Shattering the glass ceiling
30 women leaders who stand out in Virginia’s corporate world
2022 nominations are closed. Please see our JULY issue featuring this year’s recipients.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been unusually difficult for professional women, especially those with young children or other responsibilities, such as caring for older family members. Many had to leave work entirely or put pursuing their career goals on the back burner during the past year while handling personal duties at home. The pandemic’s future impact on women’s progress in leadership at work is yet unknown, as well as how it will affect the national effort to close the gender pay gap — particularly for Black and Latino women, who earn an average of 62 cents and 54 cents, respectively, for every dollar earned by white men, according to U.S. Census data.
With such an unusual year as our backdrop, Virginia Business introduces our inaugural Virginia Business Women in Leadership Awards, spotlighting a cohort of 30 executives who have excelled in their careers and are paving the way for other women to follow in their footsteps. More than 200 women business leaders were nominated this year, making it a challenge to narrow down the list to our 30 honorees. Decisions were made by Virginia Business’ editor and publishers.
The women selected had to be based in Virginia and hold significant C-suite or equivalent leadership positions at for-profit businesses. Those under consideration included business owners, CEOs, chief operating officers and other C-suite-level executives. We divided nominees into those working for small businesses ($20 million or less in annual revenues) and large businesses (more than $20 million in annual revenues). In making our decisions, we also considered nominees’ overall career accomplishments, community engagement and the role the leader has played in mentoring women and girls.
We congratulate our stellar first group of winners and look forward to honoring more women executives in future editions of the Virginia Business Women in Leadership awards.
Chief operating officer, PBMares LLP
Newport News One of the most gratifying parts of Mary Aldrich’s job, which she’s held since 2008, is watching the organization evolve and thrive because of decisions, initiatives and strategies she worked on. “Being the critical wingman to the CEO who is setting the vision, I get to execute and bring the results and vision to life with the CEO,” she says.
As a Generation Xer, Aldrich recalls growing up assuming she had to get things done herself, no matter the barrier. “Work harder, work smarter, overcome — it’s up to me,” she says. “Perhaps I saw the glass ceiling like any other barrier to my success. I acknowledged it existed, but I was accountable to figure out how to break through it.” Despite often being the only woman in the room when she was younger, she says, she never felt intimidated. In retrospect, Aldrich realizes she had an advantage often missing for women even today: a sponsor inside the organization.
“Twice in my career, I’ve had an incredible male mentor who helped pave the way for me to enter those rooms because they saw something in me and spent the time with me,” she explains. “They were helping me break through the ceiling.”
Aldrich helps others do the same as a board member of Christopher Newport University’s Luter School of Business, providing mentoring and outreach to undergraduate and graduate students in business programs.
Managing director of REMS Norfolk, Colliers, Norfolk
Julie Alexander has been in the real estate professional services and investment management business for her entire career of more than 35 years.
“I graduated [from Old Dominion University] on a Thursday and started work on Monday,” she says. She was just the seventh hire for Robinson & Wetmore, a Norfolk development company that became part of Colliers International Asset Services in 2019. Last year, Colliers, which operates in 67 countries, managed more than $40 billion in assets.
Alexander oversees the company’s Norfolk and Hampton Roads portfolio, which represents more than 8 million square feet of commercial space, while also directly managing more than a tenth of that portfolio.
Her duties include oversight of the asset management team and contract maintenance staff, providing monthly reports to owners and preparing operating budgets.
“The owners were willing to dedicate any minute it took to my professional growth and training,” she says. Alexander pays that help forward by mentoring junior staffers.
“I would not be where I am now without Julie’s support,” says assistant property manager Ekaterina Muraveva.
Outside of work, Alexander has served as a board member for the region’s Salvation Army branch, which offers programs including emergency assistance, housing, substance abuse treatment, youth enrichment opportunities, spiritual care and emergency disaster services.
“I like solving problems and working with people,” says Alexander, who believes the best boss is a mentor and a good listener. “It’s enlightening to get the opinions of millennials.”
LORRAINE AMESBURY HOLDER
Vice president of operations, Stihl Inc., Virginia Beach
When Lorraine Amesbury Holder joined German chainsaw and handheld power equipment manufacturer Stihl in 2008, she was the first female manufacturing executive in the company’s history. She attributes that achievement to technical and personal skills, qualifications, tenacity and not accepting no for an answer. “Often, it comes down to taking risks and doing things other people won’t because they’re afraid of the possibility of failure,” Amesbury Holder says. “At that point, the so-called ‘glass ceiling’ will disappear.”
As Stihl’s vice president of operations, Amesbury Holder isn’t afraid to hire people more proficient than she is in a specific subject matter area. As an individual, she’s a risk-taker, proud of her integrity, work ethic and moral compass. As a mother of two, she strives to be a role model for her son and daughter, demonstrating that women are strong, brave and fearless. “We can all do anything we want to do and are only limited by our imagination,” she says. “My children have seen me sacrifice, work hard, fail and succeed.”
