The 2022 Above & Beyond
Recognizing 50 remarkable women who are improving New York.
In August, Kathy Hochul was sworn in as New York’s 57th governor, making history as the first woman to hold the state’s highest office. In November, 31 women were elected to serve in the 51-seat New York City Council – marking the first time women have made up a majority of the council. And by the end of last year, New York City Council Member Adrienne Adams had secured enough support to become council speaker, making her the first Black woman to hold the post.
These headline-grabbing breakthroughs are no anomaly. Women in New York are making gains at all levels of politics, business and the nonprofit sphere – and in sectors that were once dominated by men. City & State’s annual Above & Beyond highlights 50 remarkable women, including advocates, entrepreneurs and other outstanding individuals whose accomplishments deserve recognition on this exclusive list.
Profiles by Kay Dervishi, Sahalie Donaldson, Natasha Ishak, Maryam Rahaman & Jasmine Sheena
As the leader of the Health Care & Food and Drug Administration Practice in Greenberg Traurig’s Albany office, Tricia Asaro handles all kinds of clients, from Fortune 500 companies to small nonprofits, and keeps close tabs on the regulatory issues they face.
“In this business, other than the paint on your walls and the carpet on your floor, everything is subject to regulation,” Asaro says. “That’s obviously hyperbole, but not too much. Being able to marry the business objectives with the regulatory scheme sometimes means going head-to-head with the regulators and saying, ‘How do we move this forward?’”
Years before she joined the law firm Greenberg Traurig, Asaro got her start in government work with an internship on Capitol Hill. She eventually landed in the office of then-U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, where she helped expand access to health care, a formative experience that spurred her interest in health care policy. Asaro, who has also done advocacy work around abortion rights, prioritizes investing in Greenberg Traurig’s new talent and expanding its reach. She encourages young women to find multiple mentors who will engage with them, as she believes different people are skilled in different aspects of one’s profession.
“You probably need multiple mentors,” she says. “There are people who are fabulous attorneys and people who are fabulous at client development. Having a number of mentors that can help you navigate and figure out how to be the best version of yourself is important.”
– Jasmine Sheena
Genea O. Bell
When Genea O. Bell was named chief people officer at Consumer Reports early this year, it was just the latest stop on a distinctive professional journey.
She started out as a classical violist, then transitioned to being a New York City schoolteacher. Next she enrolled at the University of Connecticut School of Law, where she gravitated toward labor and employment law. Law degree in hand, she served as an associate at several Connecticut law firms before joining a Hartford-based federally qualified health center as chief legal and human resources officer. Then, at Planned Parenthood of Greater New York, she led the HR function during the integration of five affiliates of the organization and was promoted to chief people officer.
Now at Consumer Reports, Bell supports the consumer advocacy and research organization’s mission to create a fair marketplace for everyone, making sure that the organization’s employees are being understood and treated fairly. She also oversees human resources strategies and policies, employee training and the setting of compensation.
Bell credits a previous co-worker with investing in her professional growth and engaging with her intellectually as she advanced in her career. She now encourages young women to build meaningful professional relationships to boost their own careers.
“Remember the value of relationships that you’re building and be clear about what you bring in every room that you enter,” she says. “Owning your power and your value in every situation is critical, and never sell yourself short or be afraid to be your own best advocate.”
Barbara A. Blair
Barbara A. Blair’s career took an unexpected turn when a friend alerted her to a job leading the Garment District Alliance. As someone who had deep experience in nonprofit management and who was working in the fashion industry at the time, Blair was eager to combine her skills in both areas.
As the organization’s president since its launch in 1995, she has been at the forefront of numerous initiatives to support the garment manufacturing community and the Manhattan neighborhood where the industry thrived for decades. Blair also supported COVID-19 response efforts that helped buoy the garment industry, including working with the New York City Economic Development Corp. to secure contracts for manufacturers to produce personal protective equipment and getting small manufacturers to collaborate to survive. She also led a banner campaign to promote community essential workers in the early days of the pandemic.
Looking to the future, Blair expects the work of her business improvement district to respond to new challenges and opportunities, whether it’s weighing in on pending legislation or adjusting to shifting demographics.
“One thing that we’re working really diligently on with peers in the central business district, meaning other business improvement district leaders at Times Square, Grand Central and 34th Street, our elected officials and the district attorney’s office, is addressing social conditions,” she says. “Going forward, we’re really about being an advocate for addressing conditions on our streets in Midtown.”
Medgar Evers College, which is named in honor of a civil rights activist who was killed in the 1960s, was founded with a mission to uplift the residents in Central Brooklyn. Living out that mission at the CUNY school today is the veteran professor Zulema Blair.
An expert in social class, civic and political behavior and elections, Blair chairs the school’s department of public administration. She’s also the redistricting research director at the school’s Center for Law and Social Justice. In that role, she issued a report questioning official statistics showing a sharp decline in the Black population in Brooklyn and called for the redistricting process to account for Black communities of interest.
Blair, who was also elected vice chair of the institution’s College Council, was outspoken in calling for the resignation of then-Medgar Evers College President Rudy Crew, who stepped down abruptly last year.
She spearheaded an overhaul of her department’s curriculum to fill learning gaps and helped rework the admission requirements for her department. She has also focused on boosting enrollment and improving retention rates, and she is now developing a new school geared toward public affairs and service.
Blair stresses the need for mentors for young women, having not had one herself for a long period of time. “Get a mentor,” she says. “Don’t be shy about talking to people. Don’t give up, never give up. There’s always a different way to do something that you really want to do.”
Lola Brabham’s path to leading the Albany-based Commission on Independent Colleges & Universities in New York has been a long one – but she’s just steps away from where she started.
She caught the political bug early on as a legislative intern with the Assembly, which ultimately led to earning a master’s degree in public administration at the University at Albany. She went on to hold various other political positions in agencies including the state Department of Labor and the state Division of the Budget. She most recently served as president of the New York State Civil Service Commission, a post she held for six years.
Last spring, Brabham took the reins at CICU, which is headquartered near the state Capitol. She represents over 100 private, nonprofit institutions of higher education and advocates for their interests. At a state budget hearing in February, she called for an increase in student aid, saying it would help “historically marginalized communities and those disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.” She made a similar point at an Assembly hearing last fall, while noting that more than half of New York’s teachers, nurses and science, technology, engineer and math graduates earn degrees at a CICU school.
Brabham’s experiences have instilled in her the importance of pursuing one’s passions. She now urges young women to work hard to achieve their dreams.
“Be committed to what you have a personal passion for and exercise intellectual curiosity,” she says. “Be open and forthright and approachable in how you approach your job and … exhibit the qualities of a leader.”
While Camille Brandon took a break from her legal career after having two children, it wasn’t the end of her professional life. Far from it.
She became a community activist and campaigned for former Erie County Executive Dennis Gorski and U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer. She also served as deputy under two Erie County clerks who now hold higher office – Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul and Rep. Chris Jacobs, a Republican.
While campaigning for Schumer, she met Jack O’Donnell, who would later recruit her to join O’Donnell & Associates. She came on as director of state and community relations at the government relations firm in 2019.
Among her professional accomplishments is a successful effort to keep a social, health and human services provider open by coordinating with government officials, families and neighbors. She helped pass legislation creating the Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission.
