2017 Women of Excellence
Honoring the passion, dedication and action of six South Jersey women
By Kate Morgan

Do you know someone who should be honored as part of our 2020 Women of Excellence Awards? Nominate a woman you know here!


Woman to Watch

Kristen Van Iderstine
Communications Manager, Philadelphia Soul

Before Kristen Van Iderstine officially became the communications manager of the Philadelphia Soul, she was already part of the team.

She interned for three years and was hired right out of college in 2015.

“This was my first chance to be a part of a football team,” says Van Iderstine, 23. “Right away I knew this was the world I wanted to be in.”

The young executive is the only woman to travel with them, sometimes taking on the role of a sister – but a sister they really respect.

“Anybody who works in football has to earn respect,” she says. “If you have the right temperament and can manage stress, that’s what matters. We’re past the outdated idea of women not being able to work in sports. I think everyone recognized my work ethic pretty quickly.”

That work ethic has been especially evident in the past few months, since Van Iderstine was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia.

“I get chemo at the end of each month, but I’ve worked through the whole thing,” she says. “Now I’m entering the beginning of a Soul season and I’m battling cancer. Some people might handle a situation like this by laying around all ‘woe is me.’ I thrive on working and being busy. As long as I can keep doing what I love to do, that helps my mental stability big time.”

And Van Iderstine has no intention of letting up. She’s got a big goal to work toward.

“I can’t pinpoint how long it’ll take, because there are glass ceilings to be broken,” she says. “But I plan to be the first female general manager in the NFL.”




Lita Abele
President/CEO, U.S. Lumber

When Lita Abele first immigrated to the U.S. from the Philippines, she worked as a housekeeper and nanny. With two small children to support, she took any job she could.

“I came here because in my mind this is a land of opportunity,” she says, “and I’m a big dreamer.”

After meeting the man who would become her husband while on a weekend trip to Boston, she moved with him to New Jersey and began working as a receptionist at the company that would eventually become U.S. Lumber.

“My first job was sitting in a corner answering the phone,” she says. “It was hard for me because of my accent. So I would write down everyone who called, and at night I’d read it until I memorized the name of every person and every company.”

Abele learned the ropes, and before long she was dominating as a minority female CEO in the lumber industry.

“My dream since I was in the Philippines was to be a boss,” she says. “If you’re a hard-working person and you have determination, perseverance and common sense, that’s all you need to be successful.”

Abele serves on Rowan University’s Board of Trustees and recently created an exchange program with the University of the Philippines. She also contributes to scholarships for impoverished Filipino students.

“I was where they are,” she says. “I’ve been in their shoes. You want something, but you can’t do it because the money isn’t there. I can provide the opportunities I didn’t have, and if they become successful, that’s also my success.”


See our 2016 Women of Excellence! 



Game Changer

Monika Williams Shealey, PhD
Dean of Education, Rowan University

Monika Williams Shealey knows the impact role models have in children’s lives. She also knows how that impact increases when the role model and the child have similar backgrounds.

“The black women in my life told me, ‘Monika, you’re smart. You’re going to college. You’re going to leave this town and make us proud,’” she says. “I still reflect on those women who were so instrumental in my life – they were my teachers and guidance counselors.”

Now dean of education at Rowan University – a role she earned at age 39 – Shealey has created groundbreaking initiatives aimed at increasing teacher diversity. Her hope is that students will one day look at the front of their classroom and see someone who looks just like them.

“I’ve taught in three counties, all very different: urban, affluent, suburban, rural,” she says. “I was always one of the few teachers of color in my building, and I wondered why that was. I’ve been intent on finding out why that is – and making that change.”

Shealey has created several initiatives at Rowan to permanently – and positively – alter the education field. IMPACT (Increasing Male Practitioners and Classroom Teachers) focuses on increasing the number of male teachers with diverse backgrounds in elementary and high school classes. She instituted the university’s first PhD in education, where 70 percent of candidates are students of color. And, this young innovator has established Teacher Academies in select South Jersey school districts to help schools “grow their own teachers.”

“We can tackle issues that persist around the country right here in South Jersey,” she says. “We’re going to make such a positive impact on the lives of students in classrooms. We can transform entire communities.”



Business Excellence

Deborah Hays
Partner/Shareholder, Archer Law

In a field where women have made significant progress, yet are still underrepresented as shareholders and directors, Deborah Hays is paving the way for change.

With more than 25 years of experience in corporate law, Hays is recognized as one of the most respected business attorneys in the region.

