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The 2024 People's Choice Award!


BAPCA19 Social1 UPDATE
Voting is now closed for the People's Choice Award. The top honoree will be announced on May 9 at the West Michigan Woman Brilliance Awards. Tickets can be purchased here.

Each of the West Michigan Woman Brilliance Awards finalists were selected for a reason. All exude a contagious spirit and broad skillset that, in one facet or another, betters the West Michigan community. This is an opportunity for you to get to know them. Read through their bios, resonate with their challenges and triumphs and ideally, make a few new connections!  

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Finalists

Founder & Executive Director, Still I Run
Social Change Agent

Sasha Wolff originally thought she was destined to climb the corporate ladder. But in 2011, a week-long hospitalization for depression—coupled with the discovery of running for her mental health—initiated a transformative journey that spanned years, reshaping both her life and purpose.

In 2016, Wolff launched a Facebook group called “Still I Run - Runners for Mental Health Awareness” to connect with others who ran for mental health. Met with incredible interest and positivity, Wolff turned the group into a non-profit. For the next six years, she continued to balance her full-time job and raise three small kids, all while devoting every “spare” moment to Still I Run. She’s now working full-time for the organization and looks forward to its expansion, including the Starting Line Scholarship in West Michigan, which eliminates barriers to running by providing free gear, fitness instruction, run coaching and group mental health support—all at no cost.

Wolff shares, “No one should bear the burden of shame for experiencing mental illness; after all, mental health is just as vital as physical health, just like addressing heart disease or a broken bone. Having intimately experienced the crushing weight of stigma and mental illness, I’m driven to ensure no one else suffers needlessly.”

Strategic Communications Manager, Grand Rapids Community Foundation
Emerging Leader

Heather Gill Fox is a book lover, storyteller, wife, mother, woman of faith and dedicated community member who uses her skills for connection and communication to challenge systemic injustices and create more inclusive spaces.

At the Community Foundation, Gill Fox manages projects that promote racial, social, and economic justice, and utilizes her platform to learn, adapt, and drive conversations and actions that prioritize dismantling barriers to equity. Community and conviction are truly central to her leadership. Beyond her professional sphere, Gill Fox mentors students, engages in national networks for communicators, and volunteers with organizations fostering a more equitable society.

Gill Fox hopes her leadership will inspire others to join in the collective journey towards a more just future, and says, “Leadership is not a title; it’s a way of being. You may not have the specific title or all the decision-making power, but people are inspired by those who have conviction and confidence. You can make a difference in your community, your workplace, your family simply by sharing your strengths, listening to those around you and advocating your passion for change.”

Chief Financial Officer, Hope Network
Mentor

With a deep appreciation for the support she received as an immigrant to the U.S., Heather Zak has dedicated over two decades to giving back to the West Michigan community through nonprofit leadership, volunteering and mentoring.

In her current role, she oversees finances to support programs empowering over 34,000 individuals annually with disabilities and disadvantages to overcome physical, social, or mental barriers and achieve their highest level of independence. Beyond her professional achievements, Zak serves on boards and volunteers for organizations like the Michigan Nonprofit Association, GVSU and Heart of West Michigan United Way. As a GVSU Alumni board member and mentor for programs including the Peter C. Cook Leadership Academy and Seidman College of Business mentorship programs, she aims to empower the next generation of leaders. Her efforts reflect her commitment to paying forward support and contributing to the community’s betterment.

Seeing others thrive both professionally and personally as a result of their mentorship relationship has been Zak’s greatest accomplishment. She shares, “Witnessing numerous colleagues who are women attain leadership roles, promotions, enrollment in graduate degrees, professional and continued education programs, and other growth milestones as a result of our mentorship relationship has been immensely fulfilling.”

Owner & Founder, Resilience Therapy LLC; Resilience Empowerment Services Inc; CRGR Property Management
Social Change Agent

Ebony Crane, LMSW is a pioneering force in mental health advocacy, seamlessly blending her academic achievements in social work and criminal justice with a profound commitment to social justice.

