We asked several prominent women in the Baltimore area five questions ranging from politics to mentoring to mistakes made in life. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun)
Meet the Baltimore area’s most compelling leaders, thinkers and doers in 2016.
49, executive director, J. Baum Associates + 3D Innovation Institute
The “black sheep” of her family, Jan Baum earned degrees in metal working and started out making jewelry and teaching. But that artsy background clued her in early to the potential of 3-D printing. Baum started the Object Lab at Towson University, later leading 3D Maryland, part of the Howard County Economic Development Authority. She’s now consulting, helping companies figure out 3D printing. “When I saw that you can create any geometry that you can think of, using only material you want and the range of materials … those are three pillars of revolution,” she says.
65, president, Associated Black Charities
Diane Bell-McKoy is building pathways across Baltimore from crime-ridden neighborhoods to glitzy waterfront offices.
She’s finding science, math, technology and engineering jobs for African-Americans by setting up networks that help them earn certificates from community colleges and connecting them with mentors.
If they don’t have a high school diploma, Bell-McKoy and her team at Associated Black Charities are working to find out why. They’re “digging deeper” to find and annihilate the barriers that can block some of Baltimore’s black men and women from reaching parity in the workforce and owning homes and businesses.
“People of color are not broken,” Bell-McKoy says.
“Not broken” is a term Bell-McKoy chose carefully. Avoiding buzz words — such as “structural racism” — that trigger strong emotions and risk putting people on the defensive is a strategy she uses to help further her cause.
Starting from a point of understanding that no person or group is broken is affirming, Bell-McKoy says, and it immediately shifts the focus to removing obstacles and examining questions about the effects of past policies and programs.
Bell-McKoy will meet with state legislators before next year’s session to discuss ways to write more racially inclusive laws, and her team is working to expand its volunteer career mentorship program. Along with the Greater Baltimore Committee, she’s leading Associated Black Charities in identifying career pathways in various fields so people of color at the entry level can move into higher-paying positions.
Bell-McKoy grew up in and around Washington. Nowadays, the stepmother of three adult children, grandmother of six and great-grandmother of one lives in Baltimore’s Ten Hills neighborhood.
Earning both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in social work, Bell-McKoy strived early in her career to improve child welfare and fight substance abuse and poverty. She went on to serve as deputy chief of staff to Baltimore’s first elected African-American mayor, Kurt Schmoke, and was an Annie E. Casey Foundation senior fellow.
At age 65, she has no thoughts of retirement.
Bell-McKoy is known around Baltimore as a “pragmatic visionary,” according to Casey President Patrick McCarthy, and she’s frequently sought after to join in the dialogue on solutions for complex social issues. (She’s on a half-dozen boards.)
“She insists on an honest confrontation of our history and the challenges we face,” McCarthy says.
41, senior vice president and general manager, Horseshoe Casino Baltimore
Just two years old in August, Horseshoe Casino Baltimore is still a newcomer. Part of Erin Chamberlin’s job is pitching it to Baltimore. Fortunately, she spent part of her career marketing Atlantic City casinos. Mingling on the Horseshoe floor, she appears at ease and engaging. “That for me is really what’s energizing,” Chamberlin says. Maryland has five casinos and a sixth on the way. To compete, Chamberlin promotes the loyalty program that lets patrons generate perks at Caesars-branded casinos worldwide. “We needed to highlight that more in Baltimore,” she says.
35, Maryland outreach manager, Council on American-Islamic Relations
When Zainab Chaudry was in grade school in Baltimore, her father, a Pakistani immigrant, gave her a book that included a line from America's 16th president.
“Be sure you put your feet in the right place,” Abraham Lincoln was quoted as saying, “then stand firm.”
Chaudry says the thought inspires work as an advocate for the rights of Muslim-Americans.
Chaudry oversees all Maryland operations and acts as spokeswoman for CAIR, the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights organization. On a given day, she might find herself leading a charitable initiative, reaching out to the poor or helping a fellow Muslim cope with an instance of “faith-based bias” — profiling, hate speech, bullying in school.