When her mentor in the automotive industry passed away shortly after his retirement, a young Amesbury Holder was saddened to see only work colleagues at his funeral. She realized work had been his whole life and identity, when what mattered was living a full life, sharing experiences with others.
“We should all endeavor to make the world a better place, not just focus on the career aspect,” she says. “It’s something I strive to do through my work and personal life: Achieve the coveted work-life balance.”
President and CEO,
Reston Limousine & Travel Service Inc., Sterling
It was a different world in 1990 when Kristina Bouweiri started Reston Limousine with five vehicles. Since then, she’s grown the business to 250 vehicles and 450 employees — 75% of whom are female and/or minorities — and $30 million in revenue.
Hiring and promoting people is the most satisfying aspect of running her own business, Bouweiri says. “Not only am I providing a paycheck, but we always try to hire from within the company, so many of my employees have been with me 20 years. Even though we’re not a small company, we still run it like a family business where the employees are treated as family.”
That compassion also extends to the community, where she’s served on several community and regional boards, raised money for Loudoun Boy Scouts and recruited members for 100WomenStrong, a group that is dedicated to improving life in Loudoun County.
Near Christmas 2001, when Bouweiri was struggling to pay bills and her buses were about to be repossessed, her banker changed his mind. The buses remained because Reston Limousine had been donating limousine rides for sick children, wounded warriors and other groups
“I thanked him,” she recalls. “And told him that we would always give back to the community because it’s the right thing to do.”
Vice president of public and government affairs,
Cox Communications Inc., Chesapeake
Ask Nneka Chiazor where her energy comes from, and she’ll say it’s from working with others to solve complex socioeconomic problems.
“Beyond the people, though, I’ve always been fascinated by politics,” she notes. She grew up in Nigeria, where “a coup took the democracy to a dictatorship literally overnight and quickly made me appreciate the intricate dynamic between governments, people and livelihoods.”
Under Chiazor’s leadership, the cable and telecommunications company has made broadband available in multiple rural locations throughout Virginia, and she’s also led efforts to bridge the digital divide for low-income families through Connect2Compete, Cox’s program designed to increase affordable internet access.
Chiazor is convinced that the future face of wealth is female and that only by working together will women continue achieving big things. She mentors Cox employees and also assists other professionals via organizations such as Women in Cable Telecommunications and the National Association of Multi-ethnicity in Communications.
Although Chiazor says she had the support to achieve her goals from a young age, she acknowledges that glass ceilings exist. “For me, I just try not to get discouraged and overcome barriers by … having a North Star and following it,” she says. “Plus knowing when to compete and when to collaborate.”
Executive vice president of human resources,
marketing and communications,
Computer Systems Center Inc., Springfield
Mentoring other women matters in every field, but it can be even more critical in a predominantly male industry, such as federal IT contracting. Lara Coffee acknowledges that while the lack of women’s representation in technology sectors has improved over the years, there’s still a long road ahead.
“With the global pandemic forcing millions of women to leave the workplace entirely, now more than ever, mentoring women is key to getting representation back into the workforce and in good numbers,”
Coffee has found that the key to getting positive outcomes from her workforce is by making people feel valued and heard. She provides staff with guidance and mentorship to help them determine their strengths and guide them toward their ideal role or position. Also, she exercises her years of marketing and public relations experience to enhance the company’s position in the marketplace.
But it’s the “people factor” she considers the best part of her position because each facet of her role speaks to her strengths, whether mentoring, marketing or public relations.
To young women starting their careers, Coffee offers suggestions on how to move forward: “Continue to be curious, true to oneself and surround yourself with trusted advisers. And allow for failure.”
Executive vice president, Divaris Real Estate Inc., Virginia Beach
Krista Costa has been a force in office leasing in the Hampton Roads region for two decades, representing both owners and tenants. She oversees a portfolio of more than 1 million square feet of space and is consistently ranked as a top broker in the region by CoStar Group Inc. Costa won the Commercial Sales and Leasing Award from the Hampton Roads Realtors Association and Commercial Realtors Alliance for 10 years straight, and her own company named her employee of the year in 2005.
“My company has a higher rate of female brokers than any other local company,” she says, explaining how integral that support has been to her career. “I had a great mentor with a vested interest in my success.”
Now, Costa mentors not only new Divaris agents but also young people in the broader community. In 2011, Divaris presented her its community service award for her work with a youth mentoring program run by The Up Center, a Norfolk organization dedicated to supporting and strengthening children and families.
Costa also visits schools to talk about careers in commercial real estate and recently began mentoring a student through the Women’s Initiative Network, run by her alma mater, Old Dominion University.
