to me that animals could actually be my career,” she marveled.

Her bipartisan work, she emphasized, has nothing to do with protesters throwing paint on fur coats. In two years of lobbying legislators, Ahwesh successfully passed a groundbreaking Pittsburgh ban on force-fed animal products like foie gras and championed a state bill protecting the companion animals of domestic violence victims.  

As a member of Pittsburgh’s Plastic Collaborative, Ahwesh was instrumental in passing the city’s plastic bag ban. “We look at environmental work through the lens of animal protection,” she said, noting that plastic degrades wildlife habitats. “Animal issues are interconnected with everything else.”

From the South Side home she shares with a dog and cat, Ahwesh also directs state affairs for Animal Wellness Action and the Center for Humane Economy. “It’s the same answer any animal person would give, but I’ve always felt the need to speak up for those who can’t speak for themselves,” Ahwesh reflected. “Rooting for the underdog ... so to speak.”

Leslie Gromis Baker

Co-Chair, Government Relations, Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney
Leslie Gromis Baker / Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney

A true political junkie just can’t quit. 

Take Leslie Gromis Baker: After swearing off campaigns following a heartbreaking 1992 reelection loss – “I’m never going into politics again,” she vowed at the time – Baker found herself drawn back in, “The Godfather”-style. She left her “thrill-of-a-lifetime” White House job with President George H.W. Bush, only to find herself back on the campaign trail – for gubernatorial candidate Tom Ridge (she then served as Ridge’s senior staffer and ran his successful reelection campaign).

“I was born and raised here, so I was thrilled to be able to work in the highest levels of government in Pennsylvania – to help implement policies that impact everyday people in the state that I love,” explained Baker. 

Most recently, she has done that at Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, the political strategy firm where she helped build a government relations practice. In the interim, Baker was chief of staff to then-Gov. Tom Corbett, chaired the mid-Atlantic region for George W. Bush’s two presidential campaigns and ran her own political strategy outfit.

The Berks County native draws on 35 years of campaign and policy experience to advise not only political clients but also up-and-coming political junkies. “Part of the success was being in the right place at the right time,” Baker noted. “But the key is what you do with those opportunities. I’ve worked hard and taken advantage of those opportunities – and that's what I hope to pass on.”

Layla Bibi

Council Representative, Eastern Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters
Layla Bibi / David Arnold, Masters of Light Studio

Many tradespeople change outfits after a shift. Not Layla Bibi. “I love to go to the supermarket in my dirty work clothes,” affirmed Bibi, who has logged nearly 20 years as a union carpenter. “I want people to see that yeah, it’s me that’s doing this kind of work. Maybe inquire about it. I’m a walking billboard.”

She’s also a highly effective one. The lifelong Philadelphian has recruited numerous women to the Eastern Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters, where she is a representative and the longtime chair of the union’s Sisters in the Brotherhood Committee.

Always drawn to hands-on projects, “I loved being outdoors on a job, contributing toward something that I could later see,” Bibi explained. After 14 years in the field, she moved into recruitment – and her efforts have paid off in apprenticeship classes where it’s no longer remarkable to see female instructors and students.

A key element of Bibi’s pitch is the gender-neutral appeal of union work, where equal pay is built into the contracts, along with the benefits important to women – and opportunity for mothers transitioning into the workforce.

But sometimes, it takes the sight of a woman in dirty clothes to realize what’s possible. “I took it upon myself to make this easier for people like myself – people who aren’t fourth-generation carpenters, who didn’t have family in the union,” said Bibi. “When people see me, they see themselves in the program.”

Sabrina M. Brooks

Director, Customer Strategy and Governance, PECO
Sabrina M. Brooks / Provided

After 25 years at PECO, Pennsylvania’s largest combination utility, Sabrina M. Brooks knows that energy goes hand-in-hand with relationships.

At one point, as PECO's utilities operations manager, Brooks worked alongside the company’s then-COO, Michael Innocenzo – he's now PECO president and CEO – getting a close-up perspective of the electrical systems and its engineers. “He paved the way for me to become more strategic by looking at the company from a different viewpoint,” said Brooks.

It’s certainly a different vantage point from the one Brooks had when she started at PECO in the late 1990s. She joined as an accountant, earning a degree in that subject from Widener University; she later earned an MBA from the same school and continues to serve on the university’s advisory board. (Brooks also serves on the board of directors of the African American Museum in Philadelphia.)

During the COVID-19 pandemic, she was tasked with boosting the utility’s workforce development efforts. Partnering with 10 community organizations and nonprofits, she spearheaded an initiative to connect unemployed and under-employed members of PECO’s Philadelphia community with positions the utility needed to fill. 

Building a quarter-century career with a single company, Brooks observed, affords a unique kind of professional growth. “Over time,” she said, “one thing that’s really important is the opportunity to put your fingerprints on various aspects of the organization.”

Sharon Caffrey

Partner, Duane Morris
Sharon Caffrey / Bresner Studios

Although she’s known for her trial expertise, Sharon Caffrey strives to avoid litigation. “I work really hard to keep my clients out of trouble,” said Caffrey, a partner who co-chairs the trial practice group at Duane Morris. “But if we can’t get a resolution, I’ll go into court. It’s like a chess match – trying to stay one step ahead of the other side.”

That interest was kindled when Caffrey was 6 years old and watched a Colonial-era debate reenactment, powdered wigs and all. “I want to do that,” she recalled telling her parents. Minus the wig, Caffrey proved her talent as a mock-trial star at Widener University’s law school; in her first half-dozen years practicing, she handled an impressive eight trials.

Once, in a courtroom, an older lawyer patted a young Caffrey on the shoulder. “He said, ‘Don’t worry, somebody will marry you and get you out,’” she recalled. “And I was like, ‘I’m here to argue!’”

The Wilmington native joined Duane Morris in 1997, specializing in product liability and tort litigation around matters like asbestos and pesticides. She boasts a string of successful defense verdicts in Philadelphia – a notoriously plaintiff-friendly jurisdiction – including handling medical negligence claims for Temple University Health System.

Reaching juries through persuasion remains Caffrey’s favorite part of the job. “I love getting people to see that (they) need to fairly and carefully evaluate evidence,” she said. “And that there are always two sides to the story.”

Nicole Cashman

Founder and CEO, Cashman & Associates
Nicole Cashman / Colin Lenton

Philadelphia’s star turn as foodie mecca and cultural destination owes no small debt of gratitude to Nicole Cashman. A former child actor and a veteran of New York City’s fashion scene, Cashman returned to Philadelphia in her late 20s to sprinkle a bit of fairy dust on her then-struggling hometown by launching a pioneering upscale marketing agency.

“It was a pivotal time,” recalled Cashman of that era. Celebrity restaurateur Stephen Starr was just starting out, and luxury high-rises were sprouting around a newly revitalized Center City. “I had to really prove the value of promoting lifestyle businesses.”

Today, Cashman & Associates is credited with promulgating the renaissance that made Philadelphia home to more James Beard Foundation nominees and winners than virtually any of its urban counterparts (the foundation itself is also a client). In addition to raising the profile of Philly’s hospitality, fashion, luxury real estate and retail brands, Cashman has been a cheerleader for major events from the Democratic National Convention to the Made in America festival. 

It’s not just brands Cashman is promoting; it’s Philadelphians themselves. She’s an enthusiastic booster of Mayor Cherelle Parker, a “role model” whose transition team she vice-chaired. Cashman has also spotlighted Black-owned businesses and partnered on workforce initiatives with the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists.

As much as any brand campaign, Cashman is “proud of paving the way for young female entrepreneurs,” she said, “and of the national spotlight I’ve been able to shine on our culinary diversity.”

Desireé Chang

Director of Education and Outreach, Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission
Desireé Chang / Commonwealth Media Group

When Desireé Chang developed a diversity, equity and inclusion training program for the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, she drew on a lifetime of personal and family experiences.

