Photo by Angie Gray
Delaware’s top 40 female business leaders prove that even a global pandemic can’t stop them from accomplishing great things.
Written by Ashley Breeding, Pam George, Angie Gray, Liz Hartshorne, Meg Ryan, Caroline Sparks, Annie Ward and Amy White.
Megan Lee • Sasha Aber • Ayanna Khan • Ivy-Lyn Sia • Kenyetta McCurdy Byrd
Sandy Taccone • Stephanie Preece • Doneene Damon • Toni Jordan • Michele Schiavoni • Kathryn Vennard • Diane Ibrahim Lisa DeRose • LaKresha Moultrie •
Andrea Harrington • Lynn Evans • Erica Dorsett •Tracy Friswell-Jacobs • Lauren Weaver • Jeanine O’Donnell • Babita Jagnanan • Abby Mrozinski • Robyn Beck-Gott • Marcia Reed • Desa Burton • Gwendoline Angalet • Tatiana Poladko • Stephanie Cory Gorris • Shavonne Brathwaite • Stephanie Staats • Linda Price • Leshell Dennis • Amy Hughes • Kim Wilson • Kristin Moore • Michelle Washington • Viji Vangmamalai • Brionna Denby • Rebecca Trent • Valerie Middlebrooks
What does it take to be a top woman in business? Delaware Today voted for these 40 inspirational careerists in multiple industries. We share their stories here.
1. Megan Lee
Meghan Lee never settles. The owner of Heirloom, a farm-to-table restaurant in Lewes, Lee is always thinking about what more can be done. Entering the restaurant industry at age 15, Lee has worked her way up. In her early 20s, she decided the “dance” of a restaurant was where she wanted to spend the rest of her professional career. She took time to learn every aspect to open her own restaurant and by age 34, Heirloom served its first dish. The eatery is known for its artfully plated and delicious fare. Many of her staff members are long-tenured and she aims to retain staff members by keeping things fresh, like with a recent food tour around Charleston. “When you hit a plateau in a restaurant, that’s usually when people leave,” she adds. Lee continues to set the bar high in terms of next steps for Heirloom with goals of a cookbook and more themed dinners. “We’re in a great space and happy, and I’m happy with my team,” she adds.
2. Sasha Aber
Owner, Home Grown Café
Home Grown Café has been a pillar of Newark’s Main Street for 21 years, providing a wide range of culinary options to locals and visitors alike. Sasha Aber, the owner of Homegrown, trailblazed the introduction of vegetarian and vegan options to the Newark restaurant scene. Aber, who grew up in Newark, loves her community and is honored to have them as repeat customers. It brings her joy to see “people have their first dates here, get married, and then bring their kids in to eat too.”
When Home Grown Café opened in 2000, it had 28 seats. It can now accommodate 130 and continues to grow and improve with every year. It’s recently undergone an interior renovation that added colorful murals and has updated its restrooms to be gender neutral. Aber wants her restaurants to be “all-inclusive…just like the food.”
Aber is the proud recipient of the 2021 Newark Area Welfare Committee Community Leader Award. She has continued to bring the community together during the pandemic by participating in “Adopt a Unit.” Locals were more than happy to contribute funds so that Home Grown could prepare and deliver over 3,200 meals to ChristianaCare health provider units over a six-month period.
3. Ayanna Khan
Founder, President & CEO, Delaware Black Chamber of Commerce
Last year, Ayanna Khan noticed that small businesses around her home in Middletown were suffering due to the pandemic. Many were shutting down, and Black-owned businesses were hit harder because they needed assistance navigating the process for government relief, including the Delaware Relief Plan. Khan decided to put her marketing, consulting and grant-writing expertise to use and opened the first (and currently only) Delaware chapter of the National Black Chamber of Commerce.
As their president and CEO for the past year, she’s helped the organization acquire 332 members and counting, and helped 127 businesses qualify for $3 million in aid. Using social media and government partners, she’s spread the word to Delaware business owners and entrepreneurs who are seeking education, tech assistance and a sense of community. Members of the DEBCC receive a wide range of benefits to help reach short- and long-term goals.
Khan hopes to inspire others to step up when they see a need in the community, and she remains adamant that a chamber of commerce should be “more than a ribbon-cutting ceremony.”
4. Ivy-lyn Sia
Realtor, Welcome Home Realty
Helping people find their dream home is what keeps Ivy-lyn Sia working as a Realtor. She discovered her passion for the industry after a family friend, a broker, gave her a crash course. She decided to depart from her path to medical career and begin working as a property manager, earning her real estate license in 2017. Today, Sia primarily works with clients in Kent County but will travel to New Castle and Sussex when needed. Creating community relationships with clients is one of Sia’s favorite parts of the job, saying many homebuyers become friends by the end of a sale. However, real estate does have its challenges, which Sia takes in stride, citing time management and the ability to work with multiple different parties in one transaction as key skills. The Realtor’s advice to those looking to get into the market is the same advice she gave herself a few years ago. “Just jump right in. It wouldn’t hurt to try.”
