Smart Women: How women leaders are setting the pace in business

There is little doubt that today, women are making an impact on the workplace — and in society — more than ever before. More than 5 percent of the Fortune 500 have female leaders, 17 percent of corporate boards include women directors, and women entrepreneurs are leading the way in job growth as the number of female-owned startups outpaces those launched by men.
It is with this upward trend in mind that we once again present our annual Smart Women awards.
On the pages that follow, you’ll read about women entrepreneurs who have founded or co-founded for-profit or nonprofit organizations; women who have risen through the ranks of organizations across their distinguished careers; entities that develop and foster initiatives that support women; and men who advocate for the advancement of women.

We hope after reading these inspirational stories that you’ll join us on April 20 at the Smart Women Conference, where we’ll recognize the 2017 award winners and present a panel discussion with four dynamic women business leaders who are profiled in this edition.
Congratulations to all of this year’s honorees!
MODERATOR Tiffani Tucker, Channel 19
PANELISTS Marcia Ballinger, Lorain County Community College | JJ DiGeronimo, Tech Savvy Women | Linda McHugh, Cleveland Clinic | Dominique Moceanu, Creations by C & C
PROGRESSIVE ENTREPRENEUR Amy Bircher, MMI Textiles | Covesa K. Gragg, Covesa Kelly Events | Anne Hartnett, Harness Cycle and GroundSwell Collective | Ebie Holst, SplashLink | Lee Ann Howard, Howard & O’Brien Executive Search
ORGANIZATIONS THAT EMPOWER Women’s Business Center of Northern Ohio
PROGRESSIVE WOMEN Ann-Marie Ahern, McCarthy, Lebit, Crystal & Liffman Co., LPA | Mindi Curry, Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics | Judy Ghazoul Hilow, Malachi House | Hu Huang, Kichler Lighting | Valarie J. McCall, City of Cleveland | Karen D. Melton, Kaufman Container Co. | SueAnn Naso, Staffing Solutions Enterprises | Cheryl Perez, Benefit Innovations Group | Kim Riley, Hylant Cleveland | Lee Ann Schwope Cochran, Battelle | Alexandra Vidmar, KeyBanc Capital Markets


Behind the anchor desk: Tiffani Tucker peels back the newsroom curtain
Tiffani Tucker, recently promoted to anchor Channel 19’s evening newscasts at 5, 9, 10 and 11, will moderate the Smart Women panel discussion. Tucker says the group effort it takes to put on the news surprises people.
“There could be breaking news and it could change the entire flow of the show, but you just have to be ready to roll with whatever is handed in front of you,” she says. “It keeps it exciting and interesting, and that’s why I’m driven to news — not just for the people I meet, but also the spontaneity of it.”
News is exciting. You get to meet people that you may never meet in a lifetime, from presidents to actresses and actors, to everyday people working hard on the street, trying to provide an income for their families. It’s this latter group that provides the stories Tucker most enjoys telling.
Because you wear makeup and are in front of the camera, people think it’s glamorous. Tucker asks interns why they want to be a reporter. If the first or second thing they list is that they want to be on TV, it’s not the job for them.
Although there are perks, you usually met people on their worst day, and it’s not about you, she says. You also have to sacrifice time with your family. Like any job, you have to love it, because when it gets rough, you have to still love it.
Smart Business caught up with Tucker to talk about what it’s like to work in TV news.
SB: Did anyone you’ve interviewed make you very nervous?
TT: If you don’t have those butterflies in your stomach, then there’s something wrong. I call it a positive energy.
I can’t think of anybody who I was extremely nervous to interview. I’ve met a lot of people — the Bushes, before the presidency when he was running for governor, Madeleine Albright, Martha Stewart, Shakira, Janet Jackson — it runs the gamut. You have to realize that you might only have a short moment with them, so you have to pull it together.
I was nervous when I met Oprah, but it wasn’t during a TV moment. I just remember her squeezing my hand and I thought ‘Ouch, Oprah, that hurt.’ But that’s good, when someone shakes your hand, it should make an impression.
SB: How has the internet changed your job?
TT: A lot of people don’t sit down as a family and watch the news. They get their news on their phones. So you have to be ahead of technology. The story begins right when you get the information. You go right to your phone and start tweeting.
Also, throughout the day, you have to post on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. You want to have interaction with your viewers because they want to feel like they know you.
I can post something that has to do with breaking news, but I get more reaction on something personal.
For instance, the other day, I thought it was a funny moment — there were some scuff marks on our floor. My daughter says, ‘Mommy, I know how to get those out.’ I’m thinking, ‘OK what is she going to do?’ She ran to the laundry room, got the tennis ball, put it on the end of broom and started to take the scuff marks out. I said, ‘How did you learn to do that?’ ‘Oh, I see the janitor do it at school all the time.’ And you wouldn’t you know, people thought it was great. ●
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Find your purpose: Marcia Ballinger helps her people find their purpose
Marcia Ballinger, Ph.D. wants employees at Lorain County Community College to look beyond job titles and functions and take a more holistic view of the roles they perform at the school.
