Women on a Mission

That woman standing in line at the supermarket? She might be a best-selling author, a life-saving surgeon, or a global venture philanthropist, but you wouldn’t necessarily know it.

Mariah Burton Nelson

Author, speaker and former professional athlete

At 16, Mariah Burton Nelson transferred to a high school in Phoenix that didn’t have a girls’ basketball team. She asked the coach if she could try out for the boys’ team.

“‘No,’ he said, ‘your breasts would get in the way,’” she recalls. “He said I could try out if he could personally bind my breasts.”

She passed on the offer and joined an intramural women’s team instead.

Later on, as a student at Stanford University, Nelson noted that the women’s basketball team had no paid coaches, scholarships or real uniforms. And the women’s gym was a fourth the size of the men’s. So she and her teammates held sit-ins in the athletic director’s office, urging school officials to recognize Title IX.

“And they did,” she says.

After graduation, Nelson turned pro and played for four teams in the Women’s Basketball League (the nation’s first venture in women’s professional hoops). She was released from one team, the San Francisco Pioneers, after a reporter from a local TV station spotted her at a Gay Pride parade and contacted the team’s owner.

That’s when Nelson discovered her writing voice. After taking classes in Santa Cruz, Calif., with the poet Ellen Bass, she sent a letter to the editor of Women’s Sports & Fitness Magazine critiquing its coverage as homophobic. The editor promptly printed the letter and hired Nelson as a staff writer. She worked for the magazine for three years until it folded.

Nelson moved to Arlington in 1988, where she freelanced from her home in Maywood, writing stories about women’s sports for magazines such as Sports Illustrated for Women, Glamour, Self and Shape.

After the 1991 publication of her first book, Are We Winning Yet?, she began traveling the country as a motivational speaker and educator on women’s athletics. She went on to write five more books.

Most of her books are about sports, but the third, The Unburdened Heart, is about forgiveness. It recounts the true story of a man who molested her as a teen. “He and I actually met again about 20 years later,” she says. “He listened to my rage, and he answered my questions and apologized to me. Most abused people don’t get that, but I insisted. I’ve become a professional forgiver.”

Now 55, Nelson lives in Arlington’s Woodmont neighborhood with her longtime partner and serves as executive director of the American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation, a professional organization that counts 8,000 P.E. teachers among its members. When she’s not blogging or working on a new book, she’s meeting with her writing group, the Poetry Grrls; swimming at Washington-Lee High School; or riding her bike around D.C.’s monuments. She also spends time visiting her dad, who has Alzheimer’s disease and lives close by at Sunrise Assisted Living in Bluemont Park.

Caring for him, she says, has taught her patience. So have countless other life experiences.

“I once had rocks thrown at me by teenage boys while my female lover and I were sitting by a stream in the woods holding hands,” she says. “In 1994, while on an extensive book tour for The Stronger Women Get, the More Men Love Football, I was harassed on TV and on radio shows by callers who disagreed with my views and used the lesbian label to try to discredit me.”

Does that bigotry remain today? “Of course,” she says. “I am still discriminated against in Virginia, where I can’t marry my partner of 21 years. But here’s hoping someday the answer to that question will be no.”

Photo by Jonathan TimmesStephanie Akbari

Medical director, Reinsch Pierce Family Center for Breast Health, Virginia Hospital Center

More than 230,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer in the U.S. every year, but Stephanie Akbari doesn’t think of her patients as statistics. She sees each one as a person who feels blindsided, overwhelmed and unsure of what to do next. Treating the emotions, she says, is as important as treating the disease.

“It’s the right thing to do. That’s what I’d want from doctors,” says the breast surgeon, who is 46. On the bookshelf in her office is a bucket stuffed with hundreds of thank-you notes. “I save them all,” she says.

Akbari attended medical school at the University of Pennsylvania and completed her general surgery residency at Harvard. When she moved to McLean in 2000, she was surprised to discover only one surgeon in all of Northern Virginia specializing in breast health.

At the same time, she was dismayed to find that breast cancer patients in the area had no choice but to drive all over town for various tests and consultations, often carting their medical records and films with them. She wondered why no one offered comprehensive care in a single location. “I tried [selling the idea to] different hospitals,” she says, “and no one wanted to do it.”

That changed in 2008 with the opening of the Center for Breast Health at Virginia Hospital Center, which Akbari heads as medical director. In this “one-stop shopping” environment, breast surgeons, plastic surgeons, radiologists, oncologists, physical therapists and patient advocates work together as a team. All services—from diagnostic screenings to surgery to support groups—are delivered in one place, making the logistics less stressful for patients so they can focus on healing. And the medical records are all digital.