With such a full plate, it’s no surprise that she describes herself as “a really hard worker,” but hard work and even a mentor aren’t enough to succeed, she says. “You need to connect with other women in business, even if they are in different industries.” And, just as essentially, “you need to make sure that you ask for what you want.”
Executive vice president and chief operating officer, Marsh & McLennan Agency LLC — Mid-Atlantic, Roanoke
Kim Enochs has helped grow the local region of national risk prevention and insurance company Marsh & McLennan Agency’s revenue from $83 million to $225 million over the past 11 years, as well as integrating 17 acquisitions during that period.
Enochs’ lifelong philosophy has been, “Anything is worth a conversation.” She found her position when an executive recruiter told her he’d immediately thought of her because a small firm in town was looking for someone to join its corporate team. At the time, she was employed by a large organization in a leadership position and was in line for a top executive role, but when told that the firm was a “best-kept secret” and that the role was full of growth potential, she agreed to meet.
Almost 20 years after she joined Marsh & McLennan, Enochs feels privileged to have helped build a successful organization while having fun and working with talented people.
As a leader, Enochs believes it’s her highest responsibility at this stage of her career to clear the way for other women by engaging in talent acquisition and leadership development initiatives. “If women don’t find ways to mentor, advance and support other women, they inadvertently help create a ceiling,” she says.
Principal and vice president of national delivery,
Apex Systems, Richmond
Courtney Epps sees herself as a fixer. “I love problem-solving. It gets me up every day,” she says. During the pandemic, she certainly had no need of any other alarm clock.
“I was a teacher, tutor, test proctor and cafeteria worker, responsible for keeping my 9- and 11-year-old daughters on track,” she says, “while at the same time ensuring my recruiting teams, sales teams, clients and business [were] still moving forward successfully.”
Epps set out to be a lawyer but subsequently decided that the law wasn’t for her, although she also wasn’t sure which direction to take. When she interviewed with Apex about 15 years ago, she says, “I didn’t even know what IT staffing was.”
Nevertheless, she became Apex’s first hire for its National Delivery Recruiting Center in Richmond. “I harnessed talents I didn’t even know I had,” she says. Epps quickly took on substantive roles at the company, where she now supervises about 100 employees. In 2013, she was named the first woman principal within her operating group, a designation that recognizes her key role in developing Apex’s mission. Her hard work and talent have helped turn the recruitment center into a $330 million business.
Epps credits her rapid rise to having “amazing mentors,” and she strives to play that role for others. “I like to help people get to where they want to be,” she says. Epps also believes in being your own best advocate: “Speak up. Use your voice. Don’t be afraid to say, ‘This is what I need.’”
President of Hampton Roads and Outer Banks, TowneBank, Suffolk
A lifelong resident of the Hampton Roads region, Dawn Glynn was a founding member of TowneBank 22 years ago. During her tenure, the regional bank has expanded from three offices to more than 40 throughout Hampton Roads, Central Virginia and North Carolina, with more than 2,600 employees, $15 billion in assets and contributions of more than $78 million to support communities served by TowneBank.
Her first job as a grocery store cashier introduced her to the customer service business. “I learned you can change someone’s day with a warm greeting and smile,” she recalls. “Making those simple connections are still a large part of my job today, building and growing member, employee and investor relationships.”
Glynn is dedicated to making a difference in her community and devotes time to organizations such as United Way of South Hampton Roads. As board chair during the May 2019 Virginia Beach mass shooting, she led community support efforts to help families and employees impacted by the tragedy. She also served on the board of Norfolk’s Access College Foundation, helping raise scholarship funds for local high school seniors.
Each of Glynn’s mentors over the last 35 years has shaped the leader she is today. “I’m a believer in always paying it forward with helping others,” she says. “I love coaching others, watching them grow into new roles and take on expanded responsibilities. They’re the future leaders of our company and community.”
Vice president of capture and proposal, B&A, McLean
“Just because you can do everything, you shouldn’t,” says Shana Hammond-Adler, who is in charge of business development and marketing at B&A, a McLean-based government contracting firm. “You have to be able to trust and delegate. Appreciation of what you have and of others’ contributions is critical.”
That philosophy is indispensable for the contractor, who’s tasked with helping government, education and private sector organizations maximize skills for growth and reach corporate objectives.
But the philosophy of keeping employees engaged is one that she applies internally, as well. The multilingual executive is a major player in both B&A’s mentorship program and its Brand Ambassador initiative, which spreads values of inclusiveness and open communications throughout the company ranks. Hammond-Adler also spearheads the company’s contributions to charitable and community causes, such as the Hope for Henry Foundation, a D.C. charity that helps pediatric cancer patients, and the Celtino Foundation, which promotes STEM education in rural Latin America.
During the COVID-19 crisis, Hammond-Adler stepped up her philanthropic commitments by organizing the delivery of meals to first responders — including the U.S. Capitol Police — and hospital personnel. Additionally, she is a registered advocate for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
“You have to have the courage to lead, even if the choices are not popular,” Hammond-Adler says. But whether dealing with employees, clients or charities, her bottom line is always “empathy. You can’t forget that they are human beings.”