Brandon, who has been active in local, state and federal Democratic politics, aims to encourage women to seek elected office. She has also led an initiative to help young women overcome hurdles to mounting a campaign.
“Don’t be afraid to try. A group of women and I found that women wouldn’t run for office, or women wouldn’t write a check for fundraisers, or they were afraid to do what everybody else was doing in campaigns,” she says. “What I would say to women who want to get involved is get involved, find a campaign or find something in this field that you're excited about.”
Having spent so many years helping New York City youth, Thanh Bui can be forgiven for sometimes forgetting about what her work has meant to people.
“Recently, I met with an executive director who heard my name through other kids that are grown now, because I’ve been doing this so long,” she says. He told her they still talked about the support she provided them, and Bui has even seen some of those youth go on to work at Grand St. Settlement and other nonprofits.
“When you’re doing the work, you just believe in people,” Bui says. “Maybe they don’t have the access to resources or the mentor or the community to support them to be successful. That makes me feel really excited to work and wake up every morning.”
During her time at the organization, Bui launched a social enterprise cafe that gave teenagers who were unemployed or out of school access to hands-on job training. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, the program was shut down and Grand St. pivoted to use the space as a food pantry and resource center. Bui has since helped transform the space into a technology center for teenagers, with workshops to help them build those skills.
Her passion to help families and children in New York is informed by her own experiences. Her parents were Vietnamese refugees who worked hard to help her and her seven siblings. That drives her to help struggling New Yorkers who come to Grand St. Settlement’s sites across the Lower East Side and Brooklyn.
“Those pockets of poverty still exist and are very real,” she says.
– Kay Dervishi
Faith Ann Butcher
Faith Ann Butcher knows how to pivot and adapt when a situation calls for it.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the United Way of Westchester and Putnam’s chief impact officer reoriented her organization by forging new partnerships and finding new ways to serve the community’s needs, vastly expanding the organization's impact.
“I truly understood working paycheck to paycheck, having a hard time making ends meet living in the area we do,” Butcher says. “Coming to United Way was a dream come true for me because I was able to not only help myself out of that situation but also help others.”
Butcher, who has worked in communications and government as well as the nonprofit and business worlds, says her career path hasn’t been conventional, but she feels everything she’s explored and experienced has built the foundation for the work she’s doing today. Butcher joined United Way in 2018 as a senior director of relationship management and was named chief impact officer the following year. She previously served as executive director of Community Cares, a Hudson Valley nonprofit that assists families with a parent with a major illness.
“I hear a lot now of people worrying about their capacity or that we're afraid of failure,” Butcher says. “You've got to be willing to take the chance and to meet the need and think outside the box – there's no real normal. Everything is arbitrary so you get to make up your own road map.”
– Sahalie Donaldson
After an internship in Washington, D.C., and a job working for a lobbyist out of college, Susan Chin knew politics was the field for her.
In 1995, she landed a job at District Council 37, and she has been with the powerful public sector labor union ever since. Today, as the assistant director in the union’s political action department, Chin lobbies City Hall on a range of legislative and budget matters.
Chin has fought to obtain funding for city libraries and parks, an effort she is especially proud of due to the important role parks have played for New Yorkers during the COVID-19 pandemic. She has driven DC 37’s participation in the Play Fair Coalition, which works to get funding for parks and their staff. She also supported the union’s work with Lunch 4 Learning, a coalition that successfully advocated for universal free meals for New York City students.
Chin is also a supporter of nonprofit organizations in the city, noting the lack of pay equity in the sector and its lack of a voice in government. But on this issue and others, her experience has shown her that persistence and hard work can result in significant change.
“Keep pushing the envelope,” she says. “As a minority woman starting out almost 30 years ago, there weren't many of us in this business. I just kept pushing and pushing the envelope, because I knew I was doing the right thing by the membership, fighting for them.”
Assembly Member Catalina Cruz’s work in office is informed by her own upbringing. She grew up as an undocumented immigrant in Queens after her family moved to the United States from Colombia when she was 9 years old. She saw firsthand how her mother, who worked cleaning offices and as a street vendor, faced wage theft while working without papers and how her family struggled with poor housing conditions.
“It’s a very different struggle and fight to make that change happen when you yourself have the pain of whatever it is that you’re fighting for,” she says.
That fight became even more pronounced when the COVID-19 pandemic struck New York City, with the epicenter centered on neighborhoods in her Queens district.
“We happen to represent a district where 40% of the people cannot vote, and it’s a big chunk of those 40% who are undocumented,” Cruz says. “And we knew that that meant they would have no access to any sort of social safety net.”
Cruz and her team turned her office into a food pantry to combat rising hunger locally, partnering with groups such as World Central Kitchen to scale up that support. At first, they gave out 250 meals a day. At the program’s peak, they were distributing 2,500 meals a day. And that work wasn’t limited to just helping her constituents on the ground: Cruz spearheaded a successful push to make permanent a pandemic-era food program called Nourish New York, which connects upstate farms to food banks across the state.
Lisa Flores is a veteran of New York City government with extensive experience in procurement, so it came as no surprise that Mayor Eric Adams decided to appoint her as head of the Mayor’s Office of Contract Services.
Since taking on the position, she has wasted no time outlining her priorities. Flores is aiming to make the contracting process more efficient and to ensure businesses and nonprofits working with the city get paid on time. She wants to promote diversity and equity in the city’s agencies while also improving transparency for the procurement process.
But what it really comes down to, Flores says, is “elevating procurement at all levels of government.”
“I say that because procurement is sort of like that back-office thing that no one wants to think about, but you can’t get anything done without it,” she adds.
Flores has been particularly proud of the work she’s done to support nonprofits and women- and minority-owned businesses throughout her career in public service. In her current position, she plays a key role supporting the mayor and city comptroller’s new task force to get nonprofits paid swiftly. In her previous position as deputy comptroller for contracts and procurement, she also worked closely on developing tools to allow city agencies to partner with women- and minority-owned businesses more easily.
“What’s really at the forefront for me, as a woman, as a Latina,” she explains, is “always trying to remember that every door that opens for me is a door that I need to make sure to open for others.”
For years, Selina Grey has put her body and soul into serving others as a community organizer in Staten Island’s North Shore.
She has worked on various political campaigns, mentored other young women and advanced social justice with the Staten Island NAACP. In response to the coronavirus pandemic, she fought to ensure her community had access to personal protective equipment and vaccines as a political and community organizer for the New York State Nurses Association. Grey distributed masks, food and other supplies to her community after putting out a call for resources.
This type of boots-on-the-ground service is what Grey is passionate about. “It’s not about pomp and circumstance and the bells and whistles; the point is actually delivering a service,” Grey says. “I’m not doing it to be performative. I’m doing it to really, really help.”
In addition to her organizing work with NYSNA, Grey mentors young women through Felicia’s Promise, a nonprofit organization that primarily helps girls of color from underrepresented communities to attend college and develop professional skills. She also ran for New York City Council last year.
Grey, who grew up in the South Bronx, says she wants to give young women the support and opportunities she never had at that age.
“I feel like every lesson and blessing that I’ve had in my life has clearly led me to this point,” Grey says. “All I want to do is see these girls win. I want to see them succeed.”
