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Celebrating the Women of Impact

More than 400 people turned out at the Sheraton Springfield on Dec. 6 for BusinessWest’s inaugural Women of Impact luncheon. Eight women were honored for their achievements in business and with giving back to the community. Massachusetts Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito attended and offered remarks on subjects ranging from advancements in STEM education to a host of bipartisan efforts at the State House. Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno also offered remarks. The keynote speaker was Lei Wang, the first Asian woman to complete the Explorers Grand Slam.

The Women of Impact for 2018 are:

• Jean Canosa Albano, assistant director of Public Services, Springfield City Library;

• Kerry Dietz, principal, Dietz Architects;

• Denise Jordan, executive director, Springfield Housing Authority;

• Gina Kos, executive director, Sunshine Village;

• Carol Leary, president, Bay Path University;

• Colleen Loveless, president and CEO, Revitalize Community Development Corp.;

• Janis Santos, executive director, HCS Head Start; and

• Katie Allan Zobel, president and CEO, Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts.

Photography by Dani Fine Photography


Thank you to our sponsors:




Bay Path University; Comcast Business; Country Bank; Granite State Development

Exclusive Media Sponsor:

Springfield 22 News The CW

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Event Keynote Speaker

Lei Wang
The first Asian woman to complete the Explorers Grand Slam. Lei Wang’s journey redefined success in her own terms, and today, she is challenging individuals around the world to do the same.

In 2004, Lei, who grew up as a Beijing city girl who had no athletic training, set out to climb Mount Everest. She was on a promising career trek in finance with an MBA from Wharton. But she was excited about proving that an ordinary person could climb Everest. That excitement empowered her to not only climb Everest, but to become the first Asian woman to complete a journey to the summits of the highest mountains on each of the 7 continents and to the north and south pole, a feat called the Explorer’s Grand Slam. As she endured outstanding hardships and overcame seemingly insurmountable obstacles, she made an astonishing  discovery. She discovered that excitement is the driving force motivates and empowers every one of us and the secret to innovation, peak performance and extraordinary achievement. Today as a speaker, author and adventurer she travels the world to ascend new summits and empower individuals and organizations to dream big, take a leap of faith and to tap into the power of excitement to realize their potential and reach the heights of success. Read more about Lei here.

Meet the Judges

Samalid Hogan
Samalid Hogan is the regional director for the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center Network’s Western Regional Office. In that role, she has built partnerships across public, private, and civic sectors to achieve economic-development goals for the Pioneer Valley region. In 2014, Hogan founded CoWork Springfield, the city’s first co-working space, which focuses on serving women and minority-owned businesses. In addition, she was appointed to the Governor’s Latino Advisory Commission in 2017, and serves on the boards of several organizations, including Common Capital, the New England Public Radio Foundation, the Minority Business Alliance, and National Junior Tennis and Learning of Greater Springfield. A BusinessWest 40 Under Forty honoree in 2013 and winner of the Continued Excellence Award in 2018, she was also awarded the Grinspoon Entrepreneurial Spirit Award in 2017 and was recognized as a Woman Trailblazer and Trendsetter by the Massachusetts Latino Chamber of Commerce in 2016.

Susan Jaye-Kaplan
Susan Jaye-Kaplan is the founder of the Pioneer Valley Women’s Running Club and Go FIT Inc., and co-founder of Link to Libraries Inc., an organization whose mission is to collect and distribute books to public elementary schools and nonprofit organizations in Western Mass. and Connecticut. She is also the co-founder of the Women’s Leadership Network and founder of the Pioneer Valley Women’s Running Club of Western Mass., as well as an advisory board member and fundraiser for Square One. She has received one of the nation’s Daily Point of Light Awards, the President’s Citation Award at Western New England College, Elms College’s Step Forward/Step Ahead Woman of Vision Award, Reminder Publications’ Hometown Hero Award, the Mass. Commission on the Status of Women Unsung Heroines Award, the New England Patriots’ International Charitable Foundation Community MVP Award (the only person to receive this award two times), and the Girl Scouts of Pioneer Valley’s Women of Distinction Award. She was chosen one of BusinessWest’s Difference Makers in 2009. She has also received the National Conference on Community Justice Award, the Springfield Pynchon Award, and the Holyoke Rotary’s Paul Harris Award.

Dora Robinson
Dora Robinson has served as a nonprofit leader and practitioner for more than 35 years. She recently retired from the United Way of Pioneer Valley (UWPV) after serving for more than eight years as president and CEO. Previously, she served as the first full-time president and CEO of Martin Luther King Jr. Family Services for 19 years. The foundation for these leadership roles is based on previous experiences as corporate director and vice president for the Center for Human Development and vice president of Education at the Urban League of Springfield. Her earlier professional experiences included social work with adolescents and families, community outreach, and program planning and management. She is currently an adjunct professor at Springfield College School for Social Work and the School for Professional Studies. Dora has received much recognition for her work as a nonprofit executive leader and her work in social justice. Most recently, she was elected to serve on the board of directors for the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts and is serving as a steering committee member to establish a neighborhood-based library in East Forest Park.

Women of Impact 2018

Assistant Director for Public Services, Springfield City Library

Photo by Dani Fine Photography


She Keeps Writing New Chapters to a Story of Community Activism

Jean Canosa Albano says she’s been called an ‘honorary Latina,’ not once, but on a number of occasions.

That’s not an official title by any means — there’s no plaque or certificate to this effect, obviously — but it might be the honor, or designation, she’s most proud of.

That’s because, while she’s not Hispanic in origin, she speaks Spanish — she’s studied it here and abroad — and has therefore made thousands of non-English-speaking visitors to the Springfield City Library more comfortable and better able to utilize its many resources.

More importantly, though, she has advocated for that constituency — and in many ways become part of it — during a lengthy career devoted not only to library science but to community building and community involvement.

A few weeks back, Albano again led a contingent from the Springfield City Library marching in the annual Puerto Rican Parade through downtown Springfield, something the library has done the past several years. It’s a symbolic step and an indicator of how the institution, and especially Albano, have taken great strides, literally and figuratively, in efforts to serve that constituency and connect it with resources.

“I’m not a Latina — I have a different heritage,” she told BusinessWest. “But I have embraced it as much as somebody from outside the culture can. “I’ve been called an honorary Latina, and I love it when I hear people say that.”

But service to the Hispanic population is only one chapter, albeit an important one, in the story of Albano’s career spent with the library — and as someone committed to being involved in the community and inspiring others to get involved.

“I’m not a Latina — I have a different heritage. But I have embraced it as much as somebody from outside the culture can. “I’ve been called an honorary Latina, and I love it when I hear people say that.”

To put that service, and her career, in their proper perspective, she said that all through it, she has adopted a variation, if you will, of Shirley Chisholm’s often-quoted bit of advice. The first black woman elected to Congress famously said, “if they don’t offer you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.”

“I feel very fortunate — the Springfield community is very open and welcoming, so I haven’t had to bring my own chair very often,” Albano explained. “But I have made my own invitation sometimes; when I see something going on in the community that I would like to get involved in or when I think the library could benefit from me being there, or when we have something to offer, I won’t be shy about inviting myself to be part of it.”

Examples of this mindset abound, from her participation in the Reading Success by Fourth Grade initiative to Gardening the Community; from summer learning groups to the Young Professional Society of Greater Springfield.

With that last one, she acknowledged that maybe — that’s maybe — she’s not exactly in the target demographic group. But she saw a group with an intriguing mission and another opportunity to help strengthen the community through her own involvement.

“I said to myself, ‘they’re doing cool work, but maybe I’m a little old for that group,’” she recalled. “Then I saw some news coverage on them and heard that they didn’t have an age limit, so I decided to join. I go to the social events, and have learned about the small-business development happening in those circles, and connected them to the library; I really enjoy it.”

Jean Canosa Albano, right, with friends Maria Acuna, a Realtor, and Holyoke City Councilor Gladys Lebron, at the 2015 Puerto Rican Parade.

Jean Canosa Albano, right, with friends Maria Acuna, a Realtor, and Holyoke City Councilor Gladys Lebron, at the 2015 Puerto Rican Parade.

As she said, she’s been making her own invitations and getting involved. And while doing that, she’s always looked for new and different ways to help others get involved and help them develop professionally — especially women and minorities.

Which brings us to “My Beloved Springfield,” a women’s leadership panel and information fair she created. The most recent edition, staged last spring, featured a host of speakers discussing the paths they took to leadership positions, including Springfield City Councilor Kateri Walsh; Arlene Rodriguez, a senior advisor for the Mass. Department of Higher Education; and others.

Looking back on her career, Albano said her command of Spanish has created opportunities for her — when she entered a poor job market in the mid-’80s, it helped her land a job with the Springfield City Library. And in many ways, she has dedicated her career to creating opportunities for others.

As we explore the many ways she has done that, it will certainly become clear why this public servant, who keeps writing new chapters to her story of involvement, is a Woman of Impact.

A Good Read

‘Spanish desirable.’

That’s the two-word phrase that caught Albano’s attention as she read a job posting for the library position that would become the springboard for a career she says she “fell into.”