Chief human resources officer, Schnabel Engineering Inc., Glen Allen
Over the years, Eva Hartmann has seen the role of chief human resources officers shift. Today, she’s a strategic partner for Schnabel Engineering, creating competitive advantages to recruit and retain employees and build the company’s culture.
Hartmann began her professional career as a consultant at Andersen Consulting (now Accenture plc), where she was introduced to the concept of developing individual and organizational performance, both key tenets of human resources. This experience taught her that employees are the No. 1 asset of any company. And that informs her work at Schnabel, an infrastructure engineering firm.
“There’s a distinct competitive advantage gained when you’re intentional about building the potential of employees in your organization,” Hartmann notes, “because it inevitably leads to greater engagement and performance as a company overall.”
Hartmann also is a big proponent of women mentoring women, which can impact both parties on professional and personal levels.
“My first true professional mentor was a female executive in the banking industry who not only taught me — knowingly or unknowingly — how to be a competent and confident leader, but also how to balance family, work and volunteerism with optimism and, ideally, with grace,” she says. “Finding this balance can be tricky for ambitious women, and mentorship and guidance can make a big difference in their lives and their career.”
RUDENE MERCER HAYNES
Partner, Hunton Andrews Kurth LLP, Richmond
Rudene Mercer Haynes was convinced that if she did everything within her control to bang on the glass ceilings long enough, eventually they’d crack. Although she acknowledges the systemic issues and societal barriers that impact the advancement of women of color in the legal profession, she can point to no instances when her gender or race impeded her success.
“I realize that my experience is not that of everyone’s, and what I’ve tried to do through my various leadership and decision-making positions is whatever I can to improve the legal profession’s diversity,” she says. “When we see ‘unicorn’ demographics in any industry, we need to ask ourselves what’s wrong with the system and what can we do to change what those demographics look like.” She does so as one of her firm’s global hiring partners, as well as a member of the Goals and Metrics Subcommittee of Hunton Andrews Kurth’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee.
Haynes says it’s crucial for women working in law to pass on the knowledge they’ve gained to younger women, in part because of the number of unwritten rules for success in the industry.
“Sharing this knowledge is critical to diversifying the face of leadership, especially in big law firms,” she says. “Having a community of women to serve as a sounding board … is invaluable to a woman attorney’s longevity and satisfaction in the practice.”
President and CEO, Ellucian Inc., Reston
Laura Ipsen has more than 25 years of experience in the technology sector, working for Silicon Valley titans such as Oracle, Cisco Systems Inc. and Microsoft Corp., where she oversaw 2,000 employees. In mid-June, Ellucian announced it will be acquired by investment firms Blackstone and Vista Equity Partners.
Ellucian helps educational institutions modernize the student experience through cloud technology. It was an ideal fit for Ipsen, who calls it “the best of both worlds — education and technology.”
But Ipsen also took the job because of the visibility of being one of a few women to head a large tech company. (Ellucian has more than 1,000 employees). She envisions her example as paving the way for other women to advance in a male-centric field.
At Ellucian, Ipsen cultivates Lean In Circles, peer groups that hold discussions on empowering women. She is active outside her company, too. In 2020, Ipsen was the keynote speaker at both the Bryant University Women’s Summit and at William & Mary’s Tech Day. In her off hours, she sits on the Business-Higher Education Forum board.
Ipsen’s advice to women who would hope to emulate her success is to be an “excellent listener.” Even more important, perhaps, is to take risks. “Don’t wait,” she says. “Do your next job now.”
Partner, BDO USA LLP, Richmond
“I love numbers,” says Tracy Lewis, which would seem to make a career in accounting a natural fit for her. But forget the image of a dry-as-a-spreadsheet daily grind. Lewis begs to differ. The best part of her job is “the people aspect. I deal with a lot of different people, and my bosses change every day according to the client I work with. Not one of my days is mundane.”
Lewis joined Chicago-based global accounting firm BDO USA in 2002, after earning a master’s degree in accounting from William & Mary’s Raymond A. Mason School of Business. She made partner in 2017 — the first woman to earn that distinction in BDO’s Richmond office.
Nurturing her network inside and outside of work has been critical to that success. “You have to be open-minded to other perspectives,” she says, and in the office she has surrounded herself with people with complementary skills. Outside of work, she’s done the same. She’s a board member and past president of the National Association for Women Business Owners’ Richmond chapter. “Leading by example,” is important, she says about her civic involvement.
“Tracy embodies what it means to be a mentor,” says Lauren Soles, a business development director at BDO’s Richmond office. “She has paved the way for women who want to continue to take their careers to the next level.”
