Leading Ladies

10 inspiring and powerful women offer advice on how to take charge and make a difference

The hardest part of putting together the following list of Leading Ladies for our Women’s Issue was narrowing the group to just 10 honorees. The great number of deserving and wonderful women we considered is a testament to the fact that we have some very strong female role models in our region. Though reality TV celebutants and attention-hungry pop princesses seem to rule media headlines much of the time, the following women are the ones we should be encouraging the young women—and men—of Hampton Roads to look up to and learn from. Their accomplishments are vast, and their advice is worth reading, enacting and passing along. Thank you, ladies, for inspiring us.

City of Hampton Molly Joseph WardMolly Joseph Ward

Occupation: Mayor; City of Hampton

What makes her inspirational: Molly Ward’s first term as mayor of Hampton began in July 2008—a rocky time for anyone in government. She took over just as the housing collapse and economic recession were in full swing. Cities around the country were claiming bankruptcy, yet while she was in office, Hampton grew prosperous. The dilapidated Coliseum Mall transformed into the majestic Peninsula Town Center, and Fort Monroe went from a military installation to a protected national treasure, which will have a lasting economic impact as it supports the needs of the entire region.

A key component to Mayor Ward’s success is the way she’s able to bring together coalitions whose members have widely divergent views and broker deals that satisfy everyone, such as her facilitation of a conservation easement at Buckroe Beach.

But it is her community involvement and outreach that make her so beloved. By launching a Mayor’s Book Club, she is getting books to at-risk preschoolers, giving them better hope of success at grade level and the chance for a brighter future.

Her leadership and foresight were steadfast throughout her first term, and she was elected to a second term in 2012.

What do you feel has been the key to your success? “I have had the good fortune of working with smart, fun, wonderful people.”

What has been your proudest moment? “Nov. 1, 2011 when President Obama signed the executive order creating Fort Monroe National Monument in front of a bipartisan Virginia delegation.”

What’s the best advice you can offer young women? “No one ever looks back and wishes they had spent less time with their children and loved ones. There are times to go full throttle and times you should take your kids to the beach.”

—Bill Glose

Governor's School of the Arts Director Dr. Andrea WarrenDr. Andrea Warren

Occupation: Executive Director; Governor’s School for the Arts (GSA)

What makes her inspirational: Dr. Warren has challenged herself throughout her career in education, going from gym teacher and coach to Ph.D. student and high school principal—and onto executive director of the Governor’s School for the Arts, which provides arts education to area high school students in addition to their academic courses. As executive director, Dr. Warren has led the school’s effort to consolidate classes in one central location.

What do you feel has been the key to your success? “My faith and family who support everything I do; long hours; hard work; willingness to laugh at myself; understanding my strengths and weaknesses; willingness to take risks and to learn new skills (I love being a student); surrounding myself with people who are smarter than I am (LOL); finally, loving to help others find success.”

What has been your proudest moment? “I have had several proud moments: The first was sitting in a superintendents and regional board meeting when they gave me permission to work with the City of Norfolk to renovate the Monroe Building for GSA. Having all students in one central location has been the school’s desire for the past 25 years. A couple of directors have tried to accomplish this goal and have been unsuccessful. I am blessed to serve as director at a time when a couple of cities saw the value of this amazing program and are willing to assist us with creating a home for my students— being in the right place at the right time. However, my most recent proud moment was in the spring at the end of our 25th anniversary show that we called ZO. This was the first time all departments worked collaboratively on a project that involved the interaction of performers and video/3D mapping.”

What’s the best advice you can offer young women? “Be willing to make the tough decisions, not the popular one. Listen to the arguments, but base your final decision on what’s best for the organization’s mission. If you keep the mission first, or in my case, keep students first, it will always turn out to be the best decision you can make. Lastly, never be influenced by your emotions when making decisions. Emotions bring about bias, which will cause conflict/discourse within the organization.”

