Managing Director, SKDKnickerbocker
Long before she became a top New York communication and political strategist, Jennifer Cunningham was a college graduate whose interest in social justice and labor issues spurred her to try to get a job at a union.
Her first gig was with District Council 37 in New York City during a difficult time when the city needed a bailout.
“The president (of the union) at that point was one of the people who got together and bailed out the city, so I knew of him and that was the place I wanted to work the most and it just worked out that I heard about a position there and applied and got the job,” Cunningham says.
She went on to lead the campaign for same-sex marriage in New York, working closely with the governor and LGBTQ advocates. She also worked on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to raise the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour. Before that, she managed Eric Schneiderman’s successful campaign for state attorney general.
“I am still motivated by an attempt to have some social and economic justice in the world, especially now more than ever,” she says. “I feel like we are fighting tooth and nail to preserve the gains we’ve made.”
Chief of Staff, Real Estate Board of New York
For some people, studying up on the finer points of land use rules and zoning codes sounds like the perfect start to a nap – but Ali Davis finds it invigorating.
“Real estate is probably where some of the most interesting stuff is happening in New York,” she says. “Everybody thinks that New York City is a finance town, but I think the people that live and work here know that it’s a real estate town.”
As chief of staff to the Real Estate Board of New York, Davis has been spearheading the association’s efforts to pass legislation in response to the challenges presented by Airbnb’s presence in the city. One recent achievement: a law signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo that would fine residents for illegal short-term rentals.
The complexity of the public policy ecosystem is exactly what attracts Davis to the job.
“I like the puzzle of it,” she says. “One of the things I like doing most is seeing how different things connect and fit together, and working in government and policy, every single thing you learn is another piece of how the city works or how the state works.”
Founder and CEO, New York Grant Company
For her whole life, Ann Kayman has been an advocate.
Growing up in Alexandria, Virginia, she was surrounded by adults who worked in Washington, D.C., and she frequently found herself debating the death penalty and other public policy issues at the dinner table. When she began working as a corporate litigator, the job gave her experience advocating for clients effectively and with passion.
It was a natural transition into a role with the New York City Economic Development Corp., where she advocated for the city itself – working to draw businesses back to the city during the economic resurgence of the late 1990s. Then, after 9/11, she switched focus to direct the city’s efforts to help the businesses of lower Manhattan.
When her time in government came to a close, she wondered, why couldn’t she continue the work of economic development as a private consultant? She launched the New York Grant Company, where she and a team now advocate on behalf of clients seeking government incentives.
“I saw, inside government, how confusing it was for the average person, for the average business,” she says. “I thought of this notion of being a connector, or Sherpa guide, so that the business community could better find the goodies.”
Safeena Leila Mecklai
Associate Vice President, Capalino+Company
Growing up as the child of immigrant small-business owners, Safeena Mecklai saw firsthand how much one family’s success can spark success for other members of a struggling community.
“When they do well, you tend to do well,” she says. “You have a mentality to bring people around you with you.”
So it’s clear to Mecklai just how much could be accomplished by bringing more city contracts into the hands of minority- and women-owned businesses, or MWBEs. By one count, only about 5 percent of the city’s contracts currently go to those communities. In her role as associate vice president at Capalino+Company, Mecklai spearheaded the creation of MWBE Connect NY, an app to make the city’s procurement process more accessible to MWBEs.
Between her professional background in political organizing and her family history, the project was a perfect fit. She also designs and implements corporate social responsibility initiatives for a number of the firm’s clients and for the firm itself.
“Equity … is not just about social services. It’s not just about programs,” she says. It “means making sure that the communities that are served by the city are also the communities that the city is buying from.”
CEO, Nicholas & Lence Communications
Cristyne Nicholas has been working to promote New York City and its institutions for almost a quarter century. But that doesn’t mean the work has gotten old hat.
“Every time we have a new client, to me it’s thrilling, because we’re learning a new sector of business,” says Nicholas, CEO of public relations firm Nicholas & Lence Communications.