“Why do we exist?” says Ballinger, speaking to the first question she wants employees to ponder. “What is our core meaning and purpose? When you have opportunities to think like that and to do that reflective process, it helps to build, if it’s not already there at the individual level, the ability to ask yourself what contributions am I making to the outcome of the student?”
Ballinger, the college’s former provost/vice president for academic and learner services, became LCCC’s first female president on July 1, 2016, replacing former president Roy Church, Ed.D., who retired the month prior. One of her goals as the college’s leader is to continue the mission that began before she became the college’s president: Create a culture in which everyone is working toward the same outcome.
“We have been turning the institution upside down over the past four years,” Ballinger says. “And the beneficiaries of that are our students, the employers and the community-at-large. We are making strides in some very significant ways of improving graduation rates as well as adults earning certificates and credentials, and students who are transferring to our university partners.
“But that was a heavy lift and it continues to be. We recognize that we have to design a plan with that end in mind and really create the culture or enhance the culture so that people feel safe to experiment, to innovate, to take those risks and then understand that it’s OK to fail along the way.”
By getting everybody to take a deeper look at what they do and find their purpose within the bigger picture, the college’s focus narrows, Ballinger says.
“We went from six strategic priorities and 70 initiatives to three strategic priorities and 30 initiatives,” she says. “That’s not only more doable, but clearer and more compelling.”
Ballinger gives a lot of credit to her predecessor, Church, for his belief in her when she was hired as the college’s director of marketing and media 25 years ago.
“I have a deep commitment to providing mentorship opportunities, be it formal or informal, but more importantly growing our own talent, and seeing and helping others see what their possibilities can be,” Ballinger says.
Church also helped Ballinger keep her priorities in order.
“When I was hired here — I have two daughters — and at that time one was 4 and the other one was not even 1,” Ballinger says. “And knowing that the job was going to be very, very demanding, one of the things that he said to me was, ‘Always remember that being a mother comes first.’” ●
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JJ DiGeronimo gives innovation room to breathe
One of the biggest mistakes you can make as a business leader is to try to force innovation. The success rate tends to be very low when you demand that an employee or group of employees drop everything and quickly come up with a brand new idea, says JJ DiGeronimo, president at Tech Savvy Women.
“It takes time to be innovative,” DiGeronimo says. “You have to give people time to think and time to tinker. You may even need incentive-based activities that encourage them to take a step away from their everyday job that has multiple obligations.
“Give them a chance to work on or discuss ways to streamline, enhance or impact the organization as a whole from an operations standpoint. Innovation can be as simple as transforming a process or as complicated as jumping into a new market with new products. In either case, it needs a chance to breathe in order to work.”
DiGeronimo is a speaker, author and executive strategist who advanced from entry-level technology positions into leadership roles within Silicon Valley-based technology companies. She stays close to emerging technologies through Tech Savvy Women and advises venture capitalists, investment teams and executives. Experience has taught her that another key component to being innovative is building and encouraging diversity in whatever group it is that you lead.
“If you have diverse people at the table — different ages, backgrounds, experiences and ethnic backgrounds — and you allow everyone to participate and it’s not a one-sided discussion, oftentimes you can create new ideas and get out of groupthink,” DiGeronimo says. “I’ve been in many organizations where groupthink happens because most everybody at the table is exactly alike. They can’t be innovative and they can’t foster new agendas because they can’t get out of their own way.”
Leaders need to not just promote diversity, but see the benefits that can come both to individuals and the company from soliciting different perspectives. DiGeronimo wants women get the chance to prove their worth and contribute to driving the economy forward. Those who aren’t given that chance must find other ways to be noticed.
“You can have the capabilities, but if you don’t have the opportunity, it’s difficult to shine,” DiGeronimo says. “So you either have to go off and create it in your own organization or find a way to be on a board for another organization. Women want to be able to flourish. They want to work in an environment that has global impact and they want to feel like they are making equal money for their effort. It’s up to the individual to identify what they want to get out of their work experience and what type of culture would allow them to achieve that.” ●
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Linda McHugh works to put her tools to good use
Linda McHugh is chief human resource officer at Cleveland Clinic, but much of the work she does these days is geared toward non-human approaches to boosting productivity and performance. The world-renowned medical center finalized a strategic relationship last December with IBM and Watson to expand its health information technology capabilities.
“We’re also talking with Google and Microsoft because artificial intelligence, machine thinking and cognitive learning — those types of things — we want to figure out how we can leverage that in the future to really take big data to the next level,” says McHugh. “Humans can only do so much. A computer can analyze much faster and come to conclusions that a human would then interact with. So we’ve created these strategic relationships to understand how we can use these tools.”
McHugh has more than 30 years of experience with the Clinic. After managing two departments at the Lerner Research Institute, she was recruited to manage two clinical departments — vascular surgery and vascular medicine. She eventually helped President and CEO Dr. Delos “Toby” M. Cosgrove set up his cardiac surgery affiliate programs.
