The 2023 Above & Beyond: Women
Recognizing 50 remarkable women who are improving New York.
A decade ago, when City & State first published an Above & Beyond list of “25 incredible women,” New York had never had a female governor, a female attorney general or a female leader of a majority conference in the state Legislature. Some women had broken through, such as then-New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn – but as her tenure wound down in 2013, only 15 women won seats in the 51-member council. Women held other key posts too, notably U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, but most influential offices were held by men.
Since then, the gender divide has become less out of balance. Gov. Kathy Hochul, state Attorney General Letitia James and state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins are among the most powerful politicians in the state. Today, more than half of New York City Council members are women. Moreover, there have been similar breakthroughs and gains in the upper ranks of business, law, finance, academia and other areas that once were dominated by men.
City & State’s annual Above & Beyond: Women awards highlight 50 of these remarkable individuals, including outstanding executives, advocates, organizers and others whose accomplishments merit recognition on this exclusive list.
Profiles by John Celock, Natasha Ishak, Aliana Jabbary & Alice Popovici
Rachelle Antoine still remembers the first time that she landed at John F. Kennedy International Airport in 2006, arriving in New York City after she and her family emigrated from Haiti. Antoine, who was just 10 years old at the time, recalls that she was mesmerized by “the brilliant lights at the airport.”
Now an aviation enthusiast and the point person for communications and community engagement for the airport’s $18 billion redevelopment project, Antoine knows the Queens airport inside and out. And she wants to make sure residents of Southeast Queens in particular take advantage of employment opportunities for minority- and women-owned businesses and local jobseekers.
“The airport itself is a whole village,” says Antoine, a resident of Queens Village. “Sometimes when we walk through the airport, we don't really pay attention that this is our community.”
Newly opened Terminal 8, for example, was designed by Southeast Queens-based architect Robert Gaskin, owner of RCGA +DM Architects, who also received the contract for the design of the airport’s New Terminal One.
A former social worker at the New York City public advocate’s office who has held several other roles in government, Antoine says her approach to work was inspired by growing up close to the community of Vine Baptist Church in Southeast Queens, where her parents are pastors.
“I took all of the experiences that I've had in the church and really brought that out to the business world,” she says.
– Alice Popovici
Anne Marie Anzalone
A big part of Anne Marie Anzalone’s success is her tight-knit group of girlfriends, some dating back to high school.
“I have a strong network of women that I’ve always counted on in different areas of my life,” Anzalone says. She joined Bolton-St. Johns in 2019 as executive vice president before her 2021 promotion to partner. She works with clients on building relationships with elected officials, a skill she honed during her decades in the political world.
Before joining the firm, Anzalone served as chief of staff to then-Rep. Joe Crowley, who was also Queens Democratic Party chair. She started her work with Crowley as a part-timer handling constituent services and, a year and a half later, rose to become the representative’s right-hand woman.
“One of the best things that he did for me was he gave me a lot of self-confidence, and he allowed me to have the autonomy to speak for him, which lots of folks don’t do,” Anzalone recalls. “Folks knew that when I was talking to them or speaking to them that Joe had my back, and vice versa.”
Anzalone began her career at the New York City Marriage Bureau for Queens County, where she performed clerical work and civil marriage ceremonies. She took a break from civil service to raise her twin boys before entering the political sphere as a legislative aide to then-Assembly Member Denis Butler. Additionally, Anzalone has served as a Democratic district leader in Astoria for 20 years.
– Natasha Ishak
Originally from Spain, research scientist Cora Bergantiños-Crespo came to Columbia University to conduct cancer research, looking at how normal cells turn into cancer cells, and trying to disrupt that process. But that research is currently on hold as Bergantiños-Crespo works on another pressing matter: helping relieve job-related stress for postdoctoral researchers at the university.
“For a researcher to do research in a university, as opposed to going to a pharmaceutical company, or any other places that pay way, way, way more, it’s because they really love the research they do, and they really want the research to serve humanity,” Bergantiños-Crespo says. “And it's really unfortunate that many times, the universities don't necessarily treat researchers as they should.”
The first president of Columbia Postdoctoral Workers – United Auto Workers Local 4100, which was founded in 2020, Bergantiños-Crespo advocates for better job protections and benefits – including better pay and help with immigration-related issues, housing and child care – for the union’s approximately 1,600 to 1,700 members, most of whom conduct research in the field of biomedicine.
Unions representing postdoctoral researchers are few and far between, Bergantiños-Crespo notes, and at the time her local was formed, it was the nation’s first postdoctoral union in a private university. As she prepares to negotiate a second contract for the union’s members, housing is one of her top priorities.
“Because we are international (researchers), we don’t have credit history, many times,” she says. “For renting apartments, it's more complicated for us.”
As a native New Yorker, Grace Bonilla began her professional career determined to help her community.
“I knew that the government and nonprofit sectors were places where I could make a difference, feel fulfilled in my career and address the systemic inequities that I saw growing up,” Bonilla says, recounting her earlier work as an attorney at the New York City Human Resources Administration.
Throughout her career, Bonilla has stood firm in the face of adversaries – including natural disasters. During the coronavirus pandemic, Bonilla spearheaded rapid response efforts in 27 of New York City’s most impacted neighborhoods as part of the city’s Task Force on Racial Inclusion & Equity.
Bonilla now leads the United Way of New York City, a nonprofit focused on supporting and building opportunities for low-income New Yorkers. The organization is committed to addressing inequities in education and health care, combating food insecurity and connecting formerly incarcerated people with jobs.
United Way’s advocacy involves addressing problems at their root, including the importance of elementary education – particularly passing the third-grade reading level milestone, which lowers one’s likelihood of dropping out of high school.
“The beautiful thing about United Way is that we can observe which policies are not working for people, work with nonprofits that are the gap of those inequities, working with them to improve their programs, while advocating to change policies that are holding the city back,” Bonilla says.
– Aliana Jabbary
The daughter of a political journalist, Taína Borrero grew up familiar with politics, which has drawn her to public-facing projects. At public affairs firm The Hayes Initiative, Borrero is involved in some big campaigns – like the development of New York City Football Club’s soccer stadium in Willets Point and the city’s bid to host the next Democratic National Convention. Borrero also worked with the state Department of Labor to roll out its $2.1 billion Excluded Workers Fund during the pandemic.
“The most rewarding (part of the job) has been having the opportunity to work with a really broad range of clients from the private to the public to the nonprofit sectors and help them understand the business of media and shape strategy,” says Borrero, who holds a master’s degree in domestic policy from Princeton University. Previously, Borrero held similar positions at Emmis Communications and Kasirer.
Borrero spent her formative years between the Bronx and Puerto Rico, and developed a deep appreciation for civic engagement as a way to better communities. She serves on Manhattan Community Board 8 on the Upper East Side, where she has lived for the past decade, and co-chairs the board’s Rules And By-Laws Committee and its Youth, Education, and Libraries Committee. Borrero’s advice for early career professionals: Open yourself up to learning, but stay true to yourself.
“I really have always believed in bringing your authentic self to work because I think when you don’t, you don’t shine,” she says.
For Lynelle Bosworth, no two days at work are the same, but they all have a common denominator: government regulation. That’s because her clients at Greenberg Traurig – which run the gamut from insurance firms to casinos to cannabis companies – all operate in heavily regulated industries. Bosworth’s job is to help them navigate this challenging terrain.
“A lot of times, we’re seeking solutions that will work for all of the parties,” she says, “prioritizing issues and seeking consensus for everybody.”
