As told to Sarah Jordan
Photography by Billy Rood | April 22, 2015 | People
We see them on television and read about them in headlines—but while they are breaking news, they are often making news of their own. Meet the seven women who are effecting positive change in Philadelphia right now, from education reform and personal finance to sustainability programs.
On the Map: Meryl Levitz
Collage jacket, Donna Karan New York ($1,495). Saks Fifth Avenue, 2 Bala Plaza, Bala Cynwyd, 610-667-1550. Top, Brooks Brothers ($90). 1513 Walnut St., 215-564-4100. Pants, Burberry ($750). King of Prussia Mall, 610-878-9300. Chatelaine stud earrings, David Yurman ($975). King of Prussia Mall, 610-265-6370. Ring, Levitz’s own
As president and CEO of Visit Philadelphia, the marketing agency behind successful campaigns such as “Philly’s More Fun When You Sleep Over” and “Philadelphia—Keep Your History Straight and Your Nightlife Gay,” Levitz is a seasoned veteran who’s busy rebranding Philly into one of the hottest destinations in the world.
My First Job: I was a sales clerk in a department store in Chicago, selling menswear and something we called “record albums” back then.
On Starting Out: I was teaching continuing education courses [in time management and money management] at the Philadelphia College of Art, now the University of the Arts, and one thing led to another—and here I am at Visit Philly.
On Entertaining Out-of-Towners: There are so many choices, and there is something for everyone. It really depends on their interests and how many times they have been to Philadelphia.
Daily Essentials: Green tea and lemon water.
Silver-Screen Stand-In: Bradley Cooper, because he is talented, local, and can play anything.
The Key to Success: Know yourself and know others.
Overcoming Work Challenges: It’s a matter of balancing the many demands on our agency, while maintaining a laser focus on our mission.
Office Catchphrase: I find myself saying “Your thoughts?” a lot.
Pet Peeves: I don’t like drama—or people who use “plethora” when they mean “myriad.” I have a sign in my office that says, "I am silently correcting your grammar". As a former English teacher, old habits die hard.
After Hours: I like to get outside for a walk or a bike ride when the weather allows. I love to cook while drinking a nice wine.
Advice to the Next Generation: As the British said during WWII, “Keep calm and carry on.”
The Quest for Education Equality: Helen Gym
Dress, Halston ($445). Joan Shepp, 1811 Chestnut St., 215-735-2666. 18k gold dome Albion diamond earrings, David Yurman ($1,100). King of Prussia Mall, 610-265-6370. Cape Cod watch, Hermès($3,300). King of Prussia Mall, 610-992-9730
Community activist and education leader Helen Gym has been a persistent, powerful, and dynamic voice in our civic arena advocating through Parents United for Public Education, which she cofounded, and her newspaper, Philadelphia Public School Notebook, for more support for Philadelphia public schools and for governmental transparency. She has served as executive director of Asian Americans United, founded an arts-based community public charter school serving immigrant children, and presses on tirelessly with her work for equality and access to quality education.
Morning Routine: I love being with my family in the morning, that flurry of activity as my three children rush around. I drag it out with them as long as I can—especially as they get older and I realize how precious these moments are.
Valuable Work Lessons: Meaningful change happens over time, through sustained work, deep trust, and a sense of humility. Some of the problems we’re tackling in Philadelphia public schools are some of the most deep-seated challenges that our nation faces: poverty, race, a commitment to equity, and the role and viability of public institutions. Anyone selling a quick fix or simple solution may not grasp the magnitude of what we need to address.
Favorite Historical Figure: It’s tempting to look at famous faces—Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Wangari Maathai—but the people I most admire are the unnamed masses who built the movement, people with the moral character and vision to transform not just circumstance but the fundamental ways in which we view one another.
