Rest assured there’s no shortage of remarkable women around here, with more and more finding their way into key executive positions. According to the Main Line Society of Professional Women, they own about 25 percent of the businesses in Chester, Delaware and Montgomery counties, and they’re starting new ones at twice the rate of men.
The lives of the 24 women profiled here are vastly different, but the one thing they have in common is a willingness to break out of their comfort zones and seize opportunities. We have a feeling the best is yet to come for this bunch.
You have to wonder if it was fate or coincidence that Lindy Snider was treated recently for thyroid cancer—a less fatal form of the disease, but cancer all the same. “Cancer is cancer,” she says.
The diagnosis gave the Bryn Mawr mom a whole new perspective beyond what she’d experienced through the many clients who come to her seeking help with skin conditions related to chemotherapy, radiation and other cancer treatments. Safe for all age groups, Snider’s Lindi Skin products (lindiskin.com) have been shown to reduce the irritation caused by many treatments. Continued medical support—including a recent clinical study at Northwestern University in Chicago—has propelled Lindi Skin into prominence with cancer patients, advocacy organizations and support groups over the past seven years.
“It’s a quality-of-life issue,” says Snider, who’s the daughter of Comcast Spectacor chairman Ed Snider. “A lot of people abandon cancer treatment because the skin irritation is unmanageable for them. You don’t see them walking around because they’re not walking around. They’re worried about scaring their family and friends. They can’t enjoy a normal life.”
As advancements are made and a whole new class of drugs and treatments become available, the need for Lindi Skin products has only increased. “We’ve passed the point of being a company that sells something,” says Snider. “We’re positively impacting the lives of people who, more often than not, have very little reason to be optimistic.”
Still, developing a thriving international business has been a learning experience of grand proportions for Snider. “This was so much harder than I’d ever imagined,” says Snider. “I had the vision and understood my mission, but launching in this industry as an unknown—and under the scrutiny of the medical community—wasn’t easy at all. What I’m trying to do with Lindi Skin is bigger than that hot pair of shoes that I used to have no problem dropping a significant amount of money on. I’ve learned what I do and don’t need.”
Karate has been a love of Liz Durning’s since she was a little girl. But it wasn’t until she was in her early 20s that she seriously took up martial arts. Now a fourth-degree black belt, Durning was frustrated with how few young girls were participating in the sport. She realized that, to attract the little ladies, she needed to make the sport less intimidating and more female friendly—and in 2004, PINKarate (pinkarate.com) was born.
Since then, Durning’s adorable pink uniforms and feminized karate moves (think “pom-pom punches”) have generated a phenomenal response. Held at Club La Maison in Wayne, her classes for girls ages 3-16 are a consistent hit. “I’m not only teaching these girls American Kenpo karate, but also realistic self-defense skills,” says Durning, who just graduated her first class of black belts. “It’s about empowering them and making them safe.”
Durning has also turned her students’ mothers into believers, recently kicking off “Hot Pink Karate” classes for moms.
“I wanted to be close to my kids while I was building my company,” says Wei Brian.
Which explains why her Newtown Square home doubles as the national headquarters for her multimillion-dollar business, Wei East (weieast.com).
Brian’s beauty line uses the herbal skincare recipes passed down for generations in her homeland of China. She partnered with the Home Shopping Network in 2002, and her brand has been a top seller on HSN ever since, with more than a million customers. “There’s quality and integrity in the product,” she says. “It’s so popular because it delivers what’s promised. Women see results.”
Earlier this year, Brian expanded her brand, moving into the luxury skincare market with a second line called WEI, available exclusively at Space.NK.apothecary (spacenk.com). Brian, who has a son with autism, also supports various charities related to the disorder. “Everything happens for the best,” she says. “I keep that belief to stay positive. It’s not always easy, but it’s the only way for me.”
When Cynthia Gouw moved to the Philadelphia area from California seven years ago, she instantly fell in love with the city. Still, she was perplexed. “I couldn’t believe that there wasn’t an outlet celebrating how great the women of this fabulous place are,” says Gouw, who lives in Merion Station.
