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Superwomen
Always aspiring and inspiring, these leading ladies excel in business, philanthropy and the arts

by Leigh Stuart and Bill Donahue

Record-breaking female tennis player Martina Navratilova once said, quite famously, “I think the key is for women not to set any limits.” Having won 18 Grand Slam singles titles, 31 major women’s doubles titles (an all-time record) and 10 major mixed-doubles titles, on top of becoming a figurehead in philanthropic causes that champion underserved children, gay rights and animal rights, Navratilova has certainly lived by her words.

Her quote may not provide specifics, but the “key” she references has helped open doors to attainment, freedom and, ultimately, success for countless women. Certainly the ladies featured in the pages that follow prove this notion, as all have excelled in their careers by leaping over obstacles and thumbing challenges in the eye. All have broken through whatever ceilings might have dared to foolishly stand in their way.

These women have shown superior talent in a vast array of fields, including business, philanthropy, media, academia, hospitality and actual of-the-earth fields used to farm crops such as soy, alfalfa and corn. In honor of their achievements and ambitions, we proudly present these mothers, daughters and sisters—heroines and role models all—as our Superwomen, class of 2013.

The Multitasker
Chester County dairy farmer Mary Lou King defines the term “unstoppable”


Mary Lou King grew up on a dairy farm in Lancaster and describes herself as “a simple farm wife.” Yet, the massive, impressive, almost unfathomable list of accomplishments she racks up every day at her family-run Cochranville farm is certainly anything but simple.

First, she has four children—Kelly, 22; Colton, 20; Kristy, 18; and Kandy, 15—a husband, Neil (he runs the poultry side of the farm), a dog named Max, an assortment of cats and, of course, the cows.

“We farm between 300 and 400 acres of corn, alfalfa and soybeans that are fed to our dairy [cows],” she says, referring to the 300 bovines (cows, heifers and calves) living on the farm at any given time. “Maintaining cow comfort for good milk production is important to us here and having a cow nutritionist balance their feed rations and intakes have been keys to keeping our dairy successful.”

She took all business courses in high school, but upon graduation she pursued and earned an L.P.N. (licensed practical nurse) certification; this provided essential skills which she has utilized both professionally and at home. Today she works seven days a week, waking at 4:30 a.m. and working well into the evening. In a typical day, she milks cows for about seven hours, cleans the farm and her home, does laundry for her home and the barn, prepares meals for her family and keeps the books—just to name a few of her duties.

“It’s a lot of hard work,” King says, though she is also quick to speak about what she recognizes as the numerous positive aspects of life on a farm: “I get to see every sunrise. I do get quite dirty and it is hard physical work, but by the end of the day I feel like I accomplished a lot.”

She also has a busy schedule with her daughter, Kandy, who suffers from a very rare nonchromosomal disorder called De Barsy Syndrome. For Kandy, whose development is that of a 3- to 6-month-old, King must bathe her, brush her hair, dress her, change her diapers, maintain her medical equipment, take her to and from the school bus and, most importantly, share time and love with her.

“I enjoy taking care of her—we do not have any private duty nursing care,” she says. “I get to use my nursing skills every day with her j-tube [jejunostomy tube] feedings and adaptive equipment. … God has a purpose for everyone’s life here on earth and maybe [her story] can inspire and encourage others out there with a special-needs child to see that children like Kandy are needed to teach us the gift of compassion and to not take our health for granted. She completes our family and we love her just the way she is.”

King’s other two daughters are pursuing careers in nursing, like their mom. Kelly is an L.P.N., and Kristy recently started nursing school at the Pennsylvania College of Health Sciences. “I’m sure that has a lot to do a lot with their little sister … just seeing that they can help people and make life better for someone like Kandy with special needs,” King says. “They really have the compassion for helping people.”

Of her life, she says, “There is always something to do and there is never a dull moment.” Earlier this year, for example, King won recognition from “LIVE with Kelly and Michael” on ABC, earning the title of “Unstoppable Mom.” The show gifted her and Neil with a cruise to celebrate their 25th anniversary (October 8), as well as a $100,000 prize, which King has already given away to be split among her children and the church.

“We feel very blessed,” King emphasizes. “I sometimes wonder, How did we get this wonderful blessing? I think sometimes God just gives you a surprise to make your ordinary life extraordinary. We feel blessed to be the third generation here on this family farm on King Road in Cochranville.

