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For the past 10 years, SJ Magazine has gathered influential women to share their personal stories and life experiences. The in-person evenings were always magical. Then last year, we took the conversation to Zoom, not knowing if we could re-create the intimate rapport that flowed so easily in the past. But we did. This year, we logged on to Zoom once more, happy to celebrate the 10th anniversary of this one-of-a-kind event. The extraordinary women who joined us showed once again – for the 10th consecutive year – that you can learn a lot when you truly listen to the stories of people you may not know.

 

Participants:

Marianne Aleardi, Publisher, SJ Magazine

Cheryl Norton, EVP/COO, American Watery

Jill Ross, EVP/Chief Retail & Commercial Officer, William Penn Bank

Jennaphr Frederick, Reporter/Anchor, Fox 29

Jamila Odom-Garnett Bremmer, Mayor, Chesilhurst

Melissa Orsen, President/COO, South Jersey Gas

Karen Correa, VP/Head of Global Clinical Operations, Takeda Pharmaceuticals

Arpita Saha, VP/Commercial Credit Analyst, William Penn Bank

Lynda Anderson-Towns, President, Harriet Tubman Museum of Cape May

Melissa Zobel, AVP/Branch Manager, William Penn Bank

 

On how they would describe 2020…

It was like time stood still for a while. What was happening all around us was just unbelievable. That’s the first thought that comes to mind – it’s unbelievable that a virus can make the world stop.
Arpita Saha

As someone who had to leave the house every day and come back to 2 kids and a husband who weren’t leaving the house – I would walk in with 2 hand sanitizer sheets on each hand and open my front door. I didn’t want to bring something very terrible into my house. It was very scary.
Jennaphr Frederick

We had a trip planned to California in mid-March last year, and we went. We were there for less than 48 hours, when everything started shutting down. So we called and got early flights home. Then you just kept waiting. It took a long time for it to really set in that this wasn’t something that was just going away. It’s been a period of trying to come to grips with how serious this really is.
Cheryl Norton

When everything started shutting down – I couldn’t see my mom, who lives up the street – that feeling of being unsettled came. You didn’t know what was going on. But then, it just became a way of life.
Melissa Zobel

I was in awe that within 3 days, anyone who wasn’t a field employee or a first responder was set up to work remotely. I remember thinking how unbelievable it was that we have the technology to have this kind of communication. The technology capabilities blew me away.
Melissa Orsen

 

When you’re sitting with someone on the back porch having a glass of wine, there’s a great gift of silence – and comfort. You don’t have that on a Zoom call.
– Jennaphr Frederick

On having family who tested positive…

This will be the first time I’m telling people this, but I tested positive, and so did my husband. It was a very, very scary moment. We made it through, but not everybody in my family did.
Jamila Odom-Garnett Bremmer

There are so many who should be here, but they’re not. That’s what really frustrated me. My sister-in-law didn’t even make it to the ambulance. It was that quick.
Lynda Anderson-Towns

 

On how the past year changed people…

I was very much a social butterfly prior to this, and I don’t know that I’ll go fully back to that. I also think there’s a lot of people I might have included in my life who I may not include anymore. I see myself having smaller circles of people. Because I was spread thin. I was spread very thin with what I gave to people.
Jill Ross

I will do things differently. I will be a little bit more cautious. Not that I wasn’t already, but I’m going to take that to the next level, because I feel like this is not the end. This is just the first wave of things that could happen.
Karen Correa

A lot of my family in India who have never used any technology suddenly started using smartphones, they downloaded WhatsApp, and they’re doing video calls. I have actually talked to people who I haven’t seen in the last 10-15 years. There are some intimate connections we have developed over this past year which we didn’t have before.
Arpita Saha

 

I think in 20 years, another generation will be like, “You had to drive an hour to work?” They won’t understand that, because I don’t think we’ll go back to that.
– Arpita Saha