The value of education was instilled into Angela Harrington from a young age, and those early lessons ultimately led her to a career in higher education.
Harrington began her career as a broadcast journalist. One early assignment she had was to help create a show about AIDS, which taught her about the importance of social equity. She went on to found her own public relations firm, representing major corporations and nonprofits for over a decade. Harrington, who also had a stint at Bergen Community College, came on at Berkeley College in 2013.
At Berkeley, Harrington has launched projects like the Women’s Entrepreneurship Week initiative, which brings speakers who are experts in their career fields to campus to meet with students. She also supported a partnership with the organization Latinas in Business Inc. to create learning opportunities for women.
Yet, Harrington is most proud of the nearly 16,000 students that have graduated from Berkeley across its New York and New Jersey campuses in the over eight years she has been with the institution.
Supporting other women is key to Harrington’s work. She hopes to build a women’s entrepreneurship network in the future, and she credits various female presidents of colleges with whom she has worked with guiding her in her career. Harrington believes women benefit from supporting each other.
“Surround yourself with a supportive network of other women and individuals who can help you grow in your career,” she says. “Never take ‘no’ for an answer.”
Melanie Hartzog has deep roots in social services. Her experience volunteering with children of domestic violence survivors during college ignited that interest.
“I suddenly decided this is what I want to do. I’ve been one of these children,” says Hartzog, who had faced food and housing insecurity while growing up as the daughter of a single mother from Guyana.
After obtaining her master’s degree in public policy from The New School, she went on to hold numerous leadership positions in the human services sector. Hartzog served as executive director of the Children’s Defense Fund’s New York chapter, working under the organization’s founder, Marian Wright Edelman, and was deputy commissioner of the New York City Administration for Children’s Services. In 2017, she was appointed to lead the Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget, becoming the first woman of color to oversee the nation’s largest municipal budget. Now, she helps children and families in need as president and CEO of The New York Foundling.
But the highlight of her career has been ensuring vulnerable New Yorkers could access COVID-19 vaccines while serving as the city’s deputy mayor for health and human services, a position she came into mid-pandemic. For Hartzog, it was challenging but rewarding work to see the joy on people’s faces once vaccinated.
“I get a little teared up just thinking about it because it was such a hard journey for so many of us and it still is today,” Hartzog says.
– Natasha Ishak
Deidre Helberg comes from a long line of entrepreneurs. As a child, her family always told her to “make her own” – a message that gave her the tenacity and resilience to carve out room for herself in spaces that aren’t used to seeing someone like her at the helm.
Helberg started Helberg Electrical Supply in 2003. She wasn’t interested in working for someone else after running her own child care business. And she was familiar with the tools her husband, an electrician, had in their home.
Helberg has expanded the company’s reach over the years while navigating an industry largely dominated by men.
“It’s still tough being a woman in this industry and a woman of color in this industry. There’s not that many of us in the United States that are 100% Black women owned,” Helberg says. “I’m still fighting, and it’s an industry that I love and adore, and I want to open up the doors for more women to come through.”
Helberg also founded the U.S. Coalition of Black Women Businesses, which gives Black businesswomen a space to empower one another, advocate on issues and find and offer support.
“That’s where the coalition comes in – let’s help, let’s listen, let's grow your business, let’s network, let’s empower one another,” Helberg says. “Let’s address the things that can make you a better whole of a person, whole of a business owner and then you can bring legacy to the next generation and help your business sustain and grow.”
Sarah Henderson Rosenberg
When Sarah Henderson Rosenberg and her husband returned from their wedding in mid-March 2020, they came back to a “very different” New York. The city had become an epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic and, as schools pivoted to remote learning, Henderson Rosenberg found herself in a unique position to help.
With support from Google’s philanthropic arm, Google.org, Henderson Rosenberg formed a COVID-19 response task force mobilizing 1,000 employees and their immediate networks to respond to various community needs. For example, the endeavor deployed 60 employees to teach more than 7,000 public school educators how to use the company’s suite of digital educational tools. Henderson Rosenberg’s task force was later adopted as a framework by Google.org’s global team.
“A lot of what I get to do on the internal side is take what I learn from partners every day and elevate their voice internally so that Google can better create tools, products and programs to support them,” she says. Henderson Rosenberg started out as a temporary recruiter at Google in 2012 and rose through the ranks over the years. Now, she leads the company’s development of computer science education programs and its efforts to partner with community organizations in New York.
“Why I really love this work is that partnership is a two-way street, where you're both working with one another, listening to one another and benefiting from one another,” says the 32-year-old, who enjoys running and hiking in her downtime.
Brittany Henry understands the need for greater inclusion and diversity within the construction industry. She recalls having to run down the street to use the restroom at a local coffee shop because the construction site she was working on didn’t have a women’s bathroom.
In 2018, Henry and her mother launched Urban Strategies of New York in order to address this need. One aim is to ensure that all of the female workers she places have access to restrooms on construction sites. The organization, which works in the tech, retail, finance and service industries as well, also trains local workers and connects them with contractors.
“There are women in the industry, and you need to be able to move and act accordingly,” Henry says. “Construction is a male-dominated industry, but we do have a lot of good women who are in different fields that are amazing in their fields, that have been working 20, 30 years or who are just now coming in.”
Henry wants developers and contractors that come into low-income neighborhoods to hire local workers so they can earn a fair wage and be part of building something beautiful in their community. She’s also working to launch her own general construction company.
“It’s more than just getting them a job and getting them training,” Henry says. “We definitely want them to succeed in the industry and eventually build a career out of it – go into a specific trade or definitely just find something that really fits them in that way.”
Sally Hernandez-Piñero has spent her life championing the underdog. A Bronx native raised by Puerto Rican parents, she started her career helping low-income families at Bedford-Stuyvesant Community Legal Services. She went on to become general counsel to the State of New York Mortgage Agency before joining New York City government in 1986. She served as deputy borough president under David Dinkins, who was Manhattan borough president at the time. The former New York City mayor was her greatest mentor.
“He had confidence that I could handle whatever he asked me to handle and was such a kind and thoughtful man,” she says of Dinkins, who later entrusted her to serve as a deputy mayor and as chair of the New York City Housing Authority. She eventually moved on to the corporate world, holding positions at the law firm Kalkines, Arky, Zall & Bernstein and the real estate firm Related Companies, and spent 23 years on Con Edison’s board of trustees.
The 69-year-old now enjoys long walks around Van Cortlandt Park in her downtime, but has hardly slowed down. In 2019, she eagerly returned to public service after former New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed her to the New York City Health + Hospitals board of directors. She has served as chair at MetroPlus Health Plan, a subsidiary of the health agency, for three years.
If she could give her younger self one piece of advice? “Just relax,” Hernandez-Piñero says. “Enjoy the moments as you have them because, in hindsight, you see how amazing they were.”
Tessa Hultz entered the real estate profession around the same time she was looking into how to buy a home for the first time. The experience of house hunting while doing policy work as the director of education for the Columbia Board of Realtors in Missouri left a strong impression on Hultz, especially because the work she was doing directly benefited first-time homebuyers like herself.
“Housing is special, you know?” says Hultz, who decided that she could be an industry advocate for fair, affordable housing. “It’s right up there with basic human needs. Everyone needs a safe place to go to sleep every night.”
