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. 24. The women will be honored at a celebration at the Baltimore Museum of Art on Oct. 21.
34, executive director, Common Cause Maryland
Last year, Joanne Antoine had big plans to advocate for campaign finance reform with Common Cause Maryland, the good governance nonprofit she’s led since 2019.
When the coronavirus pandemic struck, the Silver Spring resident instead prioritized increasing voter access in Maryland’s elections while fighting misinformation about voting by mail. She pivoted again last winter to advocating for transparency and public participation in the Maryland General Assembly session.
Now, she is turning her focus to congressional redistricting later this year.
“My hope is the level of access ... we can maintain that, once things are back to whatever normal is,” Antoine said. “There’s no reason for the General Assembly not to tap into the tools at their disposal.”
— Brooks DuBose
50, mayor of Westminster
When Mona Becker moved to Westminster in 2003, she didn’t hesitate to get involved. Whether she was taking music classes or serving on the City Council, she stayed busy. She was recently elected to be the first female mayor of Westminster. Though honored by the title, Becker said her focus is on the community.
“It’s just been nice to see … so many people excited about the things happening in town,” she said.
Her time as a public servant in Westminster has come full-circle. She is now seeing projects she helped start as a council member — the renovation of Wakefield Valley Park and the water reuse project — come to fruition as mayor. Becker said she is looking forward to expanding Ting, the city’s internet service provider, to people outside the city. And having a new city administrator.
“I think the council has become re-energized,” the mayor said. “We’re motivated to get things done.”
— Kristen Griffith
Brig. Gen. Janeen Birckhead
52, commander of the Maryland Army National Guard
It wasn’t the usual assignment, rushing to a natural or other kind of disaster in a Maryland town. The coronavirus pandemic devastation was bigger.
And when vaccines were authorized, not everyone could get one. Gov. Larry Hogan tapped Maryland National Guard Brig. Gen. Janeen Birckhead to lead an equity task force.
Birckhead had led the guard on Capitol Hill after the Jan. 6 attack and was working on Maryland’s pandemic response. She “did not blink an eye” at the new challenge, said Dennis R. Schrader, secretary of Maryland’s Department of Health.
She “quickly and efficiently stood up the Vaccine Equity Task Force, established an operational plan, and executed a critical mission for Maryland,” said Schrader. “Her leadership and the work of the task force is why Maryland is a national leader in vaccinating our Black, Hispanic, Asian and other minority and vulnerable populations.”
Birckhead said she leaned on past experiences, from her Maryland roots and education to guard work and her day job in the U.S. Department of Interior’s Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians.
“It took me a few days on my own, thinking about what this should look like,” she said. “I’m from [the] Eastern Shore, been in the guard for 28 years and I know the state pretty well. I’ve worked on the Hill. All my experiences ... helped make something actionable and enduring.”
There were plenty of hurdles for residents, from lack of transportation to language barriers. Some had concerns about vaccines, including her own mother who was helping care for Birckhead’s two children. It took time and discussions, but ultimately she got a shot.
As the task force was winding down this fall, the team had provided more than 150,000 vaccinations during 1,000 missions, often coordinated with hospitals and local health departments. Disparities dropped.
Now that the work is no longer “nonstop,” Birckhead is finding moments in her Anne Arundel home for her favorite hobby, making flower wreaths. But as she returns to Interior, she says the work on equity isn’t done and she’ll continue to be part of the conversation.
— Meredith Cohn
Dr. Kizzmekia S. Corbett
35, assistant professor, Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases, Harvard
Dr. Kizzmekia S. Corbett is credited with leading vaccine research at the National Institutes of Health that is saving millions of lives while thwarting the spread of COVID-19. And she got her higher academic start at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Moments like being named to 2021 TIME100 Next feel surreal to Corbett.
“Being written in Time Magazine was great,” said Corbett, who was instrumental in developing the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. “It allowed me to come up for air. It allowed me to say a job well done to myself.”
Corbett knows there is more work to be done. She calls it frustrating to see so many Americans choose not to take the vaccine.
