Orlando's Women Of The Year 2019
Women who are making a positive impact on our community.
Photography by Roberto Gonzalez
They are educators, mentors, counselors, musicians, fundraisers, entrepreneurs, and individuals who stand up for others. But most of all they are leaders who help keep our community strong. Orlando magazine is proud to honor the 22 individuals pictured on these two pages as Women of the Year. We asked you, our readers, for nominees and you responded with a wealth of recommendations, along with details on how these women make a huge difference in the lives of countless people daily. Our congratulations—and thanks—to them all.
Back Row (L to R): Sandy Scholl, Deborah Moskowitz, Avani Desai, Alice Christner, Michelle Reynolds, Kristin Weissman, Beth McKee. Front Row (L to R): Janie Lacy, Usha Tewari, Lindsey Phillips, Desiree Castellano
Back Row (L to R): Olivia Sain, Sharon Smoley, Ybeth Bruzual, Melissa Wiggins, Dr. Roxanne Sylora, Catherine Davey, Loren London. Front Row (L to R): Jan Edwards, Kristen Manieri, JoAnn Newman, Nadine Mentor
Beth McKee, Usha Tewari, Alice Christner
Beth McKee | Musician and Grassroots Activist | Swamp Sistas
In 2010, McKee founded her group as a local support network for creative women. Swamp Sistas has morphed into a 2,500-member grassroots community for women in the arts that helps meet a variety of needs.
Through New Orleans-inspired musical events such as the La La at Orlando Fringe Festival and the La La Summer Hope Fund Drive and Volunteer Jam, the group has raised more than $60,000 for Second Harvest Food Bank to provide breakfast and lunch for underprivileged children during the summer.
“This amazing grassroots network lifts up promising artists and connects them with seasoned pros, hosting La Las, a party where musicians gather and friends dance and chip in for a community cause,” her nomination reads.
“As Beth says, ‘Music counts and people count and putting the two together is a big deal.’ She entertains from the heart, emotionally drawing in fans for a good cause.”
This year Swamp Sistas will be the “musical ambassador” for the La La Summer Hope Spring Brunch featuring fellow musicians Amy Robbins, Renee Arozqueta, Gailanne Amundsen and Hannah Wynn.
“It feels good to do good, and it’s a whole lot of fun to do good things together,” McKee says.
Usha Tewari | Alzheimer’s association Ambassador | Florida Congressional District 10
Her experience managing cases as a constituent advocate for the U.S. Senate prepared Tewari for her current role: an ambassador for finding a cure for Alzheimer’s—and someone who happens to be a caregiver.
“I realized the Alzheimer’s cause is a personal one; I needed to advocate for it just as I did for those 8,400 cases,” says Tewari, who cares for her mother. “As a caregiver, I realize there is a need for a voice advocating and expressing the challenges experienced for all caregivers.”
Tewari maintains a full-time job while volunteering her time as an ambassador. “Despite the overwhelming odds stacked against her due to caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s, she remains contagiously optimistic, compassionate and relentlessly driven to bring hope and help to those who need it the most,” her nomination reads.
Tewari worked to help pass the Building Our Largest Dementia (BOLD) Infrastructure for Alzheimer’s Act, which will support caregivers and promote awareness of the disease. She hopes to inspire others to get involved.
“As an Alzheimer’s Association Ambassador, I am motivated to advocate for those who do not know where to find resources, or do not know what questions to ask,” she says.
Alice Christner | Restaurateur | Christner’s Prime Steak & Lobster
Christner’s has become a local icon since the family-owned restaurant opened 25 years ago. But co-owner Alice Christner doesn’t just serve up high-end dining experiences. She serves the community.
“The Christner family is committed to giving back locally and believes their work with partner foundations fosters a healthy and growing community in Central Florida,” her nomination reads. Christner supports a multitude of Central Florida organizations and charitable events, including the MDA Toast to Life Gala; Howard Phillips Center for Children & Families; Ali’s Hope Foundation; and Restore the Roar, an ’80s-themed event that benefits the Winter Park High School Foundation.
“I see my role as one of encouragement to help lift up and support my community and its members. I hope that I have encouraged my family and friends to realize their blessings and demonstrate a pattern of paying it forward,” she says.
