Power List

Above & Beyond

Honoring Women in Government and Public Service.

Fentrice Driskell, Denise Grimsley & Dr. Angela Garcia Falconetti

Fentrice Driskell, Denise Grimsley & Dr. Angela Garcia Falconetti House of Representatives; Lauren Bush; Polk State College

What does it mean to go above and beyond?

For many working women, it’s a built-in part of the job. It means going the extra mile to break through in professions that have been historically dominated by men. It means balancing responsibilities at work with caring for children or other family members at home. And for many, it means paving the way for the next generation and serving as mentors and role models for younger women just starting their careers.

City & State’s Above & Beyond list recognizes women who do all of that, and more. This list, presented by City & State Florida and the News Service of Florida, features trailblazers who have distinguished themselves in government, business, nonprofits, media, health care and other high-profile fields. These women, who are being recognized at a Sept. 19 event in Tallahassee, are shaping key policies, driving transformative changes and going above and beyond in serving the people of Florida. 

We’re pleased to introduce the honorees of the inaugural Florida Above & Beyond list. 

Profiles by Hilary Danailova, Erica Scalise and Sunny Sequeira 

Diana Adams

Executive Director, Brevard Heart Foundation
Diana Adams / City of West Melbourne

Diana Adams was born three months early, took the SAT in eighth grade and went to college at age 16. So it comes as no surprise that Adams, 29, became Brevard County’s youngest elected official last November when she won a seat on the West Melbourne City Council. 

The Pennsylvania native was born with cerebral palsy and spent her childhood in a wheelchair, often the subject of taunts. “Academics were my way out,” reflects Adams, who left a teaching job to focus on completing her Ph.D. in public administration from Valdosta State University.

Running for elected office was a natural move. As chair of the parks and recreation board, Adams had already worked on the city’s master plan evaluation and championed the effort to build West Melbourne’s water plant. She took over leadership of the Brevard Heart Foundation in 2020 and raised a half-million dollars in three years to revitalize the organization.

After working in the women-friendly nonprofit and education spheres, Adams was taken aback by the prejudice she faced as a young female politician. “I’m really appreciative of women mentors, because they understand the challenges and they're willing to support you,” Adams says.

Defying the naysayers, she recently helped the City Council secure $800,000 for the city’s septic-to-sewer project and has become a vocal proponent of youth political involvement. A life of fragile health, after all, has taught Adams that “there’s no guarantee you have tomorrow, next week or next month. You just keep working.”

– Hilary Danailova

Congratulations to Ellen Anderson for being recognized in Above & Beyond: Women in Government

Ellen Navarro Anderson

State Legislative Affairs Director, H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute
Ellen Navarro Anderson / Kira Derryberry Photography

At first blush, it might seem counterintuitive that a government affairs executive would leave the profession to become a social worker. But Ellen Navarro Anderson, a longtime lobbyist for health institutions, sees it as a natural evolution. 

“Being an advocate, at heart, requires you to lean into issues and use your expertise to actually make a difference, rather than just talking about it,” explains Anderson.

For the past two years, Anderson has made a difference at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute in Tampa, where she directs state government affairs. She successfully campaigned for pharmacy benefit manager reform, streamlining drug delivery for Moffitt’s cancer patients. Now Anderson is working with the Florida Hospital Association – for whom she previously headed state advocacy – on legislation overhauling the prior authorization process.

Raised in New York and Fort Lauderdale by Chilean-born parents, Anderson discovered politics at Florida Atlantic University. Her path solidified during a stint as an aide to then-state Sen. (and current Broward County Commissioner) Nan Rich, whom Anderson calls “the most valuable woman in my life.”

Inspired by Rich’s dedication to human services, Anderson is studying for a master of social work degree with a focus on adolescent mental health. “Teens are exposed to so many things that generations before us weren’t,” reflects Anderson, who takes care of her own mental health through yoga on the beach. “With my drive, my heart and my care, I want to hone in and find interventions. Because it’s a cliché – but children really are our future.”

– H.D.

Risa Berrin

Founder and CEO, Health Information Project
Risa Berrin / Health Information Project, Inc.

With a childhood marked by severe autoimmune disease, Miami native Risa Berrin learned firsthand how health issues can impact everything from school to finances to family life. “My struggles made me more compassionate and empathetic,” she says.

Determined to advocate for those less fortunate, Berrin enrolled in law school at the University of Miami. She volunteered in a program engaging high school students in real-life legal situations and also taught incarcerated young women – and was struck by the lack of relevant health education for today’s youth.

“The traditional, archaic model was in desperate need of innovation,” Berrin explains. “I remember boring lectures, cheesy videos, outdated textbooks and scare tactics from my own health education classes.”

Meanwhile, modern teens are facing crisis levels of anxiety and struggling with everything from social media to substance abuse. So in 2009, Berrin founded the Health Information Project, a Miami-based program that to date has trained 21,000 peer educators and informed 425,000 high school students about topics including depression, obesity and abuse. Along the way, HIP’s collaboration with the Miami-Dade public schools became a national model for tackling mental health and other issues. 

“When I created HIP, there was not the same supportive ecosystem for social entrepreneurs that exists today,” says Berrin, who cultivated mentors to realize her vision. “School partnerships are about creativity, collaboration and perseverance. We all have to work together for the common goal of ensuring kids are safe and healthy.”

– H.D.

Jennifer Conoley

President and CEO, Florida’s Great Northwest
Jennifer Conoley / Florida’s Great Northwest

March 2020 was a tricky moment to start any job – especially one in economic development. But as president and CEO of Florida's Great Northwest, Jennifer Conoley brought both a native’s passion and an expert’s savvy to her role.

“Having grown up in the Panhandle, knowing our assets, allowed me to pivot during that time of turmoil,” Conoley says of the pandemic challenge.

During her three years in charge, FGNW launched a “Beyond Our Beaches” branding campaign and initiated “Northwest Florida Days” during the state legislative session, bringing the region’s voice to Tallahassee. Conoley also lured two manufacturers to rural communities, adding 600 direct and 1,400 indirect jobs, and recently graduated the first cohort of Leadership Northwest Florida, a first-ever collaboration across the 13-county region.

“Going after these competitive job creation projects – if we’re not out there in the game, it’s ours to lose,” she observes.

And Conoley knows firsthand how important good jobs are. When she was a child, the local paper mill shuttered, and her father was among 500 employees laid off. Conoley returned to the region after graduating from Florida State University, beginning her career in public relations before switching to economic development work for the Bay County Economic Development Alliance and Gulf Power.

“We have a ton of industrial land, educational institutions, workforce partners, all working to create the best environment for companies to thrive,” Conoley says. “I see my role as a professional matchmaker – connecting companies and communities for all of our success.”

– H.D.

Keyna Cory

President, Public Affairs Consultants
Keyna Cory / Michael Copeland

When Keyna Cory began her lobbying career nearly four decades ago, “female lobbyists were few and far between,” she recalls, and she was often shut out of important meetings.

Cory, now president of Tallahassee-based Public Affairs Consultants, was determined to change that. She mentors younger women and even installed a nursery in the office so her vice president – a former intern – could bring young children to work. “I’m proud that things have changed,” Cory says.

