Women in Power
Every woman – young or old – needs a role model. Allow us to introduce you to 21 role models based right here in the Palm Beaches. These women have climbed the way to the top of their respective industries and are impacting our area in tremendous ways. So whether you’re just starting high school or celebrating your 60th, these are the women you’ll want to be like when you grow up.
Special thanks to the Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa
THE LEGAL STRATEGIST
Los Angeles-bred lawyer Wendy Sartory Link settled multimillion-dollar cases before starting her own business law firm in West Palm Beach. Link, 49, recently marked the 18-year anniversary of her firm with husband Scott Link and partner David Ackerman, of Ackerman, Link & Sartory. Link serves on the Board of Directors of the Economic Council of Palm Beach County, District Board of Trustees for Palm Beach State College and is president-elect of the Chamber of Commerce of the Palm Beaches.
ON BEING A FEMALE ATTORNEY: “The generation of women who were before me did me a lot of favors by paving the way and made my life much easier as a female lawyer.”
HER PASSION: “I love getting to know the business my clients are in and learning a lot about their business so that I can offer them not only business advice but strategy advice.” the uncertainty of starting her own law firm:“[Working for someone else,] there is a great comfort in knowing that as long as you show up every day and do a good job you’ll get a paycheck.”
HER ROLE MODEL: “My dad was very involved in the community and he absolutely believed that you had to give back to your community to make it a better place.”
Alyson Seligman doesn’t just work to get her clients press – she is the press. The 34-year-old president of Seligman Brand Strategies – a PR, marketing and social media firm whose clients include the City of West Palm Beach, Jupiter Medical Center and the Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County – is also the founder of The Average Girl’s Guide, a lifestyle blog. But Seligman’s blog has proved anything but average, attracting more than 75 media pitches a day, garnering coverage in Time and Glamour, and drawing collaborations with brands like T.J.Maxx and Target.
THE POWER OF BLOGGING: “I cannot get over the friends and women I’ve met – particularly some of the deep things I’ve shared where women connected with me who had no one to talk to, and now they know they’re not alone.”
FAMILY LIFE: “What I’m doing might seem like a one-woman show but there is someone behind that. … I have an extraordinarily supportive husband.”
GRATITUDE: “I look back at myself in my 20s and in my first career, and I never envisioned this life that I have. … I feel really grateful for the journey.”
THE ART CURATOR
Debra Onessimo opened her eponymously named art gallery in 2003 and has since gained an international following for her eclectic taste that includes artists Alan Wolton and Jürgen Görg and sculptors like Alex Kveton. The business owner, who has more than 25 years of experience in the art world, attracts nearly 100 submissions a week and has grand plans on the horizon – an expansion to her current, Palm Beach Gardens location and the opening of a second gallery in Miami.
TAKING THAT LEAP: “I just never believed that I couldn’t do it because I was successful in everything that I had done.”
ON CREATIVITY: “The arts are what separate man from animals. Beauty and expression bring civility to a society. The arts are not luxury, they are necessity. … We all have a certain amount of creative energy, it just gets used up in different ways.”
OVERCOMING UNCERTAINTY: “The whole 2008 thing really rocked my world, knowing that I could do everything right and that I could still lose my business. I’m more cautious now than I’ve ever been, and I’d like to change that. I just view the world a little bit differently. I don’t feel as invincible. I invest more cautiously. I negotiate harder.”
The HOUSE HUNTRESS
When Ava Van de Water covered business and real estate journalism, she always wanted to know who owned the houses she wrote about. So after 20 years in journalism, she transitioned to real estate and never looked back. As executive vice president and broker of Brown Harris Stevens of Palm Beach, she oversees sales, marketing and development, and more than 50 real estate agents. She is also past president of the Palm Beach Board of Realtors.
ON PALM BEACH: “It will always maintain its value and its charm. People come here for a reason.” ON THE INDUSTRY: “You have to know your market, you have to know the number crunching, you have to be able to communicate with very high net-worth individuals.” PERKS OF THE JOB: “It’s just fun. You never get stale. It’s kind of like journalism – every day I went to work and I felt like I learned something new.” HER ROLE MODEL: “I probably had several role models, but the biggest one was my mom. She passed away 10 years ago but always was very encouraging.”
THE MONEY MANAGER
Paying her way through college by working at a local bank, Debra L. Vasilopoulos had a humble start to what would become a 30-year career in the finance industry. Vasilopoulos, now 54, is Palm Beach County Sabadell Bank & Trust’s regional president, where she is responsible for overseeing all areas of the private banking and wealth management divisions in the Palm Beach and North Palm Beach offices. The Boston native resides in Tequesta and is an active board member of United Way of Palm Beach.