“I managed all of the regional surgery practices for the organization as we brought in surgeons in the region to our ambulatory surgery centers,” McHugh says. “And when Toby became CEO, I came with him as kind of his chief administrative officer and worked at an enterprise level on multiple projects. It was an incubator for spinning off new initiatives.”
Whatever the project, the end goal is always to enhance the patient experience, a task that requires a great deal of human interaction. Cleveland Clinic has been a pioneer in making patient experience an organizational strategic goal and has established both an Office of Patient Experience and a chief experience officer to hold the organization accountable to that standard.
In her role as chief human resource officer, McHugh’s job is to develop training mechanisms that enable the Clinic team to maximize the potential of these new resources.
“It’s about creating and providing tools that are usable and relevant at that point in time,” McHugh says. “We also have a feedback loop that says, ‘OK, we’re seeing this. We’re seeing them interact with the system in this way and once we’re up and running, they’re having problems. We either need to create a better training tool or change the system.’”
Implementing change often requires a delicate touch. McHugh has learned to be patient when it comes to doing something different.
“You have to manage change,” McHugh says. “You can’t just expect that you’re going to put a new system in and everyone is automatically going to adopt it. You have to be able to provide the tools and the support.” ●
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Dominique Moceanu sets the gold standard of excellence
Dominique Moceanu doesn’t expect those around her to match her grueling pace when it comes to getting things done.
“I can sense a personality right from the get-go when I meet somebody,” says Moceanu, founder, owner and designer at Creations by C & C. “Just because I keep that fast pace doesn’t always mean that you have to. Of course, if I’m employing you, there are certain expectations that I will have and a certain level of discipline is expected on the job. But if you can find the motivation and get your job done just as well doing it your way, I’m OK with that.”
She takes a similar approach to interactions with her business partner, Wendy Campbell, who is co-founder, designer and creative director.
“I allow my business partner that creativity to work when she feels creative and I don’t pressure that,” Moceanu says. “I don’t try to stifle that because I don’t like when someone stifles my own creativity. But we also have to be on the same page as far as goals, productivity and those kinds of things.”
Moceanu has always been driven. In 1996, after years of training and hard work, she helped lead the U.S. women’s gymnastics team to a gold medal at the Summer Olympics in Atlanta. She’s still involved in the sport today, albeit under difficult circumstances: She counsels and mentors gymnasts who have been abused emotionally, verbally, psychologically or even sexually in the sport.
“It takes an emotional toll, but my heart feels for them so much and I need to give them my time if I can help in any way,” Moceanu says.
She’s also a motivational speaker and a New York Times best-selling author. As for C & C Creations, a custom-design jewelry business that produces the Dominque Moceanu Signature Collection, she is proud of the company she and Campbell have built.
“I’m OK pouring my heart into my job and my work and what I’m passionate about because ultimately, that will provide jobs and opportunity for other people as well,” Moceanu says.
When the day comes that she needs to hire more people and delegate some of the responsibility she now carries, Moceanu says she’ll be ready to modify her approach to the business.
“I think it’s critical in business when you’re first starting out to really be cautious with how much you’re spending because it all affects your bottom dollar,” Moceanu says. “Eventually, you’re at a point where you can hire more people and take those calculated risks, and then you grow.” ●
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2017 Progressive Entrepreneur Honorees

Amy Bircher
President and founder
MMI Textiles
Amy Bircher, president and founder of MMI Textiles, built the company from the ground up. The success MMI has experienced is largely attributed to Bircher’s solutions-oriented outlook. She challenges the status quo in every aspect of her business while her care and concern for others and leadership abilities are said to be the cornerstone of the operation.
Bircher has positioned the company for growth by establishing a solid team and infrastructure. She leads and directs the sales and operations of the company, which has experienced significant growth since its founding in 1997. She has developed products and services unique to the various markets the company serves and is known for having a keen eye for product innovations that have led to proprietary materials and best-in-class product lines.
Her efforts haven’t gone unheralded. She has been recognized with the Weatherhead 100 award four years in a row and has achieved her certificate of entrepreneurship from Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses. She currently sits on the board of directors for both the Industrial Fabrics Association International and the Industrial Fabrics Foundation organizations. As a member of the Visiting Committee at the West Virginia University Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, she guides peers and students in the field of textiles. ●
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Covesa K. Gragg
Covesa Kelly Events
Ten years ago, Covesa K. Gragg left her job in the banking industry to start her own business, Covesa Kelly Events. Since then it has been voted the No. 1 wedding planning company three years in a row by FOX 8 Hot List.
Gragg has created a mutually supportive environment for her all-women staff, opened her office to interns and served as a mentor to women in the industry. One of the few minorities on the International Live Events Association board, she volunteers her time with the organization to help build relationships between event planners and vendors.
She is praised for her willingness to teach others, female or male, who need guidance.
Known for utilizing her connections, Gragg’s Brides in the City tour helps expose brides-to-be to local vendors, while her Brunch in the City event brings together successful business owners to tell their stories, give tips and answer questions for small business owners.
