Thursday, February 29 2024 10:33

Brandywine Valley Women Leaders

Written by County Lines Magazine

Eight exceptional women share their stories and advice for future leaders

For our inaugural Women Leaders feature, we’ve chosen eight extraordinary women to profile. These women leaders represent a range of backgrounds and careers — from education, finance, the arts, politics, healthcare, hospitality, small business and the nonprofit sector.

We asked them about their upbringing and education, their role models and mentors. They shared with us their formative experiences and key challenges. We learned how some saw a clear career path from childhood, while others changed course in college and still others in mid-career.

What all eight women have in common is a willingness to step up, meet challenges, do the hard thing and seize opportunities. Their vision and personal histories are an inspiration and an apt celebration of Women’s History Month.

We invite you read their stories along with their advice to help encourage future women leaders.

Dr. Lorraine Bernotsky

Incoming President, West Chester University

After an extensive search process for its new president, focused on a sole candidate, West Chester University chose a familiar face: Dr. Laurie Bernotsky, who’s worked at WCU for 27 years, most recently as Executive Vice President and Provost. She will be the university’s 16th president and second woman president, effective July 1. A first-generation college graduate, Bernotsky knows firsthand the importance of public higher education and has dedicated her career to improving it.

Raised in a working-class family in rural eastern Pennsylvania, Bernotsky and her sisters spent summers picking vegetables in the garden with their mother. In winter, they cut wood with their father. “Looking back, having that work ethic from a young age served me well in my career,” Bernotsky reflects.

Though Bernotsky’s parents couldn’t go to college, they wanted their daughters to attend. “My parents believed in the transformative power of education,” Bernotsky says. She attended Messiah College (now Messiah University) on scholarship, starting in pre-med. “I didn’t know anyone who went to college,” Bernotsky says. “I thought, you went to college to become a doctor or a lawyer.” After struggling with organic chemistry, she decided to become a lawyer, changing her major to political science.

It was then that Bernotsky met her undergraduate mentor, a political science professor earning his doctorate from Oxford University. He hired Bernotsky to type his dissertation and encouraged her to debate him. As Bernotsky prepared for her LSATs, he asked why she wanted to be a lawyer. “I didn’t know what to say,” Bernotsky recalls. He suggested becoming a professor, something Bernotsky had never considered. She went on to Oxford herself and became a political science professor at WCU.

Bernotsky considers her most significant achievements to be the bookends of her career. The first is her doctoral dissertation, which she defended in England during her first semester at WCU. The second is her appointment as President of WCU. The process involved feedback from executives, faculty, students and alumni. “In that moment, hundreds of peers had to pass judgment on whether I should fill the position,” Bernotsky says.

For nearly two years, Bernotsky has served at Pennsylvania Western University, first as Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, then as interim President since March 2023. When she returns to WCU, she plans to spend time listening to students, faculty and staff. Looking forward, she aims to improve student success by closing equity gaps, which includes improving student support structures and increasing financial accessibility. She also hopes to move WCU toward becoming a national leader in higher education.

As a leader, Bernotsky has had to make tough and sometimes unpopular decisions. But underlying it all is something her father taught her: treating others with dignity, value and respect. It reminds her of a quote attributed to Maya Angelou: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

To Future Women Leaders

“Especially for first-generation college women, it’s important to know that you’re more talented than you think you are. When you grow up working class, you’re socialized to do what you’re told and follow instructions, not think outside the box. Be open to new opportunities — they come in all shapes and sizes. Think about your career as a journey, rather than each job or role being a destination.”

Patti Brennan

Founder & CEO, Key Financial, Inc.

Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year, Baron’s Hall of Fame Advisor, Forbes Top Woman Wealth Advisor in PA, Chester County Economic Development Council Hall of Fame’s 25th inductee, plus commentator for CNBC, Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, Business Week and more. Patti Brennan is clearly a leader in a field that’s only 24% female.

Perhaps this position comes from her 98% client retention rate or $2 billion in assets under management. Or the skills honed in 30 years of wealth management combined with holistic financial service to her clients and community. For her part, Brennan says, “It’s just evolved. No one nominated me to take charge. I just did for people what I’d want others to do for my own family.”

Of her major career change from nursing to wealth management, Brennan says, “I was naïve and didn’t realize what I was getting into. I wanted to learn for myself what was needed for my family. And I had great curiosity to learn.” Seeing a job ad spurred her to launch in a new direction — working in finance in Philadelphia, then coming home to 12-hour nursing shifts.