5. Kenyetta McCurdy-Byrd
Chief Operating Officer, WRK Group (The Warehouse, REACH Riverside and Kingwood Community Center)
Kenyetta McCurdy-Byrd thrives on “turning vision into reality.” At REACH Riverside, where McCurdy-Byrd is chief operating officer, she is dedicated to building a safer, healthier and more vibrant community. She has combined her expertise in social services, workforce development and accounting to help pilot a $250 million revitalization project in Wilmington’s Northeast neighborhood of historic Riverside. REACH Riverside works in partnership with Purpose Built Communities, a national nonprofit consulting firm that “implements holistic community revitalization efforts” by working side-by side with residents and community leaders. McCurdy-Byrd is one of those leaders. One of her goals at REACH is to “implement strategies that promote upward economic mobility for the Riverside neighborhood.” This will be accomplished through three pillars: redevelopment (high-quality, mixed-income housing), education (cradle-to-college readiness pipeline), and health (physical, mental and financial). McCurdy-Byrd knows that to be successful, “work-life balance is critical,” as is “taking the opportunity to grow and mature as a professional and individual.” The start of the week at REACH begins with “Mental Health Mondays,” for example. There are no meetings that day and employees are encouraged to spend the afternoon doing something for themselves.
6. Sandy Taccone
Principal, CEO, Blue Blaze Associates, LLC
Sandy Taccone, principal/CEO, is the creative visionary behind Blue Blaze Associates, a full-service strategic marketing group that is “passionate about building distinctive brands that are authentic, relevant, and above all, memorable.” Founded in 2001, Blue Blaze Associates is run by Taccone and her business partner, Wendy Scott. Taccone draws on her background in fine arts, drawing and printmaking to come up with branding ideas that she says “help clients stand out from the competition.” She realizes it’s sometimes “hard to find words to talk about yourself or your business,” and that’s where Blue Blaze Associates comes in. Blue Blaze recently completed a revamp of the University of Delaware Botanical Gardens website, making their plant database more user-friendly, and the organization’s work with the Delaware Natural History Museum has been an integral part of raising money for the current renovation. Taccone is enthusiastic about a new project with a small microbrewing company from Newark: “Constantly learning about new things keeps my work exciting.” Taccone is grateful that her success has also allowed her to do pro-bono work for nonprofits. Her advice is “to have a strong network of people and don’t be afraid to ask questions as you go.”
7. Stephanie Preece
Owner, Coach, Trainer, Ignite Fitness and Kickboxing
Nothing can stop Stephanie Preece from getting back up after being worn down. In September 2018, Ignite Fitness was born. And as an entrepreneur, Preece says, “You have to wear a lot of different hats when you’re growing your business.”
As CEO, Preece is doing her part to give back to her community. “I want to help women who have been through the same things in their life, who are burnt out, who have given everything to their husbands and their children and their employers and have really lost who it is that they are along the way. I want to do that through kickboxing,” says Preece, who’s been training in martial arts for about 12 years.
Preece’s mission to build a safe space for both men and women along with giving back has been victorious and rewarding. “The best part is seeing people becoming the best version of themselves,” she says. “I don’t know that I could be more fulfilled by anything other than seeing the light and spark and ignite back in their lives.”
8. Doneene Damon
President, Richards, Layton & Finger, P.A.
Doneene Damon remembers always wanting to be a lawyer. “As a child, I would carry my mother’s handbag around, calling it my briefcase. I cannot pinpoint the moment, experience or individual which may have sparked my interest, but I can honestly say that I have always been on this career path,” she says. Today, as president of Richards, Layton & Finger, P.A., Damon gets to live her dream. Damon majored in accounting as an undergrad, primarily as a backup plan, but it helped set her up for a future in law. “I knew I did not want to be a litigator, but I did want to combine my undergraduate business school experience with my law school experience. So, I pursued opportunities with corporate law firms,” she explains. Damon says RL&F has been a leader in this space and it felt right as an organization. After almost 30 years at the firm, Damon continues to thrive. “My practice involves negotiating deals–that is what I love most.”
9. Toni Jordan
Managing Partner, NorthNODE Group Counseling, LLC
If you find yourself nervously Googling “does this exist?” in terms of your business idea, relax. “I wish I could tell every woman considering her own business to not be afraid to try things just because you haven’t seen it before,” says Toni Jordan, co-founder of Dover’s NorthNODE, a group- and individual-counseling agency. NorthNODE was born of Jordan’s own experience with family members battling mental health and substance-abuse issues. “We wanted to help people, but more so, we really want to change the narrative,” Jordan says. “In certain communities—low income, rural, minority—there is such a stigma on seeking mental health help.”