Activists say it’s a crucial job when anti-Muslim sentiment is escalating in the U.S., in part because extremist groups claiming to represent Islam continue committing acts of terror worldwide, in part because the press and politicians find they can benefit by playing up stereotypes about Islam.
A vital part of her work, Chaudry says, is explaining that Islam holds that there is “absolutely no justification for the taking of innocent life.”
“It is hard to find the words to express this strongly enough,” she says.
One leading activist calls Chaudry’s contribution indispensable.
“Zainab is extremely skilled — and very patient — at making this crucial distinction,” says Shahan Rizvi, president of the Howard County Muslim Council. “Muslims are in need of a champion these days, and she’s gifted at it.”
Chaudry gave up a pharmacy career in favor of a chance to “shape perceptions, build bridges and make a better world.” She is now one of CAIR’s most visible officials. Widely followed on Facebook and in her writings for the Huffington Post, Chaudry last year became the first Muslim member of the Maryland State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
In February she sat a few feet from President Barack Obama at the Islamic Society of Baltimore, his first visit as president to a U.S. mosque.
The occasion struck her as fitting. Hadn’t her parents taught her to feel pride as a Muslim and as an American?
Chaudry draws inspiration not just from Lincoln but also from the prophet Mohammed.
“‘O you believers, stand firmly for justice, even if it must be against your loved ones,’” she says, reciting a favorite verse from the Quran. “What could be more American than that?”
42, founder and managing director, Cool & Associates LLC
As a Dominican native and a former corporate banker, Veronica Cool says, “I can walk down Fells Point, Highlandtown and Silver Spring and be just as comfortable as I am in a board room.” Her company, Cool & Associates LLC, helps companies reach Hispanic markets. A former head of the Maryland Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, she mentors talent to succeed in the corporate world and launched a Latino Innovators Pitch Competition. “It’s like a Spanish-speaking ‘Shark Tank.’ It was so successful last year that I’m bringing it back.”
37, head of marketing, Terra’s Kitchen
An alumna of Medifast and The Great Cookie, Jaime Elwood helped launch the meal delivery service Terra’s Kitchen in Baltimore in March. Up next: an app in October and a national launch in January. With an emphasis on family, convenience and healthful food, she says, “We really want to be a lifestyle brand.” The mother of three girls says the company’s mission of bringing people together around the table — like dinners she experienced as a child — is personal. “My family is my primary motivation, and trying to create a better tomorrow for the next generation.”
Claire M. Fraser
60, professor of medicine and director of Institute for Genome Sciences at the University of Maryland School of Medicine
Research scientists can't be afraid of setbacks, says Claire M. Fraser: It's the many experiments and hypotheses that don't pan out that lead to the great scientific discoveries.
Persistence and a curiosity to figure out how things work are what has kept Fraser at the top of her field and one of the world's leading experts in genome sequencing.
"When somebody says you can't do this, my first reaction is 'Yes I can,'" she said. "Many times I thought things weren't working, that maybe this is a really stupid idea. I kept at it and things worked out."
She was part of a team in the '90s that performed the first genome sequencing of a free living organism, in this case a bacterium. It led to government funding for more projects by scientists all over the country working on sequencing projects, including the human genome.
"Dr. Claire Fraser is one of the great pioneers and scientific leaders in medicine today," says E. Albert Reece, dean of the School of Medicine, who is also vice president of medical affairs at the University of Maryland. "Her discoveries in genomic science have forever changed the field of microbiology."
Fraser was a leading scientist on the 2001 anthrax investigation and the Haitian cholera outbreak in 2010. Her current research is focused on the relationship between disease and bacteria in the human gut.
Outside of being a brilliant scientist, Fraser makes jewelry out of precious gemstones and is an avid ballroom dancer. She is married to a semi-retired social worker.
The graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and State University of New York at Buffalo had planned to go to medical school, but got the research bug when she worked on her first project as a senior undergraduate at Rensselaer.
She said good teachers and mentors helped pave the way.
"At certain stages, they were the ones who gave me a big push out of my comfort zone," she said.
