Baltimore Sun's 25 women to watch in 2016

50 Women to Watch 2014

Keep an eye on these 50 women; they're doing special things

The Baltimore Sun canvassed readers, sources and leaders to determine the area’s most intriguing movers and shakers of 2014. Here's our list:

Keshia M. Pollack

35, associate professor of health and policy and management at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health

Keshia Pollack spends a lot of time thinking about kids walking to school on Baltimore streets, service members riding in Humvees on the battlefield and Major League Baseball players in the line of a fastball.

She's spent her career making sure there are safe and healthy environments for them, through better sidewalks, more stable equipment and even shock-absorbing masks.

When she was in college she planned to go to medical school and treat individuals, but was moved by a class in public health to expand her reach to just about anyone who faces injury while working, playing or just walking.

"In medicine you can have a great impact one on one" she says. "Public health is a field for people who care about the greater good of human beings. It's about promoting real and lasting effects through policy changes."

That means not just doing the research, but translating it for decision-makers around the state and country. Sometimes it's as basic as how to set off bike lanes from auto traffic.

To that end, Pollack recently became interim director of the Health Impact Project, a national initiative of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts.

The group promotes use of health assessments to uncover ways of improving public health in nontraditional areas such as transportation, housing and natural resource planning. The model is already gaining recognition, she says.

For example, her research was considered by federal officials in charge of the federal food stamp program, called SNAP. Pollack found program cuts could lead to increased spending on public health programs and worsen public health because people without access to good food could develop diet-related health problems such as diabetes.

Pollack's work tackles problems in so many ways that it "greatly broadens what we do in public health," says Ellen J. MacKenzie, chair of Hopkins' Department of Health Policy and Management.

Pollack's enthusiasm and natural leadership abilities influence policymakers and students alike, MacKenzie says. They even have had an impact on her colleagues. At a recent department retreat, Pollack insisted on an exercise break.

"She had video and we were all dancing around," MacKenzie says. "She convinced all of us to do that."

— Meredith Cohn

Kim Martini

47, director of business development, Armada Hoffler

Virginia-based Armada Hoffler plans to break ground this spring at 3200 St. Paul St., its first Baltimore project as a developer. Kim Martini, a former mortgage banker who scouts deals for the company, says the real estate investment trust wants to boost its development presence here, expanding from its role as a construction contractor. (The firm built much of Harbor East.)

Building relationships can be tricky in male-dominated real estate. "I set the boundaries up front and early," she says. "You don't ever want to have them get the wrong read."

— Natalie Sherman

Tracy L. Steedman

50, partner, Niles Barton & Wilmer LLP

Attorney Tracy Steedman has written the book on construction law — literally. Steedman, whose cases involve high-profile developments including the Horseshoe Casino, co-edited the new American Bar Association guide to subcontracting.

The fast-talking partner says experience as a bartender has given her an edge in court and the skill to "talk to people on their level," she says. "You hear people's problems all the time in bars and you work long hours, which is exactly what I do now. The only difference is now I can be sued for malpractice."

— Natalie Sherman

Pamela Gilmour

60, CEO, Financial Fitness

Since launching Financial Fitness in 2010, Pamela Gilmour has helped a growing client base by advocating for financial and physical health.

An accountant and financial planner who does yoga, runs and hikes, she sees parallels between the two arenas. She tells clients that ignoring health will cost money and makes referrals to trainers and doctors.

On the flip side, paying attention to accumulating wealth can reduce stress and lead to a healthier lifestyle. "I am passionate about fitness and money," Gilmour says. "I look at my mission as continuing to impact people, families and small businesses, one at a time."

— Lorraine Mirabella

Dr. Briana Walton

44, urogynecologist, Anne Arundel Medical Center

When it comes to urology and gynecology, "there used to be a separation of church and state," says Dr. Briana Walton of Anne Arundel Medical Center.

But she's broken through that wall into the emerging field of urogynecology, which has Walton doing everything from delivering babies to performing pelvic reconstruction surgery. Walton also co-hosts the hospital's "docsTALK," a health talk show.

When she takes off her white coat, the Gambrills resident hits the roller rink. In order not to fall, "you really have to concentrate," she says, "and it takes your mind off of everything else."

— Pamela Wood

Taylor Cummings

20, lacrosse player, University of Maryland

By the end of her sophomore season, Taylor Cummings had reached the pinnacle of college women's lacrosse. The Ellicott City native became the first sophomore to win the Tewaaraton Award as the best player in the women's college game.

She led the No. 1 Terps to the NCAA championship in May and was the tournament's Most Valuable Player. Then awards poured in: the Tewaaraton, the Honda Award, the Intercollegiate Women's Lacrosse Coaches' Association National Midfielder of the Year and an ESPY nomination for Best Female College Athlete.

Cummings, a two-time Baltimore Sun Female Athlete of the Year at McDonogh School, believes hard work has driven her success.

"I think it's just the work ethic that my parents have instilled in me since I was little. They've really taught me that to get where I want to be, I'm going to have to put in the effort," she says. "If I didn't work as hard as I did and if I didn't have the people ... to support me, I wouldn't be where I am today."

Cummings has more to accomplish. Most of her goals are team-oriented. She strives to keep the Terps on top for the rest of her career and, as a U.S. National Team player, wants to help win a third straight World Cup title in 2017.