It was as a library associate with the Brightwood branch in the city’s North End neighborhood, heavily populated by Hispanics then and now.

“I remember saying to my mother, ‘I think this is a job I can do and that you would love,” Albano recalled, adding that her mother wanted to get into library science after high school, but was hindered by the cost of higher education.

Turns out, she came to love it herself — not only the job, but working with and on behalf of the residents of that neighborhood.

“Speaking Spanish was a real help in not only communicating with people, but also getting out into the community, becoming part of it, and discovering what the people there wanted and needed — from the library and from life — so we could respond,” she said. “I remember going to the old version of the Puerto Rican Festival or just going out onto Main Street or visiting schools; there was a lot of filling in the gaps and building bridges — and that’s been the way I approach my work to this day.”

Indeed, while Albano moved on from the Brightwood branch — she came to the central library in 1989 — she has continued to build those bridges, taking her service to the community far outside the library walls, while also making that institution a welcoming and responsive resource for city residents.

In her role as assistant director for Public Services of the libraries, she wears a number of hats — as well as an ‘Hablo Español’ button. She’s involved with a variety of human-resources functions, including hiring and recruiting, and as she recruits, she’s looking for individuals who embody what she calls a ‘turned-outward attitude’ with regard to the institution and how it must function.

Albano acknowledged that, overall, the library’s role within the community has changed somewhat over the past 30 years, and so have the duties of those who work there.

She can recall working on the reference desk decades ago and fielding a wide range of questions from callers who couldn’t simply Google things when they needed the answer to a pressing question. She remembers fielding queries on everything from stock prices on a specific date to the ISBN (International Standard Book Number) for specific titles so people could order them (now, they just go on Amazon) to Dr. Seuss and his history in Springfield.

Today, while there’s still a reference desk, the librarian spends less time behind it, and the questions are generally much different than those of a generation or two ago.

“People will ask how they can upload their résumé to a specific site, or how they can tell if a website is legitimate,” she told BusinessWest, adding that today, libraries, while still storehouses of books and information, are more community hubs than anything else.

“The library is a place to be when you need some solace, a place to be when you need to reflect, a place to meet with neighbors and strengthen community,” she said. “It’s also a place to research your entrepreneurial idea, gather together to learn, and build community.”

Spreading the Word

When the Springfield City Library created a number of outreach teams several years ago, Albano was assigned — actually, she assigned herself — to lead the civic and community-engagement team.

The key word in that phrase, of course, is engagement, she said, adding that the group focused on connecting people with their city and getting them involved with government and the many issues impacting the community.

“A lot of people feel disconnected, and we wanted to do something about that,” she said, adding that, through partnerships with the Springfield Election Commission, the Secretary of State’s Office, the League of Women Voters, the Women’s Fund, and other groups, the library has helped stage ‘meet the candidates’ events and other informational programs.

“Speaking Spanish was a real help in not only communicating with people, but also getting out into the community, becoming part of it, and discovering what the people there wanted and needed — from the library and from life — so we could respond.”

Like “Slots, Pot, Veal, and Schools,” an intriguingly titled program focusing on the four ballot questions for last year, dealing with casinos, marijuana, animal welfare, and charter schools.

“That was a heated debate moderated and filmed by Focus Springfield,” she recalled. “And it was released throughout the Commonwealth, so we had hundreds of views beyond the people in the room.”

In recent years, the library has coordinated a host of other programs, including one on how to run for office and what it’s like to serve in an elected position, she said, adding that 30 or even 20 years ago, it is unlikely that the city library would have been involved in such matters. Today, though, as part of its changing role, the institution is acting as (or much more as) a connector and a convener.

And Albano has been at the forefront of many of these efforts, especially with the Hispanic population and other often-underserved constituencies.

The Hispanic population is now quite large in Springfield, said Albano, adding that, in the public schools, at least 60% of the students are Hispanic. These numbers demand attention, she went on, adding that institutions across the city, including the library, need more than people on their staffs who can speak the language — although that certainly helps.

They need people who can connect with that population, advocate on its behalf, and connect people with resources.

The city’s response, and the library’s response, to the needs of those impacted by Hurricane Maria is a good example, she told BusinessWest, adding that staff members there helped with everything from attaining a library card to figuring out where to receive help with insurance matters, and host of other issues.

“We were always thinking about ways to make a stressful time, a very traumatic time, less stressful,” she said, adding that thousands of refugees came into this region, and most all of them needed help on many levels.

While the Hispanic population has been a primary focus of Albano’s time and energy, so too has been the subject of leadership and helping others develop those skills.

Which brings us, in a roundabout way, to Sonia Sotomayor’s historic visit to Springfield in 2015 as part of the Springfield Public Forum, an opportunity Albano said she ran with.

Indeed, she was able to obtain multiple copies of Sotomayor’s book in English and Spanish and set up a book-discussion group. She was also able to help arrange a meeting with the justice, the nation’s first of Hispanic descent, prior to her talk.

Sotomayor’s book is titled My Beloved World, and it, and the justice’s visit, inspired Albano to launch “My Beloved Springfield,” a now-annual program that brings in women leaders to tell their stories and lead a moderated discussion.

It’s simply one aspect of her broad efforts to help foster the next generation of leaders for this region, a role she takes very seriously.

“If you’re going to truly be a woman of impact, you have to pass things along,” she explained. “You have to make opportunities known to others, and you have to help them get there.”

Volume Business

As noted earlier, Albano hasn’t had to bring too many lawn chairs with her during her career. Indeed, she’s been given seats at a number of tables.

But she has invited herself to get involved on many occasions and in many ways, bringing the community into the library and the library into the community while doing so, and strengthening both.

Thirty years after taking a job her mother would love, she has come to love everything about it, especially the many forms of outreach.

She loves those almost as much as being called an honorary Latina.

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

Women of Impact 2018

Executive Director, Springfield Housing Authority

Photo by Dani Fine Photography

Throughout Her Career, She’s Been Both Active and Visible

Denise Jordan says she was caught off guard — “blindsided” was her exact terminology — when Domenic Sarno, then Springfield’s mayor-elect, asked her to be his chief of staff when he assumed the corner office in early 2008.

Not just because she had only recently started working for him on the campaign trail, but also because she had no real idea just what a chief of staff did and what this position might mean for her, career-wise and otherwise.

So she researched it the way people research things these days.

“I Googled ‘chief of staff,’” she told BusinessWest with a wide smile on her face, adding that her online search was, for the most part, fruitless. Indeed, about the only material she could find regarding that title related to the military.

Still desperate for some insight into what a chief of staff does, she said she started watching reruns of The West Wing hoping to get a clue.

In the final analysis, she said ‘yes’ to Sarno’s offer without really knowing just what the job entailed and what she would be doing day in and day out. Which turned out fine, because if there was a standard, or traditional, job description for the Springfield mayor’s chief of staff (and there wasn’t, really), Jordan essentially tore it up and wrote her own.

“She was driven, but she also had a great deal of compassion and empathy — and that’s important in this business.”

Indeed, during her more than 10 years in the post, she was highly accessible and visible (something most mayoral chiefs of staff were not) and also innovative and even entrepreneurial in her efforts to serve the city’s roughly 150,000 residents and represent her boss and his plans for the city.

Most everyone remembers how she was front and center after the June 1, 2011 tornado that practically went over the roof of City Hall as it traveled to the south and east across the city, working 45 straight days and assuming a wide variety of duties in an effort to restore order and begin the work of rebuilding.

But in many ways, she was like that every one of the nearly 4,000 days she spent as chief of staff for the Sarno administration, displaying the qualities needed to do that job well, but also being a true leader within the community.

“She was driven, but she also had a great deal of compassion and empathy — and that’s important in this business,” said the mayor, adding that Jordan, now executive director of the Springfield Housing Authority, is recognized as a “voice of leadership” not just for the city but in the region.

This explains why she’s been asked to lend her time, energy, and talents to organizations and causes ranging from Rays of Hope (she’s a breast-cancer survivor herself) to Square One; from the Massachusetts Women of Color Coalition to the United Way of Pioneer Valley’s Women’s Leadership Council.

And when asked for her working definition of ‘leader’ and what separates such an individual from a manager, Jordan offered a response that explains why she is a Woman of Impact.

Denise Jordan says she grew up in a “house of service,” and all through her life and career she has made it a priority to give back.

Denise Jordan says she grew up in a “house of service,” and all through her life and career she has made it a priority to give back.

“Managers tend to the day to day, and they keep things going,” she explained. “Leaders … they chart the path; they’re the ones who hold folks accountable and set the tone for an organization. Leaders are people who other people follow, not because they have to, but because they believe in their ability to lead.”

Stay with us, and soon it will be clear why Jordan certainly fits her own description of ‘leader.’

An Involved Effort

Jordan was at the famous civil-rights rally at the Octagon Lounge in Springfield in 1965. Well, sort of.

Her mother was several months pregnant with her at the time, and she was there, as was her father, Raymond Jordan, later a long-time state representative, who was arrested that day along with many others. Denise said her parents were a huge influence for her growing up, instilling in her the importance of getting involved and serving the community.