After graduating from Albany Law School, Bosworth initially wanted to work in litigation but she discovered her personality was not suited to it. Instead, she landed a job as counsel to the Assembly Corporations, Authorities and Commissions Committee and the Transportation Committee – a role she says gave her an appreciation for the nuts and bolts of how people travel around the state. She moved on to serve as counsel to the Assembly Health Committee, advising on public health and the Affordable Care Act, before joining Greenberg Traurig in 2010.
Once in a while, Bosworth takes on pro bono cases at Greenberg Traurig. She says working with the nonprofit New York Legal Assistance Group on legislation allowing parents subject to deportation to appoint a guardian for their children “struck a chord” with her – especially because, at the time, she had just returned from maternity leave.
“If there is someone that needs assistance, and I think that I have the appropriate skill set to help, I am going to help,” she says.
When Karen Boykin-Towns was studying business at the College of Mount Saint Vincent in the Bronx, she planned to “work in corporate America.” But her plans quickly changed when she met then-state Sen. David Paterson, who offered her a job.
“I think it set me up for all the great things I've been able to do throughout my life,” Boykin-Towns says of the early job, which led to roles as Paterson’s chief of staff and as deputy director of the state Senate Democratic conference. “When you work in politics, you learn to be flexible. You learn how to pivot because on any given day, you can have things go left.”
Boykin-Towns eventually found her way to corporate America, spending over 22 years at Pfizer in various leadership posts, culminating in the role of vice president of corporate affairs at Pfizer Innovative Health – one of the global company’s most senior positions. Now vice chair of the NAACP’s national board of directors as well as head of her own public affairs consulting firm, Encore Strategies, the seasoned executive divides her time between advocating for police reform, environmental justice and other issues on behalf of the civil rights organization and consulting for clients in the areas of crisis management as well as diversity, equity and inclusion.
Boykin-Towns attributes her career success to seizing new opportunities and cultivating relationships with people who could speak positively on her behalf.
“One thing that was important was making sure that people knew of my work,” she says.
In the medical field, data is ubiquitous. Shannon Bryant wants to harness the impact of numbers, charts and other metrics to elevate the conversation around diversity and inclusion at Kaleida Health.
To cite just one recent example, Bryant and her team developed a system for recording patients’ gender and their affirmed (or chosen) name in their medical records. “We were having issues where patients would come through our doors, and we didn’t really know how to properly refer to them,” says Bryant, who was previously a clinical care coordinator at Evergreen Health and worked as a forensic mental health specialist at the Erie County Holding Center. “Our clinicians want to do the right thing, they want to say the right thing, but they do need the support of technology to kind of point them in the right direction.”
Since she joined the Western New York-based health care system, Kaleida Health, in 2020, initiating diversity and inclusion initiatives for about 10,000 employees as well as for patients, Bryant has also worked to establish a baseline for creating diversity, equity and inclusion programs as well as metrics for measuring progress. Part of this work includes highlighting the positive impact these policies have on the organization as a whole – including how they support its financial goals.
In her work, Bryant balances the quantitative and qualitative data collected from employees and patients with powerful human-centered storytelling.
“For transformative change to occur,” she says, “you really need both of those things.”
Since joining Omnipoint in 1999 – one of the companies that would become T-Mobile – Sylvana Bunag-Krasner has witnessed the telecommunications company go through several transformations. She says the secret to her long tenure is simply knowing how to stay focused.
“I know what I have to bring to the table, and I don't get sidetracked and distracted by the noise around me,” she says.
Though she has handled scores of significant projects, Bunag-Krasner says working with the New York City Department of Education in spring 2020 to provide wireless connections for half a million iPads – enabling students to transition to virtual learning at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic – has been her most rewarding accomplishment.
“We basically accelerated into just partnering with everybody,” she says. “We’re talking (to) every single technology partner for the New York City Department of Education.”
In 2019, Bunag-Krasner became senior sales manager for the New York City area’s public sector, building a seven-person team focused solely on working with city agencies as well as those in surrounding counties.
With her track record of success, it’s hard to imagine that Bunag-Krasner’s career began by accident, but that’s exactly what happened. Having recently emigrated from the Philippines, Bunag-Krasner had planned to become a nurse – but a friend who’d recently found a job suggested she go to an interview at Ominipoint.
“Seven interviews later, they offered me a sales job,” she says.
As the COVID-19 crisis unfolded in New York City, Andria Castellanos leaned on her more than three decades of leadership in health care to support her staff at VNS Health. She and her team hosted regular conference calls where medical experts would bring employees up to speed on new developments in the organization and the medical field as a whole.
“We just kept the lines of communication open and continued to have a dialogue with our employees,” she says.
The pandemic was especially trying for VNS Health’s (formerly the Visiting Nurse Service of New York) approximately 10,000 employees, including those in the field caring for the city’s most vulnerable residents, as well as the operational support staff who keep the organization running. In addition to dealing with the fear of taking public transportation and caring for sick patients, employees saw some of their own colleagues die as a result of COVID-19.
This is why, Castellanos says, addressing concerns within a timely manner was a priority. “There were weeks where we got thousands of phone calls from our own employees who needed guidance on how to deal with their own illnesses,” she says.
Before joining VNS Health in 2018, Castellanos spent nearly 30 years in leadership positions in hospital operations for NewYork-Presbyterian, including at Milstein Hospital, Morgan Stanley Children's Hospital and the Allen Hospital.
“The experience that I had there really set me up to, I think, successfully be able to manage a situation like the pandemic,” she says.
Natasha Cherry-Perez grew up in East New York, Brooklyn, but mostly attended schools outside her neighborhood, she says, as her mother looked for ways to provide her with a better education. Decades later, when her own daughter was ready to start school, Cherry-Perez discovered not much had changed.
“The education (in East New York) still was not where it needed to be,” says Cherry-Perez, who lives in the neighborhood with her family. “And so, hence, looking for other schools I found charters and started researching.”
As Cherry-Perez became more involved with her daughter’s charter school and learned how much opposition the schools faced, she became a parent advocate for charter schools. Meanwhile, she served as a mentor for children attending traditional public schools in East New York. One of the main differences between the two types of schools, she says, is that charter schools have more autonomy – which she says allows them to respond more quickly to students’ needs.
“Every day a child goes to school and doesn't learn and doesn't get the maximum is almost a day wasted,” she says.
Eventually, her advocacy work turned into a full-time job doing community engagement for the New York City Charter Schools Association, which led to her current role as the organization’s chief of staff. In addition to tracking legislation affecting charter schools, Cherry-Perez speaks frequently to other parents about the benefit of having options when it comes to education.
“It’s your right to have a choice as a parent,” she tells them.
As more companies take a closer look at their diversity and sustainability practices, Jennifer Compton says her team at J&L Communications is ready to help share that story.
“Brands really need to be authentic these days, because I think the generations coming behind us can really peel back the layers and see when brands aren't,” says Compton, who founded the communications and marketing firm in 2016 and handles clients including large business-to-business, financial services, health care and tech companies. “We're really focused on coming in and helping companies grow their programs or talk about them and really kind of elevate the brand from that perspective.”
In one recent project, Compton’s team helped technology provider CDW showcase the work it had done to increase its spending with minority-owned suppliers, telling that story across multiple platforms aimed at both external audiences and company employees.
“Instead of just putting data on a page, we look to really tell a story around that data,” she says. “For example, women- and Black-owned businesses are usually underrepresented in the tech industry, and they're changing that … really showcasing how these businesses are disrupting and how CDW is helping them scale.”