“People are dying from this virus and the vaccine is very clearly lifesaving,” she said. “To watch people not take it is sad. Keeping the conversation open, lending empathy to people having questions, and not giving up on people [are key.] A lot of these people have been given up on over time.”
She’s also interested in further breaking down racial and gender barriers.
“What’s important right now is changing everyone’s attitude of Black women. We can get to the table, but if we are not heard, and respected, if our seat is lower, does it really matter? Everyone else has to understand why it is important that we are there.”
From a young age, Corbett realized the importance of using her voice. Being one of six children growing up in North Carolina, she recalled her parents encouraging her to speak up.
“We were able to talk to our parents without being babied. We were able to have real conversations about real life. Because I have so many siblings, if you weren’t loud, you weren’t heard,” she recalled.
Her ascent through academia has been swift and notable. In 2008, she received a BS in Biological Sciences from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where she was a Meyerhoff Scholar and NIH undergraduate scholar. At UMBC, Corbett felt supported, which further helped to develop her math and science skills.
“[UMBC] allowed me to see how important diversity in the sciences is,” she said. “It gave this family atmosphere. It helped make college easier. There was a support system embedded in the college experience.”
She then received her PhD in Microbiology and Immunology in 2014 from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In June, Corbett joined the faculty at Harvard where she is an assistant professor in the Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases.
Next, Corbett said she wants to find a better equilibrium between work and home life, adding that she has a new fiancé and also hopes to dedicate more time to community activism.
“My new normal is being a well-rounded scientist — a better scientist and better human.”
—John-John Williams IV
Cpl. Betty Covington
56, Baltimore City Schools police officer, and founder and president of GEMS, Girls Expecting More Success
As a Baltimore City Schools police officer, Cpl. Betty Covington knew something had to change. “I found myself arresting kids and I thought this is not the solution,” said Covington, who has worked for 23 years in city schools. In 2007, she sought the most troubled girls at Digital Harbor High where she worked, and began mentoring them, working with their teachers, social workers and caregivers. Of the 30 she started with, 90 percent graduated, Covington said.
In 2015, GEMS became a nonprofit and expanded to a summer program for younger girls. Covington said she should be getting ready to retire, but instead she wants to expand the program in other cities. “I’m just passionate about what I do for children,” she said.
— Jessica Anderson
53, president, Bank of America Greater Maryland
If there’s anything the past year has reinforced to Janet Currie, it’s to be intentional with every interaction. The pandemic challenged her to think of ways to better serve employees, customers and the community.
“In each scenario and instance the solution can be different,” said Currie, president of Bank of America Greater Maryland. “It requires you to be thoughtful. And, there’s a chance to do something different every single day.”
As Currie continues to navigate the pandemic, she said Bank of America is planning to invest in initiatives that will help facilitate more homeownership in communities of color and reduce the racial wealth gap locally. “We don’t want to just be writing checks, but be a part of the community and being leaders for the greater good.”
— McKenna Oxenden
Theresa B. Felder
56, president, Harford Community College
Theresa B. Felder almost didn’t go to college. Now, she’s in charge of one.
Harford Community College’s first Black president is a first-generation college graduate who says her parents “would’ve been happy if I worked coming out of high school. There was no push to go to college.” But once she went to school, and her younger sister followed suit, expectations for her family changed.
“Just my one decision impacted my entire family.” After graduating on a scholarship with a degree in accounting, she caught the higher education bug when working as a consultant for a community college in Ohio. The community college mission — Felder described it as “open access; we take all students” — was something she identified with, and she shifted gears to pursue a career in higher ed.
— S. Wayne Carter Jr.
Brion “Lady Brion” Gill
31, spoken word artist, founder and executive director of the Pennsylvania Avenue Black Arts & Entertainment District
Brion Gill describes her mission like this: “I speak for those you forgot to listen to.”
Sometimes, Lady Brion (the name she prefers) speaks in words. In April, she won the 2021 Woman of the World Poetry Slam in Dallas and was part of the squad that brought Baltimore the National Poetry Slam team championship.