So she created one herself, utilizing her experience as an Emmy Award-winning TV journalist. These days, the part-time model is the executive producer and host of SnapGlow.TV, Philly.com’s fashion, health and beauty channel. Every week, she writes, produces and hosts at least two videos on related content for the channel, and assembles multiple photo galleries of happenings around the city and its suburbs. “Both of my parents are Chinese immigrants from Indonesia,” says Gouw, who has appeared on the cover of More magazine. “They believed it was a privilege to be in America, so they instilled in their children the value of hard work. I take that very seriously.”
Around these parts, the surname “Wyeth” certainly has cache—especially when it follows the names Andrew, N.C. and Jamie, the Brandywine Valley’s most renowned, genetically linked artistic trio. So when she took over as docent at the Brandywine River Museum—one of the largest of repositories of their works—Victoria Wyeth had a lot to live up to. And it appears she’s on her way.
The charismatic sole grandchild of Andrew, the great-granddaughter of N.C. and the niece of Jamie, Wyeth commutes every weekday from her Center City home to Chadds Ford, where she doles out facts and personal insights about pieces both well-known and obscure—family treasures with which she is intimately familiar. The tours have become so popular that the number of guests for each is now limited to 35.
Wyeth’s goal is to put a fresh spin on art appreciation. Often, she’ll bring in a model to talk about what it was like to sit for a certain painting—or throw in a few stories that reveal the human side of her grandfather. She knows her stuff when it comes to all the Wyeths, but it’s “Andy’s” work—or more his life—that she chooses to celebrate the most. “He would revel in moments like I had recently, when I let two little girls choose a few paintings to talk about,” says Wyeth. “It’s the discovery and awe that comes with seeing things through someone else’s eyes—the excitement, the melancholy, the altered perspective that he conveyed in his paintings. He’s not here, but he’s still connecting with people.”
Right now, there is no way to screen for ovarian cancer. Perhaps if there was, Sandy Rollman might still be here. But like so many women, Rollman wasn’t diagnosed with the disease until it was too late.
In 2010, more than 20,000 women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and over 16,000 will die, making it a tough disease to beat. But during the past 10 years, Rollman’s sister, Adriana Way, and Robin Cohen, her oncology nurse, have proven formidable opponents. Since founding the Broomall-based Sandy Rollman Ovarian Cancer Foundation (sandyovarian.org), they’ve helped to raise more than $1.1 million for research at area hospitals. Recently, they became affiliated with a project working to provide better access to newer treatments, vaccine trials and targeted therapies based on patients’ genetics. Even better, people are finally talking about ovarian cancer. “The only way to push research is to give a voice to the disease,” says Cohen, who lives in Drexel Hill.
Also losing her mother to ovarian cancer three years ago, Way understands more than most that the Rollman Foundation’s influence extends well beyond her sister. “Sandy didn’t have a chance,” says Way. “Our goal is to help every woman diagnosed with ovarian cancer put up the best fight they can—and win.”
Energetic beyond compare, Haverford’s Alice Dagit has a reputation as a tireless volunteer and an innovative philanthropist. The bulk of her passion and devotion has been directed at SCAN (Stop Child Abuse Now), the Emergency Aid of Pennsylvania Foundation (which offers mentored scholarships and grants), Philadelphia Hospitality (promoting the economic development of Philadelphia) and Philly’s Saint Malachy School. As for the latter, Dagit says it’s “performing miracles with inner-city kids.”
Over the years, Dagit’s commitment to creating psychologically healthy environments for children, paired with her dedication to the advancement of Philadelphia, has impacted many. And she also knows how to throw a great party—like her “SCANtastic” restaurant event and the more recent Main Line “March Madness” restaurant celebration. Dagit is also the one behind the Vision for Philadelphia Award.
Starting out as an elementary school teacher, Kristen Waterfield knew she could have more of an impact. Her instincts were right. After a successful career at the Goddard School, Waterfield wanted to offer the excellence of the Goddard model without the stipulations of franchising. That in mind, she established the Malvern School with Goddard founder J.A. Scandone.
