Meet five groundbreaking female leaders from Howard County

For Howard Magazine

With the news full of women speaking up and taking action, it’s time to spotlight the groundbreakers from our community. These women have challenged convention, shattered preconceived notions and set new precedents, but their work isn’t finished. Each is paving the way for others to follow in their footsteps.

Naomi Mburu

Rhodes Scholar at University of Maryland Baltimore County

Naomi Mburu is about to spend three to four years inventing a better way to build a nuclear fusion reactor — or at least to deal with all the heat it creates — as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University in England.

The chemical engineering student is the first from the University of Maryland Baltimore County to be selected from the school for the full-ride scholarship, widely considered one of the world’s most prestigious. Ultimately, she’ll earn a doctorate in nuclear fusion power generation, which she picked because Oxford sits next to one of the largest nuclear fusion labs in the world.

But when you next hear about the 21-year-old Ellicott City resident again, she may well be working in education policy. Mentoring students in Baltimore City schools showed Mburu the difference funding can make to student learning and the importance of students knowing college and scholarships are even possible.

“Big changes are made at the policy level,” Mburu says. “If all of it was working, you’d see people who have different backgrounds [in the field and at college]. You’d be able to walk into a place like Vanderbilt or MIT, and I wouldn’t be an anomaly. That’s the kind of world I’d like to see.”

— Laura Willoughby | For Howard Magazine

DeWanda Wise

Lead actress in Netflix’s ‘She’s Gotta Have It’

DeWanda Wise started this year with a bang. Spike Lee’s Netflix series “She’s Gotta Have It,” in which she starred as Nola Darling, was renewed for a second season, and the Atholton High School graduate has announced she was cast in her first major film, “Captain Marvel,” debuting in 2019.

“For years, when it comes to being a young woman of color, we had Storm,” she says of the female superhero in the “X-Men” movies. “That was it.” But now Wise, whose legal name is DeWanda Jackson, finds herself in “beautiful moment” for those characters.

“I’ve never seen specifically women of color, and women in general, [have] the opportunities to play the characters I played last year,” says the Howard County native, who is now based in Pasadena, Calif.

As any superhero knows, with great power comes great responsibility. Wise takes it on gladly, documenting what she learns in her journal and sharing it in conversations with other artists.

“I’m intrinsically interested in the development of everyone, honestly — not just people younger than me,” she said.

Her advice for breaking into the entertainment industry? Map out the next five steps to get closer to the goal and tackle them. Then plot another five steps.

Wise, who’s married to fellow thespian Alano Miller, said she’s already working on her goals — do more producing, open doors for other artists experiencing difficulty in the industry, and last but not least, “be a great wife.”

— Brittany Britto | Howard Magazine

Lisa Apgar and Gina Dubbé

Co-owners of Greenhouse Wellness

If not for a case of mansplaining, Lisa Apgar and Gina Dubbé might never have opened one of Howard County’s first medical marijuana dispensaries.

The longtime friends and Glenelg neighbors got the idea for Ellicott City’s Greenhouse Wellness when Apgar, a licensed physician, was approached by a male-led team about acting as a medical director at another potential dispensary.

“We got offended that we were talked down to and told ‘Oh, little girl, you don’t understand,’ ” says Apgar, 49. “[So we said], ‘We’ll just do it ourselves.’ ”

Apgar, who owns Pura Vida medical spa, and Dubbé, 56, an entrepreneur who launched the pain reliever TheraPearl, want to create a spa-like experience, “changing the face of what medical marijuana dispensaries look like.”

“Our patients should feel comfortable coming here,” Apgar says of the dispensary, which opened in January as U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Trump administration was rescinding a policy that had allowed states to legalize marijuana. But the regulatory uncertainty hasn’t fazed them.

“I don’t think he has any power to unravel what is already moving forward at a rapid pace,” Apgar says. “When you really think about it, I don’t think this is going to change anything for us, short term or long term."

Working in this controversial field is worth its challenges, Dubbé says: “[This is] an opportunity to look at something in a new light. There are very few times in a lifetime to help people and change their minds.”

— Kate Magill | Howard Magazine

Rayna DuBose

Motivational speaker and Marriotts Ridge High School coach

Rayna DuBose was on a full-ride basketball scholarship at Virginia Tech and playing in her first season when a viral meningitis infection put her into a 97-day coma. She woke up a quadruple amputee.

The illness, its outcome and DuBose’s response — she finished her degree at Virginia Tech, stayed involved with the team, and maintained the positive spirit she was known for — launched a career as an international motivational speaker.

Today you’ll find the 34-year-old sticking close to her childhood home of Howard County, where she’s the junior varsity coach for boys’ basketball and assistant coach for varsity football at Marriotts Ridge High School.

“I was made for this,” she says. “My passion and my love are the kids and sports, and letting sports guide you through life on a positive note.”

DuBose, who lives in Gwynn Oak, still speaks locally, where her messages center around leadership and following dreams, mimicking what her athletes often hear on the court.

“If you are mentally strong, you can really conquer anything,” she says. “It means you don’t get defeated in the world very easily. You’re resilient.”

— Laura Willoughby | For Howard Magazine

Tiffany Holtzman

Founder and board president of S.A.F.E. Food Pantry

Tiffany Holtzman knows firsthand the importance of gluten-free and allergy-friendly foods.

The Columbia resident left her career in corporate America for a life as a small business owner after developing health challenges with gluten sensitivity and other food allergies and intolerances. She has to select what she eats carefully.

But those foods are often two to four times the cost of ordinary groceries, making them less accessible for low-income and food-insecure families, Holtzman says.

The 41-year-old was inspired to do something about it through a 2014 social entrepreneurship course at Howard Community College that challenged students to create solutions to community needs.

“I realized I could turn my worst fear into something that could truly help others,” she says.

Now in partnership with the Howard County Food Bank, the S.A.F.E. (Supplying Allergy-Friendly and Emergency) Food Pantry she began provides such sustenance to low-income people. The all-volunteer organization also offers free quarterly “Food for Thought” educational sessions with experts and supplies information on food allergies to local libraries.

S.A.F.E. is the only such outlet in Maryland and one of the first in the nation, says its founder and board president. “We would like to be nationwide someday,” Holtzman says, “but we have to start with baby steps.”

— Lane Page | For Howard Magazine

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