Women Who Move the City 2017

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.

Competition in the job market doesn’t just apply to job seekers. “Employers have to move quickly and compete for talent,” says Denise Bennett-Walls, managing partner of Vaco Orlando, a professional staffing and business consulting firm.  “That can be very challenging as you juggle the multitude of tasks required to run your business and also try to find time to select the right candidates to join your team.  That’s where we come in. Vaco Orlando has the experience and success within Central Florida so companies can hire and retain top-notch talent here instead of recruiting outside the area or moving their offices.”

“Central Florida has been growing consistently due to the exceptional commitment of the business community, the Economic Development Commission, chambers of commerce and area colleges, and that growth will continue,” she explains.  “The Orlando marketplace is one of the best locales in the country to live and work so it’s easy to attract and retain talent here.  Our passion is to help entrepreneurs build their businesses by acquiring expertise that will allow them to compete locally, nationally, and globally.”

Denise had a vision and launched Vaco Florida in 2005.  Its divisions—focused on accounting and finance, technology, operations, and office professionals—provide the foundation for a staffing and business consulting firm that serves both individuals and companies.  She has built a business that supplies clients with years of expertise, along with a focus on business growth and the integration of mergers and acquisitions.  “Our team has the experience and expertise that will deliver success to our clients. 
Our strategic plan is customized to the
market and its needs.”

With offices now extending into North and South Florida, Denise has created a business model that allows companies to take advantage of senior experience on a cyclical or permanent basis, adding talent as their needs change.  Services that Vaco Orlando provides clients include management consulting; talent on a project basis; interim professionals; professional search, outsourced services, permanent and temporary staffing for technology, operations, human resources, marketing, sales, call center, managed services operations and accounting.  She also hosts monthly events open to all professionals in the community interested in fine-tuning their professional and networking skills.

In the last 11 years, Vaco Orlando has provided professionals seeking employment with more than 5,200 jobs locally, with over 1,200 of those in the Central Florida marketplace in the last 12 months, and the company is poised for more success ahead.  “Vaco Orlando has invested in Florida with growth in the southern and northern parts of the state,” said Denise.  “We listen to our clients and the marketplace, and a focus for us in 2017 is in the areas of retained search and managed services.  Additionally, Vaco completed two acquisitions at the end of 2016 that will expand our national team in the healthcare field with award-winning expertise and accreditation, a hallmark of the Vaco business model overall.”

485 N. Keller Road | Suite 451 | Maitland, FL 32751 | Phone: 321-445-2100 | VacoOrlando.com


Having recently celebrated her 30-year anniversary with the Orange County Convention Center, Kathie Canning provides invaluable leadership in sales, planning and development for the award-winning facility. 

Appointed to the executive director position in 2012 by Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs, Canning continues to direct and supervise all aspects of facility finance, marketing and operations.

In what ways do you feel you or your organization have brought positive change to our community? At the Orange County Convention Center (OCCC) we are proud to be known as “The Center of Hospitality”– a mantra that conveys our commitment to providing outstanding service to our clients, exhibitors, attendees and vendors, motivating their desire to return and enhancing the community’s reputation for excellence. 

As a world-class convention facility, we host some of the most dynamic regional, national and international conventions, meetings and trade shows.  This allows the Center to fulfill its mission of economic development, ultimately benefiting the Central Florida region.  In calendar year 2016 the OCCC hosted more than 220 events with approximately 1.4 million attendees who contributed to the $2.4 billion annual economic impact the OCCC has on the local community. Activity at the Convention Center supports over 1,000 businesses and creates more than 26,000 jobs locally.

What are the most important qualities in a leader? Integrity, trust, loyalty, vision and a good sense of humor!

What’s the biggest challenge of the generation of women behind you to move the city? Adaptability. The younger generation must have the willingness and ability to step outside of their comfort zone. Industries are constantly changing. Continuing education, renewing certifications and getting new certifications is a great way for professionals to continue to develop the skills necessary for ever-changing environments. 