To battle it, Jordan’s team of therapists collaborate with subject-matter experts to deliver experiential, interactive programming, like robotics, art, even music, like the Hip Hop Heals program. “Do people want to sit in a circle and talk? Sometimes,” Jordan says. “But sometimes they want to be doing, which still creates space to share. You kind of don’t know you’re in therapy until you know.” Jordan would like to see NorthNODEs in multiple underserved communities. “I don’t ever want it to be this big, imposing thing,” she says. “It should always be accessible and open, like, ‘Just go to NorthNODE. They got you.’”
10. Michele Schiavoni
Director, Marketing and External Relations, Delaware Prosperity Partnership
At DPP, now in its fourth year, Michele Schiavoni works closely with partners throughout the state to keep existing businesses growing and to attract new businesses to Delaware that are considering expansion. “There is a tremendous opportunity to help position Delaware as a business-friendly state with fantastic prospects for work and play,” she says. “Our goal is to build a statewide economic development resource to collaborate with the resources already in place, resulting in an international strategy to brand and market Delaware.” The result? Increased job opportunities. “Few things are as transformative. …A good and rewarding job allows people to fulfill their dreams, care for their loved ones and support charitable causes we believe in,” she adds. Throughout her career, Schiavoni has learned that being a good listener and understanding the art of persuasion are key. She’s also had the good fortune, she says, to be mentored by wise servant leaders (Dr. Bob Laskowski, Carroll Carpenter and the late Gov. Pete du Pont, to name a few) who’ve helped her, and she deeply believes in paying that mentorship forward.
11. Kathryn Vennard
Co-Founder, Autumn Arch Beer Project
At this microbrewery in Newark, it’s a family affair. Kathryn Vennard opened Autumn Arch with her husband Jimmy and brother-in-law Dan. While the two brothers brew beer, Kathryn uses her strengths on the financial side of the business: doing payroll, assisting with the POS system and other backend data information. While starting a new business is nerve-wracking, Vennard was excited to utilize skills she’d just acquired in an MBA program. “It was pretty exciting for me to start to use the skills that I was picking up and learning in class, and really apply it immediately to like real-world applications,” she says. A little over two years in, Autumn Arch has become a watering hole for the Newark community, offering unique brews, events and a spot for BYO food. Vennard says it’s important to represent women in the beer industry, a male-dominated field. She is a part of all Autumn Arch business discussions and celebrates that the brewery’s staff has high female representation. “I think it makes us a stronger business and a stronger leadership team,” she says.
12. Diane Ibrahim
Managing Shareholder, Greenberg Traurig, LLP
Diane Ibrahim is no stranger to setting a goal and going for it. Ibrahim found Greenberg Traurig while attending Temple University Beasley School of Law and began her career as a law associate at the firms’ Wilmington office after graduation.
“Since I was a child, I wanted to be a lawyer, so my path has always been a straight one,” Ibrahim says. Ibrahim established herself as a corporate transactional lawyer and later became a shareholder of the firm. Fast-forward 16 years after finding Greenberg Traurig, and Ibrahim now holds the position of managing shareholder of the same firm where she started her career. Ibrahim ensures that the office stays connected and has the resources they need to best serve clients.
Ibrahim is also an active member in her community and currently serves as board president for Trinity Cooperative Day Nursery.
13. Lisa DeRose, CPA, CCIFP, CGMA
Director and Chair of the Tax Committee, Whisman Giordano & Associates, LLC
13. Lisa DeRose, CPA, CCIFP, CGMA
Lisa DeRose is not your typical accountant. She’s had a successful career spanning 30 years, and an empathetic and caring personality that’s unexpected for someone who’s made it so far in her field. Regarding this anomaly, DeRose says, “I enjoy watching others succeed, even if it means I don’t. It makes me happy to see others happy, which tends to be more of a feminine trait.”
With over three decades of valuable experience in accounting, Lisa has a long history of mentoring and leadership. Since founding the DE Chapter of ACE Mentor Program in 2010, she has been closely involved with the organization’s work. DeRose’s leadership skills have translated into the workplace and she works as a manager or lead in her firm’s tax department, tax committee and human resources.
14. LaKresha Moultrie
Vice President of Legal Affairs, General Counsel & Chief Enterprise Risk Officer, Delaware State University
LaKresha Moultrie’s lawyer brain has been trained to identify an issue, identify the rules, apply the rules to the fact and come up with the conclusion. But then came COVID-19. “There were no rules,” says Moultrie, Delaware State University’s vice president of legal affairs. “Everything was so murky. And for the first time in my career, I lacked certainty on what to do next.” The uncertainty didn’t last for long for the former DOJ deputy attorney general who was tapped to lead the university through the pandemic—her biggest challenge since coming on board in 2018. “The most critical part was developing a plan for reopening,” says Moultrie. “We have many students that are first-gen who come from very diverse backgrounds in terms of access, and we saw that over spring semester as we were forced online and there were problems with internet access. Keeping our students safe was top-of-mind, but so was our commitment to their education, which is why we had to get them back on campus.” Moultrie helped roll out a robust testing protocol that has kept DSU ahead of the pack in terms of percentage of positive tests. “As a general counsel at a place like this university… it’s a little town,” she says. “You have to be agile.”