Hultz, who has been an executive with the National Association of Realtors for a decade and a half, has been a passionate advocate for the trade association. Since 2019, she has led the 30,000-member Long Island Board of Realtors, an NAR affiliate that covers Nassau, Suffolk and Queens counties and is one of the largest realtor associations in the country.
In 2018, Hultz helped pioneer an affordable housing study for the Realtor Association that used real estate data to measure the effect of Habitat for Humanity homes on surrounding properties. The study has been cited by affordable housing groups to advocate for affordable housing projects, and Hultz says she plans to continue challenging detrimental assumptions about housing.
“Housing isn’t just housing,” she says. “Housing ties to education, housing ties to health outcomes, housing ties to family wealth, and in particular, the wealth growing aspect of homeownership.”
The coronavirus pandemic has been a catalyst for some of Leah Johnson’s most important work at the Lincoln Center for Performing Arts.
In the past few years, she has broadened the organization’s focus with initiatives aimed beyond its sprawling Manhattan complex and its legacy as a venue for world-class performances. Johnson has been behind several food distribution drives to address food scarcity among seniors, as well as blood drives in the community.
Johnson’s experience working for former New York City Mayor David Dinkins, including as press secretary for his campaign and in several staff roles in his administration, has shaped her approach to her current work. At City Hall, she worked on a groundbreaking women- and minority-owned business enterprise initiative in the city. This led her to champion Lincoln Center’s emphasis on MWBE participation in the development of Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall.
“We had a 30% minimum MWBE participation goal, and we were at about 42%, so we well exceeded that goal,” she says.
A primary objective of Johnson’s going forward is continuing to champion diversity at Lincoln Center. She urges young women interested in doing work similar to hers to recognize the value they bring to the organizations where they work.
“For women entering this career, they should always be focused on how they are adding value,” she says. “Also culturally, is the organization the right organization for them? Really always understand your value and advocate for yourself and for others.”
Laura Kavanagh brings a unique perspective to the New York City Fire Department. As acting commissioner, she is now the first woman to have ever led the 157-year-old agency. She was also the second woman ever to serve as first deputy commissioner – the second-in-command – at the male-dominated agency and the youngest to hold the position. Although she hasn’t worked as a firefighter – her background is in government, campaign and consulting work, which can sometimes present a challenge – Kavanagh has succeeded in making major reforms at the agency. For example, beginning in 2017, she spearheaded the department’s campaign to diversify its applicant pool, using focus groups and data to drive that effort. That push resulted in the FDNY getting the most diverse batch of applicants in its history.
“The recruitment campaign I’m very proud of because I do believe we’ve carved out a best practice, not just for our department, but for others,” Kavanagh says.
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Kavanagh has played a key role in supporting the department’s first responders. That includes securing personal protective equipment and navigating FDNY daily operations throughout the pandemic. She also helped negotiate wage increases with the FDNY’s emergency medical services workers last year. Looking ahead, Kavanagh is prioritizing measures to prevent burnout among the department’s EMS workers.
“I think that’s the space that we’re thinking a lot about,” she says, “which is: How do we support our workforce with mental health? How do we try to find a way forward in dealing with burnout when we’re still in the pandemic?”
Nina Kubota is a veteran of the New York City School Construction Authority, having worked there in various roles since 1998.
“What drew me to the SCA was the mission of building and modernizing our schools for the children of the city of New York,” she says. “Helping to make a better learning environment for our children just seemed so rewarding.”
Over the course of more than 20 years, Kubota has worn many hats. She started out focused on administrative work at the authority before transitioning to its architecture and engineering side.
“I started to get exposed to the designs of the new buildings and that process,” she says. “Being exposed to school openings, seeing how the kids’ eyes opened so wide when they entered into a new building or a new playground – that’s what really kept me hooked here.”
For about 15 years, Kubota played a major role in developing the authority’s five-year capital plans, outlining project proposals to keep city schools in good shape and to provide enough school buildings for New York City students.
As head of the authority, she oversees everything from supporting women- and minority-owned businesses to ensuring major projects go through successfully. Under her leadership, the city broke ground on what will be its largest facility in December.
After so much time on the job, it’s still hard for her to narrow down her favorite projects.
“It’s kind of like a parent trying to decide which child they like the best,” she explained. “They’re all just so great in their own way.”
When she was a kid, Victoria Lamberth would ride into New York City at night with her grandfather, the owner of an electrical contracting company. He would point out the glittering New York City skyline, telling his grandkids to look at the lights and reminding them that someone had to change each one of those bulbs.
Today, Lamberth points out the impact of her work to her kids, telling them to look at all those people on their smartphones and reminding them that someone has to get that connectivity to those devices.
Since co-founding the telecommunications infrastructure provider ZenFi Networks in 2013, Lamberth has done exactly that, bringing modern communications infrastructure to the New York and New Jersey metro areas. In 2018, she played an instrumental role in merging ZenFi Networks with Cross River Fiber to create what’s billed as the only locally owned and operated communications infrastructure company within the New York metro area.
Lamberth is especially proud of ZenFi Networks’ expansion of the city’s 5G infrastructure, bringing free high-speed Wi-Fi to neighborhoods across the city through a $200 million deal with CityBridge, which operates the LinkNYC network.
“It's not some massive national player coming in here,” Lamberth says. “The majority of us live and work in the New York City metro and it means something. When I go into New York City and I see a LinkNYC kiosk, I’m excited. I’m checking to make sure the charging station works. I’m checking to make sure the Wi-Fi works.”
Lisa Lee never set out to launch a career in the tech sector. She graduated with a degree in mass communications and theater and performance studies, but Lee was ultimately hired as a user operations associate at Facebook. While working at the rapidly growing tech company, she witnessed a lack of diversity.
“I had a front-row seat to seeing how when you have a group of homogeneous folks building products that were used by pretty much the whole world where there could be missteps because of an inherent sort of misunderstanding or misconceptions about different people,” she says.
Lee went on to join the diversity, equity and inclusion team at Facebook, which led her to carve a career path out of DEI work and influence policy at various other tech companies, including Pandora and Squarespace. At DoorDash, Lee now heads various units including the marketing, internal communications and DEI teams. She recently helped relaunch the WeDash program, through which DoorDash salaried employees spend time out on the streets as delivery drivers and thus better understand the nature of the work.
Lee continues her DEI work outside of the office as well. She runs thickdumplingskin.com, a website designed to promote body positivity in Asian women, and serves on the board of Asian Americans for Civil Rights and Equality. Growing up as the child of a self-made business owner father, Lee is glad to have left “a semblance of a mark” on major tech companies’ paths toward achieving diversity.
Sharon Levy has been at the forefront of the YMCA of Greater New York’s push to get more New Yorkers involved in civic life. About five years ago, Levy helped strategically map out which communities the organization should engage with and coordinated efforts among its branches across the five boroughs.
That work hasn’t slowed down, even amid the COVID-19 pandemic. With her support, the nonprofit undertook a large-scale campaign to get New Yorkers counted in the 2020 census despite lockdowns and restrictions on events. The YMCA also played a key role in informing voters about last year’s local elections and ballot initiatives.
“That’s some of the stuff I’m proudest of, making sure people become civically engaged and are counted and have their voices heard,” Levy says.