Chang, the commission’s director of education and outreach, grew up biracial in a mostly Caucasian Lancaster family. “Being a minority within my own family was something I couldn't ignore,” she said. 

Her social consciousness was also shaped by her mother, a lesbian who overcame substance abuse to become a social worker and run her own recovery clinic. As a child, Chang accompanied her mother to group homes and to the Special Olympics – “being around marginalized people, and seeing the beauty in those populations,” she said.

Drawn to careers with impact, Chang initially studied criminal justice. But after her son was born, being the mother of a future Black man prompted her to “switch sides,” she recalled. She worked as a probation and parole officer, a substance abuse counselor and a state civil rights mediator. 

Last year, Chang trained nearly 2,000 state employees on racial diversity issues, aiming to “bring the commonwealth into a trauma-informed space through the lens of equity,” she explained. Having earned a master’s in legal studies, Chang now intends to become an attorney and focus on civil rights. 

“This is the work that I love,” she said, “writing and speaking for those who have either a tempered or a silenced voice.”

Carrie Collins

Chief Advancement and Strategic Planning Officer, Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine
Carrie Collins / Aliza Schlabach

Carrie Collins’ time as a University of Pittsburgh student remains among her fondest memories. There was a “life-changing” study abroad – “being 20, single and in Paris” ­– and the tight-knit community she found in the marching band. 

“Throughout my career, one thing that’s always stood out for me is the love and admiration people have for their alma maters,” reflected Collins, who holds a law degree as well as a Ph.D. in leadership. “Without that education, they wouldn’t have their vocation.”

Collins’ own education led to a career as chief advancement and strategic planning officer for the fast-growing Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. In January, Collins launched PCOM’s first comprehensive fundraising campaign in three decades, raising $48 million by February toward a $65 million goal. She also recently secured a historic eight-figure donation for two campus buildings.

If higher education is one passion, leadership is another. Collins, who was inspired by watching her mother earn a Ph.D., is a founding member of Chief, the women’s leadership network; she has also long been involved with Women in the Law. “Throughout my career, that law degree has helped immensely in being able to spot issues and problem-solve,” she said.

“Nobody says, ‘When I grow up, I want to be a development officer,’” Collins added. “But this is my 20th year in higher ed – and it is definitely a calling.”

Marie Conley

Principal, Conley Consulting
Marie Conley / Provided

When Marie Conley was diagnosed with Cushing’s disease in 2012, she struggled to understand why God had burdened her with an ailment that required, among other things, brain surgery and a hysterectomy.

But it wasn’t long before the veteran strategist understood her purpose: “To empower people,” she said. “To help people create the best version of themselves. 

“With everything I’ve gone through, I’ve found that opportunity,” she explained of the work that led her to found the Conley Cushing’s Disease Fund in 2014 – and, three years later, to help create Pennsylvania’s Rare Disease Advisory Council, which she chairs.

Conley’s advocacy draws on the assertiveness and fundraising savvy she mastered on statewide political campaigns, including for then-Gov. Tom Ridge. She also brings organizational insights honed as director of The Children’s Miracle Network at Penn State Hershey Children’s Hospital and as a longtime (now emeritus) governor of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education.

The Bucks County native got her start on Ridge’s gubernatorial campaign and later worked as the state GOP’s finance director. As an independent consultant, she advised the family of Penn State football coach Joe Paterno and, more recently, created Hershey Entertainment and Resorts’ summer leadership program.

Recently appointed to the Pennsylvania Judicial Conduct Board, Conley’s experiences make her an effective advocate for those suffering from her rare disorder. “Sometimes,” she admitted, “I wish God had been a little more subtle.”

Christine Cox

Co-Founder, Artistic and Executive Director, BalletX
Christine Cox / Chris Kendig Photography

There was a moment after her first son was born when Christine Cox almost hung up her dancing shoes for good.

“I think there’s not enough conversation about what a pull it is ­– the land of motherhood,” reflected Cox, who had recently retired from a long career with the Pennsylvania Ballet. 

Fortunately – for her, and for Philadelphia – Cox’s partner convinced her she could combine family with BalletX, the contemporary ballet company she’d co-founded in 2005. Today, Cox presides over one of the city’s most talked-about cultural institutions – and has premiered more than 100 ballets by choreographers from around the world.

“I wanted to expand the vocabulary of classical dance for all audiences,” explained Cox. To make ballet more accessible, Cox launched pre-show conversations with choreographers, hosts open rehearsals and has partnered BalletX with the School District of Philadelphia to engage thousands of schoolchildren.

Grassroots cultural engagement comes naturally to Cox: Her parents helped found two West Philadelphia institutions: the University City Arts League and the University City Swim Club. A passionate dancer from a young age, Cox has performed at the Kennedy Center and the World’s Fair in Seville, Spain.

But it’s her hometown impact that means the most. “We built a company from nothing to a $4.2 million budget, creating 30 full-time jobs,” Cox noted. “We’re building a global reputation – and putting Philadelphia on the map as a city that supports innovation.”

Brittany Crampsie

Principal, Brit Crampsie Communications
Brittany Crampsie / Bevrore

As a young journalist, Brittany Crampsie “felt very passionately about a lot of things,” she said. Galvanized as a teen by Barack Obama’s “revolutionary” 2008 presidential campaign, Crampsie worked as managing editor of PoliticsPA before deciding “to take my communications skills and actually advocate for the things I care about, instead of reporting on them.”

That’s how the Harrisburg native found her niche in political communications – working for a public affairs firm and as a state Senate press secretary before launching her eponymous communications firm in 2022. 

Much of Crampsie’s work now centers around the fight for reproductive justice, which she calls “one of the biggest issues of our time.” 

“I don’t believe that there’s any kind of freedom for women without reproductive autonomy,” reflected Crampsie, the mother of a toddler. “The overturning of Roe was a flashpoint: We realized that our gains could be erased very quickly.”

On behalf of Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania, Crampsie helped terminate state funding for self-described “crisis pregnancy centers” and secure state court electoral wins. She also represents that organization’s PAC and handles ongoing communications strategy for the Pennsylvania Senate Democratic Campaign Committee. 

To keep the momentum going, Crampsie has served as a media trainer for the Center for Women in Politics. “More and more, I’m in meetings that are predominantly female – that wasn’t the case 10 years ago,” she reflected. “A lot of these women are close to my age. It means that generationally, things are changing.”

Stacey L. Fuller

Managing Partner, Gawthrop Greenwood
Stacey L. Fuller / Gawthrop Greenwood

“I’m a go-getter,” explained Stacey Fuller of how she became only the second female partner at Gawthrop Greenwood – and the Best Lawyers in America’s 2022 Land Use Lawyer of the Year. “I like to solve problems, not just acknowledge them.”

The ability to help change the policies behind so many problems is why she abandoned her initial aspiration to become a social worker in favor of law school. At Gawthrop Greenwood, she specializes in municipal and land use matters as well as education (she has represented numerous charter schools).

Fuller has also helped modernize the 120-year-old firm through a major overhaul as chair of the management committee. Along the way, she helped spearhead more diverse recruitment, resulting in near-gender parity among the firm’s attorneys.

A supportive, inclusive work culture is key for Fuller, whose four children range in age from 10 to 27. “I wanted to be able to be at my boys’ soccer and football games,” she said. As a firm leader, she now regards that flexibility as a practical retention strategy: “The next generation, regardless of gender, is demanding balance,” she said.

That human focus characterizes Fuller’s approach to issues ranging from historic-district zoning to pandemic-era school policy shifts. Whether representing municipalities or educators, Fuller said she relates to “the officials who feel the same way that I did when I went to law school – wanting to make a meaningful difference in people’s lives – my job is to help them find ways to do that.”

Caitlin Ganley

Senior Director of Government and Regulatory Affairs, Comcast
Caitlin Ganley / Provided

Caitlin Ganley grew up working the Election Day polls alongside her grandmother, who was locally famous as the oldest committeewoman in Pennsylvania (80 and change, according to her granddaughter). “I always saw politics as a way of giving back,” said Ganley. “I got the bug early – and it never left.”