As the first African American woman in Kent County to secure EMDR certification through EMDRIA, Crane’s career is a testament to breaking barriers and setting benchmarks. Her journey—deeply influenced by personal challenges including foster care, juvenile detention and early parenthood—has shaped her into a relentless advocate for the oppressed and marginalized. Leading with empathy and innovation, Crane created a nontraditional private practice, initiated professional development workshops to address community concerns, and organized fundraisers to assist her property tenants financially. Her visionary leadership extends even further to founding a nonprofit offering childcare for those accessing mental health services, in addition to establishing a property company that champions the reintegration of returning citizens.

Crane is not simply a professional; she’s a catalyst for change, driven by a mission to empower, heal and inspire resilience in the face of adversity. She shares, “My approach to sharing my vision is rooted in the simple yet profound belief that change is spawned not by idle words but by purposeful actions. It’s about identifying what lies within my power to alter and stepping forth to manifest those changes, one life at a time.”

Director of Economic Opportunity, AmplifyGR 
Connector

Danielle Williams has built networks and friendships all over the world, always led by the mantra of staying true to who you are and never conforming.

Backed by many years of experience in corporate communication, marketing, community development and philanthropy, Williams serves as Director of Economic Opportunities at Amplify GR, where she connects local businesses with resources, builds bridges for social capital, brainstorms ideas to help small businesses grow, and connects neighbors to good-paying jobs. In recent years, Williams has led the launch of two grant programs at Amplify GR, the creation of Kzoo Station commercial incubator kitchen; started her own firm, DMWilliams Consulting, LLC; and served as campaign finance director for State House Representative Rachel Hood’s 2018 winning campaign. Williams serves on the Women’s Resource Center board and leads the Economic Vitality cohort for the national Purpose Built Communities network.

“Depending on where you come from, it’s not easy to build a close community in Grand Rapids,” Williams says. “The ‘host’ in me always feels committed to making sure people who move to GR feel like they’re in my home. And in some ways, they are. That means making sure they find friends, food, cultural activities and organizations where they feel a sense of belonging.”

Founder & Owner, Food Hugs, Amore Trattoria Italiana
Champion of Service

Jenna Arcidiacono’s love language is serving others through food. Her first job was slinging chili dogs and root beer floats at Cook’s Drive-In. Slowly, she realized cooking was more than a way to pay for her stirrup pants, music cassettes and perms.

After high school, she attended MSU and worked in restaurants near campus, and moved to San Francisco and fell in love with a handsome Italian visiting from Milan. Together, they moved to Italy, where Arcidiacono spent three years in the kitchen with her mother-in-law, growing her passion for Italian cuisine. Once back to the U.S., Arcidiacono opened Amore Trattoria Italiana, where meeting her guests in the dining room became part of the experience and her connection to the community. During the COVID pandemic, Arcidiacono started Food Hugs, which fed frontline workers. She continues to give and serve the community in creative ways. If you see a sparkly pink SUV with a “FOOD HUG” license plate, that’s her.

Arcidiacono says, “In serving others I meet so many amazing people and have the opportunity to hear their stories and make a difference in their lives. Everyone is going through something—if I can be the smile for them, I want to be that.”

Executive Vice President, Chief Legal Officer and Corporate Secretary, SpartanNash
Woman of the Year

“Everything you’ve ever wanted is sitting on the other side of fear.” This George Addair quote is one in which Ileana McAlary finds much inspiration.

Named Executive Vice President, Chief Legal Officer and Corporate Secretary of SpartanNash in March 2023, McAlary oversees the company’s legal, government affairs, compliance and aviation functions. She also serves as Corporate Secretary of the SpartanNash Board and President of the SpartanNash Foundation. 