"She's never content. She never settles. She's always pushing herself to be the best that she can be," Maryland coach Cathy Reese says.

"One thing we're going to see even more from Taylor this year is leadership. ... It's a challenge to her to really step up and see what we're capable of. No doubt she's going to push the people beside her to be better and try to take our team to another level this year."

An avid country music fan, Cummings interrupted her summer training with a few concerts. She also worked summer camps and cross trained with hiking, water skiing and wake boarding at Deep Creek Lake.

A finance major thinking about law school, she hopes always to stay close to lacrosse — perhaps, she says, with a career at Under Armour.

— Katherine Dunn

Cynthia Chavez

28, co-founder, Baltimore Dance Crews Project

In 2008, Cynthia Chavez was a fledgling teacher struggling to connect to her economically disadvantaged students — until she performed a hip-hop routine at their holiday concert.

"After that performance, something altered," Chavez says. "It provided an opportunity for my students to get to know me and for me to get to know them."

That inspired Chavez and a friend to found the Baltimore Dance Crews Project, which uses hip-hop dance to strengthen teacher-student relationships. The group has a 30-member student performance team, conducts workshops and operates two school clubs. As Chavez puts it: "We're allowing kids to shine in a way they never imagined they could."

— Mary Carole McCauley

Rachel Garbow Monroe

45, president and CEO, Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation Inc.

Thanks to the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, 5,000 more Baltimore elementary schoolchildren are settling into reading nooks with a good book. They're playing educational games on computers. And their parents are picking up groceries and donated books to take home.

Rachel Garbow Monroe, the foundation's president and CEO, helped create the Weinberg Library initiative, which has constructed libraries stocked with computers and books in nine elementary schools. Fifteen more are planned.

It's one of the many ways the foundation is helping realize its founders' visions to meet the needs of the poor.

"She's very dedicated to caring for the poor and the vulnerable," retired Baltimore Circuit Judge Ellen M. Heller, chair of the foundation, says of Monroe. "She's an incredible leader and an innovator."

Under Monroe's leadership, the foundation invests in programs to aid the homeless and the elderly, to make Maryland "the best place to grow old," she says.

"I have the best job in Baltimore, but that doesn't mean it's always easy," says Monroe.

The Northern Virginia native earned an MBA from Northwestern University. She was working in the private sector in Chicago when she married and had her first child.

She started looking for nonprofit jobs closer to her parents, and in 1998 joined The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore. Seven years later, the Weinberg Foundation tapped her to be its first COO.

In 2010, Monroe was named president and CEO. She works with the board to manage the foundation's $2 billion in assets and annual grants of $100 million; $30 million to $40 million of that aids Baltimore-area nonprofits.  

Monroe, who lives in Stevenson, balances her responsibilities with spending time with her husband and their three children, ages 16,14 and 12.

She's grateful that "serendipity" led her to a challenging, rewarding career.

When young people seek her guidance, she says: "Work really hard and be kind."

— Julie Scharper

Laura Lippman

55, novelist

Crime novelist Laura Lippman might never have been more in tune with the cultural zeitgeist than she is now.

She attended the New York movie premiere of the adaptation of her 2003 novel, "Every Secret Thing." She posted a photo of herself without makeup on Facebook, inspiring a craze that raised more than $13.1 million for cancer research in the U.K., according to British newspapers. And she's working on her 21st novel, a retelling of "To Kill a Mockingbird."

"I'm interested in the conditions under which our culture allocates second chances," she says. "Who gets one, and how, and why?"

— Mary Carole McCauley

Carolyn W. Colvin

72, acting commissioner, Social Security Administration

When President Barack Obama nominated Carolyn W. Colvin to lead the Social Security Administration in June, he picked a candidate who has seen the Woodlawn-based agency from every angle. After all, Colvin started there as a clerk in 1963 and has served as acting commissioner since early last year.

Once confirmed, the former aide to William Donald Schaefer will lend a voice to the debate over the program's long-term solvency. "The scope of what we do is truly enormous," Colvin says, but "quite often I have led ... organizations through periods of change and uncertainty."

— John Fritze

Dr. Barbara Hutchinson

58, president and CEO, Chesapeake Cardiac Care

Heart disease and poor sleep habits are epidemics for Americans. Dr. Barbara Hutchinson aims to tackle both in her Annapolis-based practice, where she has cardiac monitoring technology and a sleep lab.

She tries to take a whole-health approach to improve her patients' quality of life. "You cannot just treat the disease," says Hutchinson.

A native of Tobago who lives in Bowie, Hutchinson regularly returns home to offer cardiac care, where her specialty is scarce. And she celebrates her heritage by cooking West Indian dishes and performing in a steel drum band, Sounds of Steel.

— Pamela Wood

Danielle DiFerdinando

27, founder, Danielle Nicole

The designer of the Alexa tote bag is working to launch shoe and jewelry lines, plus several collaborations.

"The most rewarding feeling ... is seeing a girl carrying my bag knowing that it has helped her feel stylish, confident and cool," says Danielle DiFerdinando.

Her drive is no surprise — she began selling her bags at Bergdorf Goodman as a freshman at the Fashion Institute of Technology. The Ellicott City native, now based in New York, has attracted the likes of Oprah Winfrey and retailers such as Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus.

"My goal," she says, "is to be the next major fashion name."