Compton, who started her career about two decades ago and led public relations efforts for several firms before starting J&L, says part of what has made her career interesting is the ongoing evolution of communication mediums – from social media to ChatGPT.
“Is (AI) going to change, disrupt the entire content creation industry?” she asks.
Donna Demetri Friedman
Over three decades, Donna Demetri Friedman has climbed the ladder at Mosaic Mental Health, from psychotherapy intern to executive director. The Bronx-based outpatient behavioral health provider assists in crisis care for people with chronic mental illness.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit, Mosaic was one of the first providers to offer telehealth support while still keeping its crisis residence open. Leading a team of 75, Demetri Friedman embodied strength throughout the onset of the pandemic, seeking out essential funding that allowed Mosaic to provide medication and meals to patients in need. “I very quickly recognized how serious this was and that we were going to need to provide services as essential workers,” she says.
As mental health professionals, Demetri Friedman’s team still deals with the emotional ramifications of what they endured as essential workers during the height of the pandemic.
Demetri Friedman’s devotion to mental health care in times of crisis doesn't end there. Throughout her graduate studies and beyond, Demetri Friedman has treated families impacted by 9/11, specifically pregnant women widowed by the terrorist attacks. “As an infant mental health researcher and clinician, my team and I have worked with these families for a long period – and we’ve really helped them to adjust,” she says.
Branching from her longtime research into infant mental health, Demetri Friedman also established the Baby Institute at Mosaic, creating a resource for children and parents to form healthy bonds with the help of social services.
While she didn’t understand why it was happening at the time, Sandra Dieudonne recalls herself as a scared 4-year-old, sitting at home with her Haitian immigrant parents and newly born baby sister, hearing an alarming knock at the door. Immigration officers were canvassing the building for illegal immigrants, leading to a confrontation with an elderly woman in the apartment below Dieudonne’s.
This foundational interaction with immigration officials spurred Dieudonne to study immigration law.
She has since established herself as a Haitian Creole-speaking immigration attorney aiding New York's Haitian community through her work with CUNY Citizenship Now. “That’s how people started knowing who I was,” she says, referring to her work with Brooklyn’s Haitian community, aiding citizenship applications and family petitions.
When the humanitarian crisis in Haiti began to worsen, bringing an influx of immigrants into the country, Dieudonne started her work at Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New York’s Haitian Response Initiative, focusing on removal defense and asylum cases for Haitians facing threats of deportation to unsafe conditions. The Haitian Response Initiative employs Haitian attorneys and coordinators, working alongside Brooklyn’s community-based organizations, providing legal and social services for newly arrived immigrants.
“I see people coming across the border, trekking across 10 different countries on foot,” Dieudonne says. “When they hear someone speak in Creole to help assist them, it makes a world of difference – they feel a sense of kinship and understanding, which helps them navigate the complicated process in the United States.”
A few months before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Stacey Duncan stepped into a dual role, heading both the Greater Binghamton Chamber of Commerce and The Agency, Broome County’s economic development organization. As the entities pooled resources, Duncan – who had previously worked for both organizations separately – says she focused her efforts on building a cohesive team.
“It’s been a whirlwind of three years,” she says, “but it's been a great opportunity to advance a lot of things here in the Binghamton area.”
Among those projects are Victory Lofts and Century Sunrise, two former shoe factories repurposed into market rate and mixed-income apartment complexes, respectively. A third project is focused on redeveloping Oakdale Commons, a large underutilized mall, to bring in new retail tenants and a health and wellness center.
“That’s been an interesting process, of taking such a significant asset like a mall – and how do you put it back together?” she explains. “Kind of putting a puzzle back together.”
In addition to economic development projects, Duncan has been developing events and programming aimed at supporting women in the wake of the pandemic – with research showing that women were more likely than men to take a step back from their careers to care for children during the crisis. Having previously stepped away from the workforce herself, when her children were young, Duncan offered some advice for others weighing the decision: Be sure to maintain your professional relationships.
“What helped me step back in,” she says, “was having those connections.”
Growing up in Syracuse, Christie Elliott was inspired by the TV series “The West Wing.” Government, she realized, has the ability to change people’s lives.
“The role of government is to help remove barriers to access and provide platforms for people's success,” she says. “The idea of being in a position where I can help to remove those barriers, I can help to create more accessibility and more opportunity, is always something that has been just a point of passion for me.”
A “huge fan of upstate New York,” Elliott divides her time between her home state and the Washington, D.C., area, as she works with clients in the health care, information technology and financial industries throughout New York. She worked on initiatives throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, including in support of vaccines and economic recovery. As the state began to reopen after lockdown, Elliott was instrumental in navigating the planning and implementation of the Excelsior Pass, an app that provides users with a scannable copy of their COVID-19 vaccination card.
“How do we get this out into the public sphere? How do we make this interoperable?” were just a few of the questions Elliott and the rest of the team considered, she says. “It’s really basically trying to remove barriers that might be in place from a technology standpoint, and trying to sort through what those might be in order to make sure that the app is as accessible as possible to as many people as possible.”
Robyn L. Enes
Robyn L. Enes has served as chief of staff to Assembly Member Catalina Cruz since 2019. But a government job wasn’t always in the cards for the mother of three. Enes was on track to become a partner at her Manhattan law firm when Cruz offered her the job.
“I thought I would be teaching old ladies how to knit at the senior center in Corona,” Enes jokes. “I didn’t even really know what the job entailed. I just knew that Catalina was my best friend, and she felt like she wanted someone that she could trust to do the job.”
Enes has done a lot more than that. During New York’s pandemic lockdown, Enes led her team to convert their local office into a temporary soup pantry and diaper bank to support families in Elmhurst, which had quickly become the outbreak’s epicenter. Her team helped deliver food and baby essentials to 500 families in need during that time.
“What truly makes her worthy of this honor is the work that she does goes beyond her title to support our neighbors,” Cruz wrote of her chief of staff/bestie.
Being in tune with the needs of her constituents is important for Enes, who prior to her career in law worked as a family therapist as well as a clinical social worker for Planned Parenthood.
“Consistently still being there for our community and making sure that our community’s needs are met is my proudest achievement as a chief of staff,” she says.
As the need for mental health services continues to grow in the New York City area in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, Kenise Etwaru and her team at the New York Psychotherapy and Counseling Center have ramped up their recruitment efforts. They will need to rapidly hire about 100 therapists in order to put a dent in a waitlist that is currently around 600 people – but finding the right candidates has been a persistent challenge.
Part of the problem is finding therapists who are able to carry caseloads of 40 to 45 clients, while staying on top of the paperwork and managing to avoid burnout, Etwaru says. She attributes the issue to the fact that many recent graduates lost out on in-person interaction as they completed their education during the pandemic, and as a result face an uphill climb to navigate a field as demanding as mental health.
But Etwaru, a seasoned human resources leader who previously built up an entire HR department at The Doe Fund, a New York City nonprofit that helps formerly incarcerated men rebuild their lives, is determined to find a solution. As she works with her leadership team to chart hiring goals and map out progress on a weekly basis, she is listening to the requests of the new hires.
“We’ve stepped up and really offered a robust wellness program,” she says, including days off for mental health. “We’re here to support them.”
Vanessa Gibson’s decadeslong political career originated from an eye-opening college internship. As a student, Gibson interned in the Assembly office of Aurelia Greene, who became a surrogate mother to Gibson within politics.
Gibson graduated from the University at Albany and served as a legislative aide to Greene before taking a job as district manager until Greene resigned in 2009 to become deputy Bronx borough president. Greene urged Gibson to seek her Assembly seat.