But after years of working on campaigns and at the U.S. House of Representatives, Ganley tired of election-cycle job uncertainty. She now heads Comcast’s government and regulatory affairs for her native Delaware, Chester and New Castle counties.

“Politics, for me, is investing in the community that you represent,” explained Ganley. “And I love what Comcast does for the communities, the nonprofits and the people that it serves.”

In her new role, Ganley has championed the company’s efforts to expand broadband internet access across rural parts of her region. As chair of Chester County’s Chamber of Commerce, she also successfully advocated for the expansion of Pennsylvania’s child care tax credit – a priority for Comcast employees, who called Ganley’s attention to the pandemic-era child care crisis.

For its part, the company also invested in Ganley, supporting her through an MBA from Villanova (she graduated in 2022). As she uses her newfound business knowledge to further community goals, Ganley is sure her grandmother would approve.

“She believed in making sure that I had a voice, and that my voice was used for good,” Ganley said. “I hope that I’ve made her proud.”

Cait Garozzo

Executive Director, West Philadelphia Skills Initiative
Cait Garozzo / Lora Reehling

From her first post-college job – as a case manager in a welfare-to-work program – Cait Garozzo realized that “earning an income and contributing to something outside of yourself is not just a nice thing or a given,” she said, “but a vital part of people’s identity.”

It’s certainly part of Garozzo’s. As executive director of the West Philadelphia Skills Initiative, she helps other Philadelphians – mostly women, primarily mothers of color – find meaningful work with employers like SEPTA, Penn Medicine and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Under her leadership, the University City District-based program served 220 people last year, with an average starting wage above $20 an hour – up from $15 in 2019.

Garozzo and her sisters, who were the first generation of her family to go to college, were raised in South Jersey by a stay-at-home mom and a father who “fell into bartending, worked his way up and never felt he chose his career,” she related. Encouraged to be more intentional about her trajectory, Garozzo considered law before realizing that workforce development better suited her grassroots style.

Armed with two master’s degrees – the latest one from the University of Pennsylvania – Garozzo has grown the initiative’s programs from 11 to 25 in just two years, helping local employers broaden their talent pool while expanding from West Philadelphia to the entire city.

“I wanted to be a leverage for people who are typically left out of the systems of power,” she explained, “and to advocate on their behalf.”

Jane Golden

Executive Director, Mural Arts Philadelphia
Jane Golden / Steve Weinik

On a street corner in Santa Monica, chatting up strangers who stopped to look at her mural, young artist Jane Golden had an epiphany: Public art has a profound impact on people’s lives and communities. “I love galleries and museums, but I don’t think art has to belong there exclusively,” said Golden. 

From that realization was born a career that, in a literal sense, has transformed Golden’s native Philadelphia. Inspired by the Mexican American murals she saw while studying in California, Golden founded Mural Arts in 1996 and built it into the nation’s largest public art program – and a global model for urban transformation.

With 4,300 projects and counting, “the range of art-making is really beyond anything that’s going on in any other city,” said Golden. In recent years, Golden’s vision has expanded to incorporate multimedia, dance and theater collaborations. 

From the start, Golden was clear that Mural Arts would be transformative not only aesthetically but also socially – engaging communities, from schoolchildren to prison inmates, and addressing issues like crime and environmental justice.

“Art became a tool of illumination and a form of advocacy,” explained Golden. As Mural Arts celebrates its latest anniversary – and was recently featured on the hit TV show “Abbott Elementary” – its founder remains evangelistic. Seeing lives transformed through art “inspired me to be unstoppable and tenacious,” she said, “and do everything I can to stretch art as far as it can go.”

Maria Grasso

Senior Vice President, Convention Division, Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau
Maria Grasso / PHLCVB

Maria Grasso knows how important her work is at the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau, where she boosts Philadelphia’s profile through events like the 2016 Democratic National Convention and, soon, the 2026 World Cup. 

But what really drove home the significance of her 25-year career at the bureau – where she heads the convention division – was COVID-19. More than any marquee event, 2020’s total shutdown “was eye-opening,” Grasso said as she recalled how the pandemic devastated those reliant on the hospitality industry for their livelihoods and health insurance coverage.

It’s that spirit that Grasso is determined to showcase in the World Cup, which she views as a kind of international coming-out party for a city on the rise. The event, already nearly a decade in the planning, will coincide with the 250th anniversary of America’s founding and build on the global momentum that started with 2015’s papal visit. 

While successfully marketing the city, Grasso has also raised nearly $3 million over the past decade to fight colon cancer. She spearheaded “Get Your Rear In Gear Philadelphia,” an initiative that funds advocacy and research around the disease that claimed her father and grandfather.

As the city recovers its post-pandemic energy, Grasso herself remains in high gear, determined to take Philly’s 70,000-strong regional hospitality community to the next level. “I’ve seen how resilient Philadelphians are, and how hard they’ve worked to get back to what we do,” she said. “We’re really going to lean into that.”

Robyn Hannigan

President, Ursinus College
Robyn Hannigan / Kaylee Hinkle

“I think of my trajectory as like an accidental tourist,” jokes Robyn Hannigan. Indeed, few would have predicted that the child growing up in a Rhode Island trailer would someday become a geologist, an entrepreneur with $32 million in startup research funding – and the first female president of Ursinus College.

The young Hannigan didn’t know anybody who went to college – until, on the local beach, she helped a female graduate student collect mussels for marine research. “At that moment, I knew science was something I could do,” Hannigan recalled.

When she struggled as a biology student at the College of New Jersey, a professor helped diagnose her dyslexia and encouraged her to think of it “as a superpower, because it’s all about pattern recognition,” Hannigan said. With the encouragement of yet another professor, she earned a doctorate in geochemistry.

In 2020, as the pandemic and racial reckoning threw inequalities into sharp relief, Hannigan “felt a calling” to bring her ideas to academia. She reorganized college divisions, rebranded Ursinus – “whatever you want to explore, we’ll create a pathway for you,” she emphasized – and forged closer ties with the community.

Collegeville residents use the Ursinus Library, encouraging the types of encounters that first propelled Hannigan on a course toward success. “There have been people throughout my life reaching down to pull me up,” she said. “My story illustrates the transformational power of higher education. I want other kids like me to find their way.”

Tine Hansen-Turton

President and CEO, Woods Services
Tine Hansen-Turton / Nicholas Torres

Health innovator Tine Hansen-Turton could have made a career in her native Copenhagen. But the Philadelphia transplant likes to think big – and America gave her the opportunity to enact large-scale programs, making a difference in countless lives.

“This is a country where, if you have a will, there’s a way,” explained Hansen-Turton, the current CEO of Woods, a nonprofit health network serving high-needs populations. Under her seven-year leadership, Woods has more than doubled its annual operating budget to a half-billion dollars, transitioned from residential to community care and expanded into 23 states. 

Hansen-Turton came to the U.S. as an exchange student, earning a public administration degree from the University of Pennsylvania and a law degree from Temple. Seeing the challenge of accessing health care for her clients at the Philadelphia Housing Authority, she partnered with local nursing schools to create nurse-led health clinics – first in public housing, and then, seeing the model’s potential, across the country and the globe.

Over three decades, Hansen-Turton has promoted nurse practitioner-run primary care on six continents through the nonprofit National Nurse-led Care Consortium and as founding director of the Convenient Care Association, which represents 2,200 private-sector retail clinics.

To get all this done, Hansen-Turton starts each day with a 5 a.m. fitness class and abundant coffee. “When you push for something and see change happen, that energizes you,” she said. “I don’t think I’ve ever thought of this as work.”

Jodie Harris

President, Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp.
Jodie Harris / Provided

After 15 years in Washington, where she worked in the U.S. Treasury Department, Jodie Harris returned last year to lead the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation.