15. Andrea Harrington
Associate Broker, Andrea Harrington & Associates of Compass RE
What started as a part-time job quickly turned into an empire. Andrea Harrington is a real estate broker and owner of Andrea Harrington and Associates. She began her real estate career in 2006, looking for a job with flexibility so she could spend time with her kids. In 2014, Harrington secured her Delaware broker’s license and took on her first team member.
Today, her firm is home to eight real estate agents and three full-time administrators. “When I see that my clients are happy at the end of the day, that motivates me,” she says. Her team caters to diverse clientele, and their hands-on approach to business caters to first-time homebuyers. Additionally, by employing bilingual team members, Harrington and her team can better serve Delaware’s Hispanic population.
16. Lynn Evans
Being the only female in a room full of decision-makers can be intimidating, but for Lynn Evans, it’s inspiring. Evans is the director of the University of Delaware Women’s Leadership Initiative group, also known as “Ascend.” With a passion to mentor and coach women, Evans utilizes her finance and asset management background to help others who experienced similar career challenges.
Evans learned the importance of asking for help, as she was often one of the only women in her field working full time while raising a family. She says a major challenge for her was “the conflict of personal and professional commitments and the feeling that you had to do both really well every day, which of course you cannot.”
Evans’ journey inspired her to help other women succeed, placing her in the director position of the Women’s Leadership Initiative. “The real personal excitement is when I get to interact directly with women who are involved in our leadership programs and students who are involved in our student program, Ascend,” she says.
17. Erica Dorsett
Co-Owner, First State Hood and Duct
Erica Dorset became a successful businesswoman by building her business from the ground up. Co-owner of First State Hood and Duct, her niche is notorious for being dominated by white men, but her business has been going strong for 13 years. “In my experience, the disadvantages come from having not being ‘in the know,’” Dorsett says.
She solved the perennial minority-led start-up issue by partnering with a business that helped her to effectively compete. She used her connection by offering a few services they didn’t. Because of this, Erica was able to gain customers who otherwise she would have no access to. “I never approached this business as a ‘Black-woman-owned company.’ We have never reaped any of the rewards from that distinction. The focus of my business is always on the customer and will forever remain that way,” she says.
18. Tracy Friswell-Jacobs
Co-Owner, Artistic Director, Delaware Arts Conservatory
Tracy Friswell-Jacobs was bitten by the performing bug early in life and has worked in the arts ever since.
Through working choreography jobs, she met Laura Russo, who is now her business partner and co-owner of Delaware Arts Conservatory. The studio doors opened in 2007 with dance classes, and it has since expanded to included musical theater, voice, music, acting, studio art and photography classes. While the arts can grow a child in many ways, she hopes that the biggest thing her students learn from her is confidence in their ability. “If they walk out of my world with the ‘I can try’ attitude, I’m really good with that,” Friswell-Jacobs says.
Delaware Arts Conservatory students are consistently accepted to top performing arts programs across the country and work professionally all over the world. Friswell-Jacobs is also a full-time theatre and dance teacher at MOT Charter School.
19. Lauren Weaver
Executive Director, Bethany Fenwick Area Chamber of Commerce
Supporting the Delaware beaches’ business community is one of the many reasons Lauren Weaver loves her job. Promoted to Bethany Fenwick Area Chamber of Commerce executive director in 2017, Weaver says planning strategically, collaborating with the board of directors and working with great team keeps the role fun. The chamber created a buzz with its Fire & Ice Festival, held each January. Weaver says she’s proud of her team for introducing something new that brings visitors to the beaches during the quietest weekend in January with a cocktail competition, tasting tour, ice sculptures and more. This year’s theme is centered around rock ’n’ roll. As for what makes the role worth it? Seeing the response. Whether it’s visitors enjoying a walk on the beach or attendees reveling in an event, Weaver takes it all in to keep going. “That excitement is just the fuel and makes it so rewarding.”
20. Jeanine O’Donnell
Agent, State Farm
Sure, 15 minutes can save you money on your car insurance, but an hour could get you a customer for life. That’s how Jeanine O’Donnell sees it. “Everybody hates insurance—it’s expensive, it’s boring, whatever adjective you’d like,” says the Lewes-based State Farm agent, who’s been with the company for 35 years and operates a multimillion-dollar agency that she started from scratch 15 years ago, all without the book of business most agents begin with. “But my clients say to me, ‘Wow. I have never had someone spend this much time with me, and I’ve never understood the coverage until now.’ That’s our difference: We deeply care.” O’Donnell thinks it’s funny when people ask her why she’s in insurance. “What is better than knowing you’re helping people to be safe and protected?” she asks. You can add “well fed” to that list too. “The Italian in me cannot help but have snacks all over our office,” she says, laughing. “I just always want to be taking care of someone.”