— John-John Williams IV

Del. Kathy Szeliga

53, House minority whip

Kathy Szeliga was halfway through her first term as a state delegate when she helped overthrow the leadership of the House Republican Caucus last year. As part of a band of newly elected Republicans seeking a shift, Szeliga and House Minority Leader Nic Kipke displaced a seven-year GOP leadership team.

Though a freshman, Szeliga gave crucial insights into lawmaking. "We all know it's the staffers that do a lot of heavy lifting," she says, laughing. "Fortunately, the whole caucus has come back together and we don't have any division."

Now, Szeliga, a business owner and married mother of two adult sons, might face her own wave of newcomers seeking change. Only 24 of the 43 Republicans in the House of Delegates are on the ballot in November, but Szeliga is undaunted.

"I'm excited," says Szeliga, who represents parts of Baltimore and Harford counties. "We are going to have some really new and dynamic people coming in."

— Erin Cox

Eboni Preston-Laurent

28, senior manager of diversity and inclusion, US Lacrosse

A challenge for Eboni Preston-Laurent is that she is the first US Lacrosse exec tasked with diversifying a predominantly white sport. "There's really no template," she says.

But that hasn't stopped the former goalie at Westminster High and St. Bonaventure (and daughter of Baltimore Sun columnist Mike Preston) from helping establish a grant program to promote lacrosse and partnering with Coaches Across America to target underserved communities.

Lacrosse is expanding, she says: "It's not as much of a surprise to see a Baltimore City kid walking to Poly with a lacrosse stick in his hand."

— Edward Lee

Renee Winsky

52, president and COO, Leadership Maryland

Renee Winsky was a ninth-grader when Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Prince George's County began to offer science and technology "majors." She chose something called "visual media and telecommunications," and her course was set.

After a career in telecommunications in the region, including head of the Tech Council of Maryland, Chesapeake Innovation Center and the Maryland Technology Development Corp., her experience in the Leadership Maryland Class of 2005 ignited a new passion. Now she wants to do the same for each new class of emerging leaders.

"My husband says I drank the Kool-Aid, and now I am handing it out."

— Susan Reimer

Nicolette "Nikki" Highsmith Vernick

43, president and CEO of Horizon Foundation

As a mother of two, Nikki Highsmith Vernick knows firsthand the lure soda, sugar and chips have over kids.

The president and CEO of Horizon Foundation has worked the past two years to create healthier environments in Howard County by offering more healthful choices for food and drinks. The foundation worked successfully on state legislation setting standards for healthier child care centers last year.

Combating childhood obesity is a focus, she says.

"What drives me is philanthropy having an impact in the world," she says. "We really want to be the healthiest county in the nation."

— Katie V. Jones

Brooke Lierman

35, Democratic nominee, House of Delegates District 46

It took Brooke Lierman less than a year to become the most popular House of Delegates candidate in Southeast Baltimore.

The top vote-getter in the Democratic primary, she aims to help more women get elected around Maryland. The downtown lawyer has also criticized a committee stacked with men that recommended a new City Council member.

"Women are running this city at the grass-roots level. They're just not running it at the elected level, except for the mayor," she says. "It's important to have female voices in the dialogue."

— Luke Broadwater

Sheri Booker

32, author and educator

Jan. 9, 2014, was both the worst and the best day of Sheri Booker's life. Her beloved mother, Mary Booker, died from the multiple myeloma that she had been battling since the late 1990s. Just hours later, Booker learned that she'd been nominated for an NAACP Image Award for her debut book.

The next month, Booker went on to win the award for outstanding literary work by a new author for "Nine Years Under," her memoir of the near-decade she spent working in an inner-city funeral home.

"It was very bittersweet moment for me," she says. "My mother was my guardian angel, and she never knew that I was nominated."

Booker was so certain she wouldn't win that she hadn't prepared an acceptance speech. Scrambling mentally, she walked slowly to the podium and began reciting one of her poems, "Microphone Checker" about her fierce determination to create art.

After Booker finished, the room was silent.

"Later, everyone said I gave the best speech of the night," she says.

Booker earned her bachelor's degree from Notre Dame of Maryland University in 2004 and her master's degree from Goucher College in 2007.

Laura Wexler, a former senior editor at Style magazine, was one of Booker's professors at Goucher. The first time Wexler saw an early version of "Nine Years Under," she knew the manuscript had great potential. She was struck by her student's distinct voice and talent for illuminating an unfamiliar corner of the world.

"I remember being excited by her ability to portray the beauty, humor, oddness and pain of the world of an urban funeral home," Wexler says. "I'm so happy to see Sheri's success, and I look forward to more great things from her."

Wexler might not have to wait long.

Booker is starting to shop around the television rights to "Nine Years Under." She's nearly completed her second memoir, about her year-long stint teaching journalism in barely post-apartheid South Africa. She's started an educational consulting firm — partly in homage to her mother, a longtime Baltimore school principal.

And on Oct. 24, she'll find out whether she'll win the prestigious Hurston/Wright Legacy Award in nonfiction.

"I think my angel has been working on my behalf," Booker says. "After my mom passed, one of my friends told me, ‘You realize that now, your mother can see everything you do.' So for the past 10 months, I've been on my best behavior."

— Mary Carole McCauley

Rochelle Williams

33, educational research and assessment manager, ABET

Louisiana native Rochelle Williams helps oversee professional services educational offerings for ABET, a nonprofit that accredits college programs in science, technology, engineering and math. Getting women and underrepresented populations into "STEM" careers is her passion.

