20 Women to Watch in 2020

May 26, 2020
We feature 20 inspiring women and share how 2020 is set to be a pivotal year in their professional journeys. We also spotlight a few examples of their extraordinary work in response to the current global pandemic.

Since the launch of the Center for Women & Wealth in 2015, we have met and been inspired by many powerful women who are pioneers in their respective fields. Through their work, they are challenging the status quo, reshaping industries and changing the way we live our lives. While we began creating this feature before COVID-19 became ever-present in daily life, it comes as no surprise to us that so many of these 20 women are using their talents to help those in need.

Here, we showcase these inspiring women and share how 2020 is set to be a pivotal year in their professional journeys. We also spotlight a few examples of their extraordinary work in response to the current global pandemic.

Lauren Abda, Founder & CEO, Branchfood

Abda is the founder and CEO of Branchfood, the largest community of food entrepreneurs and startups in New England, and co-founder at Branch Venture Group, an angel network for investment in early-stage food startups. In 2020, Abda will continue to be a leading innovator in the food industry and strong supporter of other founders in food-related businesses.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Be brave and trust yourself. Life is a progressive journey informed by your own curiosity and instinct. You have a purpose, and over time, it will be realized by talking with people who inspire you, challenge you and teach you. You have nothing to lose but everything to gain. If you fail, you'll become smarter. If you succeed, you'll gain even more self-confidence and strength. Every decision has its costs and benefits, but by having the courage to choose a path and commit to it, you’ll most certainly always achieve anything you set your mind to.

Candace Beinecke, Senior Partner, Hughes Hubbard & Reed

As the first female head of a major New York firm in 1999, Beinecke has been paving the way for future female leaders for decades. She is the Senior Partner of HH&R and serves as chairperson of First Eagle Funds, lead independent trustee of Vornado Realty Trust and on the board of ViacomCBS. She also serves as a director of the Partnership for New York City, trustee of The Metropolitan Museum of Art and chair and trustee of The Wallace Foundation. Beinecke will continue to redefine what successful leaders look like as she enters 2020.

What are the unique challenges of being a female leader in your field, and how are you overcoming them?

Most of us are comfortable surrounding ourselves with those whose management styles mirror our own. This can lead those familiar with a rough-and-tumble management style to assume that the person with the loudest voice is the person with the greatest toughness and resolve. This mistaken assumption can be a challenge if people assume you are not tenacious enough to do the hard things. On the other hand, it can be an advantage that allows the “softer voice” to win the war before it is even clear you are on a battlefield. Many “disadvantages” really are not.

Gale Wilkinson, Managing Partner, Vitalize Venture Group

Wilkinson started IrishAngels, an angel investment network created for University of Notre Dame graduates. Today, the network has 230 active members and is one of the largest in the country. She also launched VitalizeVC, a business-to-business venture fund, in 2017. Wilkinson’s firm has a portfolio of over 50 companies and deploys $10 million annually into early-stage startups across the U.S.

What are the unique challenges of being a female leader in your field, and how are you overcoming them?

Only 9% of venture capital (VC) partners are women, which creates two challenges: junior women have difficulty reaching partner level without women to promote them, and female-led startups may struggle to raise capital when men alone make investment decisions. Therefore, I believe it’s imperative that we get more women in partner seats. My personal goal is to help at least five women land VC partner roles in the next five years. I am also committed to this within our firm; we work to find a 50%-plus diverse slate of candidates for each role we fill.

Heather Burke, Co-Founder, Impact 100 Jersey Coast  

Burke spent a decade in book publishing as a writer, editor and researcher before making the switch to nonprofit management and fundraising. She co-founded Impact 100 with the goal of empowering women to fund transformational changes in their local communities. The organization has since grown to around 500 people and donates over $400,000 annually to various groups, with more than $1 million donated to charity since its founding.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Don’t let the fear of being wrong hold you back or let yourself be overwhelmed by the scope of a problem. Powerful things come from simply asking others for help and being open to collaboration. People ask how we have been able to grow Impact 100 so quickly in our community – to nearly 500 women in five years. My answer is always the same: One woman at a time. Similarly, these amazing nonprofits we are so honored to have supported are tackling seemingly intractable problems by feeding, housing or mentoring one person at a time. People want to help when they see a problem; they just all come at it in different ways. Our challenge is to shine a light on the approaches we think can have the greatest impact in our community.