While studying political science at the University of Florida, she volunteered on a successful legislative campaign and became hooked on advocacy. The longtime chief lobbyist for Associated Industries of Florida, Cory currently chairs the Florida Society of Association Executives, having grown its annual fundraising event revenue to $75,000 from $3,000. She also leads the Florida Recycling Partnership Foundation and the Florida Goodwill Association.

Cory, who serves as board secretary of the Florida Sports Hall of Fame, has a passion for football dating back to her high school marching band days. She was the first woman to chair a post-season college game – the Carquest Bowl – which raised eyebrows back in 1995. “When I asked to be on the team selection committee,” she recalls with a chuckle, “they said, ‘Keyna, women don’t do that. Wouldn’t you like to be on hospitality instead?’”

Today, Cory enthuses about Jennifer Canady being in line to be the state’s first female House speaker. “I'm just so excited that women are finally getting their time in the Capitol,” Cory says.

– H.D.

Ginger Delegal

Executive Director, Florida Association of Counties
Ginger Delegal / Florida Association of Counties

Ginger Delegal ended up in local government through what she describes as “luck.” 

As a history major at Salem College in North Carolina, Delegal completed a state government-focused internship through the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and caught the public service bug. Following law school at Mercer University, Delegal joined a law firm focusing exclusively on local government law. 

“That was all luck,” Delegal says. “I was interviewing as a third-year law student.” 

After joining the Florida Association of Counties, first as general counsel and since 2017 as executive director, Delegal has focused on building a nonpartisan culture to better serve Florida’s county governments. She says a key component is assisting counties with “pragmatic problem solving.”

Delegal is committed to ensuring future local government leaders have the resources they need to prepare for that type of work. This could include working with higher education and the nonprofit sector to promote local government careers and internships. 

“I want us to do some professional development in the state of Florida to show local government as a career path,” Delegal says. 

While Delegal is focused on promoting Florida’s counties in the halls of Tallahassee and getting more people to commit to local government careers, she is clear about what is her greatest accomplishment: her family. Married to her law school sweetheart, Mark, for 30 years, Delegal speaks with pride about her three daughters, all raised in Tallahassee. 

“I am proud of my family and the relationship we have together,” Delegal says. 

– John Celock

Congratulations to Kate DeLoach for being recognized in Above & Beyond: Women in Government

Kate DeLoach

Partner, The Southern Group
Kate DeLoach / Norma Lopez Molina

As an eighth-generation Floridian, Kate DeLoach has watched many fellow “conchs” – people born and raised in the Keys – head north for jobs. One transplant was her father, a former prosecutor who moved the family to Tallahassee to work with then-Gov. Jeb Bush. 

DeLoach, now a Tavernier-based lobbyist with The Southern Group, always knew she’d follow her father into politics. So she was thrilled, after finishing her master’s in New York City, to land a job back in her beloved Keys as an aide to then-state Rep. Holly Merrill Raschein. On work trips to Tallahassee, DeLoach saw references to her family’s pioneering company – the Keen Fruit Company, which planted Florida’s first grapefruits – in the Citrus Hall of Fame.

The female support system she cultivated in Raschein’s office, however, was distinctly modern. “We were an all-women team, and that was pretty incredible,” recalls DeLoach, who grew up observing politics as a largely male enterprise.

Since joining The Southern Group in 2019, DeLoach opened a regional office in Islamorada and has secured seven-figure state funding awards for projects like environmental stewardship in Apalachicola and the Key West Harry S. Truman Foundation's “Little White House” presidential museum. She’s also tackling the region’s housing crisis by working with the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office to expedite permitting for public workforce housing.

South Florida’s quality of life is, after all, a deeply personal cause for DeLoach. “I’m shocked every day that I get to live down here and do what I do,” DeLoach says.

– H.D.

Julie Dennis

CEO, Ovid Solutions
Julie Dennis / Betsy Barfield

Julie Dennis had devoted her professional life to helping communities thrive. So when Hurricane Michael struck the Panhandle in 2018, “it literally hit home,” says the Panama City native. “I felt a cathartic need to take my skill sets and help the revitalization efforts.”

The following year, Dennis left her job directing community development for the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity – where she had managed $2 billion in grant funding – and founded Ovid Solutions, a consulting firm that helps municipalities access state and federal funding to realize major projects and recover from disasters. “We can write all the plans in the world about how to bring about change in the community, but dollars are often the barrier to action," she notes.

Since 2019, Dennis has assembled a team that has secured nearly $50 million for clients, including crucial hurricane recovery monies and financing for projects like the new Calhoun Liberty Hospital in Blountstown, which brought new health care and employment opportunities to a storm-battered community.

At home in the Panhandle, Dennis shares a farm with a menagerie of animals. She mentors younger women entering politics: Her motto is “to be one, you have to see one.” And she loves that her job entails bettering the state she’s always called home.

“Whether writing grants for conservation, revitalizing a downtown corridor or helping individuals with disabilities access jobs,” she says, “I love that I get to connect with so many game changers throughout Florida – and help them to achieve their missions.”

– H.D.

Fentrice Driskell

Minority Leader, Florida House of Representatives
Fentrice Driskell / House of Representatives

Back in the 1990s, when Fentrice Driskell was a Lakeland high schooler in YMCA’s Youth in Government summer program, she and her best friend would hang out at the county law library, pretending to be U.S. Supreme Court judges. “We had no idea what the heck we were doing,” recalls Driskell with a laugh. “But I knew law was the language of government – and I really wanted to understand that language.”

Driskell’s fervor for politics was kindled initially by high school economics and government classes. After earning a cum laude degree from Harvard and a JD from Georgetown, Driskell won election to the Florida House of Representatives in 2018, serving as Democratic policy chair before being elected as the first Black female minority leader last year.

Her swearing-in “was a magnificent moment,” recalls Driskell, who is also the Democratic ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee. “I felt the weight of history on my shoulders.” The following day, Driskell was buoyed by a rare unanimous vote from her caucus. She has since championed legislation creating an Abandoned African-American Cemetery Task Force to redress “the degradation of Black people, reminders of our segregated past.”

With Democrats in a superminority, Driskell knows it’s “a challenging moment to be a Democrat in Tallahassee,” she says. “But we're the last line of defense between policies that are suppressing the voices of so many Floridians. So don’t let our diminutive numbers ever make us feel like we don't matter.”

– H.D.

Congratulations to Dr. Angela Garcia Falconetti for being recognized in Above & Beyond: Women in Government

Dr. Angela Garcia Falconetti

President, Polk State College
Dr. Angela Garcia Falconetti / Polk State College

After fleeing communist Cuba, Angela Garcia Falconetti’s family struggled to make a living in Spain, the Bronx and finally Florida, where they earned college degrees. “Education was the trajectory that would change my family’s lives,” she says.

Falconetti has dedicated her own life to putting other Floridians on that trajectory. She has headed Polk State College since 2017, shortly into its transition from a community college. (In a prior role with the U.S. Department of Education, Falconetti worked alongside the nation's first deputy assistant secretary for community colleges.)