McAlary has held roles at Wolverine Worldwide, Meijer, Amway Corporation, Miller Johnson and as an adjunct professor at WMU’s Thomas M. Cooley Law School, in addition to volunteering with the Hispanic Center of West Michigan, Habitat for Humanity and the Grandville Avenue Arts Academy. Over the course of her career, McAlary has cultivated relationships based on trust, empathy and gratefulness, and has become an expert in a number of issues across multiple industries and international markets. She’s a proven leader of people and processes with a passion for client service and excellence.

Having developed successful in-house legal teams and leaders at some of the area’s largest companies, McAlary remains a mentor to several legal and compliance professionals, and often speaks to audiences about careers in law and business and leadership development. 

“Almost 30 years ago,” McAlary shares, “I was a 20-year-old Cuban immigrant who came to Grand Rapids to make it my home and start a new life, not knowing what the future would bring. Today, I take this opportunity to give thanks and express my deepest gratitude for a community that has given me so much support and opportunities to change my own life and positively impact the lives of so many others. In the past two decades, I’ve had the privilege to help advance the careers of several amazingly talented women leaders in our community who are now paying it forward and continuing the mission.”

President & CEO, Wedgwood Christian Services
Best Supporting Man

Throughout his career, Dan Gowdy has demonstrated his intent to promote diversity, advocate for equality and elevate strong talent and good character in the workplace. He firmly believes in leveraging his organization’s strengths, passions and wisdom to provide transformational services to youth and families throughout West Michigan. 

At Wedgwood, Gowdy has initiated an ongoing leadership development program and helped establish an Employee Development fund to provide employees financial assistance to continue their education. Previously, Dan spent 24 years at Hope Network where he led successful grassroots legislative advocacy efforts for autism funding, prison reform, created an agency-wide training program for 2,700 staff, and led efforts to create a Diversity Council. Gowdy, who’s a Native American and Citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, holds a bachelor of theology and a doctorate in organizational leadership. He’s also a husband, father and “Pops” to a strong little granddaughter.

This recognition, Gowdy explains, represents the hundreds of strong, capable women he’s had the privilege and honor to work with. “In all honesty, they were strong and capable without me,” Gowdy says. “I’ve simply had the opportunity to support them and work alongside them for a part of their journey.”

Founder, Your Legacy Brand
Entrepreneur

Tiffany Neuman is a visionary branding strategist who helps highly-motivated women business owners and leaders up-level their brand.

After 15 years in the corporate world, working with brands like FedEx, Adidas, Stoli Vodka and Burt’s Bees, Neuman left to establish a revolutionary branding business that stays one step ahead of the trends. She now works with clients across the globe to help them grow their sales times 10 and be known as leaders in their industries. She’s a contributor for Entrepreneur magazine and has appeared in media outlets such as Forbes. A former professor of design and branding at Kendall College of Art and Design, Neuman’s proudest achievement has been inspiring the next generation to become leaders in our community. She attributes her success as an entrepreneur to a combination of passion, resilience and innovation.

Neuman reminds fellow entrepreneurs: “Stay adaptable and resilient in the face of challenges, as our world is changing at an amazing rate. Remember that your unique perspective and experiences as a woman in business can be your greatest strength. Trust in your abilities, stay true to your values, and never underestimate the power of perseverance.”

President, Trinity Health Grand Rapids
Best Supporting Man

Dr. Matt Biersack feels obligated to use his position, privilege and voice to support those who don’t have the same opportunities he’s had—be it in pay, promotion or any other aspect of their career.

As a trusted and collaborative leader who has served as President of Trinity Health Grand Rapids since March 2021, Dr. Biersack began his professional career as a hospital-based Internal Medicine physician, and has served in several administrative roles at THGR. A mission-centered leader, he serves as a strong advocate for community needs, and has helped forge partnerships to address much needed access to behavioral healthcare. He is a champion for hospital employee and patient safety initiatives as well as THGR’s DEI work, where he has taken an active role in ensuring an organizational focus on advancing diversity and eliminating racism. Dr. Biersack serves as Board Co-Chair for TalentFirst, and on the Board of Trustees for Aquinas College, as well as The Right Place.