In addition to her two decades on-and-off at the YMCA, Levy has also spent time working for the Nassau County executive. Currently, Levy handles everything that falls under public affairs and public policy work at the nonprofit organization.
“My knowledge of government helped to inform the way I now work within the human services sector,” she says, explaining how nonprofits can play a key role providing communities with needed resources to access support from government services.
Outside of work, she has been an active member of the Women’s Action Group of Forest Hills, having founded the group with other women who felt politically energized after the 2016 presidential election. The group continues to meet regularly to discuss pressing political developments in New York and to support candidates for office.
Wanda Matos uses her community ties to support local businesses and individuals as the director of nonprofit services at Ponce Bank, which was founded in the Bronx. With over 20 years of experience working in community banks, Matos already operated with a community-oriented mindset when she became the bank’s head of nonprofit services in early 2020.
The transition, she says, came at the perfect time. While Ponce Bank helped small businesses receive federal loans through the Paycheck Protection Program, Matos identified the needs of nonprofits across the city and helped them secure funding that allowed them to continue their work.
Matos sees building lasting connections with those she helps as a fundamental part of her work.
“When I’m talking to customers and somebody sends me an email, my first word is, ‘I want to build a partnership with you,’” she says. “A partnership for me and for the bank means that we are going to stay with you all the time down the road.”
Matos is passionate about increasing the accessibility and inclusivity of banking services. She currently leads webinars in Spanish to guide businesses through the loan forgiveness process and has strived to support the work of her colleagues, many of whom got their start in banking the same way she did, as “a bank teller from a foreign country.”
She said she is “always trying to make sure that they understand that we all have access to the same opportunities or resources, and there’s no limit.”
Jacqueline McKelvey has spent nearly four decades helping children and their families at MercyFirst, a child welfare agency that provides medical, family support, youth development, foster care and adoption services.
The opportunity to work in foster care is what drew McKelvey to MercyFirst as a recent college graduate committed to connecting families and children in the system with the right services.
McKelvey’s commitment to developing best practices has been constant over the years. Her current role as MercyFirst’s chief program officer is one she has held for over a decade, yet she regularly embraces new ways of advancing programming, innovating and introducing best practices that are trauma-informed and better suited to addressing client needs.
“Every day, we are learning something new, whether it's learning how to work with a different population or having a greater understanding of the impacts of poverty and racism and injustice,” McKelvey says. “Over the years that I’ve worked in the field, there’s been tremendous progress, and yet, there’s still so much more that needs to happen.”
McKelvey says the most rewarding part of her work is seeing how it impacts individuals. Sometimes, she says, those benefits are apparent immediately, and other times the greatest progress happens down the line.
“You have to approach this work every day from that perspective,” she says, “remembering that how generous you are with your time, how kind you can be and also how direct and clear you can be with your client has a real value and impact.”
Grace Meng has represented large swaths of Queens in Congress for nearly a decade. But she wasn’t always drawn to politics. The mother of two had wanted to be a teacher but instead ended up a lawyer before her political debut. In 2008, Meng won a seat representing Flushing in the Assembly, where she served for several years. She was then elected to the House of Representatives in 2012, becoming the first and only Asian American representative from New York. Meng now serves as first vice chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus and as a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
Fighting for equitable policies and programs such as expanded access to menstrual products, internet connectivity and COVID-19 testing in underserved communities is core to her work. Meng, whose grandmother is among her most trusted advisers, says she wants to “make sure that we’re doing our best to take care of the people who take care of us.” Her profile as one of the few Asian American women in Congress has grown as she has steadfastly spoken out against the wave of anti-Asian hate crimes throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. President Joe Biden signed Meng’s COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act into law last May after the measure received bipartisan support.
“As a woman, I feel like I will never stop second-guessing myself,” Meng says. “But one thing that I have learned – that felt scary at first but we (women) need to own – is to be more authentic and to be ourselves.”
Gloria Middleton’s commitment to ensuring the rights and safety of workers comes from a deeply personal place. Her father, a longshoreman, was denied pension after retiring because of a heart condition. The news devastated Middleton’s family, a brood of eight children reared in the Harlem projects. “I just remember, that’s vivid in my mind,” Middleton recalls. “I said if I ever get a union job, I’m going to make sure I read my contract and know my rights so they will never do that to me.”
Middleton worked under the New York City Human Resources Administration in various management positions before joining Communications Workers of America Local 1180 as a staff representative. She later served as secretary-treasurer for nearly two decades and chaired the CWA’s National Committee on Civil Rights and Equity for 15 years. In 2018, Middleton became the first Black person and the first woman to helm Local 1180 as president, representing 9,000 active members. Middleton also currently sits on the steering committee of the Municipal Labor Committee and is an executive board member of the New York City Central Labor Council.
She was crucial in securing a $15 million settlement based on the union’s complaint against the city over pay discrepancies for women and workers of color, winning wage increases and back pay for 1,600 members and retirees. Securing fair pay and safe working conditions for families, Middleton says, remains the highlight of her job. “Those are the things that are rewarding and that’s what keeps me working.”
As the general counsel of Lantern, an e-commerce marketplace that facilitates home delivery of recreational and medical marijuana, Katie Neer believes corporate social responsibility needs to be interwoven into the cannabis industry.
“It needs to be built right from the ground up to begin with and that’s really challenging but also really fun,” Neer says, explaining the importance of writing laws so that existing operators can join the regulated space.
Neer, who also assists clients on cannabis regulatory issues with the private practice Dickinson & Avella, leads Lantern’s social equity initiatives. She helps stakeholders understand why cannabis remains illegal at the federal level and the continuing impact of law enforcement’s history of targeting drug use in communities of color.
Recognizing that history, Neer says Lantern operates social equity incubator programs that provide mentorship, education and operational resources in a handful of states. While Neer will focus on the New York program once it’s launched later this year, her hopes for what the cannabis industry can be don’t stop there.
She also advises her clients in the cannabis space to work with New York policymakers to find ways to make the state’s recreational marijuana rollout successful and fair. She pushes big companies to understand the social equity issues within the cannabis industry.
Ultimately when the dust settles and the state’s cannabis market is fully implemented, Neer says she hopes the industry “is built from the ground up and gets it right when it comes to diversity of ownership and ideas and leadership.”
As the first woman to lead a large academic health system in New York, Margaret Pastuszko strives to lead Mount Sinai Health System with resilience, compassion and a commitment to better practices that evolve with the times.
As a major hospital system that serves communities all across New York City, Mount Sinai Health System continually strives to serve individuals across a variety of backgrounds – a goal Pastuszko says she takes seriously.
“We do our best every day to focus on those communities, to partner with those communities, to understand what they are struggling with and be able to partner with them in tackling those challenges,” says Pastuszko, who was promoted to be Mount Sinai’s president and chief operating officer this past fall after two decades with the health care system.
The coronavirus pandemic brought unique challenges to the health care sector, and Pastuszko used it as an opportunity to innovate and advance technology such as telehealth, which has been incorporated into every intensive care unit throughout the system. Her commitment to finding better practices has been a theme throughout her time with Mount Sinai.
“We are now advancing a culture that looks always for improvement and looks forward as opposed to sitting and trusting that today is good enough,” Pastuszko says. “I think that’s something that’s helped us advance Mount Sinai for the future – that foundational block in providing us with future success because it will create a nimble environment that we can continue to adjust to anything that the world throws at us.”