Ilana Fischer, CEO, Whisps

Allison Schuman, Senior Vice President, Whisps

Fischer and Schuman are the team behind Whisps, a wildly popular cheese crisp snack. Fischer is the CEO of the all-female C-suite at Whisps, which currently has a 100% employee Net Promoter Score. Schuman is the senior vice president of sales and manages one of the strongest sales teams in the industry, landing Whisps in over 40,000 retail locations across the country. The duo’s passion, positivity and hard work is contagious, and they continue to feel energized about the future of their business as they grow and expand their product offerings.

What are the unique challenges of being a female leader in your field, and how are you overcoming them?

IF: I think because I’m a woman, I get a lot of credit for my passion and for building a great team culture. And I am really proud of both of those things. But I’m also pretty adept at strategy, leadership, operations and analytics, and I think I get less credit for that, at least at the outset. A lot of founders (and my guess is that this is more common with women founders) get to be the face of the company they build but don’t get credit for being savvy businesspeople. I try to change this mentality every day by demonstrating that I am a savvy business leader! It can be easy to internalize people’s assumptions about you, especially if they are positive. The risk is that we get boxed into corners or roles that align with others’ expectations and prejudgments, rather than setting our own course and making our own reputations.

What is the most valuable lesson you have learned from a woman in your life?

AS: The most valuable lesson I learned from a female mentor of mine was to be my own advocate and not to be afraid to ask for what I want in my career. It may seem intuitive; however, early on in my career, I always assumed that people knew how hard I was working. I believed that once I had proved myself by staying quiet and keeping my head down, then they would call me to move up professionally when I was “ready.” As you can imagine, that didn’t happen, and I struggled to figure out why I wasn’t moving as fast as I had hoped in my career. The truth is, everyone is busy with their jobs, and unless you’re bold and make your intentions clear, people assume you are content with where you are. It was only when I learned to start vocalizing what I wanted that people fully understood my ambition and wanted to help me to achieve my goals.

Sarah Flint, Founder, Executive Chairman and Creative Director, Sarah Flint

Flint started her career in the shoe industry at 25 years old and is now the founder of her own line of handcrafted designer shoes. Her shoes are designed by women, feature artisanal craftmanship and are sold at direct-to-consumer prices. Since launching her company, Flint has transitioned it from traditional retail to a direct-to-consumer ecommerce business that has notably experienced triple-digit-growth in sales. In 2020, Flint plans to continue growing her brand by expanding into products beyond shoes.

What values do you try to emulate in your daily life, be it at home or at work?

Always come from a place of kindness. One small act of kindness can have a bigger impact than you think. Also, be relentless and knock on every door – the answer will always be “no” if you don't try.

Katya Libin, Co-Founder & CEO, HeyMama

As co-founder and CEO, Libin spearheads the growth of HeyMama and the mission of advancing moms in the workforce. Since launching the brand in 2014, she has fostered connection and community for working mothers, rapidly expanding a platform that provides support and resources to a demographic that has been overlooked. What started out as a community to solve a deep personal need to feel connected has led to Libin’s personal mission of having career and motherhood work better together. In 2020, HeyMama will continue to support working mothers in every dimension of their lives.

What are the unique challenges of being a female leader in your field, and how are you overcoming them?

As an ambitious entrepreneur, it quickly became clear that growing families and careers are seen as opposing forces. Consequently, becoming a mother not only changed me, it also changed the perception of me in the workplace. The saving grace that has helped me to overcome this challenge is the support of other career-driven mothers who speak truth about the strength and power in motherhood. That's why my co-founder and I created HeyMama, to provide community, advice and mentorship for career-driven mothers across industries so they can be more successful in their personal and professional life.

There's no denying that motherhood hones critical work skills: It teaches us to multitask more effectively, negotiate more creatively, communicate more clearly, perform more efficiently and, perhaps above all, manage more empathetically. We have some exciting plans and initiatives in place this year to drive this message home to our members, but overall, we’ll be making strides to increase on our promise to support working mothers in all facets of their lives.