—Andrea K. McDaniels
18, activist, aspiring photojournalist
At 18 years old, Makayla Gilliam-Price has been to more protests than she can count and has planned some of the most pivotal action among youth in Baltimore in hopes of police reform and social justice.
The Baltimore City College alumna, who first found her voice in debate club, co-founded the student organization City Bloc during her junior year. She led a walkout at school, protesting the militarization of police; led a student sit-in at City Hall in October over Kevin Davis’ appointment as police commissioner; and co-organized “Formation Week” in March, encouraging students to ditch their uniforms for clothing that made a cultural or political statement. In July, Gilliam-Price was an organizer of “Afromation” during Artscape, a march related to police conduct and community funds. Sixty-five people were arrested, including Gilliam-Price.
“Revolution is in no way convenient … and I’m OK with being inconvenient, I’m OK with being arrested, and I’m OK with being afraid because that’s what’s necessary for change to come,” says Gilliam-Price.
Yet her days as an organizer are essentially over, she says.
Gilliam-Price hopes to embark on a journey of activism through photojournalism and art, media that will allow her to confront injustices without putting herself, or anyone else, on the front line, she says.
“I always have this burning need to be engaged in what’s happening in the city ... but it takes a certain level of strength and discipline to confront people without words, and that’s what I’m trying to achieve,” she says.
Accepted into the New School for Liberal Arts in New York, Gilliam-Price is taking a gap year to practice her photography and expand Assata’s Syllabus, a guerrilla journalism blog she co-founded to give voice to minorities in Baltimore.
Gilliam-Price’s new direction is a relief to her mother, Zelda Gilliam, 48, who is proud of her daughter’s passion, yet worries for her.
“As her mom, I wouldn’t be disappointed if she was [finished protesting],” Gilliam says. “It does concern me. But it’s in her.”
The protest leader still lives the life of a teenager. She hangs out with friends and spoils her baby nieces. She goes back and forth about what major to declare — photography or business? — and she often thinks about how to become a better artist, she says. For her, all these things relate to her love for the city, she says.
“I want to provide something tangible for Baltimore.”
35, co-founder, Light City Baltimore; founder and CEO, What Works Studios
For six years, Brooke Hall and her husband, Justin Allen, dreamed and worked to make Light City Baltimore a reality — persuading skeptics that Baltimore could stage a world-scale festival of lights and attract enough visitors to the Inner Harbor to make it an annual event. “There was a need for a grand collaboration, a beautiful shared moment for the people of Baltimore,” the Roland Park resident says. This year’s inaugural festival attracted 400,000 visitors. Insists the ever-optimistic Hall: “I think it’s only going to grow and get better.”
56, president, Kaiser Foundation Health Plan of the Mid-Atlantic States
“The only way you’re going to move through your career is, it’s going to take a lot of hard work,” says Kim Horn, “so you better love it.” Horn’s passion is getting more people health coverage. Since taking the helm at Kaiser in 2012 — and amid the Obamacare surge — she’s grown enrollment from 480,000 to 665,000 in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. The executive, whose first health care job was as a file clerk in a doctor’s office in high school, wants to get that number to 1 million.
—Andrea K. McDaniels
53, president, Cigna Health
What can a barber teach a client about colon cancer? Plenty, says Julia Huggins.* Under her watch, Cigna has trained barbers, trusted in the African-American community, to encourage people to get tested for the life-threatening disease. It’s one of the ways Cigna is trying to address health disparities and get more people insured. “We are always looking at ways to engage the community to get them to improve their health at a very personal level,” she says. The company also plans to add more insurance options on the state health exchange under the Affordable Care Act.
—Andrea K. McDaniels
40, senior vice president/global brand marketing, Under Armour
When Under Armour founder Kevin Plank wanted to draw more women to a brand with football roots, he tapped Adrienne Lofton's marketing expertise. At a Detroit ad agency, the Houston native had helped General Motors sell cars to minorities. At Target, she worked to make stores appealing to black women.
Arriving at Under Armour in 2008, Lofton took on the new role of head of women’s marketing. “How do we deliver every solution the female athlete needs to feel great, to look great and to perform at her best?” she asked before setting wheels in motion for double-digit growth of a then-tiny women’s segment that has blossomed into a $1 billion business.