Jennifer Raab has served as president of Hunter College for two decades. Having grown up in Washington Heights as the youngest of four, she understands what opportunities a quality education can provide for disadvantaged families. Like many students attending CUNY, Raab was the first in her family to go to college.
“I have a very close relationship to the students I have at Hunter, where so many are first-generation college-goers or don't have families where they have the infrastructure to understand what to advise them about careers or what to apply for in terms of fellowships and scholarships,” Raab says. “This is really coming full circle.”
Raab’s experience at Hunter College High School paved the way to a full scholarship to Cornell University and then a prestigious internship in Congress. She later studied urban policy at Princeton University before heading to Harvard Law School. Raab spent years handling litigation at top law firms Cravath, Swaine & Moore and Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison before being appointed chair of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1994.
In 2001, she landed at Hunter College as the CUNY school’s president. During her tenure, Raab has raised more than $400 million in philanthropic support and has seen two of the school’s students become Rhodes scholars. One of them, a Nepalese political asylee, is headed to Oxford University this year. Seeing “that we help make the American dream come true” is the most rewarding part of her work, she says.
Anne Reynolds is one of New York’s most prominent clean energy advocates, pushing for renewable power at a time when politicians and policymakers are increasingly heeding that call.
Reynolds started out as a New York City-based scientist with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, obtained her master’s degree in environmental studies at Yale University and then joined the Tellus Institute, a think tank for energy and environmental strategies in Boston.
In 2000, she returned home to join Environmental Advocates New York, a nonprofit advocating for clean energy policies. She later served as a deputy commissioner at the state Department of Environmental Conservation and as the agency’s assistant commissioner for policy and planning.
But her true calling was always environmental advocacy.
“There’s something very freeing in terms of being an advocate and being able to push for things that you believe in,” says Reynolds, who has headed the Alliance for Clean Energy New York since 2014. During her time at the organization, Reynolds has successfully led its push for reforms such as the state’s adoption of a clean energy standard that requires 70% of the state’s electricity to come from renewable energy sources by 2030. The magnitude of her work can often feel daunting but there is much to be hopeful about, she says.
“Solutions are available, solar power is available, wind power is available … they’re all coming to fruition,” Reynolds says. “Our challenge now is just to really scale it up. Seeing the progress keeps me motivated and positive.”
As the child of immigrant parents, Matilde Roman was the one who helped her parents interpret key social services. These experiences would inspire her as one of the architects of New York City’s language services program, which integrated language access for multiple city agencies.
“There is a direct correlation between our lived experience in playing that role and understanding the limitations that I had as an individual in terminology … to really having an opportunity to make those changes so hopefully others won’t have to experience what I had to experience growing up,” Roman says.
Roman’s affinity for these issues of social justice and civil rights guided many of her life decisions – including the one to attend New York Law School, which she credits for many of the skills that have made her successful today. After 15 years of work across various departments of city government, she has gone on to be the first person to fill the role of chief diversity and inclusion officer at New York City Health + Hospitals. Roman hopes her work will help put into place a framework of pairing diversity and inclusion with health equity.
“Looking at workforce diversity, and then looking at inclusion has an important component to the work,” she says. “The other key piece is health equity and thinking about mitigating many of the biases that exist within the health care sector to ensure that we are eliminating barriers in such a way to help individuals and communities live and optimize their best life.”
– Maryam Rahaman
Raised in East Flatbush by Black immigrant parents, Xamayla Rose knows too well the injustices that often plague communities of color. Her younger brother lost his life to gang violence at the age of 15 in 2005. When the world seemed to move on without making any change, Rose mobilized her community and co-founded her own nonprofit, the Christopher Rose Community Empowerment Campaign, named after her late sibling.
Rose then brought her advocacy skills to the Brooklyn borough president’s office under then-Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz in 2008. While there, she worked on juvenile justice reform proposals such as Raise the Age and Close to Home and anti-violence programs like Cure Violence. In 2019, she ran for her district’s New York City Council seat but instead ended up landing a deputy role at the public advocate’s office headed by her former council member, Jumaane Williams.
“Everything that I’m doing here, I’ve done already,” she says about serving as deputy public advocate for civic and community empowerment. Beyond juvenile justice reform, Rose has also been leveraging her current position and decade’s worth of experience in activism to push forward policies promoting justice for immigrants and Black maternal health.
The 41-year-old’s journey from personal tragedy to community activism and now public service is what she is most proud of.
“For me, that feels like my largest accomplishment because I feel like, not that I've done my brother justice, but I've done the cause justice,” she says.
The COVID-19 pandemic has only worsened New York’s hunger crisis. Before the pandemic, 1 in 5 children in New York City had insufficient access to food. Now, 1 in 4 children are food insecure.
That has posed a formidable challenge for Rachel Sabella, who serves as the director for No Kid Hungry New York. Her organization’s response has been twofold: distributing $5 million in grants across New York state and Puerto Rico and advocating for legislation that aims to end chronic hunger.
“We are really focused on policy change and looking at how the city and state budgets can really invest in safety net programs,” she says. She was particularly glad to have fought for legislation Gov. Kathy Hochul signed last year that required the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance to request federal approval to allow people who are homeless, elderly or disabled to use their food benefits to get food from restaurants.
Sabella has spent much of her career fighting poverty and hunger in New York. Before joining No Kid Hungry, she served as director of government relations and policy at the Food Bank for New York City, where she secured funding to establish the first pantries for food and hygiene products in city public schools. She also worked to expand after-school programs across New York City during her tenure at ExpandED Schools.
“To be able to address two issues – like working on education, working on helping families – it’s not political,” Sabella says. “It’s the right thing to do.”
After Juanita Scarlett moved to New York, she attended a benefit for North General Hospital in Harlem. It was there that she first encountered then-Gov. Mario Cuomo and his counsel, Elizabeth Moore, who was the first Black woman to serve in that role.
“I met him at a benefit for the community of Harlem,” Scarlett says, “and was just so blown away by his remarks: what government can do, how government should be a partner to help lift up communities.”
That connection brought her to the Executive Mansion, where she landed an internship scouring newspaper clips for the governor. That blossomed into an extensive career in government and lobbying that spanned 20 years. Scarlett went on to work for former Gov. Eliot Spitzer during his successful attorney general campaign and while he was in office. She also held top positions at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and the Empire State Development Corp.
That experience makes her a valuable ally for her clients as a partner at Bolton-St. Johns, advising nonprofits such as the United Way of New York City as well as technology companies and other institutions.
Through it all, she has also tried to pave the way forward for other women of color. She is a member of the Olori Sisterhood, a collective of Black women working in politics, and recently joined the board of directors of the grassroots election advocacy group 21 in ’21 – efforts, she explained, that “are so important for women, especially Black women who continue to struggle to be in the room, to have their voice heard.”
Editor’s note: Juanita Scarlett is a member of City & State New York’s advisory board.
Before coming to Cozen O’Connor Public Strategies in 2017, Katie Schwab had done it all, holding various roles in government, corporations and nonprofits. That plethora of experience has proved advantageous in her current role.
“I have been at almost every seat at the table,” the 59-year-old lobbyist says. “I think that helped me be more effective in my job and more able to serve my clients well.”
