Meet the 2024 Smart Women Award honorees

In The Company Of Leaders

Northeast Ohio professionals encourage, inspire and empower their organizations’ up-and-coming women


Meet the Panelists

Whether making mid-life professional pivots or dedicating their entire careers to a single field, the women joining this year’s Smart Women Breakfast & Awards panel have successfully carved out opportunities for themselves across a range of male-dominated industries. On April 25, this panel of female leaders will take the stage to share their unique career experiences, with the goal of inspiring other businesswomen to overcome and achieve.

This year’s panel features:

  Kelly Keefe, the first female president to lead ERC

  Kim Smith, the second-generation president of The Pipe Line Development Co.

  Rita Pappas, MD, FAAP, FHM, medical director of hospital operations at Cleveland Clinic

  Carole Sanderson, CFO at Onyx Creative

Moderator Danita Harris Journalist

Although their career paths and professions are each unique, these women share a common drive to succeed by building up the teams around them. Bringing together their diverse personalities, experiences and leadership styles, the panelists will tell their stories from the Smart Women stage, with the help of journalist Danita Harris, who will moderate the panel as they examine the challenges and opportunities facing female professionals.

“Having these gatherings of women is critical,” says Sanderson. “It gets us back out there, reconnecting with people we haven’t seen and reminding us that there’s another world out there outside our office. I’m looking forward to the energy that’s always at this breakfast.”

The following pages provide a glimpse into the inspiring stories of these accomplished panelists.

Join us for this year’s Smart Women Breakfast & Awards on April 25 to hear more about the obstacles these women have overcome, the feats they’ve achieved and the leadership lessons they’ve learned while navigating these nontraditional career paths.


Asking questions and absorbing the answers

Kelly Keefe, President, ERC

From an accounting firm to motherhood to becoming the first female president at ERC, Kelly Keefe is a classic example of career mobility and flexible work arrangements.

Keefe joined ERC 20 years ago as part of a job-sharing arrangement with Carrie Morse (now senior vice president), who wanted to reduce her own hours while pregnant. Their boss, then-president Pat Perry, encouraged Morse to find a replacement for the other half of her job, which was “pretty progressive at the time,” notes Keefe, who left Deloitte after her first maternity leave before deciding to ease back into work.

Kelly Keefe President ERC

Initially, Keefe only worked about eight hours a week at ERC, which provides HR training and consulting, assessments and research services. Over time, she gradually expanded her role while continuing to grow her family. She credits Perry, her predecessor, with challenging her to take on more responsibilities — until ultimately passing the torch in 2018, when Keefe became the first woman to lead ERC.

“In some ways, I wish it wasn’t a statistic that we’ve gone so long without a female president,” she says. “But on the other hand, I’m proud of the fact that we have a female president after 104 years, and I don’t take it lightly. It’s a great organization, and I have to make sure that I leave it better than I found it.”

The skills Keefe used to navigate her “non-conventional” career path are essential to her leadership style today. She became known as a “sponge” because she asked so many questions and absorbed so much knowledge about the business.

“What I learned throughout my career is to never be afraid to ask questions,” she says. “Oftentimes, leaders don’t know the answers, so we have to be inquisitive to get the answers we need to make the best decisions.”

The other key ingredient in leadership, Keefe says, is mentorship from other leaders — including her predecessor at ERC, her classmates from Leadership Cleveland, and other CEOs she has forged friendships with through the years. Now, she pays these investments forward by taking time to coach women who reach out to her seeking career advice, while also mentoring through College Now.

Keefe wants to reassure the women she mentors that they don’t need to know it all to become good leaders.

“It’s OK to not have all the answers,” she says, “but because I asked questions, had great mentors and allowed myself to be mentored, I was able to grow into my role.”

In fact, she almost turned down the role of president initially because she had three children at home.

“I thought, ‘How can I do this and be a wife and mom, which is most important to me?’” she recalls. “But then I thought, ‘Would I really feel confident looking at my daughters 10 or 20 years from now and saying to them, “I had the opportunity to be the first female president of an organization, and I decided not to because I didn’t think I could do it all”?’”

Keefe’s balanced approach to leadership sets an example for her son and daughters, as well as other young professionals and aspiring leaders. Her advice for all of them is simple:

“Don’t be afraid to take risks,” she says. “You can do more than you probably give yourself credit for.”


A balanced approach to empathetic leadership

Kim Smith, President, The Pipe Line Development Co. (PLIDCO)

Kim Smith never planned on working at her family’s business, The Pipe Line Development Co. (PLIDCO), where she now serves as third-generation president. But once she joined the company — initially on a part-time, short-term basis — she discovered a growth opportunity that spans generations.

While working as a flight attendant, Smith took a yearlong leave of absence from the airline to care for her aging grandmother. During that year, her uncle (who was PLIDCO’s president), asked her to work part time at the family business, which supplies high-pressure pipeline repair and maintenance fittings around the world. At the end of that year, he convinced her to extend her leave, as she took on more marketing and sales responsibilities. Then, she got pregnant, which extended her leave once more. The next year, she returned to the skies for three more flights before she got pregnant again and decided to stay at the family business for good.

Kim Smith President The Pipe Line Development Co. (PLIDCO)

Her uncle, who was like “a second dad,” took her under his wing. Eventually, she inherited his roles as general manager and then president 10 years ago.

“A lot of people wait for the trigger of death for leadership transitions, but I wanted the comfort of knowing that I had him as my resource and my sounding board as I was growing into this position,” Smith says.

Her uncle, who now serves as chairman, has been an important mentor throughout Smith’s career at PLIDCO.

