2019 Women of Excellence
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!


Women in South Jersey never stop inspiring, contributing, achieving – the list goes on and on. That’s why, every May, we take time to honor those women who have committed to living a life of excellence.

No matter the space they are in, these women stand out. They do well. They give. So we’d like to take a moment for us all to step back, see them and celebrate all they bring to our community.   


Game Changer – Lara Price

“Sometimes it takes guts to take that first step, but you have to take it.”

As a kid in Colorado, Lara Price played a lot of sports. “I started out in little league, then soccer, then I found basketball and it was like, ‘Ok, that’s it. I love it,’” she says. Price’s career on the court lasted through college at Colorado State, and while she wasn’t going to play professionally (at the time, the WNBA hadn’t been formed), she knew she wanted to be involved in the sport forever.

Now in her 24th season with the Philadelphia 76ers, Price is the team’s COO. She says she’s seen her corner of the sports world undergo a major shift. “Most of the time I was the only woman in any meeting. It didn’t bother me. I was always in a gym playing with guys, so maybe that helped,” Price says. “The sports world is small. Everyone knows each other. You can say it’s a ‘club.’”

But it’s not a boys’ club anymore. “At the Sixers, we’re doing an amazing job putting women in high positions,” she says. “We have women scouts now, too. We’re starting to break those barriers.”

One of Price’s most shining achievements over more than two decades with the team came in 2016, when a state-of-the-art training complex and corporate office opened at the Camden Waterfront.

“I’m very proud to have led the team that developed the complex,” Price says. “It was a big chunk of time and an enormous effort, but the results have been incredible.”

She’s also eager to help other women realize success in the sports world. “When I get that call from friends or associates who are like, ‘Hey, would you talk to this young woman?’ I say yes every time,” Price says. “People did it for me, and I feel strongly that it’s an honor and a responsibility to do that. I want to be that coach, mentor, sponsor – whatever I can do.”


See our 2018 Women of Excellence! 


Business Excellence – Toni Pergolin

“Success isn’t about having all the right answers, but having the right people around you.”

When Toni Pergolin came to Bancroft, the school and service provider for people with brain injuries, autism and intellectual disabilities, she thought the job wouldn’t last long.

“They brought me on as CFO because they were in trouble,” Pergolin says. “I don’t think anyone knew how bad it was. We were looking at closing, merging or bankruptcy.”

A few months in, Pergolin went to Bancroft Day, the school’s annual community gathering, and watched every thought she had about the organization’s future sail right out the window.

“I was struck by how many people were dependent on Bancroft,” Pergolin says. “I realized, ‘Oh, my God, these people need us. We can’t just close the doors; these are people’s lives.”

Over the next 18 months, which Pergolin calls “the most challenging year-and-a-half of my career,” she turned the ship around, divesting out-of-state programs, streamlining billing, soliciting donations and facilitating a return “to the core mission, so we could get smaller, then grow smarter.”

Once the financials were stable, and Pergolin had been named the organization’s President and CEO, she turned her attention to the grounds. “Bancroft’s been around for 135 years, and we looked it,” she says. “We spent the next few years on smart, gradual growth, and then we launched the move.”

Last year, Bancroft’s new, state-of-the-art school opened on 80 acres in Mount Laurel.

“It’s beyond what any of us ever thought possible,” Pergolin says. “Fourteen years ago, I came to close the place, and now we’re here, serving 2000 people. The organization is healthy, and we’re well-positioned for a long future.”


Leadership – Hilary Platt

“When a victim says to me, ‘Did I have to wait to get a black eye before I got help?’ The answer is no.”

Hilary Platt was just trying to help out at Jewish Family & Children’s Service (JFCS) of Southern New Jersey as a part-time intake worker. Instead, she found her calling.

“They gave me a 40-hour training in sexual assault and domestic violence so if we got those calls, I’d know what to do,” Platt says. After her training, she decided to volunteer as a domestic violence response team member.

“I committed myself to three different police departments and hospitals,” she says. “We’ll go there to help advocate for victims of abuse, give them resources and support, help them navigate restraining orders, and anything else they need.”

At JFCS, Platt built a thriving chapter of Project S.A.R.A.H. (Stop Abusive Relationships at Home), a statewide initiative that provides multi-faceted services to victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse. In addition to seeing hundreds of clients individually, Platt also started a JFCS support group.