Gragg cares not just about her own success, but also about the success of her employees, mentees, fellow small business owners and colleagues. Her friendly and inviting disposition and ambition have helped set her apart from others in the event planning field.  ●
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Anne Hartnett
Harness Cycle
GroundSwell Collective
As the founder of both the indoor cycling studio, Harness Cycle, and the event-based fitness company, GroundSwell Collective, Anne Hartnett is an entrepreneur set on more than running a business. Her aim is to connect communities, one movement experience at a time.
The owner and founder was a solutions engineer for a software company until a stop at a spinning class in Manhattan inspired her to bring a boutique fitness studio model to Cleveland.
Her first indoor cycling studio opened in 2013. While it brought in riders seven days a week to the high-energy classes, in the spring, summer and fall her weekly “Run the Bridges” events partner with local running experts to get riders off their bikes to run. The events draw between 40 to 65 runners.
Hartnett launched her second business, GroundSwell Collective, in January 2016. This venture aims to bring people together through unique experiences, events and retreats that feature yoga, paddle boarding and healthy lifestyle workshops.
Hartnett’s mission for her businesses, however, goes beyond fitness. She wants her staff and riders to connect to something bigger: a movement-driven community that inspires and shapes social atmospheres and jumpstarts neighborhood progress citywide. ●
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Ebie Holst
Founder and CEO
Recognizing the increasing stress and fragmentation plaguing the water industry, Ebie Holst built a business to address the problems.
Her research identified more than 200 water-specific companies within the five-county area around Cuyahoga County. Her interviews with experts from those firms helped form the idea for SplashLink, a centralized, web-based marketplace with tools that help water-solution buyers and sellers access critical market data, and find, connect, vet and problem solve with one another in real time.
With a growing roster of subscribers from across the globe, and partnerships with some of the water industry’s most respected organizations, including the U.S. Department of Commerce, which named the company a strategic partner, SplashLink is growing rapidly.
Holst currently advises the Department of Commerce as the representative of the water and wastewater segment of the U.S. environmental technology industry.
She has been tapped as an adviser and speaker on water issues and opportunities, and has provided testimony on Ohio SB 179, which allows recycled water as a private water system for the purposes of regulation by the Department of Health and boards of health. She also serves in an advisory capacity on a range of water issues, trends and technical considerations for organizations. ●
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Lee Ann Howard
Founder and CEO
Howard & O’Brien Executive Search
After several years at one of the largest worldwide executive recruiting firms, Lee Ann Howard founded Howard & O’Brien Executive Search in 2002. Success came quickly as it secured its first search assignment in its second day of existence, and it generated seven-figure revenues in its first full year.
Howard sets the firm apart in the industry by providing both clients and candidates consistent feedback as a search progresses, which the firm believes is the reason 72 percent of its clients reuse its services. Howard also built a board search practice, which has facilitated the development of long-term relationships with a number of leading corporations.
Seeing that female executives are often not adequately prepared to join a for-profit board of directors, Howard created the Conversations with the Board series, which grooms women in senior leadership roles through small group sessions involving CEOs and board chairs to meet and provide insights.
In the philanthropic realm, Howard has lent her expertise to the boards of numerous key community organizations, and is currently on the boards of the American Heart Association, the MetroHealth Foundation and the John Carroll University Entrepreneurs Association. ●
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2017 Progressive Organization Honoree

President Kristin Tull, Ph.D., cultivates a supportive environment at PRADCO, a family and women-owned management consulting firm, and has put programs in place to help develop female leaders.
In 2008, PRADCO conducted research to identify behaviors demonstrated by successful female leaders. From that, the company developed a program called Striving For Excellence: Women in Leadership. Participants attend six group workshops over six months, complete a leadership behavioral assessment and work one-on-one with a coach to focus on individual development goals.
To date, the program has helped more than 300 women from over 100 organizations and industries in and around Northeast Ohio, and led to the creation of a separate program specifically designed for women in law enforcement and the expansion of the program to the Columbus market.
PRADCO also facilitates this program internally with clients, which has served close to another 100 women in the area. The company has implemented female mentoring programs in some of its client organizations and leveraged opportunities to work with male leaders to further facilitate a more inclusive culture.
Between PRADCO’s internal and external programs, it’s reported that close to 25 percent of those who participated have been promoted or received advancement opportunities. ●
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2017 Organizations That Empower Honoree

Women’s Business Center of Northern Ohio
The Women’s Business Center of Northern Ohio aims to increase the number of successful women entrepreneurs by providing resources and tools to facilitate the creation of sustainable women-owned businesses.
The WBC offers high-quality women-centric services, such as training on a specific topic by local subject matter experts, one-on-one business coaching and access to shared workspaces. The goal is to facilitate new business starts, job growth, access to capital and increased profits.
Beyond its tangible benefits, the WBC serves as a catalyst for women to build the confidence and support systems that serve as the foundation for creating better lives for themselves and their families. It also enables them to build assets that lead to financial security.