—Kristen De Deyn Kirk


Prevent Child Abuse Director Betty Wade CoyleBetty Wade Coyle

Occupation: Executive Director, Emeritus; Prevent Child Abuse Hampton Roads

What makes her inspirational: A mother of two grown sons, Betty Wade Coyle has crusaded tirelessly for more than three decades on behalf of others’ children. As the executive director, emeritus, of Prevent Child Abuse Hampton Roads, Coyle leads the region in child abuse prevention with a mission of public awareness and advocacy.

In addition to this role, Coyle is active with the Virginia Family and Children’s Trust Board, Citizens Advisory Council of the Norfolk Juvenile Court, the Hampton Roads and State Child Fatality Review Teams, the Norfolk Domestic Violence Fatality Review Team, Norfolk Interagency Consortium, and is the past chairman of the Governor’s Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect. She also serves on the advisory board of KidsPriorityOne.org, a searchable database of child welfare organizations and online resource for families, which has proven indispensable to the Hampton Roads community.

In 2011, Coyle received the National Child Labor Committee’s prestigious Lewis Hine Award for Service to Children and Youth. When asked what motivates her, Coyle answers simply: “Kids are in my heart.”

What do you feel has been the key to your success? “Focus, relentless persistence, dependability, concern for others, honesty and amazing support from others.”

What has been your proudest moment? “To witness the testimony of a young man, whose family I worked with for many years and who was a survivor of child abuse by his father and the legal system, before the House Courts of Justice Committee of the Virginia General Assembly. His presentation was so strong that it persuaded legislators to add family violence to the list of factors courts must consider when making child custody and visitation decisions. His courage brought people of various backgrounds and political persuasions together to take action for the best interest of children.”

What’s the best advice you can offer young women? “Start with the basics—good values, positive direction and concern for others. The rest will fall in place. ”

—My Nguyen


President Of The Dragas Companies Helen DragasHelen E. Dragas

Occupation: President and Chief Executive Officer; The Dragas Companies

What makes her inspirational: At the helm of The Dragas Companies since 1996, Helen Dragas has increased company assets more than 50-fold and has won numerous awards for quality and her commitment to the community.

She has been honored with the Humanitarian Award by the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities, “First Citizen of Virginia Beach” designation, Habitat for Humanity’s “Dream Builder,” City of Norfolk Blueprint Award for Community Leadership, YWCA Women of Distinction, and Inside Business Women in Business Achievement Award.

She and the Dragas Foundation were recently recognized by ForKids for their work to find sustainable solutions to homelessness in Norfolk, Chesapeake and Virginia Beach.

Her volunteer and board experience spans organizations such as the Hampton Roads Partnership, Virginia Beach Library Foundation, College Foundation Board and U.Va. Alumni Association Board of Managers.

In addition, she was appointed to five statewide boards, including the Governor’s Economic Development and Jobs Commission, State Council for Higher Education in Virginia, Commonwealth Transportation Board and the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel Commission. She is the immediate past rector of the University of Virginia Board of Visitors. 

What do you feel has been the key to your success? “A great education and incredible support from an amazing and inspiring family. I was fortunate that my parents could afford the cost of a lifechanging undergraduate and graduate experience at the University of Virginia. It opened my eyes and many doors for my future. I’m also blessed with a wonderful family who remind me daily that life deserves our best.”

What has been your proudest moment? “I always feel a sense of great accomplishment when my business creates another high quality, affordable community or when our foundation makes a difference for homeless families. I’ve also learned, however, that it’s less about pride and more about impact. I hope to live a legacy—not just leave one. And that means standing up for principles and policies that reflect our most essential values, even if doing so leaves us open for criticism.”

What’s the best advice you can offer young women? “Follow your heart and your head. They may take you to places that aren’t always comfortable, but are likely worth the trip. Fearlessly believe in yourself, and believe that you can make the world a better place for others. Finally, embrace and lead change—don’t succumb to the hypnosis of the status quo. The world is constantly evolving; find your role in reaching what’s next.”