ChamberRVA agrees with Soles’ assessment. In 2019, it presented Lewis its HYPE (Helping Young Professionals Engage) Mentor award.
Chief administrative officer, Smithfield Foods Inc., Smithfield
The most formative period not just in her career, but in Keira Lombardo’s life, was in 2013 and 2014, during WH Group’s acquisition of Smithfield Foods and the parent company’s initial public offering. Amid that busy backdrop, after four years of infertility struggles, Lombardo discovered she was pregnant.
Never one to shy away from challenges, she and her husband relocated 8,000 miles to Hong Kong, and during her pregnancy, Lombardo flew more than 100,000 miles on IPO roadshows. WH Group debuted on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange in August 2014, just days after her son’s birth. She recalls a former Smithfield CEO who had a knack for pinpointing her seminal moments by announcing, “Keira, you’re in a Kodak moment.”
A New Jersey native, Lombardo graduated from Rutgers University in 2002 with degrees in economics and finance. She joined Smithfield in New York City shortly afterward, holding a variety of positions from corporate finance assistant to executive vice president of corporate affairs and compliance.
Lombardo feels fortunate to have had many male superiors and colleagues who encouraged and championed her career goals. Yet she knows other women who’ve had different experiences, and Lombardo wants men to take equal responsibility for changing companies’ cultures.
“As companies invest in diversity, equity and inclusion, it’s vital to engage men in the process,” she says. “Men play an important role in achieving gender parity, because only together can we shatter the glass ceiling.”
DIANA C. MENDES
Corporate president of infrastructure and mobility equity, HNTB Corp., Arlington
HNTB is about building better — for public safety, for social equity and for the environment, which explains why the engineering and design firm recently tapped Diana Mendes for its new position leading infrastructure and mobility equity.
“I had no small plans,” Mendes says of her decision to pursue a career in planning. “I wanted to save the world.”
Though she may have fallen a tad short of that goal, her philosophy of “having a compelling reason to commit and move forward” has been characteristic of her 35-year career, which has included a stint consulting for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, a job she describes as “a fantastic experience.”
Since joining employee-owned HNTB in 2016, Mendes has overseen the expansion of its Virginia office to 250 employees, an increase of 40%. In recognition of her role in making her company a go-to firm for transit agencies across the nation, the company named her an HNTB fellow last year. She also was the Conference of Minority Transportation Officials’ 2019 Corporate Executive of the Year, and the American Transportation and Road Builders Association presented Mendes its lifetime achievement award in 2018.
Outside of work, Mendes has pursued her passion for planning with equal vigor, serving on many boards and committees, including those of the American Public Transportation Association and the American Planning Association.
She modestly attributes much of her impressive career to “incredibly gracious, patient and kind colleagues. My success has been a team sport.”
Managing partner, Gentry Locke Attorneys, Roanoke
As the managing partner at Gentry Locke, Monica Monday oversees 65 lawyers and has expanded the footprint of the nearly century-old firm by adding offices in Richmond and Lynchburg, while she personally continues to represent clients in state and federal appellate courts. In 2018, the legal rankings agency Chambers USA described her as having “a commanding reputation as ‘one of the go-to practitioners’ for appellate work,” making her a natural choice to chair the Virginia Bar Association’s Appellate Practice Section Council.
Monday has earned a slew of honors featuring words such as “elite,” “super” and “best,” and she is just the fifth attorney in the commonwealth to be named a Fellow of the American Academy of Appellate Lawyers. During her 28-year career, she has shared her expertise with young lawyers in her practice through “Gentry Locke University,” an internal vehicle for providing mentorship, guidance and training.
“I credit my firm with providing me with a lot of opportunities,” Monday says, especially for allowing her to work part time for nine years so that she could spend more time with her son before returning full time as managing partner in 2013. “I’m extremely grateful,” she says about that support.
But just as critical to Monday’s success has been her ability to overcome the “I can’t do that” syndrome that sometimes afflicts women in business. “We underestimate what we can do,” she says. “You need to realize that you can make it your own and do it your way. You don’t have to do the job the way your predecessor did.”
Senior vice president of corporate strategy,
Altria Group Inc., Richmond
Heather Newman is central to Altria’s 10-year vision to responsibly lead the transition of adult smokers to a future with noncombustible tobacco products. She enjoys the rapid and continuous learning cycle that is intrinsic to corporate strategy, while her experience working at a family-run farm market in the Philadelphia suburbs shaped her interest in the customer.
A teenage Newman developed creative product displays to influence purchasing decisions at the farm. One of her managers noticed, informing Newman that she could go to school for that. “She told me it was called marketing,” Newman recalls. “I was sold!”
Seeking a strong undergraduate marketing program, Newman attended Saint Joseph’s University in Pennsylvania, where Philip Morris USA was an active recruiter on campus. Hired as a territory sales manager upon graduation in 1999, she now works for parent company Altria. “Although the breadth and scope of my responsibility is different, I have immense appreciation for the solid foundation those experiences provided me,” she says. “They shaped who I am as a leader, instilled my work ethic and, most importantly, taught me how to operate with resiliency.”