A TYPICAL DAY: “Each day is different, which I consider a good thing. My priorities change and being able to balance things is very important in the field I’m in.” LEADERSHIP: “I’ve always considered myself a take-charge type person. I like to be up front organizing and coordinating to make sure we’re making progress.” OVERCOMING CHALLENGES: “The biggest challenge in my career thus far was the financial crisis that the world went through in 2008. … I thought it was a great learning experience.” HER ROLE MODELS: “The types of people that inspire me are those that, against all odds, make it through the challenging times with grace and dignity.”
THE MEDIA MOGUL
Tamra FitzGerald mixes Midwestern modesty with big business to get great results for her clients. FitzGerald, 51, is president of Venue Marketing Group, a company that represents some of the Palm Beaches’ most well-known institutions – International Polo Club Palm Beach, The Gardens Mall, Loggerhead Marinelife Center – and dozens of other high-end clients from New York City, where Venue got its start.
THE BIG APPLE: “I worked at an advertising agency in New York City. Because I had business from New York, it was just a matter of opening my own. I felt there was a need here, coming from such a big market. We still have those same clients 26 years later.” MIDWESTERN CHARM: “I’ve never been in business to get rich. I grew up on a farm in Kansas. What drives me is not financial success but making a difference. I know it sounds a little cliché, but money does not make you happy.” THE FUTURE: “Our clients have really seen results from our work. I would love to think that Venue will live on beyond me.”
Gayle Landen has segued a powerhouse-player past into a voluminous volunteer career at age 70. Landen is president of the YWCA Palm Beach County; commander of the Commandery of the Palm Beaches, Sovereign Order of St. John of Jerusalem, Knights Hospitaller; a board member of Executive Women of the Palm Beaches; and a winner of this year’s Women’s Chamber of Commerce of Palm Beach County Giraffe Awards.
PAYING IT FORWARD: “Volunteering is my passion. I very much believe that if you live in the community, then it’s your obligation to give back and make it the best community it can be.” 11TH-CENTURY ORDER: “Being commander of the Commandery of the Palm Beaches is the capstone of my volunteer life. It is summed up in the words ‘pro fide, pro utilitate hominum’ – for faith, for service to humanity.” LIFE AFTER RETIREMENT: “The bottom line for why I do what I do: I’m retired. I’ve had a very successful career, and I want to turn my success into significance.”
THE PATIO PARTNERS
The owners of Island Living & Patio, Karen Brams and Karen Kirk have helped Palm Beachers build their dream backyards since 2006. Both 53, Brams handles the business side while Kirk, an interior designer, handles the décor side.
GOOD KARMA: “We do a lot of community work, a lot of charitable work. We make a point to do the American Red Cross House each year. ... We donate all our leftover fabric from our custom orders to a local charity called Shephard’s Quilt Team. They handmake quilts and ship all over the U.S. to people in need of knowing someone cares,” Brams says. SELF-MADE: “We never borrowed a single dollar from our husbands or the bank. We only built our business with profit,” Brams says. MOTTO: “My philosophy is old school: the customer is always right,” Brams says. Kirk adds, “It’s kind of fun when you can be out in the community and see your clients smiling.” ROLE MODELS: “We teach our children that if you do one good thing a day it will come back to you,” Brams says. Kirk adds, “You can empower yourself and stand on your own two feet. Never depend on anybody else for your happiness.”
THE PUBLIC SERVANT
As the deputy county administrator for Palm Beach County, Verdenia Baker, 55, strives daily to make Palm Beach a comfortable place for residents and businesses to call home. Through her leadership and team efforts, Baker has helped to implement waterfront improvements, and other major projects including retaining Office Depot in the county and attracting The Scripps Research Institute to Jupiter. And she’s not done yet – Baker plans to apply for the county’s top-dog position next year when her boss, County Administrator Robert Weisman, retires.
BRINGING SCRIPPS TO PALM BEACH: “Our goal was to grow that industry for Palm Beach County. Because of that, a number of other industries located here – finance, aerospace engineering. We want to continue to diversify.” ON LEADERSHIP: “I believe in empowering your employees to do their job, and then holding them accountable for it. I have been the benefactor of that. I know that it works.” FORTITUDE: “Women should always be able to maintain their femininity, but they also have to be able to carry their weight in any situation. You have to be competitive.”
Whether working in the Everglades or mentoring young women, environmental lawyer Michelle Diffenderfer seems to make time for it all – except sleep. The 44-year-old Jamaican native has been a shareholder/attorney at Lewis, Longman & Walker, P.A. for more than 18 years, a journey that even saw a 10-year case brought to the Supreme Court. Diffenderfer won an ATHENA Award in 2008, which she received in part for starting the non-profit Girls II Women.