On Perseverance: The civil rights work we did with high-school-aged Asian immigrant youth to address an abusive climate at their school was tremendous. The difficulty of speaking up for yourself in a new language, the integrity to walk away from knee-jerk reactionary politics and move toward building a broad multiracial, multilingual standard of justice, the focus on caring and support within a nurturing community was one of the most extraordinary struggles I have been a part of. Today, the school we work in is significantly better.
What’s Next: The unexpected and joyful.
By the Book: Siobhan Reardon
Suede jacket, Marina Rinaldi ($5,255). Saks Fifth Avenue, 2 Bala Plaza, Bala Cynwyd, 610-667-1550. Top, Hugo Boss ($245). Bloomingdale’s, King of Prussia Mall, 610-337-6300. Sporty pants, Nicole Miller ($290). Nicole Miller Manayunk, 4249 Main St., 215-930-0307; Nicole Miller at the Bellevue, 200 S. Broad St., 215-546-5007. Titan bracelet, Vita Fede ($290). Intermix, 1718 Walnut St., 215-545-6034. Arceau watch, Hermès ($3,050). King of Prussia Mall, 610-992-9730. Earrings, Reardon’s own
Siobhan Reardon, president and director of the Free Library of Philadelphia since 2008 (and the first woman at its helm), has reinvigorated the library system with some tough love, initiating the providing of free Internet access at neighborhood branches and creating its Culinary Center. This leader is changing how we think about libraries.
Childhood Aspirations: I wanted to be a spy—seriously! It was probably the result of watching too many Sean Connery movies.
Finish this Sentence: “I find meaning in...”: Deep conversations. I love to talk to people, ask questions, have them tell me something about themselves. It’s amazing how often you can find a common thread between people.
Silver-Screen Stand-In: How about Sandra Bullock?
After Hours: I go home, have a glass of wine, and hang out with my husband.
Favorite Historical Figure: Florence Nightingale, because she was gutsy, innovative, smart, thought outside the box, and established an entire profession by recognizing a need.
The Key to Success: If you really want something to work, you have to be persistent and passionate. For example, the fundraising for the renovation and expansion of the Parkway Central Library came to a standstill until we rethought how and what was necessary to excite people about the possibilities. We [first had] to understand what the public needed from its libraries before we could come up with a plan.
What Makes the Free Library Great: We have a Culinary Literacy Center where we work to improve the literacy skill sets of Philadelphians who are low-literates using cooking as the medium. We have the largest circulating orchestral collection in the world. We have all four Shakespeare folios (in impeccable condition).
My Legacy: To be remembered as a positive, upbeat person who cared deeply about her family, her friends, and her community.
Painting the Town Green: Katherine Gajewski
Jacket, Helene Berman ($350). Joan Shepp, 1811 Chestnut St., 215-735-2666. Dress, Narciso Rodriguez ($1,195). Bloomingdale’s, King of Prussia Mall, 610-337-6300. Embrace stud earrings ($995) and Embrace diamond statement ring ($1,750), Lagos. 1735 Walnut St., 215-567-0770. Cape Cod Tonneau watch, Hermès ($3,800). King of Prussia Mall, 610-992-9730
As the director of sustainability for the City of Philadelphia, Gajewski is responsible for the implementation of Greenworks Philadelphia, an environmental plan that has garnered national and international attention, and has positioned this town as a leader in urban sustainability. Gajewski’s persistence, smarts, and forward-thinking make her just the person to lead the charge to get Philly green.
My First Job: My first real paycheck job was as a white-water rafting guide in Colorado.
On Starting Out: I led the grassroots campaign to advocate for a smoke-free law. Then-Councilman [Michael] Nutter was the sponsor of that legislation, which is how we got to know one another. I supported his run for mayor and joined the administration. I’m outdoorsy and a passionate environmentalist, so I was a bug in his ear about these issues. Once he took office, I got to work with stakeholders and colleagues to help build our sustainability agenda.
Greatest Accomplishment: Contributing to this field of urban sustainability. Cities are always at the center of important changes; in our generation, they will have to be at the center of climate solutions, as well.