“And I feel honored and humbled to have had the opportunity … to represent all farm women out there who are working hard, and bring a positive view of farming to the public.” —LS


The Unstoppable Force
Inventive cuisine and obsessively attentive hospitality have helped the tireless Aimee Olexy become one of Philadelphia’s most recognizable restaurateurs


Aimee Olexy is a machine. There is no other explanation.

The Unionville resident runs two of the Philadelphia area’s most distinctive restaurants—Talula’s Garden in Washington Square, which she oversees through a collaboration with restaurant magnate Stephen Starr, and Talula’s Table in Kennett Square—and earlier this year expanded her thriving business by opening Talula’s Daily, an all-day café and market in the space next to Talula’s Garden. Essentially, she’s running three highly successful restaurants, from Center City to Chester County, managing and inspiring a staff of 150 along the way.

Not too shabby for a high school dropout.

Olexy, an eager student and daughter of parents who were “pretty hippie,” got her first taste of restaurant life when her mother dropped her off at the door of the Spring Mill Café in Conshohocken; she worked there “for a very long time,” she says, “watching wine being poured and meeting with French people.” Because she “never fit in the high school scene,” she dropped out and got her GED before earning a degree in English literature from St. Joseph’s University. She then skipped town to earn her stripes in kitchens in Colorado and France—“studying wine and cheese and farming avidly,” she says—before heading back east to be closer to her family.

Upon her return, she had a somewhat meteoric rise through Philadelphia’s restaurant ranks. She worked for a few noteworthy Philadelphia dining haunts before linking arms with Starr, first working as general manager of his Blue Angel bistro and ultimately being promoted to his director of restaurants. She would later go on to open a restaurant of her own, Society Hill’s Django, with her then-husband Bryan Sikora.

Fast-forward to 2013 and Olexy is at the helm of a small yet sturdy culinary empire. Every day she is guided by a single mission: to enrich the experience of each guest, through creative and sustainably harvested menu items—starring, rather unsurprisingly, cheeses and wines—as well as hospitality designed to make people feel special. Although she is “an incredibly capable cook,” she sees herself as more like the leader of an orchestra, ensuring that every member of her team is doing his or her part to perfect the finished product.

“I’ve made it a mission to help people be optimistic and happy,” she says. “With my staff, they laugh and on some days they cry. I exhaust them, but many of the people at Talula’s Table have been here since Day One. … I think they themselves leave here knowing they work in a place that’s a little different; it’s a little bit of a cult here.

“I inevitably end up being the proverbial host,” she continues. “I’m kind of like our customer. I represent the person who is the guest. My feeling on my role is very much that I come in each day as one of our guests. I see it from every angle; I’m like a family member watching over my guests. Sometimes when a restaurant is chef owned or corporate owned, sometimes they forget who they are cooking for.”

Olexy’s day looks something like this: up at 5:30 a.m.; get her 8-year-old daughter ready for the day ahead; make a beeline for Talula’s Table to do some work in the office and then hitting the sales floor to peddle cheese, coffee, etc.; make deliveries before heading for the city; work with the staff and management team at Talula’s Daily; maybe have a staff meeting; work on upcoming projects such as recipes, sourcing and charitable causes centered around food and agriculture; help with dinner service at either Talula’s Garden or Talula’s Table; go home and talk to the babysitter before falling asleep with her daughter.  

“By 10 a.m. I’ve interacted with 150 people,” she says. “I never really tire of it. I have days where I want to rip my hair out and swing at people, but I’m always eager to get to work. I get some gratification out of creating a new cocktail or creating a new dish. I truly love it.”

Could further expansion be in the works, such as a new restaurant in a contiguous market or another major city?

“I have an incredible team, and sometimes growth is inspired by them,” she says. “I’m not saying I wouldn’t open a place in New York or D.C., but I’d have to think about it. I like to physically be there, with my guests.”

Given the hectic yet fulfilling nature of her life, is there anything she would do differently, if given the chance? Maybe one thing, she suggests: “I wish I had more time to exercise.” —BD


The Makeover Artist
Lori McHale provides hope and healing by making over bedrooms for sick kids


A few years ago, Lori McHale’s daughter approached her mom with a wish to redo her bedroom. Little did she know this one moment would trigger a series of events culminating in the foundation of Designing 4 Hope (designing4hope.org), a Royersford-based nonprofit organization that provides bedroom makeovers for critically ill children.