Nicholas has had occasion to explore almost every corner of the city’s public and economic life – both inside and outside government. She served as communications director for Mayor Rudy Giuliani before taking the helm of NYC & Company, which she led through the economic disruption that followed 9/11. A decade ago, she joined with partner George Lence to form their eponymous firm, which serves a variety of New York City sectors.
For Nicholas, one of the great advantages to her work is that she can be a generalist, always expanding her expertise and always helping clients make new connections, she says.
“What I like the most is the diversity of our clients. We can go from not-for-profits to cultural institutions, tourism attractions, to Fortune 100 companies,” she says. “It’s limitless.”
Partner, Gibson Dunn
Many kids dream of being a princess or a superhero or simply someone famous.
Mylan Denerstein had something else in mind.
“I think I viewed law growing up, even as a kid, as a way to make change and help people,” she says.
Denerstein did become a minor celebrity in New York political circles, serving as counsel to Gov. Andrew Cuomo through most of his first term. Among her greatest accomplishments, she says, are helping the governor pass legislation legalizing same-sex marriage in New York.
Now a partner at the law firm Gibson Dunn, she specializes in white-collar litigation. From 1996 to 2003, she served as a federal prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York. She later served under Cuomo in the office of the state attorney general.
Denerstein no longer has the visibility and influence she enjoyed as a member of Cuomo’s inner circle, but she appreciates the work she is now doing in the private sector.
“One of the best things is helping your clients get a good result,” she says. “That can be really, really rewarding. It’s really to do the best work for your client and to try to achieve the best possible outcome.”
President, Northeast Region, Allied Universal
Caress Kennedy’s parents brought her up with a strong work ethic and a respect for profit. They also sent the clear message that she could – and should – help others.
“My father used to tell me bedtime stories where I was the protagonist, and I was basically a superhero, and each night I would save some situation on my white horse,” she says.
The love and respect she experienced at home translated into a strong sense of empowerment, Kennedy says. As one of the relatively few women of her generation climbing the ranks of the business world, she gained a reputation for being tough and hard-nosed, but she has also made it her business to help others, in ways both large and small. She serves on the city’s Workforce Development Board and works with the NYPD Explorers youth program.
Years ago, Kennedy’s friends gave her the nickname “capitalist tool” because of her devotion to financial success. She still has a clear sense of mission, and she doesn’t hesitate to explain it.
“The purpose is to make money and to make money so I can do good things for people,” she says. “Being able to help people is important.”
Katherine A. Lemire
President, Lemire LLC
Katherine Lemire grew up in St. Louis, the daughter of an entrepreneur and small business owner. When he died at the age of 60, she put the small inheritance that she received aside until she could find a way to use it that would honor her father’s memory.
A decade later, she did some calculations and realized the money would cover her first six months of operating expenses if she started her own small business. She took the leap, and launched Lemire LLC, offering compliance and risk consulting services to the public and private sectors.
Three years in, she still hasn’t had to touch that seed money, and the business is taking in millions of dollars in yearly revenue. She believes Lemire LLC is the only woman-owned business in its niche.
“Just from a business perspective, it’s a huge success,” she says. “My dad would be thrilled.”
Lemire sees the work as a continuation of her career, including as a prosecutor in the Southern District of New York and in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and as a top adviser in the NYPD.
“You can think of what I do now as a private sector prosecutor,” she says. “It’s multifaceted work. Every day is different.”
Vice President, Wealth Management Office of Business Management, Morgan Stanley
When Nekpen Osuan graduated from Columbia University with a master’s degree in economics and education policy, she had professional ambition but little of the network, tools or wherewithal that she knew would help her get ahead.
Osuan’s parents emigrated from Nigeria when she was 3 years old and they found work as a nurse’s aide and retail sales executive. When it came time to build her career, she found she didn’t have easy access to the same resources as many of her classmates.
Looking back, Osuan says she found her way by diving into building genuine and meaningful relationships.
“Without relationships it’s hard to go far,” she says. “I figured out how to dig deeply into people and find out what they’re doing and how we can work together. ... People know that I’m genuine when I come to the table.”