“I always tell people that I grew up in a house of service,” she told BusinessWest. “Both my parents were actively involved in the civil-rights movement in Springfield, and they were also very involved in the community.”

Her résumé would indicate that she learned well from her parents’ example. It lists stints as a civil-rights officer with the Executive Office of Health & Human Services in Boston, a variety of posts for the Department of Mental Retardation, starting in 1989, and as a personnel compliance monitor with the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority.

But while carrying out those various responsibilities, she was also very active within the community.

“I just recall that, ever since I was young, I’ve always been someone who volunteered to do something,” she said. “When I was young, I did all the March of Dimes walk-a-thons, and just volunteered for anything and everything.

“I’m a product of the Girls Club on Acorn Street,” she went on. “And that was probably the beginning of just being around a lot of nurturing adults who always put us first and gave back. And I think, from that moment, I always strived to be one of those adults when I was old enough to be.”

She said she got her start within the community as a board member for Martin Luther King Family Services, and considered that a springboard to a wide range of service, from chaperone duties for the Martin Luther King Center’s black college tours to a stint on the FutureWorks board; from being a founding member of the Martin Luther King Charter School for Excellence to serving as president of Academic Athletic Arts Achievement Assoc. (5A) Football, a youth football league founded by her father in the mid-’90s.

She served for 10 years on the Election Commission and as chair for six years. Under Mayor Charlie Ryan, she served as co-chair of the Youth Commission.

All that work within the community caught the eye and the attention of Sarno. Jordan says she knew him, but not personally or very well when he called early in 2009 and invited her to a meeting, at which he revealed his plans to run for mayor and asked for her support.

He got it, and after the election that swept him into office, he named Jordan co-chair of his transition team. Not long thereafter, he had a different role in mind.

And as noted earlier, one of her first priorities was to make the chief of staff visible and accessible — to a host of constituents, but especially city employees.

“It’s been said that the doors of City Hall were really opened under the Sarno administration,” she said. “I remember my first week at City Hall … there were employees who had been in the building 25, 30 years, and they had never seen the chief of staff’s office the whole time they had been working there.”

Twists and Turns

Just to be clear, there is an official job description for the chief of staff’s job at the mayor’s office. The list of duties is rather extensive and includes everything from representing the mayor in dealings with constituents, city officials, and the business community to overseeing commission and board appointments, to being the mayor’s first point of contact for 2,800 municipal employees.

“Managers tend to the day to day, and they keep things going. Leaders … they chart the path; they’re the ones who hold folks accountable and set the tone for an organization. Leaders are people who other people follow, not because they have to, but because they believe in their ability to lead.”

But during a decade-long stretch that saw the tornado and a host of other weather events, a natural-gas explosion that damaged several city blocks, and a seven-year-long effort to bring a resort casino to the city, the position demanded that its holder provide real leadership, and Jordan did just that.

Especially in the hours, days, weeks, and months after the tornado tore a path across Springfield seven and half years ago. To Jordan, it seems like only yesterday, and the memories of that period remain etched in her mind.

She has vivid recollections from the moments just as the tornado passed almost directly over City Hall, such as gathering in the basement of that structure and later seeing what she described as “mass pandemonium” in Court Square and the area to the south.

She also remembers instinct kicking in as she hailed a passing police cruiser and directed the officer to take her to the city’s emergency command center on Carew Street.

“It was a like a scene out of a movie,” she recalled. “You literally jump in a car, and the sirens are going, and you’re driving down State Street trying to get where you need to go. To me, it was so reassuring to see the leadership qualities of the department heads of the city of Springfield; we had never had a disaster like that, but folks just knew what to do.”

Sarno said Jordan was one of those leaders, visible as always, doing whatever needed to be done, and acting with that aforementioned blend of drive and compassion.

“Boots on the ground, literally — that was her,” the mayor recalled. “She was out there in the days and weeks after the tornado, going to door-to-door in all the neighborhoods in that heat and humidity, talking to residents, assessing damage, helping however she could.”

Jordan was brand-new to the Housing Authority position when she talked with BusinessWest. In fact, it was her first day on the job.

She said she would approach it the same way she’s approached everything during in her career — by making full use of her strong listening skills, being visible and accessible, and putting those she’s serving first.

“Every job I’ve had, I’ve been paid to serve people,” she explained. “When the Housing Authority position came open … I didn’t see myself there initially. But the more I talked to people about the skill sets needed and things like that, I decided that this was something I wanted to pursue, based on the fact that it still put me in a position to help people.”

Soon after Jordan started her work with Sarno’s team in 2008, friends and colleagues threw a party to mark the occasion — specifically her becoming the city’s first African-American chief of staff. And as her time with the mayor was winding down, many of those people decided it was time to throw another party.

But Jordan, thinking another celebration wasn’t really necessary, decided to transform the event into a fundraiser for Rays of Hope, which this year celebrated its 25th anniversary (she was one of the event chairs).

Her goal was $5,000. When she talked with BusinessWest, she had more than tripled that, and checks were still coming in.

“I’m beyond excited and overwhelmed … it’s good to be able to give back to an organization,” said Jordan.

And she should know; she’s been doing it her whole life.

Impact Statement

Jordan told BusinessWest that she had to give up her leadership post with 5A Football about a year after becoming Sarno’s chief of staff.

As she recalled, her time watching football was devoured by city residents making various requests and demands.

“I was too accessible,” she said with a laugh. “Every game, somebody wanted a job, or they wanted to complain about their taxes, or they wanted me to get their kids into a certain school … after a while, it became too much.”

‘Too much’ isn’t a phrase you hear Denise Jordan utter very often. Her career has always been marked by her willingness to take on more, do more, achieve more, and be more of a leader within her community.

That’s the job description not for a chief of staff, but for a Woman of Impact, and that’s why she’s a member of the inaugural class of 2018.

By the way, she didn’t have to look that title up on Google. Her career’s work defines it perfectly.

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

Women of Impact 2018

Executive Director, Sunshine Village

Throughout Her Career, She’s Made It Her Business to Get Involved

Photo by Dani Fine Photography

There have always been several ways in which Gina Kos embodies that phrase ‘Woman of Impact.’

At the top of the list, obviously, is the remarkable turnaround she has orchestrated at Sunshine Village, the nonprofit agency that operates a wide variety of programs that promote independence for individuals with disabilities.

When she took over as interim executive director in 1996, the agency was at a crisis point. Over the next several years, she scripted a compelling recovery story, stabilizing its finances, adjusting its roster of programs, and eventually transforming Sunshine Village into an employer of choice, so designated by the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast.

And while doing all that, she has been very active within the community, especially Sunshine Village’s hometown of Chicopee. She’s served as a trustee of Elms College and as Chicopee water commissioner, and has also been involved with that city’s Rotary Club and Chamber of Commerce. Meanwhile, she’s donated her time, energy, and talents to region-wide nonprofits ranging from Dress for Success to the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County (now HassHire) to Link to Libraries.

But over the past several years, she’s managed to add a new wrinkle, a new vehicle for making an impact — one she’s rather proud of, actually. It’s as an unofficial but very valuable advisor to Chicopee’s mayor, Richard Kos, whom, as that surname makes clear, she knows quite well.

As Chicopee’s first lady, and even before gaining that designation — they became engaged while he was running for office — she said she’s been acting in a consulting capacity of sorts and introducing the mayor to both people and new opportunities.

“I had a full career, and I had been pretty involved in the city of Chicopee, and the Pioneer Valley, prior to marrying and him being elected mayor again,” she said. “But with his new position, he’s asked me for advice, and I’ve happy to offer it.”

When asked for examples, she listed everything from her suggestion to offer CPR in the city’s high schools so every student would know it when they graduated, to introducing the mayor’s office to a program called “The World is My Classroom,” which brings students on field trips to area employers, such as Hazen Paper in Holyoke and the Chicopee wastewater treatment plant, for lessons on the environment.

“When I would talk internally, or externally at various trade association meetings or other gatherings with other local nonprofits, I’d say, ‘where is the money coming from?’ And people would say, ‘shhhhhh … we don’t talk about money — we’re mission-driven.’”

She said she’s also helped the mayor with the challenging task of finding individuals to serve on boards and commissions (something she’s done, as noted earlier), and overall has been a “chief strategist,” as she called it.

“Supporting him in his public service has allowed me to give back to the city of Chicopee, but personally, I’ve also received a lot of satisfaction from that,” she explained. “Over the past six years, I’ve attended numerous events, so many I can’t count, and that’s exposed me to so many great people; it’s been a wonderful experience.”

Kos’s assistance to her husband, and all those other forms of involvement, are in keeping with a career-long philosophy of putting her considerable talents to work benefitting not just Sunshine Village and its clients, but the region as a whole.

It’s a mindset she sums up quickly and effectively with this comment to BusinessWest regarding the many ways she has become involved.

Gina Kos, third from left with her husband mayor Richard Kos, far left, leads a host of guests in ceremonies to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Sunshine Village in 2017.