—Barrett Baker


Virginia Symphony Orchestra Music Director JoAnn FallettaJoAnn Falletta

Occupation: Music Director; Virginia Symphony Orchestra

What makes her inspirational: When asked about her accomplishments, JoAnn Falletta does not talk about her pair of Grammy awards, nor about her extensive and acclaimed discography, nor does she say that she helms three orchestras. (Music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic and of our VSO, and principal conductor of the Ulster Orchestra—the first woman and the first American to hold that last position.) Only in passing does she mention that she is sought after, worldwide, as a guest conductor. 

She won’t tell you that she is awesomely intelligent, invariably knowledgeable and vibrantly articulate, fiercely energetic and unfailingly generous with her time, be it rehearsing a local youth orchestra or conversing with individual student musicians or smalltime journalists.

What she talks about is the Hampton Roads community, and about how pleased she is that she and the VSO have forged important and strong connections with this region, and become part of the fabric of Hampton Roads, within and beyond its arts community.

That combination of international achievement with genuine, self-effacing modesty and totally other-directed focus is truly inspiring. What do you feel has been the key to your success? “I suppose the answer to that is really very simple—I absolutely love what I do. I find orchestral music completely inspiring, uplifting and endlessly fascinating. And I adore musicians—their complexity, dedication, excellence, imagination and charisma. Being a conductor is living the dream that began when I was 7 years old.”

What has been your proudest moment? “My proudest moment was at 10 p.m. on April 15, 1997—the moment when the Virginia Symphony finished our concert on the stage of Carnegie Hall. It was a magnificent concert—one of the greatest moments in our history—and a night I will never forget. I remember all of us looking at each other with a kind of amazed happiness. We never thought the concert would go so spectacularly well! The musicians proved to our community that they were a first-class orchestra, and we were so proud to represent our region.”

What’s the best advice you can offer young women? “Find something you love, and do it with 100 percent of your energy, spirit and commitment.”

—Montague Gammon III


Peninsula Fine Arts Center Executive Director Courtney GardnerCourtney Gardner

Occupation: Executive Director; Peninsula Fine Arts Center

What makes her inspirational: Courtney Gardner has been a powerful influence in the Hampton Roads community for many years through her work in non-profit organizations. She is president of her own consulting firm, CE Gardner Consulting, LLC, and was once the executive director of Young Audiences of Virginia. In that position, she supervised dozens of independent artist contractors and secured a budget of close to $1 million.

Since Nov. 2011, she has also been the executive director of the Peninsula Fine Arts Center (PFAC). As PFAC celebrated its 50th year in 2012, Gardner managed an anniversary exhibition that included art by Ansel Adams, Mary Cassatt, Winslow Homer, Georgia O’Keeffe, and numerous other masters. Best of all, she helped to staunch PFAC’s 10 years of bleeding red with two fiscal years in the black.

Now she is guiding PFAC during its transfer of ownership to Christopher Newport University. While PFAC will remain at its current location, exhibits and classes will be enhanced by the addition of CNU programs going forward.

What do you feel has been the key to your success? “I was very lucky to have had very strong female role models in my life that stressed the importance of integrity and personal values. My mother had her family very late in life, in her 40s. She worked full-time, was a great mother, but also volunteered on boards and the Junior League. She showed me the importance of maintaining balance in my life.

Also, my 5th grade teacher became a life-long friend and mentor. Both of these women helped develop my personal values that guide my decisions and actions. They showed me it was important to develop a strategy to achieve success, but also to be willing to stand up for what I think is right.”

What has been your proudest moment? “Personally, every milestone big and small of my children makes me so proud.

Professionally, I have been very proud to have been able to successfully help nonprofits achieve their goals and bring their mission to life. These organizations provide cures for cancer, nurture and develop the minds of our children, and provide opportunities to find comfort and enjoyment through art. Could you ask for a better job than to know you are helping your community be a better place?”

What’s the best advice you can offer young women? “To believe in yourself and remain optimistic. Achieving your goals is not easy. If it were, everyone would be doing it. It takes perseverance, determination and the ability to see opportunities others cannot.”