How important are philanthropic/charitable efforts in your life? The Orange County Convention Center works with each event to determine if they would like to donate or engage their meeting attendees as part of a social responsibility initiative.  We are very proud of all the events that make a donation or assist our local charities. It is rewarding to see our visitors providing a positive economic impact to our community not only by spending locally, but also giving locally.  

9800 International Drive | Orlando, FL 32819 | Phone: 407-685-9800 | OCCC.net


Leticia Diaz has always been a visionary. When Diaz was appointed Dean of Barry University School of Law in 2007, she had high aspirations for the young institution that 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 (ABA). And with that recognition, Diaz became the first Cuban-American female to hold the position of Dean at an ABA-accredited law school in the United States. 

During Diaz’s 10 years as dean, Barry Law has not only made its mark—it has thrived. 

Barry Law now boasts an alumni base of more than 2,500 attorneys, many who continue to call Central Florida home. Barry Law received recognition for its diversity in four national publications. U.S. News & World Report ranked Barry Law 8th nationally among Law Schools for diversity; and PreLaw Magazine gave the Law School an A+ ranking for its diversity. 

Diaz’s impact has not gone unnoticed; she continues to be recognized for her accomplishments, and 2016 was a noteworthy year. In the spring, she was honored by Onyx Magazine as one of their Women on the Move and shortly after she received the Floridiana Award from the Cuban Women’s Club. In summer, she was named as a Woman Worth Watching by Profiles in Diversity Journal. Also, Diaz has previously been named to the Lawyers of Color Power List twice and to the National Jurists’ Top 20 Leaders in Diversity.

But to hear Diaz describe it, the success of Barry Law isn’t about numbers or accolades; 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.”

Clearly, Diaz’s approach has resonated with her students. The Moot Court team took home the Robert Orseck Moot Court Competition in 2016 and the Trial Team has previously won the Chester Bedell Mock Trial Competition. The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, which has helped thousands of Central Floridians prepare their tax returns, has received several awards from the ABA for its work.

All are praiseworthy accomplishments, but Diaz has envisioned even more 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.”

6441 East Colonial Drive | Orlando, FL 32807 | Phone: 321-206-5600 | BARRY.EDU/LAW


Fannie Hillman + Associates was founded in 1981 by Fannie Hillman, a single mother of three, when interest rates hovered around 15% to 19%. Thirty-six years later, this independent, full-service residential real-estate agency boasts more than 60 agents and roughly $250 million in sales volume. Fannie Hillman + Associates is proud to be an office full of strong women who truly do move the city. Our women are involved in shaping and pushing our office forward, as well as highly involved in the community. The women at Fannie Hillman + Associates pictured above are some of the highest producing real estate agents not only in Orlando, but in Central Florida as well. We are proud to have them representing us.

205 W. Fairbanks Ave | Winter Park, FL 32789 | Phone: 407-644-1234 | FANNIEHILLMAN.COM   


What excites you most about Orlando? I’ve watched The City Beautiful expand over the past two decades into a wonderfully planned city. The perfect blend of business, residential and tourism brings an energy to our city that leads to exciting possibilities like cultural events, sporting events, concerts and new enterprise. But ultimately, what excites me most is seeing how, in tragedy, our city is composed of such wonderful, caring individuals whom I am privileged to call my community. 

How important are charitable efforts to you? Very important. I support causes that range from raising awareness and funding for cancer patients to timed-out foster children.  Closest to my family’s heart is the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and finding a cure for Type 1 diabetes. I began the local JDRF fundraising gala 10 years ago. In that time the gala has raised close to five million dollars. At the 2016 Gala, my husband and I were the Honorees. 

What sets the Orlando area apart from any other city in the world? Orlando has successfully become a small town in a big city. During the Pulse tragedy, I was heartened to see how our community pulled together to support each other and grieve together peacefully. The images of our citizens waiting in lines that wrapped around blocks to donate blood are forever ingrained in my memory. To watch our Mayor and Police rise to the occasion made me beyond proud to be a part of this community. 