21. Babita Jagnanan
Owner, Phoenix Used Clothing Corp
Babita Jagnanan has spent 20 years in the recycling industry, mostly in the brokering of bulk recyclables globally. “Viewing my community through that lens, I began to notice a lack of alternatives for locals to dispose of their textiles other than in the trash,” she says, noting that about 85 percent of textiles are trashed in the U.S. each year. Additionally, she says, “Education is lacking on what constitutes a viable recyclable item. …I felt that the void for Delaware needed to be filled through education, [partnerships] and collecting items for reuse.” In 2019 she opened Phoenix, a company that collects used clothing for recycling. “One of the most important aspects of encouraging recycling is convenience,” Jagnanan points out. “Easy access to and awareness of drop-off locations throughout the community is crucial.” Collected items are sorted and redistributed to such partners as schools, churches and recovery houses. “My primary focus is to support those in recovery, those facing housing insecurity and underprivileged families struggling to dress for school and work,” she says. Reuse of these textiles also provides jobs—to collect, process and disseminate goods—while making an environmental impact. “With more people adopting this lifestyle change, manufacturing is decreased. This can have a significant impact in reducing greenhouse gases produced in landfills during the breakdown of textiles,” she says.
22. Abby Mrozinski
Head of Global Capital Markets, Wilmington Trust
Abby Mrozinski is a homegrown success story. While at the University of Delaware, the First State native interned at MBNA. She later moved to Wilmington Trust, where her skills caught the corporate trust group’s attention. Although hesitant to become a relationship manager, she made the change. “It allowed me to see how interesting this world was,” says Mrozinski, who became chief financial officer for the firm’s wealth and Institutional client services.
In 2011, the Tatnall grad was a key leader in the merger of Wilmington Trust and M&T Bank, a $351 million transaction. In 2019, she was named to the American Banker Most Powerful Women in Banking NEXT list, recognizing the top 15 female banking professionals under 40. When Jack Beeson, head of global capital markets, announced his retirement, he asked her to be his successor.
Mrozinski is now on the board of Tatnall, where her two children are students. It’s too early to tell if her daughter will follow in her footsteps, but Mrozinski is determined to bring more minorities into the fold. “We have a long way to go, but we have some great team members committed to it.”
23. Robyn Beck-Gott
Executive Director, Sojourner’s Place
If any Delawarean deserves such famous initials, it’s Robyn Beck-Gott, particularly since when it comes to crisis management, she is notorious. The Sojourner’s Place executive director kicked off her career at the shelter in 2007 as a case manager and became director in 2016, when Sojourner’s was navigating a public crisis. “Let’s say I had major hurdles, which I refused to let deter me because I wanted to be the vehicle for turning the agency around. I didn’t allow anything to distract from the good work we do,” Beck-Gott says. The next crisis she’d weather was just a few years later, as she led the agency through the pandemic. “I had to prepare for a variety of outcomes, considering the severity of the situation,” she says. “While I don’t welcome it, I think I work best in crisis mode.” After such tumult, Beck-Gott just wants to keep doing what she’s doing—keeping the agency on solid foundation. “Being in a position that I can be the difference in people’s lives is what calls me and keeps me here,” she says. “There’s hard work, and there’s heart work. This is both.”
24. Marcia Reed
Owner, Director, Curator, Gallery 37
An old romance brought Marcia Reed to Delaware, but it was new love that made her stay.
After reconnecting with a high school boyfriend—a local painter and gallery owner—Reed still wasn’t sold on moving to the First State. While checking out Delaware’s coastal towns, she kept driving through Milford and thinking, “There is something entirely charming about this little town,” she says. A meeting with the mayor later, she was besotted—and lucky for Milford, too, as Reed has brought her impeccable taste and worldliness to Gallery 37.
“I’ve taught painting workshops all over—Turkey, Italy, France—and I brought those artist relationships with me here,” Reed says. She eyes up her business with her artist’s vision: “I arrange my store like I would a painting, with an eye for color, movement and shape.” When it comes to service, she embodies an old quote from entrepreneur J.C. Penney: “Courteous treatment will make a customer a walking advertisement. It’s really that simple.”
25. Desa Burton
Executive Director, Zip Code Wilmington
Former surface warfare officer and current Zip Code Wilmington executive director Desa Burton has some advice for women on a career schedule: Let it go. “Part of my bias coming from the military was that there was a lockstep path toward success,” she says. “What I realized eventually was that no one else was putting timelines on things. I thought I had to show time in a seat as opposed to acumen in a skill. My advice to women is: Move. Even when you don’t think you’re ready to.” At Zip Code Wilmington, Burton helps people do that—move successfully into the tech world after an intensive coding boot camp. “The best thing about working with Zip Code Wilmington is I have the opportunity to help transform someone’s life in such a small period of time—and not just their life, but the lives of those around them,” she says. Like the young woman who found herself the sole breadwinner in Puerto Rico after her father lost his job in the wake of Hurricane Maria. She came to Wilmington for an in-person boot camp. “She was riding her bike an hour a day to be a cashier at a Kmart. She’d heard of Zip Code from someone, applied, got in, and now is an unbelievable member of our alumni,” Burton says. “I used to not even be able to get through that story without crying.”