The Economic and Community Development Institute, founded by Inna Kinney, is the WBC’s host organization. Under Kinney’s guidance, the WBC has assembled a team of women leaders with a proven track record of success in business, entrepreneurship and community engagement. For example, Carrie Rosenfelt, WBC executive director, has worked both for a microlender and a regional financial institution and has relevant experience in the areas of small business development and community engagement. ●
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2017 Advocate for Advancement Honoree

David C. Fulton Jr., CFA
President and CEO
As President and CEO of the Cleveland investment consulting firm Hartland, David C. Fulton Jr., CFA, championed the creation of the firm’s 2016 women’s initiative, HEELS, which stands for Hartland Empowers Exceptional Ladies.
The initiative was established to recruit women staffers, and retain and develop them through the use of education, support, mentoring, leadership training and networking opportunities. The program’s main goal is to help drive the success of Hartland by empowering women at every level of the firm.
The firm reports that HEELS was a success from the start and continues to broaden its reach across Northeast Ohio through its charitable contributions and hosting of women-centric events. For example, HEELS sponsored a number of events in 2016 to raise money for UH Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital, and helped contribute to the empowerment of women in Cleveland by hosting various women’s wellness events.
Fulton’s efforts to advance women through professional development are evidenced through his support and mentoring of women in the investment and finance industry. The firm has six female shareholders, which it says is a credit to Fulton’s tenacity. ●
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2017 Progressive Women Honorees

Ann-Marie Ahern
McCarthy, Lebit, Crystal & Liffman Co., LPA
Ann-Marie Ahern is the first female principal to be named to the management board of McCarthy, Lebit, Crystal & Liffman Co., LPA in its 57-year history. She also co-founded the firm’s Women’s Professional Committee, which seeks to advance the firm’s female attorneys through mentorship and networking opportunities.
As an employment lawyer and advocate, Ahern has worked hard to become one of the leading female lawyers in Cleveland by demonstrating a tremendous commitment to the advancement of women. A primary focus of her practice is the representation of women who have been subject to unlawful discrimination or sexual harassment in the workplace, and she has recovered millions of dollars in settlements and verdicts on their behalves.
She also serves as an executive coach to female leaders who find themselves struggling within male-dominated fields. Ahern works with these women to overcome the challenges presented in the workplace and promote their continued upward career trajectory.
Ahern has been recognized by Best Lawyers and Super Lawyers, which named her a top 25 woman lawyer in Cleveland and top 25 woman lawyer in Ohio for 2017. In 2014, she was honored by the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association as one of the Women in Law Making a Difference. ●
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Mindi Curry
North America Controller and Manager of Financial Analysis
Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics
Mindi Curry’s colleagues describe her as an ambitious member of the Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics family, with a career journey to be admired. Through the course of her 20-year career she’s been promoted numerous times and has risen through the ranks from the mailroom to her current position as North America controller and manager of financial analysis.
Curry was young and in college when she started with the company, a persona that she says was hard to shake as she progressed. She also had to fit into roles that were more commonly filled by men.
As a single mother of two young girls, she says she does her best to strike a work-life balance. That requires taking a nontraditional approach to making her schedule work while also managing teams in Solon, Asia, Europe and in other regions.
Curry attributes her success navigating her way through each position to her strong work ethic and meticulousness. She makes it a priority to deliver on deadlines, be accurate and timely, and provide high-quality work. She says being a woman plays into her effective management style, adopting a get-it-done attitude while juggling multiple responsibilities. ●
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Judy Ghazoul Hilow
Executive Director
Malachi House
When Judy Ghazoul Hilow took on the role of executive director of Malachi House, she hit the ground running. In her first four months she assessed the needs of the organization and worked closely with the co-founder and board of directors to put together a reputable team to help drive operations and fundraising efforts, and prioritize agency programs and activities.
In her first year, the nonprofit increased the number of individuals served by 83 percent, upped volunteer hours by 16 percent, increased grant awards by 35 percent, grew annual fund income by 38 percent and increased income from the agency’s annual benefit by 85 percent.
With her quick success, it may be surprising that Hilow hadn’t set out to be the head of a nonprofit. She began her career with Ernst & Whinney and envisioned making partner one day. After she got married and started a family, she decided to make her children the priority, so she reworked her goals and aspirations. She began to volunteer and became excellent at fundraising, raising over $1 million for Saint Maron Church’s capital campaign.
To her peers, Hilow is not only an executive director, but a leader, a fundraiser and an advocate for her staff and residents. ●
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Hu Huang
Director of International Logistics and Customs Compliance
Kichler Lighting
From being one of 817 million Chinese farmers to becoming one of 14 members on the FedEx International Customer Board of Directors, Hu Huang, director of International Logistics and Customs Compliance at Kichler Lighting, overcame the oppressive conditions of China’s Cultural Revolution to find success.
Born and raised in Shanghai, China, under Mao Tse-tung’s rule, Huang grew up at the time of the Cultural Revolution, during which many people in the country were forced to transform their political views through hard physical labor. Some, like her father, were sent to jails as anti-revolutionaries.