Rebecca Liebman, Co-Founder & CEO, LearnLux

Liebman is the co-founder and CEO of LearnLux, an employee financial wellness company, helping everyone make a financial plan. LearnLux has raised capital from Ashton Kutcher’s fund, Sound Ventures, and Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff. Liebman regularly speaks at events about the impact of financial stress in the workplace and innovation in financial technology. In 2020, she will continue to expand LearnLux and promote financial wellness for all.

What values do you try to emulate in your daily life, be it at home or at work?

Everyone is fighting a harder battle than you know. There’s a saying: If everyone threw their problems into a pile and you saw what people were dealing with, you would pick your own. We can all be a little kinder and acknowledge that we don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes. The other is remembering what’s really important. My mom works in a nursing home, and I’ve volunteered in nursing homes where you’re working with people during their most vulnerable time – at the end of life. It’s a good reminder of what you’ll care about decades from now and to think about what’s important now and how you want to spend your time when you can choose.

Bea Mitchell, Co-Founder & Managing Director, Sperry, Mitchell & Company

Mitchell is co-founder and managing director of Sperry, Mitchell & Company, one of the most active independent M&A advisory firms in the U.S. She also co-owns Percival Scientific, a manufacturer of biological incubators and plant growth chambers. She serves on several boards and is a regular lecturer at the Columbia University Graduate School of Business. As Mitchell enters 2020, she celebrates being named to the Mergers & Acquisitions 2020 Most Influential Women in Mid-Market M&A list.

What advice would you give your younger self?

The most important advice I would give to my younger self, or any young woman, is to figure out what you want most in life and let that dictate the path you take. For me, getting married and having children were just as important as building my business. We all want fun, challenging and rewarding careers. But, in the end, it is vital to never allow career to crowd out one’s other, larger, goals. At times in my career, especially early on, I put career above all else. Fortunately, I have always been able to navigate myself back to my true north.

Krystle Mobayeni, Co-Founder & CEO, BentoBox

A first-generation Iranian-American, Mobayeni has a classic American Dream story. After working in advertising and co-founding digital creative studio Neon & Sons, she founded BentoBox in 2013 and has raised around $25 million in funding. Today, BentoBox, which landed at No. 305 on the 2019 Inc. 5000 list of fastest-growing U.S. companies, serves more than 4,500 restaurants worldwide, helping them create state-of-the-art websites and grow their margins.

What are the unique challenges of being a female leader in your field, and how are you overcoming them?

I’d say the main challenge is that there aren’t enough examples of diverse leadership. In the technology field and in society, many are accustomed to a type of leadership that looks and acts a certain way – and examples of success therefore follow suit. It becomes difficult to imagine successful leadership looking and feeling differently. This has become ingrained and will take more than a day, years or even decades to change. In my career, I’m focused on learning and growing to become the best leader I can, in a way that is authentic to who I am. It may not look like what others expect, but having more examples of diverse styles of leadership is the only way things will evolve.

Ingrid Pierce, Managing Partner, Walkers Law Firm

As Global Managing Partner of a top international offshore law firm, Pierce is recognized as one of the world’s leading investment funds lawyers. An advocate of good governance by fiduciaries and leading a purpose-driven business, she will speak widely on these subjects in 2020. Pierce is equally passionate about enabling others to be their best selves, even when that means making an active change in their careers or personal lives, and serves as a mentor to current and rising women leaders. This year, she will also give back to her community and industry through her charitable work and contributions, including with one of her favorite charities, Help for Children.

What is the most valuable lesson learned from a woman in your life?

Try to be present as much as possible. I learned this lesson from a woman who is a quintessential forward planner, yet she embodies this way of being. It’s easy to plan, and I get very excited about the future, but plans can be torn asunder by unexpected circumstances, so I find that dealing with what’s in front of me is a great counterbalance.