A prodigious fundraiser, Falconetti has helped secure $83 million in state monies and achieve Polk State’s designation as a national Hispanic-serving institution, opening the college to further grant funding.

More impressive, though, is how Falconetti has used those dollars – from developing the Haines City campus to endowing Polk State’s first dean of nursing. She also recently launched an executive leadership program for corrections and law enforcement professionals, in partnership with the Polk County Sheriff’s Office. “I’ve made it a personal mission to help not only our students, but also our community, move to the next level,” she says.

Falconetti also knows she’s a role model for the new generation of female leadership – a role she inherited from Polk’s pioneering first president, Maryly VanLeer Peck. “We have a culture of supporting families,” says Falconetti, whose daughter was 5 when she was hired. “That’s a positive example to demonstrate to many colleges – and a healthy example for our employees.”

– H.D.

Katie Flury

Government Affairs Advisor, GrayRobinson
Katie Flury / GrayRobinson

Katie Flury remembers when she transformed from an aimless undergraduate into a committed advocate. A University of Central Florida political science class led to a campaign internship, more campaigns and then a postgraduate job with then-state Rep. (now state Sen.) Jason Brodeur.

"Knocking on doors, hearing people's issues, when you're able to actually help somebody – that really got me solidified into politics," recalls Flury, now a government consultant at GrayRobinson in Orlando.

In 2021, Flury's advocacy took on a new dimension when her husband, 30-year-old Logan Goodson, died of T-cell lymphoma. Flury has since raised tens of thousands of dollars to address the rare cancer’s research and funding gap: She launched a fund in Goodson's name at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and got involved with Be the Match, a pairing registry sponsored by the National Marrow Donor Program. 

With the sponsorship of GrayRobinson, Flury also raised $40,000 at a memorial golf tournament called Birdies for Logan. “I’ve known three people just from that drive who have given and were able to save a life,” Flury says.

Health care has been a focus for Flury since her state legislative days. She’s also a specialist in transportation – Uber has been a client – and recently helped the Orange County Sheriff’s Office lobby for policies broadening worker eligibility at understaffed 911 call centers.

Whether on the green or in the Capitol, Flury is motivated by “knowing you can make a real difference,” she says. “There's no better feeling.”

– H.D.

Sarah A. Foster

Attorney, Morgan & Morgan
Sarah A. Foster / Morgan & Morgan

Recently, Sarah A. Foster received a gift she had to acknowledge was right on the money. “It’s a mug that says, ‘Someone stop me from volunteering again,’” laughs the Jacksonville-based attorney.

Foster’s indefatigable philanthropy – she has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the American Cancer Society over the years – was inspired by the support she received during a bout of leukemia at age 5. “It was ingrained in me to give back to the community that gave me health,” she explains.

The Jacksonville native originally thought that would take the form of working as a physicians’ defense attorney. But after a stint defending corporations against liability claims, Foster found her niche “on the other side,” in the premises liability department at Orlando-based Morgan & Morgan. Securing six-figure settlements for slip, fall and other accident victims is deeply satisfying, she notes: “You're taking something very traumatic in someone else’s life, and making it easily explainable to a jury.”

That impact is also tangible in the life of cancer sufferers. Thanks to funds from ACS’s annual Cowford Ball – which Foster chaired last year, raising $300,000, and will chair again this year, with major sponsorship from Morgan & Morgan — myriad patients have stayed at the society’s Richard M. Schultz Family Foundation Hope Lodge.

And not infrequently, Foster finds herself counseling newly diagnosed clients on medical resources in addition to law. “There is that cancer connection,” she reflects. “A lot of times, it just comes full circle.”

– H.D.

Congratulations to Maryam Ghyabi-White for being recognized in Above & Beyond: Women in Government

Maryam Ghyabi-White

CEO and President, Ghyabi Consulting & Management
Maryam Ghyabi-White / Ghyabi Consulting & Management

Growing up in Iran, Maryam Ghyabi-White was inspired to become an engineer by an unlikely source: her grandfather, who had never even met a professional woman. “He encouraged me to think outside of our cultural circumstances and go after my dreams,” she recalls.

Ghyabi-White did just that – moving to the U.S. at 17, learning English and eventually completing a master’s in civil engineering. Now she’s the CEO of Ghyabi Consulting & Management, the successor to Ghyabi and Associates, her Volusia County-based consultancies specializing in transportation and traffic planning. Working with local and state agencies, Ghyabi-White has had a hand in myriad projects across Florida – like the I-4 St. John’s River Bridge, for which she secured funding to expedite construction.

Gov. Ron DeSantis recently turned to Ghyabi-White for transition-team advice. U.S. Rep. Michael Waltz appointed her to a statewide transportation planning committee. And the University of Central Florida named Ghyabi-White its 2009 alumni of the year. 

“To be recognized for doing the work you love – there is no greater honor,” she says. 

Well, except for the Women of the Year Award, in 1999, from Women in Transportation. Of all her many accolades, that one stands out as a symbol of the obstacles Ghyabi-White has overcome.

It’s also why she’s a passionate volunteer with the PACE Center for Girls in Jacksonville. “I know firsthand that when women and girls are offered the tools they need to succeed,” she says, “a ripple effect occurs in families and communities.”

– H.D.

Nicole Gomez

Chief Operating Officer, LSN Partners
Nicole Gomez / Michelle Citrin

Working in politics and government for over a decade prepared Nicole Gomez for her new role as chief operating officer of LSN Partners. After serving as a director of client relations and partner, she will now oversee the entire firm’s client-facing advocacy work. 

“It's going to be challenging, but there's no growth without challenge,” she says. “My background and understanding of the inner workings of government, both on the campaign side and on the civil side, allow me to better service all our clients.” 

Gomez, who got her start interning for U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, also has experience working with organizations like the Florida League of Cities and the United States Conference of Mayors.  

“When I joined the firm, I tapped into that experience and created my own niche,” she reflects. “I was able to organize events around those conferences, which in turn have been successful for many of our clients. We're an event driven firm and so we have curated events with late night receptions. Many of our clients are able to engage and network with a lot of mayors and their staffers.” 

Gomez looks forward to the firm’s future as she aims to establish internal systems that maximize work efficiency and strengthen the organization. 

“One of my goals is to continue working with tech startups,” she says. “There are a lot that have promising solutions for cities, but because of their lack of funding they're not getting the proper visibility. We hope to help companies like Israeli tech startups that are coming up with market strategies.”

– Sunny Sequeira

Elisha González

Vice President of Community Relations and Government Affairs and Fairwinds Foundation Executive Director, Fairwinds Credit Union
Elisha González / Norma Lopez Molina

As a Mexican transplant to Florida and a onetime high school principal – back when women were rare in that role – Elisha González has a special perspective on the value of diversity.

“I have seen how advocacy matters,” says González, who now heads community relations and government affairs for the Fairwinds Credit Union and directs its Fairwinds Foundation. She also cultivates a more inclusive Orlando with the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Metro Orlando, where she is the vice chair and will become chair next year.

Orlando “is very collaborative,” she notes. “We're fortunate that our public and private sectors have intersected for the betterment of all.” 