Going Green in Philly: If we are to make deep reductions in citywide greenhouse gas emissions in line with what scientists and world leaders are calling for, we need to focus on energy: reducing its use, expanding energy efficiency, and implementing clean energy. In Philadelphia, the majority of emissions come from buildings. We can make a serious impact by making our building stock more efficient. At the same time, we would be improving air quality and reducing health risks such as asthma.
Silver-Screen Stand-In: I’ll flatter myself and say Marion Cotillard.
Overcoming Work Challenges: One of the hardest things is balancing a sense of urgency with the patience [required] for long-term change.
After Hours: I go for an evening walk and cook dinner with my husband, Ben.
Favorite Historical Figure: Abraham Lincoln. I’m from Illinois, so there was a heavy focus on him growing up. He was able to stay true to his convictions [while steering the] country towards great change.
What’s Next: Continuing to work in and around government advancing issues I care about. That, and goat ownership.
Building Bridges: Rosalyn J. McPherson
Jacket, Eileen Fisher ($378). King of Prussia Mall, 610-768-7150. Dress, Max Mara ($400). Saks Fifth Avenue, 2 Bala Plaza, Bala Cynwyd, 610-667-1550. Embrace stud earrings, Lagos ($995). 1735 Walnut St., 215-567-0770. Metal Renaissance bracelets ($975 each), David Yurman. King of Prussia Mall, 610-265-6370
As the relatively new president and CEO of the Urban League of Philadelphia, McPherson is using her formidable communication and public relations expertise to build up membership and raise the organization’s profile. She is focused on delivering empowerment through education, employment, and entrepreneurship.
On Starting Out: I began as a classroom teacher (math and history in junior high) and then joined the corporate world. My foundation in the classroom took me into a business career in educational product development and sales. I’ve worked in publishing and then science-museum administration. I also have extensive experience in the business of history and legacy.
Finish this Sentence: “I find meaning in...”: The joy of making things happen that will impact people, especially when it is about cultural enlightenment, inclusion, and empowerment.
Silver-Screen Stand-In: Angela Bassett
Favorite Historical Figure: Harriet Tubman
Greatest Accomplishments: Those projects, especially tied to African-American history, that when completed were incredibly enlightening and educational: “The President’s House: Freedom and Slavery in Making a New Nation” at the Liberty Bell Center is an example of a historic site that I project managed, and African Americans: Voices of Triumph was a three-volume book set that I published while at Time Warner. Fifty thousand sets were donated to public and high school libraries around the country.
On Perseverance: My mother, from sugarcane country in Louisiana, grew up poor and motherless and eventually went to college, where she married. Upon graduation, she traveled alone with a 1-year-old child in 1954, leaving the deeply segregated South to join her husband in Japan. [So began] her courageously international life.
What’s Next: Growing the programs at the Urban League, ensuring that we economically empower more people and enable them to participate in the growth of the region; more international business travel; and authoring several books.
Checks & Balances: Nicole Lapin
Top, Helmut Lang ($185). Knit Wit, 1729 Chestnut St., 215-564-4760. Skirt, Donna Karan New York ($895). Saks Fifth Avenue, 2 Bala Plaza, Bala Cynwyd, 610-667-1550. 14k yellow-and white-gold Omega set necklaces ($695–$1,500), 14k white-, rose-, and yellow-gold Freda ring ($795), and 14k tri-gold V Simone ring ($300), Golden Nugget Jewelers. 800 Chestnut St., 215-925-2777. 18k yellow-gold Juste un Clou bracelet, Cartier ($7,200). King of Prussia Mall, 610-205-0450
The youngest news anchor ever at CNN and CNBC, Lapin, originally from Los Angeles and now living between New York and the Main Line, is a finance expert, special correspondent, and author. Her recent book, Rich Bitch, demonstrates why this savvy talent is injecting new energy and perspective into how women think about money
Childhood Aspirations: I wanted to be an anchor at CNN.
My Perfect Night in Philadelphia: Dinner at Vedge and a Sixers game.