Originally from Virginia Beach, Virginia, Schwab found her way to New York City in 1987 after receiving her law degree from the University of Virginia Law School. Her experience studying in the university’s historic preservation graduate program led her to a job at the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. She then joined the Mayor’s Office of City Legislative Affairs during the David Dinkins administration. While there, she met her two mentors, Martha Hirst and Frank New, with whom she remains good friends.
“They taught me so much about being committed to your work, being committed to the city both as a place but also as an institution,” Schwab says.
After leaving city government, she managed government affairs for the advertising firm Cemusa and served as founding executive director at the Oyster Bay Main Street Association on Long Island. Beyond her work as a lobbyist, Schwab continues her commitment to supporting New York’s communities. She serves on boards for several organizations, including the Design Trust for Public Space and the Downtown Lower Manhattan Association.
Over 40 years ago, Rona Shapiro was a paralegal when she was introduced to 1199SEIU, a labor union that today is a political powerhouse. She soon was drawn in by the union’s ability to improve the lives of workers. Shapiro has been a part of the union ever since and has spent the last 35 years specifically advocating for the rights of home care workers.
Shapiro has watched as the union’s home care division has grown to represent over 60,000 home health care workers. She has also been proud of the union’s ability to adapt and its use of social media campaigns and has seen how awareness has validated and empowered workers.
“Any place I go, any place that talks about health care, I talk about home care,” she says. “And I think that we have actually helped to make this fair campaign for home care workers a reality.”
While change in the home care field can be difficult and take years to achieve, Shapiro hopes to see a transition to “communities of care,” in which home care workers can live and work in their own neighborhoods. She urges young people to become involved in their own communities to be a part of these changes.
“I encourage young people to be health care workers, to be home care workers and to be activists,” Shapiro says. “And also become involved in the labor movement – to me it’s the place where you can make change.”
When Dawn Sherman’s aunt landed her an interview at the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission, it was the beginning of a career in a sector that’s undergone dramatic change. She moved up through the organization, taking on leadership and training opportunities – and working her way up to become executive director.
“I’ve always been a person that was interested in doing new things and open to it,” Sherman says. “I have never been that person to say it’s not my job.”
This approach led Sherman to embrace an offer from a former boss to join The Black Car Fund, a nonprofit focused on safety in the for-hire driver industry. Sherman was able to be a part of the team that helped establish it as a major player.
“I think I was the 20th person hired,” she says. “That was my opportunity to bring in my skills and in a place that wasn’t familiar to some of these things. It just brought joy to be able to do that and educate others and contribute to the company growing.”
Contributing to the professional development of others has continually made Sherman proud. She has stayed in touch with multiple classes of interns from The Black Car Fund and continues to reference ideas they produced.
“You have the opportunity to impact others,” Sherman says. “When you can truly impact a group of folks from all walks of life and hear about it later on – I would say that that would be the greatest accomplishment.”
When Alexa Sheryll was growing up, TV viewing was limited to her dad’s political news shows. Although she initially disliked them, Sheryll soon found herself falling in love with politics and developing her own informed opinions.
When she had the option of having a Sweet 16 celebration or going to a leadership conference that included attending the 2009 presidential inauguration, she chose the conference. She volunteered on the Obama campaign and interned with then-Rep. Steve Israel, her local member of congress, and in the process discovered that campaigning was what she loved most.
The Long Island native, who helped state Sen. Kevin Thomas retain a swing seat, has enjoyed successes on policy campaigns as well. She worked for the Fairness Project, a social and economic justice nonprofit, on various ballot initiatives, such as getting Medicaid expansion passed in Nebraska and raising the minimum wage in Arkansas. Most recently, Sheryll served as program director for New York City’s vaccination outreach program, where she and her team got over 150,000 people scheduled for the COVID-19 vaccine.
While Sheryll feels grateful for accomplishing many of her goals, she continues to set her aims high. “Some of my goals: I wanted to work for a firm, and I wanted to run a congressional base. I was able to do that at a young age,” she says. “But I think running a presidential campaign is definitely my biggest dream – and continuing to get Democrats and women elected in New York and Long Island.”
Margot Sigmone’s work at Children’s Aid isn’t just about getting New York City youth educated; it’s to make sure they receive the best education and guidance possible – whatever that takes.
“My role is not sitting behind a desk as much as it’s identified in that way,” Sigmone says. “It’s more in the field.”
Overseeing early childhood programs across 10 sites, Sigmone handles everything from observing classrooms to evaluating the curriculum and training the nonprofit’s educators in best practices. And especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, she has been working hard on multiple fronts to ensure teachers have the resources they need to support students.
“Whether it’s covering classrooms, cleaning classrooms – I don’t care what I have to do,” she says. “My title matters not. It’s how can I support this educator to feel successful?”
Sigmone’s exposure to early childhood education came after she immigrated to the United States from Guyana more than 20 years ago. Initially working without papers, she found work as a babysitter, where she discovered she enjoyed working with children. That blossomed into a career in education and schools.
Since joining Children’s Aid more than two years ago, she has been proud to bring a strong focus on special education to the organization.
“We’re going to provide really authentic supports for children and families, whether a child is identified as having an IEP (individualized education program) or an IFSP (individualized family service plan),” she says. “There are other kids who need special ed supports. And special ed just means: I need your individual attention because I’m struggling in some area, and I just need your support.”
While setting out to become a teacher, Lisa Sterrantino had a stint early in her career as a direct support professional working with individuals with autism and developmental disabilities. She enjoyed the community engagement component and the emphasis on inclusion and access to education – and the experience proved to be a turning point.
“I was able to meet with families in the community, people living with their families who really have these aspirations and dreams of living in the community … so I was able to meet them early on and really assess their skills and their strengths,” Sterrantino recalls. “Something I am able to do is see people for their strengths and identify barriers to ensure that we get what we need for them.”
Sterrantino then took a job at YAI, a nonprofit organization serving individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. After over two decades at YAI, where she had risen to the role of assistant director, she joined another nonprofit, Birch Family Services, in 2017.
She has applied her experience working with individuals with developmental disabilities to her current work overseeing staffers and developing and improving programs. She’s particularly proud of an independent living program that allows individuals to live with the minimum amount of support necessary and aims to keep on diversifying the models of family services offered.
“For me as a whole, I am forever learning and always looking to gain more knowledge,” she says, “and to do better for the organization and the people I support.”
After interning in the state Senate while she was a student at University at Albany, Diane Stuto never left the city.
“I really loved the Legislature, I loved my very first boss, and I just loved the whole vibe of the legislative arena,” Stuto says. “I cut my teeth on that.”
Stuto worked her way up to the role of legislative director for the ranking member of the state Senate Insurance Committee, which introduced her to the world of insurance. The experience informed her decision, three decades ago, to take a position with the Life Insurance Council of New York. One way she was able to apply her skills from the Legislature to insurance lobbying was by applying the idea of constituents to member companies.
“When I was working for the Legislature, services were very important. You always wanted to make your constituents happy,” Stuto says. “So when I came over to LICONY, I tried to think of our members as constituents.”
Stuto has adapted in her time at LICONY, shifting her focus from legislation to regulatory matters, which can be more complicated. She has enjoyed the process of learning new processes late in her career. Her focus going forward remains on informing member companies and serving their interests.