For the past 10 years, Waterfield has been president of the licensed preschool, which offers year-round education programs in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. “We focus on a developmentally appropriate curriculum taught by college-degreed teachers,” says Waterfield, who lives in Glen Mills. “We want the quality of education to be consistent in each of our locations.” Under Waterfield’s leadership, six of the Malvern School’s 20 locations have earned accreditation from the National Association for the Education of Young Children. “It’s a very rigorous process,” says Waterfield. “It’s my goal to have each of our schools with this distinction.”
For almost 20 years, Sandra Cornelius has played an integral roll in providing the Elwyn’s disabled or disadvantaged residents with the best possible care—all while expanding the Media-based human services organization’s bottom line. When not meeting with local senators and traveling to Harrisburg to address funding concerns, Cornelius is busy matching physically or mentally challenged “consumers” to services and living situations that will best meet their needs. Of late, her team also has been working with families and state employees in California to solidify Elwyn’s West Coast branch. “So many programs are disappearing for agencies where the problems are not as debilitating,” says Cornelius. “It’s a challenge to stay in business, but so many people out there need services.”
Malvern’s Teresa Binder-Westby is the first to tell people that her job as a costume designer is not as glamorous as it sounds. But not many believe her—especially when they discover that she works on the sets of major Hollywood blockbusters with A-list celebs like Gerard Butler, Reese Witherspoon, Bruce Willis and Jamie Foxx. In fact, she’s spent most of this year on the Philadelphia set of the yet-to-be-released film, The Dark Fields, dressing Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro.
Fresh out of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Binder-Westby moved to Los Angeles in search of an atypical 9-to-5 job and found her niche as a production assistant in a costume department. In 1997, she moved back to the Main Line to raise a family. “I had no idea what I was going to do when I came back to this area,” says the Academy of Notre Dame graduate, who grew up in Haverford.
Little did she know, Philadelphia would become such a sought-after city for filmmakers. “My L.A. contacts recommend me for jobs when movies come to town,” she says. “I can’t believe how often I’m working.”
Paula Ott may not be a household name—yet. But the recently appointed Superior Court judge will always have a special place in Chester County legal history. In 1991, the West Chester resident became the first female judge elected to the county’s Common Pleas Court. Prior to that, she was the first non-male attorney at her law firm.
Throughout Ott’s 18 years as a trial judge, a bulk of her decision-making focused on criminal cases, adoption, guardianship, wills and estates. When she looks back on those “high-drama” days, she sees the two death-penalty trials as the most challenging. “In one of the cases, the death penalty was imposed,” she says. “It’s such a difficult decision.”
Well-liked and amiable but also levelheaded and stern, Ott is perhaps most proud of being voted president judge in 2005 by her peers in the Common Pleas Court, mainly because it was an affirmation of who she is as both a judge and a person. “When you’re in the public eye, there’s no differentiation between the two,” she says.
More recently, Ott oversaw construction of the Chester County Justice Center, which celebrated its first anniversary last month. Last year, when she got wind that a Superior Court judge was resigning, she wasted no time putting a campaign together. “I had from Aug. 8 to the first Tuesday in November to get myself out there,” she recalls. “I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time.”
Before 2004, Downingtown’s Ellen Langas Campbell was best known locally as the founder and president of the marketing, communications and public relations firm, NouSoma Communications. But over the past six years, she’s added “successful author” to her list of accomplishments, thanks to her wildly popular Girls Know How series. Now at three books and counting (the fourth is due next year), the collection “inspires young people to follow their dreams by exploring career opportunities and information.”
As a mother of two daughters, Campbell values the importance of authentic role models, and she felt compelled to give back. “I wanted these books to encourage young girls to follow their dreams,” says Campbell. “It’s about inspiring them to visualize their opportunities.”
As founder of one of the area’s leading media planning and buying companies, Joanne Harmelin has accrued countless skills as an entrepreneur and advertising strategist—and as a mother juggling career and family. “Having three children while starting a business automatically kept family in focus,” says the Villanova resident. “I knew there would be a day when I’d want to play a different role. I never considered my job who I was. I’m not just a CEO.”
