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Honoring the passion, dedication and action of 6 remarkable
South Jersey women

Photography by David Michael Howarth
Shot on location at Collingswood Ballroom

Marguerite Schroeder, Trustee, Caron Treatment Centers

 

Lifetime Legacy

Marguerite Schroeder

Trustee, Caron Treatment Centers

On the surface, it seemed Marguerite Schroeder was spending her adult life making all the right moves – nurturing her marriage, raising step-children and building a successful career. But after ending up in the hospital for alcohol intoxication in her mid-20s, reality set in and Marguerite realized this was a wake up call. She quit drinking and began to live a sober life.

Then one night in 2008 – 30 years after she stopped drinking – Marguerite ordered a glass of wine. She can’t really say why she had that drink, but she spent the next 2 years in a haze of drunkenness. She nearly died before she was finally ready to deal with buried pain stemming from growing up with an alcoholic, abusive parent. She knows now that her quest to put others’ needs before her own was a reaction to that early trauma.

“The long and short of it is I squashed my own voice,” says Marguerite, a member of the board of trustees for Caron Treatment Centers, a drug and alcohol treatment organization with multiple locations. “That’s what codependency does. You live and manage everyone else’s life and squash your own dreams.”

It wasn’t until Marguerite became a patient at Caron that she realized how a lifetime of stifling her own ambitions led to her self-destructive action. She considers herself living proof of how vital it is for women to prioritize their own wellbeing. “I did not realize that until I was in my late 50s, getting sober and in group therapy,” says Marguerite, who works as a field representative with the New Jersey Education Association.

“I was telling some of my childhood stories and everyone in the room was crying. It took that to realize I went through some of the most egregious physical and emotional abuse. And it was just buried. And so for the 30 years I was not drinking, I was also not addressing any of those issues.”

Now 72 and living in Marlton, Marguerite has been sober for 13 years. In that time, she has risen to be the first woman to chair Caron’s Greater Philadelphia Advisory Board. Every month she spends a long weekend at a treatment center coaching women – often professionals that remind her of herself. She helps the women figure out how to prioritize themselves. In her own life, that has meant training to be a yoga teacher and immersing herself in mindfulness practices.

“I nearly lost my life, and now I realize it was a gift to move through this crisis,” she says. “I love my life.”

 

Ivette Guillermo-McGahee, CEO, Allies In Caring

Leadership Award

Ivette Guillermo-McGahee

CEO, Allies In Caring

Born to 2 deaf parents, Ivette Guillermo-McGahee didn’t realize how different her home life was from other families until she started elementary school in her native Mexico.

“Because my parents were not socialized like hearing people, they raised us with a lot of their own ideas and gave us a lot of freedoms,” she says of herself and her 3 siblings. Although she and one of her brothers were born with hearing, the close-knit family communicated through American sign language, learned about the world by reading and found spiritual well-being through meditation.

But then school was like a different planet. Kids spoke rapid-fire Spanish and listened to music Ivette knew nothing about. From an early age, she was her parents’ interpreter. Social invitations were rare, and the isolation stung. The few friendships the family developed were a lifeline, imprinting on her how genuine, human connection can be a guiding light.

“When I see suffering, it is painful for me and I choose not to turn my head,” she says. “My own pain has given me energy to do something about it rather than be indifferent.”

In 2012, Ivette started Allies in Caring (AIC), a nonprofit organization in Hammonton that provides mental health and wellness counseling as well as educational services to people living anywhere from Cape May to Burlington County. Among the staff of 25 mission-driven therapists, 4 are fluent in ASL.

Ivette had an established career in Mexico and was running a successful youth organization when she moved to the United States to study mental health counseling at Washington DC’s Gallaudet University, which specifically serves deaf students. After working in private counseling for several years, she created AIC to help underserved populations.

Lately, her focus has shifted from helping individuals to building communities and leaders. But instead of zeroing in on problems – such as addiction and lack of education – Ivette identifies what’s working and how best to connect people based on their shared interests.

She is also spending more time coaching emerging leaders, specifically those who have been helped by AIC and now want to pay it forward. Among them, she works with a woman who started a domestic violence awareness and prevention group.

“When only 3 people showed up, we encouraged her not to give up. And now this group has 60 members, hosts speakers and has active volunteers,” Ivette says. “She’s running the whole thing. The only commitment I asked of her, and other people I am coaching, is that someday they do the same for others.”

Brielle Savage, Criminal Trial Defense Investigator

Inspiration

Brielle Savage

Criminal Trial Defense Investigator

Brielle Savage is haunted by her memories of witnessing the fatal shooting of a 10-year-old boy during a football game nearly 4 years ago. The fifth-grader, Micah Tennant, was sitting in the home team bleachers behind the intended victim of the 6 blaring gun shots. From the visitor side seating, where Brielle sat, she watched the chaos unfold, and became one of the thousand or so fans gathered under the Friday night lights who ended up scrambling in terror.