Osuan is now a vice president at Morgan Stanley. She serves on Manhattan Community Board 9 and was appointed to New York City’s Community Education Council 6.
In 2013, she joined with her best friend to launch WomenWerk, a nonprofit that aims to help women teach other women the very tools that Osuan once felt she lacked.
Executive In Residence, Women in Technology and Entrepreneurship in New York at Cornell Tech
Judith Spitz followed an unusual career path. She got her start as a speech and hearing scientist working in research and development, then moved into the tech world and eventually rose to become chief information officer at Verizon Communications.
When she started to look around the company in search of talented people she could cultivate as future leaders, she realized the landscape was overwhelmingly male.
“It was a scary view into the pipeline,” she says. “We had a serious gap in our ability to increase that pipeline.”
Aside from the issues of equity and opportunity, there was also a pressing pragmatic concern: “We’re graduating about 50 percent of the needed workforce in tech,” she says. "If you’re just worried about filling the jobs, you can’t do it if you leave half the population and 60 percent of the undergraduate population on the sidelines.”
She hatched a plan to attract more women to computer science at the undergraduate level and worked to build an unusual partnership between Verizon, other corporations, Cornell Tech and CUNY. Now she heads the effort to attract women from diverse backgrounds to the field.
If it works, it will benefit the entire industry, she says: “Diversity produces better outcomes.”
Professor of International and Public Affairs and Political Science, Columbia University
When Ester Fuchs was asked to teach an undergraduate class called Contemporary Urban Problems, she renamed it: to Contemporary Urban Problems and Solutions.
It’s been a recurrent theme for Fuchs, who says she has focused her career on commonsense, data-driven policy solutions in the public interest.
“I’m a pragmatic utopian,” she says. “I re-engineer systems, but I’m basically a problem-solver.”
When approaching urban challenges, it’s essential to “look for the opportunities, not just the deficits,” she says. “When some people teach problem-solving it’s all about why you can’t do anything to fix the problem.”
Fuchs worked with Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration to restructure after-school programs, streamline applications for aid and align workforce development programs with employers’ needs.
She speaks passionately about helping students to become active participants in government and impressing upon them the importance of applying classroom learning to real-world challenges. With the public’s opinion of all things political reaching new lows, she says, it’s more important than ever to inspire students to help create policies in the public interest.
“I’ve always understood the institutions of democracy as depending upon the engagement of the public. Democratic institutions are not legitimate unless the public has some role,” she says.
Dean, Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, New York University
You can’t be the dean at the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service without influencing the life of New York City, and Sherry Glied hopes she’s done just that.
“Somebody once said you can’t run New York City government without the Wagner school, and I think it’s true,” Glied says. “Our alumni are all over the city government, city nonprofits; they really play an important role.”
While at the helm of the New York University school, Glied has worked to bring the expertise and research of the school’s faculty to the attention of the city’s policymakers. Before taking on the role, the health care economist spent two years in Washington, D.C., working on the Affordable Care Act as an assistant secretary in former President Barack Obama's administration.
While working on massive pieces of legislation, it’s easy to get caught up in the big picture, but Glied says the experience helped her see how big of an impact even tiny changes can have. For Wagner’s graduates, that means that even in their first jobs they can make a real difference, she says.
“I think that’s really empowering,” she says. “You can make a difference even in a really big bureaucracy, if you do your job really well.”
President, LaGuardia Community College
Gail Mellow earned her own associate degree at Jamestown Community College. As she built her career as an educator and administrator, she returned again and again to community college settings.
“It’s exactly the population I want to serve,” says Mellow, who has been the president of LaGuardia Community College since 2000. “Community colleges both in the city and nationally are the backbone of workforce development policy and practice.”
In her time at the helm of the Queens school, Mellow has seen vast changes – the shift into what she calls “the knowledge economy,” in which a degree is nearly a necessity for those seeking to build a middle-class life. “Education has really become a linchpin for how to advance the city economically and socially,” she says.