McHale, who has a background in graphic design and interior decorating, thoroughly enjoyed helping her daughter fix up her room, but it wasn’t until viewing an episode of the television show “Secret Millionaire”—a series wherein wealthy individuals participate in work with charitable organizations—that the proverbial light bulb flicked on. The organization highlighted on this particular show provided room renovations for kids struggling with various illnesses. She turned to her husband immediately and said, “I can do that.”

In the spring of 2011, she decided to create her own business doing something similar. Designing 4 Hope recently completed its 20th bedroom makeover, moving ever forward with its mission to give these children a space to “rest, recover, heal and dream.”

As executive director, McHale has her hands in everything—literally and figuratively. She meets with families and contractors, creates designs, manages the group’s social-media sites, shops for supplies for the bedrooms and, of course, attends the renovations. McHale’s husband works closely with her, while her 12-year-old daughter helps, too.

Designing 4 Hope spearheads all types of bedroom renovation projects, from simple paint and “pretty stuff” to full-scale renovations, but the process is the same for all projects. How it works: The group goes out to meet with a child (and his or her family) who has been referred to the group; McHale and a contractor speak with them regarding medical necessities, as well as the child’s favorite colors and characters; then measurements are taken and a redesign plan is devised. On the day of a “build,” the project is underway by 9 a.m. Some builds take a short time, though for one big day the crew didn’t finish until midnight. In some cases, the group has also upgraded rooms for healthy siblings, who “are sometimes overlooked in light of their ill sibling’s extra needs,” she says.

While Designing 4 Hope works primarily in Berks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery counties, it has accepted projects as far away as Bloomsburg and Brigantine, N.J. McHale is assisted by a core group of volunteers, many of whom attend every project. She also has begun to get requests from schools and corporations expressing a desire to participate.

As for the future, McHale says she wants to increase the number of room makeovers the group performs from eight per year to 12, or approximately one per month. McHale also wants acquire more funding and support from corporations such as existing sponsor Tri County Area Federal Credit Union, apply for grants and build up the board and volunteer base.

“There are many days where I am just tearful with thanks,” she says. “Every day there’s some kind blessing.” —LS


The Voice
“Women to Watch” host Sue Foley Rocco cultivates change by sharing personal stories of women in leadership roles


Sue Foley Rocco is, in media terms, definitely “trending up.”  A year ago she had a career in sales that, by her own admission, “just kind of kept plodding along.” She has since transformed herself, in more ways than one, as host of a successful radio program on Bala Cynwyd’s WWDB-AM Talk 860, featuring prominent female business leaders.

For as long as she can remember, Rocco was addled by what she describes as poor self-esteem. Then, one day, something changed. She remembers standing in the bedroom of her Worcester home, analyzing her life in the aftermath of a certain family situation. It was then she made the decision to finally pursue “something that would make a difference.” She soon made a connection with Kim Douglas, host of a networking show on Jeffersonville’s WFYL 1180 AM, who suggested Rocco pitch a program to the station’s general manager. Shortly after, “Women to Watch” (women2watch.net) came into being.

“I really wanted a show about women,” says Rocco, who had no prior radio experience but did have a degree in communications from Villanova University and a natural ability to forge bonds with people. “I wanted to share stories about incredible, accomplished women, to inspire other women and younger girls who are battling with poor self-esteem.”

To date, Rocco has produced more than 60 “Women to Watch” episodes, in which she has interviewed women from the Philadelphia area as well as those from across the country and elsewhere. Notable guests have included fashion icon Norma Kamali, former producer of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” Natalie Mashaal and Greater Philadelphia Film Office executive director Sharon Pinkenson. Nearly six months ago Rocco transitioned the show to WWDB, and it has since gained the sponsorship of Walgreens.

“It doesn’t matter if I’m talking to a CEO or a woman starting a cupcake business, we all have self-doubt,” she says. “We all have the same types of doubts and challenges, and that’s what I want to find out about; there’s still a human behind the title.”

In addition to booking guests for her radio show, she is in talks with programming executives about developing a TV show she describes as currently “in the early stages of development.”

“When someone is talking about their personal story, it stays with you longer,” she continues. “As a result, it might cause them to go and change something in their life. I’m really hoping these stories will move more women into leadership roles. … Once we have more of an equal playing field, the world is going to change for the better.”  —BD


The Restaurateur
Dana Farrell finds reward by making others happy through the universal language of food

“It’s not just about the food, being in the restaurant business,” says Dana Farrell. “Making people happy is a tough job.”

Farrell, who studied labor and industrial relations at Penn State, started her restaurant career in 1995 as co-owner of Malvern’s The Classic Diner. Her time working with the diner gave Farrell experience in all aspects of the business, from the office to the kitchen; yet, she says, “It wasn’t ever something I thought I would do for the rest of my life.”