At fast-growing Fairwinds – which boasts 225,000 members and $4.5 billion in deposits – González promulgates the organization’s community investment and advocates for policies like the preservation of fees shielding consumers from negative balances. With the Fairwinds Foundation, meanwhile, González has grown local grant applications from zero to 100 and boosted employee giving by 50%.

And with 1,000 newcomers settling daily in Orlando – many of them joining the region’s 33% Hispanic population – González is pleased to be “part of the conversation” through commitments to Latino groups like the Hispanic Chamber and Prospera USA. For the Heart of Florida United Way, she has chaired the Women United initiative and worked to engage millennial and Gen Z volunteers through networking opportunities.

“I’ve realized the impact we can have collectively,” she says, “if we just have more voices.”

– H.D.

Jennifer J. Green

President and Owner, Liberty Partners of Tallahassee
Jennifer J. Green / Liberty Partners of Tallahassee

There aren’t many prestige lobbying firms designated by the state of Florida as certified women-owned businesses. But Jennifer Green runs one – and her proudest moment, she says, was when her founding (male) partner, former U.S. Sen. Connie Mack, retired and left her in charge.

“That was a big highlight,” says Green, who co-founded Liberty Partners of Tallahassee in 2007. In the traditionally male-dominated arena of politics, Green thinks women can have an advantage – striking “a balance between hard charging and intuitive,” as she puts it.

Green certainly found that balance. She was the first woman to chair the Florida Association of Professional Lobbyists, and the first recipient of the association’s Ken Plante Founder’s Award for ethics in lobbying. She also spearheaded the organization’s professional lobbyist credentialing program.

Her first professional role was lobbying for the Florida Bankers Association after graduating from Florida State University, where she had volunteered on the Bush-Quayle campaign. Green has also worked on campaigns for former Gov. Jeb Bush and served as lead lobbyist for the Florida Institute of Certified Public Accountants.

At Liberty Partners, Green has cultivated clients like Expedia and Uber, for whom she helped create Florida’s updated auto insurance framework. Most recently, she has carved out a niche helping rural municipalities secure state and federal funding – like Walton County’s Freeport, for which Green's team recently scored $15 million.

“What I like best about this job,” says Green, “is being able to really dig into a problem and help solve it.”

– H.D.

Congratulations to Denise Grimsley for being recognized in Above & Beyond: Women in Government

Denise Grimsley

CEO, The Development Group
Denise Grimsley / Lauren Bush

From her days as an emergency room nurse to her current role heading The Development Group, Denise Grimsley has stewarded the health of Florida communities.

She’s best known locally for her 14 years in the state Legislature – eight in the House, six in the Senate. As the Florida House’s first (and only) female budget chair, Grimsley balanced the budget during an economic downturn without reducing the mental-health services she champions. In the Senate, she spearheaded measures to improve the nursing pipeline.

“You do the same thing as a legislator that you do as a nurse – help people,” says Grimsley of her political turn. Her immediate impetus, however, was frustration at the bureaucracy she encountered dealing with state agencies during a stint heading her family’s petroleum business.

Grimsley, who holds an MBA (and several honorary doctorates), worked in hospital administration before bringing her perspective to The Development Group. The not-for-profit organization executes Hardee County’s economic development and land-use projects – attracting manufacturers to a business park, bolstering downtown retail outlets and expanding housing and medical services. “We’ve made a decision to plan our growth and not let growth plan us,” says the fifth-generation Floridian.

Whatever challenge she takes on, Grimsley credits her unflappable style to her training as a nurse. Once, during a budget crisis, the House speaker asked Grimsley how she stays calm during chaos. “It’s due to my training,” she recalls saying. “In trauma, you keep your eye on what’s right in front of you – and ignore the noise on either side.”

– H.D.

Congratulations to Cynthia Henderson for being recognized in Above & Beyond: Women in Government

Cynthia Henderson

Partner and Co-Chair, Florida Government Relations, Converge Public Strategies
Cynthia Henderson / Jennifer Powell

Veteran lobbyist Cynthia Henderson was the first in her family to go to college, and while the learning curve was steep, she scaled it – and then some. Henderson is currently a partner at Converge Public Strategies and co-chair of the firm's Tallahassee-based state government relations practice.

But even after she had achieved her childhood goal of becoming a land use lawyer, Henderson was thrown by then-Gov. Jeb Bush's invitation to become Florida's secretary of business. “I didn’t really know what that meant,” she says. “Why would you leave your law practice and go be somebody's secretary?”

Henderson first connected with then-candidate Bush when he sought out her local perspective, and then he tapped her for his transition team; she later served as the governor’s secretary of management services.

At Converge, Henderson specializes in environmental issues. Under her leadership, the firm helped secure hundreds of millions of state dollars to upgrade Key Largo’s long-underfunded wastewater treatment district. Henderson also worked closely with the Florida Pharmacy Association to pass a recent bill curtailing the financial pressures on smaller drugstores imposed by pharmacy benefit managers.

Navigating Tallahassee as a woman lobbyist wasn’t easy at first. “Lobbying is referrals, and most of the referrals were part of the old boy network,” she recalls. That’s why Henderson makes a point of mentoring younger women. “I try to help them understand the importance of relationships – not putting each other down,” she says. “Women really help other women.”

– H.D.

Malinda Horton

Executive Director, Florida Association of Museums
Malinda Horton / Malinda Horton

After three decades advocating for Florida's museums, Malinda Horton knows that when state budgets are tight, cultural institutions are vulnerable. 

So it’s a testament to her effectiveness heading the Florida Association of Museums – and as a member of Visit Florida, the state’s tourism outfit – that Horton’s constituency has not only survived multiple hurricanes and a pandemic, but actually thrived. 

“It’s a continuous process of educating and reminding about the importance of museums and culture to our quality of life and tourism revenue,” Horton says of her advocacy before policymakers.

Horton helped launch the association in 1989 with $25,000 in seed money. Since becoming executive director in 1995, she has grown the organization to nearly 1,000 individual members – and more than doubled its institutional membership to 250-plus museums, which showcase everything from art and history to science and animals. (Horton's own favorites include the Ringling Museum in Sarasota, Zoo Tampa and West Palm Beach's Norton Museum of Art.)

As a Tallahassee native with parents in the public sector, it seemed inevitable that Horton, like her three siblings, would end up in politics. She studied political science at Florida State University and learned the legislative ropes in post-graduation jobs with the state legislature.

Since then, she’s made the case that culture is as Floridian as palm trees. “People come to enjoy a beautiful day on the beach,” Horton observes. “But if it's raining, you go to a museum, learn about the region and its history. Without culture, we’d be different people.”

– H.D.

Natalie Kelly

CEO, Florida Association of Managing Entities
Natalie Kelly / Chris Crouch

Natalie Kelly learned a lot about advocacy work at the Florida Senate, where she worked in communications for almost a decade. 

“Being in the majority office, I could help individuals or organizations who had access to legislators but felt intimidated or didn’t know what to do with it,” she says. 

Kelly covered health care and, after discovering a passion for it, began focusing on aging, mental health and substance abuse. She became motivated to leverage the skills and knowledge she gained at the Senate to elevate the health care sector in Florida. 