At age 15, Huang was sent to a farm for forced labor, working in the rice paddies for 12 hours a day for five years, earning $15 per year.
When the Cultural Revolution ended, Huang learned English from a radio program, took the National Exam and was accepted into the Shanghai Institute of Foreign Trade. After graduation, she was appointed to an import/export position in the Shanghai Bicycle Corp.
In 1985 she came to the U.S., attended the University of Cincinnati and earned her master’s degree in economics. Huang is now in charge of imports, exports and customs compliance for Kichler, which is in the top 1 percent of importers in the U.S. and exports to over 20 countries. ●
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Valarie J. McCall
Chief of Government and International Affairs and Acting Chief of Communications
City of Cleveland
Valarie J. McCall, chief of Government and International Affairs and acting chief of communications for the City of Cleveland, is a Cleveland-girl-become-woman who loves the city she lives in and proudly serves.
Before her career as a public servant began, McCall worked in fast food. She took public transit to and from work, an experience that would inform her as a member of the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Association’s board and when she was the chair of the American Public Transportation Association. In those roles, she helped set policy for transit locally and nationally.
Her work with the city began during Mayor Michael White’s administration, serving as the youngest director of the federally funded Empowerment Zone and was Cleveland City Council’s youngest Clerk of Council.
McCall now serves as the primary liaison to local and state governments, and all federal and international agencies and organizations for Mayor Frank Jackson’s administration.
She oversees and administers the Jackson Administration’s appointments to internal and external boards and commissions and serves as the mayor’s primary representative to several national organizations. She has served as his lead for coordinating several large events in Cleveland, including the 2016 Republican National Convention and the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers Championship Parade and Rally. ●
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Karen D. Melton
CFO and Vice President of Human Resources
Kaufman Container Co.
Karen D. Melton started at Kaufman Container Co. as a bookkeeper’s assistant in 1977 and today serves as the company’s CFO and vice president of Human Resources.
Early on, Melton set her sights on becoming controller. Though she felt she had the knowledge, she didn’t have the academic degree required for the position. So Melton attended evening classes for eight years until she earned her degree. She found a mentor in the person holding the controller position at the time, and he helped pave the way for her to become not only controller, but also eventually vice president of finance.
Today, she is the only female member of the executive management team. She took on the human resources side of the business, in addition to finance, and has adopted a mentoring role, encouraging and promoting other women within the organization. As a result, she has helped one woman become vice president of sales and marketing, the first woman in the history of the company to hold that position.
Melton worked with the Women’s City Club of Cleveland and helped start its scholarship program for young women graduating from Cleveland City schools. After the club folded, she worked to ensure the scholarship program would continue in perpetuity. ●
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SueAnn Naso
Staffing Solutions Enterprises
In the 25 years SueAnn Naso has worked for Staffing Solutions Enterprises, she has championed work-life balance for employees and implemented a flexible and effective strategy for the all-women workplace that she leads.
Naso started her career as a business development manager and progressed through the organization to become its president. Under her leadership, Staffing Solutions received the nationally recognized When Work Works Award, which recognizes flexible workplaces that yield positive business results and help employees succeed at work and at home.
In addition to pioneering work-life balance issues, Naso has also played a role in fostering women’s professional development in the HR industry and Northeast Ohio business community. In 2006, Naso co-founded the Executive HR Women’s Network, which provides a means for leading female HR professionals to come together, network, have fun and to discuss HR and women’s leadership challenges. The network now has over 200 active members.
Naso has made community involvement and charity an important personal initiative. She has served on the board of the ERC Advisory Council and as the president of the Cleveland Society for Human Resource Management. Currently, Naso serves as a board member for Engage! Cleveland and Second Harvest Food Bank of North Central Ohio. ●
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Cheryl Perez
President and Director of Sales
Benefit Innovations Group
Getting things done and driving results through collaboration, partnerships and relationships as an entrepreneur and innovator in the health care industry is what Cheryl Perez, president and director of sales for Benefit Innovations Group, is all about.
After graduating from Ohio University, Perez spent two years living and working across Africa as an organizational capacity building consultant for nonprofit and nongovernmental agencies — before determining that she could make a larger impact in the U.S. if she moved into health care sales and management.
She started in Large Group Sales for UnitedHealth Group where she received recognition five times for being the No. 1 new business sales coordinator companywide. She left to take on the role of president and managing partner of CRP Benefit Services, helping it become the regional sales management agency in Greater Cleveland for Aflac.
Today, Perez’s agency team at Benefit Innovations Group has received top honors in sales and customer service. Her HR consulting and compliance firm is the largest African-American female-owned firm in the Cleveland area.
Outside of her role at the firm, Perez is a member of the National Association of Women Business Owners, among other commitments. ●
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Kim Riley
Hylant Cleveland
On her way to becoming president of Hylant Cleveland, Kim Riley started in an entry-level position, worked for two organizations and moved to three states before becoming president of Hylant Nashville. After building the Nashville office into a leader among the other 13 Hylant offices, she transferred to a Hylant office in Ohio so she could be closer to her aging parents, her children and her grandchildren.