The restaurateur—who wears a number of hats on the job—is credited for her role in the success and reputation of Christner’s Prime Steak & Lobster, which has won numerous local, regional and national awards. Says the nomination: “Alice’s innovative practice is to stay true to their roots, brand and high standards without bending to every whim or trend in the restaurant and hospitality industry. Christner’s is a classic steakhouse that wishes to celebrate a timeless commitment to quality food and service.”
Janie Lacy, Avani Desai, Desiree Castellano
Janie Lacy | Founder and CEO | Life Counseling Solutions
Saying she is “motivated by the tragedies that have impacted my family, such as the domestic violence murder of my sister Carmen,” the psychotherapist and mental health counselor works to help people overcome grief, mental illness, addictive behaviors and sexual abuse.
“For 12 years, she has been enriching lives through her psychotherapy and brings credibility and expert knowledge to audiences via on-air appearances,” her nomination reads. Lacy has been a guest on hundreds of national radio and TV shows, including The Bill Cunningham Show, Daily Buzz and Emotional Mojo. She also co-hosts the podcast Life Unscripted, found on iHeart, iTunes, Spotify and Spreaker.
The women’s advocate developed and helps lead the programs Woman Redeemed, which assists professional woman in breaking free from toxic relationships, and Safe Haven, which is for women who have been sexually betrayed in romantic relationships.
Lacy also offers training in the treatment of addiction recovery and trauma in her role as a faculty member for the International Institute for Trauma and Addiction Professionals.
“I am passionate about helping individuals heal from personal tragedies and mental health challenges to promote mental wellness to be effective in their personal and professional lives,” Lacy says.
Avani Desai | CPA, Philanthropist and Women’s Advocate
In 2018, Desai was named president of Schellman & Co., becoming the only minority leader, as well as the youngest leader, of a Top 100 accounting firm in the United States. And she invests heavily in helping other women achieve their goals.
Described in her nomination as “passionate about strategic philanthropy,” the CPA is co-chair of 100 Women Strong, a group of female venture philanthropists whose mission is “to make the lives of women and children in Central Florida better and to help other women in our community grow into strategic philanthropists,” she says.
She also sits on a number of other boards, including the Arnold Palmer Hospital Foundation, where she heads women’s initiatives; the Central Florida Foundation; Orlando Tech Association, where she focuses on getting more women into technology; and Catalist, a network that she says “empowers women by supporting the creation, development and expansion of collective giving through informed grant-making.”
“Challenges motivate me,’’ Desai says. “People say I am a glutton for punishment, but I enjoy the process of fixing things that are broken, solving complex problems, and transforming sadness into happiness.”
But she considers her greatest accomplishment a personal one rather than professional: being mom to her 7-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter.
Desiree Castellano | President and Founder | Talia’s Legacy Children’s Cancer Foundation
In July 2013, Castellano endured the unthinkable: She lost her 13-year-old daughter, Talia, to cancer. Two months later, she honored her daughter’s memory by founding a nonprofit to raise money for research and clinical trials to defeat childhood cancer.
“I’m motivated to help bring awareness to childhood cancer and help find a cure, so that no parent has to lose a child like I did. Seven children die a day because of this disease. I want to see every child grow up and live a fulfilled life,” she says.
A medical aesthetician and makeup stylist by profession, Castellano, along with a team of volunteers, has traveled to 14 children’s hospitals around the country doing makeovers and giving away makeup bags to children battling cancer. “They have donated thousands of dollars to the most promising clinical trials,” her nomination reads. “Desiree volunteers her time, hard work and dedication to bring awareness to this horrible disease.”
Castellano advocated to help pass the national Childhood Cancer Survivorship, Treatment, Access & Research (STAR) Act of 2018, which promotes pediatric cancer research and treatment. She wants the work to continue “until one day there is a cure for childhood cancer.”
Back Row (L to R): Ybeth Bruzual, Dr. Roxanne Sylora, Kristin Weissman. Front Row (L to R): Melissa Wiggins, Sharon Smoley
Ybeth Bruzual | Anchor and Host | Spectrum News 13
This journalist of Puerto Rican descent has interviewed state and national politicians and has covered the George Zimmerman and Casey Anthony trials. But her coverage of the Pulse massacre “left a lasting impression on my heart.”