“When I worked for the National Alzheimer’s Association, I wrote a step-by-step guide on how to get your message heard,” she recalls. “Because I was on the inside before, I was able to show the outside – advocates, organizations – how to get their legislation passed or funding in the budget.” 

As CEO of the Florida Association of Managing Entities, Kelly now oversees the state’s seven behavioral health managing entities that allocate funds to hundreds of behavioral health providers. 

“Six, seven years ago it was all about treatment,” she says. “Now it's not just treatment, but how are we going to get an individual in a safe and stable environment so they can recover, get a job and provide for their family? The mentality is totally different. You have to care for that individual holistically. If you don’t, they’re going to come right back into the system. What we’re trying to do is break that cycle.”

– S.S.

Kelly Kibbey Smith

Of Counsel, Dean Mead
Kelly Kibbey Smith / Darryl Jarmon

Kelly Kibbey Smith’s career changed in 2017 when she began working at the Florida Senate as an attorney. She spent three years drafting over 1,250 bills and amendments before joining the Committee on Health Policy, where she gained a specialization in telehealth, drug importation and Medicaid. 

“I fell in love with health care at that point,” she says. “I’ve always loved government and in terms of making a difference for our state, health policy is a great way to do it. Health touches everybody.”

Shifting to advocating for clients while still crafting policy recommendations, she moved to Dean Mead, where she is of counsel and represents health care providers on the lobbying side. She seeks improved quality of care by ensuring well-trained providers work in state and receive fair compensation.

As chair of the Government Advocacy Committee of the Florida Bar and having served as president of the Florida Government Bar Association, Kibbey-Smith strives to support, unify and educate lawyers throughout the state. 

Earlier this year, she became board and health law certified, which she says allows her to best represent clients as she has a greater understanding of federal law. She aims to tackle the health care provider shortage, specifically within home health, and increase access to care through telehealth. 

“Health care is a gray area,” she says. “It's not black and white or clear-cut. It’s ever evolving with technology and science. I think that’s what drew me in: It’s never going to be dull.” 

– S.S.

Candy Lowe

Founder and Owner, Black Business Bus Tour
Candy Lowe / Candy Lowe

Candy Lowe’s Black Business Bus Tour started because of a tea shop. After opening Tea Time in 2003, she noticed that Black-owned businesses like her own weren’t bringing in the customers that they needed. 

“The Black Business Bus Tour was a tool not only to support my business, but other Black businesses as well,” she says. 

Started in 2006, Lowe’s Black Business Bus Tour brings together people from across Tampa and nearby cities to invest in and uplift Black-owned businesses. They visit shops from just about every sector, including insurance, finance, food, beauty and clothing. Food trucks or other vendors close the tour; sometimes attendees enjoy a meal at a Black-owned restaurant. 

“When we would return back (from the tour) every third Saturday, it was like Christmas for my shop,” she says. “It gave me that revenue to keep going.”

While Lowe closed her shop in 2013, she still organizes “tea and conversation” meetings to connect and empower community members. The Black Business Bus Tour continues to run on a quarterly schedule.

“We know that during the COVID-19 pandemic, disparities came out that revealed Black-owned businesses were disproportionately impacted,” says Lowe. “The bus tour has been that tool for our businesses for almost 20 years in Tampa. We go out with the intention of spending and bringing awareness to these businesses.”

Lowe is excited for the future as she plans to expand the Black Business Bus Tour in Florida and beyond.

– S.S.

Liza McFadden

President, Liza & Partners
Liza McFadden / Ken Sneeden and Associates

Liza McFadden’s sweet spot lies at the nexus of government and nonprofits. Decades of experience has shown her that the relationship between the two is often vital for success. 

She recalls working as an adviser for then-Gov. Jeb Bush when discussions emerged regarding how mentoring and literacy programs he implemented would continue following the end of his term. The team agreed to move them under the Florida Commission on Community Service to ensure they remained in effect. 

McFadden highlights another factor in the government-nonprofit dynamic: philanthropy. 

“One of the things I love about philanthropy is the dollars might not be as big as government dollars, but they’re way more flexible,” she says. “You’re able to think about what small amount of money might jar and help change policy. Or, you can use that money for things that have significant marketing or public relations power that you could never use government funds for.” 

In 2018, McFadden founded Liza & Partners to offer consulting services to philanthropists and CEOs of educational institutions and nonprofits. Calling her parent’s college education “the most important gift given to me,” she enjoys working with clients who share an interest in career education. 

“I always believed that education should be whatever it needs to be for students, whether it’s online, faith-based or specialty programming for students with special needs,” she says. “We should meet everybody where they are, because then we have the power to make enormous change and help students be successful in whatever way they want to.”

– S.S.

Kathy Mears

Assistant Commissioner, Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services
Kathy Mears / K. Mears

Growing up the eldest of 10 children in a fifth-generation California family, Kathy Mears never expected to end up as chief of staff at Florida’s Department of Agriculture.

But the challenges of her childhood – losing her father at age 9, surviving cancer at 17 – equipped Mears with resilience. She married young and became a first-generation college student at 30, eventually earning a master’s degree in public administration.

“I certainly understood the importance of hard work,” Mears says, “and I had an innate desire to make every moment count.”

Volunteering alongside her husband on a campaign, the Florida transplant was offered a spokesperson role with then-state House Speaker Daniel Webster. “I thought I was going to be (in Tallahassee) for two years,” she says. “And here I still am.”

In the decades since, Mears has worked as chief of staff and legislative affairs director for the governor and both Florida’s House and Senate. A highlight was returning to her alma mater, Florida State University, as chief legislative affairs officer, where in 2018 she celebrated a record $296 million in operational funding – including $33 million for new facilities.

Alongside state Agriculture Commissioner Wilton Simpson, Mears recently helped secure $300 million to revive Florida’s dormant Rural and Family Lands Protection Program. “I get up every morning and say, ‘How can we do this better together?’” she says. “Knowing that it touches so many people’s lives, this has been the most challenging job I’ve had so far – and the most rewarding.”

– H.D.

Julie Montanaro

Anchor, WCTV Eyewitness News
Julie Montanaro / Tod Thomas

Julie Montanaro always wanted to be a journalist and a writer, but knew she didn’t want to weather the long Syracuse winters after college.

“I packed up and headed south and interviewed at TV stations and I ended up getting hired at WCTV as a borough reporter,” recalls the award-winning journalist. “I didn’t know anybody here and I didn’t know anything about Tallahassee.”

It’s the vibrancy of Florida and range of stories that has kept Montanaro anchoring and reporting at WCTV for over three decades, she says. 

Having previously served on the board of Florida’s Associated Press, Montanaro also founded PBJ PLZ! – a WCTV drive that collects tons of peanut butter and jelly for hungry kids. 

The idea came to Montanaro when she was out on a story in an elementary school and a child emerged in distress, expressing she had missed breakfast that day. 

“She hadn’t eaten since lunch the day before and it just hit me like a ton of bricks that this wasn’t okay,” Montanaro says. “I said to myself, ‘We can do something about this.’” 

Montanaro – who has taken on more special projects lately, but does a mix of reporting, anchoring and facilitating reporters at the station – says the stories she’s most proud of are often about young people. 

