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11 Florida women in leadership roles

Carmen Castillo
President/CEO SDI INTERNATIONAL Fort Lauderdale

Managing the Supply Chain

Some 27 years after founding one of the nation’s largest Hispanic woman-owned businesses, Carmen Castillo still spends the majority of her year on the road. Her company, privately held SDI International, manages supply chain contracts for Fortune 500 companies that have at least 5,000 suppliers for the parts or services they need. The firms pay SDI to take over the management of the contracts, from vetting and purchasing through remitting. It manages $3 billion a year in business for clients. “It’s just working beautifully,” she says.

A native of the Spanish island of Mallorca, Castillo began her company with a global vision. It plans to open soon in the Middle East and Australia, the last major regions on the globe where it doesn’t have an office. It’s also moving to a new headquarters in Boca Raton. SDI’s Florida location is largely a function of Castillo’s love of the region and its weather. Most employees work outside Florida.

Castillo says she spends so much time on the road because C-level executives at SDI’s client firms generally want to meet with the top executive at companies with which they work. “There are certain things you can’t delegate,” Castillo says. — Mike Vogel

Michéle Alexandre
Dean, STETSON UNIVERSITY COLLEGE OF LAW, Gulfport

Meaningful Access

As a young girl in Port-au- Prince, Michéle Alexandre experienced income inequality firsthand. “In Haiti, it’s 0.001% rich, and everyone else is struggling,” she says. Her working-class parents, who had migrated to Port-au-Prince from the countryside, emphasized education and studying hard. “My mom had a favorite saying: ‘Life doesn’t owe you anything.’ The reality in Haiti is it was cutthroat.”

At 11, Alexandre earned a scholarship to one of the city’s top Catholic schools — “We read Voltaire and studied Latin” — which set her up for later success at Colgate University, where in 1996 she was the first black valedictorian, and then as a law student at Harvard. Last summer, she became the first black dean at Stetson University College of Law.

Alexandre, a legal scholar focused on civil rights, gender and race, came to Stetson from the University of Mississippi, where she was a law professor and associate dean for faculty development and intellectual life. She says one of her goals is to increase student diversity: While 53% of Stetson law students are women, only 6.6% are black; 15% are Hispanic; and 3.3% are Asian.

“Higher education has always struggled to have meaningful inclusion at different levels,” she says. “We have to ask who’s at the table and whose voices we’re not hearing. At Stetson, I’m talking to my teams about where we haven’t been recruiting. The goal is meaningful access to everybody.” — Amy Martinez

Anita Byer
President, SETNOR BYER INSURANCE & RISK Plantation

‘You Will Never Be Without a Job’

Like many young people, Anita Byer had little knowledge of the insurance industry. But with a bachelor’s degree in English, she was struggling to pick a career. Her parents worked in insurance and encouraged her to give it a try. “Of course, I went, ‘insurance, yuck,’ ” she says.

Soon after, she took their advice and got a job processing insurance transactions at a company in Miami. Later, she left to start an insurance agency in Plantation with her mother, Bernice Setnor, and sister Ellyn Bogdanoff. “I fell in love with insurance,” she says.

Byer, a University of Florida graduate, went door to door at office buildings and warehouse parks, cold-calling to build her client base. “You have to accept rejection, and you have to be persistent — traits that traditional females might find unfeminine,” she says. “I’m feminine, but my ambition exceeded my desire to be seen as an appropriate female.”

Eventually, she bought out her mother and sister, who later became a state senator, and has built Setnor Byer into a thriving business with 35 employees and $40 million in annual sales. Along the way, Byer also launched the Human Equation, which provides human resources and risk management online training.

She says she wishes more young people would consider a career in insurance. “We have trouble making it sexy,” she says. “Once you enter this career and you get confident, you will never be without a job. We are desperate for good people.” — Amy Martinez

Lydia Chicles
Co-founder/ CEO, BOLD! TECHNOLOGIES, Winter Park

Standing in Her Strength

Ask Lydia Chicles about the challenges of being a female tech entrepreneur, and she dead-pans, “How much time do you have?” As CEO of BOLD! Technologies, Chicles regularly pitches her firm’s app development expertise to small and mid-sized businesses. “When we first started, it was very intimidating to be the only woman at the table, but now I’ve learned to deal with it,” she says.

Born in Greece to entrepreneurial parents, Chicles studied TV production at Canada’s Concordia University and worked in magazine publishing in Toronto before moving to Orlando with her husband, Christian. In 2009, while doing volunteer work in the community, she saw a need for a better way to track upcoming events. She created an app to help organizations store and update calendar information. Since then, BOLD! has expanded to offer app development and consulting services to other businesses; it employs 15 people in Winter Park. “Startups come to us to bring their ideas to fruition. We’ve worked with some very successful brands both locally and nationally,” she says.