26. Gwendoline Angalet
Owner and CEO, GBA Consulting
Five years ago, when Gwendoline Angalet left the private sector to launch her small business, she wasn’t sure she’d make it. “I am just tickled that I’m still surviving and thriving,” Angalet says of GBA Consulting, her management firm that provides professional services to lead and manage change, most notably with a children-and-family focus. “Working with children is about looking to the future,” Angalet says. “What can we do to help them make this world a better place for them, for their families, for all of us? We owe it to them to give them the best possible start.” To that end, Angalet works hard to combat gun violence, and is a driving force for the Delaware Racial Justice Collaborative, which strives to defeat racism in Delaware and root out inequities. The one word that best fits her business philosophy is collaboration. “I have always believed in the power of inclusion,” Angalet says. “We are all in this together, and we shouldn’t work at cross-purposes.” Next to the work, the best thing about being a small business owner is not being beholden to anyone anymore. “I can be clear about what I stand for,” she says. “That’s incredibly liberating.”
27. Tatiana Poladko
Tatiana Poladko has had a bold vision for her company TeenSHARP since its inception in 2009. That vision was to give underprivileged and overlooked students the life-changing experiences that they deserve. TeenSHARP ensures that 100 percent of its program participants gain admission into a four-year college or university. Through TeenSHARP’s support, students can graduate with “less than half of the average national student debt,” Poladko says.
Poladko’s work is strongly personal to her. “While I was not raised in the U.S., I am no stranger to social inequities that gravely limit opportunities,” she says. Giving underprivileged students who may be going through the same challenges that Poladko experienced is fulfilling. “It is my work as an advisor that remains my favorite part of the job,” she says. “I love seeing students evolve into excited learners, curious intellectuals and unapologetically authentic leaders.”
28. Stephanie Cory Gorris
Principal, Stephanie Cory Consulting
Working in nonprofit consulting, Stephanie Cory Gorris’ days are always different. The principal of her firm Stephanie Cory Consulting, she works exclusively with organizations in Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Maryland to help with training and technical assistance. Offering guidance on fundraising and executive job position searches are also part of her services. “I love the variety,” she says. “I love learning about different organizations and being able to help them solve their challenges.” Cory worried the COVID-19 pandemic would dry up her business, but it instead led to more creative thinking and helping organizations navigate uncharted territory with virtual event planning, new funding pathways and more.
29. Shavonne Brathwaite
Executive Director, Mosaic
Shavonne Brathwaite, executive director of Mosaic, has a mind for business and a heart for human services. She started out as a direct support professional/house manager and has since worked her way up to her current role in leadership. Mosaic is a national nonprofit healthcare organization serving more than 5,200 people in 13 states and 750 communities. Brathwaite oversees the services provided for aging adults and those with disabilities, as well as people with autism or mental and behavioral health needs. The goal is to meet individuals where they are and allow them to live as independently as possible.
Although Brathwaite has been the director for five years, her favorite part of the work continues to be connecting with the people Mosaic supports. She says spending time with them “grounds me and reminds me of the important work we do. Every small accomplishment is a victory.” She is happy that the dance parties and birthday celebrations are slowly but surely moving from Zoom to in-person once again.
Brathwaite earned both an MBA (Strayer University) and a doctorate of education in organizational leadership (Wilmington University). She’s passionate about using her expertise to help “train, mold and shape” the next generation of new professionals and leaders, both at Mosaic and as an adjunct professor at Wilmington University.
30. Stephanie Staats
Serving some 6,000 residents each year, YWCA Delaware aided about 7,600 people (mostly women) during the COVID-19 pandemic. Under Stephanie Staats’ leadership for the past six years, the organization has progressed with a more “holistic” vision ensuring that internal systems result in equitable outcomes. “It’s important for us to move forward as an organization serving women, especially those of color,” says Staats, who oversaw the development of the Wo(men) Achieving New Directions program and helped launch YW’s Sexual Assault Response Center— Delaware’s leading provider of sexual assault/domestic violence crisis services. She’s made “great gains” in making sure the organization is accessible to the highest number of people, working in multiple dimensions of women’s lives, from offering basic needs to support systems to get them back on their feet. “We are intentional with our housing, economic empowerment, health and safety, and social justice programs. …You can’t solve one barrier and not the other and still expect women and their families to thrive.”
31. Linda Price
President and Executive Director, Georgetown Chamber of Commerce
Linda Price’s 30 years of banking experience led her to give back to small businesses at the Georgetown Chamber of Commerce. She became the president of the chamber board in January 2020 and executive director in August 2021.