“The best lesson he taught me is to be empathetic and always put myself in the shoes of whoever we’re dealing with,” she says.

Smith’s leadership style is a blend of her uncle’s approach and that of her father, who served as general manager.

“Their management styles were very different,” Smith says, contrasting her uncle’s employee-first philosophy with her father’s customer-centric focus and get-it-done drive. “I understand the urgency of the customer, and I also understand the needs of our team,” she says. “We need to treat every employee with respect, and we also need to have a culture of accountability and urgency because we are the emergency room to the pipeline industry.”

When her father and uncle managed the company together, for example, their offices occupied opposite corners of the building. But when Smith was promoted from sales to leadership, she opted to keep her office “right in the middle, in the thick of everything,” she says, “because that’s where the pulse is happening.”

As a female executive in the male-dominated oil and gas industry, Smith doesn’t expect — or tolerate — any special treatment for women.

“In everything we do, the best person should get the job,” she says. “I don’t get any extra points just because I’m a woman; that’s not what differentiates me. Let’s differentiate ourselves by being the best at what we do.”

To that end, Smith is committed to helping her employees improve and advance through on-the-job training and tuition reimbursement.

“By training people, we all get better,” she says. “We hope that our employees want to remain part of the team, but we recognize that they may outgrow us, and we never want to hold anyone back from pursuing their passion.”


The two golden rules for making decisions at Cleveland Clinic

Rita Pappas, MD, FAAP, FHM Medical Director of Hospital Operations Cleveland Clinic

When Rita Pappas, MD, decided to go to medical school at age 31, after 10 years of working as a nurse, people thought she was crazy.

“They were questioning my decision, but it was the right decision for me,” says Pappas, who went on to become the medical director of hospital operations at Cleveland Clinic. “I thought of it as a growth opportunity.”

Before she made the transition to pediatrician, Pappas was working as a nurse clinician with Jack Andrish, MD, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon at Cleveland Clinic. Pappas jokes that her endless questions probably annoyed him because she kept asking, “Why?” But instead of shutting down her curiosity, Andrish encouraged her to pursue medical school, and his mentorship played an important role in her career growth.

Rita Pappas, MD, FAAP, FHM Medical Director of Hospital Operations Cleveland Clinic

As she transitioned into leadership, Pappas says her prior experience as a nurse taught her the importance of teamwork.

“One of the things that I learned early on was to listen first,” she says. “Sometimes that’s difficult for people to do because they have preconceived notions of what they think should solve problems. Listening to what people have to offer, especially the people who are very close to the work, (is critical because) they often have the solutions.”

In her role as medical director of hospital operations, Pappas has direct oversight of admission, transfers and bed management across Cleveland Clinic’s main campus and regional hospitals throughout Ohio and Florida. To make decisions in this position, Pappas relies on two golden rules.

“The first rule is to always take care of our patients, and the second rule is to always take care of each other,” she says. “With every issue that comes up, I ask myself: ‘What’s best for the patient, and how can I help my fellow caregivers?’”

These guiding principles became even more important during the pandemic, when Pappas had to quickly rally a team to establish a dedicated COVID-19 hospital inside Cleveland Clinic’s Health Education Campus, which they dubbed Hope Hospital. Through clear and frequent communication, Pappas kept the team inspired and aligned during tumultuous times — even though none of them reported to her directly.

“Leading with influence (is about) inspiring others to do what they need to do to reach your common goal.” she says, “It’s not because someone directly reports to you.”

By demonstrating strong leadership during a difficult time, Pappas set an example — not only for her team, but also for her children at home.

“My kids did not want me participating in the COVID pandemic; they wanted me at home,” Pappas says. “I told my kids that when you’re faced with adversity, that’s the time when you need to stand up and participate in creating the solution.”

Now, Pappas tries to impart that same advice to the people she mentors, both physicians and non-physicians. And of course, she still asks an abundance of questions to help her mentees shape the skills they’ll need to succeed in their careers.

“I like to ask a lot of questions,” she says. “It’s OK not to know the answers, and sometimes they have the answers. But when you ask questions, you’re coaching them to get to the decision themselves.”


Seeking thrills through business growth and employee development

Carole Sanderson, Chief Financial Officer, Onyx Creative

Carole Sanderson’s 42-year career in the architecture industry began “by chance” when she landed an administrative role at an architecture firm, now known as Onyx Creative. Through her dedication and commitment to improve, Sanderson says, “I immersed myself in the business and continued to educate myself.”

Initially one of only four employees at the firm previously known as Herschman Architects Inc., Sanderson has grown along with the company and advanced into the role of CFO at Onyx, which now employs 160 people across seven offices.

“As the CFO, I have to make sure that the company is financially sound. It has to come down to the numbers,” she says. “If you can manage the numbers correctly, then you can create opportunities for all the team members to have personal and professional growth.”

Carole Sanderson, Chief Financial Officer, Onyx Creative

While numbers may be her main focus, Sanderson says that the people she works with are the best part of her job and the reason she’s dedicated her entire career to Onyx.

“Without people, you don’t have a business,” she says.

Although her official title is CFO, Sanderson wears many hats as one of the owners of the growing firm. She also handles duties related to human resources, business development, acquisitions and IT. By making herself available to other people in the organization — particularly other women — who come to her with questions about their personal and professional growth, Sanderson says she naturally gravitated into HR over time.

“This industry doesn’t typically have a lot of women, but we have a lot of women in our organization,” she says. “I want to be a good role model.”