“I didn’t realize that she thought so highly of me,” Gibson says of her late mentor. “I had always been a behind-the-scenes person, didn’t really see myself stepping up on a pedestal in a leadership role. And she said to me … ‘I believe in you.’”
Gibson succeeded Greene, representing the Bronx’s Assembly District 77 for two terms. She later served eight years on the New York City Council, passing legislation on education, criminal justice reform and housing, including the Right to Counsel law to provide eligible tenants facing eviction with free legal representation. As chair of the New York City Council Public Safety Committee, Gibson had oversight of the New York City Police Department’s budget, the city’s prosecutors and the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice.
In 2021, Gibson became the first woman elected borough president of the Bronx. Gibson hopes to make the borough a place where New Yorkers can thrive.
“(God has) given me the greatest opportunity to serve the beloved borough of the Bronx,” she says, “and I don’t take it for granted.”
As the daughter of former Assembly staffers who met while working at the Capitol in the 1970s, Caroline Griffin grew up steeped in politics and policy. But it was not until working at the 2004 Democratic National Convention during her senior year at Boston College that Griffin decided working in government was her calling too.
She still remembers the excitement surrounding the event, where then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama delivered a riveting keynote address.
“It was just very inspiring,” she says.
Fast forward two decades, and Griffin has just started a job as senior adviser at Brown & Weinraub – her first role in the private sector after serving as chief of staff at the Dormitory Authority of the State of New York and working in the governor’s office for three different administrations (Spitzer, Paterson and Cuomo). The fast-paced work has ranged from overseeing a variety of operations at DASNY, the agency that handles the financing and construction of infrastructure projects, to helping residents cope with the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy as a member of the governor’s office.
As Griffin settles into her role at the top lobbying firm Brown & Weinraub and familiarizes herself with the various industries the consulting firm serves – including higher education, transportation and health care – she says the problem-solving skills she acquired throughout her career are serving her well.
“It’s easy to just say, ‘That’s too hard,’” Griffin says. Instead, she prefers to take on tough challenges and find a policy solution.
The way Kenya Handy-Hilliard sees it, McDonald’s restaurants are an invaluable community resource for policymakers. They are not only informal gathering spots for generations of children, their parents and grandparents, but sometimes – as in the case of a McDonald’s she frequented as a child near Prospect Park during the 1980s, when the park was unsafe – they fulfill a need in the community.
“We filled the gap in failed policy, because it was too dangerous for us to go to a public park,” Handy-Hilliard says. “It was (the) context and backdrop to a lot of our lives growing up.”
A 2021 candidate for New York City Council, Handy-Hilliard served as director of intergovernmental affairs at the New York City Department of Investigation and the state attorney general’s office before her current role, where she is the government liaison for about 82 McDonald’s franchise owner-operators who control about 600 restaurants throughout New York. She says there is a great deal of underutilized potential in McDonald’s restaurants, many of which have organically transformed into community centers frequented by everyone from senior citizens to students looking for an after-school hangout.
“These are the places where real, regular people in the community congregate,” Handy-Hilliard says. “Let's think (of how we can) actually address policies through what's organically happening in our communities in a McDonald's restaurant.”
Handy-Hilliard describes McDonald’s as “America’s best first job.” According to an often-repeated estimate, 1 in 8 people in the U.S. got their start working at the fast-food chain.
About a decade ago, when Jen Hensley was putting together New York City’s tech ecosystem report, the city’s first blueprint for economic development within the tech sector, she made a keen observation: Every company was transforming into a tech company. It wasn’t just the tech companies hiring cybersecurity experts and IT staff – banks and public utilities were seeking these employees as well.
Now the tech sector leader who previously worked at Lyft and Intersection – the company responsible for the free Wi-Fi kiosks throughout New York City – is helping the 200-year-old utility Con Edison navigate a world that is increasingly more tech-oriented.
“For us, I think the challenges are really building out the capacity of the grid,” says Hensley, who has been overseeing corporate affairs at Con Edison since July.
One of Hensley’s top priorities is overseeing Con Ed’s transition from fossil fuels to clean energy as the utility strives to meet the goals of New York’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, which include achieving 70% clean energy by 2030. As more and more Con Ed customers begin to demand clean energy, Hensley’s team is helping building owners navigate the transition while working closely with city and state government representatives.
One of the aspects Hensley enjoys most about her role at Con Ed is the opportunity to work at the intersection of government and business.
“The impact that the private sector and the public sector can each have is amplified when they work together,” she adds.
When COVID-19 first hit New York City, Andrea Jacobson was working on strategic initiatives promoting patient well-being and preventive care at AdvantageCare Physicians, a network of family doctors and specialists with locations throughout the five boroughs and on Long Island. But Jacobson quickly changed course to address emergency needs like providing coronavirus testing and personal protective equipment for staff and, later, setting up vaccine clinics for members of the community.
The experience only deepened Jacobson’s dedication to working in public health to identify challenges, develop strategies for improvement and transform the health care system from a policy perspective.
“Maybe I don’t want to be the clinician in the room with the individual patient,” she says. “But maybe I can have an impact on what that whole system that got the patient to that visit in the first place was.”
Since joining EmblemHealth as head of public policy a year ago, Jacobson has helped secure federal funding for new mental health programming at two federally funded neighborhood care centers, which are part of a network of 13 centers throughout New York City and Long Island. One of the centers, in Flushing, launched the new programming in September, and the other, in Crown Heights, will being programming this fall.
“Everyone needs all the support that they can get, and the resources and connection to be able to come out of the pandemic stronger than ever,” Jacobson says.
When Jessie Lee made the pivot from a career as a bank analyst to take on a position driving economic development in Chinatown, she didn’t realize that every decade a new disaster would cause her to pivot to economic revival mode. Lee started out in economic development just before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which was followed 11 years later by the devastation of Superstorm Sandy and then, finally, the deadly coronavirus pandemic.
Lee says that in the event of an emergency, the role of the Renaissance Economic Development Corp. is to be economic development first responders, helping to get emergency funding to small businesses.
“All they need is a helping hand,” she says. “They need one hand to help them up and then they can fly.”
The pandemic brought about an additional challenge, spurring a rise in hate crimes toward the Asian American community. Lee says this unfortunate dynamic made it even harder for many small businesses, but she says the community came together to support each other, noting that many younger members of the community stepped up to help.
“I felt very uplifted and proud of my community,” she says. “We came together with such solidarity.”
Lee says women who want to enter the economic development field need to be “strong-willed” and ready to speak up for their community.
“As an Asian woman, I needed to have a voice,” Lee says. “I clearly could not be quiet. I needed to find my voice and be heard.”
– John Celock
When she was a student at NYU School of Law, Kim Longo wanted to go into bankruptcy law out of a desire to help people. Once she began representing the trustees, creditors and debtors of corporations in bankruptcy – something she has been doing for over 17 years at Windels Marx – she realized the work is less personal in nature than she anticipated, but rewarding all the same.
“Bankruptcy is all about just trying to get people some recoveries and get creditors some recoveries to make up for their losses,” she says.
Longo handles matters including reorganization, liquidation and general estate administration, and serves as supervising attorney in the firm’s representation of trustees of the estate of Bernie Madoff, the Wall Street financier responsible for the biggest Ponzi scheme in history. Outside of the firm, she is active in numerous women’s leadership organizations, including with the International Women’s Insolvency & Restructuring Confederation.