“I can vividly remember that exact moment down to the smell, the taste, what I was hearing and what I was seeing,” recalls Brielle. It affected her hearing for days and led to panic attacks. She now considers the tragedy her moment of clarity. It’s when the Voorhees mother of 2 young girls, who was already dedicated to advocacy work, knew she would focus her considerable energy on gun violence prevention.

Following the shooting, Brielle immediately went into what her friends call “Busy Brie” mode – comforting the teens, and praying and grieving alongside Micah’s family. But she knew there was so much more to do. As a criminal trial defense investigator in Camden, Brielle saw a different side of how gun violence rips apart communities. Too many of the teens she had grown close to a few years earlier when she was a youth advocate in the city – working with juveniles who had brushes with the law – were already dead. Others were in serious trouble.

“They were coming to me with adult-level homicide, murder and other violent crime charges,” says Brielle. “When they were teens, my hope and goal was to show them that there was more to their story. For them to come to me charged with these unbelievable crimes, there is such a disconnect. I knew I had to figure it out or we will keep going through this hamster wheel.”

At the time of Micah’s shooting, Brielle was enrolled in a criminal justice master’s degree program at Rutgers University. Getting involved in research, particularly on the impact of gun violence on Black and Brown youths, showed her a path forward. Recently admitted into Rutgers’ PhD criminal justice program, she plans to continue looking for solutions to end the cycle of violence.

“Even if a lot of kids try to play it off like gun violence doesn’t affect them, I know it does,” she says. “It’s why I have to keep so busy.”

Zeynep Yurderi, Founder, Zeyzani

Business Excellence

Zeynep Yurderi

Founder, Zeyzani

If you happened to be watching Dolly Parton on “The Bachelorette” several years ago, you just may have noticed the uniquely fabulous boots the singing icon was wearing. Lots of people did. And that became a turning point for Zeynep Yurderi, who founded and now runs an international design company that custom makes luxury boots, which many consider works of art.

Zeynep is known worldwide. And the women who commission her boots range from the ultra famous – including Parton and Jennifer Lopez – to the many, many South Jersey women who discovered her designs at Z’s Treasures, the store Zeynep opened 14 years ago after deciding to walk away from a secure job as a pharmaceutical executive.

“I’ve always believed that women are at their peak when they feel and look sexy,” she says. “With that sexiness comes confidence, especially when it emanates from such beautiful hand-crafted pieces of art.”

Opened in 2009, Z’s Treasures in downtown Haddonfield was the starting point for her business. She made regular trips to Istanbul to purchase the Mediterranean wares she sold at the time. After learning the business of managing imports, Zeynep soon started designing boots using tulips, paisleys, pomegranates, grapevines and other motifs inspired from ancient Greece and the Ottoman Empire. The company name Zeyzani is derived from Zeynep’s first name and the fabric she uses, called Suzani.

It didn’t take long for Zeyzani to catch on by word of mouth, articles in fashion magazines and newspapers, as well as social media posts of fashionable women rocking the look that went viral. Zeynep considers The Bachelorette moment in 2012 as an early milestone. “The camera kept focusing on the boots,” she says.

Zeynep moved Zeyzani to the Moorestown Mall in 2014 as a flagship store, where she had walk-in customers while also operating her robust business selling to boutiques worldwide. Then everything changed when Covid hit, and storefronts were shuttered. Zeynep was unsure how she would stay in business when, out of the blue, a man reached out asking her to custom design a pair of boots for his wife.

“That changed everything,” she says, noting that she trained her artisans based in Uzbekistan on new technology, closed the store and now takes only custom orders.

Among her many clients worldwide, a TV chef from Australia is likely responsible for the brand’s newfound popularity down under. The woman told Zeynep that because of her size, she was never able to find boots so pretty, so sexy and that made her feel so good. The woman cried on the phone, saying it was a dream come true.

“It was emotional for me too,” Zeynep says. “People use the words empowering and uplifting to describe my boots. It makes me feel I do make a difference in people’s lives.”

 

Jaylyn Thompson, Medical student, Rowan-Virtua School
of Osteopathic Medicin

Woman to Watch

Jaylyn Thompson

Medical student, Rowan-Virtua School of Osteopathic Medicine

Jaylyn Thompson, 24, was in her first year of medical school and already involved in academic research on rising maternal mortality rates when her own sister’s traumatic pregnancy brought the subject close to home. Knowing the many ways the U.S. health system fails Black women made it gratifying – and scary – to help her sister Brielle Savage (this year’s Women of Excellence Inspiration honoree) get the care she needed.

“We didn’t want to think about Brielle’s pregnancy in terms of my research, but it was definitely a reality,” she says, noting that both Brielle and her baby faced life-threatening conditions. “Seeing someone I truly care about go through this was terrifying.”