When Riley joined the Hylant Cleveland office in 2015, she quickly built a culture of teamwork and growth. The enthusiasm and spirit she brought to the organization is contagious, and has proven to have an impact: In 2016, Hylant Cleveland had its best new business growth ever.
Riley is a tireless worker, willing to put in the long hours to accomplish her aggressive goals both inside and outside the company.
Since coming to Cleveland, she has joined the 2016-17 Leadership Cleveland Class, the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland’s Business Advisory Council and has built relationships with many of Cleveland’s leaders. Her passion for giving back to the community has led Hylant to get involved with organizations such as The Greater Cleveland Food Bank, Recovery Resources and The First Tee of Cleveland. ●
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Lee Ann Schwope Cochran
Vice President of Business Development and Sales
Becoming vice president of Business Development and Sales at Battelle typically isn’t a position that’s achieved until much later in a person’s career, and it’s in a discipline that has long been dominated by men. Lee Ann Schwope Cochran, however, has defied the odds, confronting and overcoming these and many other challenges to earn the position.
Cochran has been vocal in promoting diversity at all levels of the company. She partnered with Battelle’s Multi-Cultural Employee Resource Group to ensure that it is developing leadership and effectively forwarding the advancement of minority employees, sharing best practices with MERG and inviting its leadership to meetings and events to observe the results.
Cochran is considered a role model for women at Battelle through her leadership in the Battelle Women’s Network ERG and was its 2013 chair. Under her leadership, the group has grown significantly and its impact has increased. She continues to champion several initiatives, including mentoring, networking and work/life balance. She has helped raise corporate awareness of women’s issues and celebrates the achievements of women within Battelle through awards and recognition.
She also has been instrumental in establishing an Executive Mentoring Circle to address the leadership development needs of women and minorities. ●
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Alexandra Vidmar
Vice President, Debt Capital Markets
KeyBanc Capital Markets
Alexandra Vidmar thrives in competitive, high-power, high-stress, high-impact environments and does so while having a positive impact on her team. She has an impressive command of the financial industry’s current trends and depth of knowledge of the debt capital markets.
She also is considered the type of positive role model that young girls and professional women would benefit greatly from having. She embraces her womanhood while making her mark as a businesswoman.
Vidmar is involved with The Zechariah House, a sanctuary for single, pregnant women who lack support. She helps organize donations and events in her neighborhood, and volunteers her time to help the nonprofit get women back on their feet so they can raise their newborns in a caring, clean, positive environment on their way to a more permanent home and job.
Vidmar is praised by colleagues for balancing family responsibilities while continuing to perform at a high level as vice president of Debt Capital Markets for KeyBanc Capital Markets. She has overcome the stigma of being a woman in investment banking as well as a mother in a demanding business environment, embodying what young women in business in Northeast Ohio can accomplish. ●
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Sponsor notes

Cleveland Clinic is Northeast Ohio’s largest employer of women. More than 20,000 women find it a great place to work and grow. At Cleveland Clinic, more than 50 percent of our executives, 35 percent of our physicians and more than 70 percent of our managers are women. The drive, compassion and clinical excellence of women has helped to make Cleveland Clinic one of America’s top five medical centers (U.S. News & World Report).
Cleveland Clinic’s Executive Women’s Health Program has transformed the traditional physical into an integrated, personalized evaluation by some of the top medical staff in the world, including visits with experts in wellness, nutrition, exercise physiology and psychology.
Our program has been a proud sponsor of Smart Women Awards from its inception. We are pleased to have the opportunity to honor Linda McHugh, Chief Human Resource Officer, and all of our women caregivers for their important contribution to patient care and the health of our community. ●
As we mark the third anniversary of our sponsorship of the Smart Women Awards, SSEG defines success in today’s evolving business climate by providing quality service tailored to fit the needs of individual clients through idea innovation, creative implementation and achieving optimum results.
We provide broad and meaningful advice and support to all of our clients. In doing so, we regularly work with women leaders, entrepreneurs and emerging companies. For example, many of our clients are female-owned and operated enterprises. In turn, we understand the unique challenges and opportunities facing women in balancing business and career development, community involvement and family.
We have brought together a team of experienced attorneys from a variety of practice areas including business and transactional, employment, workers’ compensation, real estate, probate and estate planning, health care, business litigation, construction, insurance defense, transportation defense, domestic relations and family law.
We employ a collaborative approach to counseling our business clients from inception and formation, financing, corporate governance, day-to-day operations, resolving disputes, managing risks and mergers and acquisitions. We strive to assist our clients in achieving their immediate objectives and long-term goals as their business grows. ●
At Cleveland-based Planned Financial Services, one of the region’s leading independent wealth management firms, it’s no accident that women comprise two-thirds of the firm’s award-winning team.
