Unstoppable
As leaders in virtually every aspect of life, these super-women are making a difference in the world.
by Bill Donahue

Maya Angelou, the late poet, memoirist, and civil rights activist, told stories with elegance, meaning, and plenty of punch. Some of her hardest-hitting sentiments were spoken in plain language: “Life’s a bitch. You’ve got to go out and kick ass.”
 
 
While figures such as Angelou come along once in a lifetime, scores of highly capable women are following in her footsteps by transforming the world—globally and locally. The following pages feature several women who are making a positive difference in virtually every aspect of life: entrepreneurialism, finance, government, health care, law, and philanthropy, among others
 
By taking Angelou’s words to heart, these women serve as examples for future generations, from members of their own families to anyone in need of inspiration when facing life’s many challenges. 

Sharon Fleck
Bucks County resident Sharon Fleck always wanted to be a veterinarian. She believes she would have if not for one small obstacle: “My scientific aptitude is abysmal.” She figured out other ways to help by adopting rescue animals and getting involved with local organizations devoted to helping animals in need. Then, more than a decade ago, a visit to her daughter’s nursery school changed everything.
 
“There was a woman in the hallway with a dog,” Fleck recalls, “so I went up to speak with her.” 
The woman’s name was Diane Smith, and her dog’s name was Roxy. Fleck quickly learned about Smith’s Doylestown-based nonprofit, Roxy Therapy Dogs, which uses trained and certified therapy dogs to help students in Central Bucks School District improve self-esteem, relieve anxiety and fear, and enhance well-being.
 
Fleck has been volunteering for Roxy Therapy Dogs for the past 13 years, the past six of which she has served as the organization’s president. She leads a group of approximately 70 teams of volunteers, each consisting of a dog and a human who have been certified together. “If you name a breed, we have it or have had it,” Fleck says—from Labrador retrievers and golden retrievers to chihuahuas and poodles to great Danes and whippets. Her last dog, Mo—short for Marilyn Monroe—was Roxy Therapy Dogs’ first pittie, which Fleck thought was important to help “de-stigmatize the breed.”
 
“Dogs show us unconditional love,” Fleck says. “For the longest time, we didn’t know why kids felt better or read better when we had a therapy dog in the room with them. Now we know the science behind the human-canine connection. Dogs’ oxytocin levels go up, too, so they enjoy the connection and interaction as well.”
 
Roxy Therapy Dogs has several programs that use the calming effects of therapy dogs to help children take steps forward. Among the most popular: Elementary School Reading Inspiration, designed to help young students become confident readers; Secondary School Stress Relief, for students who are grappling with the stress, anxiety, or depression that comes from profound loss, such as the death of a parent, friend, or loved one; and Student Specialized Support, to help children with special educational and developmental needs. 
 
“It’s been a pretty amazing journey,” Fleck says. “Going forward, I don’t want to get bigger; I want to get better. I want our teams to get better at what we’re doing and, as the end result, better help the children we serve. Growth will be possible only by recruiting more teams.
 
“There are so many donation-dependent nonprofits that do such good work,” she continues. “People think, ‘Oh, you’re an all-volunteer nonprofit. What could you need money for?’ We do need help. Roxy Therapy Dogs has been doing this work for 16 years, and I would love to see it be alive and kicking for another 16 years. That will only happen if people continue to reach out and support us.”

Yassmin Gramian
Fascinated with buildings and bridges, design and architecture, Yassmin Gramian says she “always wanted to build something.” Now, as secretary of transportation for PennDOT, she has responsibility over the maintenance, repair, and reconstruction of more than 40,000 miles of highways, roadways, and bridges in the Keystone State. 
 
The desire to build flourished in Gramian at an early age. Born and raised in Tehran, Iran, she grew up “surrounded by architects and engineers.” 
 
“They all acquired their education overseas,” she says. “Education was a big part of my family. My mother was 18 when she went to London and pursued an education in fashion design and culinary arts.”
 