She also takes on pro bono work helping nonprofits set up their organizational structure – and she recently started her first pro bono litigation case in immigration court. Working on behalf of the nonprofit Safe Passage Project, Longo is helping a young asylum-seeker from Guatemala navigate the U.S. immigration process.
“It’s really different than what I do on a regular basis,” she says of her pro bono work. “It’s more personal and hands-on a lot of times because you’re doing the work for a specific person. This ability to give back by doing that is really important to me.”
Rebecca Marino learned some of her earliest lessons in politics from her grandmother, who helped run her husband’s commercial roofing company and was one of the first women elected to the town board in Queensbury.
“She sat and listened to people, and I think listening is extremely important to hear concerns that people have,” says Marino, who would accompany her grandmother on visits to constituents while she was growing up in the 1980s. “I just watched her navigate different channels and finding solutions.”
At Ostroff Associates, Marino works with clients in industries including manufacturing, health care and aging services, and says her grandmother’s approach to public service – being thoughtful, kind, listening and asking questions – continues to guide her. She recently assisted Lifespan of Greater Rochester, a provider of services for older adults, obtain funding for a program designed to combat financial fraud with the help of “enhanced multidisciplinary teams” that include members of law enforcement, representatives from the district attorney’s office, finance professionals and adult protective services staff.
The pilot program, which started about eight years ago, proved so successful that it has been replicated in every county in New York, as well as in other states, Marino says. And it comes just in time, as financial crime against seniors reaches record numbers, having more than doubled during the pandemic.
“It really is making a difference,” Marino says, “making other people in the community more aware of what to look for.”
Advocates for reproductive rights always feared Roe v. Wade would be overturned. So leading up to last summer, when it actually happened, they focused on safeguarding abortion at the state and local levels.
“The focus always was, how do we get as many safe havens as we can?” says Andrea Miller, who heads an advocacy organization, the National Institute for Reproductive Health, as well as its Action Fund, a political arm. For the past decade, the organization has been working closely with state and local partners nationwide to codify reproductive rights in state laws and repeal bans on abortion put in place before Roe v. Wade.
They were successful in 17 states, including New York. Meanwhile, for the past few decades, legislators continued to pass laws regulating reproductive health care, Miller says, which takes the greatest toll on marginalized members of society.
“If you can’t make these fundamental decisions about whether, when and with whom to have children, you don’t have the ability to chart your future,” says Miller, who previously led NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts and served as communications director for the Center for Reproductive Rights, an organization she helped found.
Miller says she is inspired by the momentum for change she has seen nationwide. For example, some communities are using local budgets to fund abortion care, travel and related expenses for people who cannot afford it.
“I think that people deserve to know the ways in which they can make an impact and that they have power,” Miller says.
Kelli Owens had been working in government for a few years when she joined the YWCAs of the Northeast Region in 2007 as its head of policy and government relations. It was at this organization – one of the nation’s largest networks of services for survivors of domestic and sexual violence – that her career path began to crystalize.
“It really opened my eyes to the world and to a lot of things,” says Owens, who grew up in a small town in Oneida County. “So I really started on my journey really focusing on gender and the impacts of oppression on people of color there.”
Owens now oversees the state Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence, where she is focusing on updating the office’s 30-year-old service delivery model to one that better reflects the needs of survivors.
“We’ve really been focusing on trying to make sure that we change the system to include everybody and the things that they want,” Owens says. That means paying closer attention to the experiences of women of color and LGBTQ individuals.
Owens says “the crowning achievement” of her career was lobbying for the passage of New York’s Reproductive Health Act, while she was head of external affairs for what is now Planned Parenthood Empire State Acts. When it finally passed in 2019, the legislation codified abortion into state law.
“When Roe fell, I was really proud of the work that we had done here in New York,” she says.
Jackie Pappalardi has more than 40 years of experience in the health care industry. Her journey in health care was inspired by her mother, an obstetrics nurse. “She was such an inspiration, always helping and caring, and I just wanted to emulate that,” Pappalardi says.
Pappalardi spent the first decade of her career as a nurse working in the clinical unit of a hospital before serving at the state Department of Health for 12 years, the majority of which she served as the division director of nursing home surveillance and quality. She later filled executive roles at Capital Health Consulting and the New York State Health Facilities Association, the umbrella organization for the Foundation for Quality Care.
Pappalardi is proud of her ability to lead successful collaborations between stakeholders on statewide health initiatives. Standouts among them are the Gold STAMP program, which significantly cut the percentage of pressure ulcers among New Yorkers, and, currently, Project Firstline New York, which aims to train front-line workers in nursing homes and assisted living facilities on how to stop the spread of infectious diseases.
This year, Pappalardi was named one of 16 “Veteran VIPs” in the annual McKnight’s Women of Distinction awards program for her impact in the fields of home care and senior living.
“I really believe in teamwork, I really do,” she says. “I believe if you use the right team you can make mountains move, and I hope that’s how I’ll be known.”
As an expert in virtual design, Aditi Patel’s passion lies in large-scale public infrastructure projects. It is there she feels her work impacts people’s daily lives most.
“There’s a rewarding aspect when your work for all these years actually materializes,” Patel says. “You see it in person in a physical form and you’re like, it’s no longer just something on my computer.”
At The LiRo Group, Patel leads the firm’s virtual design, construction and operations division. She first joined the firm in 2014 as a virtual design and construction specialist, a niche sector still developing across the construction industry. As such, getting clients to buy into building information models and other technological methods can be challenging, Patel says. But the returns make up for it.
“It’s this amazing feeling when clients come back and they’re like, ‘Yeah that was really great, we’d like to expand this onto our portfolio,’” says Patel, who grew up in India.
After starting her career as an architect in the U.S. in 2005, Patel went on to pursue a master’s degree in engineering at the Stevens Institute of Technology. She later worked as an architect at several firms before landing at The LiRo Group.
Among the giant public development projects, Patel has been involved in is the MTA’s $12 billion East Side Access project connecting the Long Island Rail Road to Grand Central through a 350,000-square-foot concourse, making it one of the country’s largest transportation projects to date.
With a background in private consulting and real estate development, Elsa Pereira has devoted the past six years to Grand St. Settlement, a 107-year-old neighborhood-focused organization providing community programs and resources to New Yorkers.
As the managing director of operations, Pereira manages capital projects, facility operations, IT and finances, ensuring that Grand Street’s revitalization and growth efforts create safe homes for its diverse communities.
“I call myself a builder and a peacemaker because the way that I see it, if a building is not safe or not comfortable, Grant Street can't provide the services there,” Pereira says.
This year will mark the completion of a renovation to Grand Street's full-service community center on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. “We spent a lot of time really interviewing people and thinking about what the community was asking for,” Pereira says, highlighting the early child care, youth and elderly programs, computer lab and STEM lab that will be available at the center.
Juggling revitalization efforts and managing Grand Street’s facilities, Pereira also aided in the growth of Grand Street’s community partnership with Essex Crossing, an incoming mixed-use development on the Lower East Side, where they have established senior-focused programming and a teenager-focused Best Buy Teen Tech Center.
“Now that we’re kind of evolving out of the pandemic, we’re focused on the next five years at Grand Street,” Pereira says. “We’ve all gone through this collective trauma. If we can provide spaces that feel calm and safe, that’s ideal.”
Melinda Person doesn’t just spend her days organizing the state’s public school teachers – she doubles as one in her spare time. Starting during the coronavirus pandemic, Person became a substitute teacher to work shoulder to shoulder with New York State United Teachers’ members, who were being asked to work on the front lines during the pre-vaccine days.