MC Belk Pilon, President and Chair, John M. Belk Endowment

Pilon is president and board chair of the John M. Belk Endowment, where she and her team are committed to increasing access to and completion of postsecondary education in order to give all North Carolinians the chance at long-term, family-sustaining careers. She sparked the creation of myFutureNC, a cross-sector partnership on a multiyear effort to create a path that leads to a North Carolina with empowered and educated individuals living within strong communities and a prosperous economy. She participates on numerous boards that champion education access and success.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Do something every day that scares you. For the longest time, I was afraid of “failing” at various aspects of my personal and professional life. Eventually, I learned the valuable lesson of leaning into and embracing fear – it is probably the most empowering experience one can have. When swimming in the anxiety that accompanies fear, I like to ask myself, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” In that moment, I remind myself that fear is many times in my own hands, and I have agency over how much control it has on any situation. At the end of the day, our stories are very much our own to write!

Paola Cuneo Queirolo, Board Member, Falabella

Queirolo serves on the board of directors of Falabella, the largest retailer in Chile and South America, as well as its home improvement subsidiary, Sodimac. She also created Fundacion Liguria, a foundation that funds Chilean early childhood education, to support her belief that it has an impact on the long-term development of individuals. In addition, Queirolo was involved in the creation of, and is the current family head of, the Cuneo Solari Family Office in Chile (Inversiones y Rentas Liguria). This year, she plans to finalize her work in diversifying the family’s assets through expanded asset classes and different geographies.

What are the unique challenges of being a female leader in your field, and how are you overcoming them?

Today we are living in a world of constant change. New technologies have revolutionized us. The conviction that teamwork is fundamental and that diversity in teams is key to success presents women huge opportunities as well as great challenges, and we must live up to them. This implies that we must constantly be looking for innovation but without losing the long-term vision. A highlight is the importance of peer grouping to share experiences and enrich each other.

Ellie Rubenstein, Co-Founder & CEO, Manna Tree Partners

Rubenstein has over 10 years of experience in asset management. As CEO of Manna Tree Partners, she is focused on driving a strong culture toward the firm’s billion-dollar vision to revolutionize the food supply chain. In addition, she leads the firm’s fundraising efforts and is a member of the investment committee. Rubenstein’s expertise of global food systems and international network creates meaningful value for Manna Tree Partners Fund investors. Outside of Manna Tree, she is an active philanthropist focused on the military, public policy, health and education.

What are you doing to make 2020 your year?

In 2020, I am focused on the emotional resilience and self-care to build trust in all of my relationships. I have found that the more success you have, the more you have to make time on a daily basis to have the energy and resilience to seize the opportunities that success creates. For me, self-care is about prioritizing myself and setting up boundaries that allow me to hyper-focus and pursue my passions of integrative medicine, being outdoors, hunting and fishing. I’m a better family member when I find ways to emotionally and physically recharge. I’ve had plenty of medical adversity in my life, and the more I dive deeply into extreme surroundings, this helps me build and strengthen my resilience muscles. I’m extremely proud that I know how to be resilient and agile, but that comes from continuing to push myself by finding ways to get outside and serve others. What a revelation it was when I realized that by opening up my emotional state and being authentic about the challenges of having a successful career, I could actually build deeper relationships with others. For me, feelings of pure joy come when I help next-generation family members develop the tools to confidently interact with their families. Equally important, I love to watch the attitude shift of parents when they develop relationships with their children around trust, character and values. The people I admire the most are the ones who tackle self-care and complex emotional relationships and use their self-awareness to move forward. That’s the definition of success for me: developing your character to handle adversity. Career titles and wealth are meaningless if you don’t take care of yourself and your health. 2020 should be the year of people focusing on the health of the family, because it’s the single best use of time!

Diana Schad, Director, Grand Rapids Family Business Alliance

Schad serves as the director of Family Business Alliance and is a family council member of her husband’s family’s fourth-generation office furniture company, Nucraft. She has been actively involved in the community as a volunteer for East Grand Rapids Public Schools and Grandville Avenue Arts & Humanities and is a former city commissioner of East Grand Rapids.

What is the most valuable lesson you have learned from a woman in your life?

When I was 6 years old in 1975, my mother, who was a homemaker, returned to law school. I remember life was hectic – we often had Kentucky Fried Chicken for dinner, the laundry was in piles, and I would attend classes with her when I was home sick. I always admired her tenacity and courage at a time when women were just getting into leadership roles. From her, I learned that I could do anything that I wanted to do. I was never scared to take on new challenges because I knew I was capable and passionate, and the rest would fall into place.