Williams says her degrees — in mechanical engineering, science and mathematics education, and physics — make her the "poster child for the promotion of STEM education."

"It's no longer enough for students to go through college with just a general degree," she says. "They need a background in STEM."

— Carrie Wells

Dr. Teresa Diaz-Montes

41, gynecologic oncologist, Mercy Medical Center

When Mercy Medical Center offered Teresa Diaz-Montes the chance to help lead a new ovarian cancer center, she jumped at the chance to find new ways of tackling the deadly disease.

She's joined with Dr. Armando Sardi to investigate whether hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemotherapy — soaking patients' abdomens with heated cancer drugs — is more effective than surgery alone. She wants to help women lead better lives, even become mothers.

She gives the example of a woman she treated who was later able to use frozen eggs and a surrogate with the help of another institution. "She's having a baby in November," Diaz-Montes says. "That makes my day, maybe my month."

— Meredith Cohn

Del. Heather R. Mizeur

41, former Democratic candidate for governor

Heather R. Mizeur's insurgent campaign for governor left a mark, forcing her Democratic opponents to talk about marijuana legalization, mass incarceration and higher wages.

The little-known Takoma Park lawmaker gained 21 percent of the vote running against two better-known officials. After she leaves office in January, she is expected to remain a force in the party's liberal wing.

"I don't need to be the governor ... to keep working on these priorities," Mizeur says. "We awoke a sleeping giant ... Maryland's progressive movement."

Her hiatus will also let her spend time on her Kent County farm.

— Erin Cox and Michael Dresser

Leslie Simmons

55, president and CEO, Carroll Hospital Center

Since taking the helm at Carroll Hospital Center last year, Leslie Simmons has one eye on the future of health care and the other on maximizing quality now.

Whether guiding the development of new wellness and cancer centers, or improving hand-washing compliance, Simmons insists on excellence, she says.

That drive "comes from my strong clinical background," says Simmons, a registered nurse. "If you are 99 percent at something, that's really great — unless that 1 percent is your mom."

— Jon Kelvey

Isabel FitzGerald

44, secretary of information technology, state of Maryland

Not long after Maryland's online health insurance marketplace crashed on the day it was supposed to open as a model for other states to follow, Gov. Martin O'Malley tapped Isabel FitzGerald to fix it.

FitzGerald had been in the governor's Cabinet for less than three months, but she left her duties as secretary of the Department of Information Technology to focus full time on the state's biggest technological crisis.

Hundreds of thousands of Marylanders wanted to sign up for health care under the Affordable Care Act within six months, but the state's enrollment website was so broken that only a handful could get through the system. Maryland had to decide whether it could quickly repair a website that was already two years in the making, and whether to scrap it in the future.

FitzGerald undertook the task with the forthright, organized clarity of mission that has earned her accolades around the State House and from her team.

"Secretary FitzGerald's expertise and leadership allowed the exchange to find the right battle rhythm," O'Malley says.

She found a team that lacked structure, needed better communication and benefited from hearing that its work was valued — even as media reports hammered the site's failure. In the end, the state exceeded some enrollment goals with technology so faulty it needs to be replaced.

"I believe that honesty is absolutely the best policy, and I kept reminding them, over and over: We're not talking about an IT system. We're talking about humans," FitzGerald says. "Those aren't just enrollment files. Those are people, and those people have a story. They need health care. … I really spent a lot of time driving that message home — part of the social worker in me, I suppose."

FitzGerald, who is married, earned two undergraduate degrees, one in anthropology and another in psychology, before she went into social work in Missouri in 1994. After a 1996 law that reconstructed the welfare system, FitzGerald went from advising a team building software to implement reforms to becoming a team member herself.

She worked on software to help welfare enrollees get jobs and apply for benefits, and her career blossomed into an IT executive with a social worker's heart. Along the way, she picked up a degree in business management.

"I always say that I was the accidental CIO," she says.

— Erin Cox

Cathy Schmidt

51, founder and executive director, Chesapeake Therapeutic Riding

Chesapeake Therapeutic Riding put its first person with special needs on a horse nine years ago. Cathy Schmidt says she is proud the program has finished each year in the black.

The program's future is more secure, she says, because she helped forge a public-private partnership that will give it a permanent home on the shore along the Chesapeake Bay near Havre de Grace.

The site will continue offering equine treatment and give more life to her philosophy: "Not everyone can be cured, but everyone can experience healing."

— Ted Hendricks

Meg Sheetz

37, chief operating officer and president, Medifast

Meg Sheetz was recruited to Medifast in 2000 by her father, former CEO Bradley MacDonald. Rising from sales administration director to president, Sheetz has helped the weight-loss company gain sales as customers shed pounds.

Despite an industry shift away from diets, Medifast has maintained profit levels. It will soon unveil a healthy-living line that's free of artificial preservatives.

"We've become a world of eating out and eating quickly," Sheetz says. But "people are starting to realize: Now we're not healthy — and how can we ... find something that fits our busy lifestyle?"

— Lorraine Mirabella

Toni Torsch

54, founder, Daniel Carl Torsch Foundation

After losing her son Daniel to an accidental heroin overdose in 2010, Toni Torsch set out to spare other mothers similar loss. Torsch now has a reputation for influencing drug policy in Annapolis.