“It was pretty scary,” Person recalls. “We were wearing face shields. I was changing my clothes in the parking lot before going home to my kids.”
Person went into advocacy after seeing how much support schools need as a student teacher. Most of her career has been focused on pushing for full funding of Foundation Aid – a funding formula implemented after a 2006 court ruling, which the state long neglected to meet.
Looking back at her career, Person notes that she started very focused on policy development. She came to realize that even the best-researched policy does not drive change the way organizing and elections do.
“Not to ignore the great policy work, but the movement and organizing makes stuff happen,” she says.
Person – whose boss, outgoing NYSUT President Andy Pallotta, has endorsed her to succeed him – says she’d likely be in a sixth-grade classroom if she were not at NYSUT. She says middle school is her favorite to teach, because the students are curious about civic life and quick to engage.
“They don’t just listen, they ask a lot of questions,” she says. “You can have really rich discussions.”
Marianne Pizzitola spent 15 years as an EMT with the New York City Fire Department – but that wasn’t always the plan. Her career path changed when she was a college graduate out of work during the early 1990s recession.
“I was talking to a friend of mine, and a lady came up to me and said, ‘I don’t mean to be nosy, but you’re young, you should go into civil service … you’ll never make a lot of money, but you’ll have good health benefits and a good pension,’” Pizzitola recalls.
Pizzitola began her new career with the Bay Community Volunteer Ambulance Corps before becoming a full-time EMS worker. In 2003, Pizzitola served as a pensions and benefits consultant with Local 3621, representing the FDNY’s EMS officers, and later as president of the FDNY EMS Retirees Association, a role she still holds today.
In 2021, Pizzitola co-founded the New York City Organization of Public Service Retirees and filed a lawsuit against the city after it tried to move municipal retirees onto a privatized Medicare plan and penalize those who opted to stay on their old Medicare plan. She won some legal battles, but the city is now moving forward with a revised plan.
Pizzitola says she will continue to fight to protect public service worker retirees.
“I think history repeats itself,” she says. “That’s why I look back at history to see how the great labor leaders did things, to try to get ourselves out of where we are today.”
A year ago, shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine, Alla Prokhovnik-Raphique turned to social media looking for a way to help her family leave the capital, Kyiv. “People couldn't take the subway. There were no buses out. The trains were packed,” she remembers.
Soon Prokhovnik-Raphique – a former assistant professor of psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, who still teaches at the school on a volunteer basis and has her own private practice – discovered the Ukraine NGO Coordination Network, whose volunteers stepped in to help her family. She then became a volunteer herself, working with a network of mostly U.S.-based nonprofits to provide humanitarian aid to people trying to flee Ukraine.
“In the beginning, the main goal was trying to evacuate people out of direct conflict,” says Prokhovnik-Raphique, who was born in Ukraine and came to the United States when she was 10. Now, her work focuses more on directing supplies to Ukraine.
Her volunteer role has evolved to chief liaison in charge of bringing in new organizations, and she says it’s remarkable that the network of about 50 groups is made up of “regular everyday people at their computers,” not professional humanitarian workers.
“When people think of the war, they think, ‘What can I possibly do – this grand conflict happening so far away,’” she says. “People don't realize we have, just through our social connections, we have such incredible networks and people with so many different skills and so many different connections.”
Kim Ramos’ career has deep roots in the Bronx. A family friend who was involved in the borough’s party politics encouraged Ramos to join the Bronx Young Democrats, which is where she “caught the bug,” as Ramos puts it. She then got involved in grassroots organizing, campaigning for local candidates and engaging in nonprofit work.
“I think throughout my life I’ve been able to … bridge different communities who wouldn’t necessarily on their own connect,” Ramos says.
Behind the scenes, she has worked for some of New York’s heaviest political hitters. After graduating from Fordham University’s School of Law, Ramos joined government consulting firm MirRam Group, a top Latino-led lobbying and consulting firm, for 13 years as vice president. In 2015, she was appointed as deputy secretary for intergovernmental relations under Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a role in which she built strong relationships between officials at various government levels. She then served as director of intergovernmental affairs for state Attorney General Letitia James for three years.
Ramos has been in the private sector as vice president and director of government affairs at Ponce Bank since May.
Through it all, Ramos has held close to a piece of advice from one of her mentors, former New York City Council Member Maria del Carmen Arroyo: show up and pay attention.
“When she told me about showing up, she always said that it was about building consistency and habit and persistence,” she says, “so when you show up, you build on that momentum.”
Jacquelyn Richards spent the recent Caucus Weekend in Albany talking to over 200 women who stopped at Vote Run Lead’s table, with the vast majority saying they want to run for office one day. That’s the way she likes it.
Richards, the state director for Vote Run Lead, a national group that seeks to train more women to run for office, has made it her life’s work to encourage women, particularly women from marginalized communities, to seek elective office. She noted that many women are community minded but do not think about running for office and typically need to be asked three times before running.
“Women are always involved in community organizing,” she says. “Thanksgiving turkeys being given out to everyone in a church, that’s a woman doing that.”
Richards, who plans to run for office herself, started out as a teen advocate for Planned Parenthood and views herself as an organizer first.
“I like being in the trenches with the women. That’s where I am needed the most,” she says.
Richards was proud to help elect Vote Run Lead alum Lea Webb as the first Black woman from Broome County to serve in the state Senate and hopes that Gov. Kathy Hochul being the first woman in the role will inspire more young women to mount campaigns. At the same time, Richards anticipates the day when it will be routine to see women in positions of power.
“I’m looking forward to not having firsts,” she says.
Nicole Robinson-Etienne was born to Caribbean immigrant parents in Brooklyn. So after receiving her law degree from Boston’s Northeastern University, she returned to New York to work as an immigration attorney, helping clients navigate the complex legal processes in asylum and family reunification cases.
“That’s all I ever really wanted to do when I graduated from school,” says Robinson-Etienne, who considers the late Rep. Shirley Chisholm an inspiration. “I really wanted to come back to Brooklyn and serve the community from where I was raised.”
In 1999, Robinson-Etienne brought her legal prowess and her passion for community service to politics as special counsel to then-Assembly Member Rhoda Jacobs. In that role, she worked on legislative initiatives and advocacy efforts on behalf of constituents in Flatbush.
Robinson-Etienne currently leads outreach efforts as the director of external affairs at LinkNYC, focusing on expanding free high-speed public Wi-Fi and reliable 5G mobile broadband services as well as providing tech training to New Yorkers in need through the company’s new community Gigabit Centers.
“The reason why I came to do this work was because it’s an initiative to help bridge the digital divide through an equity lens of providing this most valuable resource to historically underserved communities,” Robinson-Etienne says.
Beyond her professional work, she devotes her time to mentoring young Black girls through organizations like the Girl Scouts, where she has been a leader for nearly two decades, and, most recently, the historically Black sorority Sigma Gamma Rho.
Melissa Rosenberg compares her role at Kasirer to that of a Sherpa, helping her real estate developer clients navigate unfamiliar terrain.
“A lot of folks, when they go to build in a new community, they don’t necessarily know what they’re going to be up against in terms of who’s important to talk to, what are the sensitive pain points for the community, what might people want or ask for,” she says. “That’s sort of what our focus is all the time, on helping our clients navigate those tricky intersections between development and politics and community relations.”