She is proud that the school helps to boost high-performers’ access to a world beyond the city, with some earning full scholarships to schools such as Brown University and Smith College.
“But I’m just as proud of the students that … are first-generation (collegegoers)," she says. “They come to LaGuardia and they become nurses, and police officers, and accountants, and small-business owners and really form the economic fabric of our communities.”
Professor of Law, New York Law School
For nearly 30 years, Nadine Strossen has taught Introduction to Constitutional Law to every student earning a degree from New York Law School.
In that time, she has helped to shape an entire generation of lawyers, a number of whom followed in her footsteps, becoming advocates for civil liberties and civil rights.
“I try to always inspire them as well as inform them, to make them the most effective advocates, but also to make them impassioned about their capabilities and the law’s possibilities,” says Strossen, who is perhaps best known for her tenure, from 1991 to 2008, as the first female president of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Remembering her time at the ACLU, Strossen says she is proudest of her efforts to fight against internet censorship. To this day, if there was a single issue she had to choose, it would be freedom of speech. Strossen is crushed that so many American students today seem more interested in quashing unpopular speech than they are in defending it.
“That is a prerequisite for exercising all of our other rights,” she says. “Every other issue … from gun rights to gay rights, you can’t advocate for it unless you have freedom of speech.”
Executive Director, Midori & Friends
After graduating college with a music degree, Suzanne Wilson was offered the chance to build an education program for a Boston arts nonprofit. She saw firsthand what a difference it made when children were given access to music.
Now, as executive director of Midori & Friends, she is again bringing music into the lives of children. The program, which sends professional musicians into public schools as teachers and performers, reaches some 16,000 students in more than 50 New York City public schools.
“We’re not trying to create a virtuoso. This is truly about instilling core life values through music education,” she says. “(We're) teaching students how to collaborate, and teaching students how to play together and how to actually respect their instrument and how to have the perseverance to practice.”
Wilson says she’s proud the program maintains a laser focus on each individual child while still seeking to expand equal access to the arts on an institutional scale. And, she says, it incorporates masterful music.
“We have this incredible roster of teaching artists,” she says. “They’re gigging on Broadway or at a jazz club at the end of the night … but during the day, they’re in the public schools and they’re the face of this organization.”
Chief of Staff, New York state Department of Transportation
Cathy Calhoun had never been involved in politics before volunteering for Hillary Clinton’s first U.S. Senate campaign in 2000. But she caught the bug and stayed on to run Clinton’s Central New York regional office for eight years.
She went on to work for several more major New York political figures, including at the state Democratic Committee for former Gov. David Paterson, for state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli as a deputy comptroller and, now, in the administration of Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
She then jumped at the chance to work at the state Department of Transportation.
“Commissioner (Matthew) Driscoll came in and he was the former mayor of Syracuse, so we had a very good working relationship and I thought it was time not to be a jack-of-all-trades and I had a little bit of transportation experience under my belt,” Calhoun says.
In her position, she is motivated to improve upstate infrastructure.
“I think we need to do better because it’s hard,” she says. “Again, upstate is a very different mentality. The city of Albany wants to be bikeable and walkable, but ... in Colonie or Bethlehem … I would love to see downtown come back. I think that would help.”
New York City Councilwoman
A high point in New York City Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras-Copeland’s career was listening to the mayor give a speech full of words that would make many blush.
“To have the mayor actually say pads and tampons at a press conference was like, ahh – it was amazing,” Ferreras-Copeland says, recalling Mayor Bill de Blasio's announcement that the city was enacting legislation she championed that provides free feminine hygiene products in city schools, shelters and prisons. She has also pushed for broader access to affordable pads and tampons by advocating alongside state lawmakers, who recently removed New York state’s sales tax on feminine hygiene products.
“This has been incredibly rewarding for me,” Ferreras-Copeland says.
On another front, she has made herself an example of gender equity. After being elected to her second term in 2014, Ferreras-Copeland became the youngest lawmaker and first woman of color to lead the influential Finance Committee. She is now one of a few women who spearhead the City Council’s budget negotiations with the mayor.