WORKING MOM: “I was pregnant with my first child and there’s a picture of me standing on the Supreme Court steps with my partners and our clients with a very big belly.” WOMEN IN LAW: “My experience as a woman in the minority was quite positive entering into the profession. They [the law community] were figuring out that women make great litigators and interacted well with the jury.” ON BEING A ROLE MODEL: “It’s great. What I try most is to be accessible, no matter how busy I am.” INDEPENDENCE: “I looked up to my mom as a little girl. I didn’t know any lawyers, but my mom supported us by herself. I grew up knowing I wanted to support myself.”
Rachel Docekal’s goal is to stem the stigma of addiction while saving lives from it. Docekal, 44, is CEO of the Hanley Center Foundation, the non-profit arm of a four-campus, 250-bed addiction-treatment facility that stretches from Boca Raton to Vero Beach. Docekal, who says both she and her husband Steven have addiction in their families, has made the foundation’s mission her passion.
PERSONAL CRUSADE: “This is work that I was drawn to both from that [personal] standpoint as well as from the standpoint that it’s an important cause in this community. I really wanted to help the community understand the disease of addiction so that more people would feel comfortable coming forward and getting treatment.” HELP AND HOPE: “We save lives every day. We mend families every day. We see the stories of hope every day. I think that every single time we raise money to get treatment for those who otherwise would be unable to afford it, we’ve made a difference.” OVERRIDING GOAL: “We want to fight the stigma.”
In November, Laurie George, 45, made history and became the first female CEO of the United Way of Palm Beach County. Today, she oversees the 85-year-old organization that invests in more than 60 local non-profits that help support education, financial stability and health.
ON APPLYING FOR THE UNITED WAY CEO POSITION: “They wanted to see if I had the toughness. … I had to prove that you can be soft and strong at the same time. It was a chance.” MAKING A DIFFERENCE: “There are 64,000 children that go to bed hungry in our Palm Beach footprint. How do we tap into some of those gated communities where they might not be aware of these needs? Part of the solution is really figuring out how to get out and tell those stories.” LEANING ON EACH OTHER: “You have to experiment with new ideas and trust your partners.”
When Sharon Gill left Jamaica for the U.S. at age 21, she had $56 in her pocket. Decades later, she’s made a name for herself. The Lake Worth resident, 55, is COO of Gill Law Firm and founder of Oasis Compassion Agency, which helps the underprivileged with a food pantry, housing, job placement and skills development.
THE POWER OF WORKING HARD: “As an immigrant, I come from a hard-working place. What someone might call a struggle here, I see it as a challenge that I have to overcome.” ON STARTING OASIS: “The end game for me has always been to get people to think differently about themselves and put them back into society as productive people.” GRATIFICATION: “A woman once said to me, ‘Thank you for not just giving me a box of food and for asking more of me.’ That’s all I needed. If she could say that to me, then I knew I was onto something.” HER KEY TO SUCCESS: “I have found the difference between those who make it and those who don’t make it is the amount of time they have invested in themselves.”
Penny Murphy practically grew up inside Pioneer Linens, the luxury linen boutique owned and operated by her grandfather and father. Murphy, now 66, didn’t realize then that one day she would become company president. Under her watch, the 102-year-old store added e-commerce and grew into an international brand. Today, Murphy’s daughters and son work with the boutique, too.
100+ YEARS OF EXCELLENCE: “It’s a generational thing – people come in because their grandparents shopped here. … It’s very special the attachment people have to the store.” SURVIVING A TOUGH ECONOMY: “All the sudden, it was 2008 and here we were going through that crash again, and we were four years away from [our 100-year] anniversary. … And I’m like, ‘do not let this business crash on my watch.’” BEST PARTS OF THE JOB: “It’s wonderful to work around really beautiful things, [and] I love being with my family every day. I’m really lucky.” WHAT’S NEXT: “We are planning to add a hostess gift category to our collection this fall.”
THE CHAMPION OF CHANGE
Jocelyn Skolnik’s immigration journey took her from Guatemala to Jupiter to Washington, D.C. Skolnik, 29, is executive director of the El Sol Neighborhood Resource Center and was honored by the White House as a 2013 “Champion of Change” for her innovative programs that help local migrant workers.
ON BEING HONORED AT THE WHITE HOUSE: “The award is given to ordinary citizens doing extraordinary things. I had the chance to go to the White House. I had the opportunity to meet other people who were doing extraordinary work all over the nation.” BUILDING A BRIDGE: “We have started to build a lot of places for integration that we didn’t have before. Now, you have people who may never have crossed paths sitting at a table together.” BORN IN GUATEMALA: “I was 18 when I moved here. I didn’t personally experience anything negative, but I heard stories of others that did – drastic stories. My goal is to provide an attitude of positive integration into the community, and I think we’ve taken some big steps to accomplish that.”
