Women to Watch

The Baltimore Sun's 25 Women to Watch in 2018

Meet the Baltimore area’s leading voices in business, activism, research and more.

Look for the 25 Women to Watch in a special magazine supplement in some editions of The Sun on Sunday, Oct. 14. The women will be honored at a celebration at the Baltimore Museum of Art on Oct. 11.


Vanessa E. Atterbeary

43, state delegate from Howard County

Freshman Democrat Vanessa E. Atterbeary capped a strong first term in the House of Delegates with a breakout year. She sponsored a successful bill making it easier to convict serial rapists and requiring domestic abusers to surrender their guns. House Speaker Michael E. Busch rewarded her performance on the House Judiciary Committee by naming her vice chairman — an unusually fast promotion. And she’s done all this while raising three children. “My four years were a slow crescendo that ended up on a really high note,” Atterbeary says. “I’m hoping to do the same in the next four years.”


— Michael Dresser

danah bella

44, founder and chair of Peabody Institute Dance Department

danah bella is building the Peabody Institute’s first baccalaureate program in dance from the sprung wooden floor on up.

Though the freshman dance students have only been attending classes since late August, bella (who spells her name without capital letters) has already been on the job for a year — selecting the inaugural, 15-student freshman class, hiring five part-time faculty members, designing the curriculum and overseeing the construction of new studios. The program will focus on contemporary dance, but students will study everything from ballet to jazz to African dance.

“For me, music and dance are synonymous,” bella says. “Both move through space and time. In dance, that movement is just a little more obvious because you can see it.”

One plus for dance lovers — bella is planning to mount four performances annually that will be open to the public, including one showcasing Baltimore-area youth and adult companies.

“I really want our program at Peabody to engage with the larger community,” she says.

Abra Bush, Peabody’s senior associate dean of institute studies, says bella stood out from dozens of applicants.


Not only has bella, the founder of danahbella DanceWorks, performed her original choreography throughout the U.S., in Mexico and in Italy, she has experience as an administrator. She chaired the dance department at Virginia’s Radford University for the three years before she joined Peabody.

“danah is wicked smart and genuinely forward-thinking,” Bush says. “She’s a partner to everybody, not just those of us in leadership. She has been delightful for the folks in facilities to work with as they put down new floors.”

Without appearing in the least rushed, bella is a human whirlwind. In addition to her responsibilities at Peabody, she will perform solo concerts this fall in California and Virginia. She and her husband, a film professor at Radford, are the parents of an 8-year-old son. (For now, her husband is living in Virginia.)

“None of that seems to rattle danah,” Bush says. “If you saw her on a daily basis you’d never guess that she has all that going on and is constantly getting on and off a gazillion planes. She’s always calm and peaceful and as positive as can be.”

— Mary Carole McCauley

Liris Crosse

36, model


Randallstown native Liris Crosse, who won the modeling portion of “Project Runway,” was the first black plus-sized model to walk in Barcelona Bridal Fashion Week in April. Then she launched a self-help podcast, “Liris' Lounge,” in August with Tim Gunn as a guest. She’s also a Maggie Sottero Bridal spokesmodel, has appeared in an O magazine, graced the cover of four magazines and spoken at Harvard and Princeton universities. To top it off, her book, “Make The World Your Runway,” publishes in October. “2018 has been a ride of a lifetime for me and it’s not even over yet,” Crosse says. “I’m awestruck.”

— John-John Williams IV

Gail Cunningham

58, senior vice president of medical affairs and chief medical officer, University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center

If it was up to Gail Cunningham, no patient would ever get hurt in a hospital. “I am trying to get to zero patient harm,” said Cunningham, who restructured the hospital’s quality and performance improvement departments. A hand-washing campaign and UV technology that zaps bacteria in hospital rooms were among changes leading to improvements in patient care. In July, no patients acquired any hospital-related infections. “That was a big deal,” said, Cunningham, who came to St. Joseph as an emergency room physician 20 years ago, right after finishing her residency at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

— Andrea K. McDaniels

Wanda Q. Draper

67, executive director, Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture


Two years ago, when Wanda Q. Draper became executive director of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum, the organization was floundering. Today, the Lewis just hit its annual $2 million fundraising goal for the second time in its 13-year history (an increase of more than $1.5 million in two years) and mounted a must-see exhibit by the Harlem Renaissance painter Jacob Lawrence. Attendance has held steady in the past few years, though Draper would like to see it to climb. “I just felt this was too valuable an institution and that we could do better with it,” Draper says.