“When you’re given a lot, you have to give back,” she said, adding that she has been given a lot in terms of education and opportunities to serve the region.

And she has certainly given back — in all manner of ways, from being a forward-thinking leader of a pivotal nonprofit organization at a time of profound change and a host of new challenges for all nonprofits, to valued board member for a host of colleges, universities, and economic-development-related agencies, to mentor for countless staff members. And, yes, as an unpaid advisor to the mayor.

Like we said, she has spent her life and career as a Woman of Impact.

It Takes a Village

Kos will have to make some room in her office for the award she’ll receive from BusinessWest on Dec. 6. That’s because there’s already a number of other plaques and certificates crowding her desk and credenza.

There’s the prestigious Paul Harris award from the Chicopee Rotary Club, given to those who have served not only that organization, but the community as well. There’s also the Shining Star – Volunteer of the Year award from the Chicopee Chamber of Commerce, the Woman of Achievement award from the Chicopee chapter of the Business & Professional Women’s Club, and the St. Joseph Medal – Distinguished Alumni Award from Cathedral High School, among many others.

Together, these honors speak to a career spent giving back, and it’s a pattern that began when she became a mortgage officer with WestBank.

And as most know by know, it was while getting involved in the community that Kos became acquainted with Sunshine Village.

Indeed, she drove the beer cart at the agency’s inaugural fundraising golf tournament at Chicopee Country Club, and enjoyed the experience so much, she signed up to do so at the next gathering.

To make a long story short, by the time players teed it up the following year, Kos was on the course not as a volunteer, but as a member of the Sunshine Village staff — director of marketing and development, to be exact.

She told BusinessWest that she came on board with a five-year plan in mind — not for the organization, but for herself. And that plan was to give the agency five years and then return to the corporate world.

But Kos would essentially make her foray into the nonprofit realm a one-way ticket. As she approached that five-year mark, the executive director left, and the agency’s board asked her to step in as interim.

She did, and 22 years later, she’s still at the helm.

Kos likes to say that she “right-sized” Sunshine Village, taking it from a $13 million agency with continuous losses to a $6 million operation, to a $13 million entity with continued surpluses.

How? Essentially by bringing a more business-like approach to the assignment of running a nonprofit agency, something she said was lacking — and needed — when she changed course career-wise.

“When I came to Sunshine Village as marketing director and would talk internally, or externally at various trade association meetings or other gatherings with other local nonprofits, I’d say, ‘where is the money coming from?’” she recalled. “And people would say, ‘shhhhhh … we don’t talk about money — we’re mission-driven.’

“And I would look at them say, ‘if you don’t talk about money, you’re not going to have a mission,’” she went on. “So, from the start, coming from the corporate world, I cared as much about the money, the funding, as I did about the mission, and it’s allowed me to make decisions with the board of Sunshine Village to create an organization that’s fiscally sound and very accountable to the taxpayer dollars that we’re so fortunate to get.”

And while this was a somewhat new way of thinking a quarter-century ago, today, all nonprofits think and act this way, essentially out of necessity, she told BusinessWest.

Giving of Herself

That’s because of a host of changes in the landscape — involving everything from the number of regulations that must be adhered to, to new employment laws regarding everything from wages to paid leave — that have made nonprofit management perhaps more challenging than it has ever been.

“If you were to ask me, managing a nonprofit is harder than managing a business,” she opined, “because in addition to everything that business has to worry about, within nonprofits, we have to worry about so many other things; in addition to state and federal labor laws, we have to get accredited by either state or federal bodies, and we have so many more compliance issues because we’re nonprofits.

“We’re managing everything that a business has to manage, as well as looking at our bottom line to make sure it’s positive,” she continued. “Being a nonprofit doesn’t mean no profit; every year, costs go up, whether its health insurance or salary increases or just paying for the electricity to keep the lights on.”

Meanwhile, the broad realm known as giving has changed in many ways, she said, listing everything from the ways people give to the amounts they give, to the growing number of entities asking people to give.

“When I was going to school, in parochial school, you had to sell candy bars or magazines,” she explained. “The public schools never had to do this; now, they have to fundraise as well. And so are the kids playing sports and the cheerleaders. And in addition to that, we have all these natural disasters. Ten or 20 years ago, people weren’t asked for money to help the people impacted by a hurricane in Texas.

“There’s more people looking for money; all the causes are good causes, but there’s a lot more competition for private fundraising dollars,” she went on, adding that, in this environment, nonprofits must be laser-focused on fundraising, and also on showing donors that their gifts have an impact.

While leading Sunshine Village to financial security and a place as an employer of choice in these challenging times, Kos has continued — and continually elevated — her work within the community.

As noted earlier, this has been a priority for her throughout her career, starting when, at age 23, she accepted Mayor Joe Chessey’s invitation to serve on the Chicopee Water Commission. A pattern of involvement has continued, and in her high-profile role as director of Sunshine Village, Kos has been afforded with more opportunities to give back.

She served on the board at Westfield State University and Elms College, with a host of business and economic-development-related groups, and also with several nonprofits.

She reads to fourth graders at Fairview Elementary School as part of Link to Libraries’ celebrity reading program, for example, and serves meals at Friends of the Homeless in Springfield.

Each experience is different and brings rewards on a number of levels, she said, adding that, while it’s sometimes hard to do so, she generally makes room in her schedule for such activities. And for many reasons.

Helping others is a big part of it, obviously, but by being active, she becomes more aware of the issues and challenges facing the region and the individuals who call it home. This makes her a better manager, a better leader, and even a more effective advisor to Chicopee’s mayor, especially with matters such as personnel searches and filling all those boards and commissions.

“I’ve done a lot at Sunshine Village, and I’ve been on presidential search committees for area colleges,” she said, noting that she’s done such work at the Elms and Westfield State University. “I’ve also done a lot with recruiting, and I’ve tried to help him with some of those things.”

Leading by Example

‘Chief strategist to Chicopee’s mayor’ isn’t a line on Gina Kos’s résumé.

But it is yet another example of how, throughout her life and her career, she has found the time, inclination, and energy to give back to others, and the community as a whole.

And that’s why she’ll be at the podium on Dec. 6 accepting her Women of Impact award, and then adding it to a growing collection of other plaques in her office.

As she said, “when you’ve been given a lot, you have to give back.” And that’s exactly what she’s done.

George O’Brien can be reached at obrien@businesswest

Women of Impact 2018

President, Bay Path University

Photo by Dani Fine Photography

This Inspirational Leader Keeps Raising, and Clearing, the Bar

When, 17 years ago, I was contemplating a career move out of the financial-services sector, I made a short list of the leaders in the region for whom I wanted to work. Carol Leary was, and remains, at the top of the list.’

So begins the nomination of Leary, president of Bay Path University, for the Women of Impact award. It was authored by Kathleen Bourque, vice president for University Relations and board liaison for the school, who, 17 years later, is still there, obviously.

In writing her nomination, Bourque captured — probably better than this writer could, although he has done it several times over the past 24 years — not why Leary is worthy of an award, but why she has become an incredible force of progress, hope, and, yes, leadership, on her campus and across the region.

Indeed, here’s more from that nomination form. “A leader with boundless energy, she has an infectious zeal for life in general, and for education in particular. Determined and magnetic, she is the ultimate role model. Those of us who work with her are perpetually inspired by the time and energy she so generously gives to the university, our students, and the community.”

That sums things up pretty well, but there’s more, a lot more — well-written and poignant.

“Her accomplishments are many, varied, and impactful; her unwavering passion for women’s education has positively changed the lives of thousands of women, as has her commitment to the advancement of women in general. Spirit, service, compassion for others, and professionalism all buttress her leadership and in so doing have caused her to wield tremendous impact on our community.”

Tremendous impact indeed. Since arriving on the Bay Path campus in 1994, Leary has transformed it from a sleepy — that’s the word many opt to use — women’s college of fewer than 500 students issuing only two-year degrees to a university with more than 3,300 undergraduate women and graduate men and women with a host of graduate degrees.

“Her accomplishments are many, varied, and impactful; her unwavering passion for women’s education has positively changed the lives of thousands of women, as has her commitment to the advancement of women in general.”

In 2013, Bay Path launched the American Women’s College, the first all-women, all-online baccalaureate program in the nation. That was a big year for the institution, because it was then that it became a university and also opened the Philip H. Ryan Health Science Center for allied-health programs.

But every year has been big for Bay Path, as growth has been continual and profound — and the same can be said of its reach, especially with the annual Women’s Leadership Conference, which has drawn keynote speakers ranging from Margaret Thatcher to Maya Angelou to Jane Fonda, among many others.

But Leary’s influence extends far beyond the campus and the conference. Locally, she’s become involved with agencies ranging from the Community Foundation of Western Mass. to the Beveridge Family Foundation. Nationally, she serves as a member of the Department of Homeland Security’s Academic Advisory Council, representing the only women’s college on the council, a strong nod toward the work Bay Path is doing to educate women in the fields of cybersecurity, cybersecurity management, and counterterrorism at both the graduate and undergraduate levels.