When the financial firm in the city went in a different direction, a mentor advised Brennan not to work for anyone else but to start her own firm. And so in 1990, she started Key Financial in a converted laundry room in her home, all while raising four children.

Now Brennan leads a diverse team of 30 — she prefers to think of them “more as brothers and sisters in a family that has different opinions and fights but gets things done.” Although she admits to reading “tons of management books,” her leadership comes more from her wide range of experience, whether the take-charge role that nurses have or as captain for her college lacrosse team at Georgetown.

Brennan says her leadership style offers guidance, a path to continuing learning, and believing in people before they believe in themselves. It starts with the belief that “we’ll figure it out.” This approach includes an open-door policy along with a deli-style ticket system for who’s up next to raise questions and propose solutions — not just bring problems — as they have a conversation to help clients achieve their goals.

With a holistic approach and ability to communicate complex financial concepts in understandable terms, Brennan has written a book to help her clients. Am I Going to be Okay? And is Okay Enough? is coming out later this year.

Finally, with a twist on famous rock lyrics, Brennan sums up her work, “If you help enough people get what they want, then you’ll get what you need.”

To Future Women Leaders

“Open your mouth and don’t be timid. Your voice is important. You should know you can do it! Men are much less hesitant about stepping up and believing in themselves. I learned as a nurse, standing around a patient with doctors, that I had important information to share and needed to speak up and be an advocate for my patient. That’s the same advocacy I bring to my financial clients. Women need to learn these skills and to believe in themselves, too, because they CAN do it.”

Molly Giordano

Executive Director, Delaware Art Museum

Molly Giordano knew the importance of art and its value to the community from a young age. Growing up, her mother ran a community art center and taught art history and other art courses to college students. “I always viewed access to art as a public service, something that everyone should have an opportunity to experience,” Giordano says.

But when it came time to go to college, it never occurred to Giordano to work in the arts. Though she believed art should be accessible to all, the industry felt closed off to her. So instead, she studied political science and journalism at the University of Delaware.

After graduating, Giordano worked for former Delaware Governor Jack Markell’s campaign. She watched as Governor Markell traveled around the state, trying to stitch together a diverse constituency of people with different values. This inspired Giordano: “It was transformative to see someone who can talk to any type of person and see what they want and what they need.” This experience shaped how she would later lead the Delaware Art Museum, as she strives to make the museum accessible to as many people as possible.

Giordano joined the Delaware Art Museum in 2010, working in marketing and public relations during the museum’s centennial celebration. In the subsequent decade, she rose through the ranks, contributing to the museum’s rebranding, diversifying its audience and raising funds. In February of 2021, she was named Executive Director after serving in an interim capacity.

Like any leader, Giordano has faced many challenges. As a young woman leader, she often experienced a moment while introducing herself when others would be caught off guard as they realized she was in charge. She says it’s important to “remember and recognize that as soon as people get to know you, that attitude disappears.”

Looking forward, Giordano aims to continue her work at the museum and strives to make it a community-centered art experience. She believes that success at a historic institution like DelArt is measured in both big and small ways — not just the exhibitions you mount and the programs you organize, but the policies you institute that will affect generations to come. She sees herself as a temporary steward of the museum, paving the way for future leaders.

“It’s exciting to carry that legacy,” Giordano says. “In 10 or 20 years’ time, I want people to look back and see we’ve done great things for the organization.”

To Future Women Leaders

“I think women, young women especially, tend to censor themselves before anyone else does. Though not as true with the generation coming up, they tend to be more people-pleasers, taking a back seat and being a support person. Young women need to ask themselves, ‘Is this a role I want to be in? Do I want to be support, or do I want to be a leader?’ That’s a hard leap for many young woman. You have to be very confident in yourself and your ideas.”

Chrissy Houlahan

U.S. Representative

“Service.” That’s what Chrissy Houlahan says inspires her, and it’s a strong theme throughout her life. Currently serving in the House of Representatives for Pennsylvania’s 6th District, the first woman for that district, Houlahan cites her family’s commitment to service. “Both my father and a grandfather were Navy pilots, and I began my career serving in the Air Force,” she says. That was after earning an engineering degree at Stanford with an ROTC scholarship.