Dr. Biersack, a Grand Rapids native, says, “Men have an essential role in promoting equitable outcomes in the workplace, and in doing so, they’ll unlock the incredible potential of the women around them.”

Executive Director, Baxter Community Center
Champion of Service

Service to others has always been a part of Sonja Forte’s life. It’s something she believes everyone should do, as we’ll all need to be served at some point, in some way.

As Executive Director of Baxter Community Center, Forte leads a team that offers services to neighbors and spaces where the community can come together to feel not only cared for, but wholeheartedly welcomed. Forte is intentional about being a “quiet force,” staying off the radar and moving discreetly in her efforts. She’s best known for her unique point of view and for challenging the idea of going along to get along. In doing so, she often shifts conversations in the room, challenging the direction of efforts. Forte has also spent years championing the support of Black Owned Businesses—particularly by other businesses, government and local organizations. It’s her belief that everyone should be able to pursue their own dreams, however they see them. 

Forte shares, “It took me a long time to realize that by simply being myself, a kind yet direct woman with a quirky outlook on life, that it becomes a nonverbal affirmation (and even permission) for others to do the same.”

Emergency Recovery Coordinator, Paul Davis of West Michigan
Tenacity

Leading with service, Mandy Fidler is a liaison to families facing substantial loss after catastrophes, lending heart and humanity. Fidler faced catastrophe herself after enduring a horrific assault in 2023 that saw her hospitalized and undergoing reconstructive surgery, resulting in her mouth being sewn shut and only consuming liquids for 100 days. Her husband—subsequently convicted for aggravated domestic assault—died by suicide shortly before his sentence. In the face of the unimaginable, Fidler presses on.

She advocates for community risk reduction through education and emergency preparedness, and on the Board of Hero Services, she plays a pivotal role in furthering the pursuit of mental wellness among Veterans and First Responders. You’ll find Fidler impacting our most at risk communities through life-saving initiatives like Sound the Alarm and the West Michigan Red Cross. 

“Some days I didn’t want to get out of bed,” Fidler shares. “My tenacity is what made me wake up one morning and say, ‘Are you going to let these traumas make or break you? Are you going to lay down and accept defeat?’ My determination to rise above kicked into gear. I had to set the example for my children that bad things are going to happen in this lifetime, but where there’s bad, you’ll always find good.”

Director of Communications, SpartanNash
Tenacity

Carrie Smith is a passionate advocate for postpartum mothers. Having navigated motherhood and postpartum depression herself—along with additional heartbreaking personal struggles—she has poured herself into improving outcomes for mothers, parents, and babies as the former Executive Director for MomsBloom and through lobbying and public speaking engagements.

Smith started her career as a reporter at WOOD-TV8, and then worked her way through the ranks at BISSELL and AHC+Hospitality. In 2018, Smith began leading MomsBloom through a difficult phase that threatened the non-profit’s closure. She knew it would be challenging, but she got to work—fundraising, revising the program model, recruiting and training volunteers and planning events. Under her leadership, the program grew to serve more than 400 postpartum mothers each year with free in-home support services. Following MomsBloom’s continued success, Smith recently accepted a position as Director of Communications for SpartanNash, and volunteers her time on the board at Park Church. 

“In my early years,” Smith says, “I doubted myself often, and wondered if I was too ‘weak’ for leadership, simply because I’m a sensitive person. But in time, I realized that my depth of emotion was a gift and not something that would hold me back.”

Owner & CEO, El Granjero Mexican Grill
Entrepreneur

Originally from Mexico City, Mercedes Lopez-Duran grew up in a humble home, raised by her grandmother and siblings. She left school to get married at an early age and started a family. New to the restaurant business, she developed a passion for cooking and learned customer service skills while working in different restaurants in Mexico.