To that end, Sanderson has spearheaded several training programs inside the firm to give employees opportunities to grow and advance. For example, 10 years ago she started a leadership development initiative, bringing in an outside consultant to teach employees communication skills and other “things they’re not thinking about when they’re doing the technical aspect of their jobs,” she says.

Sanderson credits numerous mentors who have supported and shaped her career journey, including the firm’s founder, Jerry Herschman.

“Throughout my career, there have been a number of women and men who have propelled me forward with the tools I need to make good decisions,” she says. “I was never held back or told I couldn’t do something because I’m female. People are looking for results, so if you’re credible and results-driven and you perform, nobody can pass judgment because of your gender.”

Known by her friends as a thrill seeker who “lives every day to the fullest,” Sanderson has traveled the world to ride more than 1,500 rollercoasters, and she previously served the boards of several national roller coaster groups. While she still loves the thrill of amusement parks, she doesn’t visit them as often these days. Now, she finds business growth “exhilarating” because it gives her a purpose to push herself and Onyx forward.

“I liken my career to an amusement park analogy of a Ferris wheel,” she says. “You get on at the bottom, you go around, you get up to the top, and then you come back down to the bottom, and you keep going around. It’s a constant continuum of experiences, and you just keep riding the wheel, so enjoy the journey.”

From our presenting sponsor …

Huntington is proud to partner with Smart Business to present the Smart Women Awards, recognizing the impressive achievements of women entrepreneurs and leaders making a difference in our community.

Women own 42 percent of all companies in the U.S., and 50 percent of all women-owned businesses are minority-owned1. But women still face challenges achieving equal pay, access to capital and equitable opportunities compared to their male counterparts. Women forge their own path to success, creating 1,817 new women-owned businesses every day1.

At Huntington, we’re dedicated to making people’s lives better, strengthening our communities and helping businesses thrive.

Huntington’s position as the nation’s No. 1 SBA lender in number of 7(a) loans the past six years2 proves our commitment to helping businesses thrive — from startup to expansion and beyond. Huntington’s Lift Local Business® program is designed to create more opportunities for minority-, women- and veteran-owned small businesses. And Entrepreneur in Residence Powered by Huntington3 partners with 11 nonprofits in Greater Cleveland to help entrepreneurs start and grow small businesses right here in our community.

Huntington’s commitment to women starts at the top of the house, from our diverse board to our diverse workforce and middle and executive management, to our pay equity.

Huntington earned a 100 percent score on the Disability Equality Index and the Human Rights Campaign Corporate Equality Index.

Huntington is proud to join with the Smart Women Award winners to work together so that all women have equal opportunities to advance in the workplace, have equal access to capital, and achieve pay equity.

Congratulations to all of the winners for your well-deserved achievements.

Carrie Carpenter
Senior Vice President, Regional Manager, Corporate Affairs


Smart Women Awards

2024 Progressive Entrepreneur Honorees


Heather Lenz, Founder and CEO, Sangfroid Strategy

Heather Lenz

Heather Lenz, through her leadership as founder and CEO of Sangfroid Strategy, exemplifies a unique entrepreneurial spirit by focusing on innovating solutions to complex social challenges. Her path is characterized by the development and implementation of a groundbreaking approach to strategic consulting for nonprofit organizations, leveraging the power of real-time data analysis and artificial intelligence to drive improvements in social impact outcomes.

She invented several innovative data-analytic products for nonprofits and foundations using open-source software to make it easy to set up infrastructure for real-time data analysis. Lenz worked with her team to reinvent the way nonprofit landscape assessments are conducted and created interactive landscape assessments that represent the full nonprofit ecosystem in a community, looking at revenue, expenses, fiscal health and challenges by demographic to establish a data-driven approach to equity in the field.

She developed an automated dashboard that crunches data from foundations’ grantmaking systems to understand how resources vary by racial and gender demographics of nonprofits leadership, identifying and reducing significant racial disparities in foundations’ resource allocation.

The substantial growth of Sangfroid is a testament to the effectiveness of her innovative approach. She has revolutionized how nonprofit organizations approach strategic planning and assessment, and set a new standard for how data-driven technologies can be used to amplify social change.

Colleen Lorber, Founder and CEO, Wraparound Experts, LLC

Colleen Lorber

Colleen Lorber, Ph.D., founded Wraparound Experts in 2021 to address the need she saw for better collaboration and coordination of services related to how schools and families address the mental health needs of children.

The company’s rapid growth is indicative of the great demand for these services. From 2021-22, the company’s revenue grew 867 percent and growth for 2022-23 was projected at 350 percent.

Lorber, founder and CEO, is an experienced psychologist with more than 18 years’ experience in the industry. From the outset, she built her company with the goal of doing things differently. The mission of Wraparound Experts is to help children succeed emotionally, mentally and academically by providing a full complement of wraparound services that positively impact not only the child but the people and environments that impact that child every day.

The team at Wraparound Experts needs to effectively address children’s mental and emotional needs for positive outcomes. They are trained to find ways to coordinate and collaborate services among their experts, an approach that is working; the company has grown from three employees in 2021 to 50 in 2023, with a projected 75 by the end of 2024.

Valerie Mayén, Owner/designer, Yellowcakeshop Clothing Company

Valerie Mayén

Valerie Mayén, owner and designer at Yellowcakeshop Clothing Company, began her creative career as an illustrator with a penchant for fashion design. Her commitment to sewing and design came out of the need for supplemental work and income, and her passion grew the more she learned new techniques and processes.

