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Special Coverage Women of Impact 2023

BusinessWest has long recognized the contributions of women within the business community, and created the Women of Impact program in 2018 to further honor women who have the drive and ability to move the needle in their own business, are respected for accomplishments within their industries, give back to the community, and are sought as respected advisors and mentors within their field of influence.

The nine stories below demonstrate that idea many times over. They detail not only what these women do for a living, but what they’ve done with their lives — specifically, how they’ve become innovators in their fields, leaders within the community, advocates for people in need, and, most importantly, inspirations to all those around them. The class of 2023 features:

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Cover Story Women of Impact 2023

Women of Impact to Be Celebrated on Dec. 7

BusinessWest has long recognized the contributions of women within the business community, and created the Women of Impact program in 2018 to further honor women who have the drive and ability to move the needle in their own business, are respected for accomplishments within their industries, give back to the community, and are sought as respected advisors and mentors within their field of influence.

The nine stories below demonstrate that idea many times over. They detail not only what these women do for a living, but what they’ve done with their lives — specifically, how they’ve become innovators in their fields, leaders within the community, advocates for people in need, and, most importantly, inspirations to all those around them. The class of 2023 features:

BusinessWest will honor its sixth annual Women of Impact on Thursday, Dec. 7 at Sheraton Springfield. Tickets cost $95 per person, and tables of 10 are available.

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Women of Impact 2023

President, Aero Design Aircraft Services and Fly Lugu Flight Training

She Inspires Her Students and Others Around Her to Soar Higher

 

“It’s like being in a time machine.”

That’s how Fredrika (Rika) Ballard described flying, a passion she has enjoyed pretty much her whole life and one she now inspires others to pursue.

While you can’t really go back or forward in time with an airplane, you can get somewhere fast — somewhere like Martha’s Vineyard or Nantucket, she said, offering up just two examples.

She can get to the Vineyard in 30 minutes in her twin-engined Beechcraft Baron, while others, using standard means of transportation — a car and then the ferry — would probably need five, maybe six hours, depending on the traffic and which ferry they took.

“For me, flying means freedom — I’m as comfortable in the air as I am on the ground,” said Ballard, president and lead flight instructor at Aero Design Aircraft Services and Fly Lugu Flight Training in Westfield, who has flown everything from tiny ‘beginner’ planes to a corporate jet.

Lugu, by the way, is an industry term. Well, sort of. It’s what Ballard’s father used to say about the yoke, or control column, of the airplane.

“She is not an instructor who just teaches. She is a coach, a friend, a trusting companion that inspires and helps you flourish.”

“The plane goes where you look,” she said. “If you’re looking down or you’re looking at the ground, you’re subconsciously putting the yoke forward, and the plane starts going down. But when you look up, you subconsciously pull the yoke toward you, and the plane goes up. Look up, go up — that’s what Lugu means; you’re only going up from here.”

Those letters are part of a design for the company she was thinking and dreaming about, starting quite literally with a drawing on a napkin in early 2019 (more on that later), while not really believing that the dream was going to come true.

It has, and the reality has gone well beyond a flight school. Indeed, Ballard now owns a maintenance shop at Barnes Municipal Airport, where she employs four mechanics, and is involved with initiatives to build new hangars at the airport.

As for the flight school, it continues a strong pattern of growth and now boasts nine planes (with more on the way), 10 instructors, 130 students on average, and roughly 24 flights per day — if the weather is cooperating.

As a flier, flight instructor, and serial entrepreneur, Ballard has become much more to those around her. She’s an inspiration as well as a facilitator of sorts, helping others find the freedom of flying, especially women, who are still firmly in the minority when it comes to this pastime, but are, well, gaining ground.

Saba Shahid, one of Ballard’s students, explained things nicely as she nominated her to be a Woman of Impact.

“She is not an instructor who just teaches,” Shahid wrote. “She is a coach, a friend, a trusting companion that inspires and helps you flourish. Rika is someone I consider to be a role model that is standing up for women every day and inspiring us to know that the sky is not our limit.

“Being a female pilot is about shattering stereotypes and showing the world what women are all about,” she went on. “Rika does this each day for the women and men that go to her school.”

Such sentiments explain why Ballard is among the Women of Impact for 2023.

 

Plane Speaking

The walls of Ballard’s office at the terminal building at Barnes are ringed with photographs of her students beside or in the aircraft in which they stretched their wings — literally and figuratively. Each one tells a story, but collectively they tell a broader story about flying and those who are pursuing that sense of freedom she spoke of.

It’s mostly men in the pictures, but there are many women as well. Some are young, others a little older. A few are retired and looking for a new adventure. And then, there’s the 91-year-old man intent on earning his license.

“It was a bucket-list thing for him, and he’s taken six or seven lessons,” she said, adding that there is, overall, greater interest in pursuing a license these days. A shortage of airline pilots has something to do with it, but there are other reasons as well, including pursuit of that freedom and the ability to get to places like the Vineyard in 30 minutes, as well as pandemic-inspired efforts to draw lines on individuals’ to-do lists, including the dream of learning to fly.

The photos also help tell Ballard’s story, at least the chapter that started with the napkin she drew Lugu on. We’ll get back to that, but first we need to go back much further.

Ballard said she was introduced to flying by her father, a general aviation pilot and engineer by trade.

“I’ve been flying as long as I can remember,” she said, adding that she cut her teeth on an Aerona Champion, known as the ‘Champ,’ and then a Beechcraft Bonanza, both small, single-engine planes.

She soloed on her 16th birthday, at Barnes, and got her license at the earliest age she could — 17. Since then, flying has been a lifelong pursuit: a passion, and then a business. But always a passion.

She and her husband are avid hikers, and they will regularly fly to Mount Washington for an afternoon. She flies to Martha’s Vineyard once a week, on average, to visit family or friends. Sometimes, it will just be for lunch or dinner.

“I like to fly for food,” she said with a laugh, adding that most general-aviation airports like Barnes will have ‘courtesy cars’ to borrow and take into town for a meal or shopping. “It’s always fun to meet new people and see different parts of the country; flying gives you the freedom to do all that.”

It wasn’t until she retired in 2018 from her role as administrator at Facial Cosmetic & Maxillofacial Surgery and then earned her advanced licenses that she started to think about shaping her time machine into a business. With those credentials, she could become an instructor, and a friend offered her an opportunity, and a plane, to do so.

But the plane was poorly maintained, and the opportunity just wasn’t right.

“I just wasn’t feeling it,” she said, adding that, soon thereafter, she was at a bar with a friend, took the napkin in front of her, and doodled out a script ‘Fly Lugu,’ with planes (actually arrows on the first take) on some of the letters for effect.

“I had enough money to buy a starter plane, and my friend, a business person in the area, said, ‘why don’t you just buy a plane and start a school?’” she recalled. “And I said, ‘I don’t know, I’ve never thought about it.’”

 

The Wild Blu

So she started thinking about it, and with no flying school at Barnes at the time and, on her end, the requisite time, capital, enthusiasm, and drive, she decided to take the plunge — or, in this case, the climb, another industry term.

She started in August 2019 with a few students and one plane, a Cessna 172 named Blu — all her planes have names. She didn’t sign the lease for space in the terminal building until February 2020 — yes, a few weeks before the pandemic largely shut down Western Mass.

She persevered, as other businesses did, by getting creative and finding ways to carry on — with Zoom calls, remote lessons, meeting students who could solo on the runway ramp before their flights, and, later, resuming training flights with masks and other PPE.

And when the skies cleared (pandemic-wise), many of those who were home and thinking about items on their bucket list — and things they may have started but never finished — turned their attention to flying.

“When we could start to fly again, I was flying sunrise to sunset every day,” she recalled. “I had another instructor come on because I couldn’t handle it all alone; there was a lot of demand.

And while things have cooled off somewhat, business has remained brisk, with Ballard adding planes and instructors regularly over the past three years.

“When we could start to fly again, I was flying sunrise to sunset every day.”

Aas noted earlier, she has become a serial entrepreneur, acquiring the maintenance shop at Barnes, called AeroDesign, based in a hangar that dates in 1926 and the early days of the airport; becoming a partner in the construction of new hangars at the airport; and also partnering with the New England Air Museum to be its official flight school.

Beyond all these accomplishments and ambitious future plans, Ballard has made it a mission to encourage, and inspire, more women to take to the skies. And she is succeeding in that mission with Shahid and many others, including a former student who is now an instructor at Lugu.

“Rika has been an extraordinary leader empowering women to enter the field of aviation and be confident in their abilities,” Shahid wrote in her nomination. “She is breaking barriers and stereotypes each day to make it easier for women to succeed in this field.”

Blu and the other aircraft in what can now be called a fleet have become the vehicles with which others are experiencing the freedom of flying. For most, this will be at least a yearlong journey — longer if the weather is like it has been this year.

 

Soar Subject

As a flyer, flight instructor, and owner of a flight school, Ballard is certainly plugged into the weather. She has several weather apps on her phone and is always watching the sky for clues about what’s on the horizon.

“You almost become like an amateur meteorologist, because you’re always looking at the sky, and you get to know the patterns of the weather and what works and what doesn’t,” she said, adding that those who want a reliable forecast will turn to her.

At the moment, the forecast for her business is clear with a strong chance of continued growth. She’s an optimist who prefers to put her faith in what her father said about pulling the yoke — “you’re only going up from here.”

Her ability to breed confidence in others and set their sights higher, whether they’re flying in Blu and coping with the many other challenges of life, explains why Ballard is a Woman of Impact.

Women of Impact 2023

President, TommyCar Auto Group

She’s a Driving Force in Business and Efforts to Promote Gender Equity

Carla Cosenzi

 

By now, Carla Cosenzi says, the automobile-sales industry should be … well, more welcoming to women, more accepting of women, more … inviting to women.

But, in most respects, and she would certainly know about this, it isn’t.

Overall, this is still a man’s world, said Cosenzi, who notes that, when attending regional or national conferences or dealer meetings, she is the among the few women in the room, and the expectation is for her not to be the owner. Indeed, many of those who don’t know her believe she is the spokesperson for TommyCar Auto Group, or that she works for her father or her husband.

“I get that all the time … people think my husband is involved,” she told BusinessWest, adding that he isn’t, and never has been. (Her husband, Nick Zayac, owns a construction company.)

“It’s still really a difficult industry for a female, especially in this type of position or role,” she went on, adding that this extends to her own company — although certainly not for long after someone joins the team. “Many still don’t fully understand how involved I am in the business and how much I know and how much I have worked through all the different departments here, and how hands-on I am. And there’s always a different dynamic between a male and female in business, versus a male and a male.”

Cosenzi not only perseveres in this man’s world, she works hard to bring women into the business, mentor them, and inspire and empower them to advance. TommyCar Auto boasts many women in roles traditionally held by men — everything from mechanic to parts manager. Overall, roughly one-third of the company’s 150 employees are women, far exceeding what Cosenzi believes is the industry average.

“It’s still really a difficult industry for a female, especially in this type of position or role.”

“I’m obviously proud to have so many women working under the TommyCar umbrella,” she said, “but what I’m most proud of is that so many of those women are working in non-traditional roles, such as service advisor, service manager, technician, body-shop technician, or general sales manager; we have at least one woman in a manager or leadership role at every one of our dealerships.”

This strong desire to inspire, mentor, and empower women to succeed, in their lives and careers — a recurring theme among this year’s Women of Impact honorees — is just one of the reasons why Cosenzi is a member of the class of 2023.

Carla Cosenzi and her bother, Tom, present a check for more than $150,000

Carla Cosenzi and her bother, Tom, present a check for more than $150,000 — proceeds from the 2022 Tom Cosenzi Driving for the Cure Golf Tournament — to Dr. Patrick Wen of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

Her success in business is another. She has greatly expanded the family enterprise started by her grandfather to now include Nissan, Volkswagen, Hyundai, Genesis, Volvo, a collision center, and a towing business. And she is constantly looking for opportunities to expand the portfolio.

She is also credited with creating and nurturing a culture of giving back, a continuation of a strong family tradition. Indeed, with Cosenzi taking the lead, the company is now involved with organizations and philanthropic programs ranging from Cooley Dickinson Hospital and Junior Achievement to Christina’s House and Safe Passage’s annual Hot Chocolate Run.

Then there’s the Tom Cosenzi Drive for the Cure Charity Golf Tournament. Named for Cosenzi’s father, and mentor, who lost his battle to brain cancer in 2009, the tournament has raised more than $1.4 million for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

This impressive résumé of business success, community involvement, philanthropy, and efforts to promote gender equity in the workplace — in the auto industry and well beyond — has earned Cosenzi many awards and accolades over the years, including a handful from BusinessWest. Judges have chosen her to be a 40 Under Forty honoree, an Alumni Achievement Award winner (given to the 40 Under Forty winner who has most impressively built upon their record of accomplishment), and a Difference Maker.

And now, she needs to make room for one more plaque — one that reads ‘Woman of Impact.’

 

To a Higher Gear

As she talked with BusinessWest at the Nissan store on Route 9 in Hadley, Cosenzi referenced upcoming renovations to the dealership, a project that has been several years in the making, with considerable back-and-forth between the company, the town, and the manufacturer, with firm plans now in place.

They call for redoing the façade, the service lounge, the showroom setup, and more, she said, adding that “we’re way overdue — for our employees, our customers, and the brand.”

Orchestrating this renovation project, as well as the building of a new home for Volvo Cars Pioneer Valley in Northampton, an endeavor still in the planning stage, are among the myriad matters Cosenzi is contending with at any given time.

At this particular moment, she was also attending to specific details of the 2023 edition of the golf tournament, HR matters, hiring (she said she’s “constantly interviewing” for high-level positions), the still-challenging used-car market … and making it home in time for dinner with the family.

“I’m obviously proud to have so many women working under the TommyCar umbrella, but what I’m most proud of is that so many of those women are working in non-traditional roles.”

Most of this was not in Cosenzi’s long-term plans when she was focusing on clinical psychology while earning degrees at Northeastern University and Columbia; while she took odd jobs at her father’s dealership growing up, she had no intention of making it her life’s work.

But her career path took what would have to be called some unexpected turns. Indeed, Cosenzi, as most know by now, started working at the family business after college, not thinking this would be anything but temporary. But she fell in love with the business and everything about it. She attended Dealer Academy (where, again, she was one of the few women enrolled), and immersed herself in every aspect of the business.

Christina’s House is one of many area nonprofits supported by Carla Cosenzi

Christina’s House is one of many area nonprofits
supported by Carla Cosenzi and the growing team at TommyCar Auto Group.

With her father’s illness and subsequent passing, in 2009, leadership of the company transitioned to Cosenzi and her brother, Tom.

In her role as president of the dealer group, Cosenzi is involved with all aspects of the business, as well its philanthropic initiatives and work within the community. And with each, the approach is decidedly hands-on, with a hard focus on “one-on-ones,” as she called them, and giving managers and employees at all levels the tools they need to succeed.

Meanwhile, she’s also focused on long-term strategic planning. The immediate goals are to complete plans to renovate the Nissan store and build a new Volvo dealership — and by that time, the Hyundai store will need renovating, and a separate home will be needed for Genesis — and then focus on adding to the portfolio.

“We’re not desperate to acquire more brands,” she said. “But if the right opportunity came up, we would take it; we’re not just looking to buy to grow our portfolio.”

 

A Road Less-traveled

Cosenzi joked that, unlike many dealership owners, general managers, and even salespeople, she doesn’t take many of the newer models for weeks or months at a time, as much as she would like to — especially some of the new Genesis offerings.

“I’d love to switch cars, but the problem is … I spend a lot of time in my car, between the dealerships and picking up my kids,” she explained, noting that she’s been driving a Volvo XC90 hybrid SUV for some time now. “If I get in a car that’s a new model, and someone wants to buy it, they have to track me down, get me out of it, and get it ready for the customer. So I try to make sure that if I’m taking a new model, I take it for the short term and don’t move into it.”

What she has moved into are leadership roles — in her own business, within the community, and in the broad fight for gender equality in the workplace. Focusing mostly on her own sector, Cosenzi, as noted earlier, has made it her mission to be a role model and mentor, and also bring more women into the auto sales and service industry and capitalize on opportunities they may have thought were restricted to men.

“If you’re good in business, if you’re a good leader, you’re always trying to better yourself, and you’re always trying to learn, and I’m always trying to learn from other people,” she explained. “So I try to be that same sort of resource that I look for, especially to the women who come into this business.

“I want to be a good mentor to anyone who comes into our company, but especially to women who want to be successful in our industry and just need someone to guide them and give them a path on how to do that,” she went on. “That’s really important to me.”

Equally important is that many of the women now employed at TommyCar are focused on careers in this industry, not jobs, she said, adding that her dealer group is ahead of the curve, if you will, in this realm.

“If you’re good in business, if you’re a good leader, you’re always trying to better yourself, and you’re always trying to learn, and I’m always trying to learn from other people.”

“I believe that, overall, you’re seeing more women getting into the industry, but not to the extent that you see here,” she continued. “We work really hard to attract women here and to support women’s success here; we make it a great place for women to work, and we’re a great support system for all the women working together.”

When asked what makes this or any other business a great place for women to work, Cosenzi said it comes to supporting them, mentoring them, providing opportunities to learn and grow (such as group attendance at Bay Path University’s Women’s Leadership Conference and similar programs), and, perhaps most importantly, recognizing them and their accomplishments.

“We do a lot to support women and to make them feel empowered here,” she said in conclusion. “And I think it’s immediately empowering when you work for a company that has a woman leader; I think it makes a huge difference because immediately, the perception of the company is different.”

 

The Ride Stuff

Getting back to her thoughts on the auto-sales business and how and why it’s still a man’s world, despite her best efforts, Cosenzi said there has been some progress — just not as much as she would have expected to see in 2023.

“It takes time, it takes conditioning, and it takes more women being involved,” she told BusinessWest. “The more women that we put in powerful roles in an industry, the more conditioned people get to seeing women in those roles.”

Suffice it to say she doing all she can — as an employer, as a role model, as a mentor, and as a leader within the community.

And that’s just one of the reasons why she’s added Woman of Impact to her list of awards and achievements. It’s a designation that drives home all she has done and continues to do — literally and figuratively.

Women of Impact 2023

CEO, Moms in Power

She Helps Women Break the Stigma of Postpartum Depression and Find Peace

Arlyana Dalce-Bowie

Arlyana Dalce-Bowie

Like many new moms, Arlyana Dalce-Bowie’s struggle with postpartum depression was twofold.

First, she fought to get to a place where she could be a caring, loving, and present mother. Then she had to rediscover herself.

The latter was, frankly, a lengthy process, but also a powerful one. And by not only working through the dark times, but sharing that experience with the world through an online community called Moms in Power, she’s making a real impact for women who might otherwise suffer in silence, or think something is wrong with them.

“This is something a lot of women go through, which is why I created Moms in Power,” she told BusinessWest. “Although we’re moms, people need to understand that we’re still women too. Not that motherhood is easy, but it was easier to nurture my baby and to love her and to make sure she’s protected — I just couldn’t do all that for myself. And Moms in Power literally speaks to the woman you’re becoming in motherhood.”

She was able to take six months away from her job at the Department of Children and Families, which allowed her to focus on her mental health — and navigate parenthood — while waiting a frustratingly long time during the pandemic to access therapy for her own healing (more on that later).

“That’s really where Moms in Power was birthed. It was me trying to do the work until I was able to get counseling. And then, of course, with the counselor, finding different ways that I can still navigate my postpartum.”

A licensed social worker and nutritional coach who now works for Springfield Public Schools as a City Connects coordinator, she’s in a much better place — largely because she’s grown through her own difficult experience while helping other women manage theirs.

“It is because of her resiliency, drive, and unselfish commitment to community that I strongly believe that Arlyana Dalce-Bowie is a Woman of Impact,” wrote Arlela Bethel, owner of the Movement LAB, who nominated her for the award. “When a woman is able to share her story with others in a meaningful way to begin to impart change, that is recognizable and commendable.”

Bethel added that “Arlyana’s passion for supporting the healing and recovery process of mothers who have or are dealing with postpartum depression diagnosis is a true testament to her ability to show vulnerability within her own personal struggle and, out of that struggle, create resourceful ways to help others. Moms In Power was born out of hardship and pain, but this amazing resource was designed to give other women the opportunity to feel empowered, to heal, restore, and to find purpose and strength within themselves not only as mothers, but as women.”

Rough Year

Dalce-Bowie’s pregnancy began at a difficult time for everyone, near the start of COVID-19; she gave birth in February 2021, when the pandemic was still raging.

“That was hard to navigate in and of itself. We didn’t know what was going on. And because I was a single parent, I couldn’t have my support system go to my prenatal appointments and things like that. Life was still very uncertain,” she recalled. “So I was kind of separated from my support system, and I was coming to terms with the fact that I was a single parent. And, of course, that just took a toll on my mental and emotional health.”

Even during her pregnancy, Dalce-Bowie was experiencing some depression and anxiety, so it was no surprise when she was diagnosed with postpartum depression six weeks after her daughter was born.

“When a woman is able to share her story with others in a meaningful way to begin to impart change, that is recognizable and commendable.”

“I didn’t see a therapist until she was almost 1; that’s how long the waitlist was. It took a really, really long time to get into counseling, to get the support that I actually needed.”

So, during that year, she started journaling because she felt she needed an outlet to process her emotions and experience some kind of release “so I wasn’t just in my head,” she explained, adding that “journaling has been something I’ve been doing since I was a kid, so I kind of reverted back to it.”

The prompts she has used in her own journaling and then with others, through Moms in Power, include “dismantling me,” which deals with the words women place on ourselves.

“When you have PPD or any other diagnosis, you kind of label yourself that way, saying that ‘I have this diagnosis, and that defines me,’” she said. “‘Dismantling me’ is an activity where we literally dismantle things that we feel about ourselves or that society has put on us or that our support systems have put on us.”

Another writing prompt is “a letter to myself,” she added. “I want you to write a letter, knowing what you know now, to your past self, encouraging yourself for the journey ahead. That’s probably my favorite one.

“Those two are probably our biggest prompts,” Dalce-Bowie noted. “They provoke a lot of tears. But it opens us up and gives us a place to come out of ourselves. I think a lot of us have our own guilt and our own shame, and we don’t like to talk about it openly.”

The writing prompts and the words and emotions that flow from them are intended to bring women to a place of understanding themselves — and realizing that what they’re going through isn’t shameful at all.

Arlyana Dalce-Bowie says the Mommy Moment workshops bring healing

Arlyana Dalce-Bowie says the Mommy Moment workshops bring healing because women are connecting over a shared struggle they may not have talked about.

“So many people have this idea that, when you have a mental-health diagnosis, it kind of disqualifies you from some things, or you’re not as great of a parent,” Dalce-Bowie said. “And I know, being a Black and Brown woman, we don’t seek therapy and counseling enough. It’s still kind of taboo in our culture.”

Before she started reaching out to others online, she found herself having to explain her needs to her family and others in her support system — in itself a necessary step in breaking the stigma of mental health.

“I said, ‘this is how I need support. I have a serious diagnosis.’ Because postpartum depression looks very different for many women, and for me, it was very severe. So I had to kind of coach them: ‘this is what I need, and how I need it, in order to get me into a better mental space.’”

The journal was a major part of getting to that better place, and so was aromatherapy, which she came upon while looking for other mental-health resources. “There are so many healing properties with candles; it creates a safe space, a calming space, and it just helps me cope in different ways.”

From there, Dalce-Bowie started sharing her story on her personal website — and found a like-minded community.

“There were so many women who were like, ‘we’re going through the same thing’ — especially those of us with pandemic babies, who didn’t have direct access to services right away,” she noted. “A lot of people were on the waitlist, so we just started reaching out to each other and having these group text messages and Facebook groups.”

On her social-media pages, she shared elements of her journey — “the good, the bad, the ugly, and everything in between” — and developed a business page for Moms in Power, on which she shares journaling prompts, sells aromatherapy products, and directs women to other resources.

“Journaling has been something I’ve been doing since I was a kid, so I kind of reverted back to it.”

Like the virtual Mommy Moment workshops, which came about because Dalce-Bowie and the moms she was connecting with needed a deeper, more personal outlet.

“We literally come together and have moments as moms. We talk about our postpartum depression; we talk about other diagnoses — because there are a few women that have been here with other diagnoses. We talk about married life and parenting, for those who are married. We talk about the single life and parenting and what that looks like for us.

“And there’s so much healing that comes from it because you’re relating to other women that may not have talked about it out loud, but we’re still going through the same struggle,” she continued. “The outreach part literally came from me sharing my personal journey and women saying, ‘we need more of this.’”

Strong Bonds

Dalce-Bowie said the moms she connects with tend to keep in touch even beyond the workshops, to check in with each other and see how they’re doing; she’ll often help members access therapists when needed.

The connections — and impact — she’s made have been heartening, she said.

“I can’t even put it into words. At the end of every workshop, we’re all so emotionally charged. I know my specific journey, but hearing other women reminds us all we’re not in this alone. So many times in this journey, you feel like you’re alone. So knowing that I’m helping to motivate them — in a way that I felt like I needed to be pushed and motivated at a certain point — is extremely gratifying.

“The fact that we get to come together and we don’t ever have to feel so isolated again is the best part for me,” she went on. “The stories that I hear literally bring me to tears because sometimes the journey feels extremely hopeless, so when you’re in a place where you realize, ‘I helped another woman realize their worth, and I helped another woman understand there is purpose after pain, and I see other women regaining their confidence and finding themselves again and starting their dreams again’ … there really are no words to describe that.”

Tears are not uncommon, she added. “We cry a lot because we’re reaching milestones together. It’s more than fulfilling. It’s really a blessing. It’s awesome to see.”

In a society that seems to demand that women must be great at everything, all the time — at being a mother, but a great woman too — Moms in Power helps redefine who they are as women in motherhood, Dalce-Bowie explained.

“I had to get over my trauma. I had to heal from a lot of things. I had to be present for my daughter. But once I was like, ‘OK, I’ve got the mom thing under control,’ it became, ‘let me start working on myself. Let me start working on my self-esteem again. Let me start working on my own dreams and goals.’ Because they were kind of pushed to the side to take care of my baby girl. So it was important to get back to a place where I’m confident in who I am as a woman.”

For not only succeeding in that journey, but helping other mothers achieve confidence and self-worth during what can be a crushingly lonely time, Dalce-Bowie is truly a Woman of Impact.

Women of Impact 2023

President, Bay Path University

She Helps Empower Women for the ‘Long and Winding Road’

Sandra Doran

Sandra Doran

As she talked about the transition in her professional life — from being a lawyer to serving as an administrator in higher education — Sandra Doran summed it up simply and quite effectively by saying, “careers are not a straight line.”

“You don’t enter a profession or a job now and just do it for 50 years; it’s a long and winding road,” she went on, using her own story as just one example, before quickly noting that, for today’s college graduates, the road will be even more winding, and probably longer as well.

“I think that’s what our students are experiencing now — and our alums, frankly,” she went on. “Many of the people who are graduating from college today will have seven careers. So how are we, as educators, preparing them for this, giving them the skill sets, giving them the growth mindset that says, ‘I can do this, I can learn this, I’m prepared for this — I have the skill set to learn?’”

Preparing and empowering individuals, and especially women, to navigate this winding road and have the confidence and competence to take on, and succeed in, seven or more careers might be an effective job description for Doran, the sixth president of Bay Path University.

Or at least part of that job description. There are many elements to that document, obviously, and she has embodied all of them with a lengthy list of accomplishments during her career, and especially since coming to Bay Path.

At the Longmeadow campus, where she arrived just a few months after the pandemic did, she has brought about change and progress on several fronts, from health education, where she spearheaded a transformation of the school’s master’s in public health program, to cybersecurity — the school’s program is now ranked third nationally by Forbes magazine; from the creation of new programs, such as a master of science in nursing degree, to investments in infrastructure, including new science laboratories; from the establishment of a food pantry to combat food insecurity to a firm commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Meanwhile, she has been a strong supporter of, and advocate for, mentorship, forging a collaborative at Bay Path with the Mentor Collective, a platform that structures mentorships and connects students — those in traditional, on-campus programs as well as online students enrolled in the American Women’s College — with a vast network of alums who can serve as mentors.