“I’ve come full circle,” said the Mount Airy native, who started her career interning with a local bank's commercial real estate division. The experience got her thinking about the disparities between Philadelphia’s diverse neighborhoods – and asking: “Why are some more resourced than others?”

At PIDC, an economic development agency, Harris is tackling those disparities head on. She oversees a $13 million budget for a nonprofit city partnership that finances everything from small businesses to major public-private development projects. 

“I want to make sure we’re touching, like our motto says, every corner of Philadelphia,” said Harris, pointing to the agency’s success reviving areas around Philadelphia with the Navy Yard and other projects.

Just as important, Harris said, is her visibility as an African African woman: “A lot of economic development has been based on generational relationships that women, and particularly women of color, have not been a part of.”

Harris, who holds master’s degrees in business and public administration, most recently proved her effectiveness by heading a Treasury Department initiative that rapidly mobilized $3 billion in aid during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now she’s looking forward to making change in her own hometown.

“That personal connection really makes the job worthwhile," Harris reflected. “Also, it’s nice to no longer get my cheesesteaks wrapped for travel.”

Dajah Jones

Senior Social Media Manager, Moravia Health
Dajah Jones / Rashidah Latimer

Dajah Jones’ role managing social media for Moravia Health brings together her two great interests: communication and health care.

Two out of three, actually. Jones’ other passion is hospitality: For the past decade, she has run Sip Lightly, a mobile bartending agency that works with numerous Philadelphia eateries. 

“The thread is my love for people,” said Jones, who joined Moravia in 2021 after earning a degree in communications and emerging media from Jefferson University. “I talk to everybody.”

Her loquaciousness was encouraged as a child by her mother, whose struggle with bipolar disorder inspired Jones’ advocacy for vulnerable populations. Working at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia during the COVID-19 pandemic, she helped patients navigate the telehealth transition and a surge in behavioral health issues.

Her dedication – balancing a full-time hospital job with full-time college – prompted Moravia “to take a chance on me,” recalled Jones. “And I went full-throttle.” Her strategic perspective has radically expanded outreach for the home health agency, which has nine Pennsylvania locations and an additional 10 nationwide.

Engagement is up by 76% in just two years; Jones has fostered community by promoting initiatives like “caregiver of the month” for each site.

“At one point, social media was a choice, but now it’s a way of life,” Jones observed. “That’s the beauty of it: I can talk to someone across the country and get advice or knowledge. I’m grateful for this platform.”

Marianne Lake

Senior Vice President, Education and Professional Development, LeadingAge PA
Marianne Lake / Griffin Photography

Where some people simply see grandparents, Marianne Lake sees wiser, older Pennsylvanians with a wealth of talent and history to share.

It’s a perspective she imparts as the education and professional development coordinator for LeadingAgePA, the commonwealth’s aging services industry group. “Most people don’t set out to work in this field. It’s something that they fall into – and then fall in love with,” Lake explained.

She herself fell in love with older people as a child in York, where, born too late to know her own grandparents, she befriended older neighbors. “You’d see their eyes light up, sharing their stories,” Lake recalled. 

After studying accounting, dabbling in engineering and working for seven businesses that failed, Lake turned her knowledge into a consultancy – and ended up working with seniors.

She teaches LeadingAgePA’s Leadership Fellows to listen to their elderly clients’ needs, launching a state webinar series to disseminate the latest industry findings. Like Lake herself, many older people are talented artists – so she recently debuted a juried exhibition showcasing residents’ art. 

This year, Lake is launching LeadingAgePA’s Women’s Leadership program to help advance women, she said, noting that women are vastly overrepresented in the long-term care industry – “until you get to the C-suite level.”

Lake, now a senior vice president, hopes more women get there as well. “This is my mission,” she said. “That’s how I feel about this job. It’s my ministry.”

Dolly Lalvani

Tax Director, PwC
Dolly Lalvani / Anthony Cox

Tax laws keep changing, but Dolly Lalvani doesn’t break a sweat. As a Philadelphia-based director for PwC, Lalvani coaches tax consultancy teams in both the U.S. and her native India.

A childhood lived between cultures “made me very adaptable,” explained Lalvani. Her family moved to Belize, New York City and, finally, Texas, where she earned an accounting degree from Texas A&M International. “I wanted to be a CPA since I was 5 years old,” explained Lalvani, who grew up scrutinizing her entrepreneur father’s ledgers.

But as Lalvani discovered, corporate life could be challenging for women – who, while constituting 60% of CPAs, remain underrepresented in accounting leadership. As a young mother, Lalvani struggled to secure child care and a flexible work schedule, slowing her progress toward senior manager roles at KPMG and Ernst & Young.

That realization ignited her passion for diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. Lalvani was the first Asian American woman to chair the Pennsylvania State Board of Accountancy and to serve with the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy, where she chairs the DEI Committee. She also heads the DEI Task Force for the United Way of the Capital Region and helped found the Philadelphia chapter of Ascend, a global network of pan-Asian professionals.

“Things have changed. But I will tell you, there’s still a lot of room for growth,” Lalvani observed. “That’s why I like to pay it forward.”

Jewell Lester

Senior Vice President, Operations and Finance, PA Chamber of Business and Industry
Jewell Lester / Michael Plummer

Jewell Lester knows a popular image of accountants “is that we’re behind the scenes, just running numbers,” she said. “But our work with finance impacts the overall success of an organization.”

Lester has seen that proven true at the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, which she joined as an accounting manager in 1992. Over three decades, as chief financial officer and now senior vice president for operations and finance, Lester has been integral in growing the organization to its $11 million budget.

“I like the blend of working with numbers, and also working with people,” explained Lester. She collaborates closely with the chamber’s board on an array of nonprofit and for-profit subsidiary operations – these include insurance and benefits consulting – and is currently spearheading the renovation of the chamber’s headquarters.

It was watching her own father pore over ledgers for the U.S. Department of Defense, where he was an auditor, that gave Lester an early appreciation for the essentially human nature of numbers work. That perspective informs Lester’s efforts to diversify the chamber, which now has a majority-female executive team.

“Our staff and our board reflect the demographics of our area,” said Lester. “I take that role-modeling seriously, as a woman and an African American – so the next generation ... sees strong, capable, well-respected female business leaders.”

Susan Lonergan

Director of Middle Market and Specialized Commercial Lending, Fulton Bank
Susan Lonergan / Kristen Kidd, Lux Studio

At Fulton Bank, Susan Lonergan nurtures collaborations that not only expand the institution’s presence in Philadelphia, but reinforce the city’s communities as well.

“I love recruiting and developing people, finding the right roles for them and watching them flourish with confidence and grace,” explained Lonergan, who oversees middle market and specialized commercial lending at Fulton. “It’s rewarding to assemble individuals and watch them become a cohesive, productive and happy team.”

As co-head of the Greater Philadelphia Financial Services Coalition, Lonergan led a first-of-its-kind partnership to support the region’s minority-owned businesses. Working with the Chamber of Commerce of Greater Philadelphia, where she serves on the executive committee, Lonergan helped coordinate financing to bolster the coalition’s community development efforts.

Her first dip into finance, though, was as a child in Luzerne County, working at her grandmother’s corner store. “She would always comment how good I was with numbers,” Lonergan recalled, “but she didn’t like it when I asked her how much money she made.”

Lonergan majored in accounting, then specialized in small business strategy in a series of leadership roles at Bank of America. Prior to her current role, she guided Fulton Bank’s expansion across Southeastern Pennsylvania as a regional president, focusing on underserved communities.

From her grandmother to Philadelphia’s business scene, she remains “appreciative of the progress we’ve made as women to support one another,” Lonergan reflected. “And it has motivated me to mentor others.”

Holly Lubart

Vice President, Government Affairs, News/Media Alliance
Holly Lubart / Elliott O’Donovan

Though she’s no longer a working journalist, Holly Lubart remains passionately committed to the Fourth Estate. “Journalism is essential to a healthy and functioning democracy, and it’s at a crossroads right now,” said Lubart.