By starting her ethical and sustainable handmade clothing company that focused on garments built to last a lifetime, while hiring local women and paying a fair living wage, she realized she could be part of a movement that was working to change the landscape of fashion one small business at a time. Yellowcakeshop doesn’t sell its products at a premium price to get rich; it requires  those prices to pay its staff well, to pay for its time, to pay for overhead and to invest back into the business so it can continue providing its services.

Educating clients on the benefits of purchasing goods that will last takes time, effort and money, but Mayén’s business has grown slowly and confidently over time to gain the trust of clients and a healthy following of consumers who understand Yellowcakeshop’s processes and pricing.

Dr. Diana Ponsky, President, Ponsky Facial Plastic Surgery

Dr. Diana Ponsky

Dr. Diana Ponsky is a caring doctor, president of Ponsky Facial Plastic Surgery, leader, change-maker, role model and more. Her entrepreneurial spirit goes beyond building her expanding practice to educating clients and taking an individualized approach to expected outcomes, with the end goal of instilling confidence and developing the whole person.

A double board-certified plastic surgeon, she not only uses her skills and knowledge to teach at Case Western Reserve University, she often provides plastic surgery on a pro bono basis to domestic violence victims and women suffering in poverty. Ponsky also uses her position and influence to empower change in women. She mentors young women and dedicates time and resources to Medwish, a nonprofit that aids Third World countries, and Medwork, which helps families who cannot afford health care. 

Ponsky is a strong believer in paying it forward, with a passion for mentoring young women. As a leader and a woman of influence in her community, Ponsky believes she has a responsibility to use her position to develop and empower women and opens her clinic to students who are interested in learning about the profession of plastic surgery.

Carole Sanderson, CFO, Onyx Creative Inc.

Carole Sanderson

Carole Sanderson is CFO of Onyx Creative Inc. (formerly Herschman Architects), a fast-growing Cleveland architectural firm with a national practice. It’s rare to find a woman partner in the male-dominated architectural profession, and even rarer in Sanderson’s case because she is not an architect.

Sanderson joined Herschman Architects at age 19 as a secretary in 1981. As the four-person firm grew to 35, her roles grew with it. She was responsible for the business aspects of the firm, from finances to personnel issues. She earned her bachelor’s degree in business administration from Baldwin-Wallace College to help the firm grow and believes that her role is to help it and its people make good business decisions.

She is responsible for financial and risk management, operations, human resources, legal, and licensing and business development. She has facilitated five firm acquisitions since 2005, expanding offices to Arizona, California, Georgia, Maine and Maryland. She and her partner were named one of Smart Business Magazine’s 2023 Northeast Ohio Smart 50 company leaders and she is in her 43rd year at her firm. A NAWBO Cleveland member since 1992, she received its Rising Star and Top Women Business Owners awards and is a charter member of the NAWBO National Circle.

2024 Progressive Organization Honorees

Business Volunteers Unlimited (BVU)

Women have been an integral part of Business Volunteers Unlimited’s success, which translates to increased success of its business and nonprofit partners in making a difference. Founded more than 30 years ago, BVU connects businesses and people to meaningful volunteer opportunities with Northeast Ohio nonprofits. Its focus on women is demonstrated through the measurable impact of its programs and efforts, as well as through its leadership, staff and commitment to a family-friendly workplace.

BVU, led by President and CEO Elizabeth Voudouris, strengthens the impact of nonprofit organizations by leveraging the skills and resources of the business community, along with providing education and strategic consulting services.

The emphasis on advancing, supporting, and respecting women in Northeast Ohio is woven into all BVU does, demonstrated by the measurable impact of its programs and efforts.

Of more than 1,000 nonprofit partners, 220 are dedicated to serving women and children, while 51 percent of board members elected through BVU last year were female, with two-thirds continuing into leadership positions.

BVU has referred, trained and matched more than 4,000 nonprofit board members, with a lifetime economic impact to Northeast Ohio of $240 million. To date, it has worked with more than 3,000 nonprofits, connecting them to 500 businesses.

Greater Cleveland Food Bank

The Greater Cleveland Food Bank is proud to create a family-friendly workplace through both its workplace culture and the benefits offered in support of this culture. It understands that supporting its caregivers must be represented by those serving on the leadership team, as well as be a priority for the leadership team.

The organization is led by President and CEO Kristin Warzocha. Its senior leadership team and director-level staff includes eight women in leadership roles. It continues to focus on providing a flexible, supportive work environment, where time off is encouraged, benefits and supports are affordable and accessible, and resources are available for all employees, including those who are also caregivers. 

The Food Bank strives to create a culture of inclusivity and respect by seeking feedback from its employees who have lived with the stress of having to show up in their careers and for their families. In addition, it continues to focus on creating an equitable work environment and is focused on equal pay for equal work for all employees.

The Greater Cleveland Food Bank is more than just a place to work; it’s a place where women can feel supported and can be successful in the workplace achieving their goals and maintaining work/life balance.

Wild Republic

Over 44 years, Wild Republic has demonstrated an unwavering commitment to connecting, training and promoting women worldwide, fostering a culture of inclusivity, growth and empowerment while continuing to support a global legacy.

With leadership provided by CEO Vishnu Chandran, Wild Republic’s initiatives transcend borders as it connects women from diverse backgrounds fostering a global network of support, mentorship and collaboration. Through programs and events, it has created a platform for women to share experiences, knowledge and resources, contributing to their personal and professional development.

The organization has been at the forefront of providing extensive training programs, equipping women with the skills and confidence needed to thrive in their respective fields. Its commitment to education and skill development empowers women to overcome barriers, break glass ceilings and excel in their careers.

