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.
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:
She’s Created a Blueprint for Being an Effective Leader
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.”
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.
“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.
She’s Engineering Opportunities for Many in a Dynamic Field
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.
“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.”
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.
This Leader Helps Others Achieve a Sense of Belonging
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.
“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.”
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.
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 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.
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.”
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.
Amherst Town Councilor; President, Ancestral Bridges
By Connecting Past with Present, She’s Changing the Narrative of Amherst’s History
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
She’s Choreographed a Broader, More Holistic Mission at This Critical Nonprofit
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.
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.
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.
For Nearly a Century, She’s Been Fighting for Good Causes
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
This Writer, Coach, Mentor, Educator, and Motivator is a True Renaissance Woman
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.’
“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.”
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.
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.