— Mary Carole McCauley

Céline Dufétel

37, chief financial officer for T. Rowe Price Group

Céline Dufétel, a native of France who grew up in Paris and Bethesda, honed leadership skills in college. At the École Polytechnique in Paris, she fulfilled her French Navy service requirement with a stint as a navigation officer aboard an oil tanker. “‘You realize this is a little oil spill waiting to happen,’” she recalls the ship’s captain saying. “It was his way of telling me not to make a mistake. It’s a big responsibility” to steer a tanker. Dufétel, who joined T. Rowe as CFO in November, is helping the Baltimore money management firm navigate a course to boost its international presence.

— Lorraine Mirabella

Amanda Fiedler

39, Republican nominee for Anne Arundel County Council


Amanda Fiedler says not much has changed since she defeated incumbent Michael Peroutka during the primary elections. The Arnold native is still discussing issues like education, public safety and taxes with business owners and residents across the county’s eastern district. “I look forward to taking all the concerns that I’ve been gathering over the past two years, and chipping away at them,” she says. The mother of three also founded an advocacy group to support teachers in 2015.

— Lauren Lumpkin

Ellen Herbst

60, vice chancellor for administration and finance, University System of Maryland

Ellen Herbst was proud of her decades in the private sector, but one day she began to reflect. “My life was about making rich people richer. I decided to do something bigger than that,” she says. Herbst joined the federal government, spending a dozen years working in various capacities, finally as an assistant secretary for administration and chief financial officer in the Commerce Department. It is yet another big change, but she says she has always believed education transforms lives, as it did hers.

— Liz Bowie

Rebecca Jessop

57, executive director of the Havre de Grace Arts Collective


A veteran of the area arts scene, Rebecca Jessop is delighted to be in charge of the revitalized Cultural Center at the Opera House, the latest incarnation of Havre de Grace’s 147-year-old entertainment hub. “It was like I stepped into an old, comfortable shoe,” she says. Under her leadership, the opera house hosts a deliciously eclectic assortment of plays, concerts and movies (though no operas yet). Jessop deflects credit — “I have a tremendous board and amazing volunteers,” she demurs — but maintains a vision that should make every Harford County arts fan smile: “I want to make the opera house a top-notch performing arts venue.”

— Chris Kaltenbach

Kavita Krishnaswamy

36, roboticist and doctoral student at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County

Kavita Krishnaswamy will eventually lose her physical fight with spinal muscular atrophy, a progressive disorder that has robbed her of movement below the neck other than in one finger. But the illness has inspired her career as a roboticist who specializes in devices that help the severely disabled live more independently. Working from home via telepresence device, she has invented computer interfaces that can be operated by voice command and is working on another that responds to eye movements. Google and Microsoft support her work, and she has been invited to attend the 2018 Heidelberg Laureate Forum. “Life is always beautiful,” she says. “Instead of complaining, people should remember to do something to make it better.”

— Jonathan M. Pitts

Tabassum Majid

30, executive director of Integrace Institute


Because Integrace Institute at Copper Ridge is located in an assisted-living facility, executive director Tabassum Majid can see the real-world applications of its Alzheimer’s and aging research daily.

It’s valuable insight for the Catonsville native as she looks to the future of aging and the needs of a growing, diverse demographic.

“We know you have symptoms [of dementia] 10 to 15 years before we see anything — that means for our generation, it’s going to be even more important to build something we want to have,” she says.

Integrace works toward that goal through research and education alongside technology and pharmaceutical companies, and applies its findings to practices at its four Maryland facilities. For example, the institute introduced a bistro serving fresh, seasonal dishes that follow the Mind Diet, emphasizing foods that research suggests can help dementia and slow the loss of brain function.

Majid says she always knew she wanted a career on aging. After graduating from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County with a degree in neurodegenerative disorders of the aged, she earned her doctorate from the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and had a fellowship at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy.