A hallmark of the women empowerment initiatives at the organization is its focus on giving back to the community. Wild Republic actively engages professionals in volunteer activities, particularly in supporting orphanages for girls, contributing to conservation efforts for animals and participating in sustaining product development projects. This multifaceted approach aligns with its vision of empowering women to make a positive impact not only in their careers but also in society and in the environment.

2024 Progressive Woman Honorees

Jennifer Ake-Marriott, President and CEO, Redmond Waltz

Jennifer Ake-Marriott

Trust me. And trust one another. That essentially was Jennifer Ake-Marriott’s message to employees, vendors and customers when she was brought on board as president and CEO at Redmond Waltz to see if she could rescue the struggling company.

A decade later, the 78-year-old industrial repair company has renewed strength. Ake-Marriott did not fire anyone or make immediate changes. Instead, intuition and keen insight gained at Ake Environmental, her family’s business, provided awareness that a failing company is not the result of one person or thing.

She earned the trust of employees, improving communication and streamlining operations. She made small, incremental changes, focusing on building the culture. Ake-Marriott breathed new life into the company, leading to transformative change. Within two years, it was profitable, vendor relationships were restored, and revenue had increased by almost 65 percent. The company’s liabilities had once exceeded the annual revenue, but within five years, half of the debt had been retired.

Ake-Marriott consistently carries out the behavior she wants her employees to aspire to — treating others with respect, having a strong work ethic, recognizing one’s talent, making improvement when possible, embracing both collaboration and independence, honoring accomplishments, showing empathy and creating the best version of themselves.

Tricia Balser, Head of Ohio Commercial Banking, CIBC US, CIBC Bank USA

Tricia Balser

Tricia Balser, head of Ohio Commercial Banking, CIBC US, has had an impressive career in the banking industry. She entered the field in 1995 and transitioned to commercial lending. Her tenure with CIBC spans 13 years, showcasing unwavering loyalty to her clients, team and organization.

Navigating a male-dominated industry has presented its own set of challenges. However, Balser has overcome obstacles through her relentless dedication and pursuit of professional growth, resulting in remarkable success. Her achievements have earned her respect and recognition in the banking sector.

Balser feels supported at CIBC through various leadership development programs, as well as the bank’s US Women’s Network, which aims to advance, connect and empower women across the organization. She was nominated by the executive team to participate in an inaugural year-long leadership development program that fosters thought leadership, inclusivity and cooperation.

She has mentored numerous women, guiding them through challenging discussions and pivotal transitions. She was among the first female group managers at CIBC, breaking barriers and paving the way for future female leaders.

Her rise has been marked by her dedication, resilience and commitment. Her achievements, along with CIBC’s support, have contributed to her success and the positive work environment she has created.

Ruth Barnum, Vice president of marketing, Apex Dermatology

Ruth Barnum

Ruth Barnum is the first vice president of marketing at Apex Dermatology, after joining the organization as a marketing director and team of one, creating a comprehensive health care marketing strategy from the ground up.

An invaluable member of the executive team, she pitched the need for the growth of her role and her growing department to continue making an impact for the business’s top line. Her efforts have led to company growth of over 350 percent in six years.

Barnum leads her team with a focused strategic vision, empathy and compassion. Her employees have development plans to ensure they have opportunities for continued success and to reach their unique goals, whether that be in company leadership, community impact, or other areas.

In addition to nurturing her own team, Barnum formally mentors another woman at Apex, who was recently promoted to a new leadership position. Outside of Apex, Barnum mentors a college student through College Now Greater Cleveland.

Barnum believes in giving back at work and at home. Last year, Apex donated over 50 baskets to local organizations, and made monetary contributions to many more. Apex will be the presenting sponsor of Miles for Melanoma this year in Cleveland.

Myra Barsoum Stockett, Partner-in-charge, Perez Morris

Myra Barsoum Stockett

Myra Barsoum Stockett epitomizes the essence of a progressive woman in the legal profession.

From her early days as a dedicated advocate to her current role as partner-in-charge of the Cleveland office at Perez Morris, Stockett has demonstrated unparalleled resilience, leadership and expertise in her field. Despite facing both professional and personal challenges, she has risen through the ranks and become a trailblazer, inspiring countless individuals.

She started at a small plaintiffs’ firm, displaying her commitment to justice from the outset. However, it was her tenure at Reminger Co. LPA where she truly distinguished herself. Over almost two decades, she ascended to the position of co-chair of the insurance coverage/bad faith practice group and played a pivotal role in the firm’s management committee.

Throughout her illustrious career, Stockett has faced challenges with courage and determination. As a female attorney in a male-dominated industry, she confronted biases and obstacles head-on, refusing to be defined by societal expectations.

Her journey culminated in her recent appointment as partner-in-charge of the Cleveland office at Perez Morris, a testament to her exceptional leadership abilities and legal acumen. Through her leadership and advocacy, she has paved the way for future generations of women in law, inspiring them to pursue their dreams fearlessly.

Janice Becker, Media director, Innis Maggiore

Janice Becker

Janice Becker’s professional journey has been anything but conventional and effortless, but a rocky start did not keep her down, and her perseverance has led to her success today.

As a single mother raising a child diagnosed on the autism spectrum, she needed to find work. As an honor student, she took three jobs to support herself and her son.

She earned an associate degree and later obtained her bachelor’s degree. At one of her first jobs in high school, she was introduced to the field of marketing, a career that has taken her through a number of sectors, including nonprofits, recruitment and marketing for one of the world’s largest recruiting firms, a global real estate firm and prominent media corporations.