As vice president of government affairs for the News/Media Alliance, Lubart advocates for more than 2,200 outlets whose industry is challenged by declining revenues and mass layoffs. She makes the case for updated regulations to confront novel threats like artificial intelligence and misinformation – such as a recent state law she helped pass that improves public access to governmental proceedings. 

Lubart grew up reading the local paper and watching Action News in Montgomery County, where she also got involved in student government. Armed with a journalism degree from Shippensburg University, she worked as a reporter and became fascinated by the politicians she covered.

Before long, Lubart had traded asking questions for answering them, working as a press secretary for the state Department of Revenue. After “going over to the dark side,” as she jokingly referred to her career change, she worked in two gubernatorial administrations and in the state House of Representatives.

Along the way, she represented several statewide industry trade groups – including, most recently, the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, where she has also mentored interns. “I love being able to help the next generation in this industry,” she said. “I feel fortunate to be able to bring my advocacy and my passion for news media together.”

Kathleen McKenzie

Vice President, Community Affairs, Highmark Blue Shield
Kathleen McKenzie / Jillian Biehl Morrison, Bevrore

Kathleen McKenzie’s career has taken her from a law practice to local government and, now, a corporate health system. 

The common thread running through all these roles is community; it’s even in her job title: vice president for community affairs at Highmark Blue Shield. 

“Health care is all about mission, and community affairs supports that mission,” observed McKenzie, who manages corporate grants, local programs and volunteerism across Pennsylvania and Delaware. 

McKenzie has marshaled employee support for the United Way, a Highmark partner, and for rural and Hispanic populations. She led Highmark’s COVID-19 response with first-in-the-nation mobile vaccination units, then repurposed the vehicles to expand health care to underserved communities. McKenzie said she also prioritized bilingual outreach “to have questions answered in people’s own language.”

The Easton native grew up surrounded by public-service examples: Her parents were public school teachers, and her role model was a popular state senator. “She’d gone to law school, so I decided I had to go to law school, too,” McKenzie related. While studying law at the University of Pittsburgh, McKenzie got involved in local politics, eventually serving as a deputy Allegheny County manager.

Her Highmark role is a continuation of that work – helping vulnerable populations and bolstering grassroots organizations. “People here always say, ‘This or that is very important to our community,’” she said. “They’re so open and welcoming. And we have to make sure that they’re taken care of.”

Beth Melena

Vice President of Public Affairs and Communications, GSL Public Strategies Group
Beth Melena / GSL Public Strategies

Male voices still dominate in politics, but Beth Melena entered the field with the confidence instilled by her all-girls high school. “I grew up seeing women’s voices valued because those were the only voices you were hearing,” explained the Cleveland native, who now heads public affairs and communications at GSL Public Strategies Group. “That gave me a great foundation to make sure women continue to have their voices and ideas taken seriously.”

Melena came to Pennsylvania to study at St. Joseph’s University, where she also interned with U.S. Sen. Bob Casey. That led to communications director roles with the Pennsylvania Democrats and with then-Gov. Tom Wolf, for whom she shaped messaging on two successful campaigns. 

Wolf’s historic 17-point reelection victory stands out as a highlight for Melena. She is also proud of her work promoting mail-in voting, an administration priority at a time of imperiled voting rights. When the governor retired last year, Melena joined several colleagues at GSL, crafting messaging that will impact 2024’s election.

It all validates Melena’s college double major in political science and English – a choice that worried her practical parents. “I’ve been really lucky to be able to use both of those degrees and to apply what I learned in my everyday work,” Melena reflected. “I’ve always had a singular vision of what I wanted to do. And I have achieved it, and I’m still pushing forward.”

Katie Grossman O’Reilly

Chief Revenue Officer, Philadelphia 76ers
Katie Grossman O’Reilly / Maggie Zerbe

When Katie Grossman O’Reilly moved back to Philadelphia a decade ago, she saw Eagles and Phillies shirts everywhere, but few red-and-blue basketball jerseys. “Now you walk around the city, and everybody’s in Sixers gear,” she said with evident satisfaction. 

Since joining the city’s NBA franchise in 2013, O’Reilly, now its chief revenue officer, has successfully boosted the team’s visibility in a crowded, impassioned sports market. She’s also responsible for helping coordinate the Sixers’ marquee association with Penn Medicine and philanthropic collaborations with local companies like GIANT, and spearheaded a project committing employees to 76 service hours.

“Knowing that sports has the ability to nurture the communities where we work, live and play, and seeing that impact in the place I grew up, is so special,” O’Reilly said.

The Lower Merion native grew up steeped in Philadelphia sports culture, playing soccer, basketball and lacrosse, and aspiring to a career in sports marketing. Fresh out of the University of Michigan, O’Reilly learned the business in the fast-paced New York market, selling the Knicks and Rangers at Madison Square Garden; she also worked for the NBA.

Back in her hometown, O’Reilly is happy to be part of a behind-the-scenes team of working moms at the Sixers, which she lauds for its family-friendly culture. “It’s fun watching my kids become fans,” she said. “In Philadelphia, sports are core to our history and tradition of family memories. That’s what we’re in this for.”

Amanpreet Oberoi

Global Health Liaison and Health Manager, Gannon University
Amanpreet Oberoi / Provided

As global health liaison and health manager at Gannon University, Amanpreet Oberoi helps decipher mysteries of the U.S. system – PCPs and pre-authorizations – for both foreign students and Americans newly on their own.

In recent years, the India-born Oberoi has expanded beyond health to community activism. When the COVID-19 pandemic prompted rises in both anti-Asian bias and food insecurity, she launched Gannon’s first-ever Asian Heritage Month celebration, initiated campus hunger screenings and expanded Gannon’s food pantry.

“I realized we needed to create more awareness,” said Oberoi, a former neurosurgical trauma nurse who moved to Pennsylvania in 2004. When her children were stigmatized over their unfamiliar lunch foods, she intervened with multicultural programming at school; years later, when racial tensions surged on campus, “I reached out to colleges and businesses and asked, ‘What steps are you taking to keep your population safe?’”

Oberoi’s activism led her to the Governor’s Advisory Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs, where she helped introduce Asian languages for state initiatives like telehealth. As president of the Erie Asian American Pacific Association, Oberoi has coordinated support for refugees, established the organization’s youth division and organized Asian festivals for the community.

As she earns a master’s in health administration, Oberoi continues a personal commitment to positive change. “I always wanted to help my community,” said Oberoi. “This is my passion.”

Cherelle Parker

Mayor, City of Philadelphia
Cherelle Parker / People for Parker Campaign

Buoyed by grassroots support, Cherelle Parker made history this year when she became Philadelphia’s first female mayor.

While there was considerable enthusiasm around that prospect, Parker’s appeal owes largely to her Northwest Philly roots – legions of Philadelphians see themselves in her biography – and her promises to crack down on crime, blight and other pressing issues. Both contributed to her victory over the progressives who challenged Parker in Philadelphia’s Democratic primary.

Upon taking office, Parker declared a citywide public safety emergency, appointed a new police commissioner and announced departmental reorganizations. She also made headlines by musing about year-round school, announcing plans to clean up Philly streets and, most recently, summoning municipal workers back to the office full-time to reinvigorate Center City.

Raised by her grandparents after her mother died, Parker was ambitious from the get-go. By high school, the future mayor was a star orator and a protégée of City Councilmember Marian Tasco; after excelling as a first-generation college student, she served in the state House of Representatives.

Parker also served on City Council and, in 2021, was the first woman to chair the board of the Delaware River Port Authority.

Parker has been filling positions in her history-making administration – but speculation about how her bold moves will impact crime, schools and the economy is only accelerating.

Meghan Pierce

President and CEO, Forum of Executive Women
Meghan Pierce / Colin Lenton

The Forum of Executive Women had been a pillar of Philadelphia female leadership for a half-century. So when it created a CEO position last year to expand the organization’s regional presence, Meghan Pierce was an obvious choice for the role.