In addition to spending a significant amount of time with employee resource groups at Altria, both as participant and executive sponsor, Newman is on the board of directors of MENTOR Virginia, an anchor organization that helps grow youth-mentoring programs around the state.
Senior vice president of defense, General Dynamics Information Technology Inc., Falls Church
Leigh Palmer oversees some gargantuan contracts for one of the largest defense contractors in the country. General Dynamics Information Technology (GDIT) is the IT subsidiary of Fortune 500 contractor General Dynamics, which generated $39.7 billion in revenue last year. Palmer helped contribute to that bottom line by securing the $4.4 billion Defense Enterprise Office Solutions contract to move the armed services farther into the cloud and streamline its office applications.
WashingtonExec, a private membership organization for executives, named her a Top 25 Defense Exec to Watch in 2020. Palmer has spent a quarter-century in the industry, working for defense contractors such as Northrop Grumman and CSRA before it was acquired by General Dynamics in 2018. “My dad was in the military, so I’ve been around it my whole life,” she says.
Yet Palmer says her success “is not about me. It is about solving big problems to get to the solution on the other side,” and that requires not only “understanding what you are good at and where you might need support,” but a readiness to listen and a commitment to transparency.
“I spend a lot of time talking about empathy.”
The Virginia Tech graduate, who also holds a master’s degree in regional planning from the University of Pennsylvania, now sits on the board of the nonprofit Intelligence and National Security Alliance. Palmer was a featured speaker at GDIT’s Women + Technology conference in October, when she spoke about inclusive leadership, a philosophy she practices on the job by mentoring other women in the male-dominated industry.
Vice president of distribution and logistics, Agway Farm and Home Supply, Richmond
Looking back at her career trajectory, Holly Pearce recalls a key moment she experienced while working as logistics manager for Lumber Liquidators: A new executive brought her in to present her projects. Pearce prepped a three-phase action plan ending with blue-sky initiatives that, once implemented, would greatly benefit the company. Afterward, the executive told her he was going to take the “invisible wrap” off her and let her loose in the organization.
“And that’s exactly what he did,” Pearce recalls. “Within a year, I was promoted to director and in charge of 20,000 import containers each year, with a $68 million budget.” Today, she oversees the supply chain for agricultural retailer Agway Farm and Home Supply, managing contracts, fleet operations and budgets.
Throughout her career, Pearce focused on developing leadership skills through mentoring and coaching, to develop strong, productive teams with succession and growth in mind. She’s the first to admit that strategy and vision casting — a corporate leadership style focused on long-term goals — get her pumped up.
“I love being able to innovate and execute projects that support the overall goals of my organization,” she says. “Of course, that means securing support for internal stakeholders, so gaining consensus through mutual benefit is key.” Her leadership extends to being president of the Virginia International Business Council and recently being appointed an advisory committee member for University of Richmond’s Customer Experience Certificate program.
Being able to directly influence the course of the Agway organization still motivates Pearce every day. “It’s awesome to have a seat at the table and truly shape the foundation and future of a $300 million company.”
CEO, Harmonia Holdings Group LLC, Blacksburg
When Pallabi Saboo was interviewed by an admissions counselor at Virginia Tech, she was asked why she hadn’t applied to Harvard or Stanford to get her MBA. In those pre-internet times, the Punjab University graduate had relied solely on a trusted source: her fiancé, who was attending Virginia Tech.
Today, Saboo holds the reins at Harmonia Holdings LLC, a software company she has grown from 10 employees and less than $2 million in revenue in 2006 to 400 workers and nearly $90 million in annual revenue, with a presence in 18 states.
With that success comes responsibility, which Saboo welcomes. Under her leadership, Harmonia mentors growing companies under the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Mentor-Protégé Program promoting the development of nascent businesses. “We write the proposal, do the hiring and run the program,” she explains. “Our goal is to help them learn under our mentorship. But it also helps us grow.”
Part of that mentoring is teaching women to self-promote and be less humble. “I share my lessons learned to mentor women to leverage the cards they’ve been dealt to make their journey faster,” she says. “Part of mentoring is teaching that strength lies in unity and we can both help each other rise.”
To support and encourage the growth of women in STEM fields, Saboo sponsors an annual scholarship at Virginia Tech.
Chief operating officer, SimVentions Inc., Fredericksburg
Megan Shepherd’s first job, working in her dad’s camera shop, taught her a customer service mindset, and her first job after college as a software tester was the start of her technical career. Today, she leans on those skills at SimVentions Inc., an employee-owned defense contractor with more than 300 employees. Shepherd must focus on the present as well as the future, in addition to effectively communicating and relating to multiple teams, employees and customers.