Although Jaylyn is only halfway through her studies she is already a rising voice for improving maternal and infant health outcomes. In the fall, as a New Jersey Birth Justice Advocate working with First Lady Tammy Murphy’s Nurture NJ initiative, she led discussions on pressing issues about mother and infant mortality. Jaylyn also organized a panel discussion for medical students at Rowan-Virtua SOM on racial inequities in maternal care that included Brielle discussing her birth story, which Jaylyn says moved the audience to tears.

“It’s one thing to study and research the problem, but we as medical students don’t hear enough patient stories,” says Jaylyn, who is also president of Rowan-Virtua SOM’s Medical Students for Choice, treasurer of the American Medical Women’s Association and involved in many other student-led groups.

While her activism admittedly cuts into time that could be spent studying, Jaylyn says the work ethic she developed as an elite athlete – first playing D1 soccer at Virginia Tech and then as a professional soccer player in Europe – helps with time management. Jaylyn played almost 2 years in the pros, and played with an Italian team while also pursuing a masters degree in sports management at the American University of Rome.

“When I get stressed or overwhelmed with medical school, I remember what my sister went through, and it keeps me grounded and very motivated,” she adds. “I’m not exactly sure of the specifics about what I will do in the OB/GYN field, but helping to lower mortality rates is my underlying passion.”

 

Suzan Nickelson, CEO, Holistic Solutions

Game Changer

Suzan Nickelson

CEO, Holistic Solutions

In the way that families pass down homegrown health remedies through generations, Suzan Nickelson’s Jamaican-born mother taught her about the powers of plants to heal. Tracing back to West Africa, her mother told mesmerizing stories about their lineage of female herbalists who used plant-based medicines to care for and protect their community.

“Cannabis was a normal part of our world. It was revered,” says Suzan, recalling how her mother grew the plant in their vegetable garden in Galloway Twp., teaching her daughter how to prepare the leaf to make balms, oils or tinctures and turn it into a soothing tea.

“I didn’t understand it was outlawed until I was probably in my teens when my mother said this cannot be talked about in public.”

As one of the first women of color in New Jersey to own a licensed cannabis dispensary, Suzan’s deep-rooted knowledge of the healing powers of cannabis are being put to good use. The opening of Waterford-based Holistic Solutions as a medical and recreational-use dispensary earlier this year fulfills a lifelong dream, says Suzan, who previously worked for the New Jersey government, most recently as an employee relations administrator. She also served as the first civilian leader of the state police.

“We’re different because of our purpose and our mission,” says the mother of 3 teenagers now living in Cherry Hill. “We believe there needs to be more diversity in the cannabis business. We also want to make sure there is more intentionality to ensure that those who were most impacted by the negative ways cannabis was used against our communities can participate economically.”

While her mother discreetly became known as a healer who helped countless neighbors treat health issues, Suzan says other members of her family have been adversely affected by the harmful effects of cannabis prohibition. Through her consulting firm, Ital Daughters, she is helping other minorities – women as well as veterans – work through the highly regulated industry to open successful cannabis businesses.

“Holistic Solutions is a manifestation of intentions we really believe and prayed for,” she adds. “To be able to bring a plant that has been revered by my ancestors into the public mainstream and help to reduce the stigmas has been rewarding.”

Styling by Sarah Gleeson

Makeup by Vanessa Lopez for Jaylyn Thompson, Brielle Savage & Suzan Nickelson; by Melisa Ortiz/Rizzieri Salon & Spa for Zeynep Yuderi & Marguerite Schroeder; by Jessica Palumbo/Rizzieri Salon & Spa for Ivette Guillermo-McGahee

Hair by Ashley Voit/Rizzieri Salon & Spa for Brielle Savage & Jaylyn Thompson; by Mackenzie Garland for Zeynep Yuderi; by Debra Beach/Rizzieri Salon & Spa for Ivette Guillermo-McGahee; by Tiffany D’Argenzio/Rizzieri Salon & Spa for Marguerite Schroeder


 

Special thanks to our Women of Excellence Selection Committee

Jennaphr Frederick, Features/Entertainment Reporter, Fox 29’s “Good Day Philadelphia”

 

Ali Houshmand, President, Rowan University

 

Pam Jenoff, NY Times Bestselling Author,
Associate Professor, Rutgers Law

 

Lita Abele, President/CEO, US Lumber

 

Lauren Ochs, Vice President, Women & Children’s Service Lines, Virtua Health

 

Faleeha Hassan, Poet

 

Vic Carstarphen, Camden City Mayor

How honorees were selected: Over the past few months, readers nominated women they knew who were making a remarkable difference in their community or workplace. Seven prestigious leaders reviewed the nominations and selected 6 women who exemplified what it means to be excellent.


Buy tickets for 2023 Women of Excellence Awards Reception

May 2023
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