Part of Harmelin Media’s philosophy is to put employees (many of them women) in leadership roles so they gain the necessary experience to move up within the company—one that, despite an ailing economy and cutbacks, hasn’t had to resort to layoffs. And while “Strategies. Solutions. Success.” may be Harmelin Media’s credo, its founder has her own take on the meaning of life: “Your tombstone will never say, ‘I wish I worked more.’ You have to enjoy your life—and your family—along the way.”
The former president of the Pennsylvania Institute of Technology and a Media resident, Jayne Garrison is easily one of the most active do-gooders in the area, with a résumé that reads like a short story. Recently selected as one of the five finalists in KYW Newsradio 1060’s 2010 Women’s Achievement Awards, Garrison was also the first woman honored with the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia’s Atlas Award in 2009. Five years ago, she received the American Red Cross Humanitarian Award. “My driving passion has always been education,” says Garrison. “And while that has come through most in my commitment to the success of PIT’s students, education for all students—regardless of income—is what matters.”
Garrison’s ties to PIT—a Middle States-accredited college founded by her husband, Walter J. Garrison—are stronger than ever. She currently holds four different positions as a trustee, and she plays an active role at the Center Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering women and teen parents through mentoring, education and support. Her dedication to developing educational programs for the underserved has changed the lives of countless young people.
Unless you have a child who’s either gifted or has special needs, it’s unlikely you’ve heard of Havertown’s Melissa Bilash. But to those who’ve sought her services, she has to rank high on their list of friends. Her Radnor-based Advocacy & Consulting for Education (acfeinc.com) has assisted an impressive number of families in gaining support for their children on both ends of the spectrum. “People don’t call me when they’re happy, which is why I enjoy what I do,” says Bilash. “Rebuilding parents’ faith with schools—when they have legitimate claims—and getting their child’s needs met is immeasurably gratifying. The thing that feels like a job is the time I spend away from family.”
One of just 100 federally trained child advocates in the United States, Bilash was selected to represent Pennsylvania at Parenting magazine’s inaugural Mom Congress on Education and Learning at Georgetown University this past May. She and 51 others were chosen from across the country for their outstanding efforts in the fight for better schools.
A 2001 class on how to build timber-frame garden sheds led to a major career change for Kennett Square’s Amy Cornelius. It was there that she met her future boss, instructor Hugh Lofting. The two hit it off, and she came on as general manager of Hugh Lofting Timber Frame, a job that encompasses everything from overseeing construction projects to sourcing wood.
A novice in every respect when she was hired, Cornelius went on to earn her LEED AP certification from the Green Building Council. “We build homes that are highly efficient,” says Cornelius. “Most people today want a house that doesn’t cost too much to operate. It’s a lifestyle choice.”
In addition to her construction work, Cornelius offers advice to homeowners on how to live efficiently. In fact, she’s learned so much through her job that she just started writing her first book on sustainable living and homebuilding. “I’ve worked on so many really cool projects,” she says. “The best part is how happy they make our clients.”
If someone told West Chester’s Leigh Ann Barnes back in 2007 that she’d be hanging out on the set of Desperate Housewives, she wouldn’t have believed it. Barnes’ foray into the design world began with a handbag she made for her cousin as a Christmas gift. Two years later, her collection caught the eye of Hollywood types—including Housewives star Felicity Huffman, who’s already bought five handbags.
A former marketing consultant, Barnes is now exploring her passion for design full time. Her line of reversible leather handbags is available online (leighannbarnes.com), and locally at ViVi G. Shoes and Nicole Miller. “Everyone has a talent and gift to share that is uniquely their own,” she says. “If it can happen for me, it could happen for others.”
When Tasty Baking Company decided to make an unprecedented $75 million move to its new headquarters at the Philadelphia Navy Yard in 2006, executives knew they needed a strong leader to oversee production of the 350,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art facility. They chose Autumn Bayles.
A Wharton School graduate, Bayles started at Tasty in 2003 as its chief information officer. Now, seven years later and still a year shy of her 40th birthday, she’s the vice president of strategic operations for one of the region’s most iconic brands. “Every day during this project, I was learning something new,” says Bayles, who recently moved from Plymouth Meeting to Center City to be closer to work. “It’s been a four-year labor of love.”