“I firmly believe the way to change other people’s minds, especially young people, isn’t to belittle them and to disrespect them,” she says. “My hope for the future of communication is that we can restore some of that.”

– Erica Scalise

Karen Moore

Founder and CEO, Moore Agency
Karen Moore / Black and Hue Photography

Thirty years after its founding, Karen Moore’s agency continues to thrive. Launched in 1992, it was initially a one-woman show in Tallahassee after Moore left her job as marketing director at Florida State University. 

“It was a jump off the cliff,” she says. “I had no office, no phone, no business plan, no marketing plan, no money, no mentor, nothing.”

She encountered the same conversation when her agency was in its early stages. 

“The first several months that I had a business people would say, ‘You know, most startups fail,’” she recalls. “I said, ‘Yes, but mine's not going to.’”

Now globally ranked, Moore specializes in marketing and communications and enjoys a 98% client retention rate along with numerous recognitions. Moore grew her agency by adapting to changes in the media landscape and expanding its reach. Moore started out by focusing on clients within the city before offering marketing, public relations, advertising and digital services to the entire state and beyond. 

She mentions which projects stick with her the most when reflecting on the company’s evolution. 

“I’m so proud of the work that we've done in education and workforce and economic development,” says Moore. “To move people out of poverty, you’ve got to move them to prosperity by getting them the education and training that they need. There needs to be good jobs that provide them with the resources for success. When they succeed, their family succeeds and the community succeeds.”

– S.S.

Ramola Motwani

Chairwoman, Merrimac Ventures
Ramola Motwani / Chris Headshots of Fort Lauderdale

Ramola Motwani doesn’t just believe in her business, she believes in herself. After buying the Merrimac hotel in Fort Lauderdale with her husband in the 1980s, business plummeted when the city started enforcing regulations to minimize the lucrative yet rowdy spring break crowd. 

“There were foreclosures and people were leaving because that was the only business that Fort Lauderdale had then on the beach,” Motwani recalls. “It was a difficult time, but we rolled up our sleeves and said, ‘We are hardworking, we are highly qualified, we are highly educated and we make things work.’”

Now chairwoman of Merrimac Ventures, she feels pride in how far she’s come and dedicates time to supporting charities. 

“I believe in giving back and I really enjoy that part of my life,” she says. “If we all think that way, we can make a huge difference in our community. You have to uplift those who need a hand.” 

Motwani does that in more ways than one. She serves on the advisory board of several organizations that unify the Indian community, noting the importance of staying connected to her roots. She aspires to empower women and was appointed to the Florida Commission on the Status of Women. In 2019, she and her sons established the R. Motwani Family Academy of Hospitality and Tourism Management at Broward College.

“Every day I try to see how I can make a difference in their life and give them their dream,” says Motwani. 

– S.S.

Edie Ousley

President, Yellow Finch Strategies
Edie Ousley / Yellow Finch Strategies

As a self-described political junkie, Edie Ousley found working in government and communications more than just exciting. 

“You have to be comfortable in your own skin,” she says. “When everything seems to be piling up and you’re juggling multiple issues or political dynamics, you need to learn how to keep it all on the plate without falling off. It’s a mental exercise. That mental exercise has served me well throughout my career.”

Now the president of her own company, Yellow Finch Strategies, she helps clients from a variety of industries determine successful communications strategies. 

“I always say to people, I should have done this 10 years ago. I absolutely love it,” says Ousley. “I’m continuing to do exactly what I have done throughout my professional career. I’m just doing it under my own shingle.”

Her firm’s name honors the symbolic bird, which she explains represents joy, inspiration, movement and flight. Reflecting on her company’s history, Ousley recalls working with the Florida Engineering Society and American Council of Engineering Companies of Florida in 2021 when a condominium in Surfside collapsed, killing 98 people. 

“I helped the organizations navigate Florida’s legislative process as well as the public perception of this particular issue. I also helped them get legislation passed,” she says. “Governor DeSantis signed a bill into law that now requires major inspections of condominiums, like Champlain Towers South, so that we can help ensure that this never happens again and we don’t lose another life.”

– S.S.

Gabriella Passidomo

Commissioner, Florida Public Service Commission
Gabriella Passidomo / Laura V. Gilleland-Beck

Florida Public Service Commissioner Gabriella Passidomo is clearly high-energy – she’s run 15 marathons – so earning both law and business degrees was right in character. Public service, meanwhile, was in her blood. “Dinnertime in the Passidomo household always included stimulating discussions on a range of issues,” recalls the Naples native, whose mother, Kathleen Passidomo, is the Florida Senate president and whose grandfather was the longtime mayor of Harrison, New York.

The younger Passidomo, meanwhile, found her niche in energy. She had clerked at the Public Service Commission during law school at Washington & Lee University, and returned to work as a utility regulatory attorney after interning at the U.S. Department of Energy. Last year she earned an MBA from Florida State University “to broaden my perspective, and become a better economic regulator,” she explains.

That insight comes in handy at an agency with responsibility for the state’s essential services – electricity, gas, telephone, water and wastewater. Being appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis to the Commission is “the greatest highlight of my career so far,” says Passidomo, who is also a member of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners.

Between fast-evolving technology, fluctuating federal policies and extreme weather, utilities and energy are not easy industries. But challenge is what motivates Passidomo. “I’m fascinated with the complexities involved both in creating good energy policy and executing market demand,” she says. “Thankfully, I’m surrounded with some of the most competent staff in state government – so no question ever goes unanswered.”

– H.D.

Sabeen Perwaiz

President and CEO, Florida Nonprofit Alliance
Sabeen Perwaiz / Toni Smailagic

Volunteering and connecting with local nonprofits during her upbringing led Sabeen Perwaiz to where she is today. Perwaiz serves as president and CEO of Florida Nonprofit Alliance, an organization that elevates the state’s nonprofit sector. 

“Making an impact in the community feeds me and gives me purpose,” she says. “One thing that’s really unique and rewarding for me with this position is it allows nonprofits to focus individually on their mission and the great work that they do without worrying about how they relay the impact. We’re able to collectively do that for the entire sector.”

Florida Nonprofit Alliance promotes the nonprofit sector by analyzing its economic impact, such as return on investment, and sharing it with stakeholders. During the COVID-19 pandemic, she worked with state associations across the country to ensure nonprofits benefitted from the federal Paycheck Protection Program. 

In late 2020, Perwaiz became vice president of the Women’s Giving Alliance, which motivates women across northeast Florida to be philanthropists. A strategic philanthropist herself, she believes grantmaking for her community and organizations that support women are crucial. 

“People automatically assume what a philanthropist may or may not look like or what income level you need to have on an annual basis,” she says. “I’m really hoping we can diversify our member base to ensure that younger women also see themselves in this space. We don’t want philanthropy to just be seen as something that older, affluent women can do. It’s accessible to everyone.”

– S.S.

Barbara Petersen

Executive Director, Florida Center for Government Accountability
Barbara Petersen / Bob Shacochis

Barbara Petersen’s first exposure to open government legislation occurred at the Florida Legislature, where she worked as a staff attorney. She spent over three years analyzing the impact of new technologies on Florida’s public records law. 