She has also, over those three years, become heavily involved in the community, serving on the board of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra, as chair of the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council’s education subcommittee, and as a corporate ambassador at Glenmeadow, where she engages with and supports a life-plan community designed for older adults.

“Dr. Doran’s journey to the helm of Bay Path University is marked by a profound dedication to women’s education,” wrote Crystal Neuhauser, vice president of Institutional Advancement at Bay Path, as she nominated Doran for the Woman of Impact honor. “She is a tireless advocate for empowering women to emerge as catalysts for change.”

This advocacy, and this work to empower women, are among the many reasons why Doran can add another accomplishment to her long track record of success — being named a Woman of Impact for 2023.

Course of Action

When BusinessWest first talked with Doran, it was at a small table with a few chairs arranged around it (six feet apart) on the lawn behind Deepwood Hall, the main administration building on the Bay Path campus.

“Many of the people who are graduating from college today will have seven careers. So how are we, as educators, preparing them for this, giving them the skill sets, giving them the growth mindset that says, ‘I can do this, I can learn this, I’m prepared for this — I have the skill set to learn?’”

This was the only way to do an in-person interview in June 2020, the very height of COVID, and the scene was symbolic of the extreme challenge and duress that marked the start of her tenure at the university. It was symbolic of something else as well — her strong leadership during that time of turmoil.

Indeed, Doran was one of very few people on campus those days, with Zoom being the preferred method to meet and collaborate. And she made sure those she met with online saw her in her office, specifically in front of a painting on loan from the Springfield Museums, created by Rosa Ibarra, chosen to reflect her commitment to diversity.

Sandy Doran, center, seen here with Bay Path students

Sandy Doran, center, seen here with Bay Path students, faculty, and staff, has become a mentor to many young women.

“It was important for me to be in my office so people could see me,” she recalled, adding that she started staging, via Zoom, what she called “Conversations with the President,” so people — in the college community and beyond — would get the opportunity to know her and she could get to know them.

These are conversations she continues to this day, she went on, because they provide invaluable information and input on what those in the community are thinking about, what opportunities exist for the university and all those it serves, and much more — feedback that has directly shaped some of the leadership initiatives undertaken at the school.

It was, indeed, a long and winding road that Doran took to Bay Path, that interview at the table under the tree outside Deepwood Hall, and those online community conversations. It began, as noted earlier, in roles where Doran put to work the juris doctorate she earned at Syracuse University College of Law.

Going back further, she said she was perhaps destined for a career in both the law and education — what she called the “intersection of things I love.” Her great-grandfather founded a one-room schoolhouse in Colorado, her grandfather was the superintendent of a school system, and her mother was a music teacher.

She can find many common threads among the two professions.

“It was a very natural transition from being a lawyer to being an educator because being a lawyer, if you’re a good one, is a lot about educating clients.”

“Being a lawyer is a lot like being an educator,” she told BusinessWest. “Law is about helping clients understand what their options are and educating them about the law. So for me, it was a very natural transition from being a lawyer to being an educator because being a lawyer, if you’re a good one, is a lot about educating clients.”

After serving as vice president, general counsel, and secretary at Shaw’s Supermarkets Inc. and then as senior counsel at Holland & Knight LLP in Boston, then the fifth-largest law firm in the country, Doran’s transition to higher education began at Lesley University in Cambridge, where she served as chief of staff, vice president, and general counsel from 2004 to 2011.

It continued at the American College of Education in Indianapolis and then Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J. and, most recently, Salem Academy and College in Winston-Salem, N.C., where she served as president before arriving at Bay Path to step into the rather large shoes of longtime president — and now fellow Woman of Impact — Carol Leary.

Leading by Example

Getting back to her thoughts on how a career is most definitely not a straight line, Doran said the primary focus of higher education, and one of the “foundational aspects” at Bay Path, is preparing students to learn — in every way possible.

“Whether it’s online, on the ground, from each other, from faculty and staff, from mentors, from alums — that is one of our core aspirations here,” she said, adding that this has been the primary thrust of her leadership efforts at the school.

Sandy Doran, left, with student speaker Diane Almonte Arias

Sandy Doran, left, with student speaker Diane Almonte Arias at Bay Path’s 2023 commencement ceremonies.

Put another way, she said the school works to “build confidence through competence,” and that both are attained in the classroom, as well as outside it, in all the ways students can learn.

And this brings her back to the broad subject of mentorship, which is a key component of a program at Bay Path called WELL (We Empower Learners and Leaders), as well as the school’s curriculum as a whole, and the heart of Doran’s philosophy about how people (and especially women) learn, lead, and prepare for that long, winding road.

“I have benefited from a tremendous number of mentors — not just family members, who are great mentors, but in every position and every role I’ve been in,” she went on. “I’ve had the benefit of working with great mentors, not just on how to be successful in terms of the work, but in how you build relationships and how you think about that network that’s going to be so important to being successful, because, as we all know, it’s not just what you do, it’s how you do it.

“And the data bears this out,” she continued. “Students who have mentors are more likely to be successful in the workplace, so students who have mentors in college are more likely to be successful in the workforce, particularly first-generation students who might not have that social capital and understand, the way more experienced people do, the real value of that network.”

Elaborating, she said mentorships have become a huge part of the landscape and the operating philosophy at Bay Path, with students enjoying mentoring relationships with alums, employers, faculty, and staff.

Many of these mentoring relationships, not to mention potential career opportunities, take root during internships, Doran noted, adding that these have become another huge point of emphasis at Bay Path.

“A great internship also includes a great mentoring experience,” she said. “And one of the things we know about internships is that, if a student has at least one internship during their undergraduate experience, they are more likely to secure a position, and a higher-paying position, than if they had not had that internship experience. So for us, it’s really fundamental to the education that we offer here.”

And while she still relies on others to mentor her — “there’s always someone who sees things through a different lens or different perspective” — she also mentors many of those around her, whether they are students, staff members, or other members of the community.

And when asked what her best piece of advice is to those who seek her counsel, she said simply, “to ask for advice.”

“That’s because we cannot know all the answers ourselves,” she told BusinessWest. “So getting multiple perpectives, whether it’s on life goals or even weekly goals … that’s important.”

 

Bottom Line

It’s also important to remember, as her own story makes clear, that careers are not a straight line. There are curves, and many of them.

Handling these curves requires not simply college degrees, although they’re essential in most cases, but the ability to learn, not just in the classroom, but from experiences and from fellow travelers along the journey.

This couldn’t be clearer to both Doran the lawyer and Doran the college president. Helping others understand, and then empowering them to make it happen, is what makes her a Woman of Impact.

Women of Impact 2023

Founder, Faces of Medicine and Intentional Health, LLC

She’s Determined to Boost Diversity in Healthcare — and Improve Outcomes

Dr. Khama Ennis

Dr. Khama Ennis loves the ER. She should, having been chief of Emergency Medicine at Cooley Dickinson Hospital for several years.

“I love the puzzle of it, and I love the immediacy of it,” she said. “The typical thing that comes to mind when people think about emergency medicine is adrenaline and chaos, but it’s never been that for me.”

Instead, “what I loved was the immediate connection, creating a safe space for somebody. You have to forge this immediate bond and ask really invasive, personal questions on what’s probably the worst day of their year, if not their life, and get them to share the things that are relevant so you get the information you need to get them the care they need. I really like that.”

But for most of her time there, Ennis was one of only two Black doctors in the hospital.

“There’s plenty of data that reflects the negative impact of inadequate diversity in teams,” she told BusinessWest. And in the latest chapter of her intriguing career, Ennis is doing something about that.

These days, she practices integrative medicine at a private office in Amherst called Intentional Health. But she also co-founded a nonprofit organization called Diversify Medicine in order to provide support for people from underrepresented backgrounds to gain access to careers in medicine.

She also founded Faces of Medicine, a narrative health-equity project centered on the journeys of Black female physicians — centered around a documentary series and a collection of mini-memoirs — with the goal of inspiring more women of color to enter the field of medicine and diversify the healthcare industry, with the idea that diversity in healthcare teams leads to a measurable and meaningful improvement in outcomes.

“Right now, black women are 2.8% of the physicians in the U.S., which is a little more than a third of what we represent in the population as a whole, so it’s clearly inadequate,” she said, noting that Black men, Latinx people, and Indigenous Americans face similar disparities. “Some groups are just underrepresented in these spaces, and outcomes suffer as a result.”

For her ongoing efforts, Ennis was honored this year by the Massachusetts Medical Society (MMS) with its Woman Physician Leadership Award, recognizing outstanding leadership and contributions to patients and the medical profession by a woman physician.

Ennis, the society noted, is viewed by her colleagues and the community as a leader in addressing structural racism in healthcare and social determinants of health. In addition to her work with Faces of Medicine, she penned several opinion pieces addressing race in medicine for the Washington Post and created a presentation for the Hampshire and Franklin County districts of the MMS that was selected by the Board of Registration in Medicine as one of three that meets the new licensure requirement for implicit bias education.

“I have continued to be impressed not just by how compassionate and professional a physician she is, but she’s also a tremendous role model for women physicians and for women of color,” said Dr. Kate Atkinson, a primary-care physician in Northampton and Amherst, when the award was presented. “Dr. Khama Ennis has been speaking out constructively and gently to educate and empower us all to do better.”

For that work, Ennis is not only a Woman of Impact, but someone whose impact on healthcare promises to bear fruit for decades to come.

 

Shifting Gears

Ennis was born in Jamaica; her family immigrated to the U.S. when she was a toddler, and she grew up in Southeastern Pennsylvania.

She graduated from Brown University with a focus in medical anthropology and earned her medical degree at NYU School of Medicine and her master of public health degree at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. She practiced at Cooley Dickinson Hospital for a decade and a half, starting in 2006, and eventually rose to chief of Emergency Medicine from 2015 to 2020 and medical staff president from 2022 to 2022.

But as early as 2018, she was looking for a change, for a number of reasons.

“Right now, black women are 2.8% of the physicians in the U.S., which is a little more than a third of what we represent in the population as a whole, so it’s clearly inadequate.”

“What I had come to do was done: the department was stabilized, the wait times were down, and we’d had some real achievements,” she recalled. She had also gotten divorced and found the 24/7 on-call nature of an ER schedule to be incompatible with effective co-parenting.

So Ennis switched gears and went into integrative medicine, opening Intentional Health in downtown Amherst earlier in 2023.

“My training is more allopathic, traditional, conventional Western medicine. But I provide and have received acupuncture, therapeutic massage is incredibly important, physical therapy is important, chiropractic is important. There are different ways to bring all of these different players in to optimize people’s health.”

Even elements like nutrition education is critical to her work. “I like being able to suggest … ‘if you eat that instead of that, you’ll still be full, but your blood sugar will come down.’ If people have a bit more understanding, they can have more control over their own health,” she explained.

Dr. Lynnette Watkins

Dr. Lynnette Watkins, president and CEO of Cooley Dickinson Health Care, is one of the four physicians profiled in the first episode of the Faces of Medicine documentary series.

“I’m not a primary-care doctor, and I think what’s terrible about our overall healthcare system is that it doesn’t allow primary-care doctors to get to a lot of this,” she added. “It’s structural; they’re given 15 minutes to see a person, and it’s really hard to get into depth in 15 minutes with anybody.”

So, in addition to her acupuncture certification, “I have studied lifestyle medicine, which looks at nutrition and activity, sleep, restorative practices, community, all those things that play huge roles in individual and community health.”

At the same time, Ennis has been hard at work over the past two years on Faces of Medicine, a memoir and documentary project that will have its first public screening on Monday, Oct. 16 at Amherst Cinema, with the first episode telling the stories of four Black women who are making an impact on healthcare locally: Dr. Lynnette Watkins, president and CEO of Cooley Dickinson Health Care; Dr. Thea James, associate Chief Medical Officer and executive director of the Health Equity Accelerator at Boston Medical Center; Dr. Valerie Stone, director of Health Equity Initiatives in the Department of Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital; and Dr. Rose Cesar, a gastroenterologist at Baystate Franklin Medical Center.

“We’re also going to be telling the story of Rebecca Lee Crumpler, the first Black woman to ever earn an MD in the U.S.; that happened in 1864,” Ennis noted.

She plans on interviewing at least 30 physicians for the series, and has conducted 16 interviews so far.

“I reached out to different Black female physicians across the country. Some of them I knew; a lot of them were a friend of a friend or some other connection,” she explained. “But the first episode is all Massachusetts stories. They will be telling their own stories, pulled together from the interviews they’ve done over the last year and a half.”

Faces of Medicine will also arrange virtual screenings for two days after the Oct. 16 event for anyone who can’t make the premiere.

Crafting a documentary, for someone whose training is in a much different realm, was a challenge, she said, but a gratifying one. Her team includes Seth Lepore, who handles day-to-day operations; and Executive Producer Jenahye Johnson of Brooklyn-based Homebase Studios, a production studio and crew-sourcing agency that touts “storytelling through community.”

“I needed a company, so I incorporated a company. And then you need fiscal sponsorships, so I got fiscal sponsorships,” Ennis said. “And then I started fundraising at the very end of 2021. Thus far, we’ve raised about $250,000, which is what’s funded all of the work so far.

Dr. Khama Ennis

Dr. Khama Ennis was also honored this year with the Massachusetts Medical Society’s Woman Physician Leadership Award.

“Ideally, this can go in a couple different directions from here. I either continue grassroots fundraising to get the rest of the episodes funded and completed, or an executive producer with means says, ‘I love this project, and I want to help steward it across the finish line.’ That would be amazing. Or PBS or a streaming service says, ‘this is something that we’d really love to engage with.’”

The initial plan is to complete four episodes that span the breadth of the country, numerous specialties in medicine, and myriad stories and paths. The series could be a template for other underrepresented groups, too, from Latinx and Indigenous Americans to LGBTQ individuals, she said. “The whole goal is to have young people see themselves reflected in these stories and see possibilities they can grab onto.”

 

Worth the Effort

Faces of Medicine dovetails nicely with Ennis’s work on Diversify Medicine.

“The goal that I have there is to create a short-term database. There are lots of organizations doing great work to try to bring people into this space, but if you don’t know exactly what to search for, you’re not going to find a program that could support you.”

The database is intended to help underrepresented populations find resources to help them access medical careers, and she also plans to create a virtual mentorship network to amplify the voices of professionals of color already working in the space.

“We have concrete data that support the importance of diversity on teams for improving health outcomes,” Ennis noted. For example, one study came out that looked at the infant mortality rate in Florida, which was two to three times higher for black infants than for white infants — and that disparity was cut in half when the pediatrician was black.

“The data that I’ve found most specifically speaks to physicians, but I think it’s true of every player in the healthcare team. Doctors are useless without nurses, and nurses are useless without techs. We all need each other in order to do this work, so I truly believe that every level needs to reflect the population we’re serving.”

Meanwhile, Faces of Medicine holds the promise of inspiring young women of color to pursue the dream of a medical career from an early age.

“There are experiences in elementary, middle, and high school where people can either be encouraged or discouraged,” she said. “Somebody can express an interest in medicine, and somebody else can say, ‘oh, that’s really hard, are you sure?’ Or somebody can say, ‘that’s great; let’s figure out what the next step would be.’”

The women being profiled in Faces of Medicine all figured out that next step, and are able to clearly communicate how and why.

“Say you’re a smart kid, but you just don’t think it’s possible because you’ve experienced homelessness. We can show them somebody who had some real struggles in their family growing up, but they got here,” Ennis said. “I’m not Pollyanna; I don’t want to tell anybody that it’s easy. But I do want people to get that it’s worth it.”

Women of Impact 2023

President and CEO, Square One

Inspired by Others, She Displays the Awesome Power of One Woman

Dawn Forbes DiStefano

Dawn Forbes DiStefano never had to be told about how a single woman could be a life-changing force for someone and an influential role model.

She could see for herself starting at a very young age, with her maternal grandmother, Phyllis Arnold Pilbin, who saw her role change in profound ways when her daughter, Forbes DiStefano’s mother, was killed by a drunk driver when she was just 26 years old and Dawn, her first child, was only 3.

“My grandmother somehow had the resiliency and spirit to lend a hand to a very grieving father; she left her day job to care for my sister and me so that my father could work during the day — while she was still raising four other children,” said Forbes DiStefano, adding that she started working nights selling Stanley Home Products. “She changed her life to care for the two of us. As a woman growing up with a woman who persevered through losing her daughter and had the strength to then change her career so she could raise her two young granddaughters to get through this — that had a profound impact on me.”

But there have been plenty of other examples of the power and influence of a single woman, she said, citing the remarkable individual her father would marry several years after that tragedy, Patty, who would adopt Forbes DiStefano and her sister Heather, who is also on this list of life changers, as well as two sisters who would come later, Kelly and Megan. And her aunts as well.

There would be impactful women at the YWCA, where she first went to work as a receptionist and would stay for nearly three decades.

“I’ve always been sort of an impatient, unsettled learner — I’m always looking for something else to learn, something else to do, a problem to solve. And I’ve always had women who responded with ‘go ahead and try it … we’ve got your back; we’ll pick you up if you fall.’”

Then there’s Joan Kagan-Levine, her predecessor as president and CEO of the Springfield-based early-education provider Square One. Like others, Kagan-Levine encouraged her to reach higher, take on risks, and maybe try to do something she might not have thought she could do.

“I’ve been surrounded by women who encouraged me to try things,” Forbes DiStefano said. “I’ve always been sort of an impatient, unsettled learner — I’m always looking for something else to learn, something else to do, a problem to solve. And I’ve always had women who responded with ‘go ahead and try it … we’ve got your back; we’ll pick you up if you fall.’”

With all those powerful leads to follow, she has, in essence, devoted her life to having the backs of others, especially women — being there to pick them up if they fall and being that single woman who becomes a force in someone’s life.

That’s been the case whether it’s the many women in her own family; the 130 or so women, by her count, now working for Square One; or others in the community.

Indeed, she keeps with her what she calls a “secret notebook,” one in which she jots down notes, mostly on women she’s helping through issues and problems in their lives, be it with buying a house or how to move forward in their career.

Dawn Forbes DiStefano says her grandmother, Phyllis Arnold Pilbin

Dawn Forbes DiStefano says her grandmother, Phyllis Arnold Pilbin, is one of many who have shown her the “power of a single woman.”

But being a mentor and influence in the lives of others only partially explains why she is part of this Women of Impact class of 2023. She is also a dynamic leader, guiding Square One through an important and challenging time in its history — and, yes, there have been many of those.

Today, she is leading a project to build the agency a new headquarters in Springfield’s South End, its home since 1883, while playing a key role in efforts to secure adequate funding for the agency and erase the discrepancy between what the state pays to childcare facilities in the 617 (and other area codes in and around Boston) and what it pays to those in the 413.

As a manager, Forbes DiStefano said she tries to lead by example and do whatever needs to be done, a philosophy captured in comments by Kris Allard, Square One’s vice president of Development & Communication, who first met Forbes DiStefano while they were serving on the Dress for Success board of directors and nominated her to be a Woman of Impact.

“Dawn does not lead from behind her desk,” Allard wrote. “She can often be found sitting on the floor reading stories with a group of preschoolers, chatting with a young mother enrolling in a family-service program, delivering diapers and groceries to families in need of assistance, and even preparing lunch for hundreds of children when the kitchen staff needs an extra pair of hands.”

All that, and much more, explains why she is certainly a Woman of Impact.

 

It’s All Relative

Forbes DiStefano said her mother, Patty, who is only 13 years older than she is, has often been able to inspire and motivate her words and actions.

She has many examples, but one that stands out is from the days not long after she graduated from UMass Amherst with a teaching degree and landed in a terrible job market for teachers. She was spending a lot of time at the family’s pool and enjoying her summer until Patty pulled her aside one day on the deck.

“She said, ‘Dawn, you’re the oldest of four girls, you’re a college graduate, and I need your sisters to see a college graduate working — let’s go work,’” she recalled, adding that the YWCA was hiring for an office it was opening in Northampton; she knew people at the agency, so she went to work there as a receptionist.

So began an intriguing, and very much ongoing, story of involvement with nonprofit agencies, service to the community, and being a woman and a leader who would certainly make all the women who have ever had her back quite proud.

As a receptionist at the YWCA, she was soon inspired by one of those women to start writing grants, become the agency’s grants manager, and make this work more than a job.

“I immediately fell head over heels in love with the notion that I could make a career out of helping people, and most especially helping women,” she said.

In 2007, she became the YWCA’s director of Resource Development, and would stay in that role until 2015, when she decided it was time for a change. She had lunch with Kagan-Levine, who convinced her to become Square One’s chief Finance and Grants officer. Forbes DiStefano would become executive vice president in 2019, and would prevail in the nationwide search for a successor to the retiring Kagan-Levine in January 2021.

As she talked about her current work and the challenges facing her and the agency, she was quick to note they are far less in scope than those Square One faced in the preceding decade — the tornado that destroyed its old headquarters building on Main Street, the natural-gas explosion that rendered one of its facilities unusable, and the tortuous first nine months of the pandemic, which … well, no explanation needed.

Dawn Forbes DiStefano

Dawn Forbes DiStefano is leading Square One through a time of challenge and opportunity, including the building of a new headquarters in Springfield’s South End.

Still, there is plenty on her plate, including the work to build a new facility downtown, a $12 million project now moving through the design and fundraising stages, and ongoing efforts to close the discrepancy between what the state is paying for childcare to facilities on either end of the state.

Indeed, she was a definitive voice in a Boston Globe article earlier this year that drew attention not only to the discrepancy between the reimbursement rates, but the need at agencies like Square One to raise money to cover the difference between what is received for a subsidy and the cost of providing care.

 

The Compounding Effect

At Square One, more than 90% of employees are women, and Forbes DiStefano has committed herself to having their backs and providing the encouragement and inspiration that others have provided to her — all while also being a mother; a strong supporter of agencies that support adult women, such as Dress for Success; and the CEO of a nonprofit.

While doing so, she drives home not just the power of a single woman, but the even more powerful force that emerges when women work together toward common goals and solving problems.

“Someone smarter than me — I think it was in a Forbes article — talked about the power of women and the compounding effect,” she told BusinessWest. “Women, on an individual basis, have power, but the collective impact that women have when they make the conscious effort to support each other in the most inclusive way — it is an exponential change to the world around us.

“When you invest in an individual woman, because the tentacles from the single woman are so vast, whether she’s serving as a sister, a mother, a grandmother, an aunt … if you support her, the exponential improvement and the compounding value of that investment can’t be compared to anything else,” she went on, adding that she is committed to making such investments, whether it’s with her daughters or with her employees. “Invest in a woman; it’s one of the best investments you can make.”

That’s because, she continued, when women struggle and they can’t access what they need, that same compounding effect occurs, but in a negative way. “Her children suffer, and the people around her suffer.”

Which brings us back to that aforementioned secret notebook.

“It’s filled with all the women in my life, so that I can remember who’s buying a home, who’s struggling to care for their aging parents … I can’t remember it all by heart, so I have to write it all down,” she said. “I try to touch one a day; that is always my goal. I either do a handwritten note or a text or a phone call to another woman to let her know I’m thinking about her. I try to connect with women once a day, and in a personal way.”

Getting back to her grandmother, Forbes DiStefano said simply, “she taught me the power of one woman.”

There have been many others who have provided similarly impactful lessons along the way. Together, these individuals inspired her to make providing similar support and inspiration what she calls the “cornerstone of her life.”

So today, as a mother, daughter, employer, mentor, fellow board member, and nonprofit leader, she is the one displaying the awesome power of one woman.

Not just a woman, but a Woman of Impact.

Women of Impact 2023

CEO, The Jamrog Group

She Impacts Her Community, Her Industry, and the Lives of Her Clients

Amy Jamrog

Amy Jamrog likes to say that she wasn’t raised in Holyoke — she was raised by Holyoke.

By that, she meant the community’s people, businesses, business owners, institutions, traditions, and more certainly influenced her and shaped who she is today — much like a family would.

As an example, she noted her first job, which she took at age 14, at a business called the Party Store, a part of the former Quirk Paper Co., located in the city’s Flats section and owned by Jon and Helene Florio. This was a learning experience on more levels than she could count.

“I worked there all through high school,” Jamrog said. “And I met so many Holyoke residents who wanted to shop locally and support local businesses, and I really came to understand the DNA of Holyoke. I also learned customer service, what it meant to be a part of a community, and the importance of giving back, which they [the Florios] did so much of.

“So many of the things I learned growing up were about community, giving back, volunteering … and all of it happened here,” she went on. “It stayed with me.”

Suffice it to say that Jamrog — who has long had a Holyoke address for the Jamrog Group, the financial-advisory firm she founded and now serves as CEO — has spent a lifetime applying the lessons she learned while at the Party Store, as a candystriper at Providence Hospital, later while working at the Holyoke Mall, and while compiling a record that would earn her the rank of valedictorian at Holyoke Catholic High School.

“So many of the things I learned growing up were about community, giving back, volunteering … and all of it happened here. It stayed with me.”

Indeed, when she started as a financial advisor, she was focused on making a difference for her clients and their families. And while that focus remains, she has broadened and deepened her impact, committing herself to making a difference within her community, meaning the 413, and within her industry, especially with women in the profession or thinking about getting in.

She does this in many ways — through service as a board member to organizations like the Girl Scouts and the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts; as a mentor to countless young people in the industry, especially women, who face the same challenges as men and others that are unique to them; as an author, through two bestselling books, Life Savings Conversations and Confetti Moments: 52 Moments to Spark Conversation, Connect Deeply & Celebrate the Ordinary; and, most recently, though her election in June to the board of Finseca (Financial Security for All), a nonprofit organization advocating for the financial-security profession.

Amy Jamrog, seen here with her team at the Jamrog Group

Amy Jamrog, seen here with her team at the Jamrog Group, has helped many women enter the field and persevere through the difficult early years.

In 2020, she created a resource for financial advisors called Four Wings Consulting, with a dragonfly as its symbol. Four Wings was formed to help advisors cope with the many challenges they have been facing in recent years, from the pandemic and its many side effects to the wild swings in the stock market; from soaring interest rates to general uncertainty about the economy and what will happen next.

It’s just one of the ways in which Jamrog has become a true Woman of Impact.

 

Dollars and Sense

As she was cleaning out her office recently while preparing to relocate the Jamrog Group from its former home on Northampton Street in Holyoke, not far from where she grew up, to a small suite in the office tower at 330 Whitney Ave. in that same city, Jamrog came across a note she wrote to herself years ago, when the firm was in Northampton.

It took the form of a 10-year vision statement, something she updates every year, which included the goal to buy a building in Holyoke.

“I wanted to build an office that felt like an extension of home for people,” she recalled. “And I wrote in my 10-year vision that I wanted to own a building on Northampton Street, come back to my roots, be a taxpayer in the community that raised me, and build something permanent — which was the building I ultimately bought. And 10 years later, that actually happened.”

That note, and everything that has happened after she wrote it, speaks volumes about Jamrog and why she is a Woman of Impact — everything from her commitment to long-term planning and her ability to make plans reality to that strong attachment to the Holyoke community, to her understanding that ‘permanent’ is a relative term.

“For people who come into this business specifically wanting to make money, it can be very disappointing because it takes a long time, and you need grit and perseverance and a great work ethic to make it through the first five years. Most people don’t.”

Indeed, 10 years after she moved into the property on Northampton Street, the landscape had changed profoundly. Her team works remotely most days of the week now (everyone is in on Mondays), and clients see their advisors far more on Zoom than they do in the office. These are changes that negate the need for an office that feels like an extension of home.

The moral of this story, if it can be called that, is that planning is important, but revising the plan to meet a changing world is more important.

This is the basic advice Jamrog gives to her clients as a financial advisor, a profession she assumed after taking a somewhat winding career route.

After she graduated from Middlebury College in Vermont, she entered the healthcare field, working first for Baystate Health and then for Hospice of Pioneer Valley, as a community liaison between hospice and the physicians in our community.

“My job was to meet with physicians and explain to them what hospice was really about so they could refer their patients earlier in their terminal diagnoses so families could take full advantage of hospice services,” she explained. “It was interesting work; I was 22, 23 years old … I was young, but I learned how to communicate effectively with physicians. Then I was recruited to being a financial advisor; it was a very natural transition.”