Bruzual anchored solo more than 10 hours on June 12, 2016, earning her an Emmy Award. “Working the Pulse attack changed my life forever,” she says. She has also received multiple Paoli Awards as an anchor and reporter, and her work has been recognized repeatedly by the Associated Press.
Named among the most powerful Hispanics in Central Florida in 2012, Bruzual is among 19 local women whose names were read into the Congressional Record in 2018. Referring to herself as “an endless prisoner of hope,” she has also been honored for her volunteer work with the YMCA Developing Hispanic Achievers Program.
“I love an underdog,” Bruzual says. “Any charity or fundraiser that involves someone or a group who is neglected is the wind beneath my wings and is the fuel to my fire—to ask the tough questions when in the studio or reporting, pushing for more to get an honest answer from those in power.”
Her greatest personal accomplishment is as a mom. “Our son, Christian, is 11 years old and keeps me grounded,” she says.
Dr. Roxanne Sylora | Plastic Surgeon | The Institute of Aesthetic Surgery
When Sylora operates on a patient, it is with the hope the transformation will be more than skin deep.
“People who feel that cosmetic surgery is all about vanity just don’t get it,” Sylora says. “It’s about empowering somebody by helping them reclaim their confidence.”
With men vastly outnumbering women among plastic surgeons, Sylora has faced an uphill battle. “Female plastic surgeons must overcome gender bias, grueling training and the lifestyle demands of their chosen profession,” her nomination shares.
“Growing up in a family where even my mother was a physician, the idea that being a woman should hold me back never even occurred to me,” Sylora says.
She offers breast enhancement and reduction, and body contouring in addition to reconstruction for breast cancer patients—“a service not widely offered in the community, but one that is greatly needed,” according to her nomination.
Consumers’ Checkbook has recognized the mom of three as a Top Doctor, and Consumers Research Council of America has named her one of America’s Top Plastic Surgeons.
Sylora enjoys follow-up appointments because “I see individuals who formerly had a reclusive personality due to confidence issues change into somebody bubbling over with personality and plans for their future.”
Kristin Weissman | Owner and CEO | Studio K
A top-ranking public relations executive, Weissman founded her hybrid PR firm/dance and fitness studio/photography studio in 2010. Agency by day, dance studio by night, Studio K is a three-time winner of Orlando magazine’s Best Studio for Body & Soul.
“Through her efforts there, Kristin created not just a place for health and wellness, but a true community where adults of all shapes, sizes and levels of ability are welcome to be themselves in a judgment-free zone,” her nomination reads. “Kristin was also named as a representative [in 2018] for Orlando as Ms. Orlando International to inspire others with her personal health struggles.”
Weissman also gives back to the community in numerous ways, including Give Kids the World, the I-Drive Angel Tree, Special Olympics, and her animal rescue charity, Studio K-9.
“I want my legacy to be that I took chances, that I was willing to sacrifice and to take risks to make a big impact and I never gave up,” Weissman shares. She emphasizes “putting people first, and then working as hard as you can to stay focused on…helping them to improve and inspiring them to connect.”
Melissa Wiggins | Founder | Cannonball Kids’ cancer
Wiggins launched her foundation in 2014 after her son, Cannon, was diagnosed with Stage 4 neuroblastoma at 20 months old. Cannon survived, but not without much suffering and lasting ill effects.
“During Cannon’s year and a half of treatments, Melissa saw the horrific effects firsthand,’’ her nomination shares. “This experience motivated her to spend hundreds of hours researching and learning about the enormous lack of funding and research dedicated to pediatric cancer and effects, such as secondary cancers, that occur as a result of antiquated treatments.”
The nonprofit’s goal is to fund innovative and accessible pediatric cancer treatments, improve quality of life and educate to spur change. CKc has funded 15 research grants resulting in treatment options for 90 children “who otherwise would have been told there was nothing else that could be done to save their lives,” Wiggins says.
“I’ve attended funerals for babies. I’ve had to explain to my son why the treatments used to fight his cancer caused him to need hearing aids. I know that two-thirds of pediatric cancer survivors deal with secondary cancers and lifelong side effects because their tiny bodies can’t handle the toxicity of the drugs. We can do better,” she says.