Nearly 20 years later, however, it seems that she has changed her mind. Farrell plays a central role in brand creation and development for Avenue Kitchen in Villanova and Harvest Seasonal Grill and Wine Bar in Glen Mills. (There are two other Harvest Seasonal Grill locations throughout the region, though Farrell is not a partner in either.) This includes handling a variety of aspects of the restaurant, ranging from food to style to how a customer should feel in the establishment.

Harvest restaurant will celebrate its third year in business in May 2014, while Avenue Kitchen has been open for less than half a year. Although Harvest and Avenue have different personalities, the establishments do share a similar attention to detail. Both restaurants work to utilize as many locally sourced ingredients as possible. Harvest’s globally influenced, calorie-restricted menu changes four times a year, and 90 percent of its dishes boast 500 calories or less. The menu at Avenue Kitchen is more classically American. In terms of design and décor, Harvest has a little more of an earthy feel, while Avenue is very light and airy.

Of course, it only makes sense that Farrell and the executive chef at Avenue Kitchen, Gregory Smith, would have similar tastes; he is her brother, after all. (And her younger brother to boot so, Farrell notes, there is never a question as to who is in charge.)

“I believe the best [way] to select a chef is to understand and like their style of cooking,” she says. “Every chef has their own flair and that should work with the concept of the restaurant. … I’ve been really lucky in finding very hardworking, dedicated, trustworthy people.”

In addition to her life as a restaurateur, Farrell is also the mother of two children—a daughter, 14, and son, 10—whom she says are among her most honest and ardent supporters. Above all, Farrell says, “It’s rewarding when you can make people happy and they enjoy your concept and your food.” —LS


The Interior Decorator
In her career transition from computers to interior design, Beth Baker has enriched the lives of people in need of a fresh start

Beth Baker had a good job in computers—“high-end network operating systems,” she says—working for Dow Jones & Co. She would sometimes go to the office at One World Financial Center in Manhattan, practically in the shadows of the World Trade Center’s twin towers. Everything changed after September 11, 2001.

“I had a life reassessment I went through,” says Baker, a resident of Doylestown. “The whole thing made me think about what’s important in life. I found I wanted to do something different. I guess you could say I had an epiphany.”

She abandoned microchips and processors for a career in interior design, and took a job at a family-run store doing what “decorating and whatever.” Eventually she started her own firm, Beth Baker Interiors, doing interior design and color consultations for clients throughout Bucks County. Inevitably, many clients wanted to part ways with their existing home furnishings, and Baker saw this as an opportunity.

In March 2008, she began researching ways to find homes for her back stock of unused furniture. This search led her to the Bucks County Housing Group (BCHG), a nonprofit that provides transitional housing and related social services to homeless and low-income families at various locations throughout the county. She contacted the group and presented her idea: Use existing furnishings and home-décor items to provide makeovers of living spaces for incoming residents.

In June of that year Baker furnished her first apartment for BCHG, and Deserving Décor (deservingdecor.org) was officially born. She kept running her interior design firm while doing jobs for BCHG, though ultimately she came to an impasse. In the fall of 2009, she closed the doors on Beth Baker Interiors and devoted herself fully to Deserving Décor, which earned 501(c)(3) nonprofit status in 2010. So far the organization has completed more than 100 makeovers.

“When people hear ‘homeless,’ they tend to think of people pushing around a shopping cart,” she says. “There are some [homeless] people who may have made bad decisions, but most of the people we work with have overcome all that and are just trying to get back on their feet. Primarily it’s single mothers with children.

“I think [what we do] directly affects their self-esteem,” she continues. “They’re already in survival mode and trying to get their lives together. … If we can fix up the place where they are staying and they come home to a place that is a clean and homey environment to relax at the end of the day, it has a calming effect.”

Deserving Décor has grown to include partnerships with Keystone Opportunity Center, a Souderton-based organization that provides services similar to those offered by BCHG, and United Way of Bucks County. In all, Deserving Décor provides makeover services to nearly 60 properties in Bucks and Montgomery counties, often on short notice. Although Baker receives assistance from a team of volunteers, Deserving Décor is largely a one-woman operation. (“I pick out all the items, I figure out the color schemes,” she says. “Sometimes I wish I could clone myself.”) Donated items are kept in four storage units—two of which are donated—for soft furnishings, household goods and furniture, and Baker’s Ford F-250 pickup truck serves as the nonprofit’s principal means of transportation.

