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Female CEOs take their place at the top

Rochester Business Journal
April 29, 2016

While studies show gender-based wage imbalances still exist, a number of obstacles that once blocked women’s rise to leadership positions have been removed.

Among this year’s RBJ 75 companies, nine are led by women. Three shared their stories on their career climb, their views on what it takes to be a woman in charge and what their organizations are doing to promote gender equality.

Learning to lead
Gidget Hopf is marking her 30th year as president and CEO of the Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired – Goodwill of the Finger Lakes. It is a $38 million social enterprise with nearly 700 employees and 13 retail stores serving more than 100,000 people a year.

Hopf was hired for the position when she was 35 years old, working as the associate executive director of Arc of Monroe County. She spent five years at Arc, and before that she worked for five years as a treatment team leader at the Monroe Developmental Center in Rochester. That was her first role as an administrator after working four years as a clinical speech pathologist, the position she spent eight years in education training to do.

Being a leader was not a primary goal, and for Hopf it came as a bit of a surprise.

“Being my own boss, a leader, didn’t come until someone else saw it in me,” she recalled. “He said take a look around at who’s doing the job and ask yourself if you could do it better.”

Being tapped for leadership at a young age was a major transition, Hopf said.

“We’re recognized for being able to get things done,” she explained. “But once we become leaders we need to learn that work now needs to get done through others. We have to stop being the doers. I had to come to understand that.”

She began working with an executive coach and learned how to step back at certain times so others could step up.

“Being a lifelong learner is the key to my success,” Hopf said. She returned to college in her 50s to earn a doctorate in human and organizational studies from George Washington University.

Hopf is grateful for the mentor, a man, who encouraged her to have the confidence to seek that first leadership role. That experience prompts her to help others.

“As a female leader I feel a responsibility to other women in helping them develop themselves—within my organization and also the disadvantaged in the community,” Hopf said. “When I see them develop and move on to a better life, I think how that’s what it’s all about.”

Hopf learned to be independent through a childhood of poverty. Her mother worked hard to provide for Hopf and her twin sister.

“My need to stand out and be a leader came from my upbringing of being poor. I never wanted to be hungry again. I didn’t want to be dependent on anyone,” Hopf said. “I worked three jobs and bought my own car at 16.”

The ABVI-Goodwill organization is largely female, Hopf noted, and she estimates the leadership team is 70 percent female. Her mission to help women has been good for the team as well as the organization.

“The women here that have moved up after being coached have enabled our organization to grow and expand,” Hopf observed.

Recognizing opportunity
Karen Zandi, president and CEO of the Mary Cariola Children’s Center Inc., describes her rise to the top as an evolution.

Zandi graduated high school in 1978, which she recalls as a time when girls were not expected to go to college, but the idea was supported if they did.

“My parents had a gas station. My brothers were required to work there. I wanted to, but my father forbid it,” she recalls. “He saw it more proper for me to be a secretary and excel at my typing classes.”

Zandi enrolled in the University of Pittsburgh to compete in gymnastics at the prompting of her high school coach.

“I didn’t have a plan. I was going to go to college so I could compete as a gymnast,” she said. “When I got there I learned I needed to figure out what I was going to do.”

Zandi paid for her education by working several jobs and earning scholarships. After she completed her undergraduate degree in social work, Zandi pursued graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

Coming out of college, she built her career starting with social work positions in Pennsylvania and then taking on her first administrative role, at the Hillside Children’s Center in Rochester as assistant director of emergency services in 1989.

Zandi moved up to director of emergency services at Hillside in 1991 and five years later she was promoted to integration leader. In 2003 she was appointed executive director of Hillside Children’s Center, where she served for five years.

“Even as I moved back to Rochester and took a job at Hillside, it wasn’t a plan,” she noted. “The next opportunity arose and I said, ‘Yes, I want to!’”

Zandi thinks part of her drive comes from her genealogy. She recalls the time in her 30s when she listened to the stories of an elderly great aunt who had endured hardship in her younger years.

“The one thing my aunt wanted (from) the family home was the sewing machine because she knew she could make a living with it,” Zandi says. “I think it’s what’s in my genes. Competent women overcoming loss and figuring out how to be financially independent.”

Zandi was contacted by a recruiter for the position she now holds at the Mary Cariola Center, which employs roughly 650 people and provides educational services for some 400 youths with complex disabilities.

“I wasn’t planning that. It evolved for me,” Zandi said. “As women, we tap into great resources, though. One of my greatest assets is creating great teams. Coming to Cariola, there’s been some who would have left or retired, but we built a great team. That will make great things happen. That’s how my career has evolved, by recognizing opportunity when I see it, for myself, and for others.”

Building community
Jean Maess has spent her career with Thomson Reuters Corp. She joined the company following her 1982 graduation from SUNY Buffalo Law School.

“I was one of a few women when I started here,” Maess recalled. “I was given a lot of opportunities by many men I worked with. Now there are many women and it’s great.”

Today, Maess is vice president of legal editorial operations and serves as the site executive for the firm’s Rochester office, where 550 people are employed. The company offers news, reference and workflow products for professionals in law, finance and other fields.

“I wear two hats,” she said. “I’m officially the top executive in the Rochester office. Two-thirds of the people here report to me. ... The site executive has overview to maintain a sense of community.”

Community—in the sense of inclusion—is extremely important at Thomson Reuters, Maess said. In fact, managers’ performance goals include wording indicating a desire by the company for leaders to consider diversity in gender, race and sexual orientation when reviewing candidates for hire.

Maess believes it is good for the development of the company as well as its business.

“Our customer is changing. Attorneys used to be a certain type, but look at attorneys now. They are very different,” she said. “If we’re basing the idea of our customer on an old white guy, we’re not going to be reaching our customer base. We’re looking for candidates that look like our customer.”

The company has a range of resource groups designed to help support its diversity efforts. Among them are Women@ThomsonReuters; PRIDE at Work for gay, lesbian, transgender, bisexual employees and friends; BEN, or the Black Employee Network; and AAN, the Asian Affinity Network.

“There are a lot of hard things about being a woman in a large company, but they can make a big change,” Maess said. “It’s something I’m very proud of working for Thomson Reuters.”

4/29/2016 (c) 2016 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email

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