“The whole purpose of the public records law is government accountability,” she notes. “As citizens, we have a responsibility to make sure that our government is doing what it’s supposed to be doing. Without access to public records, we can’t find that out.”

While at the state Legislature, Petersen was offered a position at First Amendment Foundation, an organization that strives to reinforce open government.

“It was a dream job because I was deeply involved in the policy and law making surrounding the public records law,” she reflects. “I was on the open meeting floor and interacting not just with legislators as I had been when I worked for the Legislature but also reporters and citizens.”

Twenty-five years later she left and went on to found the Florida Center for Government Accountability with Linda Penniman. Their nonprofit supports local reporters by helping them gain access to government information, providing investigative journalism training and ensuring government officials abide by the state’s public record law.

“Government is supposed to be not only accountable, but transparent,” says Petersen. “We have an obligation and a duty to make sure that the people we have elected to office are doing their jobs properly and are not in it for their own personal, financial or political gain.”

– S.S.

Congratulations to Monica Russell for being recognized in Above & Beyond: Women in Government

Monica Russell

Director, Account Relations, KPMG
Monica Russell / Black and Hue

Monica Russell fondly recalls packing up her small, two-door car with everything she owned after graduating early from the University of Florida. 

“I always knew I wanted to be in politics, and so I graduated early on purpose to try to get a job in the legislative process,” she says. “I’ve done nonprofits, campaigns, public, private, in and out. I got the bug very quickly.”

Russell credits her time working as a communications director for the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity and the executive office of the governor for her ability to put out fires, handle matters in workforce development and help others, especially women. 

“I think a lot of women will say they want to help other women, but they make it hard then,” she says. “I’ve spent a lot of time not just saying it, but actually doing things to help women and others by giving them real opportunities.”

For Russell, this means encouraging women to address gender bias in the workplace strategically and to never be afraid to ask questions or ask for help in advance of a higher position.

As account relationship director for KPMG’s Tallahassee-based arm, Russell is working to put KPMG and its growing team on the Florida government’s map. 

“I feel a lot of pride and ownership with where we’re at,” she says of KPMG. “We have so much more in front of us since I started working here two years ago and I’m really proud of that.”

– E.S.

LaToya Sheals

Senior Government Relations Consultant, Becker
LaToya Sheals / Johnny Cooker of Cooker Photography

Though LaToya Sheals knew interning with the Michigan Democratic Caucus and working as a law clerk would set her on her path, she never imagined she’d be approached to be a chief of staff in Florida.

“I’m a ‘crawl before you walk’ and ‘absorb as much information as you can to grow’ type of person, so it was all very fresh and new,” she says of her time as chief of staff for then-state Sen. Daphne Campbell.

During her time in the role, Sheals helped secure $3 million in local funding in the 2018-2019 legislative session, assisted on draft legislation and maintained the operations budget. 

Now at Becker, Sheals develops lobbying strategies and spends much of her time analyzing legislation in preparation for sessions. 

Her strengths lie in her ability to secure funding in the nonprofit space, acquiring $30 million for Florida’s private Historically Black Colleges and Universities, over $8 million for the Foundation of Sickle Cell Disease Research, and millions of dollars for other municipalities and organizations throughout Florida.

She says so much of her work is about cultivating real relationships in support of her clients. 

“It’s a joy for me to be able to listen to a client and have them tell me, ‘This is affecting my city, my institution, my organization,’” she says. “It’s about strategizing and really figuring out a space where things can move forward. That’s a good feeling when something has passed both chambers and you know you’ve just affected change. You just created law.”

– E.S.

Zayne Smith

State Director of Advocacy, AARP Florida
Zayne Smith / Zayne Smith

With over 15 years of experience in government affairs, Zayne Smith describes herself as having fallen into the advocacy world when she worked for Alabama Appleseed, a small nonprofit organization with a nationwide footprint. 

“From there I started working with the Alabama AARP team and started getting to know what they did,” she says. “They had a job opening and almost 10 years later, I’m still loving working here every day.”

As AARP Florida’s advocacy director, Smith leads on the state office’s work involving myriad issues: long-term care, prescription drugs, health care, utilities, elections, housing and transportation. She also works closely with volunteer leaders and the general public, empowering them to advocate for issues that impact them the most. 

She says it’s all about asking the important questions, including what the future of Social Security and Medicare looks like, how utility rates in Florida can be lowered and how to best influence people to change policies in advancement of the betterment of those over 50. 

Smith is currently laser-focused on long-term and nursing home care and is most looking forward to the upcoming legislative session, when she’ll advocate on a variety of issues on behalf of AARP’s local, state and national goals.

“Getting to advocate for the most vulnerable people across the country is a rewarding job, and it’s something I see play out every day,” she says. “Even when I talk to my own family, I get to see that fighting for the good pays off for our neighbors and our community.”

– E.S.

Louise Wilhite-St. Laurent

Partner, Panza Maurer
Louise Wilhite-St. Laurent / Jennifer Powell Photography

Following law school, Louise Wilhite-St. Laurent hit the gas on a successful legal career, starting in the Office of the State Attorney in Florida’s Second Judicial Circuit before transitioning to the Department of Health’s emergency action unit. At the Department of Health, she worked her way through three promotions before becoming general counsel in 2018. 

Under St. Laurent’s leadership, Florida’s medical marijuana market has grown to be the third-largest in the country. In her role as general counsel, she oversaw more than 80 attorneys with the department, providing guidance, risk evaluations and litigation support in civil and administrative cases. 

Now at Panza Maurer, St. Laurent provides health care legal support and practices administrative litigation and other complex regulatory matters, stopping at nothing to support her clients. 

“I’m always looking forward to the next new thing,” she says. “I’ve never stopped learning. I haven’t had anything that’s not new or exciting come through the door, and I’m always in search of how I can serve people.”

At the majority women-led firm, St. Laurent says women naturally provide a level of value that’s collaborative, rather than cutthroat and dismissive. 

“Our founding partner has always supported the hiring of women,” says St. Laurent. “We all want to do good for ourselves and be lawyers and be effective and make money but we are willing to put in the work and effort to do that in a way that isn’t always self-promoting and I think he’s always seen the value in that.”

– E.S.

Tara Tedrow

Shareholder, Lowndes
Tara Tedrow / Lowndes

When Tara Tedrow reflects on her successes as a land use attorney, she can’t help but look back on the many years she spent as a competitive debater.

The experience “changed everything for me personally, professionally and academically,” she says, pointing to a scholarship at Wake Forest University that led to continued achievements in debate and eventual success in law school.

Noticing a lack of competitive speech and debate programs, Tedrow co-founded the Florida Debate Initiative to fill the gap. That led to the creation of the Florida Civics and Debate Initiative, a program now serving thousands of students across 48 school districts and receiving over $1 million yearly in funding.

Late nights that bleed into early mornings are common for Tedrow, who spends her days representing real estate developers and regulated industries throughout Florida.

As a shareholder in Lowndes’ Land Use, Zoning & Environmental Group and chair of the Cannabis & Controlled Substances Group, Tedrow has a record of taking on high-profile and contentious cases – and winning them. 

“The easiest way to overcome bias is to outwork everyone and earn their respect, which might just take more effort if your audience doesn’t assume you deserve it,” she says of her experience as a female attorney. 