Gramian came to the United States and studied civil engineering at the University of Michigan. Spending time away from her family, adapting to a new culture, and being one of very few women in an area of study dominated by men made her “truly feel like a minority for the first time.” The challenges continued when she entered the workforce.
 
“Things were different then than they are today,” she says. “In some cases, I was the first woman in the office of the companies I worked for. I’m pretty adaptable to different environments, so the experience toughened me up, made me more resilient.”
 
She and her husband started a family—she has two children, now grown, born 13 months apart—and continued ascending the ranks, and gaining experience in business management, operations, and client management. In other words, she became an expert in the transportation industry, with decades of experience, a broad network of contacts, and numerous accolades and accomplishments to her credit. 
 
Naturally, others noticed, leading to her recruitment by PennDOT. In May 2020—at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic—the state Senate unanimously confirmed her to her current position. Her biggest priority, as she sees it: securing additional funding to beef up the department’s annual budget of more than $9 billion.
 
“Pennsylvania has more miles of highways, roadways, and bridges than New York, New Jersey, and all of the New England states together,” she says. “We also have 11,500 employees, whereas other states have close to 60,000 employees. We have to maximize and stretch our dollars.”
 
She recently oversaw the drafting of a report to identify new sources of revenue to pay for transportation projects. Her next step: working with Gov. Tom Wolf and state legislators to implement changes that will strengthen communities and benefit Pennsylvanians’ quality of life.
 
“Transportation is the backbone of everything,” she says. “We also have to consider changes in technology, look at recruitment and retention to make this department more appealing [to prospective employees], and address equity in transportation, meaning how can we offer a better life for everyone, regardless of where they live. … We need to be ready for the transportation of the future.”

Marianne Lynch
“Right after someone leaves a situation that involves domestic violence, that’s when they’re in the most danger of being harmed. There’s real physical anguish and danger present. That’s why we’re here. We give them a safe place to go.”
 
So says Marianne Lynch, the executive director of A Woman’s Place, a Doylestown-based nonprofit that provides counseling, support, and emergency housing, among other programs and services, for individuals victimized by domestic violence. She stepped into the leadership role in May 2020, after amassing considerable nonprofit experience with philanthropic organizations such as Philabundance and Habitat for Humanity of Montgomery and Delaware Counties. 
 
“One of the big differences between food insecurity and domestic violence is that domestic violence covers all spectrums of socioeconomics,” she says. “You can be extremely well off or you can be low income; anyone’s status can change immediately because of domestic violence. It’s traumatic, and it can be very difficult for someone to leave a bad situation.”
 
The statistics paint a grim picture: 37.1 percent of Pennsylvania women and 30.4 percent of Pennsylvania men experience intimate partner physical violence, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Lynch says the pandemic only exacerbated the problem.
 
“In our fiscal year 2020 (June 2019 to July 2020), we saw 4,300 calls,” she says. “For the same time period the following year, we saw 6,000 calls—an increase of 40 percent. … We need to focus on empowering survivors so they don’t feel like they have to return to an abusive situation, and to continue to help them gain the skills to be financially independent and stand on their own two feet.”
 
For example, the organization offers a nine-week education and empowerment program called Redefining Independence, Safety, and Empowerment (RISE) designed to help participants become employment ready, financially secure, and imbued with the confidence to achieve their goals. In addition, A Woman’s Place focuses on prevention through domestic-violence and dating-violence programs at schools throughout Bucks County.
 
“The best predictor of someone becoming a perpetrator [of domestic violence] is if they grew up in a house with it,” Lynch adds. “If we don’t help process the trauma, it’s easy for it to become part of their own vernacular. … If we can shed light on the problem, that’s half the battle.”
 
Lynch’s desire to help others stems largely from personal experience.
 
“I was a newly divorced parent,” she says. “My ex-husband decided to leave me and my 11-month-old baby, and I was really struggling to pay the rent. It was tough. I was college educated and had a professional job, but I felt like there was no safety net. At one point, I said, ‘If I ever get out of this, I’m devoting my life to helping other people.’”
 