Education and entrepreneurship are other themes in Houlahan’s life. After leaving active duty in the Air Force, she headed to MIT for an MS in Technology and Policy. Then on to leadership roles in the private sector, where she was Chief Operating Officer at AND1, the highly successful basketball apparel and footwear company based in Paoli. Later as COO of B Lab, Houlahan helped build the organization that launched the now-global B Corporation movement (B for benefit or beneficial — meaning meeting standards of performance that create value for society in addition to shareholders).

At each stop, Houlahan had a vision to build the kind of workplace she’d want to be part of. At AND1, she lobbied aggressively for generous healthcare and paid family leave policies. And using a company benefit of paid volunteer time off, Houlahan worked with women and girls in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). She later joined Teach for America, where she taught chemistry at Simon Gratz High School in Philadelphia. Wanting to scale her impact beyond a single classroom, she became President of the nonprofit Springboard Collaborative, focusing on literacy for underserved children.

Houlahan said that as an entrepreneur she had great leadership opportunities and was able to build great ideas from the ground up. “It was a combination of hard work and good timing,” adds Houlahan, with a chuckle.

These experiences along with the influence of her role models — Sally Ride (first American woman in space) and Madeleine Albright (first female Secretary of State) — shaped Houlahan’s vision for our country and prepared her for her next challenge — national politics. When asked why she chose Congress for her first foray into politics, rather than a local office, she doesn’t mince words. “There wasn’t time for that. The stakes were too high, and I thought I was qualified.”

“I never thought I’d run for elected office, but service doesn’t stop when you leave the Armed Forces,” she says. Winning her first race in 2018 with almost 60% of the vote, she’s taken on leadership roles in various bipartisan initiatives in Congress, including the Paid Family Leave Working Group, Climate Solutions Caucus, Servicewomen and Women Veterans Caucus, and Women in STEM Caucus.

“As an Air Force veteran, entrepreneur, teacher and mother, I’ve dedicated my life to service,” she says. “Serving the people of Chester and Berks counties is the honor of my lifetime.”

To Future Women Leaders

“Take your work seriously, but don’t take yourself too seriously. Don’t expect perfection in everything you do. You’ll learn no choice will be the wrong choice. Also, find a mentor, be a mentor and help someone else — male or female. Make use of networking and mentoring to build your skills as a leader.”

Dr. Janice Nevin

President & CEO, ChristianaCare

Long before Janice Nevin became the first female head of ChristianaCare in 2014, she knew she wanted to become a doctor. Growing up in England in a family that prioritized social justice, Nevin was inspired by her best friend’s father, a general practitioner. She carried that goal through her high school years in the first coed class at St. Andrew’s School in Middletown, DE (one of 26 girls in a class of over 200), then on to Harvard University, where her pre-med interest broadened to include psychological and social interventions as essential parts of well-being. “It’s the biopsychosocial model,” says Nevin.

Nevin went on to earn her medical degree at Thomas Jefferson University and a master’s in public health at the University of Pittsburgh before joining ChristianaCare in 2002 as Chair of the Department of Family and Community Medicine. “A former ChristianaCare CEO was a mentor who gave me opportunities that helped me grow. Even before I knew I was ready,” she says.

Known as a collaborative leader, Nevin has been honored as a pioneer and thought leader in value-based care and for her commitment to the values she describes as “love and excellence.” Her many accolades include being named among Modern Healthcare’s 100 Most Influential People in Healthcare and Top 50 Women Leaders, along with Philadelphia Business Journal’s Power 100 and Most Admired CEOs. ChristianaCare has garnered its own set of honors under her leadership.

Nevin points to a range of influences on her development as a leader. “Being one of the few girls at St. Andrew’s prepared me for just about all the challenges I faced for the rest of my life.” Her role as captain of Harvard’s rowing team taught her about individual excellence combined with teamwork. And from Sheryl Sandburg and her book, Lean In — “I learned that if I was at the table, I needed to step up and prove I belonged there. To make sure my voice was heard and the views of women were heard.”

Often one of just a few women in the room, Nevin draws on these lessons as she leads the 14 thousand members of ChristianaCare. She’s used the lessons to meet challenges such as delivering care during the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath. “You need to take on the hard problems, face them head on and do it as a team. I can’t be an expert on everything, so I need others. And I always connect with the front-line caregivers across the organization,” she says.