As the first female vice president of development and external affairs at Florida Power & Light Company, on paper Pamela Rauch reads like a powerhouse of strength. As head of local government and community relations, and economic and new generation development, Rauch’s leadership style is approachable and service oriented. Rauch, 50, received an ATHENA Award in 2012 for her work and mentorship with several organizations in the community.
ON FPL’S MIDDLE SCHOOL MENTORING PROGRAM: “The idea was to let kids know the different opportunities that exist in this company and other companies in the community. An 11-year-old kid might hear about a power company and think the only available job is to be out on the truck fixing power lines.” HABITS FOR SUCCESS: “I’m actually one of those weird people that enjoys being organized. I really get a thrill by knowing that I accomplished everything in a day. I’ve been that way since I was 10.” ON RECEIVING AN ATHENA AWARD: “It was really more a statement about all the things this company is doing to promote women and demonstrate that women can be very successful leaders in the corporate world as well as in the community.”
Samantha Schosberg Feuer, 38, isn’t running out of steam anytime soon. The former prosecutor, assistant attorney general and South Florida bureau chief at the attorney general’s office can now add another title to her name: Palm Beach County Circuit Court Judge. From Miami to Palm Beach, Feuer has advocated on behalf of those who can’t advocate for themselves. When she takes the bench in January, her focus will be on fairness – giving everyone a fair shot, she says.
PLANNING AHEAD: “If you go into a courtroom and you’re not prepared, and you go to deliver an opening statement and you’re not prepared, people are going to see right through you. You always need to be prepared for whatever you do in life.” SHARING RESPONSIBILITY: “I look at my family as a small corporation – I do the morning shift; [my husband] does the evening shift.” LEAN IN, LET GO: “You’re not going to be the best at everything all of the time. You’re not going to be the best mother, the best lawyer, the best wife. If you’re doing well at two out of the three, you’re doing pretty well. As women, we need to learn to not be so hard on ourselves.”
Rita Craig’s father, mother, grandmother and 10 siblings taught her to appreciate diversity. Craig, 59, is president of Top Tier Leadership, an international training and coaching service. The wife and mother is president of the Florida Speakers Association and winner of the Human Resource Association of Palm Beach County’s inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award.
ON HER LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD: “That, to me, really was one of the most rewarding forms of recognition I’ve ever gotten because it was from people in my field – my peers.” FULL HOUSE: “I lived with my father, mother and grandmother, seven brothers and three sisters. Living with 13 distinct personalities with different likes and dislikes prepared me to work in the people business.” ASK, DON’T TELL: “A coach’s job is to ask questions. A mentor tells you what you should do. I’ve coached thousands upon thousands of people, from Microsoft to small mom-and-pops, to get them to think it through. It doesn’t matter where I go globally, people have the same challenges.”
THE POLITICAL LEADER
Commissioner Priscilla A. Taylor made history as Palm Beach County Board of County Commissioners’ second-ever mayor. The native Floridian, 64, was elected to the Florida House of Representatives in 2004 (and was later re-elected twice as the District 84 representative). She also has more than 25 years of business and leadership experience in the insurance industry.
ON SPEARHEADING THE INAUGURAL PALM BEACH COUNTY MAYOR’S BALL: “We profited over $250,000 [to benefit the homeless]. It brought so much awareness.” BUSINESS GROWTH: “Small business contributes 75 percent of the jobs in the country. If anyone has a desire to own a small business, I think to get the support from the county is critical. We have a small business department – they hold workshops trying to educate people on how to prepare a business plan.” FUTURE OF PALM BEACH COUNTY: “We are a great county – a beautiful county. … I think if we can get the industries here and create more jobs, improve on our school systems, on our education quality for our children, I think we can definitely be a force to be reckoned with.”
THE MISSION MARKETER
Stacey Brandt, 37, of Jupiter Medical Center began her career as the marketing coordinator and proved her talent time and again to earn the title of vice president for marketing and strategic business development. Now, Brandt rallies her team to get the press, businesses and the community on board with the center’s health and wellness mission.
THE POWER OF A MENTOR: “I try my hardest and do the best I can do, but personally, I needed a little push into the next step. [CEO John Couris] believed in me and saw my potential.” ON CAREGIVING: “When you are able to take care of a person and calm them down and show them their dignity, to me that’s a wonderful thing. Even though I’m not a caregiver, that always attracted me to the industry.” JUGGLING WORK & FAMILY: “You have to take time for yourself. Even in the craziness of everything, you do have to put yourself and your health first.” APPLAUSE: “Appreciate and celebrate other’s successes. To me, that’s part of being a good friend and a good colleague.”