Sometimes, she speaks in deeds. She founded the Pennsylvania Avenue Black Arts & Entertainment District in 2019. Despite the pandemic, Lady Brion has already mounted Baltimore’s inaugural Black Artist Fair in 2021 and has two more festivals planned for this fall. She also hopes to launch a multimillion-dollar capital campaign to build a new cultural center. As she puts it: “I use my art to motivate and mobilize. I want to inspire people to act.”
― Mary Carole McCauley
Dr. Sherita Hill Golden
53, chief diversity officer for Johns Hopkins Medicine
Dr. Sherita Hill Golden first noticed African Americans had higher rates of heart disease and diabetes while in medical school. The disparities stuck with her through her career, which culminated in a position as vice president in Johns Hopkins Medicine.
Now it informs her work as Hopkins’ chief diversity officer, a role she added in 2019 as the world faced a pandemic infecting minorities at disproportionate rates. Reducing barriers and improving outreach on and off campus became far more urgent.
“It’s literally a matter of life and death, which is different from some other industries where it’s maybe a revenue issue,” she said. “In health care we need to do better so our patients don’t die. That’s the lens from which I was coming into this work.”
The push to make the system more equitable and accessible continues through vaccine rollout. Golden boosted partnerships with churches and other trusted groups to ensure those in nearby communities could get, and would want, a shot. On campus she made sure support staff had the same chance for vaccination as doctors and nurses.
“The people who served meals had just as much contact with patients, and were putting their lives at just as much risk,” she said.
Going forward, equity and diversity will remain her challenge.
Kevin Sowers, president of the Johns Hopkins Health System and executive vice president of Johns Hopkins Medicine, had persuaded her to apply for the job.
“When you start thinking about diversity and inclusion and the passion it takes to really address systemic issues that have been in our community for years, Sherita has that passion,” he said. “She has the ability to take in all the pieces and gel them into a plan to move the organization forward.”
Golden says the job has been more than full time, but the pandemic has made her appreciate time with her physician husband and son, who is pursuing a career in journalism. She also finds time to volunteer. But breaks from service also are important. She said, “I really like a good book.”
— Meredith Cohn
31, emergency medical technician and firefighter, youth outreach director for Trans Maryland
“Being trans doesn’t have to be your only identity,” said Alicia Horton. “You can do anything you want.”
This has been Horton’s mantra since she started educating people on transgender issues in 2010. The Patterson Park resident began her career as a musical theater dancer, but became an EMT/firefighter six years ago. She is also a certified cardiac rescue technician. Horton does it all: from providing medical care and emergency assistance to people in Baltimore, to giving trans youth the resources to help with health care and transitioning.
— Lizzy Lawrence
29, executive director of Baltimore Homecoming Inc.
“This city’s greatest export is its people,” said Robbin Lee, who works to persuade successful former Baltimoreans to give back — via philanthropy, investments and mentorships — to their onetime stomping grounds.
In 4½ years, Lee has helped corral nearly 800 accomplished “alumni,” from CEOs and politicians to actors (Lance Reddick) and athletes (basketball’s Angel McCoughtry), and raised nearly $1 million to bolster nonprofits, tech startups and minority-owned businesses.
“Their heartstrings are here,” Lee said of the growing network of Baltimore alums. “Our job is to tap into that reservoir of good will because, where there are relationships, there is forward momentum.”
— Mike Klingaman
48, vice president of education for Sylvan Learning
At the start of the pandemic, Sylvan Learning’s vice president of education, Emily Levitt, knew the Hunt Valley-based tutoring company needed to quickly create online learning options for families. The company met that need in about a week, Levitt said, and has since seen a spike in interest from parents and schools.
The 48-year-old believes in taking a hands-on approach to fostering collaboration in education. Levitt has organized an education technology networking group in Baltimore City where professionals and startups can help each other grow. “I could be in my ivory tower at Sylvan, but if that’s all … I’m not really doing my job.”
— Lillian Reed
30, photojournalist and part-time nurse at UMMC
She has tugged at heartstrings with her poignant photo essays of the pandemic, as seen through the lens of a hospital nurse; before that, Rosem Morton captured the essence of a rape survivor with a personal, if stark, pictorial portfolio.
Her work has been featured in National Geographic and The New York Times, and on NPR and CNN. It has thrust Morton, 30, of East Baltimore, into the limelight as a both a photojournalist and part-time operating room nurse at the University of Maryland Medical Center.