She’s a frequent speaker on subjects ranging from women’s leadership to issues in higher education, and has written a book, Achieving the Dream: A How-to Guide for Adult Women Seeking a College Degree.

Asked about it all, Leary said she’s simply leading by example, in all kinds of ways.

Indeed, none of her parents or grandparents graduated from high school, but they encouraged her to gain a college education. With it, she has changed her life and thousands of other lives. The message she has for the world — and the force that drives her — is that this is the power of education.

Carol Leary introduces poet Maya Angelou at one of Bay Path’s Women’s Leadership Conferences, one of many new programs and initiatives she has introduced.

Carol Leary introduces poet Maya Angelou at one of Bay Path’s Women’s Leadership Conferences, one of many new programs and initiatives she has introduced.

“One generation later, and you can see the impact of the education,” she said, speaking not about herself, necessarily, but every first-generation college student. “Hopefully, the person has a higher-paying job than they perhaps might have had. And what does that person do with the money? They educate their children, so that generation is assured a better life; they buy a house and pay taxes; they can contribute to their communities with time, talent, and treasure.

“One person getting their education has inter-generational impact,” she went on, adding that this is the fuel that drives Bay Path and the mission that defines her career.

And it also explains why she’s a Woman of Impact.

Course of Action

The students in that “Women as Empowered Leaders and Learners” class didn’t know it at the time, but they were providing some very helpful material for this examination of Leary’s life and career and the reasons why she’s been designated a Woman of Impact.

Leary was the guest speaker at the class that day, and as she recalled what transpired for BusinessWest, the highlighted back and forth between her and the students speaks volumes about her view of the world and the mindset she brings to her job and her life.

The 12 first-year students were asked to bring questions to ask her. Before they could do that, she had one for them: “I asked them to think about a woman leader,” Leary recalled. “I told them to take 30 seconds and tell me the first person that comes to mind, and then the attributes that makes someone a leader.

“Out of the 12, 11 of them said either godmother, mother, sister, cousin, grandmother … and then talked about perseverance, overcoming obstacles, being organized, balancing many balls in the air, and being very supportive,” she said. “And then I thought about how wonderful it was that, in their minds, the women they think of as leaders are everyday women.

“And that was my whole point to this class,” she went on. “Celebrating ordinary women doing extraordinary things is what we need to do more of in this country. That’s what we try to with our students, our faculty, and the speakers we bring here. Many of these people may not be making the most money in the world at their job, they may not have the big title of director or vice president, but there is potential in everyone to make a difference.”

Making everyone, and especially women, aware of this, and then helping them realize their potential to make a difference would be a quick and effective way to sum up Leary’s life’s work.

By now, most people know the story of how, in 1994, Leary, then an administrator at Simmons College in Boston, was encouraged to apply for presidents’ positions, and especially the one at Bay Path, and did so even though she had reservations about whether she was ready to take the giant career leap.

It is now part of Bay Path lore that she and her husband, Noel, were traveling back to Boston from a vacation in Niagara Falls and decided to make a stop at the Longmeadow campus. The two fell in love with just about everything, and Leary took over a few months later.

“When we talk about the impact of higher education or my role as educator, I get up every day saying I’m not just teaching one student. I am making an impact, hopefully, on generations to come.”

As noted, this was and is a turnaround story in every respect. Leary has taken Bay Path from sleepy to wide awake, and from a school that few outside this region knew about to one that recently hosted 27 colleges and universities from the 37-member Women’s College Coalition to discuss new and innovative learning models for women of all ages and stages of their lives.

It’s been a stunning transformation for the once-tiny school that has found its way onto the map and into national prominence.

When asked how it was accomplished, Leary mentioned teamwork, collaboration building, and some things the school now teaches in its classrooms — innovation and entrepreneurship.

Grade Expectations

While it’s quite difficult to tell the many facets of Leary’s story quickly and easily, Bourque managed to do so in her nomination with a hypothetical, but in many ways real, day from Leary’s time at Bay Path.

“On a given afternoon, she could be sipping tea with Lady Margaret Thatcher (and in fact did!), and that same night could be opening her home to share dinner with undergraduate women (and she does, frequently). Remarkably, she is equally enthusiastic and comfortable in both venues. To Dr. Leary, the promise of a young woman launching her studies in biology is as important as engaging the presence and prominence of a global head of state.”

Indeed, it is, and that anecdote speaks to the mindset Leary has maintained throughout her career at Bay Path. She has shaken hands with Nobel Prize winners, heads of state, prominent writers, and activists. But she also makes it a point to try to meet every student who comes to the Bay Path campus and learn their name.

And when she can, she ventures into the classroom, as she did with that “Women as Empowered Leaders and Learners” class. And her answers to some of their questions reveal more about why she has been named a Woman of Impact and how she has become such a great mentor.

When they asked her who supported her and enabled her to achieve her dreams, she started by listing her parents and grandmother, who, despite their lack of education, impressed upon her the importance of school and the notion that she could achieve anything she wanted if she applied herself.

And then, she mentioned her husband, Noel, and while doing so, imparted some important advice on her audience.

“He encourages me, and he’s given up a lot in his own career because of my career,” she noted. “I gave up a career and moved to Washington for him, and five years later, he gave up his career to move to Boston for me.

“The message I gave to the women was to pick a partner in life, if you want a partner in life, and make sure that it is an equal-footing relationship,” she went on. “You can figure out together how to make sure that both your lives and careers get equal time.”

Then one of the students asked if Bay Path would do what so many other women’s colleges have done over the past few decades and go coed. Leary’s answer was an emphatic ‘no.’

“We have kept our mission as a women’s college because that is what we believe in,” she said in summing up her answer. “Every day, we get up and say our mission is the education and advancement of women … and we have a lot of work to do locally and a lot of work to do globally to educate women.”

And that brings her back to her point about education being inter-generational in impact.

“When we talk about the impact of higher education or my role as educator, I get up every day saying I’m not just teaching one student,” she told BusinessWest. “I am making an impact, hopefully, on generations to come.”

Suffice it to say that she has.

Degrees of Progress

While Leary’s list of accomplishments, accolades, and awards is, indeed, quite long, it would probably be safe to say that her greatest power, her greatest talent, is the ability to inspire others, to make them dig deeper, reach higher, and achieve things they maybe (or probably) didn’t think they could.

That’s why Kathleen Bourque put Leary on her very short of people she wanted to work with and for, and why she has stayed at Bay Path for nearly two decades.

So it’s fitting that she gets the last word on this subject, sort of.

“She has touched my life in innumerable ways, professionally as well as personally. Carol Leary is an extraordinary woman.”

There are countless people, men and women, across this region and now well beyond it, who would say the same thing.

— By George O’Brien (with a lot of help from Kathleen Bourque)

Women of Impact 2018

President and CEO of Revitalize Community Development Corp.

Photo by Dani Fine Photography

This Dynamic Leader is Focused on Community Building — in Many Ways

When Colleen Loveless came to Revitalize Community Development Corp. almost 10 years ago, she really didn’t think it would be a long stay.

She told BusinessWest that she was definitely looking for something new and different after working in various sales and marketing positions and then running her own very successful international category-management organization, and found all that in the RCDC, or ‘Revitalize,’ as it’s often called.

But down deep, she admits going in thinking that this was going to be a temporary gig. “I really thought I’d get bored and move on to something else,” she explained, adding that, overall, she is both entrepreneurial and adventurous when it comes to her career and the paths she might take.

Suffice it to say that a funny thing happened on the way to ‘temporary’ and ‘getting bored.’

Indeed, in a short decade, Loveless has taken Revitalize from an all-volunteer organization working one day a year to a year-round program with an office on Main Street, a handful of permanent employees, and, most importantly, a scope of work that keeps expanding — to the benefit of thousands of area individuals. So much so that, in 2015, BusinessWest awarded the agency (and its director) its Difference Maker award.

In a nutshell, the RCDC provides critical repairs, rehabilitation, and modifications on the homes of low-income families with children, the elderly, military veterans, and individuals with special needs. And under Loveless’ strong leadership, it now does all this on an exponentially larger scale.

Since she started, RCDC has completed more than 300 home projects with the help of more than 10,000 volunteers and hundreds of sponsors, donors, and collaborators. Thanks to this support, RCDC consistently leverages funding by a ratio of four to one, and has thus invested more than $29 million in value into the cities of Springfield and Holyoke since its inception.

While Loveless certainly hasn’t achieved all this on her own, she has been the catalyst for all that growth and expansion of the agency’s mission. It has come about through her leadership and ability to fully and effectively leverage her vast skills in marketing, brand development, and creating partnerships and collaborative efforts.

Over the past decade, she has made Revitalize, well, a household name, or household nonprofit agency (literally and figuratively), and taken its work to a plane that most could not have imagined back in 2009.

“Colleen utilizes her strong skill set in business, her professional network, and her entrepreneurial spirit to directly improve the lives of others and to rebuild neighborhoods in our community.”