Going forward, Lynch envisions a larger, more comprehensive shelter facility to provide safer living conditions for women and families in desperate need. Its current shelter has room to house seven families at once, but she would like to see it expand to include bridge housing and longer-term rentals. To get there, however, she says the organization needs continued support. 
 
“Most people don’t realize how prevalent domestic violence is in our world,” she adds. “It feels like a nebulous thing, but it affects real people, and the services we provide are literally lifesaving. … We and everyone else in this movement could really use your help.”

Ryan Manion
On April 29, 2007, Ryan Manion was in Doylestown, signing a lease for her second Pale Moon Boutique location, when she received news that would upend and reorder her life: Her brother, Travis, had been killed in Iraq, felled by a sniper’s bullet.
 
“It was lifechanging for us as a family,” she says. “Within a year of opening that second store, I closed both businesses. What I had been passionate about, I was no longer passionate about. We formed the foundation immediately after [Travis’] death.”
 
Her parents went to a local bank and set up an account so others could donate to honor their son’s name: 1st Lt. Travis Manion, USMC. The account quickly ballooned with hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the family realized it would use the funds to help others—particularly, members of the military and their families. 
 
Today, Ryan Manion is the president of the Travis Manion Foundation, a Doylestown-based nonprofit with a global reach devoted to supporting members of the U.S. military, honoring their sacrifices, and strengthening communities. In short, the foundation aspires to help others live out the foundation’s ethos, characterized by Travis’ now-famous words, “If not me, then who?”
 
“On the day of Travis’ funeral, we made a family commitment to lead lives that would honor Travis and others like him,” Ryan says. “Based on how quickly the foundation has grown, I think it resonated. Everyone could understand what those five words meant and apply it to their own life.”
 
Perhaps the foundation’s most high-profile event is the 9/11 Heroes Run to revere the first responders and others who lost their lives in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The foundation organized the first 9/11 Heroes Run, through the streets of Doylestown, in 2008. Approximately 500 people participated in the event, which the Manion family considered a great start. Ryan recalls her mother, Janet, suggesting the event could have a much broader reach—and she was right. At present, more than 60,000 participants take part in the approximately 90 9/11 Heroes Run events throughout the world. 
 
Based on the tragedies detailed in recent news reports, the foundation’s work is more vital than ever.
 
“Travis was killed in 2007, and here we are in 2021 and we lost 13 men and women [in Afghanistan] who served in the military,” she says. “We want to make sure people understand that every single day, military men and women are risking their lives for us. There are still troops deployed all over the world. … Our work is a matter of bringing the 99 percent of us who don’t serve to the 1 percent who do. Every one of us has a responsibility to be a grateful nation.”
 
The work requires a lot of travel, energy, and time away from family, but Ryan finds it incredibly rewarding. In 2017, in honor of her work with the foundation, she was named an honorary graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, which she says was one of the proudest moments of her life. She treasures the work she has helped the foundation accomplish, but she considers her most important role to be the mother of her three children—two daughters and a son named Travis. 
 
“The goal of the foundation is to keep going, to continue to grow, and to engage more communities around the world,” says Ryan, who also serves Doylestown as township supervisor. “For me personally, I want to continue to lead my children in the right direction, and give them opportunities to be men and women of character. It’s super important to my husband and I that they focus on who they are, not just what they do.”

Anna Lisa Rodriguez, R.N.
Born and raised in the Philippines, Anna Lisa Rodriguez, R.N., OCN®, NEA-BC, came to the United States in 1995. She landed her first U.S. job as a certified nursing assistant for a long-term care facility in Chicago. She has come a long way since then. 
 
