Women Who Move the City 2016
Meet some of the business, civic and educational leaders who work to bring about positive change and enhance the quality of life in our community.
Leticia Diaz is a pioneer, a builder and a visionary. When Diaz was appointed Dean of Barry University School of Law in 2007, the young institution was only beginning to make its mark. Diaz was part of the administration that guided the private Catholic school to becoming Orlando’s first law school to receive full accreditation from the American Bar Association. During Diaz’s nine years as dean, Barry Law has not only made its mark—it has thrived.
Barry Law now boasts an alumni base of more than 2,000 attorneys, many of whom continue to call Central Florida home. The student body has grown from about 600 to nearly 800, with the minority enrollment now approaching 50 percent. That achievement has not gone unnoticed. Barry Law received recognition for its diversity in four national publications. U.S. News and World Report ranked Barry Law 8th nationally among Law Schools for diversity; PreLaw Magazine gave the Law School an A+ ranking for its diversity; and Diaz has been named to the Lawyers of Color Power List twice and to National Jurists’ Top 20 Leaders in Diversity.
But to hear Diaz describe it, the success of Barry Law isn’t about numbers; it’s about the law school’s mission. “It is the charge of the Barry lawyer to use the skills learned here to help deliver social justice and to embrace the ideals that initially attracted them to the study of law. Nothing makes me more proud than to see a student find inspiration in our mission.”
Clearly, Diaz’s approach has resonated with her students. The Florida Bar awarded Barry Law the Group Professionalism Award for its innovative program to enhance professionalism among law students. The school’s Trial Team, which faces off in courtroom competitions against other law schools, has brought home nine national championships since 2007, leaving the likes of Harvard, Georgetown and other elite law schools in its wake. The Trial Team recently won the Florida Bar’s prestigious Chester Bedell Mock Trial Competition. The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, which has helped thousands of low to moderate-income Central Floridians prepare their tax returns, has been recognized by the ABA for its work in 10 consecutive years.
All are praiseworthy accomplishments, but Diaz has greater aspirations for her school and her students: “I know that a law school, at its core, is an institution of higher learning. But the way I see it, we are in the business of delivering dreams. Our students arrive on campus intent on changing the world. My job is to show them how.”
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed and caring people can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
— anthropologist Margaret Mead
These words have inspired labor and employment attorney Jill Schwartz. As founder and managing partner of Jill S. Schwartz & Associates, P.A., a top-rated labor and employment law firm in the state of Florida, Jill devotes countless hours and resources to community service and philanthropy.
Jill was instrumental in raising the funds to build Hospice House of Hospice of the Comforter, Central Florida’s first inpatient facility for the care of terminally ill patients. She serves on the Board of Directors of Harbor House, serving the needs of victims of domestic violence, and of The Holocaust Center of Florida. She is a member of the American Heart Association’s “Circle of Red,” and has chaired their annual “Go Red for Women” fundraiser. This year she will chair the United Way Leadership Council luncheon, promoting literacy in Orlando’s underprivileged communities.
For Jill, giving back to the community is a firm-wide effort. “We could not have a thriving law practice and impact the community in a significant way without the commitment and dedication of our invaluable team,” says Jill. Attorneys and staff members have been active in many philanthropic projects for organizations including Ronald McDonald House, Boys and Girls Town USA, Orlando Ballet, Pet Alliance of Greater Orlando, and the Legal Aid Association.
In addition to her devotion to community service, Jill has assumed numerous leadership roles in the Central Florida legal community. She has served as President of the Federal Bar Association, Orlando Chapter; President of the National Employment Lawyers Association, Florida; Chair of the Orlando Bar Association, Labor and Employment Section; and Chair of the Judicial Nominating Committee for the Fifth District Court of Appeals.
It is Jill’s passion to better her community. Through her personal efforts and by meaningfully supporting the volunteerism of all around her, she continues to have a lasting impact on the lives of many Central Floridians and on the city she loves.
Kim Arena is among the top 1% of all Coldwell Banker Associates Worldwide, and there’s good reason for her consistent success: Her commitment to her clients’ complete satisfaction, joined with years of experience and vast market knowledge.
“I work very hard for all my clients, treating each sale or purchase as if it were my own,” Kim says.
Combine her extraordinary customer service with her expertise and it’s obvious why Kim is among the Top 100 Realtors in Orlando and is one of an elite few to be honored with a Five Star rating for customer satisfaction. This prestigious title is given to less than 3% of all Real Estate agents in Orlando, “I love what I do, and I always give my very best to all my clients,” she says.
Each client benefits from her can-do attitude, attention to detail, strong negotiation skills, impeccable ethics and professional manner. When working with sellers, she ensures that the home is properly presented, professionally photographed and thoroughly marketed on 725+ Websites, reaching 16 million potential buyers worldwide. “I am passionate about making sure each home I represent has amazing photography, videos, aerial shots, cutting-edge marketing, whatever is needed. You only get one time to make a first impression, and making sure the home appeals to and is exposed to as many buyers as possible will bring my sellers the highest price for their home,” she says.
Kim’s vast knowledge and appreciation of Central Florida is another major asset. A 25-year resident of Orlando, she specializes in relocation and knows every area from Windermere to Winter Park and everything in between and around. “Many people only know Orlando for the theme parks, and we are so much more than that,’’ she says. “It is my privilege to be able to show them all the area has to offer.”