“Photography is a means to process my trauma in life, and I hope it helps others to heal as well,” she said. “That’s where I get the motivation to be vulnerable.”
— Mike Klingaman
53, president, Point Breeze Credit Union
Tonia Niedzialkowski started her career at Point Breeze Credit Union more than two decades ago as an accounting assistant. Named the company’s president this past February, Niedzialkowski now leads all aspects of the operation.
She has never felt compelled to work elsewhere, she said, believing deeply in Point Breeze’s mission as a community anchor. “We’re all focused on our members, and you’re really accomplishing something when you can give members a good experience or better rates on loans,” she said. “It’s not just about pushing some paper. You’re making a difference.”
— Hallie Miller
37, co-founder and CEO Novel Microdevices
Growing up in South India, Andrea Pais saw firsthand the need for portable, rapid testing for all sorts of illnesses — especially in remote areas of the country, which she said sometimes are days away from the nearest hospital.
It drove the 37-year-old Baltimore-based entrepreneur to co-found Novel Microdevices in 2015 and begin developing a testing system, Novel Dx, for sexually transmitted and respiratory infections. In April, her startup received a $13.8 million investment from CARB-X, a global nonprofit that researches and develops preclinical products against drug-resistant infections.
Novel Dx could one day be available, Pais hopes, to test for everything from antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea to COVID-19, especially for women and underserved communities from Baltimore to her hometown, Belgaum, in the state of Karnataka.
“A device like [the one] we are developing could go a long way in making health care diagnostic testing more accessible in those parts of the world,” Pais said.
Pais moved to Maryland in 2009 after attending graduate school at the University of Florida. Now a resident of Ridgely’s Delight, she has lived in Baltimore since 2017.
Her talents are not limited to rapid molecular diagnostics: Pais is an award-winning songwriter.
Between her previous job at Columbia-based SB Microsystems and launching Novel with her brother, Pais spent two years pursuing a career in music.
Her original piano ballad, “Chasing Forever,” won an award in the Songwriters Association of Washington’s 2013 Mid-Atlantic Song Contest. The video has racked up 5,500 views on her YouTube channel, which also features covers of The Beatles and Whitney Houston.
“Music and engineering are somewhat closely related, in my opinion,” she said. “Both of them involve a similar type of creativity.”
— Colin Campbell
Franca Muller Paz
33, Baltimore City Schools teacher and former Green Party candidate for City Council
Baltimore is known as a one-party political town, but last year Green Party candidate Franca Muller Paz proved there are cracks in that foundation.
Running a competitive race for City Council against incumbent Robert Stokes, Paz raised more than $100,000, mostly from small donors. While she lost the race, Paz proved there may be room for future third party candidates in Baltimore.
“I think she showed folks that it doesn’t have to be inevitable that the establishment can cruise without a challenge,” said Andy Ellis, a Baltimore City Green Party steering committee member. “She opened up a lot of opportunities for herself and a lot of other people.”
— Emily Opilo
44, director, controls, global corporate real estate, Under Armour
With several corporate offices located around the world, Under Armour, the Baltimore-based sports apparel company, has solidified its status as a global brand. Rachel Perea, who oversees the company’s global corporate real estate projects, is a critical piece of that growth.
Perea is responsible for analyzing budgets, reviewing costs and schedules, and ensuring compliance with company policies. “When I have a goal we need to get to, I’m determined to meet those milestones and those goals,” Perea said. “I like to take the technical pieces and transform them into what other people can understand.”
— Hallie Miller
37, associate at Quinn Evans
Growing up in Fairfax, Va., Nakita Reed was often perplexed why there were homeless people when there was an abundance of vacant homes. Now as an award-winning architect with experience in preservation, restoration and adaptive use of historic buildings, she is attempting to close the gap by reviving these once beautiful structures.
Reed is helming the Upton Renaissance Project, which will renovate 38 homes in Baltimore’s historic Upton neighborhood. So far, six homes have been completed with the remainder of the project scheduled to finish in 2024.