Plank turned to Lofton again when the brand needed an adrenalin boost in its race with Nike. After a two-year absence, Lofton returned to Under Armour in January 2015 to lead overall brand marketing, blending her passion for the field with her love of sports.
“Marketing ... allows me to let young girls feel the way that I felt, and when I didn’t always have the confidence and I didn’t always think I could, sport gave me confidence, and it motivated me and it drove me,” says the former Howard University volleyball player, who says she worked that much harder as a “setter” because “I wasn’t the fastest. I didn’t jump the highest.”
Former teammate Shannyn Jones says Lofton remains loyal, dependable and inspiring.
“She is one of the women I have always wanted to grow up to be, that I want my daughters to strive to be like,” Jones says. “She demanded excellence. It made you want to be part of her team.”
Under Lofton’s management, Under Armour’s brand has evolved thanks to new ads and a focus on mobile and digital channels. Under Armour launched the “Rule Yourself” campaign last fall featuring Stephen Curry, Jordan Spieth and Misty Copeland, followed by memorable ads this spring with the U.S. women’s gymnastics team and swimmer Michael Phelps.
The campaign, highlighting athletes’ grueling regimens, has been viewed more than 7 billion times and trended on social media when millions posted #ruleyourself moments.
“That’s when you know you’re past advertising and you’re into culture,” Lofton says. “One of our goals is: How do we not just affect sweat — how do we affect life? Positioning our brand to be the No. 1 brand around the world continues to be our goal.”
52, vice president of governmental and external affairs, Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.
Valencia McClure was thrilled by a promotion this year, overseeing BGE’s entire state and local affairs division, but took it on one condition: She’d keep leading the utility’s philanthropy program. “I learned early on I loved working with the community,” she says. “Every role I’ve had has somehow incorporated that.” She volunteers outside BGE, too, often mentoring girls. After surviving a bout with breast cancer last year — doctors caught it early — McClure is an evangelist for women’s health and early detection.
Dr. Redonda Miller
50, president, Johns Hopkins Hospital
It wasn't a typical first day on the job. Johns Hopkins Hospital launched a new electronic medical records system aimed at providing safer, more seamless care, and it was getting more attention than Dr. Redonda Miller.
Miller, the hospital’s first female president, was thrilled with that day in July. Clinicians from around Hopkins converged, providing her an opportunity to hear a host of perspectives on patient service.
“I firmly believe when you do the right thing for customers, and our customers are our patients, then all the other details will work out,” Miller says. “You’ll be able to figure out the financing and operations to support it. But patient care is our mission so I’ll use that as our North Star.”
Miller began her medical career at Hopkins 28 years ago, rising through the administrative ranks and picking up an MBA from the university. She served most recently in the hospital as vice president of medical affairs, a position she now needs to fill, in addition to that of the recently retired chief operating officer.
But with all the responsibility of running one of the nation’s premier academic medical institutions, Miller hopes to keep seeing a small number of her long-time patients.
That desire to “understand the clinical dimensions of what we do,” was a leading reason that she was picked for the position, says Ronald R. Peterson, who preceded Miller in the post and will remain in other executive positions. He expects Miller’s interactions with staff and patients to continue.
“That’s who she is,” Peterson says.
Medicine is in her family: Miller is married to pulmonologist Albert Polito; the Homeland couple have two daughters, ages 7 and 11.
In her professional role, Miller promises her ear, including to the people who live in the larger community of East Baltimore.
And because it’s Johns Hopkins, everyone can still expect big things.
“We need to make sure Hopkins is servicing its immediate community well,” she says, “but also keeping its eye on the big picture by continuing to innovate.”
36, owner, Cultivated boutique in Westminster
An entrepreneur who last December opened her Main Street boutique selling decor, apparel and gifts, Tiombe Paige takes inspiration every morning from both Proverbs and T.D. Jakes. “My faith leads me to believe there’s something bigger than me and something other than me,” she says. That’s why she’s also one of the youngest board members of the Carroll County Chamber of Commerce and leader of Launch Carroll Young Professionals. Helping other professionals bring their dreams to fruition, she says, fulfills her goal to emphasize “community over competition.”