“I’m a connector,” she explains. “Being COO pulls on several skills every day, but the ability to connect strategy, day-to-day [work] and people is critical.”
Her entire career, including earning two technical degrees in the mid-’90s, has been in male-dominated environments. She recalls her knowledge and contributions being overlooked while being told to sit and look pretty by older men in college classes. Undaunted, she continued to push, determined not to let the environment limit her, nor new opportunities and challenges pass her by. “As I grew professionally and took on additional responsibilities and leadership roles, I never focused on the fact that I was often the only female in the room, on the call or on the team.”
Long a mentor of current employees and past associates, Shepherd sponsors SimVentions’ Women in Leadership program to provide mentorship, networking and collaboration related to the unique challenges women face in the industry. “We need to empower women to understand and be confident in their potential,” she says. “Mentoring other women and girls demonstrates what’s possible.”
President, Atlantic Union Bank, Richmond
As the first female president in Atlantic Union Bank’s 118-year history, Maria Tedesco’s leadership has transformed the bank, growing it from $14 billion to $19.6 billion in assets over the past two-and-a-half years.
With her eye on the goal of making banking easier and more convenient, Tedesco led a speedy effort to build a digital portal last year so customers could access the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program, a pandemic-driven federal relief program that stymied some banks. Atlantic Union was able to process loan applications around the clock for weeks, ultimately completing more than 11,000 PPP loans.
Besides expanding revenue and leading all client-facing business teams, Tedesco oversees approximately 75% of the bank’s employees. After seeing the need firsthand, she led an effort to create a program especially for women called WIN, or Women’s Inclusion Network, which has become a critical component of the bank’s broader diversity, equity and inclusion initiative. “WIN is open to men and women, but its purpose is to advance women and teach how unconscious bias affects hiring,” she says.
Her recommendation to younger women is to stretch themselves at work. “Continue asking for more responsibility, say yes to every opportunity and build your network,” she advises. “Take calculated risks early in your career when they’re less costly, because you can learn a lot. And be kind to everyone you meet.”
Senior vice president and chief contracts officer, Peraton, Herndon
Szu-Min Yang embodies Peraton’s motto, “Do the Can’t Be Done.” Despite language, cultural and economic barriers, the first-generation Chinese American has made a 25-year climb up the corporate ladder to her present position as a key executive for the massive defense contractor, which has more than 22,000 employees and annual revenues of more than $7 billion. “I’ve kept my feet strongly to the ground,” Yang says about her success. “I have a willingness to try new things, even if they aren’t comfortable situations.”
As Peraton’s chief contracts officer since 2017, Yang has overseen three major mergers and acquisitions — Solers Inc. in 2019, and the twin purchases of Northrop Grumman’s federal IT and mission support businesses and Perspecta Inc., which closed earlier this year.
During the pandemic, she and her team sometimes worked 16-hour days, seven days a week, to fulfill their contract obligations while still keeping team members safe. Yang has volunteered with both the Salvation Army and the American Red Cross, but she’s also taken time to pull back, such as a few years ago, when her parents were diagnosed with cancer. Yang cared for them along with her young children while still pursuing her career goals.
At Peraton, she is known for her empathy and commitment to nurturing her employees and guiding them to new opportunities. A good leader “sets a good example and demonstrates her values through action,” Yang says. “You have to be able to listen and not just hear yourself. You’re not a leader if no one wants to follow.”
ARLENE E. LEE
CEO and principal, R.E. Lee Cos. Inc., Charlottesville
“I don’t believe in being defined by challenges. I use them as a tool,” says Arlene Lee. As head of six companies that deal in commercial construction and land development, Lee’s toolbox is often full. And, “when you get to the end of your rope, you can get another rope,” she says, blithely mixing her can-do metaphors.
Since assuming leadership of the companies after the 2015 death of her husband, Christopher, she has focused on keeping R.E. Lee Cos. open to technological innovations and on making sure that it lives up to three bywords: pioneering, honorable and professional. She calls herself “a servant leader” to the companies’ 170 employees. “We have a tremendous responsibility to our employees, to their livelihoods, to treat them with compassion and empathy,” she says. As CEO, she created the Lee Education Apprenticeship Program and the Christopher E. Lee Young Leader Program to support young employees. She also is committed to individual mentoring within the companies.
Lee is active in many civic organizations, including the Virginia Council of CEOs; in 2019, she was presented its Charles E. McCabe Leadership Award for her work in increasing the council’s membership. Additionally, she sits on the boards of the Virginia Chamber and the United Way of Greater Charlottesville, among others.
A truly effective leader must be authentic, she says. “Show up as yourself. Embrace yourself. You can’t lead if you don’t know where you are going.”
Founder and CEO, WellcomeMD, Richmond
Linda Nash comes from an entrepreneurial family and has done her part to uphold that tradition by founding four businesses — “so far,” she adds. The trick, she explains, “is finding a need and filling it.”