“I love the idea of putting a building back into functional use,” said Reed, who has dual master’s degrees in architecture and historic preservation from the University of Pennsylvania. “It is rewarding. And it is exciting. I love a good before and after. It is great to see something turned back into something that is vibrant.”
Reed, who lives in Bethesda, joined Quinn Evans’ Baltimore office as an associate in 2019 after cofounding a boutique women-owned firm in 2012.
“Her enthusiasm as an architect with a passion for sustainability and historic preservation is inspiring,” said Anath Ranon, principal at Quinn Evans. “We have all benefited from Nakita’s keen interest for interconnecting ideas, places, practices and people.”
Reed’s work not only combats redlining and other racist practices, it also aims to restore historically Black neighborhoods and promote generational wealth and homeownership within Black communities.
“Buildings are not blighted,” she explained. “Design and renovation of these buildings can change the narrative.”
Reed further delves into these topics through her podcast, Tangible Remnants, which was launched in 2020.
“I talk about the intersection of architecture, historic preservation, sustainability, race and gender,” said Reed, who has released 14 episodes with another eight episodes recorded and soon to be released. “There is this narrative that people of color haven’t contributed to the build environment. That couldn’t be further from the truth.”
—John-John Williams IV
19, Maryland women’s basketball player
Angel Reese did not have to search far for a role model. She already had one in her mother, also named Angel, a member of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County Athletics Hall of Fame.
“She raised two kids by herself so that me and my brother can go to the same high school and college,” said the younger Angel, who has been joined by brother, Julian, on campus in College Park. “I did this for her. She’s done everything alone, and I feel like I’m independent, too.”
The younger Reese has been a source of inspiration, too. A two-time Baltimore Sun All-Metro girls basketball Player of the Year and the first player to have her jersey retired by St. Frances, Reese was ESPN’s No. 2 overall recruit as a senior in 2019-20.
In her first three starts as a freshman for the University of Maryland last winter, the 6-foot-3 forward totaled 51 points, 26 rebounds, six blocks, five assists and four steals. But in her fourth game against Towson, she fractured her right foot and missed 14 consecutive games.
“When I got injured, I was like, ‘It’s the end of the world,’” she said. “I thought it was the end of my career and everything. But just being able to be strong, I feel like I’ve inspired many girls, especially the girls who have reached out to me.”
After undergoing surgery, Reese tried to lift up her teammates from the bench. Maryland coach Brenda Frese said Reese’s enthusiasm was contagious.
“As a freshman, sometimes you come in, and you’re very shy and introverted. Not Angel from Day One,” Frese said. “She was that strong voice — whether it was competing on the practice court or engaging her teammates to come over and watch a game.”
Despite the injury, Reese returned for 11 more games, averaged 10 points and 6 rebounds, and was named to the Big Ten All-Freshman team. But her top priority is helping the Terps reach the Final Four after last season’s loss to Texas in the Sweet 16.
“Whatever comes to me, comes to me,” she said. “I’m worried about the bigger things, which is how I can help the team.”
— Edward Lee
50, head of Individual Investors and Retirement Plan Services, T. Rowe Price
An unusual career path propelled Dee Sawyer to lead sales, marketing and distribution of investment products at T. Rowe Price. Rather than moving up within departments, she has headed several, including marketing and human resources.
With strong leadership skills, “you don’t have to be the subject matter expert,” she learned early on.
With each new role, the same sense of purpose guides her leadership approach.
“We have the benefit of helping people prepare for their financial futures. That purpose is a noble one, a hard one, but one I take great pride in.”
— Lorraine Mirabella
58, president, DP Solutions
Karyn Schell, of Forest Hill, is paving the way for women in the largely male-dominated field of technology.
Named the first female president of DP Solutions, a customer-focused information technology solutions company headquartered in Columbia, she is cultivating an environment that values diversity and inclusion by providing opportunities for people of various backgrounds and skill sets.
Having served as president for three years, Schell said she is most proud of the way she has led the company through the coronavirus pandemic.
Ben Schmerler, director of strategic operations at DP Solutions, recalled that Schell reassured him during an uncertain time when he was a new employee coming onboard after the acquisition of his company.