Lopez-Duran faced many challenges when she moved to Grand Rapids in 2005, including language barriers and depression from being far away from family and her hometown. But when she had the opportunity to take over a local restaurant, El Granjero Mexican Grill was born! With a rebrand and fresh menu, Lopez-Duran grew the restaurant from $60,000 in revenue in 2007 to close to $1 million as of last year, increasing her catering services to 30% and providing employment to 100 people over 17 years. Today, Lopez-Duran is also a partner at the new Mercadito Mexican Eats & Treats, bringing a street-food inspired menu to GR’s Westside for the first time.

Lopez-Duran says, “It’s critical to build your village. Owning a business, especially a restaurant, is something you cannot do on your own. I’m thankful for the community among other restaurant owners because we support one another and offer knowledge and even resources to ensure everyone does well.”

Marketing and Communications Manager, Gerald R. Ford International Airport 
Emerging Leader

Haley Abbas is a dynamic marketing and communications professional who recognizes the influence women mentors and advocates have had on her career and how they’ve inspired her own pathway to leadership.

In her current role, Abbas leads a comprehensive marketing strategy to enhance Gerald R. Ford International Airport’s brand presence locally, regionally and nationally. Serving as Public Information Officer, Abbas manages the airport’s crisis communications and public relations initiatives, and plays a pivotal role in supporting air service development efforts to further foster connectivity for West Michigan’s gateway to the world. Her commitment to excellence has garnered national recognition, including Best Overall Marketing Strategy for a Small Hub Airport by Airports Council International - North America. Prior, Abbas gained extensive experience in economic and community development at Lakeshore Advantage in Zeeland, contributing to the growth of one of the fastest-growing economies in the U.S.

Leadership lessons abound for Abbas, who says, “As a leader, seeing my team members grow and succeed is the most rewarding part of my job. I’m someone who’s there to support and empower others to shine. It’s not about being front and center; it’s about lifting others up and helping them reach their full potential.”

Founder, SWAN (Strong Women Arise Network); Client Executive, Hylant
Connector

You may not know it by meeting her, but Angela Schalow is an introvert. As an insurance agent, she knew networking was crucial. Yet, she often felt drained after meeting strangers at networking events. She knew she wasn’t the only woman frustrated by traditional networking.

In 2019, Schalow founded SWAN – Strong Women Arise Network, aimed at promoting an atmosphere of positivity and encouragement. SWANs describe the group as different, a place where they can be honest about their struggles, finding comradery and support. Women no longer need to network in a room of strangers, but rather with friends. SWAN started with six women in Grand Rapids and has grown to three chapters with approximately 1,800 members. Additionally, Schalow’s annual conference, SWAN Con, provides a full day of professional development and networking while fundraising for the fight against human trafficking.

Knowing that far too often a business card ends up in a drawer rather than resulting in a valuable connection, Schalow says, “I know that often people are one introduction away from reaching the next milestone, solving the next problem, or helping the next client. I enjoy playing a part in others’ success. The feeling of fulfillment from making an impact is what fuels me.”

Founder & Co-Owner, Cellar Door Preserves
Entrepreneur

What started as a canning hobby and way to eat as much local food as possible, became a business for Zenobia Taylor-Weiss in 2016. After attending college in Grand Rapids, she became convinced the world’s best fruit is grown in Michigan—a fact she felt more people should know. Through this belief, Cellar Door Preserves was born. 

She dedicated nights and weekends alone for over two years to Cellar Door Preserves, while also working other jobs. Today, she oversees a small but mighty staff and has sold jam made with Michigan fruit in all 50 states and Canada. Cellar Door Preserves won the Best Product Award at the prestigious NY Now Gift Show and has graced the tables of farmers, celebrities, high-end restaurants and foodies alike. But Taylor-Weiss’ favorite compliment is someone sharing that her products taste like jam their grandmother used to make.

She says, “The biggest mistakes I’ve made in my business were when my gut instinct told me something was off and I ignored it. In our culture, especially as women, we’re often taught to doubt our instincts and not trust ourselves. What I’ve learned from being an entrepreneur for over seven years is that the person who knows what’s best for your business is YOU.”