Sharon Smoley | Vice President of Advocacy and Public Policy | Orlando Economic Partnership
“One of Central Florida’s most competent, experienced and impactful government relations professionals,” according to her nomination, Smoley works to promote growth in Central Florida.
“In my role, I work with business and community leaders to determine the region’s priorities and advocate for policy that supports those priorities,” she says. “From transportation solutions to public safety efforts and economic development projects, I work with elected leaders locally, in Tallahassee and Washington, D.C., to ensure that economic policies align with our region’s priorities.”
Smoley worked to bring major-league soccer to Orlando, fund improvements to Camping World Stadium and build the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. “I am proud to say I was a part of the group of professionals, community builders and advocates that helped make these projects a reality,” she says.
But her greatest moment, she says, was in 2012, when “I crossed the finish line of my first Ironman Triathlon, and my daughter, family and friends were there to see me do it.” Though difficult, “it was important that I set an example for my daughter, teaching her that hard work, determination and commitment are the key in accomplishing your goals, no matter how challenging.”
Lindsey Phillips, Sandy Scholl, Michelle Reynolds, Deborah Moskowitz
Lindsey Phillips | Director of External Affairs | Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health
Children in the foster system—particularly those who have been victimized by the human trafficking industry—have an advocate in Phillips, who works to ensure their needs are met so they can be on a path to healing.
“Lindsey has emerged as a leader,” her nomination says, in providing support to victimized children by helping establish the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC) program “providing sophisticated treatment for girls and boys, ages 10 to 21, who have experienced emotional, physical and sexual trauma. As this work has progressed, Lindsey saw an additional need for a safe foster home for these children and lobbied legislators to provide for certification of such homes.”
Phillips also gained community support for “Camp Holiday Cheer,” where she says local foster children and their families have enjoyed “positive experiences” and created “lasting memories.”
“Not a day goes by at Devereux where I am not surrounded by impactful moments, such as seeing a child experience something they have never had the opportunity to experience or accomplishing something they have worked so hard to achieve,” Phillips says. “Every step of my career has been dedicated to improving the lives of children and strengthening families in our community.”
Sandy Scholl | Founder and Executive Director | Willow Creek Preschool
In 1995, Scholl started the church-based preschool with 20 students and two staff members. Today the school has 19 staff members who serve about 145 students annually. But it’s not about the numbers.
“This is not just a job to her. It is a ministry,” her nominator shares. Scholl invests herself in the staff, students and families. “Sandy is one of the kindest, most giving, loving, supportive, nurturing, sacrificial and godly people I have ever met. She would drop anything, to be there, to counsel, to pray with or just show love to anyone in need.”
Scholl has seen students who have “grown into vibrant and responsible adults.” She adds, “I am proud that I was given the honor of being a small part of their journey.”
The school’s objective is to give students a strong academic foundation and establish biblical character. “Each child should have the opportunity to reach their potential through appropriate experiences and teaching,’’ Scholl says. “Each family should have an advocate that will help assist them throughout these years. It is my firm belief that a family, a school and the church should work in unison within the community as we develop the next generation of citizens and leaders.”
Michelle Reynolds | Executive Director | Every Kid Outreach
Reynolds carries on her parents’ legacy of serving the community through her full-time work to equip and empower children to become productive citizens with solid character. She also is founder of The Sister’ing Movement, “a network of over 3,500 women from around the world whose goal is to provide opportunities and platforms that give women a safe space and unite them together as sisters,” she says.
“Michelle is a sister to all,” her nomination reads. Despite a breast cancer diagnosis in fall 2018, “she has continued to be selfless through her fight, continuing to be an example and a source of encouragement for others.”
Reynolds’ father, Eddie Cole, founded Every Kid Outreach in 1991. The program serves more than 500 students through programs and camps annually and has been recognized by the Orange County Public Schools for its partnership.
“Serving people is in my DNA,” says Reynolds, who finds motivation in seeing others pay it forward.
“Daily I am committed to walking in purpose, on purpose. I want to be remembered as someone who loved people and used every opportunity to connect them with their God-given purpose,” she says.