In an industry whose higher ranks are dominated by men, Rosenberg, who has been at government relations firm Kasirer since 2019, says she has grown more comfortable leading strategy for high-profile projects in rooms full of men. Among these projects is the largest private rezoning in Queens history – a mixed-use development called Innovation QNS, which will bring about 3,200 new apartments to Astoria.
Rosenberg became interested in housing policy after working at the New York City Mayor's Office of Management and Budget earlier in her career as well as joining her local community board on the Upper West Side. Realizing she wanted to focus on housing development, she eventually moved on to a role as policy analyst at the Supportive Housing Network of New York.
“And that was an amazing experience,” she says, “to learn the lay of the land in terms of how affordable housing works.”
Rebekah Rybstein’s career originated unexpectedly from her interest in writing. Before joining Teach Coalition, an education advocacy initiative of the Orthodox Union, one of the largest Orthodox Jewish advocacy organizations in the U.S., Rybstein was a student writer for a community newspaper, the Canarsie Courier.
After graduating from CUNY’s Brooklyn College in 2016, those writing clips helped Rybstein land a position with Teach Coalition as a grants writer focused on security grants, which help schools and other institutions secure themselves against hate crimes. Over time, Rybstein became the resident expert in the how-tos of government security funding.
Then, in 2019, Rybstein became government programs and security grant specialist at Teach NYS, liaising between government agencies and Jewish nonprofits eligible for funding across the state. She says rising antisemitism has emphasized the need for such grants and has reinforced the importance of her work.
“What we’re able to do today is something really incredible,” she says. “We’re doing something to combat the scourge of antisemitism across the country, which is crucial.”
As director of the Teach Coalition Security Center, a new initiative under the Orthodox Union, Rybstein is leading the expansion of the center’s work to support community centers and other local organizations.
“We saw a need that once grants were becoming in high demand for security, we were able to then help organizations in implementing the funds,” Rybstein says. “So this is really an expansion of the overall center, which is helping them access funds available to them.”
As a former Peace Corps volunteer and a longtime advocate for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, Monica Santos is no stranger to advocating for underserved communities.
After working in the nonprofit industry for over 25 years, Santos joined Services for the UnderServed at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic – which created a staffing crisis and posed challenges in managing at-home workers. With the nonprofit’s more than 3,000 units of supportive and affordable housing, and another 1,800 units in development, Santos’ work as chief program officer involves managing housing, clinical and support services, and dealing with about 1,000 staff members directly.
“My day to day involves working with people management, trying to ensure that people have a roof over their heads, a quality of life that they want, and also that people are working towards their dreams,” Santos says. She maintains a personal philosophy that “every life is of infinite value.”
At the height of the pandemic and today, daily work for Santos has been centered on crisis management and addressing food insecurity. Santos sought out funding for local community refrigerators to address these issues, both feeding the community and training community members in transferable skills through work at the fridges.
Santos says her greatest accomplishment “is that I could walk into an organization, developing and building partnerships when people were going remote and everything was closing down, (and) providing resources so that people were safe, that staff felt heard and that they had what they needed.”
Economic development takes vision and patience. “Economic development is transformational and it takes a very long time, very much a marathon versus a sprint,” says Shelby Schneider, the deputy director of the New York State Economic Development Council. Nevertheless, Schneider knows how to get real results fast. She joined the organization in July 2021, and under her leadership, the New York State Economic Development Council has seen its revenue grow over 40% through several new initiatives, according to one of her colleagues.
“The wonderful thing about it is it creates jobs, it creates indirect jobs, it improves quality of life,” Schneider says of her work. “That’s what I’m really passionate about.”
Schneider grew up in Montgomery County’s Tribes Hill, and witnessed the severe impact of an economic downturn on her small community. In college, her economics adviser nurtured her interest in economic development, which led to an internship at the Saratoga Economic Development Corp. She spent almost 13 years there, rising to become its director of marketing and economic development specialist before leaving for the private sector in 2013.
Schneider then joined the Saratoga County Prosperity Partnership, where she served in various leadership roles, most recently as president. As head of the organization, Schneider provided guidance and technical resources, and secured federal grant funds to help the county’s small businesses amid the pandemic.
“I think the COVID pandemic helped clarify my commitment to public service,” she says, “and I’m proud of the way I was able to lead under pressure.”
When New York City’s public schools reopened after lockdown in September 2020, city officials established the “Situation Room,” a multiagency information-sharing network to streamline the response to new COVID-19 cases on a day-by-day basis. Rosemarie Sinclair, who was the first vice president at the Council of School Supervisors & Administrators union, was regularly briefed on school closures and other developments.
The Situation Room coordinated school administrators’ response to shifting COVID-19 numbers, often on very short notice, Sinclair recalls. Sometimes, a principal or assistant principal would get a call during the weekend notifying them that the school would be closed the next day; they, in turn, had to pass this information on to parents.
“Everyone was in fear – it was a lot,” says Sinclair, who in January became executive vice president of the union representing over 6,000 administrators who work in city public schools and its centers for childhood education as well as about 10,000 retired members.
“The challenge is to always ensure that members are getting the benefits that they deserve,” she says. “It’s a constant negotiation.”
Sinclair considered a few career options before teaching math and then science at John M. Coleman I.S. 271, a middle school in Brownsville. When the principal offered her the assistant principal job, she initially declined. Later, encouraged by her father, she earned a master’s degree in school administration at Baruch College (her second after earning a master’s in science education). “And then I put my all in it,” she says.
When Amy Soricelli contacted the president of Berkeley College to ask for a job in 2009, she was offered a role overseeing alumni relations. “No, thank you,” she remembers saying. “I want the people with resumes who don’t have jobs.” Specifically, she wanted to help alums who couldn’t find work.
“People grow out of their jobs and companies downsize,” says Soricelli, who led job placement programs at Taylor Grey, an executive search firm, and the Katharine Gibbs School before coming to Berkeley College, where she is now vice president of career services. “And I have all of these people who are now finding themselves either displaced or underemployed or completely unemployed.”
Soricelli is currently working with about 150 people who graduated from Berkeley anywhere between last year to over four decades ago. The college, founded in 1931, was initially known mainly as a secretarial school, but the Manhattan and New Jersey campuses now offer a variety of degrees, focusing mainly on business administration.
“The challenging part is the ageism in the workplace,” Soricelli says, adding that she counsels older candidates not only on staying up to date with software, but also embracing social media. “It’s not the kindest and gentlest workplace anymore.”
Soricelli says she attributes her career focus to her mother, a single parent who worked in the Garment District during the 1960s, moving up the ranks from secretary to office manager.
“I know how frightening it must be to be unemployed,” Soricelli says. “And that’s what drives me.”
Beyond being a managing partner at global consulting firm EY, Alysia Steinmann is a mother of two sons with autism and an advocate for neurodivergent children.
Becoming an advocate wasn’t easy. Adding to the stresses of caring for a child with autism were the challenges of being a working mother, Steinmann says of the years following her firstborn’s diagnosis. But support from coworkers helped her pull through.
Steinmann now is treasurer and head of the finance committee for NYC Autism Charter Schools in the South Bronx and Harlem, where she has lived since 2008. She serves in the same roles at WhyHunger, a nonprofit dedicated to fighting food scarcity, and represents EY on the New York Jobs CEO Council, which provides jobs training to underserved New Yorkers.
In 2021, EY honored Steinmann with its Working Mother of the Year award. The award “represented to me that I was a beacon for so many others,” she says. “Hearing them come to me and say, ‘Thank you for sharing, I would have never talked about it’ to me – that was my proudest moment.” Steinmann credits her supportive colleagues, such as EY Vice Chairs Janet Truncale and Marcelo Bartholo, for lifting her up throughout her journey.