The center’s walls aren’t covered in standard Komen-for-the-Cure pink. “We wanted it to be warm but not too girly,” Akbari says. Instead, the space features soft colors that reference a four-paneled watercolor painting in the waiting room by acclaimed local artist Patricia Tobacco Forrester, who died last year at age 70.

Akbari is attractive and fit (she runs 15 miles a week) but not a pink kind of gal. A single mom, she wakes up at 5 a.m. to make breakfast and pack lunches for her two sons, Andrew, 10, and Alex, 7. She’s typically at the office by 7:30 a.m. and leaves at 5:30 p.m., with surgeries scheduled every Tuesday and every other Wednesday. When she’s not working, she’s busy taking the boys to Little League practice or rock climbing or to the pool.

“I’m one of the oldest moms at my school,” she says. “Part of being a surgeon—especially a woman surgeon—requires you to put a lot of things on hold. Like having a family. You don’t have kids as a surgical resident. When I was in training, they would kick you out for that.”

She also remembers being on call in her 20s and 30s while friends went out to concerts and bars. “I look back and wonder what I did,” she says. “It was a trade-off.”

But she has few regrets. In her office, amid the off-color New Yorker cartoons taped to her computer and the handpainted Mother’s Day presents from her kids are shelves jammed with photos and gifts from patients. The hallway outside sports a framed jersey from Redskins tight end Chris Cooley, whose mom, Nancy, was one of those patients.

She picks up a framed photo of a woman with a golden retriever. “This is my favorite,” she says. The woman is holding a sign that says, “No More Breast Cancer. Thank You, Dr. Akbari.”

Photo by Jonathan TimmesTracy O’Grady

Executive chef and co-owner, Willow

Tracy O’Grady grew up eating Swanson’s TV dinners as a treat. Now she’s pushing folks to give up processed foods and eat their veggies. Even when they go out.

The problem in most bistros, says the celebrated chef, is that the menu has one vegetarian option, and it’s not tasty. “If the choice was a delicious hamburger or old boiled broccoli, I would get the burger too. But how much [meat] can you eat? I’m on a lentil kick this month. Maybe next month it will be cauliflower.”

O’Grady has even gotten her mom to eat peas (a legume her mom claims to hate). Things have changed since O’Grady announced plans to enroll in culinary school after high school. Back then, her parents weren’t thrilled. In fact, they flat-out said no. “To them, being a cook is like being a maid,” she explains.

To appease her family, O’Grady enrolled at Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y., and majored in communications, but she still loved cooking. In the second semester of her senior year, she needed an unpaid externship to graduate. After hitching a ride to D.C. with a friend, she opened the phone book and started cold-calling every restaurant in the city. It was inauguration week 1989 and French chef Yannick Cam’s nouvelle cuisine spot, Le Pavillon, was slammed. His wife hired O’Grady to assist with pastry production—brioche, puff pastries and baguettes.

“Had I known he was one of the top two chefs in the area, I never would have called,” O’Grady says, remembering the good fortune of her cluelessness. Her tutelage under Cam led to three years with Roberto Donna at Galileo, and then to Robert Kinkaid’s seafood restaurant in Foggy Bottom, where in 10 years she worked her way up from sous-chef to executive chef.

During that time, she met line cook Brian Wolken, the man she would eventually marry. “I was his boss,” she says. “He didn’t like me much then.”

Their wedding on September 2, 2005, wasn’t a typical fairytale affair. The ceremony and reception were held in the Ballston office building space that was to become Willow. As guests nibbled on a buffet of O’Grady’s design, the event segued into a soft-launch party for the new restaurant, which O’Grady now owns in partnership with Wolken and her close friend, pastry chef Kate Jansen.

At 43, O’Grady is a small, pretty chef who—unlike most small, pretty chefs—doesn’t want to be on TV. A reluctant local celebrity, she just wants to be in her kitchen. “She’s in there working in the trenches,” says Willow’s general manager Debra Rubin. “She’s not in her office writing a cookbook and counting receipts.”

“I’m a different kind of cook,” O’Grady says. “I just really like to cook and eat food. I don’t want to only taste it. If I like it, I want a full portion.”

Following the trend of Parisian chefs opening “baby bistros” (smaller, more-affordable versions of their fine-dining establishments), O’Grady recently introduced Nosh, a “restaurant in a restaurant”
(located in Willow’s bar area) offering simple, less-complicated food and casual seating. Her goal: to satisfy customers who like her cooking but can’t afford a $30 entrée two or three nights a week.