On not being with family for a year…

One of my older siblings is in a facility, and one of the ladies she hangs out with passed from Covid. All I could do was comfort her over the phone. It was really sad, and I was just trying to keep her happy. My heart goes out to her and others like her, because there’s nothing we can physically do except hope they stay whole mentally and emotionally during this time. I was constantly trying to do that. But she just told me she got her second vaccination. So now when I get mine, I’m on my way. I’m going to see my sister and give her the biggest hug I can, because this has been really hard for her.
Karen Correa

Human connection is the ultimate connection, right? My dad knows me better than anyone. He’s been there for me. And despite success or whatever people think about me, he’s the one who tells me I’m a piece of garbage and I’m the greatest person ever. The fact that I’ve lost almost 18 months with him, that feels like 10 years.
Jennaphr Frederick

My mom lives in Missouri, and she turned 80 in November. I wasn’t going to go and my husband said, “If you don’t go and something happens, you’ll never forgive yourself.” So I went. I couldn’t have done anything that meant more than spending that time with her. If something were to happen, it’s going to make me very, very sad, but at least I did what I could to stay connected. But it’s hard, definitely.
Cheryl Norton

My dad celebrated his 80th birthday last December. I was planning this big birthday party for him, but we couldn’t do it because of Covid. We ended up doing a Zoom party and then we did a drive-by. I’m so glad I followed my heart to do that, because on Christmas Eve, he passed away. People keep saying, “If something bad happens…” and something did happen. I’m glad we had that opportunity. I’m glad we did.
Jamila Odom-Garnett Bremmer

 

What surprised them most about themselves…

I didn’t think I would be able to focus and get my work done at home, but it was very easy to make the transition.
Cheryl Norton

I’ve been amazed at my ability to multitask. I’m in front of the computer or on video calls all day, and I have 3 children who require food and attention. My main take away for the year is you can work from home, but you must have the ability to multitask and get everything done.
Melissa Orsen

What surprised me most was there’s a part of my voice that came out in retirement. Coming up through the ’70s, there were a lot of marches, but oddly enough I participated in my first march for Black Lives Matter, and I actually gave one of the speeches. I was shocked by that. But I think I felt this strength to speak out and use my voice.
Lynda Anderson-Towns

I was reminded of how resilient we are as women. Even though I had my fears or my challenges, I didn’t stop. Once I was an empty nester, I had to find something for me to do. And I’m like, why not do pageants starting at the age of 46? So I competed for the Mrs. New Jersey International, and I won. I was crowned on my front porch. I refused to just sit here and do nothing outside of work. I would go crazy. So yes, resilient.
Karen Correa

 

On what the future holds…

We’ve proven as a society that we can deal with something foreign and unknown, and still continue onward, and persevere and conquer.
Melissa Orsen

I think things are going to be different going forward, but I don’t think it will be worse. I just think it will be different.
Cheryl Norton

I’m optimistic, but I also think we shouldn’t look forward to “going back to something.” We should be changing and flowing and moving on. Going back – I don’t think that will happen, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. If we learn and grow and are resilient and have strength, then it will be better. I’m optimistic it will be better.
Jill Ross

We’ve got to be honest and know that this probably won’t be the last of something like this, because this wasn’t the first.
Karen Correa

 

Advice they would share with their teenage self…

I had a mom who was mentally ill, but I didn’t know. I just knew she was different and not really nice to me. I hid a lot of what was going on at home. On the outside, we had a boat, we had a pool – there was everything to be proud of, but there was nothing to be proud of in that home. So I would tell my young self, “Whatever jacked-up stuff is going on, it’s ok.” Everyone’s got something. Right?
Jennaphr Frederick

I would tell my teenage self: “Guess what? You’re never going to be size 10. You never have been size 10, and it’s ok.”
Lynda Anderson-Towns

Don’t be afraid to speak up. Don’t worry about being wrong.
Melissa Zobel

Being bullied as a young child was really hard. I went through a stage of not loving the woman I saw in the mirror. If I could look back at that young girl, I’d say, “You are not going to remember half of these people’s names when you are an adult. They are nothing but a blink of an eye walking down the hall in school. Don’t let them upset you.” It didn’t distract me from going to school and being what I wanted to be, but I know, emotionally, it impacted me.
Karen Correa