Finally, from her earliest influences growing up in England, Nevin remembers being described with the British term “bossyboots.” Nevin’s take: “I took that to mean I showed an early aptitude for leadership.” We agree.

To Future Women Leaders

“If you’re given an opportunity, take it. If you see an opportunity, take it. Seize as many opportunities as you can, even if it’s something not in your lane, even if it makes you uncomfortable. Those are the experiences that will open your eyes. And remember to be authentic and genuine. Know yourself and be self-reflective, humble and present.”

Aimee Olexy

Owner, Talula’s Table; Co-owner, Talula’s Garden, Talula’s Daily, The Love.

For decades, Aimee Olexy has been a key player in our region’s dining scene. In the ’90s, she managed Victory Brewing Company, The Swann at the Four Seasons and directed STARR Restaurants’ Blue Angel, Tangerine and Alma de Cuba. In the early 2000s, she opened STARR’s Pod as well as her first restaurant, Django, with then-husband Bryan Sikora.

Olexy became a force in Chester County in 2007, when she opened Talula’s Table in Kennett Square. A charming gourmet market by day, at night Talula’s Table serves a tasting menu to just two tables. Using the freshest local and seasonal ingredients, Talula’s Table is considered a pioneer of the farm-to-table movement, with reservations booked many months in advance.

Opening Talula’s Table was a return to Olexy’s roots. Growing up in Chester County, she has fond memories of gardening, canning and eating seasonally. She recalls “getting excited for blackberries in summer, seeing pumpkins in the field in fall, and picking rhubarb at Highland Orchards in spring,” which led naturally to Talula’s Table’s locally focused mission. Though the concept was novel at the time, it felt very organic to Olexy.

When Olexy was 13, she began working at the Spring Mill Café, owned by Frenchwoman Michèle Haines. Olexy helped out wherever needed, including waiting tables and a bit of cooking. “It was the most pivotal experience,” Olexy reflects. “I was exposed to cooking, language and assisting customers at a young age.”

In 10th grade and bored with school, Olexy dropped out to work full time. She later got her GED and attended St. Joseph’s University while continuing to work in hospitality, going on to manage Denver- area restaurants and study at l’Université du Vin in France before returning to Philadelphia.

While planning Talula’s Table and pregnant with her daughter, restaurant namesake Annalee Talula Rae, Olexy was drawn to Kennett’s small-town charm and agricultural heritage. “My mission was to build community through food, to take every experience I had in this long stream of restaurants and do it in one space,” Olexy says. Over the years, Talula’s Table has become a community staple, participating in local events like the Kennett Brewfest and Mushroom Festival.

Since then, Olexy has opened three Philadelphia restaurants alongside STARR Restaurants’ Stephen Starr: Talula’s Garden, Talula’s Daily and The Love. In each, community and mentorship take center stage. “I love to build little families, where people feel the inspiration and feel like they have a voice in the show,” Olexy says.

With her daughter now in college, Olexy has big plans for the future. “I really, really want to do a cookbook,” she says. It would feature recipes from her restaurants, with an emphasis on seasonal, simple cooking. There’s also a potential new restaurant on the horizon for 2025. Though still just an idea, the restaurant will surely reflect Olexy’s passion for delicious food and fostering community.

To Future Women Leaders

“Play offense! Get the ball rolling. My advice is to jump on the day and take action. In business, and especially in the restaurant business, being prepared is essential. Make sure you are early for every appointment and work well in front of every deadline. We all know procrastination perpetuates anxiety, so determine your goals and accomplish them without stress looming.”

Sandra Riper

Owner, Sunset Hill Jewelers & Fine Arts Gallery

For over four decades, Sunset Hill Jewelers & Fine Arts Gallery has been a cornerstone of downtown West Chester. Located in a historic building on North High Street, the business is known for gorgeous jewelry, excellent customer service, fine art and, at Christmastime, a giant red ribbon on the front of the building. Sandra Riper opened Sunset Hill Jewelers in May of 1983 with her husband, Joseph. In the nearly 41 years since, she’s not only led a highly successful business and art gallery, but also paved the way for other small business owners.

Born and raised in West Chester, Riper grew up in the jewelry business. Her parents instilled a love of the industry in her, and she honed her craft at the Gemological Institute of America in California. But it was her first boss who helped develop her management skills. A Merle Norman Cosmetics franchisee, she taught Riper how to create a team, work together effectively and take good care of employees — though Riper prefers the term team members. In fact, most of Sunset Hill’s team started out as clients. “Their interest in jewelry as clients spills over into their enthusiasm working in the industry. They get to help clients as they’ve been helped,” Riper says.