As for that recruitment effort, it was undertaken by Andy Skroback, then 62, who became her first mentor in this difficult business. And it was during her first few years under Skroback’s tutelage that she realized the profound impact she could have, as a female advisor, on families.

But over the course of her career, she has broadened her scope when it comes to impact, a pattern that continues today.

Amy Jamrog’s book, Confetti Moments

Amy Jamrog’s book, Confetti Moments, has made its way onto several bestseller lists.

“That word ‘impact’ has always been important to me,” Jamrog said. “I began my financial-services career really wanting to impact families and my clients, many of whom were physicians. Today, our clients are corporate executives, small-business owners, and nonprofit endowments, where we manage their portfolios. That’s where the shift to having a bigger impact on my community really started to matter. The work we did with nonprofits helping nonprofits manage their endowments really got us grounded in how important philanthropy and our nonprofits really are.”

 

Risk and Reward

After successfully building her business — there are now nine team members — and becoming actively involved in the community on a number of levels, especially with nonprofits devoted to “women and children as leaders,” such as Girls Inc., Girls on the Run, and the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts — Jamrog added an additional point of emphasis: impacting her profession.

She does this in many ways and through many vehicles, including Four Wings Consulting. Her specific focus is women in the industry, she said, adding that she coaches more than 100 of them across the country.

“Making an impact on women in our business is very important to me,” she said. “The business itself is difficult, but to be female is really challenging. So if I can help shorten their trajectory and become successful sooner, and realize just how much impact and satisfaction this career can have — that’s some of my favorite work.”

Elaborating, she started by saying that financial-security work is much harder than it might look to those receiving such services. The hours are long, the work difficult, and the failure rate is quite high: close to 90%.

“For people who come into this business specifically wanting to make money, it can be very disappointing because it takes a long time, and you need grit and perseverance and a great work ethic to make it through the first five years. Most people don’t,” Jamrog said, adding that, while it’s certainly challenging for everyone, the attrition rate for women is even higher, for reasons she explained in detail.

“Without stereotyping too much, most of my male counterparts — their one job is to be a financial advisor,” she explained. “Most of my female counterparts … one of their jobs is to be a financial advisor; they also have spouse, mom, the prepper of the meals, the taker of kids to school, and all the other things that women tend to have on their plates.

“So I try to really help women figure out the integration of all of the responsibilities and goals that they have and how we manage all of them and be successful in each of them; that’s the ultimate challenge,” she went on. “I often hear women say, ‘if I’m successful as a financial advisor, I’m not being successful as a mom, and if I’m focused on being successful as a mom, I’m less successful as a financial advisor,’ and that, to me, is such a sad statement because it doesn’t have to be the case.”

Jamrog knows because she’s lived that life for 27 years. She says it’s a constant challenge to be successful in the multiple roles women accept, but it is “absolutely doable.” She has shown that one can successfully balance work at home, in the office, and in the community, and succeed in each realm.

And in another realm as well: as an author. Her second book, Confetti Moments: 52 Moments to Spark Conversation, Connect Deeply & Celebrate the Ordinary, a collection of Jamrog’s uplifting blog posts from the deepest months of the pandemic, sits on a number of bestseller lists, including the Wall Street Journal, Amazon, and USA Today. It has become popular with CEOs, team managers, and even families as a way to motivate, accent the positive, and even build teamwork.

 

The Next Chapter

Jamrog is essentially done with her third book, which she described as her college thesis. “The paper copy has been sitting on a shelf for 30 years, and I’m in the process of editing it.”

This is a coming-of-age novel about 12-year-old girls, she told BusinessWest, adding that readers from this area will find that it sounds quite familiar; it’s about growing up in a small town in Western Mass., as she did.

Then again, she didn’t just grow up in Holyoke, she was raised by that remarkable city, and everything she learned growing up there has helped shape her into a Woman of Impact.

Women of Impact 2023

CEO, Berkshire Hills Music Academy

She Helps Young Adults with Disabilities Build a Lifetime of Ability

Michelle Theroux

Growing up in South Hadley, Michelle Theroux would ride by the old Skinner family residence on Route 116, just north of Mount Holyoke College, and have no clue what it was.

Or what it would become.

“Wistariahurst in Holyoke was the family’s winter home, and this was their summer home,” she told BusinessWest. “And when the last living Skinner passed away, this property went to Mount Holyoke. But it never had an identity within the campus, so around 1998, they were looking to divest several of their properties.”

Among the interested buyers were the founders of Berkshire Hills Music Academy, which will celebrate a quarter-century next year as a unique, college-like program for young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities who are looking to expand their social, vocational, and music skills in a decidedly music-infused environment.

Theroux came on board in 2013, providing some needed stability. As in much-needed.

“I was the eighth executive director in our 13-year history when I was hired,” she said. “When I spoke with the recruiter, I said, ‘you have to give me the backstory. Am I walking onto the Titanic? What’s going on here?’”

The answer, she decided, was ‘founder syndrome’; the institution had some strong founding families who had competing visions, so there wasn’t one consistent direction, which burned out each director quickly. In fact, when Theroux reached just 20 months on the job, she became the school’s longest-tenured leader ever.

“I was able to get some traction with staff and make changes, as well as with the board. I said, ‘if we’re going to do what we need to do, here’s how we’re going to do it. And you’ve got to let me do my job. I can’t be second-guessed at every turn. We’re going to have to change.’”

 

It helped that her music background — she began studying tap, jazz, and ballet dance at age 5; added dance instruction when she was just 16; and later toured nationally in a jazz-based children’s show — gave her some “street cred” with the staff.

“I knew what it’s like to be on a gig; things like that allowed me to be a bit more successful than some of the predecessors.”

That success, a decade into Theroux’s tenure, is measurable. The student body was 32 when she arrived, and is past 75 now. “That’s capacity,” she said. “So for us to grow, we would be taking on a new building, most likely off-site and in the community somewhere.”

Which may happen at some point, because the school’s success extends far beyond numbers. It’s all about the total impact on these young adults’ lives.

Berkshire Hills boasts a day program and a residential program. “If they’re residential, they’re most likely living for the first two years in our dorm, and then they can live in the community after that,” she explained. “Our two-year program really focuses on shoring up their life skills — everything from cooking to money management, which includes going to the bank and then going shopping and making sure you have a list of what you need versus what you want.”

The entire program, in fact, is built around preparing students to live independently and successfully in the community.

“We have a whole course on social skills with friends, social skills in the workplace. We teach what language to use and what’s an appropriate hand gesture when you meet somebody: you shake their hand; you don’t give them a hug. Because a lot of times, it’s the soft skills that individuals who have intellectual and developmental disabilities may struggle with and could lead to potential conflict, say, in the workplace.”

“When I spoke with the recruiter, I said, ‘you have to give me the backstory. Am I walking onto the Titanic? What’s going on here?’”

Speaking of which, students also explore vocational skills and strengths. “We do a lot of volunteer opportunities in the community: at the local food pantries, the Dakin animal shelter, and a few other places, like Share Coffee, to see what their skill sets are, what their interests are. And then, as they go through our program, they match those skills with potential employment later on.”

But what really sets Berkshire Hills Music Academy aside is right there in the name.

“We are known for individuals who have an intellectual or developmental disability, who are highly musical,” Theroux explained. “We’re one of the very few places in the country where they can get lessons and programming, but we also act as their agent, their manager, their accompaniment, their arranger.”

Michelle Theroux

Michelle Theroux says Berkshire Hills Music Academy is at capacity and may need to grow into another building in the community.

In fact, students are provided with opportunities to perform locally, both individually and in a number of different ensembles in different musical genres, and in settings ranging from local schools to Fenway Park, where students have sung the national anthem.

In short, these young adults are living full lives, enjoying and perfecting their music skills, and preparing to live independently after their enrollment at Berkshire Hills. And Theroux’s steady leadership has plenty to do with their success.

 

The Power of Music

Some gigs can be especially impactful for audiences.

“We have about 15 nursing homes or assisted-living facilities in a rotation that our bands will cycle through each year, and those facilities love having them,” Theroux said. “One reason is our students are super warm and embracing and fun. They’re also very talented.

“And there’s a connection between the aging brain and music,” she added. “For example, somebody with dementia or Alzheimer’s will have lapses in their memory, but they’ll hear a song, and it will bring them right back, and they’ll remember all the words to it. If it’s their wedding song or their prom song, whatever it is, they have a memory that gets triggered by the music. So we are a fan favorite in the local nursing homes.”

The school even has a dance ensemble that’s starting to pick up gigs as well, sometimes accompanied by a Berkshire Hills musician or ensemble, sometimes on their own.

Speaking of gigs, the young musicians earn money for appearances, with just a small percentage deducted to cover the school’s staffing costs, Theroux said. “They know there’s value to their work. Like you and I value our paychecks, so do they. So, yes, these are paid gigs.”

“We’ve really looked at the individual, and instead of just focusing on areas where they need support, because there’s a deficit there, we’ve looked at where their strengths are, where their passions are, where their gifts are, and really build on that.”

And when audiences hear them play, sing, and dance, they understand the value, too.

“When they hear our music, people are like, ‘wait, what? They have a disability?’ Because when you hear the music, you hear good music. You don’t hear a disability.”

That’s why these students have performed at other schools, too, funded by anti-bullying grants, to drive home the message of ability, not disability, Theroux said. “The message is, ‘if I have autism and can sing like this, you might have autism, so guess what? You, too, have skills; you, too, have talent; you, too, have strength.’ Our bands go into some schools, and they’re like rock stars.”

Berkshire Hills students don’t have to be highly musical to enroll, she added. “But if you are, there is a music track for folks where that can be their vocation. We have a secondary tier; we have several bands that gig in the community at a high level.”

These successes — in music and in life — are reflected in words of gratitude from families over the years, Theroux said.

“It’s everything from a parent telling us, ‘I never thought my child would shave his own face’ to becoming highly musical and standing up and performing in front of 200 people, to getting their own apartment,” she noted. “Our goal is to figure out how to make somebody as autonomous and independent as possible. Whatever level of staff support is needed, we will provide, but the goal is really to push the areas where they don’t need support.”

Michelle Theroux says the school’s culture of inclusivity

Michelle Theroux says the school’s culture of inclusivity extends to the way the staff treats students, families, and each other.

And when the result is someone who can live on their own, do their own laundry, cook their own meals, hold down a job, handle their banking … and also have outlets to express their musical talent, well, that’s the heart of the Berkshire Hills mission.

“We’ve really looked at the individual, and instead of just focusing on areas where they need support, because there’s a deficit there, we’ve looked at where their strengths are, where their passions are, where their gifts are, and really build on that,” she added. After all, “we all have deficits; we all have things we’re working on and trying to improve.”

 

Sign Her Up

Away from her day job, Theroux is an example of the mantra that, if you need something done, ask a busy person.

Among the boards she’s sat on and organizations she’s served are Mercy Medical Center and Trinity Health Of New England, the South Hadley/Granby Chamber of Commerce, the town of South Hadley, the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts, the Human Service Forum, and MicroTek, a Chicopee-based manufacturer that employs people with disabilities.

And she brought a wealth of nonprofit-management experience to Berkshire Hills when she came on board as executive director in 2013 (she took on the CEO role in 2021); those roles include executive director of Child & Family Service of Pioneer Valley, director of Special Projects at Clinical and Support Options, vice president of Clinical Services at the Center for Human Development, and director of Family Networks at the Key Program.

Even right out of graduate school, she found herself working in human services at the Gándara Center, running a behavioral-treatment residence for adolescent boys who had sexual reactive behaviors or fire-setting behaviors. “That’s an interesting population to cut your teeth on,” she said.

All this prepared her to lead Berkshire Hills, and lead she has; soon after arriving, she stabilized all facets of operations, created an operational budget surplus, doubled the operating budget over a two-year period, expanded contracts with the Department of Developmental Services, and exceeded the $3.3 million goal on a capital campaign. She also oversaw the construction of a new music building fully funded by that campaign.

“I’ve worked in several other human-service organizations, and this place has a very different flavor and feel when I walk in — not only the physical campus that we have, but the culture we try to promote around inclusivity, that’s strength-based and person-centered,” she said. “That extends to how we treat our colleagues and how we treat each other as staff. It’s one thing to be client-forward, but how do we make sure that’s all-encompassing in terms of who we are and what we do?”

For answering that question every day, and changing young lives for the better, Theroux is certainly a Woman of Impact.

Women of Impact 2023

Author, Speaker, and Child and Mental-health Advocate

By Sharing Her Story, She’s Turned Her Tragic Youth into an Impactful Life

 

Photo by Leah Martin Photography

Lisa Zarcone brought a book to her interview with BusinessWest, called The Unspoken Truth. It’s a memoir she wrote several years ago.

More importantly — and tragically — she also lived it. And it’s a rough read.

“The Unspoken Truth is my story, of the abuse I went through,” she said. “I was silent for years about it and never spoke of it, and it was so damaging to me. But as an adult, I was finally able to break free and share my story.”

“I tell anybody who reads my book, ‘be prepared.’ It’s a very raw, real look at what abuse is like through the eyes of a child,” she added. “When you read stories of other abuse survivors, they take the point of view of the adult looking back. But I took the child’s perspective, right in the moment. I wanted people to understand what the child really goes through.”

But Zarcone’s story since that childhood — in which she was physically, emotionally, and sexually abused for the better part of a decade — has been truly inspiring. It’s a story of coming to terms with a horrific past, of learning to trust others with that story, of surprising depths of empathy.

It’s a story of bravery and vulnerability. It’s the story of a Woman of Impact.

And it starts with her mother. In fact, Zarcone’s current advocacy work around mental health is rooted in her complicated relationship with her mother, who has struggled with mental illness her entire life.

“My mom never got the proper help and support that she needed,” said Zarcone. “And because of that, we both fell through the cracks. Again, the abuse was horrific. And it went on for years. It wasn’t like it just happened in a short period of time, and we were able to move forward from it. This went on for years.”

“I buried my past. I took it all and said, ‘I’m not going to speak of it, I’m not going to think of it.’ And I fought every single day of my life not to bring it up, not to focus on that pain. I was driven by that.”

When Zarcone was 6, her brother died of leukemia, and that’s when her mother’s world — and her own life — fell apart. “My mom never recovered. My dad said the day my brother died was the day she died, and on many levels, that’s the truth, because she couldn’t recover from it. And back then, in the ’70s, mental health was not talked about; it was frowned upon.”

As her mother deteriorated, “the stigma was horrendous. People treated my mother very poorly because she was sick. And nobody wanted to deal with her,” Zarcone recalled. “And because of that, I was left home alone with my mom. My dad buried himself in work and activities, and he was barely around.”

Her father eventually left, and her mother’s abuse, which started verbally, eventually became physical. Meanwhile, she started bringing unsafe people into their home.

“She loved to pick people up off the street, homeless people, hitchhikers — she’d bring them home and wanted it to be like a party at all times; she rode that roller coaster of the highs and lows and the mania.”

When she was only 12, a troubled older boy from the neighborhood claimed Zarcone as his girlfriend, and her mother encouraged the coercive, sexually abusive ‘relationship,’ which lasted a year and a half.

Lisa Zarcone

Lisa Zarcone says her book is raw, real, difficult … and a story she needed to tell. Photo by Leah Martin Photography

“Neighbors saw, family saw, the school saw, and nobody stepped in,” she said. “My mother did not hide her mental illness. We never knew what was going to happen next.”

At age 14 — after eight years of this hell — she was able to free herself from the abuse when her grandparents took her in. But there was alcoholism and general chaos in that home, and her mother remained a part of her life. Finally, she rebelled, in a purposeful, even positive sort of way.

“At age 15 or 16, I started thinking a little differently, and I wanted to figure out how to get out. So I engrossed myself in school, and I went from an F student to an A student because I decided I needed to do something to help myself. I worked three jobs while I was in high school. I did anything I could not to be home. And I did whatever I could to get out.”

Eventually, she did. “And I buried my past. I took it all and said, ‘I’m not going to speak of it, I’m not going to think of it.’ And I fought every single day of my life not to bring it up, not to focus on that pain. I was driven by that. I was driven to succeed. And I did.”

Since then, Zarcone has lived a life of purpose. She’s worked with disabled children and adults teaching life skills and writing, and served as a mentor to young women in a locked-down facility teaching journaling, poetry, and art therapy.

She has also done plenty of work advocating for suicide prevention and PTSD awareness, and she’s currently Massachusetts’ national ambassador for the National Assoc. of Adult Survivors of Child Abuse, traveling all over to raise awareness and promote change in a system where too many children still fall through the cracks.

 

Moment of Truth

But she wouldn’t find full healing from her past, and the ability to help others overcome their own trauma, until she began talking about it — to the surprise of her loving, and completely blindsided, husband.

“Lisa has worked hard to overcome her past abuse and turned her pain into purpose,” John Zarcone said in nominating Lisa as a Woman of Impact. “I admire her immensely for stepping up and saving herself, our marriage, and family. We have raised three children together, and she is an incredible mother. It comes naturally for her, caring for others and making sure everyone is safe, loved, and thriving.”

That’s a remarkable quality, considering her youthful trauma — which she kept hidden away from John for more than a decade of marriage.

“After I had my third child, things changed,” she said. “I started having flashbacks and nightmares, and they were horrific. I was living in two worlds at once every single day, and I couldn’t do it anymore. So I went to therapy, and I finally shared what happened to me. At that point, I didn’t share absolutely everything. I couldn’t. But I was able to break the silence by saying I was sexually abused, and I started to work through those things.”

Then came the harder part — when she finally told her husband, too.

“He knew my mom had mental illness. He knew I went through a lot of things, but he didn’t know the depth of what happened to me, especially the sexual-abuse piece. And I blew his mind,” she said.

“I was able to find healing and forgiveness because I put myself in their shoes to understand the best I could.”

“He always knew that I was scarred. And he knew my mom was severely mentally ill; even as an adult, my mother was very damaging toward me. But when I shared my truth with him, he was blown away. Basically, he looked at me and said, ‘I don’t know who you are.’ That was so hurtful to me … but I got it. I knew why he was saying that.”

But they overcame it — Lisa’s unearthed trauma and John’s shock — and eventually grew stronger as a family.

“John is my biggest fan, and he’s been my biggest supporter through this whole process and writing this book,” she said, noting that it took six years to write, and no publisher wanted to touch a memoir by a first-time author telling this extremely raw story in an unusual way. So Zarcone self-published and learned how to market it on her own.

The transition from writer to speaker came naturally, she said, after an author talk in her hometown of West Haven, Conn. after the book was released. About 60 people showed up, and she was nervous, but afterward, it felt … right.

Lisa Zarcone has “turned her pain into purpose.”

Through much hard work, her husband says, Lisa Zarcone has “turned her pain into purpose.”
Photo by Leah Martin Photography

“My husband and my daughter were like, ‘well, I guess a public speaker is born.’ And from that point forward, that’s what I decided,” she said. “I really wanted to get the word out there, to talk about these subjects that nobody wants to talk about.”

As part of her work in the mental-health realm, she became an advocate for her mother, who passed away in 2014. This month, she is releasing her second book, which tells her mother’s life story.

“I started looking through my parents’ eyes, looking at their journey, why they acted the way they did, why things happened the way they did,” she said. “I was able to find healing and forgiveness because I put myself in their shoes to understand the best I could.”

Zarcone understands this level of empathy surprises people.

“It took a long time to get there. For years, I hated my mother. And I feel bad when I say that now, because I didn’t truly hate her, but in that timeframe, I hated what she did to me, allowing these bad people to come into my world and hurt me the way they did.

“But as I grew older, I learned what mental illness really was, and I did a lot of studying and talking to people and understanding what mental illness does to somebody. Every time she would get locked up or every time something else would happen, it was painful to watch, because I did have love and empathy for my mother.”

And as she healed, she was able to separate her abuser from the once-loving mother crushed by mental illness.

“I always feel like a sense of loss because I lost my mother to mental illness,” she went on. “And she lost out, too. She lost out on being a wonderful mother, a wonderful wife, a wonderful grandmother. Those are the things she aspired to be. Family was everything to her. But when she was sick, you wouldn’t even know who she was. It was just mind-blowing to watch.”

 

The Story Continues

“Embrace the journey.”

That’s one of Zarcone’s personal mantras, and it’s a moving one, considering where that journey has taken her.

But across 37 years of marriage, and especially since she finally opened up to her husband — and the world — about her past, she has found healing by finding her voice: as a writer, a speaker, a blogger, a talk-radio host, and a national spokesperson for survivors of child abuse. In 2021, she received an award from the Mass. Commission on the Status of Women, and The Unspoken Truth won the Hope Pyx Global International Book Award in the category of child abuse.

The road has been long, and healing didn’t come all at once. But it began by telling a very difficult story.

“The healing process comes in stages,” Zarcone said. “People will say, ‘once you share your story, it’s better.’ No, no … that’s when the work really begins. You have to take it piece by piece, and when it gets too heavy, you put it down.

“And then you pick it back up.”

Cover Story Event Galleries Women of Impact 2022

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This Year’s Class to Be Celebrated on Dec. 8

BusinessWest has long recognized the contributions of women within the business community and created the Women of Impact awards four years ago to further honor women who have the authority and power to move the needle in their business, are respected for accomplishments within their industries, give back to the community, and are sought out as respected advisors and mentors within their field of influence.

See the 2022 Women of Impact Digital section HERE

The eight stories below demonstrate that idea many times over. They detail not only what these women do for a living, but what they’ve done with their lives — specifically, how they’ve become innovators in their fields, leaders within the community, and, most importantly, inspirations to all those around them. The class of 2022 features:

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Women of Impact 2022

Principal, Kuhn Riddle Architects

She’s Created a Blueprint for Being an Effective Leader

Aelan Tierney

Aelan Tierney was recalling her search for an internship opportunity while in high school.

This was before the internet, so she used something quite foreign to people of that age today — the phone book. Starting in the A’s, she came to ‘Advertising,’ thought about it for a minute or two, and then continued turning pages until arriving at ‘Architecture,’ and decided that this was a profession she needed to explore.

When asked why she moved down the book from advertising, she said simply, “it was interesting, but it wasn’t three-dimensional.”

Architecture is, and that’s just one of the many things she likes about what eventually became her chosen field.

“Architecture impacts every aspect of our life, whether it’s your home, school, or place of work,” she told BusinessWest. “The experiences you have are shaped by the spaces that you’re in; if you’re in a good space, you do and feel good, and if you’re in a bad space, it can make your life difficult. I like how architecture makes an impact on people.”

As it turns out, that high-school internship spawned more than an interest in architecture. It started Tierney down a truly impactful career path, as an employer (she’s president of the Amherst-based firm Kuhn Riddle), as someone active her in profession and trying to diversify its ranks (much more on that later), and as someone active in her community, as a member of the board of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce, for example, and also as chair of the Northampton Central Business Architecture Committee.

“Architecture impacts every aspect of our life, whether it’s your home, school, or place of work. The experiences you have are shaped by the spaces that you’re in; if you’re in a good space, you do and feel good, and if you’re in a bad space, it can make your life difficult. I like how architecture makes an impact on people.”

One internship didn’t inspire all that, obviously. What has is an ongoing desire to get involved (she’s a former Peace Corps volunteer), inspire and mentor others, and, yes, impact everyday lives through her work in architecture.

In all aspects of her life, Tierney would be considered a leader, and to her, that means someone who possesses many skills, but excels at listening and responding to what is heard. This is true when it comes to the relationship between an architect and a client, in the workplace, and in life in general.

“Listening and hearing what people are saying is really important,” she said. “We all come from very different life experiences that shape who we are and how we see and understand the world. Strong leaders try to best understand the goals and aspirations of the people they are leading.

“I think strong leaders also know how to bring the best people to them and then bring out the best in them,” she went on. “They learn the strengths of the people on their team, and they cultivate and support the growth of those strengths while also figuring out how to help them strengthen their weaknesses.”

Aelan Tierney says the past few years brought challenges
Aelan Tierney says the past few years brought challenges the industry hadn’t seen before, but Kuhn Riddle was able to ride out the storm.

Tierney certainly fits these descriptions, and her strong leadership skills and ability to change the landscape, in all kinds of ways, makes her a Woman of Impact.

New Dimensions of Leadership

Architecture is one of those fields that is most impacted by the ups and downs in the economy, especially those downs.

And those in this profession feel the impact usually before most others.

Indeed, as the economy starts to decline, or even before that as storm clouds start to gather, building projects large and small are often put on hold or scrapped altogether. Tierney has seen the phone stop ringing, or ringing as often, several times in her career, especially during the Great Recession of 2009, when most building ground to a halt.

Still, the pandemic that started in March 2020, was something altogether different, unlike anything she or anyone else in this profession had seen before.

“Listening and hearing what people are saying is really important. We all come from very different life experiences that shape who we are and how we see and understand the world. Strong leaders try to best understand the goals and aspirations of the people they are leading.”

“It was scary,” she recalled, noting that many of the public institutions Kuhn Riddle has worked for, and it’s a long list, simply shut down and shelved most all construction and renovation work. “We actually started talking about … ‘well, what happens if we have to close the firm?’”

The firm didn’t close, obviously, and it was Tierney’s work with her partners and others at the company to diversify its portfolio — as well as those leadership skills she described earlier — that enabled it to ride out this and other storms.

“During the pandemic, I learned that leaders have to think quickly on their feet; they have to gather as much information as possible about things they never thought they would be dealing with,” she said. “They need to communicate clearly and frequently in an ever-changing and rapidly changing crisis. They need to make tough decisions, and hopefully keep the business and all of the staff afloat.”

Tierney said everything she experienced prior to the pandemic helped prepare her for that moment — as much as anyone could have been prepared. And to understand, we need to go back to that internship. Actually, our story goes back further, to Tierney’s childhood, when she spent considerable time in her father’s woodworking school for fine furniture and watching him craft pieces to meet a client’s specific needs. It was through such experiences that she developed an interest in architecture.

“I thought it was fascinating to take something from paper and transform it into an object,” she said, adding that this interest eventually led her to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, where she majored in architecture and minored in architecture history.

She graduated during one of those aforementioned downturns in the economy, the lengthy recession of the early ’90s. Unable to find work, she joined the Peace Corps as a community-development volunteer and was assigned to work in Guinea in West Africa — a learning experience on many levels, and one in which she put her education to good use.

“I was a health and community-development volunteer, and I renovated an old warehouse building into a workshop for a women’s cooperative,” she recalled. “It was amazing job to have to have as young woman in a developing country.”

She started her career in architecture at Dietz & Co. Architects in Springfield, led by Kerry Dietz, a member of BusinessWest’s inaugural class of Women of Impact, whom Tierney described as a great mentor. She then joined Kuhn Riddle in 2005 and became president and majority owner in 2016.

As an architect, she works on projects across a broad spectrum, including residential, commercial, education, and nonprofits. Her portfolio includes a number of intriguing projects, including the renovation of Easthampton’s historic Town Hall, the Gaylord Mansion historic renovation at Elms College, the new Girls Inc. of the Valley headquarters and program center in Holyoke, the Olympia Oaks affordable-housing project in Amherst, the Kringle Candle Farm Table restaurant in Bernardston, and many others. While the projects vary in size and scope, a common thread is the partnership between the client, architect, and builder that makes a dream become reality.

The new Girls Inc. headquarters in Holyoke
The new Girls Inc. headquarters in Holyoke
The new Girls Inc. headquarters in Holyoke is one of many projects in the diverse portfolio compiled by Kuhn Riddle and its president, Aelan Tierney.

“As an architect, I strive to listen to my clients to learn about what types of spaces would make their lives better, and then, hopefully, we create those spaces together,” she said. “My greatest satisfaction is facilitating the collaboration between the client, design professionals, and builders to realize a client’s vision.”

In her current role, she balances her design work with her leadership responsibilities, which include setting a tone, leading by example, and creating an effective culture for the firm.

“As president of Kuhn Riddle, I strive to make our work environment as supportive as possible for our staff,” she explained. “We love what we do, but we also have lives and families outside of work, and it is important to me that everyone here has a work/life balance. I believe that people will give their best when they feel that they are being given the best possible support and appreciation.”

For Tierney, balance means time with family, but also for giving back to the community. She has been a member of the Amherst Area Chamber board for several years now, and is currently a member of its diversity task force. Formerly, she served on the board of the Enchanted Circle Theatre.