As progress in the field ramps up, Majid is welcoming the opportunity to join the global conversation. In 2017, Integrace was featured in the film “Every Three Seconds” with 23 other organizations from all over the world, and the institute is eyeing national collaborations for next year, particularly in Alzheimer’s disease prevention.


“We are looking at who’s the next generation of customers and seniors,” she says. “And that's how we get that first step onto the global stage. The documentary was just the beginning in my opinion.”

— Jennifer Turiano

Liliane Makole

33, co-founder of Mera Kitchen Collective

Food was the force that grounded Liliane Makole as she made her way from Cameroon to Baltimore, where she uses her love of cooking to elevate other immigrant women. “It’s really about empowering ourselves... and breaking the barriers of creating something by yourself,” she says. Makole has helped Mera Kitchen Collective grow into a worker-owned cooperative that hosts sold-out dinners, serves international eats at the Baltimore Farmers' Market and is planning a cafe. “It’s rewarding to see people who have never eaten Cameroonian or Ethiopian food,” she says. “They listen to you and then they eat, and you see that spark in their eyes.”

— Sarah Meehan

Angel McCoughtry

31, forward for WNBA’s Atlanta Dream


“When you have the heart and desire to be great,” Angel McCoughtry says, “you can’t take that away, no matter what the stat line says.” McCoughtry, a Baltimore native and St. Frances Academy alumna, knows better than most athletes what greatness feels like. She’s a two-time Olympic gold medalist and a five-time WNBA All-Star who led her Atlanta Dream to the Finals three times, holding the record for the most single-game points in the Finals (38). Though McCoughtry is averaging 16.5 points per game this season, she’s embraced her role as a veteran, guiding her team to the semifinals this year. Outside of basketball, McCoughtry runs an ice cream shop in Atlanta.

— Katherine Fominykh

Judy Neff

43, co-owner and brewer, Checkerspot Brewing Co.

For years, the country’s craft-beer scene has felt dominated by an earned stereotype: male and white, usually with a beard. At South Baltimore’s Checkerspot Brewing Co., Judy Neff is helping change that perception one beer at a time.

From bookkeeping and event planning to managing the taproom and, of course, brewing beers, Neff — who opened Checkerspot in late June with her husband, Rob Neff, and friend Steve Marsh — works 80 hours per week, she says.

“It helps when you love what you’re doing, and making great beers,” she says.


Neff fell in love with craft beer on a visit to San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing Co. 13 years ago. A dozen years of homebrewing eventually led to Checkerspot, where she and her team create beers such as the Psycho Haze Pale Ale and Daydream Cream Ale.

Kevin Atticks, executive director of the Brewers Association of Maryland, says Checkerspot’s beer quality has quickly established the brand.

“That’s really important in this market, where you don’t get credit for just being local,” Atticks says. “You have to be great and local.”

Six years ago, Neff started the group Baltimore Beer Babes to promote women drinking and working in craft beer. Now, it’s been rewarding to see increasingly diverse crowds in her taproom — particularly because they’re not just requesting light or fruity beers, she says.

“They’re drinking really hoppy beers and the strong beers,” says Neff, who lives in Patterson Park and has a doctorate in microbiology from the Johns Hopkins University.

In the next couple months, Checkerspot will expand its taproom, giving them four times the space they have now, she says. It’ll give more room to supporters that already represent the changing tides in craft beer.


“There’s a lot of white males, but there’s a lot of women and people of color, too,” she says. “We run the gamut, which is something we hope to continue.”

— Wesley Case

Brittany Oliver

30, founder of Not Without Black Women

Brittany Oliver is a leader in a new generation of activists, unafraid to speak difficult truths about the challenges facing black women from institutionalized racism and sexism. The West Baltimore native founded Not Without Black Women, which started as a social group and grew into a volunteer-driven public policy organization. Oliver and her team lobbied for state laws strengthening sexual harassment protections for those working in the General Assembly complex and providing more female sanitary products for inmates. “The mission is that the world will not get better, communities will not get better, society will not get better until we prioritize women’s issues,” Oliver says. “When black women are free, then everyone else is free, too.”