She has helped pass bills limiting liability of 911 callers reporting overdoses and allowing addicts' loved ones to administer a life-saving drug. She hopes to increase funding for drug treatment.

"I really believe that these, I guess, not-so-small things are going to make a difference," she says. "It's already making a difference."

— Kevin Rector

Mary V. McNamara Koch

52, partner, Murphy, Falcon & Murphy

Mary V. McNamara Koch took the lead in litigation that this year led to a $37 million settlement with the former owners of St. Joseph Medical Center on behalf of patients of Dr. Mark Midei, who was accused of performing unnecessary procedures.

In 2010, a member of a jury that returned a $34.3 million verdict in a carbon monoxide poisoning case credited Koch as "the dragon." Her firm calls her a "woman of steel." Koch laughs about these monikers.

"I think it's my intensity," she says. "I'm always well prepared. … I really don't let go."

— Arthur Hirsch

Cylia Lowe

39, president-elect, Junior League of Baltimore

Attorney Cylia Lowe wasn't sure she had time to join the Junior League of Baltimore. And when she visited an open house, she was aware that she was one of only two or three women of color there.

But a personal note from a member encouraged her to join, and today she is the first African-American president in its 102-year history. She recognizes that the public face of the Junior League is predominantly white. But because Baltimore is so diverse,

"I do think it is important that a woman of color is taking the reins."

— Susan Reimer

Yolanda Maria Martinez

51, CEO, Respira Medical

The daughter of an ironworker who suffered lung ailments, Yolanda Maria Martinez has built a business helping people to breathe.

Through contracts at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and Fort Bragg, Respira is providing therapies to soldiers dealing with sleep apnea and other disorders while deployed.

Outside the office, Martinez is also working with the Governor's Commission on Hispanic Affairs to aid families of immigrant children crossing the border and making their way to Maryland.

"There's a lot of challenges, so we're honored to help," she says. "It takes a village. It's not me."

— Scott Dance

Stephanie C. Hill

49, VP and general manager of information systems and global solutions civil, Lockheed Martin

Stephanie C. Hill's title at Lockheed Martin includes the words "global solutions," so you know she covers a lot of ground.

She's in charge of a division of nearly 10,000 people who work in all 50 states and nine foreign countries. Their projects span arenas as vast as outer space and as mundane as the identities of criminal suspects.

"I love what I do every day," says Hill, whose division makes up about 9 percent of Lockheed Martin's employees, handling projects with about 50 civilian government agencies.

They work, for instance, on software for NASA's mission control center in Houston. Recently her unit completed the FBI's "Next Generation Identification" system, to enhance the ability to identify suspects, including searching photographs.

She sets the right tone, says Rick Hieb, vice president of exploration and mission support for information systems and global solutions civil. Hill "has created an environment where everyone from senior leaders to individual contributors feel valued, where teams can collaborate, and where innovative ideas can take root and thrive," Hieb says.

Hill, who is married with three children, has long visited schools to encourage students to try science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

"I don't think they know how exciting these careers are," says the Woodstock resident.

Hill had little idea about it herself when she started at Lockheed Martin at 21, after graduating from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County with a degree in computer science and engineering. She knew no engineers as a young person and had not planned on that as a career.

But the daughter of Harry A. Cole, Maryland's first black state senator and member of the Court of Appeals, said it always felt right. The field has become less uniformly white and male since she joined it.

"Seeing that evolve has been a great thing," she says.

— Arthur Hirsch

Marilyn J. Mosby

34, Democratic nominee, Baltimore's state's attorney

Inspired to see her daughters grow up in a city where residents and law enforcement work together to stem violence, Marilyn J. Mosby ran a come-from-behind campaign to topple Gregg L. Bernstein in the June primary.

Mosby, a former city prosecutor who is married to Councilman Nick Mosby, says, "There is nothing we as women can't do as working moms and wives."

Hers will be the only name on the November ballot, although she might face write-in candidate Russell A. Neverdon Sr. In the meantime, she prepares for the chance she'll soon lead an office of 400 in battling one of Baltimore's biggest challenges: the criminal element.

— Yvonne Wenger

Pamela Clark

67, research professor, University of Maryland, College Park School of Public Health

E-cigarettes may look like a safe alternative to cigarettes, but according to University of Maryland researcher Pamela Clark, it's unclear whether that is a fair assumption to make.

Under a $19 million grant, Clark is leading research on the toxicity and possible abuse of e-cigarettes, hookah pipes, menthol cigarettes and other smoking devices.

Her interest comes from work in cardiology: "The problem with that was trying to patch people up after they had been smoking their whole lives," she says. "I decided to … try to keep people from smoking instead."

— Scott Dance

Tamera Rush

43, president and CEO, Tenax Technologies

A year ago, Tamera Rush was the most senior woman at a firm of 300-plus employees. But she has since started Tenax Technologies, a service provider for government contractors.

In Harford County, she is president of the Association of the U.S. Army and vice president of SARC, which aids domestic violence victims. She credits success to her grandmother, the Rev. Beatrice Clark, one of the first female pastors in the Methodist conference.

"Like her, I appreciate authenticity," Rush says. "If you are true to yourself, you'll be true to others."

— Ted Hendricks

Suzi Cordish

58, arts advocate

The past year has been transitional for Suzi Cordish. She went from president to emeritus status at Maryland Art Place and joined the Smithsonian Institution's board.