One of Price’s biggest interests is to make sure their members know that the Georgetown Chamber of Commerce is there to support them, especially during the pandemic. Price worked persistently on social media to keep businesses up in running. “That worked really well for us and it showed value to our members,” she says. “We kept things going so that our businesses knew we had their backs as much as we could.”
Growing businesses has always been enjoyable for Price. Becoming a part of the Georgetown Chamber of Commerce was not something she expected, but she is “enjoying it tremendously.” “I get to use the skills that I had working at the bank in helping our small businesses, and if our community is going to grow, it’s going to grow because our businesses are growing,” she adds.
32. Leshell Dennis
Owner, Pamper Me Pink/Absolutely Flawless Women Inc.
Leshell Dennis is passionate about building opportunity and supporting the well-being of Sussex County. A certified happiness life coach, she’s made it her life’s mission to uplift her community through coaching, ministry and her nonprofit, Absolutely Flawless Women, which provides essential needs, such as food, housing, education and emergency resources. The mission, she says, is to show women they “can embrace who they are, define their future and change the world.” The challenges of COVID-19 changed the way Absolutely Flawless reached those in need. So, like many businesses and organizations, they pivoted to a mobile food-delivery model, working tirelessly to provide hundreds of meals each week.
Dennis is also the owner of Pamper My Pink in Rehoboth, a unique spa boutique offering noninvasive body contouring services, women’s apparel and accessories, which opened this year. Her intention is to help women “lose weight so that they can feel better about themselves, from the inside out,” she says.
33. Amy Hughes
Garden Center Manager, Lord’s Landscaping Inc.
Starting (almost) from scratch, Amy Hughes bought Lord’s Landscaping Inc. from her father five years ago and has been successfully managing the business ever since. Hughes has redone every part of the 10-acre property, including a building new barn and updating every greenhouse, all while tripling sales.
Giving back to the community is an act Hughes values most. Since she took over Lord’s Landscaping, the business has been involved in several charity events. “You get to work every day, but you have a bigger purpose than that, and we’re going to use it to give back to everybody in our community,” Hughes says.
Hughes’ biggest values in her company are “growing for good,” helping her community and taking care of her staff. Last summer, Lord’s Landscaping brought in a whole new staff of 46 employees who Hughes calls “incredible.” “I feel like I have 46 employees who I cannot do this without,” she says. “I have the best creative staff ever.”
34. Kim Willson
Partner, Ruggerio Willson & Associates
Kim Willson may have “stumbled” into lobbying at age 19, but she’s been walking confidently through the field ever since.
First working part-time for the Delaware Volunteer Firemen’s Association (DVFA) administration while attending Wesley College, she met Sen. Tom Carper at an event. Soon, she became his state scheduler and executive assistant. “I don’t think I realized back then what it would mean for me in terms of opening doors and helping me find a passion and working in politics and government,” she says.
Today, Willson is a partner at Ruggerio Willson & Associates, a Dover-based consulting firm focused on government and legislative affairs. The firm’s 40-plus clients run the gamut of industries. “Every day is different, managing clients and helping them interact with the government in one form or fashion,” Willson says. That may be through a legislative or regulatory initiative, or “frankly, sometimes [it’s just] helping them connect with the correct community partners or stakeholders to accomplish their goal,” she says. Seeing positive progress enacted from her work is what keeps her going.
She credits a dedicated team as well as a strong family support system that allows her to balance being a mom and fulfilling her passion.
35. Kristin Moore
Senior Vice President, Director, Corporate Trust, WSFS Institutional Services
When Kristin Moore was a child, her father matched every dollar she saved. At age 12, she purchased stock in Mattel and Delaware Power & Light. “I still have my first two dividend checks,” Moore says. Her entrance into corporate trusts was not as carefully planned; she applied for the wrong job. “It was the best accident of my life,” she says. “I was at the bottom, and I just learned and worked my way up, over, through and around.”
That was in 1994, and today Moore manages a team of 23 associates. “Every day is different,” she says. New clients call, legislation changes and transactions require problem-solving skills. Moore also served on an implementation team that has spearheaded multiple technology projects to streamline operations.
The Leadership Delaware graduate is now a board member of the organization. She’s also board chair of TeenSHARP, which helps increase underrepresented students’ access to college and develop student leaders. Inside and outside of work, Moore promotes an entrepreneurial spirit. “We tell our clients that they are our partners,” she says. “We want to help them grow in innovative ways.”
36. Michelle Washington
CEO, Women of More
Michelle Washington is more than a label, but she didn’t feel that way after 13 years in an abusive marriage. Once she left, she became a “divorced, single mom.” “No one ever calls you a married mom,” she notes. One Saturday morning, she says, God told her: “Michelle, you are more than your trauma. You are more than your tragedy. You are more than a title. You are a ‘woman of more.’”
The pastor’s child decided to share that message with Women of More, a sophisticated digital magazine that helps its 40,000-plus readers move past daily roles and pursue personal goals. It’s viewed in more than 168 countries.