“Colleen utilizes her strong skill set in business, her professional network, and her entrepreneurial spirit to directly improve the lives of others and to rebuild neighborhoods in our community,” wrote a group of RCDC’s board members, led by Chairman Gregg Desmarais, as they nominated her for the Women of Impact award. “She has successfully engaged the support of more than 90 sponsoring organizations, and has a keen understanding of how to partner effectively with the media, local government, and other stakeholders to bring awareness and support to the cause; the impact that Colleen has made in our community, and on everyone she interacts with, is undeniable.”

There have been many accomplishments and milestones recorded under Loveless’ tenure with the RCDC. They include:

• Implementation of a strategic neighborhood-revitalization plan, called GreenNFit, in the Old Hill neighborhood of Springfield. Roughly 25 homes are worked on each year as the agency proceeds, block by block, through that area;

• Expansion of the agency’s services into Holyoke;

• The creation of the JoinedForces program, whereby Revitalize CDC focuses on home-repair project work for military veterans in need; and

• The ongoing Green & Healthy Homes Initiative, a partnership with Baystate Health, the Public Health Institute of Western Mass., the Pioneer Valley Asthma Coalition, the city of Springfield, and Square One to perform interventions and improve housing conditions.

While humbly acknowledging her role in what has been accomplished to date, Loveless, not surprisingly, is looking at what might come next, and additional opportunities to expand the RCDC’s reach.

Specifically, the agency has been awarded a three-year, $730,000 grant from HUD (the federal office of Housing and Urban Development) to repair and rehab homes owned by veterans across the state. That new endeavor was announced at the RCDC’s annual fundraising event for JoinedForces on Nov. 1, and it is only the latest example of how Loveless has been relentless in her efforts to expand the agency’s reach and positively impact more than lives.

And that commitment, even more than the stunning results achieved under her watch at RCDC, explains why she is a member of this first class of Women of Impact.

Building Relationships

As noted earlier, Loveless was enjoying a good deal of success in marketing and as an entrepreneur before she came to the RCDC.

Armed with a bachelor’s degree in marketing and an MBA (both from Western New England University), she worked in various sales and marketing positions for HP Hood in Boston, the Nutrasweet Company (a division of Monsanto) in Chicago, and Heublein (wine and spirits) in Hartford.

Colleen Loveless says she likes running the RCDC more than she does her own business, and admits that not many entrepreneurs can say that.

Colleen Loveless says she likes running the RCDC more than she does her own business, and admits that not many entrepreneurs can say that.

She then started her own business, called Popmax International, with Popmax being short for point-of-purchase maximization. Working for clients such as Colgate Palmolive, Stanley Tools, and Friendly’s, and breaking ground in digital photography as she did so, Loveless would, as the name on her company suggests, help them maximize space on store shelves as well as other presentation challenges.

“I really loved what I was doing, but in the last few years I was getting a little bored,” she recalled. “And I was looking for a challenge, and I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do.”

While still operating her business — and also doing some rehabbing of rental properties as another entrepreneurial venture — she took a part-time job with Valley CDC in its small-business technical assistance program. In that role, she was helping small-business owners and fledgling entrepreneurs with marketing, business plans, help with getting loans, and other forms of technical assistance.

She enjoyed the work, and, as she likes to tell people, she “caught the nonprofit bug.”

With that affliction, if one can call it that, the position of president and CEO of the RCDC caught her attention — and kept it. Summing things up, Loveless said the opportunity was attractive on a number of levels — it was a nonprofit, but it was also a startup business in many respects, and one where she could put her many talents to work for a cause she firmly believed in.

“They wanted me to make it a year-round organization and open our first office,” she explained. “And I knew it would really take all of my skills.

‘This was a startup,” she went on. “I used my entrepreneurial skills and also used my construction and rehab skills. And I also put my sales and marketing skills to work — I have an undergraduate degree in marketing.

“I realized that my role is to sell the organization to people in the community, whether it’s to recruit volunteers or recruit sponsors and donations,” she went on, summing up her job description quickly and efficiently. “I’m using a blend of skills, and I love what I’m doing now more than when I had my own business. Not many people can say that; once you have your own business, there’s no going back. But I can say that.”

What she loves is, well, all aspects of this job, but essentially the ongoing work to build it and expand its mission, positively impacting the lives of ever more area residents as she does so.

She started small, in a suite in the Scibelli Enterprise Center in the Technology Park at Springfield Technical Community College, and roughly a year later moved into a suite of offices on Main Street that would narrowly avoid the tornado that roared down that thoroughfare on June 2011, but that would ultimately change the path of the RCDC’s mission, at least temporarily.

At Home with the Idea

Indeed, after a year of carrying on as a volunteer organization, the RCDC was developing blueprints for becoming far more structured and focusing more of its efforts on healthy housing, specifically with regards to asthma.

Loveless was meeting with various groups, such as the Asthma Coalition, when the tornado tore through several neighborhoods in the city.

“That took us off course, but we needed to be taken off course,” she told BusinessWest. “We needed to focus on rehabbing and rebuilding homes for families that either didn’t have insurance, or had inadequate insurance, or that were victimized by contractors that came into the area from outside the region; we filled that role for the next several years and did a total of 71 homes across Springfield.”

Since work on tornado-damaged homes was completed, the RCDC has refocused its energies on what eventually became the Green & Healthy Homes Initiative, expansion into Holyoke, and completion of the GreenNFit project in Old Hill, which is now officially ahead of schedule with just one block left to do.

The assault on asthma, still in its pilot phase, has been extremely rewarding work, said Loveless, because it yields benefits on a number of levels.

“It’s a win-win situation,” she told BusinessWest, noting that roughly 70 homes have been inspected, assessed, and rehabbed to date. “The goal is to remove the asthma triggers in the home; it makes the patient healthier, and the healthcare system saves money because individuals aren’t chronically coming to the emergency department.”

And with Baystate recently receiving a $750,000, 18-month grant from the Health Policy Commission, another 150 homes will be rehabbed, with the RCDC as the lead housing agency in the initiative.

As for the GreenNFit project, it is the RCDC’s signature event, drawing more than 1,000 volunteers for an intense day of work in Old Hill. Soon, a new neighborhood will be targeted for improvements, said Loveless, adding that, similarly, volunteers convene in Holyoke (the most recent gathering was Oct. 18) for improvements to a block there, in an endeavor called #GreenNFitHolyoke.

All this success has led to the Difference Maker award and a host of other honors and accolades for RCDC and its executive director. The biggest reward for Loveless, though, is being able to take a lead role in efforts that are literally changing lives — and inspire others to follow that lead.

“I love what I’m doing now more than when I had my own business. Not many people can say that; once you have your own business, there’s no going back. But I can say that.”

“It’s a matter of being creative, being open to change, being flexible, but also being enthusiastic,” she said when talking about one of the most important aspects of her job description. “Energy — positive energy and negative energy — are contagious, and I feel like a pretty optimistic person.

“I feel very positive about the organization, and I feel very positive about the work we’re doing collectively within the community,” she went on. “You get rewarded almost every day with a past recipient coming to volunteer and help out this year, saying, ‘I want to give back,’ or with a wonderful thank-you note. The grandchild of a recipient drew us a little card thanking us; it was a picture of a house with a pretty tree next to it. You can’t buy that.”

Nor can you easily buy the kind of leadership and direction that Loveless has given this organization — and the region as a whole — over the past decade.

Building Momentum

It should be clear by now that, despite her early forecasts, Loveless has never become bored with her work at the RCDC.

Instead, she seems to become more energized — and more entrepreneurial — with each passing year.

The woman who has always been good at sales and marketing has sold the organization and its mission to the region, and enabled it to significantly expand its reach and its mission in the process.

As noted earlier, Loveless hasn’t done this alone. She’s had help from countless corporate partners, other nonprofit agencies, and thousands of volunteers ready to roll up their sleeves. But those contributors needed someone to lead and someone to inspire them.

And Loveless, as a Woman of Impact, has certainly done that.

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

Women of Impact 2018

Executive Director, HCS Head Start Inc.

Photo by Dani Fine Photography

She’s Spent Her Career Giving Children a Solid Head Start

It’s called the Goodhue House — because it was built in the early 1890s by local contractor Charles Goodhue as his primary residence — but most know it as the Putnam mansion, the home to Springfield Mayor Roger Putnam until the 1950s.

Whatever name it goes by, the property at the corner of Central Street and Madison Avenue was and is one of the largest private residences ever built in Springfield.

Today, it’s the headquarters building for HCS Head Start Inc., and Janis Santos, executive director of that agency for nearly 40 years, often has to pinch herself to make sure this is really home. That’s because her involvement with Head Start goes back almost to the very beginning, when the organization was created as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s multi-faceted War on Poverty.

In those early days, the digs were much, much different.

“We were a federal agency, and back then, you couldn’t use federal funds to pay rent,” she explained. “So we had to find space that was given in-kind or free, so we were in places like church basements. When I started a Head Start in my town of Ludlow in 1973, we were in the basement of the Ludlow Boys & Girls Club.”