We always look back and think, “I wish I knew then what I know today.” But I would say to myself, “What are you scared of? Just do it, just say it, just be yourself.” I don’t think being a teenager is easy for anyone.
Arpita Saha

 

We should be champions for young women. They should decide what they want and not apologize or feel guilty for that.
– Jill Ross

On advice to young women entering the workforce…

Ask for help when you need it. I have 3 children, so I have 3 separate carpools set up, 3 separate groups of friends to help me out when I can’t be there. On the work side, you have to be able to prioritize. You have to be organized. You have to have great time management skills.
Melissa Orsen

Be your authentic self. Figure out what your path to success looks like. It doesn’t have to be the same way it looked for me or for somebody else. You don’t have to do what other women did to be successful. Everyone has their own path.
Jill Ross

Work hard for what you want. It’s not an Instagram shoot. It’s work. It’s ok to say you want to be a doctor. It’s okay to say you want to be a financial analyst even if no one believes in you. But part of getting that done is doing the work to get it done.
Jennaphr Frederick

I try to associate with other powerful women to help me. I need someone to tell me, “Hey, did you know you should do this, or you should meet this person?” I have no problem with someone correcting me, guiding me, leading me. You become who you associate with.
Karen Correa

Understand that your biggest and best lessons are in your falls. I’ve fallen many times. I’m very comfortable being wrong. I’ve been right a few times, I’ve been wrong a lot of times. I’m comfortable in both spaces. You can keep your head up even though something bad has happened in your life.
Lynda Anderson-Towns

 

I’m a new mayor and I’m a woman, so people are watching me. I have to live my best life every day.
– Jamila Odom-Garnett Bremmer

On a moment that changed their life…

I was in 8th grade and about 5 days after Christmas, our house burned to the ground. We lost everything. I was crying, and my mom looked at me and said, “It’s just stuff.” I have never forgotten that. None of my stuff means that much to me. It’s about the people you’re close to, and about the memories you have.
Cheryl Norton

My first TV job was in Laredo, Texas, right on the border. When I got there, they were like, “You need more makeup, you need high heels, you need this, you need that.” But the defining moment was when they said, “You’re good enough.” I set a goal that lots of people said I couldn’t do. And then I did it.
Jennaphr Frederick

My brother and I integrated in an all-white school in Southern Maryland. I remember being separated and spat upon. I even remember in 7th grade, parents complained that they did not want their children to take a shower with a Black child. So the phys ed teacher had me take a shower after the other girls did. But I lived through those moments and then had the opportunity to return to that same school – where I was very much isolated because of the color of my skin – as a student teacher to close the chapter and say, “It didn’t stop me. I still went on and got a college degree.” That innately is a part of my DNA, it will never change. Another part of my DNA is the ability to have friends of many, many backgrounds and be able to see a lot from their perspective, because I’ve lived their love, but I’ve lived their hate too. That is the defining pivotal part of everything I do.
Lynda Anderson-Towns

When I was in college, my parents separated, and we found out the mortgage wasn’t paid and we were homeless. I realized then that no one would fight for me more than me. I went to the dean and said, “I can’t leave here because I have nowhere to go.” And they worked something out. But it was at that moment I realized I didn’t have anyone to depend on but me and God. I feel like that’s when Karen grew up.
Karen Correa

I was married in 1999. In 2004, my husband was murdered, and I was left with 2 little babies. I literally lost everything, but I had to learn how to push through. Now those babies are 21 and 22. I decided to live.
Jamila Odom-Garnett Bremmer

I moved to the states about 23 years ago. I realized quickly that women here are liberated and have so much freedom. I realized I can do anything – it’s a very, very empowering feeling. Over the years, I feel like I can use more of that power to benefit me and the people around me.
Arpita Saha

May 2021
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