As the Cordish Cos., run by husband David Cordish, "has gone so much more national in scope," she says, "my interests have gone national."

Cordish is on the board of the New York-based Creative Capital Foundation, which funds artists around the country.

"I would like to see artists have a voice in the direction our city is taking," Cordish says. "We need to nurture an appreciation of a creative class. If you're not part of a society that does that, God help you."

— Tim Smith

Zereana Jess-Huff

35, CEO, ValueOptions Maryland

Zereana Jess-Huff hasn't been in Maryland two years, but she's already left her mark.

She moved to Columbia in the spring of 2013 to take the helm of Linthicum-based ValueOptions Maryland, which manages mental health services for 1.2 million Marylanders who receive Medicaid. She recently led the company to renew its contract with the state health department for five years.

But amid that challenge, during federal health reform, Jess-Huff has tackled more. The ovarian cancer survivor volunteers with groups raising awareness of that disease, and she leads community impact efforts of the Junior League of Baltimore.

She also won the title of Mrs. Maryland last October — a role she uses to talk about ovarian cancer, something she wishes she had been exposed to before the shock of her own diagnosis three years ago.

"I think it's very admirable for her to want to share her experience and all the information about ovarian cancer to the general public," says Nancy Long, co-chairwoman of the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition's Central Maryland chapter. "She's a real asset to our mission of awareness, that's for sure."

Three doctors had told Jess-Huff that stomach pains she had been experiencing were anything but cancer. But when she got a call one Tuesday night that there were three masses on her ovaries, one of them a 2.5-pound tumor, everything changed. She was rushed into surgery, meeting with a priest and taking a moment with her husband and young daughter beforehand.

The experience clarified many things for Jess-Huff.

"I do think the secret to life is to love and be loved," she says. "A life spent in service to others is a life well lived. I do believe that's the purpose of my life."

A Florida native, Jess-Huff was working in San Antonio, Texas, at the time. When she was offered the role as CEO at ValueOptions Maryland in the spring of 2013, the decision was an easy one, though it meant leaving her oncologist.

Now, along with her career providing mental health services "to those who need it most," she aims to continue boosting her new community.

"The thing I learned during the cancer experience is you're not guaranteed tomorrow," Jess-Huff says. "You have to live with purpose."

— Scott Dance

Pat Lippold

53, political director, 1199 Service Employees International Union

"Diamonds aren't a girl's best friend," Pat Lippold likes to say. "A union job and a pension are."

She would know. As political director for the 1199 Service Employees International Union, the Canton resident — she lives on a boat — fights for pro-labor candidates and issues.

Recently, her union pressured the General Assembly to raise the minimum wage, funded ads opposing attorney general candidate Del. Jon Cardin and helped elect young, union-friendly candidates.

"We've done very well in targeting races and getting our folks elected," Lippold says. "Our members go out and do all the hard work."

— Luke Broadwater

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski

78, Democratic chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee

The dean of Maryland's congressional delegation — and the longest-serving woman in Congress — Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski ascended to the head of the Appropriations Committee last year at the peak of the debate over federal spending on Capitol Hill.

Since then, she has shepherded complicated bills without partisan drama. Mikulski now aims to get the government off stopgap spending.

"We want to keep government operating not on autopilot, not on shutdown, nor on lavish spending," she says. 

— John Fritze

Sharon R. Pinder

61, director, Mayor's Office of Minority and Women-Owned Business Development

Driven to even the playing field, Sharon R. Pinder is charged with ensuring that the city is a place where all entrepreneurs can compete.

After serving as the special secretary of the Governor's Office of Minority Affairs, Pinder set her sights on Baltimore. The native of the city's Walbrook Junction neighborhood helped establish a supplier diversity and inclusion week and win a $900,000 grant to develop minority-owned businesses.

"I still don't know what I want to be when I grow up," she says, "and as long as I don't know, then every day is an adventure."

— Yvonne Wenger

Renee Foose

47, superintendent, Howard County Public School System

In a year marked with contentious teachers union negotiations that hit an impasse before a deal was struck, Superintendent Renee Foose continued to implement her five-year strategic plan for student achievement in Howard County.

Employees say that Foose sets high expectations while leaving room for creativity.

"Changing a culture is probably one of the hardest things you can do, but I think we're doing that," Foose says. "People see themselves in the strategic plan. They see themselves in the vision."

— Joe Burris

Christie Vera 

37, vice president of development and marketing, National Kidney Foundation of Maryland

One in eight Baltimoreans suffers from kidney disease. Most don't know until symptoms are severe — leading to dialysis and, eventually, a transplant. Christie Vera wants to change that.

It's not talked about until you have to deal with it," says Vera. "But it's a simple check."

She helps throw fundraisers, solicit gifts and organize health fairs and other events. Vera served as the nonprofit's interim CEO earlier this year. "I'm always wearing different hats," she says.

— Julie Scharper

Laurie Schwartz

60, president, Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore Inc.

Laurie Schwartz began as a consultant with the Waterfront Partnership nearly a decade ago, when harbor businesses and tourist attractions came together to sustain and enhance Baltimore's economic "jewel." She's risen to become executive director and now president, even as the organization moved beyond beautifying the waterfront and augmenting city services.