As executive director of The League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania, Pierce had championed women’s civic empowerment throughout the contentious 2020 election. She’d previously worked as a policy adviser at the New York City mayor’s office, the Women’s Law Project of Pennsylvania and Planned Parenthood of Pennsylvania Advocates.

“I’ve always been interested in gender equity and social justice issues,” said the Philadelphia native, whose first inspiration was her mother, a pioneering doctor of nursing. “It’s been wonderful to get back to the city where I’m from, and to work with the kind of women that I’ve always wanted to support.”

They include such role models as Philadelphia Mayor Cherelle Parker, whom Pierce recently hosted at the Forum. She also oversaw 2023’s annual Women in Leadership report, which scrutinizes women’s status in the local workforce through metrics like compensation and C-suite representation. 

“Local-level policy advocacy is where you can actually see real impacts on the issues that I care about,” explained Pierce. Even more local is her weekend routine, teaching at a Manayunk yoga studio, where “I get really grounded and work through things that are challenging,” she reflected.

“I appreciate that opportunity to lead in a completely different way.”

Sully Pinos

Executive Director, Bloom Business Empowerment Center, York County Economic Alliance
Sully Pinos / Catherine Roque, YCEA

Two years ago, Sully Pinos was tasked with launching the BLOOM Business Empowerment Center, an outgrowth of the York County Economic Alliance designed to nurture small businesses – especially those owned by minorities and women.

The center is a rousing success – and as its inaugural executive director, Pinos has officially evolved from a rising political star to an established force in Pennsylvania public life. 

During less than a decade at the alliance, Pinos has overseen the distribution of nearly $400,000 in grants to 170 small businesses – with a majority going to minority entrepreneurs, 70% to women. She has also partnered with local nonprofits to launch small business development courses – in both English and Spanish – and monthly networking events.

During the pandemic, Pinos spearheaded COVID-19 relief programs that distributed some $30 million in federal funds to thousands of county businesses.

Though young, Pinos draws on a wealth of political skills. The Brooklyn-bred Latina studied political science at St. John’s University, worked on campaigns – including for President Barack Obama’s reelection – and came to Pennsylvania to work in the state legislature, serving as chief of staff to then-Rep. Kevin Schreiber. 

In 2016, Pinos was part of the inaugural class of Emerge Pennsylvania, the program that trains Democratic women to run for office. She hasn’t been shy about her ambition to diversify Pennsylvania politics – so don’t be surprised to see her on a ballot herself sometime soon.

Lorena Plaza

Vice President, Financial Planning and Analysis, IBX
Lorena Plaza / Independence Blue Cross

As Independence Blue Cross’ vice president for financial planning and analysis, Lorena Plaza specializes in long-range thinking. But the career arc that took her to Philadelphia was considerably more serendipitous.

After studying business and embarking on a financial career in her native Argentina, Plaza originally came to New York for what was supposed to be a two-year assignment with her then-employer, New York Life. She thrived, stayed and prospered, using her cross-cultural knowledge to maximize revenue across diverse markets.

“Understanding the logistics and the economics of each country is challenging,” Plaza explained. “The importance people give to the same product differs.” Older-skewed Asian countries are more focused on retirement, for instance, while younger, more economically volatile Latin American markets tend toward shorter-term thinking. 

It took Plaza herself about 15 years to feel fully at home in America, she said. One place she instantly felt comfortable was IBX, where she was surprised at how many women held leadership positions – a contrast to much of the financial sector.

When she’s not leading forecasting or handling mergers, Plaza is known as a team-builder, serving as the executive co-sponsor of IBX’s Pride and Latino resource groups. And while America is a challenge she’s mastered, she continues to push herself – lifting weights, biking each day and walking to the office, often while listening to an audiobook. 

“There’s always something you can learn,” Plaza observed. “And that’s something I’m passionate about.”

Kara Chellis Rahn

Senior Manager of Government and External Affairs, Pennsylvania American Water
Kara Chellis Rahn / Pennsylvania American Water

Whether overseeing the nation’s largest hand-ballot recount or navigating a shifting regulatory landscape for corporate utilities, ace communicator Kara Rahn is in her element during moments of transition. 

“The chance to dig into something new – that’s where I feel most motivated,” said the Delaware County native. At Pennsylvania American Water, where Rahn currently oversees government and external relations, “it could be water quality compliance or local legislative changes that challenge us to reinvent, be nimble and navigate.”

Her steady navigational skills were in evidence during the 2016 election cycle. As Chester County’s election director, Rahn brought her public relations background and regulatory insights to the supervision of what she called “a swing state, swing county” ballot recount under intense national scrutiny.

Rahn’s earliest lessons came from her father, who owned a machine shop. After studying communications, she worked at the Delaware County Chamber of Commerce, where she recalls learning “how legislation impacts small businesses” like those of her father. “Understanding how to market and tell the story of those impacts is my passion,” she said.

Now settled into Chester County, Rahn credits her own impact to a career that has “had times where I’ve leaned in, and times when I’ve pulled back, based on where I was with my family,” she noted. “When I mentor other women, I say, ‘Figure out what you need to be successful. The right employers will respond to keep you where you need to be.’”

Pam Smith

Vice President of College Advancement, Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology
Pam Smith / Jenny Foster

As a child, Pam Smith sometimes accompanied her missionary grandparents on religious programs. As an advocate for youth development, Smith now summons that same sense of mission to her work – “bringing people together with a common goal, and supporting students and families with the services they need.”

Currently, that work involves championing the 1,300 commonwealth-resident students at Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology, where she created the office of college advancement in 2021. As vice president, Smith handles everything from fundraising and government relations to the college’s alumni association and nonprofit foundation.

The role is an evolution of her partnership with Stevens President Pedro Rivera, with whom Smith previously worked at the state Department of Education and, prior to that, at the School District of Lancaster, where she coordinated community and family partnerships.

“It’s been a lot of community mobilizing, a lot of systems change work, to ensure there aren’t barriers for students who want to pursue education,” she reflected.

Smith began her career as a school social worker; later, at the DOE, she spearheaded the state’s certification for that position. Smith is also proud of her role during the COVID-19 pandemic, muscling resources to get educators vaccinated and schools reopened.

“There’s always work to ensure that folks end up in a place where they can advocate on their own behalf – and then do it for others,” affirmed Smith. “I see that as my path.”

Michelle Singer

Senior Vice President, Political Engagement, Comcast
Michelle Singer / Sabina Pierce

Michelle Singer was in Iowa for the 2000 presidential caucus when the thrill of politics struck her like lightning. “I got the bug,” recalled Singer, then a Democratic National Committee staffer working on Al Gore’s campaign. 

Civic engagement runs in Singer’s DNA: She grew up in a socially conscious family of teachers in Pittsburgh’s famously active 14th ward. Eventually, her energetic advocacy led her to Comcast, where, as head of political engagement, she led the $60 million national fundraising effort that lured the DNC to Philadelphia in 2016. 

Singer holds considerable sway in the party, working on the last five Democratic presidential campaigns. Earlier in her career, she was then-Gov. Ed Rendell’s chief political and fundraising strategist; last year, she served on Gov. Josh Shapiro’s transition team and was named to President Joe Biden’s Export Council. 

“I think it would have been hard to do all these things that I’ve done at another company,” she said of her expansive role at Comcast, a firm she says “leans into their hometown.” Singer recently showed off that hometown to FIFA officials, whom she welcomed as vice chair of Philadelphia’s host committee for the 2026 World Cup.

It was a thrilling moment for Singer, a lifelong soccer player and now a soccer mom. But politics remains her favorite sport. “You watch the chess game happening,” she said with a characteristic use of metaphor. “And then you understand how to be strategic in life.”

Adrienne Straccione

Partner in Charge, Philadelphia, Wouch Maloney
Adrienne Straccione / Jared Gruenwald, Left Eyed Studios

As a child, Adrienne Straccione played with her bookkeeper grandmother’s office supplies and made a toy cash register for her Monopoly money. “I guess accounting is kind of in my blood,” Straccione reflected.