“She came into our office and talked to all of us about what the acquisition meant and I’ll never forget how she promised DP Solutions was going to have a place for everyone,” Schmerler said. “Since then, she has been a great person to work for.”
Schell said it is a privilege to serve as the first female president in DP Solutions’ 50-year history.
“It’s an extreme honor, but I do feel it’s not about [being] the first female president, it’s about I was the right person for the job at the time that the transition needed to occur,” Schell said.
— Allana Haynes
63, medicinal chemist at University of Maryland, Baltimore County
Just a few years ago, Katherine Seley-Radtke struggled to find funding for her research on coronaviruses at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. The COVID-19 pandemic has since revived interest in the medicinal chemist’s work on developing antiviral drugs that could help treat more than one virus at a time as well as variants.
“Coming up with a way to cure a disease, there is something really exciting about it,” she said.
The president-elect of the International Society for Antiviral Research continues to advocate for “more proactive and less reactive” approaches to developing treatments for viruses.
— Lillian Reed
Monica Guerrero Vazquez
38, executive director, Centro SOL, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine
As a girl in Spain, teachers told Monica Guerrero Vazquez that people like her — she was a poor immigrant from Ecuador — didn’t go to college. Now a first-generation college graduate with two master’s degrees to boot, Vazquez just guided her organization — Centro SOL, the Johns Hopkins Center for Salud/Health and Opportunities for Latinos — through the coronavirus pandemic, instituting mental health initiatives and coronavirus education campaigns for Baltimore’s Latino community. After seven years serving her community, she only sees opportunity. “Why aren’t we hiring bilingual young people that we have in the city? Why aren’t we empowering them?”
— Alex Mann
Krish O’Mara Vignarajah
42, president and CEO, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service
Krish O’Mara Vignarajah is fond of a quote by the late Shirley Chisholm. “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair,” said Chisholm, who in 1968 became the first Black woman elected to Congress.
Vignarajah is the first non-Lutheran head of the Baltimore-based, national nonprofit dedicated to assisting immigrants and refugees. Her parents left Sri Lanka as it was entering civil war when she was 9 months old.
She was a candidate in the 2018 Democratic gubernatorial primary in Maryland. Had she been elected, that would have been a first as well since Maryland has never had a female governor.
“I felt like I represented a different and valuable perspective,” she said. “If there is an opportunity for service in the future, I’d certainly seriously consider it.”
— Jeff Barker
32, founder and CEO of B-360
As dirt bikers continued to be criminalized, Brittany Young made it a mission of hers to reframe the culture of the sport that holds a special place in the hearts of Baltimore’s youth.
In 2017, she launched B-360, a nonprofit that teaches youth the science behind dirt biking. As they learn to repair, fix and ride safely, they’re exposed to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
Young, who grew up in Park Heights in West Baltimore, said her nonprofit has worked with more than 7,000 young students since its inception. Dirt biking on public or private properties in Baltimore is illegal. While some view it as a sport, others say it’s dangerous because riders have performed stunts in traffic, The Sun has reported.
Young’s greatest achievements has been being able to use the parking lot of the B&O Railroad Museum in Southwest Baltimore for dirt bikers temporarily, she said, and creating a diversion program targeting adults charged with dirt bike violations and minor offenses.
Her goal is to launch a campaign this fall to raise money for a permanent space to provide indoor and outdoor space for riders, among other features.
“I’m not a rider because [I don’t like to fall]” Young said. “And I always say that: ‘Whatever your favorite sport is, that does not mean you have to participate to be a fan.’”
Fagan Harris, president and CEO of Baltimore Corps, who also serves as chair of B-360, said there’s a racist narrative about Black youth who ride dirt bikes that labels them as troublemakers deserving to be criminalized.
“What [Young] has gotten us to see in Baltimore City is that there’s passion and intelligence and commitment that motivate these young people to ride dirt bikes, to fix them and learn how they work,” he said. “We ought to be thinking about this as a STEM education and workforce development opportunity.”
— Billy Jean Louis
Note: Nominations for Women to watch were open to the public in May and June. Women were selected after consideration and consultation with Baltimore Sun editors and staff.