Becker eventually found her place at Innis Maggiore, America’s largest positioning ad agency, where today she heads the media department as media director.

She takes pride in her leadership skills, in her ability to build strong relationships and in her unwavering determination and commitment to the success of both her people and of the organization. Showcasing resilience and an unyielding pursuit of excellence, Becker continues to guide her team and contribute to Innis Maggiore’s growth in today’s dynamic media landscape.

Bethia Burke, President, Fund for Our Economic Future

Bethia Burke

In a November 2020 Washington Post profile of Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, reporter Rachel Siegel wrote that Yellen’s female colleagues described her as “a trailblazer — one who hasn’t just shattered glass ceilings but given the women around her hammers of their own.”

Such a description could be applied to Bethia Burke, president of Fund for Our Economic Future, and her impact within the economic development field because, as a woman, she is able to think differently about economic issues than her male counterparts.

Burke is a role model to talented young women, demonstrating the value of her expertise and leadership to a field that has often overlooked or excluded women and people of color.

And she is a trailblazer for women in economic development in Northeast Ohio. Elected president of the Fund for Our Economic Future in 2019, she is the first woman to serve in this role, and only the second president in the organization’s history. She is leading an agenda to encourage more inclusive dialogue and bold, innovative action to reduce and eliminate racial disparities in economic outcomes. Burke has demonstrated agility, resilience, diplomacy and vision to see the fund through a time of economic turbulence fueled by a global pandemic, racial reckoning and fundamental societal shifts.

Sarah Crupi, Chief Executive Officer, The Cleveland Zoological Society

Sarah Crupi

Sarah Crupi, chief executive officer of the Cleveland Zoological Society, demonstrates creative, dedicated and empathetic leadership. She embodies what every smart woman should strive to be. Her steadfast leadership at the Cleveland Zoological Society through major transitions in and since 2018 is remarkable. She selflessly puts others’ needs before her own.

She started her career as a journalist and rose through the ranks to became an editor, where she sharpened her marketing and communications skills. In 2016, she was hired as director of External Relations for the Cleveland Zoological Society and spent nearly three years in this role. Crupi created content that improved brand awareness and grew support of the society.

When the former executive director retired in 2018, the board placed Crupi in the interim ED role. She repaired and rebuilt relationships, grew revenue and proved that she was the best person for the job long-term. After eight months, it hired Crupi as the Zoo Society’s executive director.

Crupi epitomizes the woman who does it all. She gracefully leads the Zoo Society while balancing a full life at home. She has overcome challenges throughout her career by thinking creatively and strategically using data. She is brilliant, hard-working, thoughtful and humble.

Samantha Flores, Director of Program & Partner Services, Second Harvest Food Bank of North Central Ohio

Samantha Flores

Seeing families lose their homes during the recession of 2008 was the catalyst that spurred Samantha Flores to start thinking of how she could help in her community and beyond.

Flores is director of Program & Partner Services at Second Harvest Food Bank of North Central Ohio. After a stint away, she returned to Lorain and Second Harvest in 2017 as program coordinator. Flores learned to integrate the principles of the agile framework for her team, embracing a human-centered design approach to program development and deepening relationships with over 100 partner charities.

When the pandemic hit, Second Harvest had to figure out a way to deliver food directly to a significantly larger population. From March 2020 to June 2021, over 500 mobile pantry and food box distributions served 172,000 unduplicated community members with assistance — more than double pre-pandemic levels.

An unexpected upside to the pandemic was the focus on mental health, work/life balance and inclusivity. As a member of the Queer BIPOC community, Flores has been a strong vocal advocate to help create safe spaces for everyone. She is leading initiatives that bridge organizations and communities to address root causes of hunger, including living wages, transportation, stable housing, childcare and employment.

Jen Horn, Partner, Taft

Jen Horn

Being a lawyer was not initially on Jen Horn’s radar. She loved writing and was set on being a journalist. She started her career as a weekly newspaper reporter, learning how to deal with all kinds of people, working long hours for an unimpressive salary and learning the importance of a deadline.

Horn put herself through what is now Cleveland State University College of Law. Just after graduation in 2007, she accepted a job at a Cleveland law firm but continued to investigate other options.

Horn took a proactive approach. She served on the board of directors of Manufacturing Works. She went through Business Volunteers Unlimited’s board matching program and joined the board of directors of Shoes and Clothes for Kids. In 2019, she participated in the inaugural year of the FDCC’s Ladder Down program, where she met Taft partner Brandi Weekley, who thought she would be a good fit with Taft and encouraged her to interview. While she was initially resistant to entertain another law firm position — one that would require her to learn about venture capital, an area in which she had no prior experience — she interviewed and received an offer.

She started her new job in 2019, and in January 2024, Horn became a partner at Taft.

Kirsten Lino, Regional Banking Sales Enablement Leader, Huntington Bank

Kirsten Lino

Kirsten Lino serves as regional banking sales enablement leader at Huntington Bank, but the journey to that success was not an easy one. It began as a teenager, when she enlisted in the Marine Corps and served as a parachute rigger, packing parachutes and emergency ejection equipment into F-18 fighter jets.

She was waiting tables when she joined the world of financial services, becoming an economic development banker working to help minority business owners and community development corporations invest in inner city neighborhoods. She then became a business banker with KeyBank, focusing on its Women’s Business Initiative, as well as working with nonprofit organizations and supporting urban core branches before taking a role with FirstMerit as a commercial banker.