—Bill Glose

Tidewater Community College President Dr Edna Baehre-KolovaniDr. Edna V. Baehre-Kolovani

Occupation: President; Tidewater Community College

What make her inspirational: Throughout the last 15 years, Edna V. Baehre-Kolovani, Ph.D. has been the CEO of three community colleges across the U.S., most recently taking over the reins at Tidewater Community College last summer.

She has served on the board of the Middle States Commission on Higher Education for five years and was appointed by Pennsylvania’s governor to the Workforce Investment Board and to the Commission on College and Career Success. For 10 years, she was on the board of the National Institute for Leadership Development for Women in Community Colleges.

In addition to her academic and professional activities, she serves on the boards of a variety of organizations, including Virginia Beach Vision, Hampton Roads Partnership, Downtown Norfolk Council, Greater Norfolk Corporation, Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce, and the Urban League of Hampton Roads, Inc.

She has received numerous honors, including the American Association for Women in Community Colleges’ 2013 Mildred B. Bulpitt Woman of the Year Award and the 2000 Carolyn Desjardins President of the Year Award.

What do you feel has been the key to your success? “I think that the key to my success has been that I think and practice success on behalf of the college, not my personal success. Nothing I do is outside of the context of what is in the best interest of the students and our college.”

What has been your proudest moment? “First, at another college, seeing students graduate who had been among the group identified as the ‘Lost Boys of Sudan’ who went on to become either successful transfer students to other colleges and universities, or achieving business success after having received their associate’s degree. My second was receiving the Gandhi, King, Ikeda Award for my efforts on behalf of peace, non-violence and promoting economic prosperity from Morehouse College in Atlanta in 2007.”

What’s the best advice you can offer young women? “Identify your goal and be prepared to work hard toward it. Nothing worthwhile can be achieved unless you put the focus and effort into it. Sometimes that entails taking an honest assessment of yourself and acknowledging any shortcomings in skills, attitude and behavior. How we decide to deal with those shortcomings is what makes or breaks a successful future. And don’t be afraid to learn from those who are not in leadership positions. Some of the best learning experiences can come from people with the least amount of authority over you, but who have a wisdom borne from experience and knowing what is right.”

—Barrett Baker


Hearsay Executive Producer Cathy LewisCathy Lewis

Occupation: Founding Host and Executive Producer; Hearsay with Cathy Lewis

What makes her inspirational: For 17 years, Cathy has aimed to create a safe space to have a conversation and to create a different conversation than what is heard elsewhere on the radio. She has a special ability to connect with her listeners and strives to share something with them, to teach them something and to inspire them in some way. Over the years, she has interviewed a number of exceptional guests including President Barack Obama and her favorite interviewee so far: Liza Minnelli.

She has also served as executive director of the CIVIC Leadership Institute for 12 years and is a professional member of the National Speakers Association.

In 2009, she received an honorary doctorate from Virginia Wesleyan College and was inducted into the Junior Achievement Business Hall of Fame. She was named a Woman of Distinction by the YWCA in 2002, she was an inaugural recipient of the Women in Business Achievement Award from Inside Business in 2003, and she was named one of the “50 Very Important People in Hampton Roads” by Hampton Roads Magazine in 2006. Cathy spent eight years on The Williams School Board of Trustees, serving two terms as president.

What do you feel has been the key to your success? “[I’m] not afraid to ask questions, and I have asked some boneheaded, stupid questions. I’m perfectly willing to stumble into things and sometimes make a fool out of myself because I figure someone else has the same question.”

What has been your proudest moment? “Raising that little girl,” she says, referring to her daughter.

What’s the best advice you can offer young women? “Young women today need stronger voices. There is this thing that has crept into the vocal tones of young women, and [they] have picked up this ‘growl,’ so they’re dropping off the ends of their sentences. The other thing they’re doing is ending every sentence on an upward inflect, and when you do that, it causes me to wonder, ‘Are you sure? Or are you questioning?’ That’s really damaging young women’s credibility. Your voice says a lot about you; your voice communicates so much. It is your leading edge, and it can so dramatically affect your credibility. I’ve seen more bright, capable, smart, young women damage themselves because of their voices.”