— Pamela Wood

Tamla Olivier

45, president and CEO for BGE Home and Constellation Home, senior vice president at Constellation


When Tamla Olivier started in human resources at Constellation in 2010, someone advised: “Learn the numbers.” That meant understanding power and the company’s markets, efforts that landed her BGE Home’s top job two years ago. “It was a unique opportunity to run a business soup to nuts,” says Olivier, though she credits her team with the past year’s successes, such as expansion into the Washington suburbs. Next year, she plans a marketing campaign for newer markets and a push to serve more businesses, ensuring “the culture remains as we grow.”

— Meredith Cohn

Susan F. Owens

56, senior vice president and regional vice president for Maryland middle market banking, Wells Fargo & Co.

Susan F. Owens majored in Spanish and government but really took to accounting. She started at Wells Fargo while still in school and has stayed three decades. Entrepreneurs can’t always balance a checkbook, and Owens says it’s satisfying to apply her skills to their companies — something her group has done a lot of in the past year. In coming months she’ll focus on new loans and deals, including with health care-related firms spun off from area research institutions, and developing talent inside and outside the company. “We’re always making sure we’re being good listeners,” she says, “listening with two ears.”

— Meredith Cohn

Nicole Pastore Klein

45, District Court judge and founder of the District Court Re-Entry Project


People could land in Judge Nicole Pastore Klein’s Baltimore courtroom for any number of dreadful reasons. But rather than marking the occasion as their nadir, she wants the souls who end up before her, or elsewhere in the city’s District Court, to think about the experience as the day opportunity came knocking. More than 100 people have completed the jobs training and placement program she created after the city’s 2015 unrest. “Court should not always be about punishment, but giving people a reason for hope,” she says.

— Yvonne Wenger

Jenna Paukstis

41, director of manufacturing, Northrop Grumman Mission Systems

Jenna Paukstis has been overseeing the Baltimore division of Northrop Grumman Mission Systems for six months, and she already loves it. “From airborne to space to ground base to Naval, we kind of do it all,” she said. Paukstis didn’t expect to be supervising the manufacture of military equipment when she studied engineering in college, but eventually fell for industrial engineering because it combined “people interaction, technical challenges and a business focus.” Since then she’s worked in manufacturing, production and program management. Her career advice? “Challenging the status quo, sticking up for what you believe in and keeping your options open.”

— Lauren Lumpkin

April Ryan

51, White House correspondent and Washington bureau chief for American Urban Radio Networks, CNN political analyst


The past two years have been a challenging time for April Ryan, who says despite being labeled as an outspoken reporter, she’s a shy, family-oriented nature lover.

But as she’s become a prime target for criticism in the age of so-called “fake news,” Ryan often asks herself, “How do I fight back?” Her latest book, “Under Fire: Reporting from the Front Lines of the Trump White House,” is one way.

The Baltimore native and White House correspondent, one of the few to solely cover issues that affect the African-American community, is no stranger to the game.

Ryan has covered four presidents over 21 years — giving three of them a letter grade in her 2015 book "The Presidency in Black and White: My Up‑Close View of Three Presidents and Race in America." Last year, the National Association of Black Journalists named her journalist of the year. And in September, she released her third book, “Under Fire,” recounting her experience reporting on President Donald Trump’s administration – a time fraught with death threats and public confrontations, including those with former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, who infamously told Ryan to “stop shaking” her head during a briefing. (The encounter was met with shock and fury from viewers and on social media, and a disapproving mention from former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.)

Ryan has also gotten into spats with former political aide Omarosa Manigault, and, more recently, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders — about everything from pecan pies to the NFL protests.

The Morgan State University alumna’s life has drastically changed during the Trump presidency, she says. It’s vital that she arm herself with facts when combating “shade” from the administration and the public. She can’t go to her local Wegmans without being recognized, and she has a bodyguard. But she’s also seen undying support from around the country.


She wouldn’t wish it on anyone, but she’s also not going anywhere.

“I’m not giving up, and I can’t and I won’t,” Ryan says.

“History is going to show what happened, and that’s the reason why I’m writing, because no one has the unique [perspective] that I do.”

— Brittany Britto

Leslie Simmons

59, executive vice president of LifeBridge Health

Leslie Simmons’ career has taken her from the ICU to the executive suite, first as president of Carroll Hospital in 2015, and now as executive vice president of LifeBridge. Overseeing Carroll Hospital, Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center and LifeBridge Health’s Post-Acute Division means Simmons is working with many more people than she ever did as a critical care nurse, but she says taking time to connect with staff at all levels is crucial to enhancing their quality of care. “People need to find what their ‘why is,’ ” she says. “My ‘why’ is trying to make it better for the people who are taking care of patients in our community.”