“We don’t have to wait to become empty-nesters to do what we want to do,” says Washington, who leads a virtual “morning rally” on Thursdays. She also mentors women in Baylor Women’s Correctional Institution. “There are some powerful women who are incarcerated,” Washington says. She emphasizes that they must realize that they are more than a label. “If I would have stayed in the mindset of being an abused woman,” Washington says, “you and I wouldn’t be talking today.”
37. Viji Vanamamalai
Owner/Operator, Corporate Caterers
Viji Vanamamalai put her career on hold while raising her three kids, but when they were grown, she missed the daily challenges that kept her on her toes through motherhood. She was confident she could put her management skills to use by running her own company.
In 2016, she started Corporate Caterers, a franchise that provides full-service catering to businesses in Delaware, New Jersey, Maryland and Pennsylvania. Vanamamalai enjoys the fast-paced atmosphere that comes with serving breakfast and lunch to professionals while still allowing her time to spend with family since there are typically no nights or weekends hours. However, when businesses went virtual during the pandemic, their catering needs slowed. Vanamamalai had to come up with ways to keep afloat and started catering for weddings and parties. These events added a different dynamic that Vanamamalai is tackling head-on.
Vanamamalai values her employees and says that having a reliable team is paramount to their success. She misses “the biggest challenge of all— motherhood,” but applies the same principles: patience, adaptability and care to “raising” her business. She wants every woman in business to know that their dreams are possible, reminding them that they “are stronger than you think.”
38. Brionna Denby
Associate Attorney, Cohen Seglias Pallas Greenhall & Furman PC
Brionna L. Denby, an associate at Cohen Seglias, advises individuals and corporations on government inquiries and investigations at the federal, state and local government levels. Denby also defends allegations of wrongdoing such as embezzlement, bribery and misuse of funding. She leads Title IX investigations for educational institutions, advising those entities on policies and procedures that will enable a fair and impartial process for all parties while relying on her previous experience as a high school teacher to navigate complex issues. She enjoys working in the internal investigations and white-collar defense practice groups because it allows her to provide solutions to complex problems and make valuable recommendations for improvement to her clients.
As an alumna of Spelman College, a HBCU in Atlanta, Denby developed her motivation and work ethic from her college experience. She has served in several leadership roles, including as President, for the Delaware Barristers Association, an affinity bar association for African American legal professionals. Denby, a Wilmington native, has a keen understanding of the governmental process and the importance of impartiality and fairness developed through her previous service with New Castle County government and the Delaware Department of Justice.
Striving to ensure diversity and inclusion issues are raised, Denby amplifies the voices of the people in the community who are not always heard, through her work with the Wilmington Civil Rights Commission and as a trustee member for the Delaware Historical Society. “My message to youth is to consider aspirations and careers that may not be visible in your immediate network. Growing up in Wilmington, I didn’t know any black attorneys but just because I didn’t see it, didn’t mean that I couldn’t do it. I just kept taking small steps toward my goals and was determined to finish what I started.”
39. Rebecca Trent
CEO, Journeys Counseling
At age 17, Rebecca Trent gave birth to a son with mental health conditions. She quickly exhausted her insurance reimbursements and went on Medicaid. “I was treated like I was an idiot; I didn’t feel heard,” she says. Her child became the catalyst for her entering the mental health field. “We need to listen to people and be the agents of change—not just take the money,” she maintains.
At Wilmington University, Trent earned a bachelor’s degree in behavioral science, a master’s in counseling, and, later, a doctorate in prevention science. She did it all while raising four children with her husband.
Trent started Journeys as a small private practice. It now has about 40 employees and contractors, serving both children and adults. Trent’s passion is helping at-risk youth. Through contracts with the state, Journeys provides mobile outpatient and therapeutic support in the community.
Trent is determined to help prevent and stop gun violence, and she also specializes in addiction work. “We look at what really happened to people to get them where they are—not just what they did or what’s wrong with them,” she says. “We have to look at things through a trauma-informed lens.”
40. Valerie Middlebrooks
Director and Department Chair, Tax and Small Business Department, Belfint, Lyons & Shuman
Math can make many people anxious. Not Valerie Middlebrooks. “I understood it,” says Middlebrooks, who began her accounting education with high school courses. But it wasn’t until she worked part time in the University of Wisconsin’s career planning and placement center that she considered a future in the field. “Accounting majors all get jobs,” the director told her. “They pay good salaries, and they all have benefits.”
However, Middlebrooks’ position at Belfint, Lyons & Shuman involves more than numbers. “It’s an interpretation of law and problem-solving,” she explains. Elected shareholder in 2020, she meets clients face-to-face or virtually. “We can’t do a good job without being heavily involved in discussions with our clients,” she points out.
Middlebrooks takes the same all-in approach to mentoring young accounting professionals. An active volunteer, she works with nonprofits focused on tax matters and talks to students. “We have a professional responsibility to make the world a better place,” she says. “We should give back in whatever capacity we can.”