Founding Chief Executive Officer, STEM Greenhouse
Woman of the Year

Dr. Keli Christopher is a trailblazing leader and educator dedicated to advancing STEM education for students of color. As the Founder and CEO of STEM Greenhouse, she champions the belief that nurturing curiosity in STEM leads to flourishing children. The third Black woman globally to earn a Ph.D. in Agricultural Engineering, her experiences fuel her drive to close the opportunity gap and diversify career paths for under-resourced youth.

Since STEM Greenhouse’s humble beginnings in 2014, Dr. Christopher has spent countless hours investing in the success of the girls and young women she teaches, whether it’s going to their basketball games, taking them on field trips or otherwise. What started as math clubs for girls at local libraries has grown into an organization that serves almost 1,000 students a year.

Dr. Christopher’s greatest accomplishments have been successfully advocating for change in philanthropic, educational and government systems, which in turn have resulted in more equitable funding for nonprofit organizations in our community. Her honors are many, including North Carolina A&T SU, Distinguished Alumni Award, the Nolan Groce Business Leadership Award, and the Dr. Melinda Sapp Legacy Award. Dr. Christopher’s work is a testament to the power of one person’s influence, transforming generations through education.

She shares, “All of my experiences—from being a little girl that struggled with her multiplication tables, to becoming valedictorian of Ottawa Hills High School, to the racism I experienced in graduate school, to losing my husband to cancer, and the challenges I faced leading a nonprofit—have all culminated to this point in time, where others can be blessed from the journey that I’ve been through. For someone to look at my journey and say it is deserving of honor is beyond anything I ever imagined.”

President - West Michigan Region, Huntington Bank
Woman of the Year

Lauren Davis has led the West Michigan team at Huntington Bank as Regional President since July 2022. With a remarkable journey fueled by a lifelong passion for banking—which persists as a male-dominated field—Davis has continually excelled, from her first role in retail banking to operations, risk management, finance and commercial banking, to her current role at the helm. Davis, who holds a B.B.A. in finance from CMU and an MBA from GVSU, strives to lead by example, empowering women to achieve their full potential while advocating for inclusivity and diversity.

A Northern Michigan native, Davis has dedicated nearly three decades to serving West Michigan’s financial landscape, showcasing expertise in sales, strategic expansion, and fostering top-tier talent. Her commitment to community impact is evident through her board positions at The Right Place, The Economic Club of Grand Rapids and King Milling, a family-owned business. She is a strong advocate for women’s empowerment and mentorship with her former roles at YWCA and MWF. Additionally, Davis serves as the 2024 Chair for the Samaritas Be the Rock Gala, further exemplifying her dedication to community service. 

She believes in leading with compassion, authenticity and resilience, and encourages other women to embrace their unique strengths, pursue their goals with confidence, take calculated risks, and strive for more than they think is possible—and to have fun while doing it.

Davis says, “Whether it’s mentoring young professionals, advocating for women’s leadership initiatives, or fostering a culture of inclusivity and collaboration within my organization, knowing that I have positively impacted the lives of others is immensely fulfilling. It’s important to me that I’m a part of supporting the next generation of women leaders who will continue to make a meaningful impact in our community.” 

Project Coordinator, Social Innovation, Steelcase
Emerging Leader

A West Michigan native, Ashley Fermina Soto is a strong leader grounded in her commitment to justice. Raised by a single mother, Soto is a first-generation college graduate who served as president of her sorority for two years and oversaw the Right to Success College Access Program.

She began her career at the height of the pandemic, supporting a pipeline of over 200 Latinx college students in early career navigation. Soto has built a career in place-based community impact, interrogating power and playing a meaningful role in restructuring institutional systems to expand access for all. Her honors include the U of M MLK Jr. Spirit Award, the Hispanic Center Desafío Award, and DTL’s National Neophyte of the Year. As a queer Black Latina, it became easier for Soto to envision herself as a leader thanks to the women role models who looked like her and helped her navigate long standing systems not built for the children of immigrants, people of color, queer folk, and other disenfranchised communities.