For those looking to follow her lead, Ferreras-Copeland suggested that women stop holding themselves to the strictest standards.
“Don’t be held back because you’re waiting to have everything that we possibly need to run for office,” she says.
First Deputy Commissioner, New York City Department of Small Business Services
Jackie Mallon started her career in the private sector. Then, after what she jokingly refers to as a midlife crisis, she fell head over heels in love with the work of government.
“I’ve met some of the most dedicated and smart and innovative people working here at the city,” she says. “You have to be a combination of willing to challenge the status quo and willing to push a rock uphill every day ... when you’re trying to do things here.”
Before, Mallon had been engaged in the immediate goal of creating revenue. In government, she found, the challenges were longer-term and more complex – and ultimately more satisfying.
She is proud of the work she has done improving workforce training and making it easier for longtime businesses to withstand the challenges of today’s New York City.
Mallon is fond of saying she has a limited toolbox – making heavy use of two questions: “Why are we doing this?” and “What’s our objective?”
“It’s a simple set of questions, but you’d be surprised at how often people in the environment are just doing what they do without stopping to contemplate are they really getting to the objective that they’re trying to achieve,” she says.
Catherine Nolan was exposed to civic life from a young age: Her parents were active in their church, her father was an engaged member of his union and she had a mentor in her local assemblywoman – a Republican named Rosemary Gunning.
“She was one of only three women in the Legislature and she was really great,” Nolan says. “She went to our high school. She was really inspirational on how women can make a difference in politics and I got more involved in politics – as a Democrat.”
When Nolan was first elected to the Assembly in 1984, only slightly more than one in 10 members of the state Legislature were women. Women now make up about a quarter of the Legislature, about the national average.
As an assemblywoman, Nolan cites her work in education and paid family leave as some of her greatest accomplishments.
“One reason I stepped up to take the Education Committee is that I think every issue is a woman’s issue,” she says. “I feel like we’ve been able to achieve some really great things, like paid family leave, which I introduced for almost 12 years (until it was) adopted, so sometimes it’s a lonely wait and a lonely quest.”
Chairwoman and CEO, New York City Housing Authority
For Shola Olatoye, taking on the complex challenges facing the New York City Housing Authority felt like a natural fit.
“I’ve always been interested in issues of community and how communities are developed, supported, how they reinvent themselves,” says Olatoye, who was appointed to lead the agency in 2014. “The provision of stable housing is one of the single most important poverty alleviators.”
Two years ago, Olatoye released a 10-year strategic plan for NYCHA – one that she says is meant to help the agency reverse course as it battles deteriorating infrastructure and other operational and financial challenges. She says she is proud of improvements in technology and training that now allow the digital tracking of repair requests and allow residents to file requests and pay bills online.
Olatoye says she is determined to find innovative solutions despite budgetary challenges that seem poised to get worse under the Trump administration.
“At the end of the day, the federal government has divested from public housing to the tune of about $3.2 billion since 2001. I’m not going to make that up with computers,” she says. “We have a big fight on our hands.”
Executive Director, American Autism Association
Eliane Abou-Assi hadn’t yet graduated from college when she became executive director of the American Autism Association in 2013.
Since then, she has spearheaded the organization – which connects families to resources and provides therapeutic recreational programs for children with autism – all while completing her undergraduate degree and earning a dual master’s degree in counseling psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University.
“I’m admittedly crazy organized,” says Abou-Assi, who got her start as an intern with the organization. “We always got stuff done.”
Now she is immersed in development and fundraising work to expand the small organization, which currently relies on a handful of staffers along with a passionate team of interns and volunteers. Together, they are working to educate families around the world, including those struggling with the stigma of the disorder and lack of education about it.
It’s a personal mission for Abou-Assi, whose older brother was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome in high school, years after early intervention would have been most helpful.
“Every family … should have the ability to receive services for their child or loved one with autism,” she says. “Quality therapeutic resources ... will help in aiding the personal growth and development of the individual on the spectrum.”