As noted earlier, she is chair of the Northampton Central Business Architecture Committee, and also vice chair of the Massachusetts Board of Registration of Architects, as well as a member of the diversity committee of the National Council of Architecture Registration Boards.

“ It was an anti-beauty pageant, because it wasn’t about looks. It was all about owning who you are, being who you are, doing some community service, sharing whatever talent you have … they didn’t have to show up and look a certain way.”

In recent years, bringing diversity to the profession, one historically dominated by white males, has become one of her priorities. She noted that, while there are more non-whites, and many more women, in architecture schools than when she was at Carnegie Mellon, they are not becoming licensed architects at the same rates.

“Diversity is important to me, not only as a woman, but as the mother of a biracial child,” she explained. “I recognize that this profession is lacking diversity, and I believe that architecture is better when all the voices are represented in the design process.”

To create a more diverse mix of voices, Kuhn Riddle now funds a scholarship for UMass Amherst’s Summer Design Academy for high-school students, specifically targeting women and people of color.

“If you get kids interested in high school, maybe they’ll go to college,” she explained, adding that several area firms now contribute to that scholarship, one of many steps she believes will eventually change the face of the profession, literally and figuratively.

Progress — by Design

As she talked with BusinessWest about her life and career, Tierney presented a small card, a marketing piece used by the firm.

On one side is a brief history of Kuhn Riddle, a quick summation of its specialties and client base, and even mention of its own headquarters, an open-design studio with no private offices to promote communication and “cross-fertilization of ideas.”

On the other side, in gray, is a map of Amherst, with properties designed by Kuhn Riddle (either new construction or renovations) in yellow.

“That’s a lot of yellow,” said Tierney as she referenced the card, noting projects in every corner of the community.

Indeed, the firm has certainly changed the landscape in Amherst over the past 32 years, enhancing, improving, supporting, and in some cases changing lives through ‘good architecture.’

Tierney has been changing lives herself, going all the way back to her Peace Corps days, as an architect, an activist, and, most of all, a leader. All of that makes her a true Woman of Impact.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Women of Impact 2022

President, O’Reilly, Talbot & Okun

She’s Engineering Opportunities for Many in a Dynamic Field

Ashley Sullivan
Photo by Leah Martin Photography

When asked about being a leader and role model in her company and in her industry, Ashley Sullivan sums it up simply: “I like to help people, and a lot of people have helped me.”

And she knows the value of helping and encouraging others. During her college days and into her long engineering career at O’Reilly, Talbot & Okun (OTO) — after 20 years with the firm, she was named president at the start of 2020 — she sometimes questioned whether she knew enough, whether she measured up to her responsibilities, and to her peers.

It’s why events like a recent after-work gathering between OTO and Fuss & O’Neill, another civil-engineering firm headquartered in downtown Springfield, are valuable, she said, in that they help young engineers, and especially young women, not only network, but recognize their place in the field.

“I was intimidated to be in a room with a lot of people who had 20-plus years of experience on me. I always thought I had more to learn; I always thought I didn’t have as much experience as I needed,” she recalled. “But if you put me in a room with my peers, I would have been like, ‘oh, I can do this; I want to get them in situations where they see they’re good.”

“The big thing I stressed was, we all have value, and we’re all part of a team, and we need to be rowing the same way.”

Joining a small, newish engineering firm in 2000, Sullivan didn’t network much outside the company, but she sees the value in it now. “I didn’t know my path, and that’s something that’s true with a lot of people. But once they see you out there and you see yourself in that role, it just happens.”

The passion for inspiring younger engineers is what also drives Sullivan to be a mentor, not only by teaching a civil-engineering capstone design course at Western New England University, where she guides graduating students through a mock building project, but by encouraging OTO’s team members to seek any professional-development opportunities that will help them learn and advance, like she did.

“I think we should be mentors. I think it’s very important to give back to the industry,” she said. “We want to hire, and sometimes you hear complaints that there’s nobody great to hire, but is anyone helping them succeed? I think it’s our responsibility to do it.

Ashley Sullivan discusses a project at One Ferry Street in Easthampton
Ashley Sullivan discusses a project at One Ferry Street in Easthampton with OTO field engineer Dustin Humphrey and client Mike Michon.

“If you give people a lot of opportunity and the skills to help them move up, I feel that benefits the company itself,” she added. “The company needs to support the development of those skills.”

And hiring and recruitment are definitely a challenge now, Sullivan said, adding that the firm saw some turnover during the pandemic but has hired seven employees since January. “We’ve been able to navigate it so far. That’s why I also think it’s important to be a mentor and reach out to students and to have the kind of culture that appeals to them.”

Sullivan has certainly navigated some transitions over the past few years, from taking the reins at OTO to almost immediately having to steer it through a pandemic. For successfully leading in what is still a male-dominated field, and for being a mentor, role model, and inspiration to the next generation of civil engineers, Sullivan is certainly a Woman of Impact.

Ninth Time’s the Charm

Engineering runs in Sullivan’s family — sort of. She said her grandmother always had a lot of respect for engineers, and her father is one of eight siblings who tried engineering but didn’t stick with it. “My grandmother really wanted one, so I said I’ll try it.”

The truth is, Sullivan had already cultivated an interest in chemistry in high school and was considering studying environmental engineering at UMass Amherst — a place where, again, her insecurity nagged at her.

“I want to set us up to the next transition, and that means giving people the skills to manage and lead — not just engineering skills, but all those other things that have to happen. Communication is a big thing we work on, and so is trust.”

“I did very well in high school, but I was nervous about going to a challenging school, or a school where there were others who would do really well too. That plays into why I like to give people confidence and why I do what I do. On the outside, I did well and came across like I had a lot of confidence. But inside, I was like, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing. I have no idea.’”

She had a positive experience at UMass, though she shifted gears toward civil engineering, “mainly because I found that chemical engineering students ended up in a dark lab, and civil engineering students were outside in the quad, and that just looked a lot more enjoyable to me.”

When she graduated in 1998, a lot of the jobs being offered at the time were at the Big Dig in Boston, and she wasn’t interested in heavy construction, so she stayed in graduate school, where she gained the experience she would put to use at OTO two years later.

“I was working for a Mass Highway project where we were installing wells, doing groundwater sampling, modeling groundwater flow, looking at contamination, and two years later I had my master’s in environmental engineering,” she said. “I interviewed at OTO because they were local, in Springfield, and halfway through the interview with Jim Okun and Mike Talbot, I thought I’d like to work there. It was a small firm, everybody seemed very nice, and it seemed to suit my personality.”

OTO’s services over the years have included testing commercial properties for hazardous materials and overseeing cleanup, asbestos management in schools and offices, brownfield redevelopment, indoor air-quality assessments, and geotechnical engineering, a broad term encompassing everything from helping developers assess how much force and weight the ground under a proposed structure can stand to determining the strength of a building’s foundation and surrounding topography.

“I enjoyed working for a small company, working directly with the principals,” Sullivan said, the third being Kevin O’Reilly. “I learned a lot. I also enjoyed working in my own community. It’s been fun over the years driving around the neighborhoods, whether I go to Baystate for a doctor’s appointment or a library, or take my kids to a park, and see projects that I worked on. Rather than working on a high-profile job in another city, I really liked that the jobs were near where I work.”

The other positive experience — one that would later color the kind of president she would be —was being allowed a flexible schedule when she started a family in 2005.

“That was not industry-wide; it’s just not something that was offered,” she explained. “I went down to 24 hours with my first daughter, and I stayed there until they were both in school, then went to 32 hours. But I was still allowed to progress in management.”

That was the key, she said — being able to have work-life balance without sacrificing future opportunities.

“It’s a two-way street. I got some flexibility, but there was accountability and good communication, and I would try to be available when I absolutely needed to; my kids went to some job sites. That was something you couldn’t easily find at other engineering firms. And I also kept progressing; I was allowed to manage projects and manage staff that way. So that kept me going here, to the point where we transitioned.”

Ashley Sullivan performs a phase-1 dam inspection.
Ashley Sullivan performs a phase-1 dam inspection.

In fact, when the three founders started talking about the next generation of leadership, they discussed selling OTO to an outsider, but they preferred an internal transition, and felt they had the right individual in Sullivan.

“We had a good business, we had a good foundation, and I just said, ‘I want to be part of it … I like what I do, I like the people I work with, we have a good company, let’s just try to make this work.’”

Sullivan has taken lessons from her own experience and saw how offering flexibility in different ways to employees could benefit both them and the company, although COVID, admittedly, helped that process along. “I wanted to make sure people, whether managers or other individuals, had the skills and knew the expectations to make that kind of work more widespread.”

She has led her team, she noted, according to the company’s core values, three of which are transparency, respect, and togetherness.

“The big thing I stressed was, we all have value, and we’re all part of a team, and we need to be rowing the same way,” she told BusinessWest. “That was really important, and it was something I learned here but I saw fall away a little bit when we were going through the transition, because when times get hard, it becomes very individual: ‘what does this mean for me? Is this going to be good or bad? I’ve got to fight for my own.’ We needed to come back together.”

So she conducted sessions where she asked employees what kind of culture they want and what keeps them at OTO. “I asked, ‘what are some of the great things we can build upon? What can we do better?’ I think that was important. I like to hear what others want, and then see if I can help make that happen. So, really, one of the big things I wanted to do was to hear from more voices.

“And there was a good foundation,” she added. “My experience here was something I thought I could build upon and then bring to the next level.”

Reaching New Heights

The mission statement posted in the conference room attests that “we will elevate our industry to create and deliver the best solutions for natural and built environments.”

And to elevate an industry, Sullivan believes she must first elevate her people. “I want to set us up to the next transition, and that means giving people the skills to manage and lead — not just engineering skills, but all those other things that have to happen. Communication is a big thing we work on, and so is trust.”

When she talks to young people about a career in civil engineering, she’s quick to explain how much variety and opportunity they will encounter. “You can go into transportation or structural or geotech or environmental. You can do public work at the state or municipal level, or even the federal level. You can work in private consulting or go into technical sales. You can go into a testing lab. You can work for a contractor. That allows for some flexibility because you don’t always know when you’re right out of school and you have to make all these decisions.”

At the same time, “going into a field like civil engineering, you’re going to be needed forever. We do important projects for people. It’s important for people to have that job security and know there are so many different things you can do with that.”

The message is rersonating, especially with young women. A few weeks ago, Sullivan attended a geotechnical conference in Connecticut and was “blown away” by the number of women she saw, compared to, say, five years ago. And on a heavy construction site on Boston Road recently, she walked the grounds alongside a female field engineer and a female quality-control engineer, all from different firms.

“That was something that I hadn’t seen, to see three women working together on a project with a big rig installing ground improvement. It was really neat. Sometimes I think, ‘wow, this is happening.’

It’s happening because of the impact of women like Sullivan, who knows the value of being helped and inspired, and wants to do the same for others.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Women of Impact 2022

Executive Director, Nuestras Raíces

This Leader Helps Others Achieve a Sense of Belonging

Hilda Roqué

Hilda Roqué was 14 when she and other members of her family arrived in Holyoke from her native Puerto Rico.

It was February, she recalled, noting that the extreme climate change from the tropical Caribbean provided a constant reminder that she was a long — as in long — way from home.

And, unfortunately, weather was far from the only such painful reminder. Language was a considerable barrier, she said, and there were myriad cultural differences as well. Overall, she did not feel included.

“I had no sense of belonging when I came here; when you come from a different country, it’s always difficult, especially when you’re trying to find your own identity,” she told BusinessWest, adding quickly that she worked hard to overcome what would be considered stern challenges to lead the Spanish newspaper at Holyoke High School and become the first recipient of its Latino Leadership honor, a poignant sign of what was come.

Indeed, fast-forwarding to today — we’ll go back and fill in some gaps later — Roqué has become a leader in this community on many levels.

She is the executive director of Nuestras Raíces, a Holyoke-based nonprofit with a broad mission that involves connecting people with the land through agriculture programs, empowering communities, and advocating for food justice.

While doing all that through a process of growth, evolution, and essentially breaking agriculture into two words — agri and culture — the team at Nuestras Raíces, and especially Roqué, have made it part of the mission to make sure that current and future generations of people coming to Holyoke from Puerto Rico and elsewhere don’t have to feel as far away from home as she did all those years ago.

“I had no sense of belonging when I came here; when you come from a different country, it’s always difficult, especially when you’re trying to find your own identity.”

Indeed, they strive to make them feel at home in as many ways as they can.

“It was always my dream to make it easier to transition,” she said. “I went through a lot of bullying and a lot of racism … there were so many barriers, including language, that I didn’t want people to feel like I felt when I came here.

“That’s why I fought so much, and why I’m still fighting, for that to happen,” she went on. “Equality — that’s something that this organization stands for. We are all worthy of eating healthy, we should all be eating healthy, there shouldn’t be so much discrimination when it comes to food; we all have the same rights. This is something that is also my passion; we should live in better places, and we should aim for the stars like everyone else.”

Roqué, who first came to Nuestras Raíces as a volunteer more than 30 years ago and took on several different roles before being named executive director in 2011, is a Woman of Impact for many reasons, starting with what she has done with this nonprofit.

Working with others, she has taken the mission in many different directions, from incubating new businesses to providing an education in financial literacy, to taking an annual harvest festival to new heights as a tradition and celebration of many different cultures.

Nuestras Raíces
Nuestras Raíces translates as ‘our roots,’ and the agency, led by Hilda Roqué, connects people with their roots in many different ways.

“People from Puerto Rico thought they were in Puerto Rico; people from Colombia thought they were in Colombia; people from the Dominican Republic thought they were in the Dominican Republic,” she said of that event. “That’s what we celebrate when we separate the word ‘agriculture’ — because it is a great part of what this organization wants to pass on to the next generation, not only safe and sustainable practices in agriculture, but also the love for their culture.”

For Roqué, this is not a job, but a passion, and she sees the agency’s programs as a powerful force for change and empowerment within the community.

“It’s very rewarding when you see that we’re trying to help the environment, that we’re providing socioeconomic opportunities for people in this community so they can live a dignified life, when we can actually have people in the community graduate from our programs and they become business owners,” she said, adding that, while she has seen a great deal of progress made, there is still much work to be done.

But she is also being honored for her mentoring of young people and especially girls, her commitment to improving quality of life for those she touches, and for her various efforts to make all those in Holyoke, but especially those who come from other countries, as she did, feel included, not excluded.

All this clearly explains why she is a Woman of Impact.

Food for Thought

Nuestras Raíces translates neatly into ‘Our Roots.’

It’s a fitting name, and a play on words, obviously. Those two short words hit on both sides of the organization’s mission succinctly and effectively. The agency encourages people to put roots in the ground, both literally and figuratively, while connecting them with their roots.

The agency was born in 1992 by a group of community members in South Holyoke who had the goal, the dream, of developing a greenhouse in downtown Holyoke. The founding members were migrating farmers from Puerto Rico with a strong agricultural background who found themselves in a city with no opportunities to practice what they knew.

“I love teaching kids that there’s a future and that the future holds something good if you actually grasp opportunities and grow as a community.”

Eventually, these community leaders located an abandoned lot in South Holyoke, one full of trash, needles, and criminal activity, and came together to clean the lot, which would become the first community garden, sparking the growth of urban agriculture in Holyoke under the umbrella of Nuestras Raíces.

Today, the agency coordinates and maintains a network of 14 community gardens, including the gardens of the Holyoke Educational System and community partners, and also operates a 30-acre farm, called La Finca, that focuses on urban agriculture, economic development, and creating change in food systems.

Those gardens, and the farm, grow a wide range of crops native to Puerto to Rico, from several different types of peppers to lettuce; from garlic to peas. These are just some of the items made available at a mobile farmers market — a refurbished school bus — created as a grassroots response to address health issues and food access by providing access to produce grown at local farms in neighborhoods across the city, many of which would be considered food deserts.

“To see the foods that we used to grow in our backyards in Puerto Rico be actually grown here … there are no words to really explain the feeling that you get when you get reconnected to your roots,” Roqué told BusinessWest. “And that’s why I feel so passionate and I love this organization so much.”

She joined it as an office manager and developed into a program developer and program manager, and eventually worked her way up to executive director. It’s a broad role with a number of responsibilities, both within the offices on Main Street and across the community, that she summed up this way:

“I don’t sit behind my desk — I go out there,” she said. “I hear; I listen to people. Nuestras Raíces provides programming that is a response to the needs that we hear from constituents. We ask and respond in ways that reflect our mission, which is to connect the agriculture and the socioeconomics and the food-justice piece of it and tie it together in ways that bring opportunities to this community.”

Indeed, over the years, the mission at Nuestras Raíces has been broadened into the realms of education and economic development.

For example, the agency has created what it calls the Holyoke Food and Agriculture Innovation Center (HFAIC), which serves as a food hub for Holyoke in the form of a center of food production, innovation, and education. The agency boasts two industrial kitchens and leases those spaces to community food entrepreneurs.

It also hosts a seven-week educational program focused on providing financial and business-management assistance to community entrepreneurs based in Holyoke, Chicopee, Springfield, and other area communities. It offers bilingual lessons covering a wide range of topics including business and property insurance, permitting, bookkeeping, investing, marketing, business planning, and many others.

Beyond these offerings, Roqué and her team strive to help others understand the opportunities and open doors that are available to them through hard work, education, and perseverance.

“I love teaching kids that there’s a future and that the future holds something good if you actually grasp opportunities and grow as a community,” she explained. “If you hold each other’s hand — and that’s what we do here with our businesses and our program participants; we hold their hand — you can help them navigate their way and feel included.”

As the leader of Nuestras Raíces, as a leader in the community, and as a mentor to young people, Roqué says she tries to “teach by example,” as she put it, especially when it comes to treating all people with the respect and dignity they deserve.

“I don’t do unto others as was done unto me,” she said. “I see everyone, and when I see them, I don’t see color or race — I see people as human beings, and I try to instill that in the younger generations; I tell them to pass on the love, not the hate, and treat others the way you would like to be treated.

“I try to be an example to others, especially women, who feel that maybe they didn’t have value or are not being heard,” she went on. “That’s what I’m trying to do with my voice; I’m trying to be someone in this community who is respectable and who respects, and who likes to be heard.”

When asked to assess what has changed and improved since she arrived and the work still to be done, Roqué said there has been considerable progress, and she points to City Hall as just one example. There, Joshua Garcia, the city’s first Puerto Rican mayor, sits in the corner office.

“For a lot of years, Holyoke did not reflect the community that lives here,” she said. “Things have been getting progressively better, but there is still a lot more to do when it comes to navigating through systemic challenges. There’s still work to be done and a lot of effort needed to come together as one community.”

Bottom Line

Roqué will certainly be putting in that effort.

As she has said, and others have said of her, the work she does at Nuestras Raíces is not really work. It is, indeed a passion.

Specifically, a passion to serve, to educate, to inspire, to create opportunities, and to change lives. She does all of that, and that’s why she’s always been a leader and a Woman of Impact.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Women of Impact 2022

President, J.L. Raymaakers & Sons Inc.

She’s Spent a Lifetime Paving the Way for Others

Laurie Raymaakers
Photo by Leah Martin Photography

The company was called SealMaster.

That name was chosen because it specialized in seal-coating driveways and crack filling, said Laurie Raymaakers, who started it with her husband, John, after work they were doing in property management dried up amid the banking crisis and deep recession of the late ’80s and they needed to find something — anything — to generate revenue and help provide for a growing family.

She joked — only it wasn’t really a joke — that they should have called it ‘We Can Do That,’ because while they seal-coated a lot of driveways across Western Mass., they quickly picked up other skills and took on other assignments related to driveways, landscaping, and small-scale construction.

In many ways, ‘we can do that’ describes not only the company the Raymaakers partners created, but the mindset that has driven them, and especially Laurie, over the past 40 years or so. It sums up her approach to business and life itself — always learning, always evolving, always doing whatever it takes to make ends meet, first and foremost, but also create opportunities and grow a company.

“That was the attitude that I had, that John had, and we’ve instilled it in everyone around us,” she explained. “It’s ‘I can do that’ — you can always learn, you can research, you can read … you can evolve and adjust and do what it takes.”

And she has. Over the course of those four decades, she’s worked two and sometimes three jobs at a time — everything from shifts as a police dispatcher to plowing snow to working at the local Boys & Girls Club — to help support the family and enable their Westfield-based business, now known as J.L. Raymaakers & Sons Inc., to gain a foothold and eventually thrive.

This is a story of perseverance, determination, imagination, and, well … ‘we can do that.’

Laurie Raymaakers and her husband, John
Laurie Raymaakers and her husband, John, have persevered through a number of challenges to lead their company to continued growth.

Laurie Raymaakers is a Woman of Impact for many reasons, but especially the manner in which she has become a role model and mentor to others, especially women in the construction trades and other male-dominated sectors.

She can remember the early days, showing up with her sister-in-law to seal-coat driveways and finding homeowners, men and women, being indifferent about women showing up to do the work. In more recent years, she can remember being the only woman in construction-management meetings and having the others look at her as if she was there to take minutes or pour coffee. Through the course of her career, she’s been asked more times than she could remember if she worked for her husband, not with him in a leadership role.

One can only overcome such actions and sentiments by proving they are good at what they do, exhibiting large amounts of confidence, and believing in themselves, she said.

And she has always been that person.

Today, the company she leads as president is handling projects with budgets in the millions of dollars. It specializes in excavation and site work, water- and sewer-line installation, snow removal, and more.

Meanwhile, she has been involved in her community in quiet ways, be it lifelong support of the Boys & Girls Club or encouraging those in local trade schools, especially Westfield Technical Academy, that there are real opportunities in the trades, and that they should not be overlooked as one considers career options.

All along the way, Raymaakers has been convincing others that there is nothing beyond their reach if they are willing to work hard for it, make the needed sacrifices, and, as Bill Belichick might put it — ‘do your job.’

She knows, because she’s been there and done that. The sum of her life and work, as well as that ‘we can do that’ attitude and her ability to instill it in others, explains why she is a Woman of Impact.

Sealing the Deal

As she talked about the early days of SealMaster, Raymaakers got up from her desk and retrieved a photo. Actually, it was one of those wooden frames, partitioned off to hold several different photos of various sizes and shapes.

Some of the larger images were of a huge house in Longmeadow, the owner of which commissioned the biggest project the company had taken on to that time, a long, curving driveway. But there were other shots of her moving five-gallon buckets of sealer into position.

“That was the attitude that I had, that John had, and we’ve instilled it in everyone around us. It’s ‘I can do that’ — you can always learn, you can research, you can read … you can evolve and adjust and do what it takes.”

Raymaakers has kept those photos all these years because they serve to remind her of where and how things started — and of how far she and John, and now their two sons, have come since. It’s an inspiring story in many ways, and it serves as a reminder — not that anyone who has ever started and grown a business needs one — that nothing about having your name over the door (literally or figuratively) is easy, and that success only comes to those who have what it takes to ride out the hard days and find ways to create better days.

Our story really begins with Raymaakers, soon after relocating to Westfield from Hardwick when she was 24, taking a job with the Westfield Boys & Girls Club in the early ’80s.

“I knew I wanted to do something that made a difference somehow,” she recalled, adding that she started working at the club part-time, and later, after some grant funding was secured for the facility, was assigned to be program director at a satellite office in a large apartment complex called Powdermill Village.

“It was a great experience … I met some wonderful kids that have turned into great adults,” she told BusinessWest. “And what we did was needed. The kids that lived there needed a place to go after school to empower them, tell them they could make a difference, and just let them be themselves. It was a really good program, and I was there for six years.”

Looking back, she said her work went beyond the day-to-day programming and into the realm of mentoring and helping those young people overcome a difficult childhood.

“I can remember saying to them, ‘you can do it, you can do it — you can do anything you want to do,’” she recalled, adding that she stayed in touch with many of them, standing up for one at her wedding and becoming a godmother to one of her children.

Laurie Raymaakers has become a role model
Laurie Raymaakers has become a role model to others, especially women in the construction trades and other male-dominated sectors.

Her time at Powdermill was life-changing in many other respects. It was there she met John Raymaakers, who worked in maintenance at the facility, and “fell in love, got married, and all that goofy stuff.”

‘Goofy stuff,’ in this case, is decades of working together to forge some dreams and make them come true.

After a brief and unfulfilling time in Oklahoma, where John took a job, they returned to Westfield and started working for a property-management company, handling apartment complexes in several area communities, and later opened their own company. As noted earlier, with the sharp downturn in the economy, their portfolio diminished in dramatic fashion.

“We lost 70% of our business in six months,” she said, adding that they soon began looking for something else to do, settled on sealing driveways, and started SealMaster with some grit and an old Chevy pickup.

“I had to put a quart of oil in it every day to drive it down the road,” she said with a hearty laugh, noting that, while there were many tough times, especially when John was severely burned while on a job and out of action for a lengthy period of recovery, the company persevered.

She remembers preparing for the annual home show and sitting at the kitchen table with her children folding marketing pieces that she would load into the family station wagon and put in newspaper boxes across the region.

But John’s accident came at a time when the couple had allowed their health insurance to expire. It was a scary time, and one that convinced her that she needed to take a job that offered health insurance.

“This was a case of ‘when one door closes, another opens,’” she said, adding that the former director of the Westfield Boys & Girls Club, whom she worked with and for, had taken the same position in Springfield, and he hired her to manage three satellite offices — and provide more mentoring and counseling to young people.

“These were rough neighborhoods; there were a lot of gangs,” she recalled. “And I tried to convince them that they didn’t have to do it this way, with the street life, the gangs — I said, ‘you have opportunities out there. You don’t have to be a follower; you can be a leader.’”

She worked at the club from 2 to 10, which gave her the opportunity to work at SealMaster before that, she said, adding that, over the years, she would work several different jobs to help make ends meet.

In 1998, she and John started J.L. Raymaakers, specializing in paving and site work, crack-filling at places like the Holyoke Mall, snowplowing, and more, a venture that has grown over the years to now boast 41 employees. The ‘& Sons’ part of the title came later, as sons John and Joshua, who first started helping out when they were 12, officially joined the company.

While the company has enjoyed steady growth over the years, success has not come easily, and Raymaakers remembers many years when she — and John — would work at least two jobs.

“I worked at the Westfield Police Department for five years, 4 to midnight, as a police dispatcher,” she recalled. “It was exhausting; I’d get up at 6 in the morning and get the kids off to school, and then I’d do company work, and then I’d have to go to work again.

“At night, the boys used to plow,” she went on. “And then they’d come to the police station at night and switch vehicles with me; I would go out and plow all night, and they’d take my car home.”

When asked what she does day in and day out at J.L. Raymaakers, she laughed, as if to indicate that there is little she doesn’t do. The list includes project management, estimating, marketing, and many other assignments.

Summing up what it’s been like for her — and for all business owners, for that matter — she put things in perspective in poignant fashion.

“It’s been a challenge … it’s been a struggle … it’s been rewarding … it’s been frightening,” she said. “But there’s nothing else I’d rather do. Growth doesn’t come easy — it comes at a cost; you have to be willing to pay that cost.”

Concrete Example

Raymaakers recalls a time she visited a job site about eight years ago, with the intention of getting her hands dirty — literally.

“I went to pick up a wheelbarrow of asphalt to patch, just ’cause I wanted to, and I couldn’t pick it up,” she said with exasperation in her voice all these years later. “I was so ticked off … I’m like, ‘I’m out of shape!’”

It was one of the few times over the past four decades when she couldn’t say ‘I can do that.’

Because she was able to say it all those other times, she’s been not only a force in the workplace — whatever that might be — but a force in the lives of those around her, a true Woman of Impact.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Women of Impact 2022

Amherst Town Councilor; President, Ancestral Bridges

By Connecting Past with Present, She’s Changing the Narrative of Amherst’s History

Anika Lopes
Photo by Leah Martin Photography

While showing off her extensive collection of hat blocks in her Amherst home, Anika Lopes explained how they tell a story of her time in New York City, but, more importantly, of generations before her.

“Hats really are a universal connector. You’d be hard-pressed to find any culture in the world that doesn’t have traditions with some sort of headwear, whether that’s a feather, bones, a traditional hat, or just something to keep people warm. It’s a space of universal connection.”