“Our business is about relationships,” President and Founder Frank Fantozzi says. “Women excel in developing and nurturing meaningful long-term relationships, and that’s critical for helping our clients plan for the futures they desire at every stage of their lives.”
Diversity also plays a major role in the level of independent advice clients receive. Clients benefit from the team’s broad-based collective experience, knowledge and talents, rather than the perspective of a single adviser.
Ensuring all team members are afforded opportunities for upward career mobility, team members are incented to acquire advanced degrees, designations and certifications. Helping to grow strong, family-focused communities where team members live and work is a critical part of the firm’s mission to improve lives and promote work-life balance. Team members are afforded flexible work schedules to accommodate family priorities and lend their time, talents and financial resources to support charitable and community organizations, including LifeAct, Girls With Sole, the Breast Cancer Research & Support Fund, Boys & Girls Clubs of America and many more. ●
Le Chaperon Rouge started as a small business in the basement of a church more than 30 years ago and has since sprawled across Northeast Ohio to include 12 locations. It has flourished because of one constant: its caring, compassionate teachers.
Stella Moga-Kennedy, founder and owner, is a Romanian immigrant who came to this country in 1979 to work but could not find quality day care for her son. Dissatisfied with the existing centers and armed with a master’s degree in education and a mother’s love, she took a shot at doing it better herself.
“Children do need to play, but at the same time they need to learn and prepare for school,” she says.
The curriculum at Le Chaperon Rouge mixes fun, free-spirited activities with lessons in reading, mathematics, science, social studies, geography, computers, good manners and physical education. In addition, children learn French and Spanish in weekly classes starting at 2 1/2 years old.
“We start preparation for school early,” Moga-Kennedy says. “More than just the basic ABCs, we make it a fun learning experience by spotlighting a different country each month and studying an artist of the month.”
Each of the freestanding school buildings have both indoor and outdoor playgrounds to encourage physical activity year-round.
The school’s nutritional menu follows the same wellness philosophy. The school only serves 100 percent fruit juice and provides fresh fruit and vegetables with all meals. For breakfast, the pancakes are made from scratch, as are the spaghetti, meatloaf and other meals served for lunch.
“Our children are very well prepared for the competitive future in small groups and individual attention,” she says. “They score off the charts on national tests and many are placed in gifted programs or high-level reading or math in school.” ●
BMW of Westlake is proud to be the Official Auto Sponsor of Smart Business Events in 2017. BMW of Westlake has been serving Northeast Ohio since 1986. BMW of Westlake recently celebrated our second anniversary at our new location on Sperry Drive in Westlake in our new state-of-the-art facility and is proud to be an automotive leader in our community. Since opening our doors, BMW of Westlake has maintained a solid commitment to you, our customers, offering the widest selection of new and used BMW vehicles with ease of purchase as well as all your BMW service and parts needs. Find us at any Smart Business event and ask about the BMW Corporate Fleet pricing for savings of up to $3,500 for your organization’s employees and their families.
We are conveniently located just off I-90 on Sperry Drive in Westlake and we take great pride to serve our local community as well as all out-of-state clients. The past five years we have won Ohio’s No. 1 BMW Dealership by DealerRater and we will strive to deliver the ultimate buying experience for years to come. ●
USA Expo helps brands create data-driven experiential event marketing programs that engage attendees and deliver business results. With 26 years of expertise in connecting brands to audiences, USA Expo is a pioneer in modern experiential marketing. ●
Engagement doesn’t happen overnight. It is the result of a long-term commitment by your organization to connect with and invest in the wants and needs of your target audience.
Convero develops content marketing programs that increase engagement and performance. Our five-step process delivers detailed plans — from strategy and planning to execution and measurement — for organizations across a wide range of industries, including banking and finance, health care, higher education, manufacturing and associations. ●
LaCentre Conference & Banquet Facility opened its doors with one goal: to bring event visions to life. We define success through our constant evolution in the latest technological amenities, the finest cuisine and exceptional service. We create success through building long-lasting relationships with clients, hospitality professionals and our local community members. By providing extraordinary experiences for our guests and supporting our staff to achieve their goals, our vision is brought to life.
At LaCentre, our staff is supported by a team of significant leaders in the workplace that influence and support members to success. With 85 percent of our employees being women, they have positioned themselves in leadership roles essential to the success of LaCentre. We proudly support the growth of women in all roles they take on in the world, whether they are business owners, managers or other professionals.
Throughout the course of a year, LaCentre hosts many different events exclusively for women as well as building relationships with companies owned and operated by women. As part of those relationships, we encourage all individuals to find the leader inside and strive for success in our rapidly changing world. By providing our clients with the essentials they need, our visions are fulfilled to bring events to life. ●
Hughie’s Event Production Services has been the choice for live-event design and production resource since 1953. Hughie’s is a full-service event production company specializing in audio, video, lighting, décor, staging and rigging. We are a worldwide supplier of high-definition video projection equipment, concert quality audio systems, intelligent moving lights, staging systems, decor and more to satisfy all your presentation and special event needs. ●
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