Correction: An earlier version of this profile misidentified Abou-Assi's graduate degree.
Vice President, Office of Transformation, NYC Health + Hospitals
For some people tackling equity and quality in health care, the last few months have been particularly challenging – but Andrea Cohen takes the long view.
Fifteen years ago, working on health care policy issues “seemed a little bit like Groundhog Day,” she says. "(But) the last five years have been really an incredible period of, I think, positive change for health care. Suddenly, incentives for doing the right things are starting to line up.”
Where once the economics of health care incentivized inpatient treatments, they are now increasingly making it more profitable to provide patients with preventative and ongoing care in their communities.
Cohen, the daughter of a primary care physician, is doing her part by helping to lead efforts to restructure NYC Health + Hospitals and align the agency with these sectorwide shifts. She is also a commissioner of the federal Medicaid and CHIP Payment and Access Commission, and was director for health services at the New York City Mayor's Office from 2009 to 2014.
Cohen says that, for her, the work stems from a passion for justice and equity. Plus, it’s interesting.
“I’m totally fascinated by the economics (and) by the science of health care,” she says. “It engages me morally and intellectually.”
President and CEO, Urban Health Plan
For Paloma Izquierdo-Hernandez, reshaping health care for communities in need started as a family business.
Her father, a physician, started a small community health center in the South Bronx. But after Izquierdo-Hernandez took a leadership role, the operation began expanding in ways neither of them had envisioned.
“I just believe in serving and taking advantage of every opportunity that comes my way, and so I don’t say no too frequently, and I don’t mind taking calculated risks,” Izquierdo-Hernandez says. “All of that has allowed our growth.”
Now Urban Health Plan operates more than 20 community health centers in the Bronx, Queens and Manhattan, including programs embedded in schools and in facilities serving at-risk people. The organization has become a major community employer and provides a full range of social services to support patients’ mental and physical health once they step outside the doctor’s office.
“There’s a need to assure that people are aware of how their health impacts their overall lives and how you can assist them in making right choices so that they can stay healthy,” Izquierdo-Hernandez says. “Without good health there’s not too much you can do."
Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, The Commonwealth Fund
After more than a quarter century in the private health care sector, Kathleen Regan became interested in the challenges on the other side of the fence. She joined the U.S. Department of State as a senior adviser and went to work tackling health issues around the globe.
Now, with experience from both perspectives, she has a unique understanding of the challenges facing the health care system.
“The two sectors often talk at each other, not to each other,” she says, explaining that corporations tend to focus on making demands instead of problem solving, while government players are often focused on providing services. “They are often swirling around each other as opposed to really connecting.”
As executive vice president and chief operating officer of The Commonwealth Fund, Regan now works to bring stakeholders from both sectors to the table together. She says she tries to use research, evidence and networks to unite them around the same conversation in a way that can lead to solutions.
After all, both the government and health care businesses are, by their very nature, working to help the public, she says.
“In order to really be successful in building a health care business, you (have) to create a clinical or public benefit,” she says.
Deputy Director of NYC Smoke-Free, Public Health Solutions
Deidre Sully began her career in cancer research. When she switched gears to begin educating the public about tobacco control, she found herself loving the work.
“I do love the fact that I’m out there meeting with people, meeting with decision-makers, elected officials, people who are also influencers to help spread the word,” she says. “It’s a way to build relationships.”
Sully believes strongly in finding ways to collaborate across the many spheres of health care to work toward holistic public health solutions.
Since 2013, she’s also been a guest lecturer to second-year medical students, working to help them understand how their work in clinical settings can impact public health.
In her time with NYC Smoke-Free, Sully has helped to transform some 12,000 housing units into smoke-free spaces, and she has worked to educate the public about the benefit of tobacco-free parks and beaches.
Sully is passionate about the importance of tobacco control, but she is a public health advocate before all else, she says.
“Every person has a right to be healthy, and every person has a right to feel that they are being looked after,” she says.