— Jon Kelvey

Tausi Suedi

39, CEO and co-founder of Childbirth Survival International, adjunct professor at Towson University

Tausi Suedi first noticed the poor medical care some women got when she was growing up in Switzerland, Uganda and Tanzania, where her parents were stationed as employees for the United Nations. Now the professor of global health is doing her part to improve conditions. Her nonprofit, Childbirth Survival International, provides maternal health services to women in five African countries, including giving them sterile medical kits for use during delivery. In Baltimore, she started the Girl Talk, Girl Power summer camp, focused on self-love and life skills. “I just feel good that we are impacting lives,” she said. “We are impacting lives here and 8,000 miles away from Baltimore.”

— Andrea K. McDaniels

Nichole Baccala Ward

39, president of TBC

Nichole Baccala Ward is steering Fells Point-based TBC from a traditional advertising agency into a digital-age version that partners with clients, developing brands, products and markets. “We’ve gone beyond working with the marketing department to work with CEOs,” says Ward. “It’s about solving whatever business challenges they have.” With TBC’s help, sports tape maker KT Tape is expanding into fashion footwear markets with blister-prevention tape. As with most campaigns, Ward prefers a behind-the-scenes role. “I like to make other people and brands and products famous,” she says. The Baltimore native discovered marketing while working at a health care think tank in Washington after college. She was hired at TBC in 2002.


— Lorraine Mirabella

Christy Wyskiel

46, senior adviser to the Johns Hopkins University president for enterprise development

“My day-to-day job at Hopkins is getting to meet the most brilliant people in the world,” Christy Wyskiel says. But the challenge is getting those brilliant people — researchers and programmers, innovators and inventors, professors who make discoveries — to stay here.

Wyskiel, who arrived in Baltimore in 1999 to analyze the medical technology field for T. Rowe Price, brought her investment savvy and passion for startups to Hopkins five years ago, in the midst of the university’s efforts to commercialize research. Hopkins had plenty of smart people with great ideas, and many of them managed to attract investors. But most of the companies founded on Hopkins technology left Maryland for Silicon Valley or other tech hot spots.

That’s starting to change, and the opening of FastForward 1812, a Hopkins business incubator with office and lab space for entrepreneurs, has a lot to do with it. New patents, licenses and startups have been on the rise. Companies affiliated with Hopkins are raising millions more in capital each year, Wyskiel says, and more of them are opting to stay in Baltimore and Maryland.

“Christy has shown unwavering support, not just for us, but for so many Baltimore startups,” says J.J. Reidy, co-founder and CEO of Urban Pastoral Collective, an urban farming operation that received help from Hopkins Technology Ventures.


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Wyskiel became Nick Culbertson’s mentor as he and his partner started Protenus, a company that provides security systems for medical records. “Christy helped me work through some challenging growth problems we faced while scaling our company,” Culbertson says. “She’s always willing to give tough but insightful feedback and advice that helps companies like ours grow and be successful.”

Wyskiel, who lives in the city with her husband and two teenage children, sees Baltimore becoming a technology hub. “Capital is mobile, and capital will find the best ideas,” she says. “I can see so clearly the future of Baltimore, and there is no reason the skyline of Baltimore should not be filled with the names of tech and biotech companies.”

— Dan Rodricks

Stephanie Ybarra

42*, artistic director of Baltimore Center Stage

Stephanie Ybarra lives by words from author Adrienne Maree Brown: “There is a conversation in the room that only these people at this moment can have. Find it.” Texan-born Ybarra has driven conversations as director of special artistic projects at New York’s Public Theater, spearheading a new mobile production that takes Lynn Nottage’s “Sweat” this fall to states with economic struggles depicted in the play. Eager to take the helm as artistic director at Baltimore Center Stage (she starts full time in December), Ybarra says she hopes people will think of the company “as a joyful place where a really exciting shift is in the air.”

— Tim Smith


*Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Stephanie Ybarra’s age. The Sun regrets the error.