Lino then became the successor for the manager leading the Business Banking team, who was looking to retire in a few years. Soon after, the bank was acquired by Huntington, and she was promoted to manage the Business Banking team and lead it through the merger process. Today, her leadership role has expanded in Regional Banking Sales Enablement, leading sales strategy for the segment, owning all things sales process and colleague readiness, as well as performance reporting.

Hannah Oblisk, Director of Store Operations, Leaf Home, LLC

Hannah Oblisk

Hannah Oblisk, director of Store Operations at Leaf Home, has had an ever-evolving career trajectory in the construction and home improvement industry. Over almost 10 years, her remarkable growth stands out, particularly in an industry traditionally dominated by men.

Oblisk’s commitment to advocating for women and fostering gender equality is commendable. She has navigated challenges inherent in a male-dominated field, showcasing resilience and determination while carving out her unique space.

Her professional journey at Leaf Home started when she accepted an entry-level administrative role in accounting. Demonstrating versatility and quick adaptation, she progressed into store operations and supply chain management roles as the need arose. Her ability to handle diverse responsibilities, including licensing, compliance, commercial real estate and project management, reflects a multifaceted skill set. She went from a team of one to more than 20 individuals who are successfully maintaining and optimizing the organization’s local office locations.

Oblisk is president of Leaf Home’s Women’s Committee, where she has advocated for parents, meeting cultural standards such as parental leave and creating mother rooms. This growth underscores her dedication to continuous personal and professional development, showcasing a proactive approach to assuming new responsibilities, even in situations initially marked by uncertainty.

Debbie Parker, Managing Director, RCM & Operations, Medic Management Group, LLC

Debbie Parker

Debbie Parker serves as managing director, RCM & operations of Medic Management Group, overseeing the organization’s success. When the company was founded in 1999, she was one of only two employees, successfully balancing her personal life with her professional obligations and accomplishments.

Parker is self-trained in leadership and management, and has created infrastructure supporting a direct reporting channel of more than 100 team members and an overall organization that has grown to more than 150 people. Today, she is active in areas including operations, sales, client service and executive management. She is as a member of Medic Management Group’s executive leadership team developing a strategy that has resulted in national expansion. She has also helped navigate changes in the industry and workplace environments, including the application of technology, remote work and regulatory change.

The result is a successful organization powered in large part by women — 95 percent of company employees are female, 93 percent of company managers are female and 63 percent of the executive management team is female. The company supports them by offering a 100 percent remote work environment, flex time programming in work hours and attractive benefits, including meaningful time off, resulting in it being consistently honored as an NEO Top Workplace.

Rosemary Rehner, Director, Barnes Wendling CPAs, Inc.

Rosemary Rehner

Rosemary Rehner serves as director of Barnes Wendling CPAs accounting and assurance services department and leads the system and organization controls and employee benefit plan audit practices.

Rehner is the perfect example of a professional who has risen through the ranks; starting July 1, she will become the first female president in the firm’s history. In her current role at Barnes Wendling, Rehner serves multiple clients in a variety of industries and sizes, ranging from startups to clients with revenue approaching $1 billion. She oversees multiple internal teams, working mostly with a core team of 10 people.

Prior to joining Barnes Wending in 2007, Rehner served as a senior manager at a national firm, where she completed audits for large public and nonpublic companies in the professional services, manufacturing, distribution and construction industries. She demonstrates acumen in her work and exudes positive leadership qualities that are recognized among her co-workers, professional peers and the community.

Her professional volunteer involvement includes serving on the Technical Issues Committee of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, where she works with other CPA practitioners to represent the views of local firms and their clients in the standards-setting process.

Lillian Richard, Custom spray tan artist and sunless educator, CLE GLO

Lillian Richard

Lillian Richard’s mission is to help other women feel good about themselves and to help them succeed. Her journey started in the comfort of her own dining room almost five years ago when spray tans changed her life.

Richard was familiar with vegan spray tanning and in 2019, she got her certification in spray tanning online from a company in California. With the help of friends, she quickly grew her business and stepped into mobile spray tans. 

After the first year as custom spray tan artist and sunless educator at CLE GLO, Richard rented two spaces and quadrupled her net income. In 2020, due to COVID, she closed her studio doors, creating a “bronze at home” kit to help those who still wanted to tan, and hand-delivered 400 boxes during that time.

For a year, she offered home kits and started certifying women in vegan tanning. To date, she has certified 40 women.

After a year, she returned to a physical space. Now, she has a staff of six, and her business is thriving. She wants women to experience what it’s like making other women feel better. With all the ups and downs of entrepreneurship, she knows making people feel beautiful in their own skin is what she is meant to do.

Gabriella Rosalina, Managing partner, Russo, Rosalina & Co., LPA

Gabriella Rosalina

Gabriella Rosalina’s interest in the law and the courts began at an early age, when her father, retired judge Basil Russo, served on the Court of Appeals and Court of Common Pleas and she occasionally joined him.

She attended the Cleveland Marshall College of Law, passed the bar in 1998, and began her journey as an attorney at the firm where she has practiced with both her father and her husband, Joe Rosalina, for the past 25 years.

For the last 20 years, she served as administrative partner and for the last 10 years has served as a managing partner. With offices in Parma and Mayfield Heights, Russo, Rosalina & Co., L.P.A. has assisted more than 150,000 clients in Northeast Ohio over the past 40 years in cases involving estates, trusts, guardianships, estate planning, personal injury, workers’ compensation, domestic relations, bankruptcy, and criminal, civil and juvenile matters.

She and her husband are proud of the fact that the majority of clients are repeat clients and those referred by others. It also gratifying to have a work environment that consists of employees, all women, who have worked for them ranging from five to 40 years, speaking volumes as to how they serve clients, treat employees and run the firm.