“This is a lot more fulfilling [than my job in computers],” she says. “There’s the term ‘giver’s high.’ It’s almost selfish. I’m helping people, but I’m also doing it because it makes me feel good.” —BD

 
The Globetrotter
Nomadic benefactor Lori McClure makes a difference at home and abroad

Lori McClure has seen the world. Her passport bears stamps from China, Finland, Mexico, New Zealand and Ukraine, among other nations, and each trip has had one defining purpose: to improve the lives of other people, especially those with special needs.  

“I started doing volunteer work when I was 14 years old,” she says. “It’s never been anything new to me.”

Mostly recently her international travels have taken her to the Republic of Ghana in West Africa. She first went there six years ago, with a team of volunteers that included her father on a trip organized by Hope Community Church in King of Prussia. The team’s mission was to evaluate and assist members of a two-building residency for the underserved.  

“In Ghana, anyone with disabilities is seen as demon possessed,” she says. “You have parents who abandon kids with blindness, deafness and developmental disabilities, so you have a number of adults who are homeless, and they stay at one residency. The other residency houses people with disabilities—some are kids, some are older. I was stunned at the love caregivers were giving them, but there were no resources in terms of providing a better life for them.”

The next time she returned with a group of health care specialists, and in four days three physicians saw more than 900 patients. After that, she returned with occupational therapists, music therapists and “people with a heart for the special-needs community,” she says. They were able to create an individualized education plan for each resident, implementing therapeutic processes to help each person “have a better, richer life.”

She now works with teams organized through Handi*Vangelism Ministries International, a faith-based group located in Lancaster County. Her role with the residency has shifted to focus more on strategic planning and creating a sustainable infrastructure.

“The first time I came back [from Ghana], I shut down for a little bit,” she remembers. “It just didn’t feel right being here. I felt like I was doing so much there, and I was thinking, What can I do here? What can I do now?”

In addition to her overseas work, McClure serves Access Sports (access-sports.org) as assistant director. The nonprofit organization, which is led by founder Alyson Harris, maintains its base of operations in Philadelphia’s East Falls neighborhood. It uses programming focused around professional sports and other cultural experiences to enrich the lives of underprivileged children and youth groups, as well as individuals with physical and/or mental health disabilities, many of whom tend to be isolated from the rest of the world. The nonprofit, soon to be known as Access Sports Experiences, is in an expansion phase—including the potential for international growth—and delving into new areas of programming and research.  

McClure has firsthand experience with the transformative power of sports-centered inclusion: her son, Liam, who has developmental delays and challenges, though he remains without a clear-cut diagnosis. Not long ago Liam gained an opportunity to attend the Philadelphia Eagles’ training camp, and the experience inspired him. As a result he wound up trying out for his school’s football team—and making the squad, for which he plays positions such as wide receiver on offense and free safety on defense.

“There’s nothing special about me or my family situation,” McClure says. “There’s nothing more I want to do than give back. My mom and dad were the most amazing, generously kind people I know. They would just give and give and give, and I just want to impart that to my kids.” —BD


The Commander in Chief
As the first civilian, female head of one of the nation’s most celebrated military colleges, Stacey Sauchuk is ready to lead


Stacey R. Sauchuk, Ph.D., is breathing rarefied air. In April she was named the first female civilian head of a military academy that has more than eight and a half decades of history under its belt, Valley Forge Military Academy & College (VFMA&C), based in Wayne.

A native of Baltimore, Sauchuk spent most of the last two decades in academia, including seven years as the chair of the board of trustees for Eastern University in St. Davids, as well as adjunct professorships at Eastern and Holy Family College. A school psychologist by training, she also spent time as president and CEO of the Art Institute of Philadelphia and, most recently, COO of Haverford-based ESF Summer Camps Inc.

Her past experiences, which exposed her to the disciplines of program development, marketing, recruitment/retention and financial management, seemed to have prepared her perfectly for the challenge of leading VFMA&C, a nonsectarian co-ed college and military-modeled all-male boarding school. Her goal: to grow VFMA&A while respecting the heritage of an institution created to shape young men and women into leaders.  

“This position really does bring together my work from the variety of places I have been, the skills I have learned, pretty much every trick I have in my pocket,” she says. “It was a very attractive opportunity—this is an amazing institution with incredibly history—and I see lots of opportunity here with the strong, clear leadership we have in place. … It’s definitely an exciting challenge.” —BD

 

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