A mother of two, Chicles is a board member of the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO) and a former president of NAWBO’s Orlando chapter. She says her favorite advice — “stand in your strength” — still resonates with her daily. “It means I can sound different, look different and lead in a different way and still be strong and expect the best results,” she says. “I don’t need to always try to reflect the group.” — Amy Martinez

Julia Nesheiwat
Chief Resilience Officer STATE OF FLORIDA Tallahassee

Rising to the Occasion

When Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed Julia Nesheiwat as the state’s first chief resilience officer, some criticized her for lacking “climate credentials.”

What Nesheiwat does have is a resume replete with government experience on power sustainability, infrastructure protection and the environment. A Lake County native, she is also a former U.S. Army intelligence officer with tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. She holds a bachelor’s in sociology from Stetson, a master’s in national energy security from Georgetown and a doctorate from Tokyo Institute of Technology. Her dissertation was on post-disaster reconstruction of coastal towns and urban resiliency. She worked in hostage affairs at the U.S. State Department but also as a deputy assistant U.S. secretary and undersecretary and aid to special envoys on issues including energy, environment and sustainability. She ran the resiliency and energy working group on the World Economic Forum’s Global Advisory Council.

Once Nesheiwat’s resume became more widely known, her appointment drew plaudits in environmental circles. — Mike Vogel

Johanna Mikkola
Co-founder/CEO WYNCODE ACADEMY, Miami

Speaking in Code

Since moving from Toronto to Miami five years ago, Johanna Mikkola has become a sought-after speaker in Florida’s tech scene and an evangelist of alternative tech training programs.

The Wyncode Academy in Miami, a coding program she started with her husband, Juha, charges students $15,000 for a 10-week course in web development, UI/ UX design and other digital areas. Mikkola says 93% of the school’s 750 graduates have landed jobs in software development or product design, and a number have gone on to work for Microsoft.

Wyncode is also providing a pipeline of tech talent for local companies, including Magic Leap, a Plantation-based startup specializing in augmented reality, and CareCloud, a Miami company that specializes in electronic health records.

Mikkola worked for the National Hockey League for a decade before plunging into tech education. Starting as an assistant in 2005, she ended up becoming senior manager of the NHL’s officiating (referee) department, where she was the only woman among 85 men.

She credits her success in part to supportive bosses and mentors. “For any women in any industry, but particularly where there are very few women, it’s really important to have supporters, whether they’re men or women, who will teach you and educate you on how things work and help you evolve, help you develop,” she says.

As Wyncode matures, Mikkola is committed to making sure the school’s student body is diverse. Wyncode is the only coding program in the state approved to accept the GI Bill, and in 2018 the academy launched a $1.4-million scholarship initiative to get more women into coding. Right now, about 34% of students are women. — Amy Keller

Kathryn Marinello
President /CEO HERTZ, Estero

In the Hot Seat

After burning out in her first job as a foster care social worker, Kathryn Marinello found an accounting job at a manufacturing company where she and her co-workers would play their own version of “Name That Tune” to pass the time. The winner got free beers after work.

“It was an unbelievably boring job, but it did pay the bills, and I did learn how companies make money,” Marinello recounted in a recent commencement speech at SUNY Albany, her alma mater.

The experience also taught her how to have fun and make the best of tough situations.

Marinello has held senior positions at GE, Ceridian, Stream Global Services, Ares Management and, most recently, publicly held Hertz. Along the way, she built a reputation as a turnaround pro. She took the helm of the struggling car rental giant in 2017 with the support of activist investor Carl Icahn and made a number of changes, including upgrading Hertz’s fleet, revamping the company’s leadership and investing in service, marketing and technology. Hertz leased a small fleet of Lexus SUVs to Apple in 2017 to test its autonomous driving technology. Last year, the car rental company partnered with Aptiv to support a fleet of self-driving vehicles in Las Vegas.

Marinello’s enthusiasm for automobiles — “cars are cool,” she often says — is notable. Also notable is the high value she puts on employee engagement. “If I take care of my employees, they take care of the customers; the customers come back because they love the service and the people that they meet, and in the end we make more money we’re investing back in the company, and we can create careers for the people working for us,” she said at SUNY Albany’s commencement.

So far, her strategy appears to be paying off. Revenue is up, debt is down and Hertz has increased its market share.

The company still faces two big legal battles. Hertz is suing ex-CEO Mark Frissora and two other former executives for alleged accounting errors that it claims cost it more than $200 million. The lawsuit is also seeking a refund of $70 million in incentive and severance pay it gave the executives. Hertz also filed a $32-million lawsuit against Accenture over what Hertz contends was a botched website redesign job. Accenture denies the claim and is seeking to have the lawsuit dismissed.

The company’s stock price, meanwhile, plunged 12% earlier this year after Icahn sold off about 5 million shares. It jumped 8% in June after the company announced it was launching a new monthly subscription service called Hertz My Car. The pilot program, which is only available in Atlanta and Austin, allows drivers to rent a car for $999 per month. As of October, shares were trading at about $15.