“There were so many people who supported me because I raised my hand … because I said this is hard.” she says. “I think we’re always afraid to ask for help because we think it makes us look weak but, actually, it makes you more real.”
Megan Strickland found her passion serendipitously. As an attorney for the law firm Patton Boggs (now Squire Patton Boggs), she represented over 100 contractors who participated in the 9/11 rescue and recovery efforts.
“I wasn’t really sure what to do next, because when you work on something like that that’s so powerful and so personal, it’s hard to close that chapter,” Strickland says. She moved on to join a friend at New Jersey Transit in 2015, working on post-Superstorm Sandy recovery efforts and pursuing her interest in impactful infrastructure development.
Now at the Gateway Development Commission, a joint public authority between New York and New Jersey to facilitate the Gateway project, Strickland is responsible for laying the groundwork for multibillion-dollar developments, including the Hudson River rail tunnel – one of the most critical infrastructure projects in the nation, which finally received initial federal support. Among Strickland’s first tasks was establishing the project’s development agreement between various stakeholders, which she described as one of the most challenging tasks of her career.
Among her role models is former U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey Chief Judge Garrett E. Brown, whom Strickland had clerked for.
“He was very calm and methodical in the way that he tackled problems,” Strickland recalls. “That’s one thing I try – no matter what the problem is – to do: Just take a breath and get some perspective and sort of trust that there is a process and a plan to get through it.”
Dr. Nicole Thomas-Sealey may wear a white coat and ask patients to say “aah” at work, but she is as much an educator as she is a family physician.
Thomas-Sealy, the vice president of clinical education at AdvantageCare Physicians and a family physician, says it’s her job to educate her patients, as well as the next generation of physicians and health care workers.
“Education is one of my passions,” says Thomas-Sealey, whose employer is a primary and specialty care practice caring for more than half a million New Yorkers.
Thomas-Sealey says COVID-19 transformed the jobs of all physicians, noting the pandemic necessitated a series of new protocols she needed to teach and ended routines for doctors.
“If you are not comfortable with the uncomfortable, you are not in the right profession,” she says, noting she passes this advice on to those seeking to enter medicine.
Thomas-Sealey originally considered becoming a pediatrician, but after rotations in family medicine during medical school, she enjoyed the idea of working with patients across the years. She notes that, at times, she feels with some patients she’s no longer the teacher but rather the student.
“Some of the most touching moments are with the oldest patients,” Thomas-Sealey says. “They come in dressed to the nines and want to share stories. I feel that I learn more than I can tell them about medicine. It really feeds my soul. My role as a physician is not just to provide education but to learn.”
Emerita Torres’ career has taken her all across the globe. As a former diplomat with the U.S. Department of State, Torres has spent time in Pakistan, Colombia, Brazil, Senegal, Sudan and in other nations, advancing U.S. foreign policy goals.
But after working on economic development, human rights, racial justice and labor issues, the Bronx native resigned after spending a decade with the department. “I felt that many of the issues I was working on were incredibly relevant and important, but I wanted to work on those policy issues back in New York,” Torres says.
Upon returning to New York, Torres worked at The Soufan Center, a nonpartisan global strategy organization, and later joined the Community Service Society of New York, where she serves as vice president of policy, research and advocacy today. Advocating for low-income New Yorkers, Torres’ work pairs advocacy with policy formation, addressing affordable housing, transit justice and overall economic empowerment. This work is done through evidence-based data analysis, which the center translates into fact sheets and policy papers that can be passed into policymakers’ hands.
But it’s not all about numbers to Torres. “We work with advocacy groups and grassroots organizations to bring that data to life through narratives and stories,” she says. They also aid New York’s underserved communities through direct service work, connecting people to health care, assisting students with loan debt education and helping formerly incarcerated people understand their criminal records so they can reintegrate into society.
Elizabeth Velez understands the value of lifting up small businesses. As a child, Velez remembers how the support from the New York City Department of Small Business Services significantly helped her father’s new construction firm, which he launched in 1972. She has carried that value with her throughout her 35 years at the Velez Organization.
“I remember watching my parents at night putting together bids and doing the paperwork and then the next morning, my father would go out and do the construction work,” says Velez, who now owns the company.
Velez takes pride in the company’s public facilities projects, which now include over 600 units of affordable housing around the Bronx and Harlem, and $10 billion worth of large-scale health care and education facility projects. This year, the Velez Organization will continue to lead the New York City School Construction Authority’s mentorship program to provide training to 175 minority- and women-owned small contractors.
“It’s not bricks and mortar, it’s not the traditional work that we do in building buildings. It’s building the fabric of New York City,” Velez says of the mentorship program, which is among her proudest career accomplishments. “And it’s something I love.”
In addition to heading a successful family business, Velez previously served as chair of the New York Building Congress – the first person of color and only the second woman to head the 100-year-old group. She also serves on the MTA board and the MTA Traffic Mobility Review Board, which will set the city’s congestion pricing tolls.
Lidia Virgil says that the changes she and her team implemented at Somos Community Care’s network of practices throughout New York City prior to the advent of COVID-19 made it possible for the organization to mobilize as quickly as it did during the pandemic. Though many of the health care system’s providers had struggled with burnout and long wait times, Virgil says providing mental health resources and incentives to the physicians helped turn things around.
“We’ve established these tight connections with the community,” says Virgil, who serves as chief operating officer for the network of over 2,600 physicians. “We are able to build testing sites, to know what the community needs are.”
During the pandemic, the organization established 125 testing sites all across the city and administered over 1 million tests, in addition to setting up nearly 200 COVID-19 vaccination sites, including at Yankee Stadium and in subway stations and parks. To date, Somos has administered 2 million vaccines.
Now that the acute phase of the pandemic has passed, Virgil says that the organization is working on tackling a growing mental health crisis among many of its patients. To reach community members who may be hesitant about seeking out treatment for mental health, Somos has been working with community organizations to bring behavioral health services directly into neighborhoods – by setting up screening booths at community fairs and in parks.
“Mental health is such a big stigma amongst our communities,” Virgil says.
Beatrice Weber has built a strong reputation as an educational justice advocate for Hasidic Jewish children. Her path began in 2019, when, with support from Yaffed, Weber filed a complaint against the city, the state and her son’s yeshiva, alleging that he was not receiving adequate education in secular subjects like math and English, as required by state law.
In 2022, the state Supreme Court ordered the city and state agencies to complete their investigations into her son’s school, and in January the state Education Department set a six-month deadline for the city to conclude its findings. Weber’s lawsuit was perhaps first from a parent advocating for stronger basic education within the yeshiva system.
“I know the value of an education and how it can change people’s lives,” says Weber, who was appointed as Yaffed’s executive director in October. “And I want my children, grandchildren and their peers to be able to experience that.”
After leaving her arranged marriage in 2014 and, in later years, transitioning away from her ultra-Orthodox community, Weber obtained a master’s degree from Wayne State University. She has built a successful career in the nonprofit sector, serving in leadership roles at organizations like ODA Primary Health Care Network and the Ronald McDonald House New York.
Weber credits her success to mentors who helped her on her journey. She says these women took “the really heartfelt leadership approach that really resonates with me and have been there for me when I needed the help and support.”
Correction: An earlier version of the profile of Andrea Jacobson incorrectly stated that she oversees two neighborhood care centers and misstated when they opened. Jacobson helped secure federal funding for mental health programming, which began last September at one site and will begin this coming September at the other site.
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