Less preordained was Straccione’s eventual specialty in two male-dominated sectors: construction and professional sports. As Philadelphia partner-in-charge at the accounting firm of Wouch Maloney, Straccione is known for expertise with eight-figure enterprises and multi-state tax returns. “There’s a lot of nuances to construction that you don’t see with typical accounting,” she explained. “It’s the complexity that I like, because it’s something different all the time.”

Her work with athletes – many newly handling large sums – requires more psychology. Straccione became fluent in local sports jargon and often bonds with athletes’ moms to gain their confidence.

“With both construction and professional athletes, it actually helps that I’m a woman, because we just look at things differently than men,” Straccione observed.

It took years, and working with a business development coach, to gain that confidence. The Pottstown native also made an unconventional choice to forgo the Big Four accounting companies – and 80-hour work weeks – in favor of a smaller, family-friendly firm.

That’s because, whether it’s clients or her own family, people come first for Straccione. “It’s the helping piece that I enjoy the most about my work,” she said. “I save people money – and make people happy.”

Kira Strong

Former Executive Director, Rebuild Philadelphia
Kira Strong / Veracity Studios

Kira Strong has always been fascinated by the details of her surroundings. 

As a child in upstate New York, she’d rearrange the furniture in her friends’ bedrooms. “I always loved seeing the impact of the building environment, and making something beautiful,” Strong said.

As executive director of Rebuild Philadelphia, the city’s community infrastructure program, Strong had the opportunity to beautify on a much larger scale. She led the marquee effort funded by then-Mayor Jim Kenney’s beverage tax, which since 2018 has invested $500 million in rehabilitating parks, playgrounds and other community spaces citywide.

Strong, now a consultant, brings a deep passion for her adopted city. After studying anthropology at Hampshire College and working for a Costa Rican nonprofit, she was persuaded by a friend to try living in Philadelphia, finding it a perfect fit.

Strong earned a master’s degree in urban planning from Temple and spent a dozen years overseeing community and economic development for a city social service agency. With Rebuild, she turned her focus to infrastructure, guiding $125 million in current activity and celebrating 17 completed projects – like the Cobbs Creek Environmental Playground and the Heitzman Recreation Center.

“I love the human scale, the energy, the walkability of this city,” Strong reflected. “I love how, professionally, there are points of entry for everybody. And I love that what (we were) doing at Rebuild is leveraging all that to create opportunities for diverse Philadelphians.”

Kathy Sweigert

Vice President, Mid-Atlantic Division, The GIANT Company
Kathy Sweigert / The GIANT Company

One of the most thrilling moments in Kathy Sweigert’s quarter-century grocery career was the sight of a “a really, really long line” snaking toward the women’s restroom at a corporate meeting for GIANT, the Carlisle-based grocery chain where she oversees the mid-Atlantic division.

“15 years ago, when I first became a manager, that line was a lot shorter than for the men’s room,” recalled Sweigert. “But I was never more excited to wait in a bathroom line.”

Sweigert’s own career has grown parallel to GIANT’s expansion. She started as a part-time cashier in Altoona and worked her way up to become store manager, regional director and head of human resources. 

Twenty-five years with one company has impressed upon Sweigert the value of cultivating relationships over time. She led an employee retention task force whose efforts decreased turnover by 15%, debuted a streamlined hiring process and has mentored 10 younger workers.

“In each role, I figure out how I can impact other people and help develop them,” she said. “For a while, I was the only female regional director in the room. Now I’m giving other women the confidence to speak up.”

Off the clock, Sweigert is finishing her bachelor’s degree and shares insights with female students at the nearby Milton Hershey School. Both for her own daughter and for other people’s, “I’m that role model that women can do anything you put your mind to,” she said.

Nora Swimm

Senior Vice President of Corporate Client Services, PJM
Nora Swimm / PJM

In 2001, when Nora Swimm started at PJM, the Pennsylvania-based electric grid operator, she could go entire days without seeing another woman in the IT services department. It was a dynamic she was used to: At Villanova, Swimm had been one of just four women in her undergraduate computer science program – “down in the basement with the guys, programming,” she laughed.

Now senior vice president for corporate client services, Swimm has been determined to see women advance along with PJM, which has expanded to provide energy for 65 million people in 13 states and the District of Columbia. One of her responsibilities is human resources – so she enlisted the commitment of executive leadership to establish the company’s DEI office, championing efforts to diversify recruitment.

“It’s really about achieving through people, and having diverse teams that come up with the best solutions,” Swimm noted.

The eighth of nine children in a Drexel Hill family, Swimm was mentored by an older brother, who saw her love of math and science and encouraged her to study computers. PJM’s early-aughts expansion owes a debt to the technological infrastructure she created, along with her cutting-edge internet applications to support the utility’s new markets.

Swimm has stayed, she said, because she knows her work matters. “We’ve got to make sure the lights and the heat stay on,” Swimm said. “And every day is something new. The days are long, but the years are short.”

Monica Taylor

Chair, Delaware County Council
Monica Taylor / Active Image

Politics was never part of Monica Taylor’s plan. The Wilmington native played basketball professionally in Ireland before becoming a professor of kinesiology (currently as program director at Temple University).

But having three children led Taylor to a turn on the local school board, which got her thinking about workforce education – and how, while Delaware County had a major prison, “we didn’t even have a county health department,” she recalled. “We were the largest U.S. county without one. That made me want to run for office.” 

In 2019, Taylor became the first woman of color elected to the Delaware County Council. She now serves as chair; in 2022, she proudly announced Pennsylvania’s first new county health department in decades. 

It was just the latest in Taylor’s crusade to improve local public health. As kinesiology program director at the University of Sciences and as a school board member, she spearheaded several community outreach programs aimed at introducing underserved Philadelphia-area students to in-demand health careers they might not know about – “physical and occupational therapy, pharmacist, physician’s assistant,” she said. 

Taylor is proud of being part of the first majority-women council in Delaware County history – and focusing that team on maternal-child health, mental health and area housing. “I’m used to being the only woman in the room, but I want to open more doors,” she said. “We still have a long way to go. But we’re here to stay.”

Pat Thomas-LaRoche

CEO, Cameron & Associates 8
Pat Thomas-LaRoche / Wesley Brown Photography

A decade ago, when Pat Thomas-LaRoche launched her construction company, she wasn’t intimidated by the prospect of being a double minority – a woman of color in a deeply male-dominated industry.

After all, she came of age in the era before DEI, “which gave me a kind of Teflon,” Thomas-LaRoche observed. Growing up on the Jersey Shore – “boating license before driver’s license,” she joked – the teenager worked in her family’s three-generation landscaping and excavating business, where “you saw the struggle, the ups and downs.”

After an entrepreneurial learning curve Thomas-LaRoche calls “humbling,” it’s been mostly up for Cameron & Associates 8, her full-service construction, project management and supply firm. Recent projects – many in partnership with major outfits like L.F. Driscoll – include the Comcast II Tower near Cameron’s Philadelphia headquarters and nearly $20 million in work for Mastery Charter Schools in Camden.

Thomas-LaRoche credits her success to the financial savvy honed over decades in banking; prior to founding Cameron, she’d held vice president and sales manager roles at Chase, Wachovia and TD. Even so, she was taken aback by the insularity of the construction world, which felt less enlightened about diversity than corporate America. “Forget the glass ceiling,” she sighed, “it’s the concrete ceiling.”

Even so, Thomas-LaRoche knows she’s made a, well, concrete impact. Construction “is building a legacy,” she said. “It’s a thrill to see how you’re changing the landscape – and leaving some history behind.”

Marisa Tokarsky

Manager, Deloitte Consulting
Marisa Tokarsky / Jillian Biehl Morrison, Bevrore

From her pandemic-era home office – decorated with Steelers, Pirates, Penguins and Penn State regalia – Marisa Tokarsky ensures worker’s compensation claims are paid on time. 