—Angela Blue

Festevents Chief Executive Officer, Karen ScherbergerKaren Scherberger

Occupation: Chief Executive Officer; Festevents

What makes her inspirational: After graduating college, Karen worked as a volunteer at Norfolk Harborfest. At the time, she had no idea that a simple volunteer position would spark her interest and inspire her present career. After being hired as the first director of Festevents in 1982, she’s made a positive impact on Norfolk and beyond by bringing fresh cultural events to Hampton Roads and giving the community a reason to come together.

What do you feel has been the key to your success? “Without question, the key to our success has been the city of Norfolk and the fact that they made this incredible piece of property (Town Point Park) accessible not only to the public to enjoy a prime waterfront location in their city but to also create this space into a location for community celebrations. It all started with that commitment from the city for public access and public space, and it continues to be central to our success today.”

What has been your proudest moment? “One of the proudest moments was receiving the notification that the City of Norfolk won the Pinnacle Award, which is the highest award an event can receive from the special events industry. We received that for OpSail 2012. That’s on the grand end, but I would also balance that with millions of everyday moments that I experience in Town Point Park and at Ocean View Beach Park. There are so many examples of proud moments that are associated with 30 years’ worth of phenomenal events and celebrations that have taken place.”

What’s the best advice you can offer young women? “Surround yourself with people whose lives and careers you respect—cultivate a group of men and women who believe in you and support your goals for feedback and advice as you start out—as well as along the way! Have at your core a solid work ethic of honesty, integrity and genuine willingness to work hard, accept responsibility and deliver—better yet, over deliver—on commitments. Be reliable—all the time! Find your rhythm and balance in the workplace with co- workers and associates; avoid the petty politics that so often drag down young women in their early career phase. Build confidence, be aware of trends and changes in your profession, and be proactive to offer ideas. Don’t allow others to hold your success ‘hostage’ because they don’t want to grow, develop or take the extra steps for success.”

—Angela Blue


Hampton Roads Chamber Of Commerce Director Of Women's Programs Pearl SmithPearl Smith

Occupation: Director of Women’s Programs; Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce

What makes her inspirational: Referred to by Commissioner of the Revenue Phillip Kellam as “the mother of urban Virginia Beach,” Pearl Smith has more than earned the title over her more than 45 years of service to the city. Though Smith’s list of accomplishments is long, varied and certainly indicative of the numerous contributions she has made to the community, perhaps the most visible testament to her 23-year career as executive director of the Central Business District Association is Virginia Beach Town Center, now the heart of a vibrant, thriving business district.

In addition, Smith is dedicated to women’s issues—founding the Women’s Network of Hampton Roads, Women’s Quarterly and initiating the Women’s Review Luncheon Series, as well as personally acting as a mentor for hundreds of women in the Hampton Roads community. With determination, tenacity, enthusiasm and a strong sense of purpose for every position she has held, Pearl Smith has solidified her name as synonymous with influence and graceful power in the region.

What do you feel has been the key to your success? “A passion for whatever project I was working on and perseverance to make it a success.”

What has been your proudest moment? “I have to answer in the plural. My proudest personal moments were found in the raising of my four boys.

My proudest professional moments came during my service as the National President of the Navy Wives Clubs of America. During my tenure, at my request, I was the first to meet with the Secretary of the Navy, Chief of Naval Personnel, Chief of Naval Operations and the Commandant of the Marines Corps to discuss the concerns of the Navy and Marine Corps wives. My suggestion to the Chief of Naval Personal to establish a Master Chief billet assigned to his office to act as a liaison to enlisted personnel was accepted and implemented.

My most recent proudest moments include the 23 years I enjoyed as the executive director of the Central Business District Association, during which time I had the pleasure of working to bring the Town Center from concept to reality. I also have to include the incredible honor I was given when I was named the First Citizen of Virginia Beach in 2011.”

What is the best advice you can offer young women? “Never stop listening and learning. Always be honest and true to yourself, and you will earn the respect of other women and men.” 

—My Nguyen

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