In 2016, Nash founded WellcomeMD, a concierge medicine service in which doctors carry only 10% of the caseload of a regular practice, because she saw a need for more personalized health care. The patient-membership service model allows doctors “to drill down into the options to help people live their best lives,” Nash says. In addition to its operation in Richmond, WellcomeMD has two North Carolina locations and an office in Naples, Florida. In the past three years, its patient membership has grown at a rate of 325% annually.
She also heads Linda Nash Ventures, which helps startup businesses grow and thrive, and Nash has served on the boards of many nonprofits, including the Ellen Shaw de Paredes Breast Cancer Foundation, the United Way of Greater Richmond and the Powell Economic Education Foundation. She was a finalist for the Wells Fargo Women in STEM award in 2019 and has been named the Most Influential Woman in Concierge Medicine by Concierge Medicine Today.
Nash believes good leaders have to be “somewhat vulnerable. You need to admit mistakes and show you’re human,” she says. But she also believes in confronting issues and “having hard conversations. Avoiding conflict causes conflict.”
President and CEO, circle S studio, Richmond
During her career of more than 30 years, Susan Quinn has worn a closet’s worth of hats as executive coach, keynote speaker, entrepreneur, adviser and mentor. She has applied that multifaceted expertise to helping Fortune 500 companies and middle-market firms propel growth and realize their potential.
Initially, Quinn had thought that lawyering was her destiny, but after taking a fundraising job at a hospital, she realized that consulting was the career that resonated with her. “I get a thrill out of helping colleagues and clients see things through a new lens,” she says.
In 1986, Quinn started Creative Associates, which later morphed into her consulting and branding firm, circle S studio. In recognition of her achievements in that business, her alma mater, Randolph-Macon College, named her its 2017 Entrepreneur of the Year. In 2019, she also was a finalist for the National Association of Women Business Owners’ Women of Excellence Award.
Quinn makes it a point to host multiple interns every year at circle S. “You can’t have too many mentors,” she says, but her commitment extends beyond business hours. She advises students in programs at Randolph-Macon and the University of Richmond, and she has held the title of “super mentor” at UR since 2012.
Quinn is modest about her success. “I don’t know the definition of being at the top of my game, because there is always so much more to do and be,” she says. “I always seek to do better each day in small, incremental ways.”
ANGELA D. REDDIX
Founder, CEO and president, ARDX, Norfolk
Angela Reddix’s philosophy is “to live and grow where you are planted,” even when she was often the youngest person in the room and one of a tiny minority of Black women. Hard as that could be, she says, “I was determined to stick it through and learn my lessons.”
Those lessons obviously were learned because the health care management and technology consulting firm she founded in 2006 has landed $178 million in government contract work and now has more than 125 employees.
Reddix likes to give back. In 2016, she founded Envision Lead Grow, a mentorship program for middle school girls. And during the pandemic, Reddix personally awarded $2,020 grants to 13 women owners of small businesses who were unable to tap into other sources of financial assistance. In May, she launched a second cohort for her Reddix Rules Fund, with 10 women entrepreneurs who will receive training in pitching, economics and operations.
Her work in the for-profit and nonprofit sectors has earned Reddix many accolades. She is a member of Old Dominion University’s Entrepreneurial Hall of Fame and was a recipient of its 2017 Women of Achievement Award. In January, she received the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Leader Workforce Award from the Urban League of Hampton Roads.
“To be an employer is the most honorable thing I have done,” says Reddix, but she admits that “it can be lonely at the top.” Women leaders need a professional coach, a peer group for support and “a mental health professional on speed dial,” she says. “You can’t make emotional decisions.”
Founder, president and CEO,
Quality Information Partners Inc., Fairfax
“I think data all the time,” says Beth Young, which comes in handy in her line of work, the development and implementation of standards for educational data.
Since founding Quality Information Partners Inc. in 2004, Young expanded her virtual business from being a two-person operation to a 30-employee company that works with federal and state agencies, private businesses and nonprofits, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. She has also written three surveys for the National Center for Educational Statistics and was the consulting author on five best-practices publications for the U.S. Department of Education.
Young, who holds a doctorate in education policy from George Mason University, always has possessed a drive for service. “My parents raised me that way,” she says. “As an adult, I realized I had more to offer than just to my child.”
Outside of work, Young is a commissioner on the Fairfax City Economic Development Authority and the city of Fairfax’s Commission for Women, an advisory panel. In those roles, she has been responsible for developing an annual networking event for more than 100 businesswomen. She also has helped foster a culture of collaboration among women in business as a member of the Rowan Tree, a Herndon-based virtual community for
Young says that women should tap into resources that are available to help them find success, and relationships are critical. “You find ethical partners and you hire good people and watch them grow,” she says. And, just as importantly, “You listen to your staff.”