48, executive director, Community Foundation of Harford County
The new head of Harford’s Community Foundation, Brigitte Peters hopes to turn $1 million of assets into $10 million over five years. She plans to create a Founders Circle of regular donors and a help-your-neighbor fund that would work with community services. The 25-year resident and former marketing and tourism manager for Havre de Grace sees homelessness, drug addiction and children’s issues as the most pressing needs. “I have been excited, saddened and honestly a bit overwhelmed with all that is happening in Harford County,” she says. “I feel this may be the opportunity for the greatest impact.”
34, singer, War on Women
After the Baltimore punk band War on Women released its debut full-length album in February 2015, the coed quintet led by frontwoman Shawna Potter hit the road relentlessly. Their goal? Bring their brash songs promoting inclusion, feminism and queer rights to as many listeners as possible.
“Sometimes that means walking into the lion’s den of just a sea of old white men,” Potter says on the phone from France in the midst of a European tour. “By myself, I would assume, ‘Oh, I’m not welcome here.’ But me and my band — singing and being loud and yelling and rocking out — for the most part, they dig it, which is cool.
“We end up winning them over,” she says.
Potter, a Texas native who lives in Hoes Heights, relishes tackling challenges head-on. One example: Rather than ignore hateful remarks about her band online, Potter repurposed them for the song “YouTube Comments.”
“I can’t quite figure out if they’re crazy feminists or just being ironic,” Potter sneers. Most of the other comments are unprintable here.
War on Women has a message for the overwhelming boys club that is the punk and hardcore scenes: Make room or get out of the way. It’s an unapologetic stance, and one that drew in Chris Wrenn, founder of the veteran Massachusetts label Bridge 9 Records.
“The things Shawna was saying and the things the band were saying said a lot in this community,” Wrenn says. “There’s not enough people talking about the topics that they’re talking about. I just felt like it was needed.”
Calling Potter an “incredible frontwoman,” Wrenn points to a roster of 100-plus bands, and notes only three — including War on Women — have female vocalists.
“Hopefully, what she’s doing will inspire more women to start bands and be outspoken,” he says.
War on Women will tour the rest of the year, but Potter hopes to record the next album in 2017. Potter, who founded the Baltimore chapter of the anti-street harassment group Hollaback!, also provides training and workshops on how to make spaces safe for everyone.
She often hears from new male fans that they can’t wait to play War on Women for their girlfriends. It is music to Potter’s ears.
“Bring the ladies to the show!” she says. “Don’t make them hold your coats and stand in the back. Let’s get involved.”
Catherine E. Pugh
66, state senator, Democratic nominee for mayor of Baltimore
Few politicians face the challenges Catherine Pugh is likely to face soon. The front-runner for mayor, Pugh is expected to take over a city reeling from the worst murder rate in its history and a police force the Justice Department says has discriminated against black residents. Baltimoreans’ health, incomes and longevity vary sharply among neighborhoods in a city segregated by race. But after besting a crowded field in the Democratic primary, Pugh pledges to close these gaps. “When you lift the least, you lift all of us,” she says. “There are no throwaway citizens.”
Sonja B. Santelises
49, Baltimore schools CEO
Sonja Santelises returned this summer to lead the Baltimore city school system, which by most measures has devolved into turmoil since she left her post as its academic chief three years ago. But among the most daunting tasks she faces is re-establishing herself in familiar territory. “Everyone assumes they know what I’m going to do because I’ve been here before,” she says. The focus of her tenure will be providing a holistic educational experience to the city’s children. “We’ve set up a false choice that we either nurture children or educate them at high levels,” she says. “It’s possible to do both.”
—Erica L. Green
Kim E. Schatzel
59, president, Towson University
Kim E. Schatzel has been a corporate executive, an entrepreneur and a foreman on a Ford Pinto assembly line, and one of her top priorities is building connections between the business community and the college she’s led since January — so that students can get better job training and internships. Schatzel also believes people are unaware of Towson’s size and quality. “Our reality outstrips our reputation,” she says. “So we need to double down in telling our contemporary story.”