Torry Stamm, President, Katsiroubas Bros.

Stamm is the president of her family’s 106-year-old business, a wholesale fruit, vegetable and specialty products supplier focused on superior customer service. As COVID-19 turns the supply chain upside down, the business has pivoted to focus on new revenue streams and support food security. The company is currently working with Fresh Truck and the City of Boston to provide boxes of produce to the city’s vulnerable population via the Boston Resiliency Fund.

What is the most valuable lesson you have learned from a woman in your life?

My mother and my yia-yia (grandmother in Greek) both worked for our family business. From the outside, you would think they were the caregivers of their children and took care of their homes and husbands – and that was true. But what I also saw was two women who worked tirelessly at night, on the weekends and during any free moment to build their family business. My mom and grandmother worked to support and build the business but not at the cost of taking care of their families. This type of outside-the-box lifestyle was what I was accustomed to and gave me permission as an adult to make my choices on my relationship with owning a business and raising a family. This permission I was given by how I was raised showed me I can get the job done, on my terms, on my time, and not sacrifice being present for my family.

Caryl Stern, Executive Director, Walton Family Foundation

A dynamic changemaker, Stern has dedicated her career to helping others through education, compassion, advocacy and rolling up her sleeves. At the start of 2020, she joined the Walton Family Foundation, which awards over $500 million each year to charitable causes, as executive director. Prior to that, Stern served as president and CEO of UNICEF USA. Under her leadership, the organization more than doubled its fundraising revenue, secured multimillion-dollar commitments in support of the world’s children and launched UNICEF Kid Power, the world’s first Wearable-for-Good™ that empowers kids to get active and save lives.

What is the most valuable lesson you have learned from a woman in your life?

My mother taught me one person could make a difference. Her own mother made the difficult choice to separate from her children to ensure their safety during the horrors of the Holocaust. At age 6, my mother and her brother, age 4, were sent to America, accompanied by a family friend who delivered them safely to the U.S., and ultimately to an orphanage on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1939. The actions of that family friend saved her life. My mother instilled in me that I too could be that one person whose actions could make a real difference.

Ellie Berlin Stover, Vice President, Global Head of Product Marketing, Tory Burch 

A passionate brand and product marketer, Stover is part of the innovative, collaborative team focused on brand awareness and marketing for global lifestyle brand Tory Burch. Recently promoted to lead a product marketing vertical within a new integrated marketing team, in 2020 she will focus on defining product messaging, something that will be more important than ever in a post-COVID-19 world. Mentorship will also be at the forefront for Stover this year as she seeks to personally and professionally mentor others, particularly recent college graduates, given the challenges presented by the current pandemic.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

I would tell my younger self not to say “I’m sorry” so much. In seventh grade, after fouling an opponent in a basketball game, I instinctively said “I’m so sorry!” to the referee, and my coach benched me for two games to teach me a lesson. It took me too long in life to realize that by apologizing for being ambitious, I was doing myself – and all women – a disservice. I am lucky to work with so many talented women at Tory Burch and to work for a founder and entrepreneur who encourages all women to embrace their ambitions. Let’s stop saying “I’m sorry!”

Kim Vender Moffat, Co-Founder, First Women’s Bank

Vender Moffat is the founder of Rosa Partners, an advisory practice that provides investment and strategic counsel to founders and management teams, and is also a co-founder of the First Women’s Bank (in organization), an innovative commercial bank focused on advancing the role of women in the economy. First Women’s Bank will serve a national deposit and lending market from one flagship location in Chicago and has just begun to raise capital in 2020.

What values do you try to emulate in your daily life, be it at home or at work?

I have aligned personal and professional values. I haven’t invested in a company that I wouldn’t be proud to send a family member to or one that I hesitate to share with my friends. Doing meaningful work, like my work shaping the platform at First Women’s Bank, will both have a significant impact on the community, economy and gender parity, as well as be something that my children can be proud of. Having and extending empathy is also so important – be it at home, leading a team or growing a business. Having common or shared experiences yields empathy, and I have found you are able to get the best of people – at work or home – when they feel understood.

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