Above the jewelry store is the Fine Arts Gallery. As Riper puts it, “Downstairs is my profession; upstairs is my passion.” On the store’s opening day, acclaimed local artist Harry Dunn was among its first visitors. Riper had no plans for the building’s second floor, but upon seeing it, Dunn said it would make the perfect art gallery. The first exhibition opened that November. Since then, the gallery has hosted many artists and today houses the largest collection of the late Dunn’s works.

In addition to growing her own business, Riper helped develop downtown West Chester’s small business community. She joined the Greater West Chester Chamber of Commerce in 1983 on the retail committee, later serving as a board member and president. In 1990, she worked with Dunn to establish West Chester’s semiannual Gallery Walks, when downtown businesses showcase local artists. Ten years later, she helped create West Chester’s Business Improvement District, an organization dedicated to supporting downtown businesses.

Riper strongly believes in the value of strengthening your community. “The more I gave to the community, the better my business would be,” she says. “Especially in a small downtown, one business can’t succeed by itself. It takes everyone having a successful business to make people want to visit.”

As Sunset Hill approaches 41 years in business, Riper has weathered many storms — economic recessions, an evolving downtown, a global pandemic. She’s most proud of the longevity of her business. “I hope I can continue to make a positive difference in my customers’ lives and the community we’re part of.”

To Future Women Leaders

“You gotta take it seriously! It’s a business, not a hobby. Prepare for long hours, and times when it isn’t easy. I ran my business through motherhood — my son is 35 now. You need to have good people around to help you, and you need to have determination. It’s hard to juggle all those balls, but it’s worth it.”

Karen Simmons

President & CEO, Chester County Community Foundation

Karen Simmons was already a recognized leader when she arrived at the Chester County Community Foundation on September 11, 2001. A few years earlier, the Nonprofit Times had named her among the 50 most influential leaders in the nonprofit sector while Simmons was well into her 15-year tenure building up La Salle University’s Nonprofit Center in Philadelphia from and annual budget of $75,000 to $1.3 million. As the second leader of the Community Foundation, founded in 1994, she used those skills to grow funds under management from $8 million to over $100 million, from some 400 different legacy funds, despite the 2008 recession, 2020 pandemic and her horrific start date.

Coming to philanthropy through the arts — her childhood dream was to be a dancer — Simmons also worked with the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, Dance Conduit and several New York dance companies. “I loved the arts, and dance in particular, but realized the need for business skills to keep them viable,” says Simmons. “Early on, I saw my high school dance teacher struggle with the business side of her studio. So in college, I decided to combine training in dance with education and business.”

Raising $1 million as an intern for the Joffrey School of Ballet, Simmons saw the impact business skills could have on the arts. “I also realized I’d never be a star like the people I worked with — Mikhail Baryshnikov, Gelsey Kirkland. I’d make my impact in arts management.” To do that, she used skills sometimes missing among artists. “My superpower is organizing. I can build systems and structures and make them work in an organization.”

A series of mentors opened doors for Simmons and helped her grow. A high school dance teacher directed her to her alma mater, Skidmore College. A supervisor at La Salle saw promise in her and trained Simmons for a top leadership role. A key colleague reached out to urge her to redirect her talents from Philadelphia to the Chester County Community Foundation when a job opened there. “Kennett Square was my home then, so it made sense to focus on my community,” says Simmons.

Simmons brought her super power to the Community Foundation. “Our mission is ‘Connecting people who care with causes that matter, so their legacies make a difference now and forever,’” she says. The Community Foundation provides a wide range of legacy philanthropy services that strengthen charities and donors, by convening forums about charity issues, reaching out to estate advisors and their clients, and acting as a fiduciary agent to handle investments and other issues related to legacy philanthropy. Over the past 25 years, they’ve awarded $43 million in grants and scholarships.

And that’s another super power.

To Future Women Leaders

“When you have people around you who believe in you and see your gifts, and the right opportunity arises, get ready to move on it. Yes, you may feel afraid at first, that’s normal. But don’t let that fear stop you. Have the courage to meet the challenges, seize the opportunities and walk through those doors.”