She routinely handles all types of business transactions for both privately held and public corporations around the world. And she is especially recognized for her competent expertise in financial transactions, representing clients in transactions of over $100 million. That strong financial knowledge led to her being named chair of Archer’s finance committee, which oversees the firm’s financial health. Hays was the first woman to hold that post.

Locally, Hays has established herself as a community leader. She was the first woman to serve as general counsel to the board of directors of the Chamber of Commerce of Southern New Jersey, and she was the first female board chair of the Entrepreneurs Forum of Southern New Jersey. As a founding member of the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women Luncheon, she has helped raise over $1 million for the fight against heart disease in women.

“I am first and foremost committed to South Jersey and its success,” Hays says. “My roots are here, and I’m proud to be from this region. I want to pass on an economy and a community that is better than when I was a young person.”



Lifetime Legacy

Val Traore
Food Bank of South Jersey

Val Traore knows what it feels like to be hungry.

“There were days we were left alone, and there was nothing in our pantry or refrigerator,” says Val Traore. “I can clearly remember trying to put together mayonnaise sandwiches or having just a can of beans and nothing else.”

“People don’t realize that food, shelter and clothing is what allows you to do all the other things in your life. I think that’s why I’m in this line of work, because I know when you have a belly full of food you have the nourishment to think, to dream, to act.”

For 25 years, Traore has worked in food banks across the country – 11 of them at the Food Bank of South Jersey. She heads the $18 million nonprofit and has expanded services to provide cooking classes for kids and seniors, plus a summer meals program for kids who aren’t in school to receive their free or reduced lunch.

Thinking out of the box, Traore launched a new product: Just Peachy Salsa, which turns unwanted peaches from local farmers into a nutrient-dense, retail-ready product. The salsa has earned more than $350,000 for Food Bank programs.

“That’s just a scratch on the surface,” she says. “Our bigger vision is to provide a solution to poverty. We’re going to delve deep into the things that cause people to be hungry and impoverished. We have the community resources, and we have the audacity to believe we can do it.”




Sandi Kelly
Owner, SLK Partners
Former Director of Marketing, Camden County

In 2016, Camden County was the only county in the entire state to reduce the number of deaths from an opioid overdose. It’s not a stretch to say that can be attributed directly to the work of Sandi Kelly.

As the county’s longtime director of marketing, Kelly realized the heroin epidemic required a community solution.
“The Camden City Police Department was really struggling with these kids,” Kelly says. “They told us it was like a revolving door; they were arresting the same kids, and nothing was getting better.”

Kelly’s first move was to plan a community summit. She invited the public, law enforcement, addiction workers, recovering addicts and educators. Surprising everyone, more than 700 packed the forum, leading to the formation of the Camden County Addiction Awareness Task Force.

The task force’s successes have included a widespread billboard campaign, two candlelight vigils (with more than 1,000 attendees), the birth of a sports recovery league and a program that equips every Camden County police department with the overdose reversal agent Naloxone. In the past two years, more than 400 overdoses have been reversed, so that’s more than 400 lives saved.

“There’s a story about starfish,” Kelly says. “A kid is walking down the beach and throwing starfish back into the water. And older man stops and says, ‘Why are you doing this? You’ll never save all the starfish.’ The kid says, ‘Yeah, but I’m saving some of them.’ That’s what we’re doing. We’re saving one life at a time.”



Special thanks to our Women of Excellence Selection Committee






Shot on location at the home of Ed & Barbara Omert

Evening gowns provided by Jan’s Boutique in Cherry Hill, except for Val Traore’s, which was provided by Nordstrom in Cherry Hill

Styling by Sarah Gleeson

Hair for Lita Abele by Mary Kay DiGilio, for Monika Williams Shealey by Xionique Velez, for Deborah Hays and Sandi Kelly by Tom DeGrandis, all of Rizzieri Spa and Salon in Moorestown

Makeup for Monika Williams Shealey, Deborah Hays and Lita Abele by Maria Rich, for Sandi Kelly by Cherisse Lundy, both of Rizzieri Spa and Salon in Moorestown

Makeup for Kristen Van Iderstine by Amanda Guidotti of (thriv.) salon and spa in Cherry Hill

Makeup for Val Traore by Kim Spencer


Do you know someone who should be honored as part of our 2020 Women of Excellence Awards? Nominate a woman you know here!

May 2017
Related Articles

Comments are closed.


Get SJ Mag in Your Inbox

Subscribe for the latest on South Jersey dining, weekend entertainment, the Shore and much more - sent directly to your inbox.

* indicates required
Email Format
WATCH NOW: Millennials looking for Mentors