What are the most important qualities in a leader? Every leader knows she didn’t get there alone. You need a supportive team to back you. And you don’t have that team without supporting them. A leader treats her supporters with respect and earns their respect. A leader has commitment and isn’t afraid to fail along the way. A leader has passion, fights the causes worth fighting for, and knows when to back down and when to persevere. A leader treats others like her mom is watching. I try to incorporate all these qualities in every facet of my life. 

What’s the best decision you ever made? Hands down, moving to Orlando. I did not know anyone when I moved here. I took a chance and ended up in a city I will forever call home. Without Orlando, I wouldn’t have met my amazing husband, had our wonderful family, met all my fantastic friends and had the chance to create my dream firm. 

What women have inspired you?  I have been fortunate enough to have had many role models. Before I moved to Orlando, and long before email, I mailed over 100 letters to family lawyers I found in the Yellow Pages. Only one responded, the now Judge Sally Kest. She invited me to lunch, took the time to answer my questions and expressed an interest in a stranger moving to our city. I will never forget the courtesy she showed me, and I have made it my practice to answer every email and letter I receive to be sure others feel as welcome as I did. Naturally, there are too many other amazing female role models for me to list, but from my wonderful mom to strong female professionals, I find myself always striving to learn from them. 

As a child, what job did you dream of having? I always dreamed of a job where I could be helpful to people. I have surpassed any dream I may have had. Aside from doing what I love, I get to come to the office and spend time with some of the most amazing people who give me energy, laughter and who truly have my back. I could not possibly ask for more.

1000 Legion Place | Suite 1650 | Orlando, FL 32801 | Phone: 407-403-5558 | GreenFamilyLaw.net


In what ways do you feel you or your business/organization have brought positive change to our community? One of the many positive changes the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority (GOAA) has brought to the Orlando/Central Florida community is by continuing to expand and grow the number of nonstop flights both internationally and within the U.S. at Orlando International Airport (MCO). This alone benefits our region’s #1 industry – tourism – and our business and convention industry, as well as providing our local population with ease of travel. 

What’s the best/worst decision you ever made? Best: Moving back to Orlando in 1994 to work for GOAA; and marrying my husband. Worst: Though I enjoyed driving my Porsche Boxster, waiting too long to sell it as the repair bills mounted. 

What excites you most about the Orlando area at this time in its history? As a native of Orlando, I have experienced first-hand the growth of our area.  My father came to Orlando in the late ’50s to work with what was then the Glenn L. Martin Company, later to become Martin Marietta, then Lockheed Martin. Central Florida was already heavily invested in high tech back then with the space program. Today, globally people know Orlando for the tourism leader that it is but prior to the arrival of Walt Disney World in 1971, technology helped drive Orlando’s economy.  That “other T’’ – technology –continues to be strong today in our Central Florida community. 

How important are philanthropic/charitable efforts in your life? Charities are so vital to this city and critical in so many ways. 

What sets the Orlando area apart from any other city in the world? My parents emigrated from Colombia to the U.S. in the ’50s. There were very few immigrants living in Orlando back then.  Orlando has always been a very welcoming community.  I continue to be pleasantly surprised meeting people who call Orlando their home and come from all corners of the world. I love hearing stories on how people came to live in Orlando. 

What are the most important qualities in a leader? Passion, commitment, honesty and a sense of humor. 

What women have inspired you?  Globally, Germany’s Angela Merkel.  In the U.S., Michelle Obama and Linda Landman Gonzalez. 

Do you think there are still barriers to female leadership? We are fortunate to live and work in the U.S. where women have so many opportunities.  However, there are still barriers and challenges to overcome.  Perseverance is a must. 

As a child, what job did you dream of having? Is this your dream job? I caught the travel bug at a young age.  I’ve been fortunate in my career to have had the opportunity to travel the world. I continue today as I have for the past 23 years with GOAA to have my dream job – selling and promoting Orlando to airlines around the world and recruiting them to expand air service to MCO.  Airlines such as Avianca, Lufthansa, Volaris and Emirates do not just land on your runways by chance.  It sometimes takes five to 10 years plus to bring new international airlines or new routes to MCO. It is a dream to watch them land after a decade of work. 