Kim’s dedication to customer service is equaled by her commitment to professionalism. In her quest to stay on top of her industry, Kim has earned the titles of Certified Negotiation and Marketing Specialist, Certified E-Marketing Specialist, Certified Relocation Specialist, Accredited Luxury Home Specialist and Accredited Home Staging Specialist.
She has been so successful at helping her clients achieve their real estate goals that they highly recommend her to their friends and business associates. About 95% of her business comes from referrals. “That is a huge honor for me and one I do not take lightly,” she says. “I am very thankful to have such wonderful clients that entrust me with the sale or purchase of their home.”
In what ways do you feel you or your business have brought positive change to our community? One of the best things about my job is that every day in the office is an opportunity to bring about positive change in someone’s life, to reunite families, and to contribute to the richness of the cultural melting pot that makes America great. I have had the honor of working with thousands of immigrants, representing dozens of different countries and I know that every single victory at our office is a win for our community. My clients become our local business owners, educators, and medical professionals, and I take tremendous pride in seeing them succeed. Immigrant entrepreneurship has been among the driving forces of the Florida economy in recent years and I hope that trend will continue in years to come.
Do you think there are still barriers to female leadership? I think opportunities for women are improving every day, but when women make up more than half of the population but remain underrepresented in positions of power in the economic and political arena, the existence of certain barriers is undeniable. One of the tasks I take very seriously is mentoring and empowering other women in my field. Professional women, especially those in male-dominated professions, may feel pressure to prove themselves as intelligent and competent, whereas, I think, often those qualities are just assumed of men in similar positions. I am committed to creating opportunities for other women and to ensuring that their voices are heard and their meritorious contributions are assigned due value. Together, we are stronger.
What’s the best decision you’ve ever made? One decision that I have never regretted was the decision to go to law school. I had dreamed of becoming a lawyer since age 11, when my dad’s well-loved copy of John Grisham’s A Time to Kill made it into my hands as summer reading material. As cliché as it sounds, after reading that book, I realized that nothing inspired me more than the fight for justice. Years later, Berkeley Law, due to its commitment to social justice and the fight for racial equality, turned out to be an excellent fit for my philanthropic and professional goals.
Orlando is an exciting, vibrant, growing community that provides a wonderful foundation for small, independently owned businesses. Working and living in downtown Orlando is exciting. Many positive changes have occurred in our community such as our new performing arts center, our burgeoning arts district, and our unique, independent restaurant scene. Our community is more involved than ever in creating and supporting avenues for small businesses to flourish and this is a community where I am proud to be a part. With so many of today’s medical and dental practices being overtaken by corporations, it is making it very difficult for sole owner operated practices to thrive.
Women, as practice owners, are particularly challenged, to juggle the demands of patient care, business ownership, and family life. The next generation of female dentists and physicians face increasingly mounting student debt loans making it virtually impossible to own and run autonomous practices. Insurance companies, with their leverages and requirements make it even harder to deliver appropriate care to patients. Thanks to the distinctiveness of our community, there is plenty of support to overcome these challenges and operate thriving independent small businesses within our city.
“I believe we have one of the best marketplaces in the country. I can’t imagine why you would have your corporate office anywhere else, ” says Denise Bennett-Walls. Denise loves Central Florida and founded Vaco in Florida in 2005, with a presence now in Orlando, Tampa, Miami, West Palm Beach and Jacksonville. Denise saw an opportunity to add value to Central Florida, ensuring the business community had exceptional talent and that professionals had a staffing firm they could trust to provide career guidance and placement. “We brag amongst our partners that Vaco Orlando can attract talent from anywhere—this is a great place to live and raise a family.”
Denise launched Vaco Florida eleven years ago with a de novo start that flourished into a thriving professional staffing and business consulting firm specializing in matching the strongest accounting, financial, IT, operations, sales, human resources, and administrative professionals with the unique project and permanent needs of its clients. She built a company that supports startups, growth, corporate moves, and M&A for small, mid-size, and Fortune 500 companies. She is passionate about companies becoming great and being here long term. Denise also focuses and leads the Vaco consulting practice, which she believes is critical to evolving the expertise within a business.
“Companies have to run fast and hard to compete for talent. We’re prepared to run the race with them. Vaco provides subject matter experts, project professionals, and interim solutions when companies need it. Often Central Florida businesses feel they need to go outside the area to hire consulting and/or executive search firms to attract talent. Vaco Orlando has the experience and success stories to prove otherwise,” says Denise.
Denise also empowers employees, clients, and candidates to support over 100 charity non-profits and over 50 community organizations locally. Personally, she invests time with Shepherd’s Hope, serving on the Board of Directors and the Development Committee. This year, she is committed to He Got Up on March 27 at the Citrus Bowl. It is the country’s largest-ever service event for the underserved. “It’s difficult knowing our community has individuals that need jobs, medical, and legal care. People sometimes need guidance so they can land jobs,” says Denise. She feels honored to lead the Job Services Committee, welcoming all Central Florida companies to attend and present job offers, training, and internships.
From the office in the day to the athletic fields and ballet at night, Denise spends her evenings with her husband, three sons and daughter. She encourages them to discover their journey with passion. Denise Bennett-Walls is an Orlando leader, innovator and entrepreneur who challenges people to think big and pursue their dreams.