“Great leaders take it upon themselves to build authentic relationships from the connections they make,” Soto says. “Take the extra step to embrace people fully for who they are—not the titles they hold or the places they work … that’s when the magic happens, and everyone thrives.”

Founder & Executive Director, THE PLAYGROUNDgr
Social Change Agent

With over 23 years of experience working with children, youth and families, Jacqueline Scherer, LMSW, RPT has tirelessly promoted healing through play, both in her home and community. 

Scherer—a foster parent of 13 years and mother to three children—has led various out-of-state initiatives and contributed significantly to the field by piloting a traumatic grief curriculum for children, advocating for educational rights, and serving as a crisis clinician for children in Kent County. Scherer actively engages in teaching and speaking engagements, sharing her expertise in grief, trauma, and play with clinicians, teachers and community members. Her recent endeavor, THE PLAYGROUNDgr Podcast, further amplifies this by inviting local experts to share their insights on healing through play. Scherer’s passion for play therapy and play-based strategies led her to create THE PLAYGROUNDgr, driven by the belief that everyone deserves access to the healing power of play. Scherer, who’s a Michigan Association of Play Therapy Board Member and Midtown Neighborhood Association Chair, continues to advocate for safe and accessible play and play therapy services for all. 

She says, “The missing link in mental and emotional health in our community is accessible access to play and play therapy. The research is clear … play heals.”

President, Women At Risk International
Champion of Service

Rebecca McDonald doesn’t consider herself to be special—just someone determined to give voice to the silenced. She’s spent four decades reaching out to the wounded and lifting them up to a place worth and dignity in over 60 countries and America.

The daughter of a surgeon and artist, McDonald grew up in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) from age five until college and attended boarding school in Pakistan, something she considered a great privilege. By age 14, they’d stayed through two wars so her father could provide medical care. One day, her Bengali playmate was raped and fought back, silenced forever with acid poured down her throat. Her friend’s suffering set McDonald on a path to give voice to the silenced, wrapping arms of love around them and helping them rewrite their stories. She founded WAR International—best known for its anti-trafficking fight—to educate, unite, and create circles of protection and hope around the wounded through culturally sensitive, value-added intervention projects in addressing 15 risk issues.

“Serving others is addictive,” McDonald says. “If you stick at it long enough, you have the luxury of hindsight to see that it truly works! I could tell you thousands of stories with happy endings! That pours steel into my backbone every time.”

Founder & Co-Owner, Acceso VIP
Tenacity

Dedicated to enhancing community engagement and empowering individuals in West Michigan, Yeli Romero strives to bridge cultural divides and foster collaboration and inclusivity. When Romero was 19, she began struggling with alopecia universalis—total hair loss. After enduring severe bullying, Romero kept her condition hidden for years, but eventually went public and now advocates for alopecia education and support. For Romero, every tear shed, every obstacle, every setback, was a stepping stone.

As CEO of Accesso VIP, Romero actively shares resources, interviews community members, and organizes empowering events, with her and her team having supported more than 500 clients and promoted over 3,000 events. Romero also engages diverse audiences as a WYCE on-air personality; offers crucial support to business owners along Cesar E. Chavez Avenue as manager of the South West Business Association; and manages the Roosevelt Park Neighborhood Farmers Market, leading marketing efforts, creating bilingual social media content and more.

Being named a finalist, Romero shared, is like receiving a warm embrace from her community. She says, “It symbolizes the struggles and triumphs of every person who has ever dared to dream big and chase those dreams relentlessly. It’s a tribute to resilience, to that inner strength that propels us forward, even when the path seems daunting.”

Director of Talent & Leadership Programs, Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce
Connector

Monica Mendez firmly believes that magic happens when we find common purpose with those outside of our usual circles.