But Tedrow loves what she does, especially because of how analogous it remains to her debate days. She says her successes are not luck, but a product of years of training that prepared her to find creative solutions and engage with the public confidently to address opposition. 

– E.S.

Congratulations to Heather Turnbull for being recognized in Above & Beyond: Women in Government

Heather Turnbull

Managing Partner, Rubin Turnbull
Heather Turnbull / Karl Sorne of The Lonely Fox

When Heather Turnbull thinks about her childhood, she can’t help but recall an early love of politics and a burgeoning interest in law. 

“My father worked for the Veteran’s Administration and we were writing letters to Congress when I was young,” she says. “I was involved at an early age, majored in political science and then of course, took the logical step of going to law school.”

In law school, Turnbull quickly sought outlets to fulfill her calls toward advocacy work. Taking up volunteer work with Voices for Children, an organization that protects and advocates for disadvantaged children, she was first introduced to the world of lobbying and connected with Bill Rubin. “The rest of these twenty years are history,” she says, describing the supportive partnership. “I won the lottery with Bill as a partner.”

As a contract lobbyist, Turnbull spends her days in session running around the Capitol, taking conference calls and delivering crisis management assistance. “It’s truly a 24-hour, around-the-clock job,” she says of her work providing expertise in health care, gaming, telecommunications and transportation, among other industries.

Turnbull is most looking forward to the coming of the first female speaker, Jennifer Canady, a development she says is long overdue.

“There are a lot of incredibly empowering female legislators that prop us up,” says Turnbull. “Many times, when I’m talking to legislators and they’re talking about who else has been in to talk to them, it makes me happy that they’re giving women’s names.”

– E.S.

Abby Vail

Managing Partner, Ballard Partners
Abby Vail / Ballard Partners

Abby Vail has been intentional about every job she’s taken. But when the government affairs expert landed at Ballard Partners three years ago, she felt something really special happening.

“I knew when I came here that this would be my forever home,” she says of Florida’s top-ranked lobbying firm. “I love it and I don’t think I’ve ever loved a job more than here. It’s a joy being able to help my clients navigate and solve problems.”

With over 15 years of government experience, Vail served as chief of staff of the Florida Office of Financial Regulation before coming to Ballard. Integral in the passage and development of the Financial Technology Regulatory Sandbox, she also served as the office’s representative in the American Consumer Financial Innovation Network.

Vail says it’s a tough industry for everyone, regardless of gender, and that women often band together to do the work that needs to be done, from finding trusted advisers to helping one another to celebrating each other’s successes.

Just a year ago she took on a new role as managing partner of the Tallahassee office, which came with additional responsibilities at the firm while also providing her an added sense of security.

“I made a lot of strategic moves and wanted to diversify my experience in every job I took,” Vail says. Now I’m at a point in my career and in my season of life that I’m really looking forward to being settled.”

– E.S.

Congratulations to Dawn Woods for being recognized in Above & Beyond: Women in Government

Dawn Woods

Partner/Principal - Florida Government and Public Sector Consulting, EY
Dawn Woods / Jennifer Powell Photography

As lead of EY’s Florida practice serving government and public-sector clients, Dawn Woods has been at the global accounting firm, long known as Ernst & Young, for nearly two decades, working in information technology, security and risk management from its Atlanta and Tallahassee offices.

Woods has worn many hats over the years and currently holds down the fort on all consulting services for the Florida office as managing partner. She says she’s incredibly grateful to have landed exactly where she’s meant to be.

“I did public sector initially and I did a lot of work with big corporations and decided that government was where I could provide the most impact, and so I switched over when I moved to Tallahassee and just did government work only,” Woods says.

She says she’s currently most excited about the amount of money allotted in the upcoming state budget to deal with longstanding transportation problems. 

The Tallahassee native brings experience leading on a variety of community projects, including a collaboration with South City Foundation to help bring internet access, technical assistance and skill building opportunities to the city’s South Side. She also leads projects on EY’s Ripples program, which bolsters entrepreneurs, supports young people and accelerates environmental sustainability. 

Woods says that as women, it’s important to focus on the feedback, put one’s head down and work hard.

“Now that I am in a position of leadership, I don’t take it lightly to bring women along,” she says. “It always makes sense from a business perspective.”

– E.S.

Sheryl Woods

President and CEO, YMCA of South Florida
Sheryl Woods / YMCA of South Florida

Sheryl’s Woods’ career in health and education took a turn when she landed her first programming job in 1986 at the YMCA. 

“I was responsible for membership and sports, and I just fell in love with the organization,” she says of her early days at the Y. “I didn’t ever have my eye on becoming a CEO – that wasn’t my plan – but it evolved because of my passion. I didn’t want to be average.”

And the powerhouse leader has been anything but. Having successfully merged two YMCA organizations that serve over 500,000 people in 10 locations, Woods has completely reimagined all that a YMCA could be through her strong entrepreneurial spirit and vision. 

She’s passionate about uplifting local youth through health and wellness programs and opened La Bodega Community Food Pantry in Allapattah to address high food insecurity rates.

Under Woods, the $20 million, 65,000-square-foot L.A. Lee YMCA/Mizell Community Center recently opened, aiming to revitalize the historically Black community’s main street, Sistrunk Boulevard. It’s slated to create up to 100 jobs and impact 55,000 people annually.

With four potential projects on the horizon, Woods says she’s looking to build more YMCAs with the goal of community revitalization in mind.

“Typically when you put a Y in a community, that community needs subsidy to operate, and so my goal is to make these Y’s self-sustaining,” she says of her plans for a robust expansion into South Florida.

– E.S.

Katie Yeutter

Chief Operating Officer and Chief Financial Officer, Florida Chamber of Commerce
Katie Yeutter / Florida Chamber

Representing Florida’s business community while simultaneously running a foundation tackling statewide health and safety issues? It's no problem for Katie Yeutter, who as a six-time Ironman triathlon finisher is accustomed to successful multitasking. (She's also training to swim the English Channel next summer. And raising three boys.)

Yeutter oversees operations and finances for the Florida Chamber of Commerce, which represents the business interests of America's fourth-largest economy. She also created and leads the chamber’s Leadership Cabinet on Safety, Health and Sustainability, which addresses issues like workplace safety and mental health. Yeutter is currently launching a statewide research initiative on mental health. 

“I love using strategy to achieve results, and using numbers to ensure we have the right outcomes,” says Yeutter, who has a master’s in accounting as well as an MBA. She’s also a passionate believer in intellectual networking, drawing on the wisdom of fellow executives with the global leadership organization YPO and at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, where she was invited to join this year’s Future-Ready Leadership cohort. 

The Wisconsin native grew up in a high-energy, athletic and entrepreneurial family; her father was an orthopedic surgeon who started several companies. “It’s when we push our limits that we understand what we’re capable of as individuals, creating the tenacity to overcome,” she says of the family ethos.

After all, whether on Mount Kilimanjaro or at home in Tallahassee, “the conditions will always be changing,” Yeutter says. “You need the ability to persevere in times of uncertainty.”

– H.D.

NEXT STORY: The Florida Construction Power 100