But as she talked with BusinessWest and later offered a tour of the Goodhue House, pointing out such things as the former master bedroom (now the conference room), what once were servants’ quarters, and a large room that once housed a music conservatory, Santos said that much more has changed over the past four decades or so than the accommodations.

And she has been at the forefront of, and a catalyst for, practically all of it, becoming what those who have worked with her over the years — directly, as an employee, or indirectly, as a state legislator or municipal official in one of the communities served by HCS Head Start — call a true pioneer in the field of early childhood education.

“Janis has led the charge, ensuring that children from vulnerable backgrounds have access to high-quality early learning, and has helped to legitimize and professionalize the field,” said Susan Gosselin, chair of the HCS Head Start board of directors, who began her teaching career at that aforementioned facility in Ludlow; Santos was her supervisor. “She began teaching at a time when the greater public viewed her career as babysitting, and today early education is a highly valued profession, and there is a better understanding of brain development and the importance of the early years.

“Her unwavering advocacy over the past four decades at the local, state, and national levels has helped bring attention to this issue,” Gosselin went on, “and has helped change the perception of early childhood education.”

These days, Santos admits she’s frequently asked about retirement and whether she’s ready for it, and noted that her answer is always a quick and firm ‘no.’ If anything, she’s probably picking up the pace a little (if that’s possible) and doing more of that aforementioned pinching.

“Janis has led the charge, ensuring that children from vulnerable backgrounds have access to high-quality early learning, and has helped to legitimize and professionalize the field.”

Indeed, recent initiatives, ones that make the Goodhue House rather old news, include a partnership with MGM Springfield that culminated in the opening this fall of the $4 million MGM Head Start Child and Family Center on Union Street. And in September, she presided over the groundbreaking ceremonies for an ambitious, state-of-the-art Educare School for preschool-aged children, a $14 million facility slated to open next year.

Meanwhile, she’s working on the front lines of efforts to improve access to preschool and increase the salaries for preschool educators, necessary steps, she said, toward better preparing children for school — and all that will follow (more on that later).

Santos, who said she had a few very important mentors while she was young, including an English teacher who insisted on calling students by their last names — hers was Johnston, and her teacher called it out several times a day as she implored her charge to work harder and reach higher — now counts mentoring as a large part of her job description, especially when it comes to employees.

This role comes naturally because, in most all respects, she has been where they are — as a young early-education teacher struggling to do that work while raising children at home — and is now (serving as an innovative, entrepreneurial administrator) where they want to be.

When asked about what she tells those she manages and mentors, she summed it up quickly and effectively.

“I tell them that change is important — if we don’t change, we won’t succeed,” she explained. “When there are new ways of doing things, new curriculum, always be thinking outside the box.

“I also tell them, when you look at a child, look at that child individually; they’re not like the child sitting next to them,” she went on. “Find their strengths and what their needs are; every child, every person is different.”

Janis Santos has always followed her own advice, and that’s why, for a half-century now, she’s been a true Woman of Impact.

New School of Thought

Santos calls it “management by walking about.”

That’s been her style throughout her career, and while those four words sum it up pretty well, we’ll let her elaborate.

“If you want your staff to trust you, you’ve got to be out there with them,” she explained, referring to the classroom, but also every office carved out of the many unique spaces at the Goodhue House. “I read … I love to read to kids in the classroom, or I might sit and have lunch with them. I also like to bring in area mayors and other officials to read; we’re a community program, and I want people to know what we do.”

And while she’s an administrator now and has been for decades, she says that, in her heart, she will always be a teacher and takes on that role in many different ways now, inside, but mostly outside, the classroom.

Janis Santos likes to say she “manages by walking around,” which includes regular sessions where she reads to children.

Janis Santos likes to say she “manages by walking around,” which includes regular sessions where she reads to children.

This has been her MO since she started with Head Start back in 1973, managing a small facility in Ludlow that, as she noted, was located in the basement of the Boys Club. In 1979, she was hired as executive director of Holyoke-Chicopee Head Start, and has presided over profound growth; indeed, the agency now has 17 sites and provides early education to more than 1,000 children, making it the second-largest Head Start in the Commonwealth.

Holyoke-Chicopee Head Start expanded into Springfield in 1996 when, after the agency that was running the Head Start in that city lost its federal funding because it wasn’t complying with regulations, it successfully bid for that license. And with that contract came a directive to find better space, she recalled, adding that a Realtor eventually brought her to the Goodhue House for a look.

Actually, Santos was one of the Head Start leaders who pushed legislators to change the laws on the books and thus enable the agency’s facilities to move out of church basements, and that’s just one example of her leadership efforts within the organization.

Indeed, she has served as chairperson of both the Massachusetts Head Start Assoc. and the New England Head Start Assoc., and was a member of the National Advisory Panel for the Head Start 2010 Project in Washington, D.C. in 1999. She also served as vice chair of the National Head Start Assoc. board from 2007 to 2014.

As she talked with BusinessWest about the organization, where it’s been, where it is today, and where it hopes to go in the future, Santos relayed some of the thoughts on those very subjects that she had left with the Rotary Club of East Longmeadow a few days earlier, a talk she gives to a number of groups over the course of a year.

During that quick speech, as she called it, she described Head Start as a holistic agency, one that focuses on children, obviously, but also parents, and therefore families.

Supporting just the children but not the others is unproductive, she said, adding that, overall, Head Start emphasizes everything from the health and nutrition of all members of a family to helping parents attain their GEDs so they can join the workforce.

“I told members of that Rotary Club that there’s a perception out there that low-income parents don’t want to work — they want to stay home and collect welfare, that sort of thing,” she said. “In Head Start, we know that’s not exactly true. We have many young parents … many of them have dropped out of school; we help them get their GED.

“I tell them my story,” she went on, referring to those young parents. “I was a teen parent, I went to college at night, I had three children at home. I tell them that they, too, can succeed. They can do as I did — they just need someone to believe in them and be there for them and mentor them.”

Class Act

Over the years, Santos has been that someone to believe in others and to mentor them, especially staff members at Head Start.

They are the lifeblood of the organization, she said, adding that, overall, while she’s seen a great deal of progress at Head Start and the larger early-education realm during her career, there is still a great deal of work to do in terms of making this field attractive to young people, especially men.

“Historically, this has been a field dominated by women, in large part because of the low wages paid,” she said, adding that men are needed because so many young children don’t have a father figure in their lives.

“Finding male teachers is very hard,” she explained, adding that retaining them is equally challenging. She related the story of one male teacher who resigned just a few days earlier; he loved what he did but couldn’t afford to keep on doing it, said Santos, adding that he left to become an apprentice with what she described as a sprinkler company.

“My heart was broken,” she said, adding that the young man wrote her a beautiful letter explaining his course of action and the reasons for it. “How sad is that? His heart is in early childhood teaching, but he just can’t afford to stay in this field.”

That story, and many others like it, make it clear that, while much progress has been made since Head Start was created, there is still a long way to go. In short, while many people no longer regard early childhood education as babysitting, people in the field are still paid as if they were babysitters.

“How can we get that perception to go away that these teachers don’t work hard?” she asked rhetorically. “We have children that have challenging behaviors, we have children with serious health problems; these early years are critical, and they are challenging. Taking care of one preschooler is a big job — when you have 20 of them in a classroom and there’s one other teacher, it’s a very big job.”

Suffice it to say that Santos is fighting hard to bring salary levels higher, and she will continue that fight. She told BusinessWest that legislators have passed several modest increases recently and remain champions of early education, but continued improvement is still the top priority within this industry.

“Her unwavering advocacy over the past four decades at the local, state, and national levels has helped bring attention to this issue and has helped change the perception of early childhood education.”

And while she said there have been many achievements of note since the early ’70s — for her and the early-education community — she’s always focused on the future, not the past.

And the future is represented in those two new projects in Springfield — the MGM Head Start Child & Family Center and the Educare school, both of which help show how far early education has come since it was still considered babysitting and classrooms were carved out of church basements.

View to the Future

While offering that tour of the Goodhue House, Santos made a number of stops — the second-floor porch with a commanding view of the city, the sitting room shaped like the bow of a ship (Mayor Putnam was in the Coast Guard), the elaborate front door, the grand staircase, and much more.

Yes, Head Start has come a long way since it was occupying donated space in church basements — in ways far beyond the mailing address of its facilities.

Janis Santos has been instrumental in achieving all of that, and while she’s proud of what’s been accomplished, she’s always looking toward what’s coming around the next bend, at what challenges remain to be addressed, at what new trails can be blazed.

That’s what true pioneers — and Women of Impact — do, and she has certainly set a high standard for others to follow.

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

Women of Impact 2018

President & CEO of the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts

Photo by Dani Fine Photography

This Administrator is the Region’s ‘Convener of Choice’

Katie Allan Zobel admits that, if pressed, her children would have a difficult time explaining to others what she does for living — not that she hasn’t tried to put it all into context.

The quick, easy answer is that she is president and CEO of the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts, and in that role, she oversees an agency that facilitates philanthropy to the benefit of residents and nonprofit agencies in Franklin, Hampden, and Hampshire counties.