For all its rewards, owning a successful restaurant has its sacrifices. O’Grady’s grueling work schedule leaves little time to spend at home in the 1946 Cape Cod that she and Wolken own in the Falls Church neighborhood of Tyler Park. They never honeymooned after their wedding and haven’t taken a vacation in eight years. And because Willow is open on Easter, Mother’s Day and Thanksgiving, they often miss seeing family on holidays. They don’t have children.

At the same time, O’Grady is proud of what they have made.

“The community is growing with us, and we’re growing with it,” she says. This spring, Willow plans to augment its 7,500 square feet of interior space with another 500 square feet of outdoor seating. “If you come in, I’m usually here,” she says. “It’s home.”

Photo by Jonathan TimmesBarbara Donnellan

Arlington County manager

Barbara Donnellan’s relatives don’t quite understand what she does as Arlington County manager. “It’s like I’m a CEO of a $1 billion corporation with 3,500 employees, and we’re in 250 lines of business,” she tells them. “It’s equivalent to a corporation. I have a board.”

Donnellan sleeps in Fairfax, but “lives in Arlington,” she explains one Tuesday afternoon between board meetings. She’s seldom home. Her next meeting that evening will probably go until midnight.

“Easy,” she says, unfazed. Her 24/7 job also includes the occasional call in the middle of the night—say, if there’s a shooting, a tornado, or word from the chief of police of a terror suspect under surveillance.

Donnellan, 54, grew up in Queens, N.Y., the youngest of seven children. She met her husband, Kevin J. Donnellan (now executive vice president and chief communications officer at AARP) in 1977, when they were political science majors at St. John’s University.

After college, she worked for the City of New York, while Kevin moved to Arlington and worked on Capitol Hill. The night before her 25th birthday, he proposed to her at the Buckingham Apartments at Pershing and Glebe. Not long after, she landed a job as a budget analyst in Arlington County. She was named deputy county manager in 2005, and acting manager in 2009, when Ron Carlee retired.

That’s when the true test of Donnellan’s mettle began. Just weeks after she assumed her new role, a water main broke and an employee was electrocuted trying to fix it. He was the first county employee in 40 years to die on the job. She lost two more employees at the Pentagon shooting on October 19, 2010. In between those tragedies was Snowpocalypse.

“It was one disaster after another,” she says of her seven-month term as acting manager. During that time her staff began referring to her as “Disaster Donnellan” and “The Cursed Lady.”

Donnellan’s temporary term ended in May 2010, and the county hired a new manager. When he left four months later, the board made her an official offer. “It was a seven-month job interview,” she says in retrospect.

On the day of her official appointment, her husband was out of town. So when it was time for her new job to be announced on TV, she asked a staffer to come to the boardroom with her. She didn’t want to be standing alone in an empty room.

She was shocked when she walked into a packed boardroom, where she received a standing ovation. “That blew me away,” she says. “I figured no one would be there. Tears were rolling down my face.”

Donnellan is the first woman to serve as the county’s manager but is reluctant to make a big deal out of gender distinctions. “I’m more employee-focused. I do rule with my heart more,” she says, “but that doesn’t mean I don’t think.”

The demands of the job have forced her to put other parts of her life on hold, but right now, duty calls. There will be time for things like vacations, sleeping and cooking later.

“I’m known for my chocolate chip cookies,” Donnellan says. “If I don’t make it at this, I can open a cookie shop in Arlington.”

Perhaps the cupcake craze will be over by then.

Photo by Jonathan TimmesDeborah Tannen

Author and professor of linguistics, Georgetown University

Fans often tell Deborah Tannen that they, too, aspire to be published authors.

“If you knew what I went through, you probably wouldn’t want to,’” she says. Her first national best-seller, That’s Not What I Meant!, went through multiple editors (some of whom were later fired) and half a dozen major revisions before her agent finally took the manuscript to a different publishing house.

“Why was I so driven to keep [going]? I don’t know,” Tannen says.

Maybe it’s because she wanted to be the Margaret Mead of linguistics. Just as Mead’s insights taught the world about anthropology, Tannen’s keen observations about verbal dynamics proved illuminating to legions of readers. Her second book, You Just Don’t Understand, which examined gender differences in communication styles, was on The New York Times best-seller list for nearly four years. Subsequent titles have examined patterns of dialogue between mothers and daughters, as well as sisters.