Lopes has dedicated much of her life to making connections, particularly involving the long, often-undertold history of Black and Indigenous communities in and around Amherst. It’s work she took up in earnest after returning to her hometown in 2019.

But let’s start with the hats.

As an artist and sculptor who graduated from the New School University, she found herself interning with Horace Weeks, one of the first Black men to own a hat factory, Peter & Irving, in the Garment District of New York City. “Millinery chose me,” she said, using the proper name for hat design. “I was fascinated by Mr. Weeks, and walking into that space felt like walking back in time. I had always had a passion for sculpting, and hand-blocking hats was very much like sculpting.”

Lopes and an ex-partner eventually took over the factory and revamped it, and she found overnight attention when the R&B artist Usher commissioned a hat from her in 2005 and wore it on a popular MTV show. “Pretty much overnight, that hat was on billboards in Times Square, and I had buyers from all over the world calling in,” Lopes said. “I thought, now what do I do? And I looked at it for the opportunity it was.”

As her profile grew, she made commissioned designer hats for Madonna, Gossip Girl, Sex and the City, numerous films and celebrities, and exclusive boutiques in New York and Japan, including Isetan in Tokyo and Bergdorf Goodman.

“It was a whirlwind experience being in the fashion industry, but I got to the point where my passion for connecting people and wanting to help people, which has always been something in me, made me feel like I needed more,” she recalled. “I was able to reach out and work with different internship programs and different corporations where I was able to merge the business of fashion with having an impact on marginalized communities, with disadvantaged youth, and also with adults coming into second-chance programs dealing with harm reduction.”

When she returned to Amherst three years ago, Lopes began directing that passion for connecting people to a different purpose: to uncover and bring to light the Black and Indigenous history of generations of Amherst residents, including some who played a direct role in the events that were eventually commemorated as Juneteenth.

The Ancestral Bridges exhibit of historical photographs and artifacts
The Ancestral Bridges exhibit of historical photographs and artifacts will be on view at the Amherst History Museum for two more Saturdays, Oct. 29 and Nov. 5, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Through efforts to “daylight” some of that long-neglected history — through historical events, museum exhibits, her role on the Amherst Town Council, and especially a foundation she calls Ancestral Bridges — Lopes is connecting past with present and providing not just a clearer sense of history, but new opportunities for young BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) individuals today.

“I have to pinch myself,” she told BusinessWest. “There have been few times in my life where I’ve been so excited about something and feel such a connection. Ancestral Bridges is part of my life’s work, part of my purpose.”

Deep Roots

Growing up in Amherst, Lopes said, she was close to her family — parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents — and when she returned, she found herself revisiting spaces and connecting with the past. She looked up to her grandfather, Dudley Bridges, who had launched an initiative in the late 1990s to restore and publicly display Civil War tablets that told the story of Indigenous and Black soldiers.

Due to the efforts of Dudley and his family, important aspects of Amherst’s history were brought to light, she explained. As a board member of the Amherst Historical Society, he worked to obtain National Historic Register status for Amherst’s Westside District of Snell Street, Hazel Avenue, and Baker Street — one of several neighborhoods in Amherst with significant cultural history for BIPOC people.

But, while he funded the restoration of the tablets, they remained in storage when he passed away in 2004. So Lopes took up her grandfather’s mission to bring them into the light.

“The tablets were given to the town in 1893 by the Grand Army of the Republic to honor more than 300 Union soldiers and sailors from Amherst. Many of the names are familiar ones in Amherst: Dickinson, Cowls, Kellogg,” she explained. “Each man and his family made a difficult choice and great sacrifice to enlist — perhaps none so much as the Black soldiers from the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment and 5th Cavalry who traveled through and to very hostile territory in 1865 to notify residents of Texas that the Civil War had ended and that the Emancipation Proclamation made slavery illegal in the Confederate states.”

“It was a whirlwind experience being in the fashion industry, but I got to the point where my passion for connecting people and wanting to help people, which has always been something in me, made me feel like I needed more.”

Cinda Jones, the ninth-generation president of W.D. Cowls Inc., was inspired by this work, among other things, in nominating Lopes as a Woman of Impact. “Anika Lopes demanded that her ancestors’ names on the town of Amherst Civil War tablets be on permanent exhibit. That they be seen. That the total history of Amherst be seen for the first time. That Black and Indigenous residents, heretofore invisible, be recognized. She asked for inclusivity.”

She got it; the Civil War tablet exhibit is now on display at the Bangs Community Center. The exhibit debuted on June 19, 2021 and served as the inspiration for the first townwide Juneteenth celebration. For the 2022 Juneteenth event, Lopes curated and led a walk of Black historical sites in Amherst.

“For the first time, hundreds of residents saw and recognized where Black history occurred,” Jones wrote. “Coinciding with the walk was a first-ever Amherst History Museum exhibit curated, owned, and presented by Ancestral Bridges. It is still going. It represents the very first time that Amherst’s Blacks and Indigenous people have ever been represented in the Amherst History Museum. Anika Lopes made this happen.”

Indeed, Lopes founded Ancestral Bridges in June 2022 to bring together stakeholders to elevate economic and cultural opportunities and build a more equitable future for regional BIPOC individuals. According to its mission statement, Ancestral Bridges receives grants of money and land and leverages these to celebrate BIPOC arts and culture, enable first-time home-ownership opportunities, and raise the potential of BIPOC and disadvantaged youth. Some of the activities it supports include telling the stories of local ancestors through interactive history walks, art exhibits, and music events; educating about wealth generation and developing internships, programs, and workshops for BIPOC youth and families; and enabling local BIPOC wealth generation by receiving gifts, grants, and other resources to benefit BIPOC futures.

“Ancestral Bridges serves as the bridge between past and present, between elder and youth, between diverse populations, connecting all who seek to learn and grow through meaningful engagements that educate, empower, and nurture long-lasting growth,” Lopes added.

The Ancestral Bridges exhibit of historical photographs and artifacts at the Amherst History Museum features Black and Indigenous families who lived in Amherst for centuries, were integral to the fabric and character of Amherst and surrounding towns, served in the Massachusetts 54th Infantry Regiment and 5th Cavalry Regiment during the Civil War, built and founded the first black churches in Amherst, facilitated the smooth functioning of commerce and institutional education, and provided living quarters for those otherwise denied, including newly arrived Black people from the South.

Anika Lopes’ mother, Debora Bridges
Anika Lopes’ mother, Debora Bridges (third from right), gives a narrative tour of the Civil War tablet exhibit as a highlight of her 50th Amherst High School reunion.

But that wasn’t the extent of Lopes’ daylighting efforts. “When I came on the Council, one of the first things I noticed was the list of proclamations for celebratory days. Both Indigenous Peoples Day and Native American History Month weren’t on the list. That really floored me, because just about everyone else was there.”

Proclamations, tablets, museum displays, and history walks won’t by themselves reverse the centuries-long trend of downplaying BIPOC contributions in Amherst, but each effort is another positive step — and Lopes is by no means done.

Telling a New Story

The fact that Amherst itself is named after a British military officer who supported the extermination of Native Americans is not lost on Lopes. Rather, it’s perhaps the most glaring example of those whose stories have been allowed to be told and celebrated over the centuries. On display at the museum exhibit, in fact, is a full set of Amherst College china designed by the college’s president in the 1940s, depicting Lord Jeffrey Amherst massacring Indigenous people. Meals were served on that china to Amherst College professors, staff, and students between 1940 and 1970.

That’s not that long ago, so these wounds are still fresh.

“You’re talking about two cultures [Black and Indigenous] that are connected by a certain type of trauma and displacement and erasure,” Lopes said. “In a lot of places, you can’t see and document this history, but we can.”

Which is why she brings to light stories like Christopher and Charles Thompson, direct ancestors of Lopes who were among the black soldiers to arrive in Texas in 1865 to christen the now-federal holiday of Juneteenth. “These Amherst men — the Thompsons, Josiah Hasbrook, James Finnemore — may not yet have streets named after them, but should be remembered for enlisting to advance the belief that all men are created equal,” she noted.

So as she serves on Amherst’s Town Council, where she chairs the town services and outreach committee and sits on the governance, organization, and legislation committee; serves as a board member of Family Outreach of Amherst, assuring that Amherst’s most vulnerable families are safe; and works as a member of the Jones Library building committee, among other efforts, Lopes is putting time and energy into improving her hometown.

But just as importantly, she’s inspiring others to appreciate the town’s history and, more importantly, draw on it.

“We’re able to bring something forward for youth in Amherst who maybe have never heard about the Black history of Amherst, did not know that we had soldiers right here who fought for their freedom, people who were participating in banking before there were banks here, who brought business here … these are all stories that are inspiring for youth to know about,” she said. “They can say, ‘this what my ancestors did; these are the shoulders I stand on — what can I do? I’m empowered. I am going to be able to take this world so much further than they did’ — and really realize that we are our ancestors’ wildest dreams.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Women of Impact 2022

Director, Rachel’s Table

She’s Choreographed a Broader, More Holistic Mission at This Critical Nonprofit

Photo by Leah Martin Photography

Jodi Falk knows what it’s like to be like food-insecure.

For a brief time, she received assistance from the program known as WIC (Women, Infants, and Children). It’s not something she can easily talk about — and, in fact, it was something she couldn’t talk about until very recently, mostly because of the stigma attached to being in the program.

She recalled that time for BusinessWest, however, because, by doing so, she believes she’s helping to address that stigma, while also putting into perspective the feelings of those that she and the organization she leads, Rachel’s Table, serve day in and day out.

“Those were the days when it wasn’t a card you can give to a cashier or put in a machine, but checks to hand to a person who made sure that what you purchased was on their list — and this could take a while, which was embarrassing,” she recalled. “I used to look around the store to see if I knew anyone, and if I did, I would wait until I was sure they had left the store before going to the register.”

Elaborating, she said she is still embarrassed to talk about those experiences, but admits that they made her aware, and understanding, of what others may be going through when they are on government assistance. And she believes her story has given her some perspective that each individual needs to be treated with “dignity and care.”

In short, those experiences have helped in her role as director of Rachel’s Table, a program of the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts, and they are not the only chapter from her past that she says has earned that distinction.

Indeed, Falk spent many years professionally as a dancer, choreographer, and teacher, both here and abroad. And while her work administering Rachel’s Table might seem worlds removed from those vocations, the skill sets, and her many experiences in those roles, dovetail nicely with her current assignment. In many ways, they inspired it.

“For several of those years, besides working in the professional arts world, I also taught and choreographed in the community dance and arts world, where I worked with various populations, such as young teen moms or young women who were incarcerated and in treatment centers, elders in nursing homes, people in recovery, families in foster-care communities, and more,” she explained.

“I focused on art making as a means of making voices heard and bodies seen that aren’t always heard and seen. I became more interested in the lives of those with whom I was dancing, in their nourishment, and when Rachel’s Table had an opening for a director, I felt that I could serve more people with nourishment from a literal as well as figurative perspective.”

“We live in a world where we sometimes we don’t see the ‘other,’ if you will. How do we learn to live to live together in a much bigger society, a much broader world? We don’t know each other’s story until we really know each other’s story.”

With that, she referenced not only why she took on this new career challenge, but how dance and choreography have made her a better administrator and problem solver. And, in some ways, they help explain why she is a Woman of Impact.

To gain more perspective on why Falk has earned this honor, we need to look at all that she has accomplished since taking the helm at Rachel’s Table in 2019. In short, she has taken the agency “to a new level of food rescue for our very needy community,” said Judy Yaffe, vice president of the advisory board for Rachel’s Table, in nominating Falk as a Woman of Impact.

And she has done this through many new initiatives, including:

• A broadening of the agency’s reach; in the past, it has served only Hampden County, but has expanded into Hampshire and Franklin counties;

• A new program called Growing Gardens, an offshoot of the agency’s gleaning program, whereby constituents focus on growing and harvesting their own food;

• A new partnership with the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts to pick up food from Big Y stores and other large donors;

• A new, fully refrigerated van that will enable the agency to deliver larger quantities of food throughout the year;

• Steps that have enabled Rachel’s Table to rescue 50% more healthy produce, meat, milk, and prepared foods for the more than 50 agencies it serves;

• Upgrades to the volunteer-management program; and

• A significant increase in the number of grants received by the agency, and in the amounts of those grants, as well as a surge in the number of donors to the program.

In short, Falk has been instrumental in essentially expanding the mission and taking it in new directions, while also modernizing the agency, making it more efficient, and, yes, guiding it through a pandemic that brought challenges that could not have been imagined.

As we examine all this in greater detail, it will become abundantly clear why she’s been named a Woman of Impact for 2022.

Growing Passion

As noted earlier, Falk brings a diverse résumé to the table.

She has a bachelor’s degree from Brown and master of fine arts and Ph.D. degrees from Temple University, and she has put them to work in several different capacities.

Most recently, she served as founding director of the dance program at the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter School in South Hadley, where she created nationally recognized dance programs for more than 400 students, produced more than 15 original and critically acclaimed concerts, and oversaw a national touring company. Prior to that, she was program director of the Trinity Lasban Conseratoire of Music and Dance in London. There, she directed and developed a program in choreography and community-engaged arts-education outreach for the institution, among a host of other duties.

Earlier, Falk served as chair of SEPAC (Special Education Parent Advisory Councils for the Greenfield Public School District and Franklin County Region), a family-advocacy organization that provides resources, support, and advice on policy for families of children with special needs. Before that, the was coordinator of Community Engagement for the Five College Consortium in Amherst.

As she mentioned, these various assignments, which provided in experience in everything from teaching and mentoring to grant writing and new program creation, helped prepare her for, and in many ways inspire her interest in, the position at Rachel’s Table. It also provided perspective on the need to fully understand the plight and the challenges of others in order to effectively serve them.

“We live in a world where we sometimes we don’t see the ‘other,’ if you will,” she explained. “How do we learn to live to live together in a much bigger society, a much broader world? We don’t know each other’s story until we really know each other’s story.”

As she goes about her work, she doesn’t talk much about her experiences with WIC, for many reasons. Stigma is one of them, but a bigger reason is that she received assistance for only a short time and moved on from her food insecurity. Her story, she said, doesn’t really reflect the true hardships of those in need.

A gleaning program is one of many new initiatives launched by Jodi Falk
A gleaning program is one of many new initiatives launched by Jodi Falk since she took the helm at Rachel’s Table in 2019.

It is those individuals’ stories that should be told, she said, and their needs that should be addressed.

And this is what she’s been doing since she took the helm at Rachel’s Table, an organization now celebrating its 30th anniversary. Over that time, and especially in recent years, it has evolved and become much more of a holistic agency while still “nourishing people with dignity,” as Falk likes to say.

It carries out its broad mission of battling food insecurity and not only distributing food but first rescuing much of it from restaurants, supermarkets, and other venues in a number of ways and through several different initiatives, including:

• A gleaning program, known as Bea’s Harvest, that works with young people and school groups to engage them in the service of collecting excess produce and donating it to agencies that serve the hungry and homeless in Western Mass.;

• Growing Gardens, which provides the Pioneer Valley with direct access to healthy foods by helping local organizations build gardens to grow culturally appropriate food;

• Bountiful Bowls, a gala staged every two years to raise funds for the agency;

• Outrun Hunger, a biennial 5K run/walk and one-mile fun walk that raises funds to “fill the bowls of those in need”;

• A Hunger Awareness Arts Fest, at which issues of local hunger were highlighted by music and dance performances and art exhibits; and

• A Teen Board, which, partially sponsored by a grant from the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, aims to alleviate childhood hunger and educate their peers about local hunger and poverty issues, and then involve them in being part of the solution.

While overseeing all of this, Falk guided the agency through the pandemic while also blueprinting the agency’s response to it, a response that included raising more than $95,000 for food in the agency’s Healthy Community Emergency Fund; purchasing and delivering more than 5,000 pounds of meat and potatoes, 3,000 pounds of fluid milk, and much more; participating with a network of partners in the USDA Farmers to Families Food Box program, delivering, at times, more than 140,000 pounds of food a month to families in need; and creating and funding a program to give lunches to first responders in all three counties.

Falk brings to all her work that perspective from being on WIC for a short time, but, far more importantly, decades of experience in leadership, inspiring those she works with to be creative, entrepreneurial, and innovative, and forging the partnerships that are critical to a nonprofit being able to not only carry out its mission, but take it in new and different directions, as Rachel’s Table has.

And she brings even greater emphasis to keeping in mind, always, the ideas, thoughts, and feelings of those most affected by food insecurity.

“This model, which we’ve had for 30 years, helps the planet — food doesn’t go into a landfill; it gets delivered to agencies that support people who are in need,” she explained. “And at the same time, I wanted to make sure that we address, more directly, some of the problems that cause food insecurity.”

She’s done that through initiatives such as the Growing Gardens program, which helps any of those agencies that want to grow their own food in collaboration with those they serve.

“Young kids from Christina’s House are getting their hands dirty in the garden, and they’re making their own salads,” she said, citing the example of the Springfield-based nonprofit that provides services to women and their children who are homeless or at risk of homelessness (and whose leader, Shannon Mumblo, was named a Woman of Impact in 2021).

“To me, that’s a bigger story than how many thousands of pounds of food we can deliver,” Falk said, “because it means there is a dignified approach to food choice, a dignified approach to having a choice about what you want to plant and grow, and we’re helping to teach people — or learn with people, because I think we all teach each other — how to make our own food and not wait for a handout.”

Food for Thought

‘Learning with people.’ That’s something that Falk has been doing throughout her career — and, really, her whole life.

It’s a pattern that has continued at Rachel’s Table, an model that has enabled the agency to expand, evolve, rescue more food, deliver more food, grow food, and, in sum, be much more responsive to agencies serving those in need.

It has enabled Rachel’s Table to do something else as well — to hear those it serves and understand their story and their needs.

That’s what Falk has brought to Rachel’s Table. And her accomplishments, not only there but at other institutions where she has enabled voices to be heard, certainly make her a Woman of Impact.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Women of Impact 2022

For Nearly a Century, She’s Been Fighting for Good Causes

Photo by Leah Martin Photography

Sister Mary Caritas, SP has always remembered something that one of the doctors, a cardiologist, at Mercy Hospital told her while she was doing duty on one of the floors as a nursing student more than 75 years ago now.

“He told me, ‘little nurse … when we’re born, we’re born with a certain amount of energy; at the rate you’re going, you’re going to be dead by 40.’”

Turns out, he was wrong. Big time. And an entire region can be very glad that he was.

Sister Caritas was obviously born with more energy to expend than the rest of us, and she’s still proving that at age 99. She’s spent her whole life proving it, in ways large and small, highly visible or seen by only a few.

Space does not permit us to get into all that Sister Caritas has done during her remarkable life and career, at least in any detail. Hitting the highlights, she has been a hospital administrator — she was president of Mercy Hospital for 16 years, and before that was administrator at St. Luke’s Hospital and associate director of Berkshire Medical Center. She’s also been very active with the Sisters of Providence and its broad mission, serving as president from 1960 to 1977, as vice president from 2009 to 2013 and from 2016 until today, and in other roles as well; she is now the oldest member of that order.

She has also been very active in healthcare, serving on the boards of the Sisters of Providence Health System, Trinity Health Of New England, Catholic Health East, the Massachusetts Hospital Assoc., the American Hospital Assoc., Partners for a Healthier Community, Cancer House of Hope, the New England Conference of the Catholic Health Assoc., and perhaps two dozen other local, state, regional, and national institutions and organizations.

And she’s been active in the community, serving in capacities ranging from corporator of the former Community Savings Bank to trustee of the board of the Massachusetts Easter Seals Society, to chairperson (quite famously, by the way) of the Task Force on Bondi’s Island in the mid-’90s.

But it’s not the lines on the résumé — no matter how many there are, and yes, there are a lot them — that explain why Sister Caritas is a Woman of Impact. It’s what you can read between those lines.

It’s the story of an extraordinary individual driven at a young age to learn, teach, serve the community and especially those who are less fortunate, and simply make this region, and the world, a better place.

She has, in fact, said ‘no’ to a few people who have asked her to take on an assignment because there are only so many hours in the day — she tried to turn down the Bondi’s Island Task Force, for example, but those asking wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. But almost always, she said ‘yes.’

And she became known not merely for serving, but for fighting, doggedly, for what she thought was right and just and needed at the time, whether it was a cancer-treatment facility at Mercy Hospital, fairer Medicare reimbursement rates, or, yes, a solution to the odor problems at Bondi’s Island.

Sister Mary Caritas, seen here when she was president of Mercy Hospital
Sister Mary Caritas, seen here when she was president of Mercy Hospital, has been a leader in the community and an inspiration to generations of area decision makers.

As one might expect with someone who started working professionally in the mid-’40s, talk of her accomplishments obviously involves the past tense. But she remains a Woman of Impact for the way she counsels, mentors, and inspires others, especially women, in leadership roles today. She didn’t officially coin the phrase ‘no margin, no mission,’ but many area nonprofit managers will attribute those words to her as they strive to live by them.

Meanwhile, her life and career has been marked by being thrust into a series of new and daunting challenges, many of which she considered herself quite unprepared for. She’s proven that, with hard work, energy, and a focus on the best outcome for all, one can thrive despite adversity.

“Every role I’ve had, despite the challenges, was the happiest time of my life,” she told BusinessWest, adding that she made the most of every situation and turned them all into invaluable learning experiences. “Every day is a present, and if I haven’t learned something new in a day, then it wasn’t a good day.”

Energy. Yes, Sister Caritas still has large amounts of that commodity. She doesn’t play golf as much as she used to, not because she has slowed down, but because most of those she played with over the years have slowed down. She drives, and she sets a good pace when walking the halls of Providence Place.

She doesn’t have the same level of energy she did 40 years ago or when she was a nursing student, but she’s still very much involved — and clearly a Woman of Impact.

Small Wonder

Those who know Sister Caritas, who came to be known as ‘little sister’ to some because of her small stature, would say it’s not what she does — whether it’s in healthcare, the community, or with the Sisters of Providence — that makes her a true leader, still, at age 99.

Rather, it’s how she goes about … well, whatever it is she is doing. One hears the word ‘determined’ early and quite often when people describe her, and that word fits. So does ‘relentless.’ And ‘unstoppable’ works as well.

Those adjectives certainly apply to her lengthy battle to win approval from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health for a cobalt unit for cancer treatment at Mercy Hospital. She first filed an application in 1978, and it was denied. Applications could only be filed biannually, so she tried again in 1980. And in 1982. And in 1984. And in 1986 … you get the picture.

“There was nothing wrong with the applications, it was just that the Department of Public Health deemed it was not needed,” she said. “But I thought otherwise.”

“He told me, ‘little nurse … when we’re born, we’re born with a certain amount of energy; at the rate you’re going, you’re going to be dead by 40.’”

So she kept on filing applications until finally, in 1993, after she had given notice to the board at Mercy that she would be retiring, the state said ‘yes.’

There are many examples of such determination and perseverance from her lengthy career. Before getting to some, for those who don’t know the Sister Caritas story — and most do — we’ll recap quickly.

Mary Geary was born in Springfield and attended schools in the city. Her parents thought it would be good for her to pursue a career as a secretary, and for a short while, she did, at Commerce High School.

“I was in the secretarial program, learning shorthand and all that … and I was flunking; I hated it every single minute of it,” she recalled, noting that her life changed when she met a girl training to become a nurse at Providence Hospital in Holyoke.

“That absolutely turned my life around,” she told BusinessWest. “I knew … I was so incredibly inspired that I went from Commerce over to Tech [Technical High School], took all my sciences, and eventually went to nursing school.”

Fast-forwarding through the next half-century or so, Geary joined the Sisters of Providence and was sent to St. Vincent’s Hospital in Worcester as a nurse. But upon making her final vows after her fifth year, in 1949, she was sent to Mercy Hospital in Springfield, a move she was thrilled with until she found out that, instead of nursing, she would focus on dietary services, a decision made by the reverend mother.

After receiving a master’s degree in nutrition education at Tufts University and undertaking a dietetic internship at the Francis Stern Food Clinic at the New England Medical Center in Boston, she was assigned to be administrative dietitian at Providence Hospital in Holyoke, an assignment she enjoyed for seven years.

She then got another call from the Mother House, this one to inform her that she was being named administrator at St. Luke’s Hospital.

When she replied that she didn’t know anything about hospital administration, her superior responded with a simple ‘you’ll learn,’ which she did.

After St. Luke’s and Pittsfield General merged in 1969 to become Berkshire Medical Center, Sister Caritas served briefly as associate director of that facility — briefly because she was chosen to lead the Sisters of Providence and take the title superior general, a title that intimidated her about as much as the long list of responsibilities that came with it.

“I was totally unprepared for this,” she said, adding that, as she did with other stops during her career, she learned by doing.

And that ‘doing’ included work to create a new Mercy Hospital, a facility that would replace a structure built by the Sisters of Providence in 1896; it opened its doors in 1974. Sister Caritas would be named president of the hospital three years later, and would serve in that role until 1993.

Highlights during her tenure, and there were many, include an in-hospital surgery center; an eye center; an intensivist program; one of the nation’s first hospitalist programs; creation of the Weldon Center for Rehabilitation, the Family Life Center, the Healthcare for the Homeless initiative; and much more.

Sister Act

As noted earlier, it’s not the lines on the résumé that explain why Sister Caritas is a Woman of Impact, but the determination she showed when there was a fight to be waged, whether it was for the cobalt unit, to solve the odor problems at Bondi’s Island, or to gain needed adjustment in the Medicaid Area Wage Index.

That last fight was one that took her from Springfield to Washington, D.C. with several stops in between. If there’s an episode from her career that best sums up her persistence — her willingness to fight for something important — it is this one. It’s a story she enjoys telling, and she did so again for BusinessWest.

“The change in the rate meant that Mercy Hospital was going to lose $6 million that year, and $6 million then is like $30 million now,” she said, noting that all the other community hospitals in the area, and there were many more at the time, were looking at similar losses. “So I became very involved because I was so upset with what they were doing.”

That is an understatement.

“Richie Neal was a very young congressman at the time,” she said, noting that he secured a revision in the rate on the House side of the budget. “I thought my friend Mr. Kennedy [U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy] had put it in on the Senate side, it had gone to vote, and it was now in conference.

Sister Mary Caritas says “every day is a present, and if I haven’t learned something new in a day, then it wasn’t a good day.”
Sister Mary Caritas says “every day is a present, and if I haven’t learned something new in a day, then it wasn’t a good day.”

“We learned that it was in conference and that it had not made its way into the budget,” she went on. “So I was panicked; I called all the other hospital administrators and said, ‘we’ve got to go to Washington; I can’t afford to lose $6 million this year — Mercy will go out of business. They all they felt the same way, but none of them wanted to go to Washington, so I went on my own; I went for all of us.”

Here’s where an already revealing story becomes even more so. She first went to see Neal, who told her that a revision was, indeed, included in the House side of the budget. The problem, he said, was in the Senate.

“So I marched across the Capitol to the Senate side, and Kennedy wasn’t there,” she said. “They told me that he may not be back that day, and I told them, ‘you better plan on me staying here all night; I’m not leaving here. I’m a constituent, I have a right to see my senator, and I will not leave this office until I see him.

“They kept trying to placate me, offering me cookies and tea, and I just kept saying, ‘no, I’m not leaving until I see my senator,’” she went on. “I waited, and waited, and waited, until finally, about 4 in the afternoon, he shows up.

“He tells me it’s in conference, and I said, ‘I know; that’s why I’m here,’” she continued, adding an exclamation point through inflection on her voice. “He said, ‘who do you know on the conference committee?’ I poked him on the chest and said, ‘it’s not who I know, it’s who you know.’”

Sensing that the battle might be lost if she had to rely on the senator, Sister Caritas went to work. She went to the nearest pay phone (this is the early ’90s, remember) and instructed her administrative assistant to call the other area community hospital presidents and have them in her office the following morning. Before that, though, she called the Mercy Hospital print shop and had it print 6,000 postcards that would eventually be sent by area constituents to legislators imploring action on the Medicare issue.

While Kennedy would call Sister Caritas after the vote to revise the wage index a few days later, she believes it was those postcards that turned the tide. And those involved would say that it was Sister Caritas herself who really drove that outcome — again, just one of many examples of her fighting spirit.