Marinello believes there’s room for Hertz to grow its market share. Two avenues she sees are Hertz’s ride-sharing business — which rents vehicles to Uber and Lyft drivers — and off-airport operations.

“There’s no magic wand here, but I think the things we’re doing are progressing slowly and surely, and I think there’s more to come,” she told investors in August. — Amy Keller

Lynetta Usher Griner
Co-owner, USHER LAND & TIMBER, Chiefland

‘Where I Was Always Meant to Be’

Lynetta Usher Griner grew up near the Suwannee River in Chiefland, where her parents owned and ran a family farm with cattle and timber. A self-described bookworm, Griner became a lawyer.

By 1989, she had established a solo practice in Chiefland when her brother, Tommy, then head of the family business, died in a boating accident. She and her husband, Ken, a car dealer, didn’t want to see the farm sold. “We just couldn’t envision what it would be like to not own the business,” she says, and they gave up their careers to become full-time farmers.

“It wasn’t an easy transition for Ken and me to come into this business. It was never our plan, and on top of that, we were dealing with broken hearts,” she says.

Today, Usher Land & Timber encompasses about 9,000 acres and employs 36 people in Levy County. The cow-calf operation has about 830 cows, and the timber operation delivers about 200 truckloads a week to wood mills in North Florida. “I feel like I’m where I was always meant to be,” she says. She and Ken plan to hand down the business to their son, Korey, who works with them.

In 2012, Griner became the first female president of the Florida Forestry Association. She currently co-chairs the Florida Climate Smart Agriculture Work Group, which aims to promote industry practices and policies that help farmers both increase crop yields and reduce carbon emissions. She says the effects of climate change already are playing out on her family’s farm.

“What’s unprecedented is the amount of rain we get at one time,” she says. “We’re getting more than a year’s worth of rain in a few days.” — Amy Martinez

Kim Rivers
CEO, TRULIEVE Tallahassee

At the Forefront of Florida Marijuana

“I’m a recovering lawyer.” That’s the tongue-in-cheek description Kim Rivers gave of herself in a podcast. Rivers heads Trulieve, the Tallahassee-based, publicly held company that dominates Florida’s medical marijuana industry. Rivers has a bachelor’s degree from Florida State in political science and business, and a law degree from the University of Florida. She worked in the hotel business and then in 2014 was approached by the firm that has become Trulieve. The daughter of a police officer and educator, she studied the field and saw opportunity. Her advice to women looking to lead in the marijuana industry: “I would say just to take your seat at the table,” she said on a Canadian Securities Exchange podcast. “I think so often we as women sometimes have a tendency to not speak up and speak out.” — Mike Vogel

Kay Stephenson
Co-founder/CEO DATAMAXX APPLIED TECHNOLOGIES Tallahassee

Double Whammy

As CEO of DataMaxx, Kay Stephenson works in two male-dominated fields: Law enforcement and technology. DataMaxx develops cloud-based technology that enables law enforcement, public safety and homeland security professionals to communicate and share information with one another.

“In the early years, it was challenging. When I went to meetings, I’d be the only woman in the room. You felt like you were intruding on someone’s territory,” she says.

Stephenson and Chief Technology Officer Jonathan Waters bought out the government IT division of a large company where they had been working and eventually added clients such as the FBI, Federal Aviation Administration and the Miami and New York police departments. These days, sports stadiums are a big growth market, she says. The company’s software can be used to conduct on-site criminal background checks of game-day contractors and vendors.

A mother of three children — all of whom work at the company — Stephenson says she’s glad to see more women involved in the industry — though “I’m not so sure that others have to prove themselves as much as women do,” she adds.

Today, DataMaxx has 58 employees and about $6 million in annual sales. — Amy Martinez

Diane Rowland
Chair, UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA DEPARTMENT OF AGRONOMY, Gainesville

Caring for the Land

In 2001, Diane Rowland became the first female scientist at the USDA’s research lab in southern Georgia, where she helped peanut farmers develop water-efficient practices and rotate crops effectively.

Determined to prove herself to her male research colleagues, she took on all sorts of tasks, from digging trenches to fixing irrigation leaks, she says. “I think that helped me fit in better, but it also gave me a better understanding of what farmers do.”

Rowland, who has a doctorate in biology from the University of New Mexico, worked for the USDA until 2009. After a short stint at Texas A&M University, she joined the faculty at the University of Florida, where she now chairs the agronomy department. Last year, she launched UF’s Center for Stress Resilient Agriculture, a multi-disciplinary research effort focused on sustainable farming.

“The land is essentially the grower’s instrument. They have always known they have to take care of the land,” she says. “Through research, we’ve now begun to provide quantitative evidence about the techniques that work the best.” — Amy Martinez

 

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