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Photography by David Michael Howarth

Since starting our Woman of Excellence awards 5 years ago, one of the most exciting categories has been our Women to Watch, which highlights exceptional South Jersey women under 30 making a difference in their communities. We’ve kept an eye on our winners, and judging by the impact they’ve made over the years, we know our initial instinct was correct – these are clearly women to watch.

2016: Kate Gibbs

2016: Kate Gibbs

When we named Kate Gibbs our very first Woman to Watch in 2016, she was a young politician on the rise. Then serving as the Burlington County Freeholder deputy director, she had been working to carve out a space for Republican women in politics.

It’s a mission she has continued to pursue.

Last year, she ran for a seat in the US Congress and experienced an intense campaign marked with misogyny and sexism. (One of her opponents ran ads that referred to her as the “Snooki” of politics.) Her run was unsuccessful, but losing an election isn’t an end for her, she says – it’s just the start.

Now the deputy director of the Engineer’s Labor Employer Cooperative, Gibbs creates policies that bring economic opportunities for NJ workers by making sure the government is investing in infrastructure in a responsible way.

“Day in and day out, I want to represent my community and be a part of making meaningful change in my district,” says Gibbs. “It doesn’t matter what role or office I’m in. As long as I’m working to build stronger communities for my district, I know I’m on the right track.”

2017: Kristen Van Iderstine

2017: Kristen Van Iderstine

Four years ago, Kristen Van Iderstine called her shot: She would be the first female general manager in the NFL.

At the time she was named a Women to Watch, she was the 23-year-old communications manager of the (now sidelined) Philadelphia Soul football team, where she interned for 3 years before being hired full-time directly out of college. She made a name for herself – not just as a woman working in a male-dominated field, but as a savvy communications specialist in a time when digital communications were constantly changing. That she was also receiving monthly chemo treatments for her acute myeloid leukemia at the time wasn’t enough to keep her from excelling at her job.

Now 28, she’s been cancer-free for more than 3 years and has leveled up to the big leagues – a position in the premium ticket sales department for the NFL’s Washington Football Team. Every day, she gains an even deeper understanding of the business side of running an NFC East team, she says. She’s also pursuing her Masters in Sports Administration online from the University of Miami – all of which help build her resume toward becoming the first female general manager in the NFL.

“I’ve always been of the mindset that if you work hard and use every opportunity to improve, there’s no role you can’t reach,” says Van Iderstine. “I want to be given a shot, and I will prove that I’m the right person for the job, no matter what my gender is.”

And even though she may have switched teams, her South Jersey friends and family still support her, she says – just not when Washington is playing the birds.

2018: Jinhee Lee

2018: Jinhee Lee

In 2018, Jinhee Lee’s house was covered in tulle. And satin. And sequins, and every other embellishment covering the 764 prom dresses that filled up 3 entire rooms.

Lee was running “Our Fairy Godmother,” a nonprofit she had founded in high school to collect lightly used prom dresses for girls who couldn’t afford one. The project grew larger every year and continued through the first years of her career fundraising for the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center at Jefferson Health. Recently, however, she has shifted her focus to supporting healthcare workers.

As the associate director of development for the children’s hospital at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, Lee partnered with the CDC Foundation to secure more than 90,000 masks for the health system and community while also raising funds to help families in need. One of her most meaningful projects, she says, was working with an assistance fund that helped families that couldn’t afford daily necessities while paying their medical bills.

“The pandemic has shown us how much we need to come together, not just through the health crisis, but through everything that’s happened this year – the rise of racism, the tragic events, the loss of jobs and security,” says Lee. “Everyone has to do their part in helping our communities heal, and this is mine.”

2019: Fatima Heyward

2019: Fatima Heyward

Just a year after co-founding the South Jersey Young Democrats Black Caucus, Fatima Heyward had proved herself a force to be reckoned with. When we first met her, she was organizing voter registration drives and Black History Month events while serving as one of 20 statewide participants of the New Leaders Council. She was also working full-time as a communications manager for Planned Parenthood Action Fund of NJ.

Two years later, she hasn’t slowed down.

Today, she fights to close sexual and reproductive health disparities in low-income communities as a health reproductive justice and community partnerships manager at Planned Parenthood of Central and Greater Northern New Jersey. In that role, Heyward leads community engagement and supports programs to expand access to reproductive healthcare in the state. She also serves as the emerging leaders caucus chair for the New Jersey Democratic State Committee and president of New Jersey Young Democrats.

“It’s a lot of late nights and long hours,” says Heyward, “but I’m more committed than ever to empower all people to be informed and to stand for human and civil rights.”

2020: Zaniya Lewis

2020: Zaniya Lewis

Anyone who thinks there’s not much you can accomplish in a year – especially a year like 2020 – has never met Zaniya Lewis.

When we named Lewis Woman to Watch last year, the then 22-year-old founder of the “YesSheCanCampaign” nonprofit and recent George Washington University grad was helping girls access resources that could help them as they applied for college. Her work had gained national and international awards and attention – including from former First Lady Michelle Obama.

Now she’s sorting through her numerous law school acceptances as she decides where to take her next step. Lewis plans to explore her interests in civil rights law, education policy, and veterans and military affairs. “After everything that happened last summer with the pandemic and how it’s affecting a lot of minorities and low income communities, I really want to be the change,” says Lewis. “I’ve done that with my nonprofit, but becoming an attorney puts me on a path to make an even wider impact throughout my entire career.”

May 2021
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