What is the biggest challenge of the generation of women behind you to move the city? Convincing the generation behind me that Orlando is not just a city to spend a few years gaining experience before the next career move outside Orlando. Opportunities abound to be part of Orlando’s long-term success, but you have to be here and participate to make that happen.

One Jeff Fuqua Boulevard | Orlando, FL 32827 | Phone: 407-825-3898 | OrlandoAirports.net


In what ways do you feel you or your business/organization have brought positive change to our community? The Parke House Academy not only molds great minds, but also instills a positive change within our community. It is important to teach our students from a young age how to be philanthropic. Raising awareness for charitable organizations locally and nationally is a fundamental part of PHA. Our students and staff have raised thousands of dollars for multiple foundations. We like to show students that they can make a difference at any age by being actively involved and volunteering time and help within our community. Our students graduate with a sense of pride, service, and leadership. 

What’s the best decision you ever made? When I was a young educator I faced many obstacles in the public school system. I believe all children deserve a more rewarding learning environment with fewer distractions and discipline problems and less paperwork. My goal was to create a safe and nurturing environment while empowering each student to reach his or her highest social and academic potential. As a mother of three, I felt obligated to make a difference in their future education. Therefore, I decided to open The Parke House Academy. I have watched our school evolve from six students to well over 200 students in a short amount of time. The foundation that the students receive allows them to continue their academic journey in many of the nation’s most prestigious schools. I am truly grateful for the wonderful team that has executed my dream. 

As a child, what job did you dream of having? Is this your dream job? From a young age I knew that I wanted to make a difference and become an educator. With proper training and education at the University of Central Florida, I was able to obtain this goal. Now reflecting, I have surpassed my goal and created something meaningful to not only me and my family, but also to our future generation. When I am on campus, I enjoy watching the students being challenged with our advanced curriculum in small class sizes to meet their individual needs. This is something that was important to me because I did not receive those accommodations when I was in elementary school.  We pride ourselves on academics and class sizes, and students showcase many talents through building social skills and nine extracurricular activities daily. I am fortunate to watch my dream job come alive. We are happy to celebrate The Parke House Academy’s 20th anniversary in March.

1776 Minnesota Ave. | Winter Park, FL 32789 | Phone: 407-647-3624 | theparkehouseacademy.com


Plush Paws Pet Salon owner Laura Watts is known for her high standards, unique services and her winning way with animals. “I feel very blessed to be able to wake up every day and have a career that I love and I’m passionate about,” says Laura. Her popular salon has won accolades from clients, resulting in “Best Dog Groomer” awards from the Orlando Sentinel and Orlando Weekly. Among the many services offered at Plush Paws, working with “Behaviorally Challenged” animals is one of them. Plush Paws is known for its professionalism, and that’s because Watts insists on high standards for her staff and her salon. Her salon is certified by the National Association of Professional Creative Groomers and the National Dog Groomers Association of America. Plush Paws is also certified in CPR and First Aid by Pet Tech. A firm believer in continuing education, Watts offers her staff in-house training on the latest grooming trends and techniques, and especially on the safety and well-being of the pets in their care.  She applies those same high standards to herself. Watts, having many specialties, focuses heavily on skin treatment and prevention and is studying to become a Certified Pet Aesthetician.  In addition, she makes her own organic pet shampoo and is working on creating other organic products for pets, “Making your pet beautiful is kind of our thing,” she says. As an Orlando business owner, Watts also believes in giving back to the community. She works closely with local adoption agencies to place animals in need of a new forever home and offers her grooming services to local animal shelters.  “I enjoy building close relationships with my clients. That’s why everyone is instantly treated like family from the moment they walk through the door to the moment they pick up their pet.” Watts says. In her spare time, Laura enjoys spending time with her three cats and two dogs, being with her family, traveling and live music. “Life is too short not to enjoy a good song and a good glass of wine.”

710 West Princeton St. | Suite B | Orlando, FL 32804 | Phone: 407-442-PAWS (7297) | plushpawsinc.com

Categories: People