Century Unlimited

The last page of Sister Caritas’s résumé has the single word ‘Honors’ at the top. And there is a long list that follows, including honorary degrees from several area colleges, a William Pynchon Award, a Paul Harris Fellowship from the Springfield Rotary Club, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Girl Scouts of Pioneer Valley, and a Woman of Achievement Award from the YWCA — a few of them, in fact.

She’s also won several from BusinessWest and its sister publication, the Healthcare News, including Business Person of the Year in 1992, Difference Maker (awarded to the Sisters of Providence) in 2014, and Healthcare Hero (in the Lifetime Achievement category) in 2018.

And because of all that she did earn these honors, she now has one more line to add to that page: Woman of Impact.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Women of Impact Women of Impact 2022

Program Officer, Mass Humanities

This Writer, Coach, Mentor, Educator, and Motivator is a True Renaissance Woman

Photo by Leah Martin Photography

When asked about her day job, Latoya Bosworth said she actually has quite a few of them.

She’s the program officer for Mass Humanities’ Reading Frederick Douglass Together program. She’s also an adjunct professor at Springfield College’s School of Professional & Continuing Studies. She coaches professionals and especially women. She mentors young people. She’s a writer. She’s a mother and a grandmother. She motivates others to get a mammogram to protect their breast health.

Ok, that last one’s not a day job, but it’s something she takes very seriously, having seen the disease take lives in her family and making a decision to undergo a prophylactic double mastectomy.

Summing up all that and much, much more, Bosworth likes to say that she “helps others transcend limits and transform lives.”

And she does this in many ways, but especially by setting a tone, leading by example, helping individuals discover who they are, and inspiring others to set a higher bar for themselves and then clear that bar.

Jean Canosa Albano, assistant director for Public Services for the Springfield City Library and one of BusinessWest’s first Women of Impact back in 2018, who nominated Bosworth for this award, has come to know her through some of her many initiatives, including an open-mic poetry series for young teen girls at the library. Those experiences made an impression.

“I think of Latoya as a Renaissance woman,” said Canosa Albano, noting that the many accolades, avocations, and interests on Bosworth’s résumé reflect a wide range of interests and expertise. “That phrase also evokes for me that period of history when writing, ideas, discovery, and exploration flourished, centering on humans and humanity.

“Latoya has a tremendous impact on people, especially women and girls in so many ways,” she went on. “Through writing, spoken word, and coaching, she shares her journey. She has motivated many people to get a mammogram to protect their breast health. She has inspired at least five women to go to college, heading to Bay Path University for master’s degrees.”

As she goes about her coaching, mentoring, and even her teaching, Bosworth focuses on an acronym she created: HERS — short for health, empowerment, resilience, and self-worth. These are the qualities she preaches and that she helps others find. Her efforts over the years have earned her a number of honors, from BusinessWest’s 40 Under Forty award in 2016 to inclusion in the 2015 100 Women of Color cohort, to the 2014 Eyes of Courage Award for empowering women and girls.

Bosworth spends considerable time and energy helping others, especially younger women and women of color, create and build confidence, with the accent on ‘helping others’ because this is something they ultimately have to do themselves.

“Latoya has a tremendous impact on people, especially women and girls in so many ways.”

“It starts with learning who you are, because you can’t show up and be who you are if you don’t know who you are,” she explained. “And learning how to be authentic — when we show up to our authentic selves, we give people the freedom to do that, and with that freedom comes that confidence.”

When mentoring young women and girls, Bosworth tells them to essentially follow her lead and “pour into themselves.”

“By that, I mean taking time with yourself to figure out who you are, because there are so many outside influences and people telling you what you should be doing, people telling you what it means to be successful, what it means to be beautiful, all of these things,” she explained. “You have to pour into yourself and figure out what’s important to you, what your values are, and how to turn off the noise.”

‘Renaissance woman.’ That’s an apt description of Latoya Bosworth. As we’ll discover, so too is ‘Woman of Impact.’

Impact Statement

“What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”

That’s the name attached to an iconic Independence Day speech delivered by the American abolitionist Frederick Douglass, during which he answers that question by saying ‘…a day that reveals to him, more than all the other days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.”

As program officer for this Mass Humanities initiative, Bosworth schedules public readings of that speech at gatherings of all sizes and many different places.

“And they’re followed by discussions on equity and race and what that speech means today, as an American,” she told BusinessWest. “Sometimes, it’s just children; other times, it’s multi-generational, multi-racial … and it’s all over the state of Massachusetts, so it’s looks different in different communities. Sometimes it’s a small organization; other times, it’s a larger event with hundreds of people at a public square.”

Arranging such readings is just one of many assignments that add up to a very full plate for Bosworth, who also goes by ‘Doc Boz’ to some — a nod to her doctorate in human services she earned at Capella University and the nickname given her grandfather (Bozzie) — and also ‘Brenda’s Child,’ a pen name, if that’s even the right term, she uses to honor her mother, Brenda Kay Swinton, who died from breast cancer at age 23 when Latoya was only 4.

By whatever name she goes by, she keeps her days full. As noted, she’s an adjunct professor at Springfield College, teaching courses ranging from “Race, Culture & Religion” to “Contemporary Issues in Education” to “Communication Skills.”

She also has her own business as a workshop facilitator and ‘speaker/life coach.’ She told BusinessWest that she specializes in “confidence, purpose, and joy,” and facilitates writing and empowerment and educational workshops for women, youth, and youth workers for organizations, schools, and professionals. She also creates and hosts empowerment events under that acronym HERS.

Much of what Bosworth does when coaching is focused on that intangible — and precious commodity — known as confidence. And when asked how she helps individuals, and especially women, find it and build more of it, she said she does this in several ways.

“What I find is that, when people have issues with goal setting or trying to change their lives, a lot of it comes down to some of the things they’ve internalized — from society, from family — that they need to unlearn and reprogram so they can develop that confidence that they need to take the risk,” she explained, “and know that, if they take the risk, it’s going to be OK, no matter what; even if doesn’t work out, there’s going to be something they can learn from and grow from.”

BusinessWest honored Latoya Bosworth as part of the 40 Under Forty class of 2016
Long before her Woman of Impact award, BusinessWest honored Latoya Bosworth as part of the 40 Under Forty class of 2016 for her work with young people.

Elaborating, she said she tries to help individuals and groups understand that trying and failing — if that’s what happens — should always be preferable to simply not trying at all.

“What happens if you fail? What does that look like? What does success look like to you? What does failure look like to you? And if you fail, what will happen? These are the questions I want people to think about,” she said. “Sometimes, we get caught up in these thoughts — I call it worst-case-scenario thinking. I want people to tell me what would happen if they fail, and then I ask them, ‘is that really a big deal, or are you overthinking?’

“Most of the time, people come to find out that it’s not that big a deal if something doesn’t work out the way they want it to,” she went on, adding that this helps in that process of transcending limits and helping people transform their own lives.

Taking Control

Another focal point of Bosworth’s life and work to help others is breast cancer, and here, she tells her own story to inspire others do to what they can to understand this disease and protect their own health.

That story involves tragedy and overcoming adversity on many levels. Her mother, as noted, died from breast cancer. Her father, a veteran, was injured in a training exercise and left paralyzed from the waist down. She and her siblings were raised by her maternal grandmother, who died of ovarian cancer.

These tragedies led to a profound awareness of cancer and its ability to take lives and impact many others while doing so, she said, adding that this awareness led to a proactive approach to caring for her health and encouraging others to follow that lead.

“As I grew up, I learned how to do breast self-exams when I was 12 or 13 — it’s something we pay attention to in our family,” she said, adding that, over the years, she has seen multiple family members, on both sides, die from breast cancer and ovarian cancer.

“So I did some genetic testing; I was negative, but there was some sort of variant there,” she went on, adding that she made the decision to have a prophylactic double mastectomy in 2015, and also to have her ovaries removed to prevent ovarian cancer.

“I share that experience with other people because I want them to know that, while this wasn’t easy, there are options,” she said. “I tell people that they need to understand about genetic testing, and also the health disparities and the fact that African-American women are twice as likely to die from breast cancer because it’s more aggressive in us than it is in other people, even though we are less likely to be diagnosed.”

“What I find is that, when people have issues with goal setting or trying to change their lives, a lot of it comes down to some of the things they’ve internalized — from society, from family — that they need to unlearn and reprogram so they can develop that confidence that they need to take the risk.”

Health is the ‘H’ in HERS. The ‘E,’ ‘R,’ and ‘S’ — empowerment, resilience, and self-worth — are just some of other qualities she helps others discover, and build, through her coaching, mentoring, and a nonprofit youth program she created called Keep Youth Dreaming and Striving Inc.

The mentoring started when she taught in the Springfield Public Schools earlier this decade, and has continued ever since, with Bosworth staying in touch with those she first counseled years ago.

“As a teacher, I was just getting involved in my students’ lives and showing up outside of school for things,” she said. “And as they graduated, I would stay in contact with them, attending baby showers, unfortunately some funerals … but really just showing up for them. And on the side, I started an after-school mentoring program, primarily with girls.”

Keep Youth Dreaming & Striving, which caught the attention of BusinessWest’s 40 Under Forty judges and made Bosworth part of the class of 2016, featured a number of initiatives, including a Gifted Diva Showcase, what she calls a “self-esteem exhibition” that followed eight weeks of intensive workshops, trainings, and a discovery process.

“It was an anti-beauty pageant, because it wasn’t about looks,” she explained. “It was all about owning who you are, being who you are, doing some community service, sharing whatever talent you have … they didn’t have to show up and look a certain way.”

Leading by Example

Returning to that phrase ‘Renaissance woman,’ in her nomination of Bosworth, Canosa Albano noted that word comes from the French for ‘rebirth.’

“Her journey epitomizes someone who has faced trauma, great loss, and illness, and has reframed those challenges, learned, and grown from them, ‘rebirthing’ herself as Brenda’s Child and Doc Boz.

Reframing challenges and learning and growing from them — this is what Bosworth helps others do as she enables them to transcend limits and transform their lives.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story Women of Impact Women of Impact 2021

Women of Impact Awards Ceremony

Thursday, December 9, 2021 • 5- 8 p.m. • Sheraton Springfield

Tickets $85 per person • Call: (413) 781-8600 or Email [email protected]

Honorees to Be Saluted on Dec. 9

Leader. Inspiration. Pioneer. Mentor.

You will read plenty of words like these over the next eight profiles as BusinessWest introduces its fourth annual cohort of a program called, appropriately enough, Women of Impact.

Appropriate, because these women aren’t only business successes and community leaders; they are, indeed, impactful — in ways that reverberate far beyond their office, their sector, and even this present time.

These are compelling stories about remarkable women, and as you read them, you’ll quickly understand why BusinessWest added Women of Impact to its list of annual recognition programs four years ago. In short, these stories need to be told — or told in a different way than you’ve heard before.

These eight stories detail not only what these women do for a living, but what they’ve done with their lives. Specifically, they’ve become innovators in their fields, leaders within the community, and, most importantly, inspirations to all those around them. Crucially, they’re creating a legacy for other women to build upon.

The stories are all different, but there are many common denominators: these are women and leaders who have vision, passion, drive to excel, and a desire to put their considerable talents to work mentoring and helping others.

 

Individually and especially together, they’re making this a much better place to live, work, raise a family, and run a business.

And they will be celebrated on Dec. 9 at the Sheraton Springfield Monarch Place Hotel. So, after reading their stories, we invite you to come and applaud some truly impactful women. The 2021 honorees are:

• Jessica Collins

Executive director of the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts;

Elizabeth Dineen

CEO of the YWCA of Western Massachusetts;

Charlene Elvers

Director of the Center for Service and Leadership at Springfield College;

Karin Jeffers

President and CEO of Clinical and Support Options;

• Elizabeth Keen

Owner of Indian Line Farm;

• Madeline Landrau

Program Engagement manager at MassMutual;

• Shannon Mumblo

Executive director of Christina’s House;

• Tracye Whitfield

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion officer for the town of West Springfield; and Springfield City Councilor.

Thank You to Our Sponsors!

Presenting Sponsors

Supporting Sponsors

Meet the Judges

Michele Cabral

Michele Cabral is interim executive director of Professional Education and Corporate Learning at Holyoke Community College and director of Training & Workforce Options. She started her career as a CPA for KPMG Peat Marwick, graduated from the Leadership Development Program at CIGNA Insurance Companies, and joined Farm Credit Financial Partners Inc. as CFO and COO. At HCC, Cabral has held positions as an Accounting professor, then dean of the Business and Technology Division, and she currently leads the HCC Women’s Leadership Series.

Dawn Fleury

Dawn Fleury is the first senior vice president of Corporate Risk at Country Bank in Ware. In her current role, she oversees the bank’s comprehensive risk-management programs. Before joining Country Bank, she had a 21-year career with the FDIC as a commissioned senior bank examiner in the Division of Supervision. Fleury serves on the board of Christina’s House in Springfield, which provides transitional housing for women and their children, as well as educational programming as families transition from homelessness to permanent, stable living environments.

Ellen Freyman

Ellen Freyman is a shareholder with Shatz, Schwartz and Fentin, P.C. in Springfield. Her practice is concentrated in all aspects of commercial real estate: acquisitions and sales, development, leasing, permitting, environmental, and financing. She has been recognized for her community work and was named to Difference Makers and Women of Impact by BusinessWest, Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly Excellence in the Law, and the Professional Women’s Chamber Women of the Year. She also earned a Pynchon Award from the Ad Club of Western Massachusetts.

Women of Impact 2021

Executive Director, Christina’s House

She Helps Homeless Moms and Kids Achieve Stability and Independence

One Sunday morning in 2010, Linda Mumblo was sitting in church when she felt God calling her to minister to homeless women and children.

“She noticed there were a lot of services for men in the area, but she felt there weren’t a lot of services for women,” said Linda’s daughter-in-law, Shannon Mumblo, adding that Linda turned the idea, which she called Christina’s House, into a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit within the month.

Shannon was a nurse and licensed clinical social worker at Baystate Medical Center at the time, but she was intrigued by Linda’s vision — for a very personal reason.

“I knew I wanted to be a very big part of what she was going to do because, growing up, I was the child who lived in a situation with an alcoholic mom, who lived in an apartment with just a mattress on a floor and didn’t always know where my next meal was going to come from.”

Fortunately, her grandmother stepped in. “She became the person for me that was my encouragement, that provided me with the love and support that I needed to allow me to have opportunities in life that I feel like I would not have been able to have with my mom,” Mumblo told BusinessWest.

And she saw Christina’s House as a way to help children be reunified with their mothers, and to help women realize their full potential and be the best parents they could be, she explained, “so that those children can grow up with their moms or have the opportunity to have a relationship with their mom that they might not otherwise have had. That’s how I started to be involved.”

Today, as executive director of Christina’s House, Shannon Mumblo has grown the organization to two large homes in Springfield, each serving up to 16 individuals at any given time, who live there for up to two years not only to escape homelessness, but to develop the skills and education necessary to live independently, with financial security, afterward — and deliver it all through a faith-based model.

“Growing up, I was the child who lived in a situation with an alcoholic mom, who lived in an apartment with just a mattress on a floor and didn’t always know where my next meal was going to come from.”

“In 2012, when we incorporated and formed the board,” she explained, “our mission was to educate, embrace, and encourage mothers and their children who are homeless or near-homeless through the love of Jesus Christ.”

The results — specifically, the many lives changed not only in the moment, but for the long term — speak for themselves, and demonstrate why Mumblo, by taking her mother-in-law’s vision to new heights, is certainly a Woman of Impact.

 

Teach a Woman to Fish…

At its heart, Christina’s House provides a program for moms and their kids to transition out of homelessness or near-homelessness and into independent living, Mumblo explained.

“It’s not a shelter — it’s a transitional, educational facility. We didn’t just want to house people, we wanted to teach them then skills they needed to break the generational patterns of poverty, abuse, trauma, all the barriers that keep people in a place of poverty. It’s education.”

The first Christina’s House location on Madison Avenue

The first Christina’s House location on Madison Avenue was followed last year by a second site on Union Street.

The program can last anywhere from 18 to 24 months, Mumblo said. “It can take six months just to earn their trust that we don’t want anything from them, just the best of who they are, and the motivation to be part of the program — six months to let their walls down and receive what we’re giving them.”

Early on, she and her team members break down with each client what their goals are — financial, educational, employment, health, parenting, even spiritual — and create a syllabus to help them achieve those goals. “Every week, we look at each of those categories and more and go through them and start to unpack them — look at what they need in each area and seek resources to help fill the gaps.”

Those resources include community partners ranging from Dress for Success and Springfield WORKS to local churches and community colleges. And the program ranges from job-training initiatives to classes that bolster life skills from parenting to anger management. Counseling is a part of every client’s schedule, including financial counseling from the United Way of Pioneer Valley’s Thrive program. After about a year in the program, discussions begin on planning for independent living, whether in a house or apartment.

Mumblo said she wants to stay in contact with graduates for at least five years after they leave, not only to track their self-sustainability and independence, but because the stories can be inspiring.

“It literally saves lives; some of our moms have been on the brink of suicide because they just didn’t have somebody to help them.”

“Once you’re really invested in the program, this becomes like a family. Most of our moms and kids didn’t have a family coming in here, so this becomes their family, and we don’t let them go,” she said, noting that one of the program’s first graduates came back to volunteer, and Christina’s House sent her son to summer camp for two weeks.

“She’s saving up for a house now. She’s still independent, still growing, still getting raises in her job. She’s a corrections officer — that was always her dream, and that’s what she’s doing.”

Even those who don’t finish the program can reap its benefits, she noted, recalling a woman who left the program early, and how devastated she felt about that. But then the woman stopped by recently to donate some of her granddaughter’s clothes.

“It was such a healing experience,” Mumblo said. “She shared that the seeds planted during her time here never left her. She kept hearing our words about what it meant to be financially independent, kept hearing our words about boundaries and parenting and all the things that were taught during her time here. So even though she didn’t finish, she’s still a success.

“I gave her a big hug and said, ‘whatever you need, we’re still here; we never left,’” she went on. “And for her, she felt like it was one last piece she needed to have healing and wholeness. So we never understand the full impact of the seeds we plant. Experiences like that make me excited to get up and be in a job where this is my calling.”

 

From the Ground Up

That calling took plenty of work — and faith. The first Christina’s House on Madison Avenue was owned by Cottage Hill Church, which gave the keys to Shannon and Linda at a time when the fledgling nonprofit had $300 in the bank, so they could give tours and raise awareness of the mission.

A fundraising ball later that year netted $8,000, and between that and donations from supporters, they were able to put a down payment on the house and move in.

A connection with the Springfield Police Department proved to be a key source of early support. Mumblo wanted to name a room after the late Kevin Ambrose, an officer who died while protecting a mother and child in a domestic-abuse situation. After visiting the house, Ambrose’s widow, Carla, decided to make Christina’s House her charity of choice.

Later that year, police Sgt. John Delaney launched the Ride to Remember, a fundraising bike ride in honor of fallen first responders, which donated $64,000 to Christina’s House in its second year to help repair the leaking roof and paint the house.

These days, donations — from individuals, businesses, and churches, as well as a few grants — are more steady, and the annual ball, now in its ninth year, is a $100,000 fundraiser.

“I feel like it started on faith, and every step of the way, we had faith,” Shannon said, and that went for buying and renovating a second Springfield location on Union Street in April 2020, to serve even more families. “The vision started in a church, and everything we do here has been a leap of faith, so to speak.”

Asked why she emphasizes a faith-based model, with a program delivered from a Christian perspective, with regular Bible studies, and her answer was simple yet firm.

“If we took God out of it, it wouldn’t be the program that it is. I’ve said it from the beginning — this has been about faith; this has been God’s mission and vision that was placed on my mother-in-law’s heart, and we give him all the glory for everything here every day. It’s not about us, it’s not about me — it’s about God working through me to do this work that I do every day.”

Mumblo believes it’s a model that can be replicated in other areas that need such a facility.

“I see God growing Christina’s House; it’s so needed,” she said. “It literally saves lives; some of our moms have been on the brink of suicide because they just didn’t have somebody to help them.

“And it’s about giving these kids the ability to have a mom and to have love around them and be in a safe environment where they don’t have to have drugs around them, and they don’t have to worry about what they’re going to eat,” she went on. “They’re fed, they’re cared for, they have a beautiful house to live in, and they have us long-term. We don’t go anywhere.”

Her clients, meanwhile … well, they’re going places.

“The most gratifying thing is watching the moms and kids grow and be successful and realize their potential, realize their goals, get that CNA certificate, get their GED, get a scholarship to attend school,” Mumblo said. “It’s more than I could have ever asked for in this lifetime.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

Women of Impact 2021

Program Engagement Manager, MassMutual

A Success in Business, She Is Also a Force in the Community

Maddy Landrau was returning home from a lengthy business trip to Texas. As the car that picked her up at the airport was approaching her home in the Brightwood section of Springfield, she was surprised to see a small crowd of people, including her husband, Carlos Landrau, gathered on her porch.

As she walked toward the door, she recognized the five young girls who lived next door and other children from the neighborhood, but still didn’t know quite why they were there. She would soon find out.

“They were there … with their report cards,” she told BusinessWest as she fought back tears (unsuccessfully), adding that the girls, especially, couldn’t wait — quite literally — to show them off to the person they deemed most responsible for the higher grades they’d achieved.

“They would come to me, and I’d be saying to them, ‘this is your education … you have to do well; education is your ticket out of here. No one can take away that A, no can take away your grades,’” she said, adding that the girls from her neighborhood are just some of the many she’s counseled on a wide range of matters, but especially education and its importance to quality of life.

There are many ways to explain why Madeline (Maddy) Landrau has been named a Woman of Impact for 2021, but that story — and the setting for it — probably do it best.

Indeed, mentoring young people has long been a big part of her life and career, the latter dominated by a series of assignments at MassMutual, the latest as program engagement manager, a position with a broad range of responsibilities in (and on behalf of) the community, as we’ll see.

As for the setting … that’s another huge part of this story.

Landrau left Brooklyn for Springfield at the behest of a friend more than 30 years ago. She settled in the North End and the Brightwood neighborhood, one of the poorest in the city (and the state, for that matter) and home to many Hispanics … and never left, even when friends, colleagues, and Realtors alike were advising her to look elsewhere when she and her husband decided to build a home.

“There was an opportunity to purchase land in the Plainfield area of Springfield, and my husband and I took a deep dive — we said, ‘let’s do this,’ she recalled. “There were appraisers and contractors who would say, ‘what are you doing? You could move to Agawam, South Hadley, or Wilbraham.’ And I said, ‘you’re missing the big picture, the sense of community.’ That’s what I wanted to leave my children.”

Landrau’s devotion to Brightwood, the people who live there, and the region as a whole is summed up by Jean Canosa Albano, herself a Woman of Impact (class of 2018), who nominated her for the same honor.

“Maddy believes that there is a narrow path — be it to education, financial literacy, or workplace success. All you have to do is make the path wider. And she does it! She is inclusive and representative of communities who in some places may not find a place on that path.

“She believes in leading from the rear, not seeking the spotlight, and recognizes others’ humanity,” Albano continued. “She doesn’t seek to shatter the glass ceiling as much as to open the windows and welcome more people in.”

That comment, one of many poignant takes in the nomination, explains what drives Landrau and why she has touched so many lives in so many ways.

So does this comment from Lydia Martinez-Alvarez, assistant superintendent of Springfield Public Schools and another Woman of Impact (class of 2019).

“Many young adults call her ‘mom’ because of the impact that she has had on their lives,” she wrote. “Maddy is always helping someone with whatever they need. She often puts others ahead of herself; she is a mentor to many in our community and volunteers her time to ensure that our community is a better place for all to live in.”

 

Moving Thoughts

As noted earlier, Landrau grew up in Brooklyn, specifically the Bay Ridge neighborhood.

It was a close-knit, very diverse community, but there were few Hispanics, she told BusinessWest, using ‘mixed salad’ rather than ‘melting pot’ to describe it, adding that it was a very welcoming and tolerant environment.

“Many young adults call her ‘mom’ because of the impact that she has had on their lives.”

As much as she liked those elements of home, she desired to make a new life for herself and her two young sons, and, at the behest of a friend in Springfield who promised to help her get settled, packed her bags.

“I did not want to raise them in New York City, the fast and the furious — I needed something slower,” she said. “I felt bad when I told my dad I was leaving, but I knew that I needed this challenge, this opportunity to start afresh — a white canvas.”

The picture that now fills that canvas is one that tells of a young women taking advantage of opportunities afforded her, but mostly making her own opportunities — while never, ever forgetting that neighborhood she moved to and the people, like her, who still call it home.

Upon arriving in Springfield, in quick order, she secured an apartment, a job, and daycare so she could work that job. She married Carlos, a police officer, and the two created a blended family and “pulled it together,” as she put it.

That same phrase applies to her career and her ladder climbing at MassMutual.

She started in Accounts Receivable and quickly advanced, first to a leadership role in that department, then the IT department, and later Sales and a management position in that department. In 2011, she became director of Life Company Marketing and, among other initiatives, led the development and execution of marketing and recruiting strategies to help the company reach the U.S. Hispanic and Latino markets.

Maddy Landrau engages in a game of dominoes with some North End residents.

Maddy Landrau engages in a game of dominoes with some North End residents.

In her current role, Landrau has a number of responsibilities. She manages the MassMutual Foundation’s Anchor Institution Grantee Portfolio, which represents $5 million in funding to more than 20 organizations across the state. She also leads the company’s national LifeBridge life-insurance program, which offers free life-insurance coverage to eligible parents for the benefit of their children’s education. And she also leads and executes the FutureSmart Challenge Program in markets across the country. On pause because of COVID-19, the program is MassMutual’s proprietary financial-education program that educates middle- and high-school students about making smart financial decisions and career choices.

All throughout her career, she has been active within the community, and especially the North End. Early on, she volunteered on the board of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center and also served on the New North Citizens Council. Currently, she serves as a trustee at Westfield State University — she’s the first Latina to serve in that capacity — and is now vice chair of a subcommittee of the Finance & Capital Assets Committee, as well as a trustee with the Baystate Health Foundation.

But while influential in the boardroom, she has been most impactful in the community itself and working with people (especially young Latinas) as a mentor, second mother on many occasions, and role model in every way imaginable.

She said she is connected with mentees through the New North Citizens Council, Springfield Technical Community College, neighbors, and other channels. Slicing through what she tells them and she guides them, she said there is a dominant message.

“They create these challenges for themselves … and I tell them that, if only they were to make the right choice at the given time, I foresee that they wouldn’t have so many challenges,” she explained. “If they only took a pause and said, ‘this isn’t life the way it’s supposed to be,’ and if they created this opportunity for themselves to be happy and not allow others to make them happy, but also to become financially sound.

“I see many of these mentees living beyond their means,” she went on. “The ‘wants’ become more important than the ‘needs,’ and in my mentoring I’m trying to change that — how do you create the ‘needs’ as a priority? I stress the importance of being financially sound and educated, and that these are the things they need to pass on to their children.”

She said she mentors mostly young people, in the 13-18 age bracket, but also young adults and even a few grandmothers raising their grandchildren, whom she advises to look at things differently and not try to raise young people the way they were raised.

“When I meet with them, I tell them they have to meet me halfway. They have to do their part; let’s build trust, build the communication pattern, and share the good, the bad, and the ugly. I tell them that I want to hear more good, but don’t be afraid to share the bad — and the ugly.”

With each mentee, the basic ground rules for the relationship are the same.

“When I meet with them, I tell them they have to meet me halfway,” she continued. “They have to do their part; let’s build trust, build the communication pattern, and share the good, the bad, and the ugly. I tell them that I want to hear more good, but don’t be afraid to share the bad — and the ugly.”

 

Passing It On

That’s what you might expect from someone who’s made it her life’s mission to not necessarily shatter that glass ceiling, as Albano noted (although she has done that in some respects), but rather open the windows and welcome more people in.

It’s what you would expect from someone who had a crowd of young people waiting to show her their report cards as she returned from a trip, and what you would expect from someone who passed on Wilbraham and Agawam and stayed in the neighborhood where she raised her children.

And it’s what you would expect from someone who personifies the phrase ‘Woman of Impact.’