Finish this Sentence: “I find meaning in...”: The little things. I took a Russian literature class in college that had a “meaning of life” lecture. The professor said it was the little things, versus big accomplishments, that make all the difference in leading a happy, rich life.
Valuable Work Lessons: “No” means “yes.” Also, work can be fun, and fun can be work. Embrace the blurred lines and stop being so hard on yourself.
On Taking Chances: A second date that started in Bryn Mawr and ended on a zip-line in Hawaii has been my greatest adventure so far.
Silver-Screen Stand-in: Newsroom’s Sloan Sabbith (aka actress Olivia Munn).
Greatest Accomplishment: That I’ve been able to speak for those who don’t have a voice, whether it was more serious when I was in network news speaking for victims or now speaking for young women who want to join conversations about money but don’t feel welcome.
What’s Next: Launching my book, Rich Bitch, is my biggest project. My goal is to make young women who break out into hives thinking about [finances] excited about money. You’ll see me on TV a lot more, as Wendy Williams’s “Money Honey” and as the go-to business correspondent for The Insider. You can also check out my AOL show that I created and host, called I’ll Never Forget My First. I talk to power women about the first time they knew they made it. Off-air, my production company provides accessible and entertaining money content. It’s business in a party dress.
My Legacy: I hope to be remembered as someone who lived a rich, full life in all aspects of the word.
Dress, Elie Tahari ($348). Bloomingdale’s, King of Prussia Mall, 610-337-6300. Titan bracelet ($290) and Titan Asteria bracelet ($410), Vita Fede. Intermix, 1718 Walnut St., 215-545-6034. Earrings and necklace, Vetri Ferman’s own
Next up for two-term Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman is a run for the judgeship in her home county. After making a mark early on specializing in the prosecution of homicide, child abuse, sexual assault, and domestic violence cases, she’s been a passionate and respected DA since 2008. And she continues the fight for justice.
On Starting Out: It was serendipity. In law school, I took an internship at the US Attorney’s Office. It sounded like something fun I would never do again. When I got there, I realized this was what I was meant to do.
Finish this Sentence: “I find meaning in...”: Keeping kids safe and helping them find the right path to lead good lives.
Definition of Power: Being able to make things happen
Silver-Screen Stand-In: Meryl Streep 25 years ago; Julianne Moore today.
Work Challenges: A prosecutor is a minister of justice with the responsibility to always do what is right. There is absolutely no place for politics in this job, yet we constantly fight against others trying to inject it. That is a daily battle I am proud to fight.
After Hours: There’s nothing like a family dinner to help put me back in my place of Zen. I just miss having all my kids around the table now that two are off in college.
Favorite Historical Figure: Golda Meir, the original “Iron Lady.” She was once called the “best man in the government.” She was known as a “strong-willed, straight-talking, gray-bunned grandmother” of the people.
Secret: I wish I could sing. I am, however, not optimistic about mastering that skill.
What’s Next: I turn 50 this year, a big one. Professionally, after serving as a prosecutor in Montgomery County for more than two decades, I decided it was time for a change and a challenge. So I chose to run for judge in my home county, a job I would [feel] privileged to [be able to] do.
Styling by Faye Power. Styling assistance by Connor Childers. Hair by Laura Devlin/Giovanni & Pileggi. Makeup by Robby Nelson/Giovanni & Pileggi. Shot on location at the Sofitel Philadelphia. Sofitel Philadelphia is nestled between Philadelphia’s French Quarter and picturesque Rittenhouse Square. The boutique hotel has 306 spacious rooms on 14 floors with 67 suites and one presidential suite. Amenities include the Sobed Feathertop and duvet sleep system, wired and wireless Internet access, concierge, 24-hour room service, valet parking, currency exchange, and pet-friendly accommodations. The hotel’s urban chic Liberté Lounge offers contemporary French cuisine in one of the city’s loveliest settings. 120 S. 17th St., 215-569-8300