In February, Rodriguez became the chief nursing officer and vice president of nursing and patient services for Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia. She’s tasked with providing leadership and administrative oversight for all nursing practice at Fox Chase, and fostering the patient-first culture that since 2000 has awarded Fox Chase Magnet status for excellence in nursing. In addition, she hopes to further advance the quality of care at Fox Chase and throughout Temple University Health System.
 
Prior to joining Fox Chase, Rodriguez spent nearly five years as associate nursing officer at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center in Nashville, Tennessee. She also spent four years at Mount Sinai Hospital in Chicago, where she was unit director for oncology, and eight years at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. 
 
“What fascinated me about Fox Chase is that, beginning with the interview committee, to when I was brought onsite, every individual I spoke with spoke about how much they loved Fox Chase, and how proud they are of the science that’s being done here,” she says. “It was clear to me that everyone is connected to the purpose of Fox Chase. As an administrator, that can be your biggest battle. I love that it has the feel of a family, a good sense of connectedness, and camaraderie among nurses.”
 
Rodriguez did not set out to specialize in oncology nursing. In 2000, when she started at Northwestern, she felt as though she had found a home.
 
“I always left work feeling I had accomplished something and made a difference,” she says. “I can still remember my first patient. He was a well-known physician with aggressive disease. … What struck me about him and some of the other patients I cared for is that they become family. You see some patients for upwards of nine months, celebrate birthdays and other milestones. 
 
“The experience gave me a different perspective in life,” she continues. “I realized my concerns were not as important as the concerns of patients who are dealing with life-altering diagnoses. It made me a better, more grateful person.”
 
Interestingly, Rodriguez almost considered a career other than nursing. 
 
“I had my heart set on architecture, but I was not able to enroll,” she says. “Most of my friends were going into nursing, and I had no Plan B. I put in an application for nursing, not expecting to be accepted because [in the Philippines at the time], there was a height requirement. I’m of smaller stature, and I knew I would not meet the physical requirement. Lo and behold, I was accepted, and everything worked out.”

Leading the Way
Hardworking, multitalented, and compassionate, these leading women redefine the term triple threat.

Robin F. Bond, Esq.
Award-winning employment attorney. Sought-after speaker. Employee advocate devoted to betterment and empowerment in the workplace. transition-strategies.com

Dr. Janine Darby 
Dual-board certified physician. Healer and unifier of communities. Artist and author, family woman, and champion of diversity, equity, and inclusion. lifestylechangesllc.com

Lisa Getson
Daughter of an attorney (father) and a Realtor (mother), has significant experience in both fields, closely connected to communities in Philadelphia and on the Main Line. lisagetsongroup.com

Dr. Ada Greenfield
Prominent Montgomery County endodontist, mother, and educator with a passion for teaching the next generation of professionals in her field. lgendodontists.com

Tabitha Heit
Relationship-building Realtor, Philadelphia salon owner, and mother committed to supporting individuals and communities with special needs. tabithaheit.foxroach.com

Nicole Rabena
Community-driven restaurateur devoted to helping underserved populations thrive. Has multiple La La Lobster locations in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, with expanded space at the Yardley location that includes Big Blue BYOB.
lalalobster.com
 
Cathleen Kelly Rebar
Professional problem solver. Leader of a thriving law firm. Magisterial District Judge devoted to protecting her community and the people she serves. rebarkelly.com

Sheryl R. Rentz
Former telecom exec who became a celebrated family law attorney, highly regarded for her empathy, preparedness, and tenacity in and out of the courtroom. Loves dogs. srrentzlaw.com

Karen Thompson
Self-made entrepreneur behind some of the most recognizable retail and hospitality brands in southeastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey. lslbrands.com

Valerie Weber
Arts-minded entrepreneur, educator, and owner of a Bucks County cosmetics studio capable of dramatically changing clients’ lives for the better. dermagrafix.net

Emily R. Woodson
Former educator who became a force in financial planning and implementation, a field long dominated by men. Uses her drive, intellect, and creativity to help women thrive financially. financialhouse.com

Published (and copyrighted) in Suburban Life magazine, September 2021.