“The group has members in their 20s all the way up to women in their 70s,” she says. “One woman said Project S.A.R.A.H. and the group literally saved her life. What more thanks do you need?”

Platt believes her job isn’t just to help people once they’ve become victims, but to stop domestic abuse before it starts.

“I speak to thousands of middle and high school students a year,” she says. “We try to educate the whole community. We’ll do presentations at veterinarian’s offices, because pet abuse and domestic abuse are closely correlated. I’ll talk to people at hair salons, at dental offices. The more you talk about it, the less secrecy and shame there is around it.”


See our 2017 Women of Excellence Winners! 


Lifetime Legacy – Diane Allen

“I’ve always felt like we’re all in this together, so when one person does well she needs to reach back and pull up the next.” 

Diane Allen was a teenager, volunteering for missions in Puerto Rico, when she knew she would spend her whole life in service to others. She first ran for office – on the Moorestown Board of Education – at just 21. And while she lost that first election, she went on to win many others. She was elected to the New Jersey General Assembly in 1995 and, two years later, took the State Senate seat she’d hold until 2018.

One of her proudest political moments came the year after she retired from the senate, when an equal pay bill she’d worked on tirelessly was finally passed – named the Diane B. Allen Equal Pay Act.

Allen’s impact on the state hasn’t been limited to her work in the legislature. She worked as a news anchor for KYW, ABC and CBS before starting her own media production company. In more than 30 decades in media, she won eight Emmys and a Peabody, and was inducted into the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia’s Hall of Fame.

Allen has kicked off her own retirement by starting a political fundraising effort to get more women into politics. The political action committee, called runWOMENserve, has a dual purpose and dual partisanship.

“When you first run for office, there’s so much you don’t know,” Allen says. “We want to open that educational aspect up to women across the country.” In terms of funding, Allen says that’s being provided to New Jersey women – Democrats and Republicans alike – to help them get elected. “We’re trying to find women who will put their constituents and their consciences above their party,” Allen says. “We know women are more collegial, and more naturally willing to stretch across the aisle.” 

Allen saw that collaboration during her years in office. “I am certain,” she says, “that, just because of the broad scope of what I’ve done, I’ve touched every life in New Jersey; hopefully for the better.”


Inspiration – Sister Helen Cole

“I have a great gift – hope. I share that with people who become hopeless.”

In 1991, Sister Helen Cole was sent by her order to teach second grade in Camden. “That first year,” she says, “I was overwhelmed by the poverty, and abandoned houses, and couches, and cars. I’d never experienced anything like that in my life.”

Cole knew she had to do something more to help, so she got a degree in social work and in 1995, along with two priests (one a doctor, the other a lawyer), formed the Jesuit Urban Service Team. Cole thought she’d be helping families and working with preschoolers. Instead, a missing 13-year-old girl changed everything.

“Her parents came that weekend and asked us to hang up flyers,” Cole remembers. “On Monday, she was found brutally raped and murdered. My whole life changed.”

Soon, the family members of murder victims were showing up every morning on the porch of the rowhome headquarters of Guadalupe Family Services, which Cole now runs. “They would ask, ‘Are you the nun that helps people?’”

In the nearly 20 years since, Cole – who Camden County Police Chief J. Scott Thomson calls “the Mother Theresa of Camden” – has ushered dozens of families through both the justice system and the grieving process.

“We’ll go to court with people. We’ll stay the whole time,” Cole says. “It can take a long time – sometimes it’s years before they have resolution. Then there’s a different kind of emptiness.”

“What I learned from these families is that I needed to promise them that I would walk with them through this – whatever it would take and however long it would take,” Cole adds. “I call it companion-ing – that’s what I do with families of murder victims. What is needed to face something as terrible as murder is community – feeling like you’re not alone. That’s where strength comes from.”

“So when I tell them I will walk with them, I will ‘companion’ them, I will accompany them until there is a resolution, I keep my promise.”


See our 2016 Women of Excellence Winners!


Woman to Watch – Fatima Heyward

“People feel like they have to wait ’til they’re a certain age. Nope, you can do it right now.”

Fatima Heyward was too young to vote for Barack Obama in 2008, but that didn’t stop her from campaigning for him among her high school classmates. “I think that’s what really sparked my political interest,” she says.