As a manager with Deloitte Consulting, Tokarsky helps her government clients ­carry out responsibilities efficiently. While she concentrates on labor and industry, her colleagues help train border agents to handle migrant children safely. “The work we do really does have a direct and immediate impact,” Tokarsky said. “I see the fruits of my labor every day when people’s medical bills get paid.”

The Western Pennsylvania native was inspired by her trailblazing grandmother, “Tiger Lil,” who was the first woman on her local school board. She also co-founded the family trucking business where Tokarsky grew up answering phones; after studying management and political science, Tokarsky interned with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Business and government come together for Tokarsky at Deloitte, which, after 14 years, feels like family to her. She mobilizes her team on behalf of the community, partnering with a state agency on a holiday campaign and raising $100,000 annually for the United Way of the Capital Region.

Tokarsky’s volunteer commitments – which include chairing the Bridges Society, a professional network, and fundraising with United Cerebral Palsy of Central Pennsylvania – are motivated in part by her brother, who has Down Syndrome. “Michael wouldn’t be the man we know today without the community support we received,” she said. “So I’m passionate about any opportunity to give back.”

Christine Toretti

National Committeewoman, Republican Party of Pennsylvania
Christine Toretti / j.jae Photography

Christine Toretti, a fourth-generation heir to a Western Pennsylvania oil and gas business, knew her father was also a local political kingmaker. So when he died unexpectedly in 1990, Toretti naturally – if not always comfortably – inherited both roles.

“There were virtually no women in the industry 35 years ago. It was daunting,” she recalled. Already CFO, Toretti accepted a two-year trial challenge to helm the S.W. Jack Drilling Company – and stayed 20 years, diversifying the C-suite along the way.

While her father had run the firm like a military operation, Toretti created “a culture of family,” forging strategic alliances and starting a global retreat for female CEOs. “I got involved in promoting women because I had no one to talk to,” Toretti recalled.

Politics came more naturally. A prodigious fundraiser, Toretti has served as the state GOP’s national committeewoman since 1997 and helped deliver the state to presidential candidate Donald Trump in 2016 as chair of Pennsylvania Women for Trump. She currently leads the RNC's budget committee and broke fundraising records in 2023 for presumptive Senate candidate Dave McCormick.

Along the way, she spearheaded the Anne B. Anstine Excellence in Public Service Series, a leadership program for Republican women in Pennsylvania. “I’ve had a lot of opportunities, many because I’m a woman,” Toretti reflected. “If you really care, you have a responsibility to lay the groundwork for those who come after you. And that’s what I’ve tried to do.”

Bridgette Vail

Executive Director, Devon Site, Recovery Centers of America
Bridgette Vail / Provided

The first of Bridgette Vail’s transformative female mentors was her own widowed mother. “She instilled that we were all part of the family and we all had responsibilities,” recalled Vail, who, as the oldest of seven, was her mother’s surrogate partner. As a health care executive, “I’ve been able to successfully manage all sizes of teams because of that leadership style.”

Vail currently draws on her mother’s example to oversee a 200-strong staff at Recovery Centers of America’s largest facility – a 230-bed residential campus near Philadelphia. Before that, the onetime social worker was mentored into administrative leadership by colleagues at Valley Forge Medical Center, the recovery facility where owner Ronnie Colcher “created a seat at the table for me and so many other women,” said Vail.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given her childhood, psychology was Vail’s first interest and her major at Kutztown University; she also earned a master’s in counseling and an MBA. The Delaware County native took over leadership of RCA in 2020, just as the pandemic-driven isolation further complicated treatment for an already marginalized population.

“This field is a bit of a stepchild in the health care industry,” Vail observed of addiction recovery. But it’s a challenge she’s prepared for: “Being responsible not only for my team and the patients they serve, but all of the other people that are attached to them – being able to impact that many more people exponentially – is significant for me.”

Antonia M. Villarruel

Dean, Penn Nursing
Antonia M. Villarruel / Penn Nursing

Antonia Villarruel’s is a career of firsts. 

She was the first Latina dean at an Ivy League nursing school – the University of Pennsylvania, where she has led for nearly a decade. Villarruel was also the first (and to date, the only) Latina nurse inducted into the National Academy of Medicine.

Many years ago, Villarruel was the first generation in her Detroit Mexican American family to go to college. Now she is part of the first generation of American nurses to earn a Ph.D., reaching the top echelon of academia with her groundbreaking research on sexual health.

At Penn Nursing, Villarruel was the first dean to secure her own National Institutes of Health research funding. Her cross-cultural investigations of sexual health, which she began as a graduate student at Penn, led to an intervention program used as a national model.

“I’m proud of being able not only to do that research, but also disseminate it in vulnerable communities,” said Villarruel, who directs the WHO Collaborating Center for Nursing and Midwifery Leadership. 

She recently welcomed a $125 million grant to further Penn Nursing’s work with underserved populations. “Students tell me they come because we have a strong social justice mission,” she explained.

That applies broadly to the Philadelphia medical establishment, where fellow leaders include Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania CEO Regina Cunningham and CHOP CEO Madeline Bell, both nurses by training. “I relish seeing nurses rise to the top,” Villarruel said.

Tiffany Wilson

President and CEO, University City Science Center
Tiffany Wilson / Judith Hill Photography

Thinking big always came naturally to Tiffany Wilson. With a mother from England and a father who’d grown up in a foreign-service family, “there was always a global conversation in our house,” she said.

Since 2020, Wilson has brought that large-scale vision to Philadelphia’s University City, where, as CEO of the Science Center, she cultivates an innovation and job-creation engine with a $7.6 billion regional impact. Under her leadership, the center marshals support for life sciences startups – 68 last year – like CurieDx, which uses smartphone images and AI to improve telehealth, and Lybbie, which pioneers a wearable sensor to optimize breastfeeding.

“I love working with the intersection of science, business and government,” said Wilson. Noting that funding is the biggest obstacle for fledgling ventures, she brings her finance background – a Georgetown MBA and years in the medical equipment field – to initiatives like the center’s Capital Readiness Program designed to help startups prepare for their first institutional capital raise.

After early corporate roles, in 2011 Wilson took the helm of a medical-innovation nonprofit affiliated with Georgia Tech, growing the Atlanta startup from a single employee to 60 colleagues, and championing hundreds of projects.

That’s the kind of impact Wilson has in mind for the 60-year-old Science Center. “With everything going on in Philadelphia – the health systems, the concentration of patients,” she said, “I was intrigued by the opportunity to bring this vision to a community that's been doing this for a long time.”

Dorothy Wong

Chief Partnerships and Strategy Officer, Philabundance
Dorothy Wong / John Gunawan

Having enough to eat is obviously crucial. But as the daughter of Hong Kong immigrants, Dorothy Wong knows mere sustenance isn’t enough.

At Philabundance, the nutrition nonprofit where she oversees partnerships and strategy, Wong has made a point of distributing food that is not only nutritious but also culturally relevant to the organization’s constituents. “Food really connects people, especially in communities of color and immigrants,” said Wong. As a child in Ontario, she remembers schlepping hours to Toronto to find the Chinese noodles and baked treats her family craved.

Last summer, Wong spearheaded a collaboration to provide culturally responsive summer meals to schoolchildren. Leveraging Philabundance’s growing suite of partnerships – up 10% since 2021 – she coordinated volunteers to paint murals and tackle upgrades at Philadelphia public schools, “giving the students a place where they could be proud, and having the schools represent the communities,” she explained. 

Wong’s connection to local schools runs deep: She spent more than a dozen years at the nonprofit organization City Year Philadelphia. After following her boss, Loree Jones-Brown, to Philabundance, Wong has guided an expansion to 370 partner organizations across nine counties.

As she builds her own nonprofit career, Wong points to CEO Jones-Brown as a role model. “Seeing a woman of color lead an organization, and really invest in me,” she said, “helped me believe that one day, I can strive to be an executive director.”

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