Under her leadership, it has launched an ambitious campaign to make the harbor swimmable and fishable, a broad-based crusade that includes City Hall, businesses and community groups. Schwartz calls the Healthy Harbor effort critical to making the whole city, not just the waterfront, a more appealing place to live and work.

Her group is also a lead partner in "Inner Harbor 2.0," an effort to revitalize the city's aging attraction with infrastructure upgrades and new amenities intended to draw area residents, not just tourists. Work should begin soon on remaking Rash Field, installing new light fixtures and replacing the crumbling bricks of the waterfront promenade. And starting in November, after more than a decade's hiatus, people will be able to ice-skate again through the winter — though at McKeldin Square, rather than Rash.

Before joining the Waterfront Partnership, Schwartz helped start the Downtown Partnership and ran it for 15 years, then served as deputy mayor for economic development under then-Mayor Martin O'Malley. She spent nine years as consultant for area nonprofits.

"She combines enormous talent for managing projects with a tremendous care for and commitment to the city," says Michael D. Hankin, president and CEO of the Brown Advisory investment firm and chairman of the Waterfront Partnership board. "There's no ego, just a good deal of attention to detail and ability to work with lots of different types of people."

Schwartz says she enjoys bringing public and private sectors together to work on common goals.

"People say I'm tenacious," she says. "I just like to roll the sleeves up and get the job done."

She also likes to paint, and has exhibited in New York City, as well as locally. She lives in Roland Park with her husband, Al Copp, and two standard poodles. When not working, painting or hitting the theater and other city haunts, she loves to swim. She hopes to be able to stroke across the harbor one day.

— Timothy B. Wheeler

Georgette Kiser

46, vice president, head of enterprise solutions and capabilities, T. Rowe Price

As a little girl accompanying her grandmother on her commute to work as a maid, Georgette Kiser made a resolution: to live in one of the big homes in leafy Ten Hills.

Kiser, whose mother was a Baltimore City schoolteacher and whose father died two months before she was born, grew up on Edmondson Avenue and in Woodlawn, attending public schools in Pikesville. The gift of an early Commodore 64 computer helped propel her to degrees in math and computer science from the University of Maryland and Villanova.

In 1993, Kiser fulfilled her pledge, moving to Ten Hills when she returned to Baltimore after working at General Electric. Three years later, she started at T. Rowe Price, where she's now vice president and head of the enterprise solutions and capabilities division, managing the firm's transition into the digital era. Her team works on projects such as creating platforms for clients and financial advisers to chat online.

"My organization is part of a transformation to help T. Rowe Price leverage these new capabilities, so they can think at this higher level," she says, adding that her math and science training helped her become a problem solver. "It makes you very solutions-oriented. You have math variables. It's the same thing with people."

Kiser, a mother of two who used to coach track, doesn't sleep a lot. She sits on the board of the University of Baltimore Foundation and Boys' Latin School of Maryland and started a family foundation to provide scholarships for students. A former president of the Ten Hills Community Association, she also served on the Greater Baltimore Committee's leadership board and has mulled running for public office.

"She's a great thinker, and I think helps us take complex problems and break them down into essential questions — and then look at innovative ways to answer those questions," says Boys' Latin Headmaster Christopher Post.

Kiser still remembers the shock of starting school in Pikesville and finding herself one of the only persons of color, if not the only, in her classes. Her grandfather gave her advice that she said she has carried with her throughout her career as a minority women in math, computer science and finance.

"If you think you're a minority, you'll be a minority," she says. "It was a mindset change. … When it comes to my gender, when it comes to my race, I've always had to push myself and say to myself: I can do anything anybody else can do."

— Natalie Sherman

Patricia J. ‘PJ' Mitchell

67, board member, KCI Technologies, Sun Trust Bank, Center Club, Board of Visitors at University of Maryland School of Medicine

PJ Mitchell retired from a high-powered job at IBM in 2010, and she relinquished the chair of the board of trustees of Notre Dame of Maryland University, so, on paper, it might look like she is dialing back a bit.

But Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake asked her to co-chair the gala that raises funds for The Journey Home, an initiative to end homelessness in the city, and Mitchell discovered a fresh purpose.

"This problem isn't so big that it can't be solved," says Mitchell, who hopes to raise $1 million at "An Evening of Unexpected Delights" on Oct. 25.

"On any given night, there are about 3,000 people, but 20 percent of them are children and 15 percent of them are veterans. We can eliminate it, or at least make it very rare."

Mitchell was a scholarship kid at Maryvale and at Notre Dame, but she has been returning the favor to her community ever since. Her success at IBM gave her the knowledge and the means do so.

She sits on several boards, but she is also deeply involved in fundraising for the United Way and at Notre Dame.

What appeals to her about the mayor's homeless initiative is that it employs the kind of strategic planning and interdisciplinary cooperation she finds so effective.

"The Journey Home is ... bringing together different agencies focused on different pieces of the problem. That's why I signed on."

Still very involved at Notre Dame, Mitchell says her passion is mentoring young women. Her parents — both engineers — gave her "permission" to be whatever she wanted to be, and it is a message she wants to share.

"I believe in empowering women, in opening their eyes to confidence, in giving them permission to excel."

— Susan Reimer

Colleen Martin-Lauer

56, Democratic fundraiser

When an up-and-coming Maryland Democratic politico decides to run for office, history shows that one of the best moves to make is to hire Colleen Martin-Lauer to raise money. Among her winning clients in the June primary: Anthony Brown for governor, Brian Frosh for attorney general and Marilyn Mosby for Baltimore state's attorney.