Again, that’s the easy answer. But Zobel doesn’t stop there, and shouldn’t, because there are many layers to her work that do make it difficult to articulate — to a child or even most adults.

“It’s a long-term proposition, what I’m doing, and it’s hard to explain,” she said, “because there’s not a daily, concrete ‘this is what I’ve made, this is what I’ve produced.’ It’s all so long-term, and it’s a total team effort — it’s not something I do on my own.”

Indeed, beyond the title on her business card, Zobel is, above all else, a connector and collaborator, or what Ralph Tate, retired managing director of Standish, Ayer & Wood and chair of the board of trustees for the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts, calls the “convener of choice” for business and nonprofit leaders across this region.

He also described Zobel as an innovator, leader, and a reader, too — she volunteers for Link to Libraries at the Edward P. Boland School in Springfield — and in all those roles, she’s taking the Community Foundation far, far beyond an organization that awards grants and scholarships, although it does that, too.

“Katie is one of the Pioneer Valley’s most strategic, engaging, and respected leaders due to her expertise in philanthropy, intimate understanding of regional needs, and well-established relationships with a diverse set of community partners,” Tate said. “She brings honesty, integrity, authenticity, and humor to her daily interactions, and commitment and dedication to improving the quality of life in the Valley, and to fostering innovation in leveraging the foundation’s assets to those in need.”

Slicing through a long list of accomplishments and ongoing initiatives, Zobel is working to make the foundation — and individuals’ philanthropy — more effective and more impactful. Put another way, through innovation, perseverance, and a great deal of that convening described earlier, she’s working with others to take the art and science of philanthropy in this region to a higher plane.

And to bring these thoughts into perspective, she mentioned a new initiative called Western Mass. Completes.

“Katie is one of the Pioneer Valley’s most strategic, engaging, and respected leaders due to her expertise in philanthropy, intimate understanding of regional needs, and well-established relationships with a diverse set of community partners.”

This is an initiative involving the 10 area colleges and universities being attended by the largest numbers of Community Foundation scholarship winners, Zobel explained, and it is designed to help improve what she called alarmingly high numbers of first-year college students who don’t make it back for a second year, let alone to the podium on commencement day.

“It’s becoming a crisis,” she noted, adding that the percentage of non-returnees is perhaps as high as 30% nationally. “And we’re partnering with these colleges to understand how our scholarship students are faring. Are they graduating at similar rates? We’re using this cohort model to understand what practices these schools are using to get these students to completion, to get their degree.”

In short, the program is designed to help the foundation not only send students to college, but see them through to graduation day, and it’s merely one example of how the ever-humble Zobel says she is working to lead the Community Foundation into, and on the cutting edge of, a period of change in philanthropy.

“We have a very strong foundation — we’ve spent the past 26 years building trust and our reputation, creating extensive networks up and down the Valley, understanding the communities, and connecting with those who can be generous,” she explained. “And we’re at an inflection point; over the past few years, I’ve been trying to prepare the organization to go around that next curve and come out stronger.”

Initiatives in this broad realm include adding new members to the team at the foundation, introducing and growing the hugely successful Valley Gives program, and even moving the foundation’s office from high in Tower Square to a street-level suite of offices on Bridge Street, where it is more visible — and also a key cog in efforts to revitalize the downtown area.

“I like to say that I’m putting all the building blocks in place so by the time the next decade arrives, we’ll be in a position to meet that inflection and grow and be more effective for the community,” she told BusinessWest.

Her success in assembling these building blocks, and in making the Community Foundation an ever-more powerful connector and collaborator, helps explain — to Zobel’s children and everyone else — why she is truly a Woman of Impact.

Checks and Balances

While Zobel graduated from Boston College with a degree in English, she quickly gravitated toward philanthropy. Soon, it became a career.

She held positions with WGBY and Amherst College — where she led the alumni fund to a record participation rate in 1996 — before eventually joining the Community Foundation in 2004.

Since becoming president and CEO, she has led the organization to growth that can be measured in a number of ways, while fostering a mindset that places a much greater emphasis, on, well, measuring.

That’s because this is what donors, and society in general, are demanding these days, she said, adding that, increasingly, groups and individuals want to see results from their philanthropy.

“We’re in this era of big data, where we can access data more readily than we have in the past,” she explained. “And this data is important because philanthropy is changing; we all want to know if our investments, our donations, are having an impact.”

To that end, the Community Foundation is using innovation, as well as its ability to convene and collaborate, to help ensure that those philanthropic investments have more of an impact.

Examples abound and include Valley Gives.

Katie Allen Zobel displays a symbolic check showing the results from the first several years of Valley Gives, one of many initiatives she has helped introduce.

Katie Allen Zobel displays a symbolic check showing the amount of total grants and scholarships the Community Foundation of Western Mass. granted out to the community in fiscal year 2018.

“This was a three-year pilot program to see if we could be a more generous region, if we could help nonprofits tell their stories in the digital age,” Zobel explained. “Could we help the donors who care about the community to connect with organizations that are doing good work that they might not have heard about before?”

The answer to all those questions is ‘yes,’ and the three-year pilot has become a six-year pilot, a program that has raised more than $10 million for more than 800 nonprofits over that short span.

“We helped, we enabled … we didn’t raise any money ourselves,” she went on, adding that this is just one example of how the foundation has used innovation to not only assist nonprofits and those they serve, but also better understand the needs of this region.

This discussion brings Zobel back to that notion of putting building blocks in place to make the foundation a more effective, more impactful (there’s that word again) force within the region.

She said there are many of these blocks, including people (she’s still adding more members to the team), technology, such as online donations, for example, and, as noted, the right space.

In Tower Square, the foundation served the community, but it wasn’t really a part of it, she explained, adding that the address on Bridge Street, and the community space that is part of that facility, is a far more appropriate location from which to carry out its mission.

But there are other building blocks as well, she went on, listing, among other things, a better understanding of community needs and the forging of strong collaborations.

“We know we can’t do this alone,” she explained. “And I’m a big fan of partnerships, so I’ve developed really trusted relationships with the Davis Foundation, the MassMutual Foundation, the Beveridge Foundation, UMass, and many others.”

Coming Together

Through these collaborations and partnerships, the Community Foundation has taken a lead role in several pilot programs and new initiatives, including something called Honors to Honors.

This is a program whereby low-income students, most all of them first-generation students, from the area’s community colleges can transfer to the Honors College at UMass Amherst, and perhaps become better positioned to graduate with a four-year degree.

Statistics show that first-generation students are even less likely to finish college, said Zobel, adding that Honors to Honors is another initiative aimed at creating more impactful giving.

“We know we can’t do this alone. And I’m a big fan of partnerships, so I’ve developed really trusted relationships with the Davis Foundation, the MassMutual Foundation, the Beveridge Foundation, UMass, and many others.”

And it’s also another example of how the foundation is responding to the changing times within the broad realm of philanthropy and demands for results from one’s giving.

“We’re in a culture that asks questions and demands answers,” said Zobel, adding that this mindset has brought her and the team at the Community Foundation to ask more questions themselves. And those related to the success rates of scholarship recipients comprise just one example.

Those are important questions because getting a young person onto a college campus is no longer the goal — not that it ever was.

“We all know how powerful a college degree can be — it can break the cycle of poverty,” she explained. “It opens doors that couldn’t be opened otherwise, and it leads to a skilled workforce. By giving a scholarship, that led to assumptions that everyone who received one graduated; we know that’s not the case.”

More questions about this region’s needs, as well as its many assets and potential growth areas, has led to another intriguing initiative involving the foundation, this one focused on the arts community, called ValleyCreates.

Indeed, the Community Foundation of Western Mass. is one of five community foundations to be awarded a $500,000 grant from the Boston-based Barr Foundation for a pilot program to help nurture the arts and creativity sector in the region.

“This was an interesting new endeavor for us,” Zobel explained. “We were given a list of what they thought were about 58 arts organizations in the three counties, and we knew there were a lot more than 58.

“We went out looking, and put together an advisory board to help us look, and we found more than 225 organizations in these three counties,” she went on, adding that many of these are small and had never reached out to the foundation for support before, in part because they didn’t have the capacity to do so.

As a result of this learning experience, the foundation is responding in a number of ways, including training sessions to help these organizations focus on capacity building and specific issues and challenges like marketing, fundraising, and board governance, as well as the creation of an innovation grant to support arts and creativity.

Meanwhile, a request for proposals is being readied for an arts hub — a digital clearinghouse that connects arts organizations across the Valley so they can share information and potential opportunities.

The two-year program is another example of those building blocks, and also of Zobel’s efforts to build a stronger, more far-reaching, more impactful Community Foundation and a better-connected region.

On-the-Money Advice

As she talked about these various initiatives, Zobel said they are very much a work in progress, a story with many chapters still to be written.

Still, much has been accomplished already, and Zobel has established herself as a Woman of Impact, even if her children would have a hard time putting into words what she does day in and day out.

She offered this explanation that might help a little — or a lot.

“I work every day with people who want to make the world better,” she said, adding that, in the most basic of terms, it’s her job to help them do that.

And she’s very, very good at it.

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