Melissa Santee, Chief philanthropy officer, Cleveland Museum of Natural History

Melissa Santee

Raising $150 million is not a small task; throw in a pandemic and most would be derailed. But Melissa Santee, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History’s chief philanthropy officer, has spearheaded the largest fundraising initiative in the museum’s history, raising more than $30 million in the last two years.

When the doors open to a new museum in December 2024, exhibits will launch it into the national spotlight, making it a natural history museum unlike any other, with an inquiry-based, audience-centered approach that tells a unified story of life and the forces that shape our planet. Santee tirelessly ensured that fundraising was on track, allowing the museum to forge forward, ahead of schedule and under budget.

Santee’s record of successful campaign leadership and her expertise in strategic planning and execution make her a vital asset to the museum’s overall mission, recently adding marketing to her everyday responsibilities.

From 2001 to 2010, Santee held fundraising and leadership roles at Case Western Reserve University. As executive director of External Relations at the Weatherhead School of Management, she supervised and developed the school’s overall fundraising strategy.

Santee is a member of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, an organization that promotes stewardship, ethical fundraising and the advancement of philanthropy.

Michele Seyranian, CEO/MNO, The Gathering Place

Michele Seyranian

Michele Seyranian, CEO, MNO, of The Gathering Place, is a proven, dynamic leader whose career has brought her many successes and joys, equipping her with unique skills and a personal appreciation for the organization’s mission she brings to her position and the community. 

Seyranian’s career began at Procter & Gamble, where she was its first female sales manager in the Folger’s Coffee division, with moves to American Express, Citibank and KeyCorp. 

During this time, Seyranian and her team were the first in the industry to create a secure website, including the integration of all banking channels — branch, phone and online banking.

In 2001, Seyranian became executive vice president of Strategic Planning, where she led strategic planning and balanced scorecard processes. 

During her demanding years at KeyCorp, her then 4-year-old daughter, Alique, received a diagnosis of Acute Myeloid Leukemia, and Seyranian and Alique were introduced to The Gathering Place. Her connection to the organization continued, helping develop a support group for parents of children with cancer, and she served two terms on the board, volunteering her strategic planning expertise to facilitate strategic plans.

In 2019, Seyranian became CEO of The Gathering Place, a truly full circle moment. Her diverse expertise and personal connections make her uniquely qualified to lead the organization.

Cali Thomson, Vice president, Sales and Marketing, Schill Grounds Management

Cali Thomson

In more than 20 years as a marketing professional, Cali Thomson has risen through the ranks, overcoming challenges and managing change despite not always having a career path paved for her in the male-dominated industries in which she’s worked.

Thomson got her start as a plumbing intern at Ridge Tool. That position, and others at American Greetings, Invacare and Kuno Creative, prepared her for the experience of often being the only woman in the room and sometimes being overlooked for leadership opportunities or having her ideas dismissed by peers or superiors.

She responded with a strong work ethic and results. Today, as vice president, Sales and Marketing for Schill Grounds Management, Thomson has driven unprecedented results; in the last year, she achieved a 65 percent increase in revenue.

She joined Schill, a commercial landscaping and snow management firm, in 2019, and systemized its sales and marketing efforts. Her success has been instrumental in the growth of the company from a local business to a regional leader to a budding national powerhouse.

For Thomson, the keys to progressing as a female executive in a male-dominated field are persistence and the ability to navigate change, being thoughtful and deliberate, and thinking of new ways to approach each situation.

Sarah Vojtek, President and CEO, Stewart’s Caring Place

Sarah Vojtek

Led by President and CEO Sarah Vojtek, Stewart’s Caring Place provides a caring, relaxed environment to those of all ages touched by any phase or stage of cancer, at no cost.

After receiving her MBA, Vojtek started her career in development at The University of Akron’s Athletic Department, and then took a position as events and programs manager at the Greater Akron Chamber.

Following a breast cancer diagnosis, she reflected on how she could use her experience to help others. Vojtek accepted the position of director of development at Stewart’s Caring Place: Cancer Wellness Center. Over the next two years, Vojtek showed leadership, determination and focus, and as a result, was considered for a new leadership role following the retirement of the previous leader. 

In 2023, she was offered, and accepted, the position of president and CEO of Stewart’s Caring Place, a role she approaches with personal insight and dedication. Her experience with cancer deeply informs her understanding of the invaluable support Stewart’s Caring Place offers to those using its services. She is engaged in fostering the organization’s growth through strategic funding, sustainability efforts and overall operational success to create a place where all are welcomed.

Julie Wesel, CEO, Chemstress Consultant Co.

Julie Wesel

When Julie Wesel started her career at a large public accounting firm in 1986 after graduating from The Ohio State University, the office promoted a woman to manager for the first time.

She left public accounting and spent almost 25 years at a large real estate firm, Forest City. She worked in accounting with an IT focus, running accounting system implementation projects and managing departments. She maintained her professional career and went part-time through participation in a trial program in the mid-1990s.

The trial program had three women, and although part-time professionals are common now, it was unusual then. She gave up her management role while part time but went back full time and stepped back into a management role. This program allowed her to continue to progress in her career as director of Financial Applications at Forest City.   

In 2012, Wesel left Forest City to be her father’s succession plan. Today, as CEO of Chemstress Consultant Co., she continues to grow the company, servicing large clients, engineering, designing and building new industrial processes for their clients.

Wesel saw doors open for women throughout her career and believes the world is a better place for working women now than when she started her career.