In her late 20s and disenchanted with her advertising career, Rosemont’s Kelly Simmons envisioned writing as a second act. What she didn’t foresee, however, was just how long it would take to pull it off. Fifteen years later, her first novel, 2007’s Standing Still, earned accolades as a Target breakout book. “I’ve always been confident in my ability as a writer,” says Simmons. “My advice to others would be, ‘Don’t wait.’”
Simmons’ second novel, The Birdhouse—a “true Main Line story” about family relationships and secrets—is due out in February. Perhaps this time around, she’ll be more comfortable interacting with the public. “People think of me as gregarious, but I’m not someone who is instantly friends with a stranger,” she says. As for speaking in literary circles: “I feel as though I disappoint—especially when readers make comparisons to my work that I don’t even understand.”
As a pediatrician, Dr. Ayala Laufer-Cahana saw first-hand how sugary drinks negatively impacted the health of her patients. “I was always advising kids and parents to stay away from them,” says the Wynnewood resident.
So Laufer-Cahana began making her own water infused with herbs from her garden. What was once a hit with her three children and the neighbors has since caught on nationwide. In 2007, she launched Ayala’s Herbal Water (herbalwater.com), now available at more than 2,000 natural supermarkets, gourmet stores and other locations.
“It’s so gratifying when I get a flood of e-mails from people who believe in the product as much as I do,” says Laufer-Cahana of her water, which has no artificial sweeteners, preservatives or additives. “Being an entrepreneur is such a thrill.”
Though she’s currently the executive vice president and COO of the Main Line Chamber of Commerce, Eileen Connolly-Robbins has held many titles throughout her career. The one she’s enjoyed the most—“Wizardess of Reinvention”—was recently bestowed by Chester County’s Victorious Woman Project. The honor recognizes those who overcome obstacles to revitalize their lives through multiple career changes. Apparently, reinvention has always come naturally to the Wayne resident. “I like change and stretching myself,” she says. “I’ve always been willing to take a risk, and I’ve always had a willingness to learn something new.”
Connolly-Robbins has held leadership positions at General Electric and Unisys, and she ventured into the entrepreneurial world by launching her own business, Pennsylvania Gifts and Awards. Since her arrival at the MLCC in 2008, she’s founded the Main Line Society of Professional Women, a group that has quickly become one of the largest networking organizations in the region. “This is the perfect group for women of all ages and professions to become involved in,” she says.
“Until we’re in an absolutely equitable world in which no one even thinks about male leaders or female leaders—or makes any distinctions of that sort—I think there’s a place for women’s colleges,” says Jane McAuliffe, who’s been busy putting Bryn Mawr College on the global map since she was inaugurated as its eighth president in 2008. Just last month, the internationally known scholar of Islamic studies and former dean of Georgetown University’s College of Arts and Sciences hosted “Heritage and Hope: Women’s Education in a Global Context” at Bryn Mawr. Held in conjunction with the college’s 125th anniversary, the conference drew women leaders, scholars, students, alumnae and others from around the world.
As a graduate of the all-female Trinity University in Washington, D.C., McAuliffe knows firsthand the advantages of a single-sex education. “The need for women’s colleges is still relevant today, primarily because the need for women’s leadership has never been greater,” she says.
Earlier this year, Binney Wietlisbach was named one of Barron’s “Top 100 Women Financial Advisors,” earning the second highest ranking in the Philadelphia region and 14th overall in the country. But not many on that list can say they are truly in charge. In fact, only 10 percent of banks in Pennsylvania are headed by women. As president of the Haverford Trust Company, Wietlisbach is among the elite. The Wayne resident grew up in Bryn Mawr, graduating from the Baldwin School and Penn State University. She’s been with Haverford Trust for 18 years, serving as its president for the past two. “My mother was a very strong woman,” says Wietlisbach. “My message growing up was that I had no limits on anything I was trying to accomplish.”
That message has served her well in a male-dominated industry. “My advice I always give women is that hard work does pay off,” she says. “There are still double-standards between men and women, but you can erase those distinctions by being the best you can be.”