 

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Women of Impact 2021

Owner, Indian Line Farm

She’s Continuing an Agricultural Legacy — and Cultivating Her Own

 

By Mark Morris

Elizabeth Keen’s journey to becoming a successful farmer in Western Mass. began in Mexico and Guatemala.

Shortly after graduating from Colorado College, Keen joined an effort by Witness for Peace to work with Guatemalan refugees living in the south of Mexico who were looking to return home. In the three years she spent with the Guatemalans, Keen saw how their entire subsistence was based on working and growing food. It left a lasting impression.

“I thought I would return to the states and work for a nonprofit,” she said. “But I also wanted to learn about and understand sustainable agriculture so I could someday return to Guatemala and offer a technical skill to the people looking to go back to their homeland.”

Upon her return to the U.S., friends who had accompanied Keen on the Central American trip invited her to take part in a 1,000-mile bike tour of New England as a fundraiser for an organization called the Guatemala Accompaniment Project.

During the bike tour, she reconnected with a friend who lived in Great Barrington who knew a farmer in need of apprentices. Keen committed to a year-long apprenticeship at what is known as a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm.

Through a CSA farm, the public can support local agriculture by purchasing farm memberships. In return, members are offered a weekly bounty of vegetables, fruits, and herbs. According to the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture, CSAs are a way for the food-buying public to create a relationship with a farm and bring home plenty of healthy produce to boot.

“It was amazing to work with your hands and see the results of your work. The physical strain also made me feel that what I was doing was valuable.”

While she did not have previous experience with this type of work, Keen said she fell in love with the physical-labor part of farming.

“It was amazing to work with your hands and see the results of your work,” she said. “The physical strain also made me feel that what I was doing was valuable.”

During the apprenticeship, she met Al Thorp, and they began a relationship that would eventually lead to their marriage — and to an intriguing agricultural success story.

In January 1997, Robyn Van En, owner of Indian Line Farm in South Egremont, died suddenly of an asthma attack at age 49. Members of the community were stunned and worried about what would happen to this historic land, site of the first CSA farm in the U.S. Meanwhile, Keen and her husband had just completed their apprenticeship and were considering their next move. Keen had worked briefly with Van En before she died and appreciated the beauty and viability of Indian Line.

People in the community feared the land was vulnerable to developers and wanted to make sure it would stay a working farm, so they encouraged the young couple to take over the operation of Indian Line.

“With six months experience for me and a year and a half for Al, we started a farm,” Keen said. “We started from scratch and did not know what we were doing.”

Along with Keen and Thorp, the Nature Conservancy and the Community Land Trust in the Southern Berkshires worked together to keep Indian Line a working farm. The couple purchased the buildings on the property, and the other entities secured the land with a lease to ensure its exclusive use as a farm for the next 99 years.

Now with a mortgage to pay, Keen took on running the farm while Thorp, an engineer by training, began working three days a week in a surveyor’s office. Keen explained her husband’s role at the farm as “the person who fixes everything that breaks.” Now a licensed surveyor and engineer, Thorp continues his roles on and off the farm. It’s a division of labor that has worked well for both of them.

Elizabeth Keen’s impact extends beyond her own farm to broader efforts like the Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training.

Elizabeth Keen’s impact extends beyond her own farm to broader efforts like the Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training.

“I do all the member interaction, employee management, and the daily work of the farm,” Keen said. “But when I need a new greenhouse, Al will take that on and get it done.”

 

Growing Community

Currently, 200 members belong to the Indian Line Farm CSA. Keen pointed out that each membership represents a household, so her farm is providing food for well over 400 people in the Berkshires through this one program.

From arugula and kale to carrots and a variety of radishes, the farm offerings vary by season. Keen provides members with familiar as well as not-so-familiar vegetable offerings.

“Our climate doesn’t allow us to just grow the most popular vegetables,” she said. “I have to grow what the seasons will allow.” That means daikon radishes and Japanese turnips become part of the vegetable selection. “I introduce my members to lots of new things and try to provide recipes for vegetables that might not be as familiar to people.”

Vegetables are only part of what grows and develops at Indian Line Farm. Keen and Thorp are longtime participants in the Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training (CRAFT), a program that enhances educational opportunities for apprentices through visits to a number of farms and networking with fellow apprentices and farmers. The couple were part of this program during their apprentice days and wanted to pay forward their experience as a CRAFT farm.

“I’m able to share some knowledge with our apprentices, but CRAFT visits give them a much wider perspective of what’s going on in agriculture,” Keen said. For the last 20 years, three or four workers each year complete an apprenticeship at Indian Line, with nearly half of them pursuing a career in agriculture.

More than half of Keen’s apprentices over the years have been women, many of whom have told her the example she sets as a female farmer is meaningful to them.

“I came to farming at age 26 with no experience in how to mow, use sharp tools, or drive a tractor,” she said. “I benefited from wonderful mentors, and now I have the opportunity to share these experiences with other women. It’s empowering for them and for me.”

“Getting to know other farmers reinforces that we are all in this together; we recognize all the challenges and complications that come with this life, and we’re not facing it alone.”

While she has also taught plenty of men how to drive a tractor, women are often less likely to have had the opportunity to learn these types of skills.

While the demands of the farm can easily keep Keen busy from dawn to dusk, she and Thorp felt it important to develop a community among others who were farming in the area. They began by informally reaching out to other farmers to get together and socialize. Keen wanted something more intentional, so she started a group called Farmers Gather.

“A meeting consists of a tour at an area farm with a potluck dinner to follow,” she explained. Before COVID-19 put a damper on regular meetings, the gatherings often brought together farmers who had lived in the area for many years, but didn’t really know each other.

“In a social sense it’s been terrific, but it’s even more than that,” she said. “Getting to know other farmers reinforces that we are all in this together; we recognize all the challenges and complications that come with this life, and we’re not facing it alone.”

Margaret Moulton, executive director of Berkshire Grown, noted that, on top of Keen’s contributions to the farming community, her work to eradicate food insecurity ranks among her most impressive efforts.

“Through Berkshire Grown’s Share the Bounty program in partnership with the People’s Pantry, Elizabeth provides tons of fresh food to low-income residents in the county,” Moulton said.

Keen estimated that 10 shares of food reach the People’s Pantry through her personal contributions, and other members spend a little extra for their shares to help out. The arrival of COVID last year greatly increased the need — and the generosity of even more members who donated extra money to make more food available to their neighbors who needed it.

“It’s easy for me to be generous because, over the years, people have been so generous to us,” she said. “There are also many people helping in important ways, such as transporting the food from the farm to those who need it; that’s a huge part of the effort.”

 

The Next Generation

During her time in Guatemala, Keen learned to speak Spanish. When snowfall covers the farm, one of her winter passions is practicing her Spanish as an interpreter for Volunteers in Medicine, a clinic located in Great Barrington with a mission to improve access to healthcare for Berkshire residents.

And, yes, she did return to Guatemala. In 2016, she and her children, Colin and Helen (ages 18 and 15, respectively), spent six months in one of the small indigenous communities where Keen had worked many years before. After a humbling moment when she realized Guatemalans have survived for centuries without her farm knowledge, Keen instead taught English in the middle school.

“This was a chance to give back in a way that felt concrete,” she said. As a bonus, Colin and Helen learned Spanish while there.

“I’m really proud that Al and I have been able to parent two children who can say they grew up on a farm,” she said. “I don’t think they are going to be farmers, but they know how to work, use tools, and they are both strong.”

Keen feels her greatest professional achievement has been to keep the farm where the CSA movement started a success today and into the future. “It’s an honor to keep Robyn Van En’s vision alive here at the birthplace of CSA.”

With everything she does for the farming community and neighbors in need, many would say Keen is forging her own legacy — as a true Woman of Impact.

Women of Impact 2021

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer, Town of West Springfield; Springfield City Councilor

She’s an Entrepreneur, Public Servant, Mentor, and True Role Model

 

 

To effectively convey the depth of Tracye Whitfield’s impact within the community, one should probably start with her business cards — as in the plural.

She carries three of them. Sort of.

She usually has only one on her, and that’s for the job she started just four months ago — as Diversity, Equity and Inclusion officer for the town of West Springfield. That’s a new position, and in it, she’s essentially starting from scratch and drafting the blueprint for a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Department, an assignment she describes with the single word ‘difficult’ (much more on that in a bit).

But she also has a business card identifying her as an at-large city councilor in Springfield — she said she had to make it herself; the city does not supply them — and another one explaining that she is a principal with T&J Tax and Credit Savers, the most recent iteration of a small business she started seven years ago.

Together, these business cards tell a compelling story. It’s about a single mother who started working at a call center in the late ’90s because it was a way to get more doors to open for her, including the one at MassMutual, where she would become inspired — and receive the tuition reimbursement — to earn first a bachelor’s degree in business administration and finance and then a master’s in accounting and taxation, both at American International College.

She would use those degrees to launch her own tax business — one she has built steadily over the years — and eventually move on to different career challenges, including one as director of Business Development for the Training and Workforce Options (TWO) program operated by Springfield Technical Community College and Holyoke Community College, and, well before that, as a finance analyst for Springfield Public Schools.

It was while in that job that Whitfield realized many constituents were missing out on resources and program funding because they were simply not aware of them. Later, as she talked within the community about the need for better communication and a voice for all residents, friends and relatives encouraged her to become that voice by running for City Council.

Neither she nor most of the members of her team had any experience with election campaigns, but she ran hard, knocked on more doors than she could count, and would up finishing a strong sixth, just out of the running, in the 2017 election. But she was later placed in an at-large seat when Tom Ashe became chief of staff for Mayor Domenic Sarno. Today, she is vice president of the Council and running for a third term.

Yes, it’s a compelling story, and one that forms the basis of what she considers the advice she passes on to the many young people she mentors.

“There are no real barriers other than the ones we place on ourselves — we can do whatever we want to do,” she said. “And I also tell them to give back; whatever you learn, bring it forward to the next person so they can learn it, too. That’s how we’ll maintain a culture of togetherness and just helping one another. And we’re all far better off when we can do that.”

“Whatever you learn, bring it forward to the next person so they can learn it, too. That’s how we’ll maintain a culture of togetherness and just helping one another. And we’re all far better off when we can do that.”

Those sentiments, and, yes, those business cards and all they stand for, explain why Tracye Whitfield is a Woman of Impact for 2021.

 

Running Story

As noted, Whitfield is running for re-election this fall. That means an already-hectic daily schedule becomes even more so.

Indeed, in addition to her day job in West Springfield, her duties as city councilor — which include countless meetings (many now thankfully conducted via Zoom) and events — and her work handling clients who asked for extensions on filing their tax returns, she must now campaign.

Such work is a little different in a pandemic, she explained, adding that there will be less knocking on doors (at least for her). But there are still the events and the stand-outs with supporters at busy intersections. Whitfield is an at-large councilor, so she must blanket the entire city; some of her favorite stand-out locations are the convergence of Wilbraham Road and Parker Street and at the X by the CVS.

Tracye Whitfield stands outside Town Hall in West Springfield, where she now serves as the community’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion officer.

Packing a lot into the hours available in a day is nothing new to Whitfield, who long juggled work, school, and parenting duties, and still does to some extent, although now it’s her first grandchild, different kinds of work, and different kinds of education.

Born and raised in Springfield, she said she had her first child at 18 and, like many single teen mothers, faced a number of daily challenges. But unlike many others like her, she had a plan — and a path — as well as a desire to set the tone for her children.

“I wanted to set a good example for them,” she said, adding that she took a job at First Notice Systems, a giant call center, with the larger goal of taking her experience in customer service and use it to get a foot in the door at MassMutual.

She eventually joined the financial-services giant in 2000, working her way from customer service representative to ‘top Blue Case manager,’ to accounting specialist.

Along the way, as noted, she earned two college degrees and set her career sights higher. After stints with Springfield Public Schools, Martin Luther King Jr. Family Services, and Springfield Technical Community College, she landed a job as director of Business Development for TWO, a position that was eventually eliminated due to cuts forced by COVID-19, a setback that brought her back to the job market and, eventually, to apply for a new position posted by the town of West Springfield.

She saw it posted on Indeed, and after talking with friends and colleagues, she decided to apply. She prevailed and started just four months ago, becoming one of a growing number of people with ‘Diversity, Equity and Inclusion officer’ printed on their business cards.

“I have seen how much people can change their life and advance through workforce development.”

When asked about this movement, if it can be called that, she said these positions are being created out of obvious need.

“It’s important to bring everyone’s voice to the table,” she said, noting that many area communities, including West Springfield, are becoming increasingly diverse. “There’s a large refugee population in this community, and from what I’ve gathered from meeting and interviewing people, they do feel left out and isolated because communication isn’t in their language, and they don’t know where to go; they don’t have a lot of guidance and resources to help them navigate the town process itself.”

Her work is pioneering in many respects, she said, adding that there is no blueprint to follow — as noted, she’s creating one. Thus, she’s reaching out to others in this emerging field of equity and inclusion for advice and best practices. And, following a pattern from earlier in her career, she’s continuing her education. Indeed, she’s pursuing a certificate in diversity, equity, and inclusion from Cornell and attending a number of forums.

Her first assignment is to hire a strategic consultant to help chart a course, and eventually she plans to create a town Equity Advisory Committee.

While breaking new ground in West Springfield, Whitfield continues to serve her constituents across the river in the City of Homes.

As an at-large councilor, she represents the entire city and has established some priorities or specific points of focus, including transparency, finance, public safety (she’s been chair of the Mason Square C3 Initiative since 2016), home ownership, and education and workforce development.

Those are all matters to which she can speak from experience, especially when it comes to seeing how higher education can change one’s career path — and their life.

“I have seen how much people can change their life and advance through workforce development,” she told BusinessWest. “College isn’t for everyone right after high school, so I think workforce development is a great path.” 

 

Paying It Forward

Amid her myriad roles, Whitfield saves time to mentor others, especially a small group of young women, including some on her campaign team. She advises them on subjects ranging from politics to entrepreneurship; from credit repair to home ownership.

“I feel that anything I’ve done … I can pass that on to others,” she said. “If someone asks, and they’re serious, I’m definitely going to help them.”

And there is much she can help with, as we know from those business cards. Together, they speak of someone who used education to change her life, someone who has chosen not to just live in a community, but get involved in it — someone who has molded herself into a Woman of Impact.

 

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Women of Impact 2021

President and CEO, Clinical & Support Options

She’s Growing Her Agency and Cultivating the Next Crop of Behavioral-Health Leaders

By Mark Morris

Karin Jeffers knew she was taking a big risk.

It was 2005, and she had the opportunity to take the reins at Clinical & Support Options (CSO) — a nonprofit community behavioral-health agency that had lost several large contracts and had just parted ways with its third CEO in five years, the last one under investigation for Medicaid fraud in Vermont.

At the time, Jeffers was the regional director for the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (MSPCC), a job she greatly enjoyed. However, though secure in that role, she decided to take the risk and accept the top job at CSO. Reactions from her colleagues ranged from the polite — “we’re surprised to see you do that” — to the blunt: “what are you thinking?”

But during the interview process, Jeffers met the CSO staff and found people who were passionate and capable, and who cared about providing quality service.

“At that moment, it became clear the problem was leadership and not the staff or the agency mission,” she said. So she accepted the position with a realistic attitude. “We’re either going to fall on our face, or we’re going to make something of this.”

Fortunately for people all over Western Mass., she did make something of it. When Jeffers first joined CSO, it was a $4 million agency with 90 employees. Today, she manages a $45 million budget with more than 600 employees who provide services to 19,000 families and individuals.

This impressive growth resulted in large part from Jeffers adopting the philosophy that a nonprofit organization is a business and should be run like one.

“Nonprofit is a tax status, not a business model,” she said. “As important as our employees and clients are to us, profit and loss statements matter, too.”

To achieve the right balance, she believes in open communication. “Our manager meetings include behavioral-health people as well as fiscal staff,” she explained. “When there is something we would like to do but can’t, we are transparent about it so everyone understands how we reached our decision.”

Paying close attention to both the service and fiscal parts of the organization was key to CSO surviving and now thriving.

“When I joined CSO, we were days away from closing down, and there were weeks when we struggled to make payroll,” she recalled. “Now that we have enough capital to invest in the company, we are able to look at providing services five, 10, even 15 years out.”

 

Ladders to Success

That willingness to take risks goes back to her days as a sports physical therapy student at Springfield College. Physical therapy seemed like a logical major for Jeffers, who was a runner on the SC track team. Three years into her studies when the clinical practicum began, Jeffers discovered that working in physical therapy no longer appealed to her as a career.

“At that same time, I was taking an abnormal psychology class that was fascinating to me,” she recalled. She switched her major to psychology, then remained at SC, earning a master’s degree and later became a licensed mental-health counselor.

“We’re either going to fall on our face, or we’re going to make something of this.”

“I was the typical soon-to-graduate student,” she said. “I sent out 50 résumés and landed only one interview.” That interview was with MSPCC, which hired her as a therapist.

“I could not have asked for a better place to learn so much about the industry,” Jeffers noted. “Thanks to some fabulous mentors who were willing to teach and guide me, I kind of grew up professionally at MSPCC.”

Karin Jeffers says trauma-informed care informs not just clinical operations at CSO, but all departments, from IT to maintenance.

Karin Jeffers says trauma-informed care informs not just clinical operations at CSO, but all departments, from IT to maintenance.

In nearly 14 years, she rose through the ranks, holding several management positions, until she became regional director, overseeing operations across all of Western Mass.

As a leader, she appreciates that her success was due in large part to the internal promotions she received at MSPCC and the mentors who were willing to take a chance on her. “I wasn’t always the most experienced person, and I didn’t have all the answers, but there were people willing to invest in me and provide the opportunity.”

Because of that experience, internal promotions are strongly supported at CSO. Among 135 managers, she noted, 67% were promoted from within.

“Whether I’m mentoring women or men, I believe in giving someone an opportunity to take a risk and let them learn instead of looking for what they are doing wrong,” she said, adding that the result is a team of people who are invested and who can shine in their work.

“Promoting from within has helped define who we are as an agency,” she added. “It’s helped us grow, become more innovative, and provided stability in our management.”

While women outnumber men in direct human-services positions, the ratio reverses at top leadership levels, where women are less likely to be found. Jeffers became president and CEO at age 35, and, while she felt up to the task, there were some who questioned her abilities based on her age and gender.

“There is some truth to the idea that a woman has to work a little harder to get a seat at the table,” she told BusinessWest. “Once at the table, though, I’ve had wonderful experiences feeling very much on a level playing field among colleagues who are respectful to me.”

Behavioral-health workers often hear they are doing “God’s work.” While Jeffers agrees with that sentiment, she believes it’s also important to recognize these are medical professionals and should be compensated as such.

To that end, she serves on several influential boards, most notably the Assoc. of Behavioral Health and the National Council for Mental Wellbeing, where she advocates for parity in the way behavioral-health professionals are paid compared to those in physical care. Jeffers has testified to the state Legislature about where the disparities are and how to address them.

“Whether I’m mentoring women or men, I believe in giving someone an opportunity to take a risk and let them learn instead of looking for what they are doing wrong.”

“Investments in the workforce will make or break the future of community-based behavioral healthcare,” she said. While pandemic-relief money has been helpful in providing some immediate support, the goal is long-term salary increases.

“We have a seat at the table, and people are listening,” she added. “Now we need to see this turn into action.”

Currently, the state is looking at a redesign of its behavioral-health services, which gives Jeffers hope for lasting change. “It could really turn the tide for behavioral health in Massachusetts.”

 

Stepping Out

CSO is one of the first agencies in Western Mass. to adopt a training technique known as trauma-informed care (TIC). Because trauma can impact every aspect of health, TIC encourages a more compassionate approach in client interactions.

According to one TIC training website, asking someone “what happened to you?” instead of “what’s wrong with you?” is a simple example of the attitude shift when using this method. More than a treatment plan for clients, Jeffers sees TIC training as a model for how to do business at CSO.

“Our maintenance staff, IT, front desk, everyone is included in this training,” she said. “The goal is to shift the way we interact with clients and each other toward a culture of care.”

 

For Jeffers, risk taking is not limited to work. Her husband, Scott, lost his sales job after his company was acquired by a larger entity. As his next act, Scott considered purchasing the Daily Pint, a small pub that was for sale in Wilbraham, where he had grown up.

“Using all the risk taking we had applied at CSO, we took a leap of faith and said, ‘why not?’” Jeffers explained. So they acquired the Daily Pint, two years before the pandemic threw a wrench into plenty of business plans. After the initial impact of having to close and endure layoffs, the hometown pub has been making a comeback with the same staff returning to work.

“It’s really Scott’s day job, but since I’m a co-owner, I have to pull my weight there, too,” she said with a laugh.

When she can take time to reflect, Jeffers appreciates all the challenges CSO has overcome since she joined the agency in 2005.

“We serve about 19,000 people each year, and over the last 15 years, that’s a lot of people,” she said. “I feel privileged that the great team here at CSO allows me to be their leader.”

She also expressed gratitude that her team is willing to follow her and take risks as well.

“There were times when I’ve asked people to just trust me,” she said. “I’m so lucky to have people who do trust me and then get things done. It’s a real can-do attitude we have here.”

Smart risks and a can-do spirit — they’re just part of what makes Karin Jeffers a Woman of Impact.

Women of Impact 2021

Director, Center for Service and Leadership at Springfield College

She’s Built Stronger Bridges Between the College and the Neighborhoods Around It

 

Charlene Elvers says she and others at Springfield College affectionately refer to it as the “listening tour.”

It happened around seven years ago, she noted, and as that name suggests, there was a lot of listening going on — and there is still a good bit of it today. This tour, if you will, was prompted by her desire to build more and stronger bridges between the college and the two neighborhoods that surround it — Old Hill and Upper Hill — which, when you get right down to it, is her basic job description as director of the school’s Center for Service and Leadership.

The assignment, which had many components, included asking residents in those neighborhoods if they saw any tangible benefits to having the college in their backyard and, likewise, asking SC students if they saw any benefits, as in learning or growing opportunities, from being in that neighborhood. When both constituencies answered, for the most part, ‘no,’ Elvers knew she had to take some steps to change those responses.

“I wanted to someday talk with people who said, ‘one of the great benefits of living here is having Springfield College as a neighbor,’” she said, adding that, as a result of all that listening and the answers garnered, she spearheaded the creation of the Center for Leadership and Civic Engagement, an arm of the Center for Service and Leadership. It’s located in a three-story house a few blocks from campus and is, quite literally, a bridge between the community and the school.

It is mostly quiet now as a result of the pandemic, but before COVID-19 arrived, it housed a homework-help drop-in center and a middle-school mentoring program — initiatives that are both being carried out remotely.

“It is great when college students really see things from a different perspective, when they develop relationships with people who come from a different place than they came from.”

In the future, Elvers sees vast potential for the site also housing a bicycle-repair shop — her listening revealed that there isn’t one anywhere in the city, and there’s a real need for one — and that the large open space adjacent to the house can be used for fitness and recreation programs.

The Center for Leadership and Civic Engagement is perhaps the most visible manifestation of a 20-year stint at Springfield College that has been spent developing high-impact programs that seek to foster connections between the college and the community while working collaboratively with partners to identify and serve their needs.

Elvers told BusinessWest this is very rewarding work, and one of the biggest rewards is seeing how this involvement with those in the neighborhood prompts students to ask poignant questions about what they see and hear — and start to develop the resolve to help answer them.

“It’s great to have one foot solidly on this campus and another foot solidly in the community to bridge those two organizations,” she told BusinessWest. “It is great when college students really see things from a different perspective, when they develop relationships with people who come from a different place than they came from.

“I see them really begin to gain a broader a broader understanding of some of the social issues that are happening, and that’s when they begin to ask questions,” she went on. “They ask, ‘how did this happen? How did we end up here? Why are we in a neighborhood where there isn’t a grocery store?’”

Through her work to build these bridges between the college and the community, and through her efforts to inspire those kinds of questions from students, Elvers has clearly shown she is a true Woman of Impact.

 

School of Thought

Elvers, who has spent her entire career in higher education, came to Springfield College after a stint at Mount Holyoke College as director of Student Activities. In that capacity, her work drew her increasingly toward helping students connect with — and serve in — the communities they call home.

She summed up her career, and her time at Springfield College, this way. “While I have taught in a classroom from time to time, mainly my teaching is outside the classroom, and it comes through facilitating experiences for students to enhance their educational experience as well as to develop them into leaders.”

This passion, and it can only be called that, has been taken to new and higher levels at Springfield College, where, for more than a decade, Elvers oversaw the school’s annual Humanics in Action Day, which provided direct service throughout the community, and also transformed it — from a day of service to ongoing grants and support for individuals and groups wishing to partner and serve with community organizations.

“There has to be more that we can do to come together as a college and a local community and work together to make this neighborhood everything it can be and everything we want it to be.”

She also succeeded in building upon several existing programs, including a mentoring initiative, called the Partners Program, that has linked students at the college with young students at DeBerry and Brookings elementary schools for nearly three decades now.

“We have 80 pairs of mentors between the two schools,” she said, adding that the college has worked extensively with those elementary schools as well with organizations combating some of the long-standing issues in those neighborhoods, including food insecurity, homelessness, and others.

It was through these initiatives that Elvers came to understand that the college could, and should, take its involvement to a higher plane.

“Over the years, and from just getting to know a number of the families from the DeBerry school and the Brookings school, I began to realize that, in these two neighborhoods, there were a lot of families that had great ideas and things they wanted to see in their neighborhoods that weren’t there. And I began to wonder if there were ways to connect our students and facility and staff directly with the community. Working together, I thought we could start to facilitate some of the changes that we would all like to see.”

Thus commenced the listening tour, which was launched with a basic premise. “There has to be more that we can do to come together as a college and a local community and work together to make this neighborhood everything it can be and everything we want it to be.”

To that end, the school, with Elvers taking a leadership role, acquired the property that became the Center for Leadership and Civic Engagement.

Now in its fifth year, the center is a work in progress, Elvers said — progress that has in some ways been limited or slowed by COVID, but progress nonetheless.

From countless discussions with those in the neighborhood and from listening at dozens of school and church meetings, Elvers said two clear needs emerged: educational opportunities for young people outside of school, and health and wellness programs and activities for people of all ages.

The first initiatives launched were the middle-school mentoring program and the homework-help drop-in center, both of which have continued with virtual platforms, a shift that has actually enabled them to help more young people — and get more Springfield College students involved with the community.

And this brings Elvers back to the reason why it is so important to build these bridges between the college and the community. The biggest is to, in some ways, improve quality of life for those in Old Hill and Upper Hill. But there are others, especially the manner in which these programs help open students’ eyes to the challenges facing those living in these neighborhoods, prompt them to ask questions, and perhaps inspire them to help come up with answers.

Referencing the fact that there is no supermarket in that area of Springfield, Elvers said students will hear stories from the families and individuals they work with that really open their eyes.

“I have students who will say, ‘I’m working with these young people, and they have a hard time getting food, and when I ask them about it, they say they have to go somewhere else to go to a grocery store. And they’ll say they take the bus, but the driver only lets my mom take on two bags of food — and we need more food than that.’

“Our students often don’t realize the challenges that sometimes face these families,” Elvers went on. “And when they hear these stories, they start to realize, and that’s when they start to ask questions, like ‘why would there not be a grocery store in this neighborhood?’ and ‘who’s doing something about that?’ and ‘how do we get involved in that?’ and ‘what’s the process by which that can happen?’

“I have seen more college students ask the really important questions and start to engage after they’ve developed a relationship with a local family and learn of the challenges that are happening,” she continued. “These are challenges that some of them would never have faced.”

 

Grade Expectations

Opening students’ eyes to these challenges, these problems confronting those living just outside the campus, has become part of Elvers’ mission and work.

Her business card says she is the director of the Center for Service and Leadership. But she’s really a builder — a builder of relationships, of connections, of bridges between two entities that share a zip code but often little else.

And her success as a builder explains why she’s a Woman of Impact.

 

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Women of Impact 2021

CEO, YWCA of Western Massachusetts

Her Advocacy for Women and Children Has Taken Many Powerful Forms

 

Liz Dineen was always a bit different from her young peers. During the 1960s, when they were listening to the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and the Rolling Stones, she would scour her local library for famous speeches — in print and on vinyl — from the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Winston Churchill, and John and Robert Kennedy.