Ironically, Tannen never intended to have a career in academia or publishing. “In college, I had no intention of going to grad school. In fact, I was determined not to go,” says the author, who studied English at Harpur College (now part of SUNY at Binghamton). “When my friends took the GREs, I sat ostentatiously in the snack bar.”

After graduation, Tannen bought a one-way ticket to Europe and ended up in Greece, where she taught English, met her first husband, and began to develop an interest in language. As that interest grew, she found herself returning to school and earning a master’s degree in English from Wayne State University.

She was teaching English at the City University of New York when her first marriage ended. Untethered, she moved cross-country to Berkeley, Calif., where she went on to earn a Ph.D. in linguistics.

In 1979 she landed a tenure-track teaching position at Georgetown University and moved back east to McLean. She was 34.

Although Tannen eventually remarried, her career has always come first. That meant living apart from her second husband, Michael Macovski (whom she met at an academic conference in 1985) for years while they pursued tenure-track positions at different universities—he at Dartmouth and, later, Fordham.

“For 18 years, we commuted,” she says, looking back on the circus of juggling course schedules, sabbaticals and leave time until Macovski finally became a professor at Georgetown.

In the early 1990s, at the request of the playwright Emily Mann, Tannen wrote An Act of Devotion, a one-act play about traveling to Poland with her father, who moved to the U.S. in 1920 when he was 12 years old. Selected for inclusion in the anthology Best Short Plays of 1993-1994, the play premiered at Arlington’s Horizon Theater in 1995. It was paired with Sisters, another one-act play by Tannen.

Now 68, Tannen still works seven days a week. And it’s not uncommon for her to work 12 hours per day. “I’m never happier than when I’m writing,” she says. “My mother used to say, ‘You work too much, you should have fun.’ For me, work is fun.”

What’s her next point of investigation? Possibly language and social media. But Tannen isn’t sure. It’s the first time in 35 years that she hasn’t had a book contract.

“I haven’t decided what to focus on,” she says. “I have a lot of ideas.”

Photo by Jonathan TimmesApril L. Young

Chairperson of Five Talents and managing director of Hercules Technology Growth Capital

The first time April Young traveled to Uganda to host a basic business skills seminar, 600 people showed up.

“Women walked 10 miles through the fields,” she recalls. “These people are so hungry for this knowledge, they sacrifice time and treasure to come [even though] they are one paycheck away from starvation.”

Since then, Young has returned to Africa four times as chairperson of Five Talents, a faith-based organization that helps women in developing countries start and operate small businesses.

In the biblical tradition of “teaching a man to fish,” Five Talents teaches women how to manage money and run successful businesses to support their families. Rather than donating relief funds or food, the organization grants micro-loans (usually a modest $60 to $175 per recipient) as seed capital. Each time one woman repays a loan, the money is redistributed to a new entrepreneur. Over the past 10 years, Five Talents has helped more than 65,000 women business owners in 11 countries throughout Africa, Asia and South America.

“I never thought of myself as a businesswoman,” says Young, who was born in Utah and later moved to upstate New York  with her research physicist father. “When I graduated college, women in business were pretty rare.”

She attended George Washington University, intending to be a diplomat, but instead studied city planning. Her degree led her to a variety of positions in construction, economic development and, most recently, venture funding for technology start-ups.

Now managing director of Hercules Technology Growth Capital (which is headquartered in Palo Alto, Calif., with offices in McLean), Young, 65, says her volunteer work dovetails pretty seamlessly with her career. She believes jobs are the key to social reform and that it’s her calling to help others become self-sufficient.

“It’s hard to get people to focus on their immortal soul when they can’t feed themselves,” she says. “These women want to feed their children and provide them with education and hope.”

Together, Young and her husband, Robert Kelly, have one son (Rob, now 25) and have financially supported five East African children. Their home in McLean is alive with one adopted yellow lab, three cats, and a garden with a fig tree and pots upon pots of orchids. Young’s second nature is to cultivate and care for things.

“It sounds so egotistical, but I would like to believe [that] in some small way, I’m making the world a better place,” she says.

Sometimes that’s achieved by funding entrepreneurs who are patenting promising new technologies. Sometimes it’s helping illiterate women in developing countries launch small businesses that make bricks or grow rice.

Or style hair.

“I’m always surprised by how many women open a hairdressing salon and are successful,” Young says. “Women all over the world [care about that]. If they have a little money, they will get their hair done.”

Wendy Kantor lives in Arlington with her husband and two dogs. She teaches at George Mason University.

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