At just 25, Heyward is making herself known in New Jersey politics. In 2018, at a meeting of a local political group, she noticed a lack of diversity, and set out to change that. “I’ve always been interested in expanding diversity and inclusion and just making an impact in communities of color,” she says. “That’s why I co-founded the South Jersey Young Democrats Black Caucus in August of 2018.”

When she’s not at work as the communications manager of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund of NJ, Heyward is planning caucus meetings and events, like last September’s voter registration drive and a Black History Month event, which highlighted local black-owned businesses and business leaders.

“It’s extremely important to lift up black leaders so we can start making some change,” Heyward says. “I’ve come across lots of organizations that are white-led, with white volunteers and white supporters, who want to get more people of color involved. They say things like, ‘But they’re just not here.’ Well, we are here, we just need to bridge that gap.”

Heyward is a natural-born leader, a fact that was recognized when she was selected as one of 20 participants statewide for the New Leader Council, an “intensive six-month program where you’re surrounded by likeminded individuals and you work on your goals,” she says.

One of Heyward’s long-term goals, naturally, is to run for office.

“I see myself making a difference that way someday,” she says. “For now, I’m providing resources for communities so they understand the political process, motivating people to get involved. It’s really satisfying to know that every day I’m working on something that impacts a lot of people, and specifically the people in my community.”


Publishers Excellence Award – Debra DiLorenzo

“You have to enjoy helping people. Otherwise, you won’t be successful.”

It’s easy to see that Deb DiLorenzo isn’t afraid of hard work. As the President and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce of Southern New Jersey for the past 25 years, DiLorenzo has significantly impacted the business community and the South Jersey economy.

The Chamber, whose membership includes about 1200 companies and, DiLorenzo estimates, 8000 individuals, is recognized as the voice of the business community in Trenton. DiLorenzo and her team have gone to bat for South Jersey businesses again and again, defeating a ballot question that would’ve expanded gaming outside Atlantic City, and ensuring the state’s tax reciprocity agreement with Pennsylvania stayed firmly in place.

“The Chamber is in business for two reasons,” DiLorenzo says. “To protect members’ interests at the state capital and to provide opportunities for them to meet and do business.”

It’s a disarmingly simple description of the immense number of expansions and accomplishments DiLorenzo has helmed, including the Chamber’s acquisition of the difficult-to-obtain ISO-9001 international business standard certification. “That happened in 2005,” she says, “and we’re still the only Chamber of Commerce in the United States who has it.”

DiLorenzo also oversaw the expansion of the South Jersey Summer Institute for Educators, which invites teachers to learn “what companies are looking for in their future workforce,” she says, “and what little changes they can make in their classrooms.

To date, we’ve graduated 622 teachers who have or will affect 50,000 kids in South Jersey.”

After nearly two and a half decades, DiLorenzo announced her retirement this year. But stepping down from the Chamber’s leadership doesn’t mean she’s finished serving her community.

“It’s intrinsic in me to want to help people,” she says. “I found this outlet that, for 25 years, let me just be me. Every morning I wake up and think, ‘Ok, who am I going to help today?’”


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



Special Thanks to our Women of Excellence Selection Committee


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 judges reviewed the nominations and selected six women who exemplify what it means to be excellent.

The Publisher’s Award is a special selection by the editorial staff of SJ Magazine.

Photography by David Michael Howarth
Shot on location at The Merion in Cinnaminson

Styling by Sarah Gleeson
Evening gowns for Diane Allen, Fatima Heyward and Deb DiLorenzo by Marlene’s Dress Shoppe in Collingswood
Evening gowns for Toni Pergolin and Hilary Platt by Jan’s Boutique in Cherry Hill

Hair and Makeup by Rizzieri Salon and Spa:
Makeup – Diane Allen by Maria Rich; Hilary Platt, Toni Pergolin, Fatima Heyward and Lara Price by Randi Freeman; and Deb DiLorenzo by Drew Davis
Hair – Diane Allen by Jessica Davis; Hilary Platt by Peyton Louderback; Toni Pergolin, Fatima Heyward and Lara Price by Christina O’Donnell; and Deb DiLorenzo by Sal Rizzieri

May 2019
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