“I was very intrigued by the power of the word to mobilize people into action for good, and to motivate people to change,” she said.

At age 12, watching Bobby Kennedy’s funeral and procession, “I remember saying to my mother and father that day, ‘I want to be a lawyer. I want to make a difference.’ I’ve wanted to be an advocate for women and children my whole life, from when I was 12 years old, and I’ve kind of directed the rest of my life that way.”

Dineen wasn’t interested in criminal law when she entered law school, but an internship in the Hampden County District Attorney’s Office hooked her. So she kept working there, and stayed after graduation — for the next 27 years, in fact.

“I just loved being an advocate, being a trial lawyer and being able to fight in that legal arena for justice for women and children,” she said, specifically on wrenching cases involving physical and sexual child abuse, adult rapes, child murders, and domestic-violence murders.

“I’ve wanted to be an advocate for women and children my whole life, from when I was 12 years old, and I’ve kind of directed the rest of my life that way.”

“Liz Dineen was the epitome of a caring, supportive, and compassionate champion for those victims,” said attorney Stephen Spelman, who met her while working with her in the DA’s office in the 1990s, and later married her. “She was a zealous advocate in the courtroom, renowned throughout the state, and the nation, for getting decades-long sentences on those who had sexually assaulted children and women, or brutally harmed them physically.”

Always thinking innovatively, she also began a series of lectures and meetings among various professional groups (nurses, doctors, law enforcement, and prosecutors) to ensure, while women and children were receiving medical care after being assaulted, that crucial items of evidence were not tossed out or ignored. “These meetings not only improved the collection of evidence for trial, but also improved the medical care of the victims, particularly in sexual-assault cases,” Spelman said.

It was critical, deeply gratifying work, but after 27 years, Dineen felt it was time to step away. She had been teaching law in an adjunct capacity at Elms College and Bay Path University, and when an opportunity arose to chair Bay Path’s Criminal Justice department, she pursued and landed that role in 2009.

 

Liz Dineen with the most recent Springfield Police Academy class, which made a donation to the YWCA’s programs.

Liz Dineen with the most recent Springfield Police Academy class, which made a donation to the YWCA’s programs.

“I reinvented the department,” she said, “with a strong emphasis on developing women leaders within the criminal-justice arena.”

But in 2015, it was time to shift gears again, and this time, for the first time in her adult life, she took six months off to really think about the future. “I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do next, and I knew I was too young to retire,” she said, so she asked people who knew her well what they envisioned for her. “The answer that kept coming back was to go for a judgeship.”

So, with encouragement from judges and others she had interacted with, she applied for a Superior Court judgeship in December 2015. But then something unexpected happened — something that would completely alter Dineen’s life and career, but made perfect sense along her journey as a Woman of Impact.

 

Opportunity Knocks

It was the YWCA of Western Massachusetts, which was looking for an interim executive director, and reached out to ask if she would consider the role.

Coincidentally, Dineen had just finished reading Year of Yes, a book by TV production powerhouse Shonda Rimes. “The whole message was, ‘don’t be afraid to say yes, even if you’re not 100% qualified,’” she said. “Men will say ‘sure,’ while women make sure every ‘T’ is crossed and every ‘I’ is dotted. So I said, ‘sure — I will throw my hat in that arena.’”

Two weeks later, she was on the job — with no nonprofit experience, but plenty of exposure to some of the Y’s programmatic issues, like domestic violence and sexual assault. “It was a real learning curve in terms of how nonprofits work, how to go about maintaining the funding we already have, obtaining new funding, and seeking new opportunities to expand.”

In March, just a few months into the job, the state’s Judicial Nominating Committee contacted Dineen, wanting to interview her for that judgeship. When she told the executive committee of the YWCA board, they didn’t want to lose a good thing — and offered her the CEO position permanently. She said she’d need some time to think about it.

“But the more I thought about it, the more I thought, ‘if I take this position, I can be proactive. If I’m on a bench, I have to be reactive, meaning I have to wait for cases to come to me.’ And you can’t be political at all if you’re a judge. You have to be very selective in terms of who you’re associating with so you avoid any appearance of impropriety or preference. So I said, ‘OK, let’s try it. Let’s stay here and see what happens.’”

“Everyone realized, when the pandemic hit, that this community would need us now more than ever, and people just really stepped up. I’m proud that we could keep offering those services. We didn’t let the community down.”

Importantly, she noted, “I saw it as an opportunity to continue to serve women and children. I saw it as an opportunity to grow this organization and to be a changemaker in the nonprofit arena, especially on issues relating to women and children. And I have not regretted it.”

Besides growing the organization from 70 employees to 150 in just five and a half years, she has developed and expanded a number of programs, all with the YWCA’s mission — to eliminate racism, empower women, and promote social justice — in mind.

The YWCA offers 22 programs, residential and non-residential, to support women and girls, including a large domestic-violence shelter, residential housing for teen mothers, residential housing for women who are survivors of sexual assault or domestic violence, sexual-assault counselors who respond to local hospitals when a woman has been raped, in-court counselors for domestic-violence survivors, a 24-hour hotline, workforce-development programs, and many others.

Programs take a forward-looking approach to immediate crises. For example, the Children Who Witness Violence program provides therapy to kids (ages 3 to 17) who have witnessed or experienced domestic violence. “We’re trying to change the paradigm so they don’t replicate what they saw — so we can change generations going forward.”

Meanwhile, a financial-empowerment program considers that the vast majority of victims of physical domestic violence are also victims of financial abuse. This fiscal-education program dovetails with the YWCA’s workforce-development programs in that they aim to cultivate independence for women down the road, and they are also open to the public, not just to those who enter through the Y’s crisis services.

The YWCA also visits college campuses to talk about domestic violence and sexual assault, both counseling students and teaching about awareness and intervention in the classrooms, with an eye toward preventing those crisis situations to begin with.

Back on her own campus, Dineen finds satisfaction in seeing troubled lives change.

“I go into the shelter every day — it fuels me,” she said. “I particularly like to see the kids because the kids in the shelter are really happy. That surprised me, but it’s a little like camp — they’re around other kids — and they’re happy because they’re safe and they know their mom’s safe. You see a transformation within 24 hours; they come alive again.

“I can’t even imagine being a kid and seeing my mother get abused like that,” she went on. “Especially the little boys — you can see they’re very, very protective of their mothers. Some of them have said to me they feel bad they didn’t protect their mom. And I just keep saying, ‘you’re just a kid; it’s not your job. Your job is to do well in school and then go outside and play and scream and yell.’”

 

Shelter from the Storm

While the pandemic threw the social-service world into disarray, Dineen said she’s proud that all YWCA programs continued — many virtually, but some in person, including the domestic-violence shelter, two teen residential programs, and the supportive-housing program — “and we kept COVID out the entire time, which was a miracle.”

At the same time, many needs became more urgent. “So many women were looking for help, saying, ‘I’m trapped at home with my abuser. How can I get out, how can you help me?’”

The YWCA raised large amounts of money during that time, as individuals and organizations recognized those needs — including the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts, which awarded $200,000, some of which was used to place women in hotels because the shelter was full.

“I’m so proud of my staff and my board of directors,” Dineen said. “Everyone realized, when the pandemic hit, that this community would need us now more than ever, and people just really stepped up. I’m proud that we could keep offering those services. We didn’t let the community down.”

Throughout all of that, she’s never forgotten the legacy she’s forged, of empowering women — some in crisis, some learning from her, some working beside her — to move forward in their own lives. “The thing that gives me the most joy and causes this 65-year-old Irish Catholic girl, who never cried before, to actually cry is seeing another woman succeed.”

That goes for the women of color who direct the YWCA’s programs, and are encouraged to continually advance their education and training.

“I keep saying to them, ‘you are the future leaders of nonprofits of Western Mass. I want to be 80 years old, reading in the newspaper that you just got made a director or CEO of some organization.”

A four-decade career spent not only standing up for women, but helping them become advocates for others — that’s a real Woman of Impact.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

Women of Impact 2021

Executive Director, Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts

She Builds Coalitions to Tackle the Pressing Issues Facing Our Communities

Jessica Collins majored in history at Wellesley College. Her specific focus, the one she developed her thesis around, was the 1960s, specifically the Kennedy years and the men and women who defined them.

“I always found that time period very inspiring, and I think we’re still leaning from it today — there’s certainly some unfinished business,” she said. “I loved the oratory, the power, and the poetry of so many of the people at that time. I was always touched by it.”

So it probably shouldn’t be surprising that, upon graduating from the elite women’s school, she would heed Kennedy’s mantra of service to country and others and leave for the Pacific Northwest to serve as a Jesuit volunteer care coordinator for people living with HIV and AIDS. Her next stop after that was a two-year stint in West Africa with the Peace Corps — a tour of duty that ended when a coup erupted in Guinea-Bissau.

In both cases, it was public health — and a desire to help populations in need — that prompted which direction she took, both in terms of the compass and her career. And it’s the same today as she serves as executive director of the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts (PHIWM), formerly Partners for a Healthier Community.

The population in need is the one living in the 413 and especially Greater Springfield, and Collins and her growing team have responded with initiatives addressing issues ranging from asthma and obesity to food insecurity and oral health.

But they never address issues alone. Instead, it is in partnership with other nonprofits and healthcare providers, which illustrates what has become perhaps Collins’ strongest attribute among many — her ability to forge coalitions that can bring about meaningful change with regard to some of the most pressing, and persistent, public-health issues facing this region.

One of the latest engagements of this nature is called DASHH (Doorway to an Accessible, Safe and Healthy Home), a broad collaborative effort involving the PHIWM, Baystate Health, the Revitalize Community Development Corp., and other players that was recently honored with BusinessWest’s Healthcare Heroes award in the Collaboration in Health/Wellness category.

Through the program, launched in 2015, these organizations not only identify families in need of intervention for environmental health issues and educate them on lifestyle changes, but actually make the needed physical changes to their homes.

This is the kind of collaborative effort that not only brings about positive change within the community, but inspires individuals and groups to think about what else can be done, said Colleen Loveless, herself a Woman of Impact, who nominated Collins for the award this year.

“Jessica has made impactful contributions to the local and statewide community that have had positive ripple effects throughout the nation,” Loveless wrote. “She exemplifies spirit, service, compassion, and empathy for others, and exhibits a high sense of professionalism in everything she does.”

These traits, and especially her ability to listen, learn, and then mobilize forces to combat health and wellness issues and build stronger neighborhoods, have made Collins a true Woman of Impact.

 

Healthy Attitude

Returning to her time at Wellesley, Collins said that, while history and the Kennedy years were — and still are — a fascination, volunteering, or giving back, was — and still is — a passion.

And it took her first to the Northwest and her work with those living with AIDS.

“It was still tearing communities apart at that time,” she said of the disease. “This was still before they developed the ‘cocktail,’ a blend of medications that really came through in the late ’90s. At that time, people were dying, and it was people across all socio-economic classes; it was a very eye-opening experience.”

So, too, was her time in West Africa and the tiny nation of Guinea-Bissau, where she worked at a health center in a small village of 1,700 people. Working with a midwife and a nurse, she provided lessons in health education. “I obviously learned 100% more than what I taught,” she recalled.

Jessica Collins has devoted her career to public health and addressing some of the larger health problems facing society.

Jessica Collins has devoted her career to public health and addressing some of the larger health problems facing society.

“From both of those experiences, I knew I wanted to be part of something that would allow people to be healthy,” she explained. “It just fit my groove.”

Elaborating, she said she came to understand that she didn’t want to do this work one-on-one, but rather in a community-health setting, and with that goal in mind, she went about earning a master’s degree in food policy and applied nutrition from the Friedman School of Nutrition and Policy at Tufts University.

With that degree, she took a job as project manager of the Institute for Community Health in Cambridge, where she oversaw an overweight-prevention pilot study. Later, she served as project manager for Tufts’ “Shape Up Somerville: East Smart. Play Hard” study that received national recognition for reducing BMIz scores in high-risk third-grade students in Somerville Public Schools.

“ Jessica has made impactful contributions to the local and statewide community that have had positive ripple effects throughout the nation.”

When she relocated with her family to Western Mass., she joined PHIWM as director of Special Initiatives, and in 2015 she became executive director. She described the assignment as one that also fit her groove and gave her an opportunity to be a part of broad efforts that would change lives on many levels.

One of her first initiatives was to work with others to form the Live Well Springfield Coalition, which has been successful in increasing access to healthy eating and physical activity for residents and implementing a number of strategic initiatives, including the Go Fresh Mobile Market.

When asked about PHIWM, its mission, and how the agency carries it out, Collins said that, in essence, it watches, listens, identifies issues to be addressed, builds coalition to address them, creates action plans (with the actions varying from case to case), and, eventually, hands the issue off another group to handle and moves on to the next challenge — or challenges, to be more precise.

“We take on issues where we have heard from the community that there needs to be attention paid to that particular health issue,” she explained. “We look at the health issue both from stories we hear from people in the community as well as hard, quantitative data, and then we build a team.

“We invite people to the table with whatever strengths and value they’re going to add, and we lead the process,” she went on. “Sometimes there’s policy outcomes, sometimes there’s programmatic outcomes, and sometimes … there’s all of it. And we hold it close until there’s another group that’s poised to take it over.”

As an example, she cited the GoFresh Mobile Market, which was recently handed over to Wellspring Cooperative, a Springfield-based nonprofit that boasts Wellspring Harvest, a commercial hydroponic greenhouse in Indian Orchard that brings healthy, locally grown produce to area hospitals, schools, and residents.

“That’s just one example of how we incubate, and it’s another opportunity for another organization to take it on, build their mission out, and bring in new funding for themselves,” she said, adding that this has been the pattern followed with several public-health matters, including oral health, asthma, and transportation for patients who need it to get to appointments.

DASHH is another example, she said, adding that the PHIWM incubated the large and persistent problem of asthma and essentially handed off the healthy-homes initiative to the CDC, which can take action to address the matter on a much higher plane.

“It went from basically health education and showing up with a flyer to Colleen’s agency showing up remediating homes,” Collins said, adding that this work eventually led to a broadening of that specific mission to air quality, climate change, and the creation of a new coalition called Social Justice for Climate Change.

And that’s just one example of how interconnected the problems concerning public health are and how difficult it is to generate meaningful change.

“Public health and community health are never cut and dry — there’s not just one solution that’s going to help people lead balanced lives,” she explained. “It’s far more complicated than that, and that’s why we appreciate that this work takes decades, and we’re here to stay with it and to test different programs. It’s slow going.”

 

History Lessons

The next challenge for the PHIWM and Collins will be youth mental health, an issue essentially chosen by the city of Springfield even before the pandemic, which has only added more layers to an already complicated problem.

“We’ve been working on it for a year, and we’re in the phase of building our team and identifying strategies that we want to test in order to support families and kids around anxiety, depression, and suicidality,” she said, adding that still another priority for her agency, being addressed in partnership with the state Department of Public Health, is trying to understand how to “build capacity around the conversation of racial equity in this region,” as she put it.

“When you control for lots of different things when you’re doing data analysis around health indicators, it is clear that the color of people’s skin is still a top indicator for health,” she said. “And bringing health indicators to a level playing field will not be done until we can truly address one of the most significant root causes, which is racism in this country — so we’re working with a lot of different people to try to figure it out.”

That last comment effectively sums up what has become Collins’ life work and her significance to this region. Since arriving here, she has worked with countless individuals and groups to ‘figure it out.’

She is an administrator and advocate for those in need, but mostly she is a builder — of powerful collaborations that are changing the landscape when it comes to public health. It’s happening slowly, as she said, but it’s happening.

And that’s what makes her a Woman of Impact.

 

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Event Galleries Women of Impact Women of Impact 2020

Late last month, BusinessWest staged its annual celebration of the Women of Impact, a recognition program launched in 2018. This was a virtual celebration because of the pandemic, but the eight honorees were certainly celebrated in style, with live virtual networking, lively chat during the presentation, poignant introductions of the honorees, and inspiring remarks from the Women of Impact themselves. The virtual program featured videos of and welcoming remarks from presenting sponsors Country Bank, Health New England, and TommyCar Auto Group. Other sponsors and partners include Comcast Business, WWLP 22 News/CW Springfield, and Chikmedia.

The honorees for 2020 are :

Carol Campbell, president of Chicopee Industrial Contractors; Andrea Harrington, Berkshire County district attorney; Tania Barber, president and CEO of Caring Health Center; Helen Caulton-Harris, Health and Human Services commissioner for the city of Springfield; Christina Royal, president of Holyoke Community College; Toni Hendrix, director of Human Resources at Loomis Lakeside at Reeds Landing; Sue Stubbs, president and CEO of ServiceNet; and Pattie Hallberg, CEO of the Girl Scouts of Central and Western Massachusetts.

Carol Campbell, president of Chicopee Industrial Contractors

Carol Campbell, president of Chicopee Industrial Contractors


 

Andrea Harrington, Berkshire County district attorney

Andrea Harrington, Berkshire County district attorney

 


 

Tania Barber, president and CEO of Caring Health Center

Tania Barber, president and CEO of Caring Health Center


 

Helen Caulton-Harris, Health and Human Services commissioner for the city of Springfield

Helen Caulton-Harris, Health and Human Services commissioner for the city of Springfield

 


 

Christina Royal, president of Holyoke Community College

Christina Royal, president of Holyoke Community College

 


 

Toni Hendrix, director of Human Resources at Loomis Lakeside at Reeds Landing

Toni Hendrix, director of Human Resources at Loomis Lakeside at Reeds Landing


Sue Stubbs, president and CEO of ServiceNet

Sue Stubbs, president and CEO of ServiceNet


 

Pattie Hallberg, CEO of the Girl Scouts of Central and Western Massachusetts

Pattie Hallberg, CEO of the Girl Scouts of Central and Western Massachusetts

 

 


 

Special Coverage Women of Impact

With so many individuals doing so much throughout our community, we want to add an additional award this year. We’re accepting nominations for our Young Woman of Impact to be named the night of the event.

**Nominations MUST be submitted by January 14, 2021 at 5:30pm**

Nomination Eligibility:

  • Young women who are:
    • Creating a positive impact through their strong, inspiring, and motivation driven actions to problem solve in their community.
    • Addressing issues that impact more than just themselves.
    • Aspiring to be a Woman of Impact.
  • Female residents of, in school, or employed in Berkshire, Franklin, Hampden, and Hampshire county.
  • Submitting duplicate identical nominations for a nominee does not increase the chances of the nominee being selected.
  • Nominations must be submitted through the online nomination form ONLY.

Notification & Recognition:

  • BusinessWest will announce the winners at the 2020 Women of Impact virtual event on January 28, 2021.
 

Judging Process:

  • Nominations can be submitted from January 7, 2021 to January 14, 2021.
  • After nominations have been compiled, five nominees that embody strength, intelligence, and courage will be announced on social media (Facebook, Instagram, & Twitter) on January 19th.
  • From January 19th through the 26th, we ask our community to select on social media, through likes and impressions, which nominee most ignites inspiration and passion within!

Presenting Sponsors

Supporting Sponsor

Media Sponsor

Social Media Sponsor

Women of Impact

RSVP Here!

We invite you to virtually celebrate these amazing and impactful 8 women on January 28, 2021 from 6:30pm-8:00pm.

The event will feature virtual networking, a presentation featuring our honorees & sponsors, as well as a new and exciting addition to the program!

RSVP’s must be submitted by January 25, 2021 at 5:30pm. 

 

Cover Story Women of Impact 2020

2020 Women of Impact

• Tania Barber, President and CEO of Caring Health Center, who has led by example, with a servant’s heart, in both her healthcare career and in her ministry.
• Carol Campbell, President of Chicopee Industrial Contractors, who is using her influence to help other women find — and use — their voice.
• Helen Caulton-Harris, Health and Human Services commissioner for the city of Springfield, whose vision of a healthier community includes social equity.
• Patricia Hallberg, CEO of the Girl Scouts of Central & Western Massachusetts, who continues to be both a role model and advocate for women and girls.
• Andrea Harrington, Berkshire County district attorney, who set out to transform her region’s criminal-justice system and has done so, in myriad ways.
• Toni Hendrix, Director of Human Services at Loomis Lakeside at Reeds Landing, who has transformed organizations through empathy-based leadership.
• Christina Royal, President of Holyoke Community College, whose leadership has been tested and sharpened by the challenges wrought by a pandemic.
• Sue Stubbs, President and CEO of ServiceNet, who has grown her agency dramatically by recognizing needs and welcoming innovative ideas to meet them.

Thank You to Our Sponsors

Presenting Sponsors

Supporting Sponsor

Media Partner

Social Media Partner

Meet Our Judges

Carol Moore Cutting

In 1999, Carol Moore Cutting, a 2019 Women of Impact honoree, launched WEIB 106.3 FM, the only locally owned commercial FM radio station in the Greater Springfield market, the only female-owned FM radio station in Massachusetts, and the only station in New England owned by a person of color. She’s also sponsored myriad cultural organizations and jazz festivals in the Pioneer Valley and beyond, while supporting non-arts-related nonprofits over the years as well.

Shelley Regin

As senior vice president of Marketing at Country Bank, Shelley Regin draws on 25 years of experience with that institution. She has a bachelor’s degree in business administration and management and holds the professional designation of certified financial marketing professional, as well as a certification in social media. She also serves as vice president of the New England Financial Marketing Assoc. and an advisory board member for the American Bankers Assoc. Marketing School.

Katherine Putnam

Katherine Putnam, another 2019 Women of Impact honoree, is managing director of Golden Seeds, a national investment firm that focuses on early-stage businesses that have women in management and leadership roles. While investing in some developing ventures, she spends most of her time advising and mentoring entrepreneurs, especially women, while working diligently to create strategies for helping women and minorities crash through the many barriers facing them as entrepreneurs.

Women of Impact 2020

President, Chicopee Industrial Contractors

She Leads by Example and Shows Women How to Use Their Voice

Carol Campbell

Carol Campbell

Carol Campbell says she’s been heavily involved in the community for as long as she’s been a business owner — nearly 30 years now.

And she’s long believed it’s the responsibility of anyone in business to lend their time, energy, and talents to efforts and agencies focused on improving quality of life in a given region or specific community. She has backed up this belief with involvement in groups ranging from Rotary International to WestMass Development Corp. to Associated Industries of Massachusetts.

But Campbell, owner and president of Chicopee Industrial Contractors (CIC), a firm that specializes in rigging, millwrighting, machine and plant relocation, and structural steel installation, acknowledged that the nature of her giving back has changed somewhat over the past several years — and specifically since her first grandchild, Julia, was born.

“I held that child up and said, ‘you can be anything you want — a ballerina or the CEO of a rigging company,’” she recalled. “And when the words came out of my mouth, at that exact moment, I thought that I needed to be doing things a little differently — I need to be concentrating on what women and girls can do, today, tomorrow, and in the future.”

So, while Campbell is still active with WestMass, AIM, and other business organizations, over the past several years she has become more involved with groups whose missions involve the growth and development of women and girls — agencies ranging from the Women’s Fund to Dress for Success to Girls Inc.

“I held that child up and said, ‘you can be anything you want — a ballerina or the CEO of a rigging company.’ And when the words came out of my mouth, at that exact moment, I thought that I needed to be doing things a little differently — I need to be concentrating on what women and girls can do, today, tomorrow, and in the future.”

Meanwhile, she has also become a role model and mentor for many women, although she’s far more comfortable with the latter role than the former, as we’ll see. And at her own business — one that was and, in many ways, still is dominated by men — she has made it her mission to change that equation.

In fact, with the recent promotion of Deborah Dart, one of those Campbell has mentored, officially and unofficially, to operations manager, she now has a management team made up entirely of women.

“That was a goal I had, and it’s a goal I’ve achieved,” she said with discernable pride. “This company was all men at the start — we probably had women as file clerks — and now, the entire leadership team is women.”

Speaking of Dart, she nominated Campbell to be a Woman of Impact, and we’ll let her words drive home why she is now a member of the class of 2020.

“Carol’s success at CIC has paved the road and broken down barriers for other women in the industry,” she wrote. “She is now not the only woman in the board room or at the table. Her success at CIC has not come easy, but it has allowed her to pay it forward. Carol is known for sharing her thoughts and opinions, and she has used her voice to help her company, her community, and her friends.”

Indeed she has, and this notion of using one’s voice is something that Campbell stresses often when mentoring others, a sentiment passed down by her mother, and now passed on by her.

It’s just one of reasons why she lives up the name of this BusinessWest recognition program — she continues to have an impact — a deep impact — here in Western Mass.

 

Showing Her Metal

By now, most people know the story of how Campbell came to enter that male-dominated world of rigging and machine relocation. She was working as director of Marketing and Development for the UMass Fine Arts Center in the early ’90s, but looking for an entrepreneurial challenge.

Three area rigging plants had been shut down in the wake of the recession of the early ’90s, and Campbell started CIC as a way to rescue many of those workers, including her now-ex-husband.

Over the past 27 years, she has steered the company through a number of economic ups and downs — the Great Recession hit this company later than most, but very hard — including this latest downturn brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

For example, when things got slow earlier this year, as manufacturing and other sectors were put in a wait-and-see mode by the pandemic, Campbell used a Paycheck Protection Act loan to keep her people employed, and used the time for training and professional development.

“We didn’t have enough projects to keep everyone working, so we decided to do training,” she recalled. “We did in-house and online training — on our hard skills, our soft skills, and technical skills — and we did that through March, April, and May.”

Those training sessions speak to Campbell’s approach to business and management, one that is employee-focused and perhaps best explained with more commentary from Deb Dart:

“Carol’s core values would not allow her to lead without respect and equality for all, and using the principles of W. Edward Demming and Stephen Covey, she worked to create a paradigm shift in the industry, or at least at CIC, to create a work environment that is more linear, but, most important, a workplace without fear.”

Still, her leadership, entrepreneurial daring, and management philosophies are only some of the reasons why Campbell is being honored as a Woman of Impact. As noted earlier, she has, throughout her career, been very active within the community and, more specifically, with groups and agencies ranging from the Chicopee Chamber of Commerce and that’s city’s Rotary Club; from AIM and WestMass to Health New England, which she continues to serve as a board member.

The management team at Chicopee Industrial Contractors is now all women: from left, Anne Golden, director of Finance; Carol Campbell, president and CEO; Liz Sauer, project manager; and Deb Dart, director of Operations.

The management team at Chicopee Industrial Contractors is now all women: from left, Anne Golden, director of Finance; Carol Campbell, president and CEO; Liz Sauer, project manager; and Deb Dart, director of Operations.

More recently, she has devoted much of her time and energy to groups involved with women and children, and also to some women she is mentoring, with the accent on the present tense. It’s a role she has grown into and is now comfortable with because of what she can share.

“I like the fact that’s it’s an exchange — it’s not teaching,” she told BusinessWest. “It’s working to help individuals determine what their goals are, and then helping them find a path to accomplishing those goals. I’m not an executive coach, by any means, but if they’re on a path that’s similar to mine, which is to be a leader within an organization, I’ve dealt with something similar to what they’re going through.

“For me, it’s an opportunity to show them they’re not alone in this and that it’s not smooth sailing,” she went on. “We’ve all had ups and downs in business, and I’ve seen a number of them myself. The goal is to learn from each other.”

And while successes in business are important, one thing she’s learned — and also tells those she mentors — is that people can learn more from their mistakes, and usually do.

“Some of my worst management experiences have been my biggest assets for learning about who I want to be and how I want to lead,” she explained, adding that this is one of the insights she shares with mentees she’s matched with the WIT (Women Innovators and Trailblazers) program and other initiatives.

As for that phrase ‘role model,’ she is, as noted, less comfortable with it.

Carol Campbell has balanced work in her adopted field with mentoring efforts and contributions of time and energy to many area nonprofits.

Carol Campbell has balanced work in her adopted field with mentoring efforts and contributions of time and energy to many area nonprofits.

“I don’t think I would call myself a role model — when a reference is made, even about my leadership, I’m pretty humble about it, because I’ve always just done what I feel is right,” she explained. “I’ve always thought that, if I could help anyone in any way, I would do it — I always want to give someone a hand up.”

 

Doing the Heavy Work

There’s a pillow on a bookshelf in Campbell’s office with an embroidered message that says simply: “Behind Every Successful Women is …