42, athletic director, Johns Hopkins University
Alanna Shanahan’s introduction to sports occurred when a dance instructor informed her parents that their then-5-year-old daughter wouldn’t sit still, leading her to take up gymnastics. Shanahan, who became the first female athletic director at Johns Hopkins, is still moving. Since taking office July 18, Shanahan has started to build relationships with administrators, alumni and coaches, and her daily schedule is packed with meetings, conference calls and public appearances. “I am definitely a person who is on the go,” Shanahan says. “So it doesn’t feel like much has changed since I was 5 or 6 years old.”
61, chief network officer, Laureate Education
Paula Singer was first in her family to go to college. Access to education and the difference it can make in people’s lives is very important to her.
She started at Laureate Education in 1993 when it was still Sylvan Learning Systems and has moved from role to role by identifying opportunities to fix something, stepping up and doing it.
“It’s nice to be in a place where you see a need that the company could benefit from and bring forth a proposal and you can find yourself working in things that really interest you,” says Singer. “I think some people are waiting for someone to give them permission to do that.”
The for-profit education provider is based in Baltimore but owns 80 colleges in 28 countries, and Singer’s current job is to find where the company can leverage its size. That means launching a faculty development program that can be shared across colleges and using data to figure out what’s working with students.
“She’s challenging,” says Lee McGee, a board member at two Laureate-owned colleges in the U.S. who helped recruit Singer. “She’s not easy to work for, but people that work for her love her or they don’t make it because they don’t want to work hard.”
Previously, Singer was an elementary school teacher in Dallas and helped build a Montessori program in a public school.
“The students really thrived,” she says. “It was non-traditional; it was innovative. We had people from the more advantaged side of town come to join us. ... Life is not meaningful unless you’re making a contribution and paying it forward.”
At her home in Cambridge, Singer enjoys spending time with her husband of more than 40 years, Curt, and their two dogs. She stays interested in her Laureate job because it evolves as the company grows.
“I’m a builder, so the thing that excites me the most is building new things, building teams, building new programs,” she says. “Nowadays people say, ‘Gee, how can you be with a company for so long?’ But it hasn’t been the same for more than a few days.”
54, president, Coppin State University
Maria Thompson became Coppin’s president just months after rioting scarred the area around the historically black university. “Our mission revolves around serving the community and being the educational anchor in this community,” says the veteran college administrator. Thompson’s top priority is increasing the college’s enrollment — it’s about half of what it could be. She takes inspiration from Fanny Jackson Coppin — the university’s namesake was born a slave, earned a bachelor’s degree at Oberlin College and became the first black superintendent of a school district. “Being the first woman president of a campus named after a trailblazer … is very meaningful for me,” Thompson says.
Dr. Leana Wen
33, Baltimore City health commissioner
“When you have a sick patient in the emergency room, there may be a lot of things going on, but it’s our obligation to find fixes ... even if it’s complicated,” says Dr. Leana Wen, who often uses analogies from her days as an emergency physician to explain her work as Baltimore City’s health commissioner. Her most recent urban prescriptions have included glasses for students who need them and overdose drugs for opioid addicts who could die without them. Wen somewhat impatiently describes other ills on her “progressive” team’s list, including violence and health disparities. “We’re not afraid to do the right thing.”
Alicia L. Wilson
34, vice president of community affairs and legal adviser, Sagamore Development
In just eight years, Alicia Wilson went from an associate to partner at the Baltimore law firm Gordon Feinblatt. Now she’s a top legal consultant for one of the city’s most transformative projects — Sagamore Development’s Port Covington. Through her current project, Wilson wants to help more girls in Baltimore not only match her success, but surpass it. “If that doesn’t show you Baltimore youth have the ability to defy the odds folks have for them, then I don’t know what else can,” says Wilson, though only under pressure to comment on her accomplishments.
* This article has been updated. An earlier version misspelled Julia Huggins' name.