Deborah Moskowitz | Lawyer and Entrepreneur
Moskowitz is a managing partner of Quintairos, Prieto, Wood & Boyer, P.A., the nation’s largest minority- and woman-owned law firm. She also serves as a child advocate through the Guardian ad Litem program and, despite her busy schedule “dedicates a significant amount of time organizing and performing community service through Habitat for Humanity and Second Harvest Food Bank,” her nominator shares.
In addition, Moskowitz finds time to run a successful hot sauce company, Fat Cat Gourmet Foods, with her husband. “Getting Fat Cat off the ground from a pure startup has been amazing. It is like watching a child grow and come into its own,” she says.
In her legal role, the Orlando native says, “I have always enjoyed standing up for the underdog.’’ She finds the Guardian ad Litem program “extraordinarily rewarding,’’ helping children “stay out of the criminal justice system and, in some cases if needed, find stable and loving homes. Everyone deserves a shot at success and these kids are no different.”
Moskowitz, who has been recognized by the Florida Supreme Court for her pro bono hours, says this about being an influence on others: “If I have inspired just one person to reach for and meet a goal they always thought was out of reach, that to me would be the best legacy I could leave behind.”
Nadine Mentor, JoAnn Newman, Catherine Davey
Nadine Mentor | Founder and Co-founder | The Greatest Investment Girls’ Empowerment Program and Space to Grow Charities
The daughter of a single mom of four from Haiti, Mentor has shattered the glass ceiling as an investment banker by day, paying it forward by providing hope to the disadvantaged in Central Florida and in Haiti.
“Nadine is one of those women who sees a need and does everything in her power to fill the need. There is no end to her generosity, and her passion is contagious,” her nomination reads.
With The Greatest Investment program, Mentor says her mission is “to educate and empower the next generation of strong, confident and fierce female leaders.” The community-based organization Space to Grow Charities benefits underprivileged or abused women and children. She also has raised more than $120,000 for programs in Haiti, where she has gone on multiple mission trips.
“In both my professional and community roles, I try to instill positive values, provide guidance and encourage constant learning,” Mentor says.
“To me, being a mentor is a lifelong commitment to walk alongside someone that you are invested in, that you care about and that you want to see succeed. For some reason, God gave me the last name of Mentor. And you know what? It fits.”
JoAnn Newman | President and CEO | Orlando Science Center
A former vice president at AT&T, Newman took the helm at the science center in 2009 and, her nomination states, “has guided the organization toward a future of innovation, accessibility, inclusion and creativity, leading our mission to inspire science learning for life.”
In 2018, the center welcomed 673,124 visitors, a 17 percent jump over the previous two years. Newman is credited with launching a capital improvement campaign that has raised $10.4 million of its $35 million goal.
She also works hard to make the center accessible to the entire community through the Science for All program, by which low-income residents, schools and other groups receive free or discounted admission.
“She understands that one of the most important steps to growth is adaptability and to address our community’s growing needs, diversity and inclusion,” her nomination reads.
In 2009, the science center opened the area’s first STEM preschool, a point of pride for Newman. “It’s wonderful to walk through the science center and the school and see the excitement and the activity,” she says. “What we do sparks curiosity and wonder, which leads to big ideas. And those big ideas can change the world.”
Catherine Davey | Founder | Low Down on the Law
A lawyer and the mother of a daughter with Down syndrome, Davey found herself in a position to understand and advocate for the needs of families like hers. And she has.
Low Down on the Law is “a program Catherine conceived, designed and implemented as a service to families of those with special needs. The program seeks to educate families about the law and help them navigate the legal system so they can advocate on behalf of themselves,” her nomination reads. By attending a session, families can save money on legal fees and make more informed decisions.
Davey, who donates her time to help families like hers, says she enjoys “seeing the relief on parents’ faces as they understand how to work their way through the process.” She works to ensure “that the legal system continues to be improved to address the needs of this vulnerable but extraordinary population.”
The owner of Davey Law Group says she hopes to see “the world changed for people with special needs so that all people understand the gifts and talents that each and every individual possesses regardless of whether they are exactly like everyone else or not.”