“I want to keep doing what I’ve been doing, to serve our members to the best of my ability for as many years as I have before I decide to retire,” she says.
Catholic Charities is no stranger to emergency response. The faith-based nonprofit has supported families during everything from the 9/11 attacks to Hurricane Ida in New York.
“We’ve been a natural kind of go-to partner,” Luz Tavarez says. “So when the pandemic hit, we just knew that there was going to be a major role for Catholic Charities.”
Tavarez holds a dual role, advising Catholic Charities on coordinating with local government and leading various community partnership efforts. It’s a natural fit, given her experience working in the public sector before joining the nonprofit about 15 years ago.
Throughout the course of her time with Catholic Charities, she has used her government know-how to get the nonprofit’s program to help day laborers up and running in Westchester and the Bronx. Her advocacy has helped the organization advance its policy priorities to fight poverty and support vulnerable communities in New York City, and her ability to build a wide variety of partnerships has come in handy as Catholic Charities responds to the pandemic.
“I take a lot of pride in being able to work with a lot of different people,” she says. “We have a flourishing relationship with the Latter Day Saints. In terms of government, we work on both sides of the aisle.”
Tavarez makes no secret of how she feels about her work.
“I love government,” Tavarez says with a laugh. “I love politics. My parents are from the Dominican Republic and they say that politics runs through our veins.”
Marcella Tillett set out to study business at Clark Atlanta University. But she shifted gears when a professor explained how social work would offer her a wide range of roles to choose from.
Tillett’s undergraduate courses at Clark Atlanta, one of a number of historically Black colleges or universities, or HBCUs, used an Afrocentric lens. That foundation was strengthened while in New York attending Columbia University, where she earned a master’s degree in social work.
Tillett’s early career focused on sexual health, drawing upon her international experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer working in HIV prevention. Her early professional work taught her the importance of listening directly to community members. She has brought this approach to all parts of her career, including as an adjunct professor of social work at Columbia and as vice president of programs and partnerships at Brooklyn Community Foundation. She has felt inspired by the foundation’s goal of giving communities agency over how resources are used to tackle issues close to them.
Tillett plans on continuing to work with institutions that honor the dignity and agency of others and use an anti-racist lens in their work. Tillett credits these values as having given her the ability to grow professionally.
“It’s always been important to be rooted in my personal values,” Tillett says. “Those are my North Star that move me through my profession. And I am excited that it leads me to unexpected partnerships because that’s the driving force.”
Early in her career, Lauren Tobias was drawn to advocate for reproductive justice. Her work at the New York State Department of Health showed her the critical importance of health care and social services, especially when individuals and communities face barriers to these services.
“As I worked in that field, and looked at other lenses, I took a broader view of health justice in general for all populations, especially given the racial disparities that we’re seeing in our country,” Tobias says.
Tobias, who most recently served as director of the Division of Family Health at the health department, worked on issues such as reducing maternal mortality, promoting health equity and improving Medicaid programs.
A year ago, she took on a new role as senior adviser at Brown & Weinraub, the top lobbying firm in Albany. While Tobias has seen the medical field and health care policymakers pay more attention to diversity during her career, she believes that it may take additional time for the outcomes to be felt. But she believes that continuing to build relationships with local organizations and providers will allow for change to occur as communities feel increasingly heard and respected.
“The biggest thing we can all do is a lot less talking and a lot more listening to the communities that are directly impacted by disparities,” Tobias says. “They need to be heard and their recommendations need to be calibrated and implemented based on their experiences, not necessarily the experts.”
Nicole L. Weingartner
As her firm’s go-to expert for governmental affairs, Nicole L. Weingartner prides herself on building authentic relationships, a practice that became essential as people shifted to remote work. That hasn’t changed even as Weingartner, like many other working mothers, has had to balance the professional with the personal.
“All of my clients are my friends,” says Weingartner, whose 2-year-old daughter often appeared during Zoom meetings in the first months of the pandemic. “They ask me about my kids; they say happy birthday. It's not like just some person that I don't really know anything about.”
She started her career as a communications specialist for now-retired state Sen. Kemp Hannon. From there, she became a regional coordinator of intergovernmental relations for the Assembly. That government service ended up shaping her career as a lobbyist largely representing and advising nonprofit clients that support people with developmental disabilities. Coming into her eighth year at the firm, Weingartner also serves as a regulatory analyst for its cannabis law practice.
Outside of her work at Davidoff Hutcher & Citron, she sits on the Association for a Better New York’s women’s steering committee, which builds connections between the city’s professional women.
“There’s nothing better than sitting down with someone and being able to work with them knowing them for so many years,” she says. “I think every young woman should really try to keep their connections strong.” Her advice for women new to her field? Keep your business card handy, nurture your networks and always bring a pair of sensible shoes.
As someone from what she calls a “classic New York liberal family,” Megan Wylie was introduced early on to politics. This interest soon became a calling, affirmed by her work on campaigns during high school and college.
“When I graduated college, I knew I wanted to stay in local politics,” Wylie says. “I had this bug.”
After working at the top lobbying firm Kasirer, Wylie joined the New York City District Council of Carpenters in early 2020. She revived the union’s political division, advocating for a bill ensuring protection against wage theft and introducing a candidate screening process through which union members sat down with over 100 New York City Council candidates. Wylie noted that these developments have increasingly engaged members politically, encouraging them to apply to community boards or attend rallies.
“We had a big rally in support of our wage bill … and a bunch of the electeds we had just interviewed came out and marched with us,” she says. “One of our members came up to me and said, ‘We interviewed him yesterday and he’s actually here. I’ve been a member for 20 years, and that’s rare.’ That was really powerful for me.”
Wylie credits a supportive team and a strong network of friends as being key to success in local politics.
“This is a special, unique world because you have built a network,” she says. “And I think the most important thing is just to use it.”
While Keeva Young-Wright always had a passion for leadership and nonprofit work, her interest in health care came later. When her then-boyfriend’s mother, now her mother-in-law, was diagnosed with breast cancer, she began to notice flaws in the system.
“I distinctly remember thinking that the system was broken, that she did not have the access that others, perhaps more wealthy or more connected, would have had,” she says. “So when I was asked to interview for a position at Northern Westchester Hospital, the idea of being part of the system and having the ability to help others have a better experience and outcome was exciting to me.”
A prolific fundraiser, Young-Wright has raised over $100 million over her career, for education, environmental advocacy and health care. Fundraising and effective communication have been particularly important to her career. Excelling in these areas put her on the path to becoming president of the Northern Westchester Hospital Foundation as well as the hospital’s associate executive director of operations.
Young-Wright’s personal experiences inform her health equity efforts – which she drew on as the hospital navigated COVID-19 vaccine distribution.
“My background as an immigrant, a woman of color in the country, has really informed the way that I see the world,” she says, “and it means that I am constantly looking for ways to bring equity to any situation that I’m in, in particular in health care, where I do feel strongly that it is a basic human right.”
Correction: An earlier version of this feature had an outdated figure for the number of New York City children facing chronic hunger. This feature had also incorrectly stated that Genea O. Bell oversaw the merger of five affiliates at Planned Parenthood of Greater New York. Bell led the HR function during the integration of five affiliates.
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