Born and raised in Mexico, Mendez’s journey has been a testament to her ability to navigate diverse cultural landscapes. She spent the first 15 years of her career as a bicultural, bilingual business professional. While finding corporate success, she felt drawn to causes shaping our community, leading her to boldly change direction. Mendez is a community connector who believes in system-level impact through collaboration and relationship building. As the Director of Talent & Leadership Programs at the Grand Rapids Chamber, Mendez is an ally, building the community of tomorrow. She serves as a leader in strategy, development, and facilitation of ATHENA Grand Rapids, Latina Connect, OutPro, and five leadership programs, in addition to sitting on the boards of the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan and the Literacy Center.

Always open to connect—and knowing from experience that one coffee can be life changing—Mendez says, “I connect with people because I know it’s a powerful way to celebrate each other’s greatness. I not only believe in shining a light on others, but in helping people’s lights shine.”

Program Director, Wedgwood Christian Services
Mentor

In 2000, Jackie Brewster began her life-long mission mentoring youth through Wedgwood’s Employment Training Program (ETP) for resident youth, empowering them to develop valuable life and job skills. Since, she’s mentored 1,134 kids—and she’s not stopping! 

Most youth entering ETP believe their past determines their future. Brewster builds trust through unwavering encouragement and support of navigation in new areas, assuring them their best is still to come. Brewster’s top priority is the well-being of each youth—emotionally, mentally, spiritually. Her passion for sharing knowledge, skills and experience guides youth to success, and as they complete the program, Brewster continues to make herself accessible, providing follow-up care even 20 years later, in some cases.

Brewster—who’s been a foster parent—role-models dedication, compassion and commitment, developing best practices for ongoing youth development, and shares, “I continue to find different ways to attract any student that may be struggling, whether it be socially, economically or mentally. Everyone has an important role to play in life, some youth just need an extra hand finding their part. They are all my kids, and they always will be.”

Founder & Principal Consultant, DataWise Consulting 
Best Supporting Man

Dr. Neil Carlson has been addicted to technical teamwork since building vast Lego layouts with his childhood neighbor. His 2004 Ph.D. in political science from Duke University is just the most formal expression of a voracious appetite for learning.

Since coming to Grand Rapids 20 years ago, his most rewarding experiences have involved networks addressing social challenges. When KConnect was born in 2014, he became a founding co-chair of the Data & Capacity Workgroup. In 2016, he served as a founding co-chair of the network-wide Accountability Partners Council, drafting a decision protocol still in use today. Neil attends the Digital Inclusion workgroup of the Kent County Essential Needs Task Force, and he recently joined the board of STEM Greenhouse. He enjoys spending time with LaVonne, his wife of 25 years, and a pair of Eagle Scouts, Jay and Colin. 

Of women in the workplace, Dr. Carlson says, “Every organization should be able readily to imagine a near-term future with a majority or even all-female leadership team as easily as a majority male team. And, every organization will benefit from having specific teams and meeting series where women are in a position to call the shots.”

Executive Director, New City Kids
Mentor

Inspiring others to know that the past doesn’t have to determine the future is the mission statement that has guided the career of Christy Carlin Knetsch. She lives this sentiment each day as Executive Director of New City Kids, where she’s passionate about empowering leaders of all ages, promoting equity and shaping the systems that make the dream of higher education a reality, whether that’s college, trades or entrepreneurship.

Originally from the Pittsburgh area, Knetsch knows what it’s like having the cards stacked against you. Her mother gave birth to her at just 15, her biological father had been fighting a life-ending drug addiction, and she tragically lost three close friends in high school. It was a mentor who helped prevent Knetsch from becoming a statistic herself and inspired her path. She joined New City Kids in 2018, after 18 years in community organizing, social work and youth development, where one of her favorite things was driving a 12-passenger van filled with teenagers.

Knetsch says, “I hope to always remember the sacrifices that others have made, from my beloved family to my cherished mentors, so that I could have the blessings of standing up as a mentor for women, the same way others have for me.”

 

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