Jan Edwards, Olivia Sain, Kristen Manieri, Loren London
Jan Edwards | Founder and President | Paving the Way Foundation
Edwards, an award-winning sales and marketing veteran, knows how to get an audience’s attention. Through her non-profit and a film she wrote, produced and co-directed, she now works to put the spotlight on human trafficking.
“She is on a mission to stop human trafficking through prevention,’’ her nomination reads. “She is always on the road educating and presenting her film, attending events and increasing awareness. She is unstoppable.”
Paving the Way works to equip and empower young people to break the cycle of victimization through educational programs for parents, students, educators, first responders and the hospitality trade.
Edwards’ film, Trapped in the Trade, was aired on CNN and is used in educational programs. She recalls a training session at a shelter when “a 14-year-old came up to me, pointed at the screen and said, ‘That’s me.’ She got the assistance she needed to never go back to that life again.”
The children’s advocate says her goal is to “know that I left the planet in better shape than when I got here by ending the cycle of child trafficking around the world…ensuring our children have a future to live into that lights up their heart.”
Olivia Sain | Philanthropist, Author and Speaker | Staying Sain
The sudden 2012 death of Sain’s father, former president and CEO of Visit Orlando Gary Sain, sent her family into a tailspin. Missing what she described as her compass, young Sain set out to continue his legacy of philanthropy, perpetuate his wisdom and offer comfort to others.
She founded Sain’s Stuffed Giving, which collects stuffed animals for distribution to children and adults at the annual Salvation Army Thanksgiving Day Feast. Olivia Sain also has benefited the Downtown Outlook Clinic, which provides mental health services to the uninsured, and was recognized for her fund-raising efforts for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.
In addition, Sain and her mother, Pamela, coauthored iBRAND: The Next Generation and a companion workbook based on Gary Sain’s blueprint for success. The pair started the website StayingSain.com to help people navigate and overcome loss. And Sain founded Butterfly Talks, a support group for lesbian and bisexual women.
“Whether it is putting on a fundraiser, creating peer support groups, [running] a charity drive or performing random acts of kindness, she is always making a difference,” one nomination reads.
As Sain—a popular public speaker—says, “There are so many life lessons that giving back can teach us. It’s not the same as writing a check to an organization. There is an emotional and spiritual connection in giving back.”
Kristen Manieri | Founder | Do Good Date Night
A Toronto native, Manieri founded the now-popular Orlando Date Night Guide in 2007. Eight years later, she launched a philanthropic division designed to help working professional couples connect with one another while serving their community.
Each event has been sold out, and the concept is now taking root across the country. “Kristen has said that she believes that most people want to do something to support their communities but struggle to find the balance of busy, everyday life with the desire to give back. And that’s why volunteerism date nights are a much-needed win-win,” her nomination shares.
As Manieri says, “Human beings are happier and healthier when they are connected. I am grateful that I found a career that finds me bringing people together. More than ever, we need our villages and our tribes.”
Calling herself a “possibilitarian,” the accomplished writer, blogger and podcast host sees herself as a strong role model for her 8- and 10-year-old daughters. “The greatest thing I have ever achieved is showing them that I can fall down and get right back up, that anything is possible, and that any woman can be powerful without losing her kindness and joy.”
Loren London | Founder and Director | RAISE
As an 11-year-old, London held a carnival in her backyard to raise money for a local children’s hospital. Today, she’s the full-time volunteer director for a Jewish Federation of Greater Orlando program that provides paid work and social skills training for adults with special needs.
“When creating RAISE”—which stands for Recognizing Abilities & Inclusion of Special Employees—“I was personally motivated and inspired by the challenges I faced with my younger brother, Barry, who struggled with special needs. It is my intention to leave our community a better place for other families facing the same obstacles,” London shares.
RAISE has helped dozens of people since its 2014 inception, inspiring other cities that want to duplicate its model. “Receiving requests from cities around the country interested in duplicating RAISE has validated our program and our vision,” she says.
The program “not only gives employees the skills to gain employment, but it gives them self-respect and self-confidence to become someone they dared to dreamed they could be,” her nomination reads.
London enjoys “seeing the confidence grow in our employees, most of whom are receiving a paycheck for the first time” while offering support to their families.