Martin-Lauer prides herself on her ability to identify candidates who will make a difference. While she worked out of state early in her career, she now concentrates on Maryland races.

"I like state and local politics. There's no two ways about it," she says.

— Michael Dresser

Leslie Mancuso

58, president and CEO, Jhpiego

It's been 12 years since Leslie Mancuso took over Jhpiego, the Johns Hopkins affiliate addressing maternal and child deaths in the developing world. And while she relishes time in Baltimore, she still can't stay away from Africa, especially when there is a crisis unfolding like Ebola.

She's also just launched a $500 million, five-year program to tackle preventable child deaths through vaccines, antibiotics and other services. Training local health care workers will be key to keeping the communities safe, she says: "I know the impact and value of these health care providers in preventing the needless deaths of women and families."

— Meredith Cohn

Hilary Phelps

36, founder, Genuine Joy lifestyle blog

Hilary Phelps felt it as she crossed the finish line at her first Ironman triathlon: "genuine joy." It inspired her to create a website devoted to "fashion, fitness, culture and culinary arts" centered on that theme.

"The idea was to keep trying new things," says Phelps. She's covered New York Fashion Week and interviewed celebs for the site. And she has spun off a media consulting company, GJ Media.

Phelps has also provided commentary of the Olympics, where she watched her little brother — a fellow named Michael — compete.

— Julie Scharper

Blair Taylor

54, clinical assistant professor, Towson University's Department of Computer and Information Sciences

In a time when it seems every month brings a new massive IT security breach, Blair Taylor has led an effort to teach secure computer coding in lower-level computer science classes.

"Teaching students from the very beginning to write secure code — it's sort of like teaching good grammar from the very beginning," Taylor says. Because "it's not a question of whether you're going to be attacked; it's going to be when and how severe and how prepared are you."

Taylor, an assistant professor teaching computer science at Towson University, built her career around getting women and girls into the field. She also runs a program at Towson called SPLASH, or Secure Programming Logic Aimed at Students in High School. Participating girls can earn college credit, and tuition is paid through a grant from the National Science Foundation.

Taylor said many women excel at computer science but that efforts aimed at increasing interest in it, like gaming and hacking competitions, often turn them off.

"These [efforts] are going to get more geeky white guys," she says. "We have enough of them."

Alfreda Dudley, another assistant professor at Towson who works on the SPLASH project, says Taylor "has a real deep passion for her students."

"Some things people do for self-promotion, self-gain, self-fulfillment," Dudley says. "But I think this is rooted in her character, being a scholar, an academic."

When a student doesn't "get it," Dudley says, "She'll talk with them over the phone, talk with them in her office, on Facebook." 

Taylor began college at Johns Hopkins University at age 16 and started her career as a software programmer, at one point working for a company that built electronic betting systems at horse racetracks. She switched careers with a job at Anne Arundel Community College and discovered she loved teaching.

Taylor says her career has taken off in the past six years as her three children became adults. In 2012, the University System of Maryland Board of Regents honored her for outstanding teaching.

"The part I like the best is being in the classroom," she says. "And I really love teaching students. I love coming to my job every day. I guess I'm lucky."

— Carrie Wells

Martine Rothblatt

59, CEO, United Therapeutics Corp.

Seeking a cure for a daughter with a deadly disease, Martine Rothblatt started United Therapeutics with no biotechnology background 20 years ago. The creator of Sirius Satellite Radio had made extraordinary transitions before.

Born a man, Martin Rothblatt underwent gender reassignment surgery in 1992. Now the highest-paid female CEO in America, Rothblatt cheered the Food and Drug Administration's December approval of UT's treatment for pulmonary hypertension, which her daughter survived. But she wants a cure.

Partnering with scientist Craig Venter, she hopes to enable pig lung transplants to humans: "Before the end of this decade, we will transplant a [pig] lung into a human patient and return the patient safely back to health." 

— Lorraine Mirabella

Linh Bui

29, WJZ-TV morning and noon news anchor-reporter 

Talk about being on a fast track. Linh Bui, a 2007 graduate of the University of Maryland, College Park, joined WJZ as a weekend anchor in July 2013. Less than a year later, she was named to replace Don Scott, who had been at the station 40 years, at the weekday morning anchor desk.

Up at 3 a.m., at her desk by 4:30 and on air by 5, Bui finds she often needs a boost. For her, it's a personal mantra: "Let's do this thing," which she's found herself saying a lot with all the challenges she's taken on. "I remember being a senior at Maryland, and they said, ‘Write down your five-year plan.' And I wrote, "I want to be a news anchor in Baltimore, Maryland.' But I never thought it would happen."

— David Zurawik

Abbi Jacobson

30, writer, actor and co-creator of "Broad City"

Maryland Institute College of Art alumna Abbi Jacobson turned a low-budget Web series into one of Comedy Central's most celebrated new shows. While "Broad City" — which returns for a second season in January — hilariously depicts two best friends' post-college lives, its viewership has no age limit.

"We obviously get a lot of people who are our age and women, and even dudes who are our age, but if an older person recognizes me on the street, I'm like, ‘This is the best!' " The New York City resident says between shooting takes. "We're breaking through that wall of 'demographics,' which I love."

— Wesley Case

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