Meet Boston's Most Inspiring Women
This International Women’s Day we’re celebrating four female leaders, in collaboration with The Boston Magazine, who are changing Boston for the better. Scroll down to be inspired by their journey to the top, the struggles they’ve faced, and the advice they’d give to their younger self. Love their look too? You can buy into their style by visiting these three Primark locations: Downtown Crossing, South Shore Braintree, and Burlington. Enjoy!
Photography by Cheryl Richards
Rachael Rollins - Suffolk County District Attorney
Top $13, pants $20, scarf $5.50
Rachael Rollins isn’t afraid of a challenge. Last November, she ran as a first-time candidate to become the Suffolk County District Attorney, the first woman in the county and the first woman of color in Massachusetts. She is working to overhaul racial and economic prejudices in the criminal justice system. She’s a mother. She’s a breast cancer survivor. And she’s just getting started. Here, she explains why her historic victory indicates a shift in power, what advice she’d give to her younger self, and how International Women’s Day highlights the bond of sisterhood.
What does it mean to you to serve as the first Black female district attorney in Massachusetts?
Women and Black and Latinx people have historically been underrepresented in both politics and law enforcement. To take office as district attorney, at the intersection of two worlds where so many before me were excluded, has been an incredibly humbling experience. It reinforces my mission to use the power of my office to speak for all of the people of Suffolk County, including, and perhaps especially, those whose voices have often been ignored or silenced.
What adversity have you faced in pursuing your dreams? How have you overcome those obstacles?
I have always been an underdog—and I love that. I firmly believe that when you work hard to achieve something, you appreciate it more. I have had to work hard for nearly every opportunity in my professional career. Most recently, deciding to run for office as a first-time candidate without the support of the sitting district attorney or law enforcement was a huge obstacle. Through consistent hard work, preparation, and actually listening to the needs and wants of the community, my amazing team—primarily comprised of women—was successful. Twice. We won a crowded and competitive primary on September 4, 2018, and then went on to win the general election on November 6, 2018, with more than 80 percent of the vote. We were transparent about our reform agenda and the change we were proposing, and the voters responded with a mandate.
Why have you chosen criminal justice reform as your platform and what are your plans to achieve results?
Racial and economic disparities in the criminal justice system represent one of the most pressing issues of our time. The weight of over-incarceration, over-reliance on cash bail, and the over-prosecution of poverty, mental illness, and substance use disorder all fall disproportionately on the poor and on Black and Latinx people. As an elected prosecutor, I can put policies in place to undo that harm. We’re going to scale back on prosecuting less serious and petty offenses—which are best addressed with treatment and diversion—and focus our attention and resources on the more serious, violent crimes. We’re going to re-think juvenile justice. And we’re going to build a better future by giving people back the options that have been stripped away by decades of flawed policies.
As the only female member of a historic trio of people of color in law enforcement in Boston (along with Boston Police Commissioner William Gross and Suffolk County Sheriff Steve Tompkins), what change do you hope to ignite in the city?
The truth is that law enforcement is male-dominated. I am proud to be the first woman ever elected district attorney in Suffolk County and the first woman of color ever to be elected D.A. in the commonwealth. I’m extremely fortunate to be working alongside Commissioner Gross and Sheriff Tompkins, who aren’t afraid to bring new ways of thinking to their old-school institutions. Together, we are working to build trust, instill confidence, and promote legitimacy across our agencies and with the communities we were elected or appointed to serve.
If you could speak to a younger version of yourself, what advice would you give?
Stop doubting yourself. You are amazing and can achieve anything you put your mind to. Do not wait. Do it now!
What does International Women’s Day symbolize to you?
The bond of sisterhood is one of the strongest forces on earth. International Women’s Day reminds us of that bond. Women have struggled so hard for so long to achieve equality and independence, but the struggle isn’t over until every woman reaps its benefits. Until that day, we’ve got to embrace the power we have, take the power we don’t, and use it to change the system. I pledge to do that every day.
Sarah Hodkinson - General Manager SmarterTravel
Blazer $52, tee $3.50, pants $28, shoes $9
As the former senior director of marketing at PayPal and the new general manager for TripAdvisor’s Boston-based media company SmarterTravel, Sarah Hodkinson is all about inclusion. From providing platforms for her employees to voice their opinions to advancing LGBTQ+ rights in the workplace, Hodkinson has made it her mission to diversify the tech world. Below, she explains how she’s dealt with discrimination, who has inspired her career, and what International Women’s Day represents to her.
What adversity have you faced as a female leader in a male-dominated field? How did you overcome those obstacles?
I am fortunate enough to work in an industry and for a company that values diversity. But earlier in my career, I encountered multiple flavors of discrimination, harassment, and many, many micro-aggressions—before that was even a term! Today, the biggest challenge I personally wrestle with is self-doubt or ‘imposter syndrome,’ which seems to be a uniquely female experience. I don’t want to claim to speak for all women, but for me personally, I think this stems from underlying insecurities. Also, I think that as a woman, if you’re on a team that is predominantly male in composition, you’re probably going to feel less of a sense of belonging than perhaps your male colleagues do. This is a tough one, as it’s all in your own head. My strategy for overcoming it is to pump myself up and tap into my confident alter-ego by reminding myself of everything I have accomplished. So, with that in mind, here are a few tips I’ve found helpful in overcoming imposter syndrome:
1. Believe in yourself and your abilities. After all, if you don’t believe in yourself, how can you expect other people to?
2. Celebrate your successes. We all beat ourselves up over the little things we think we could’ve done better and we tend not to give ourselves enough credit when we accomplish something. Take a minute to give yourself a pat on the back!
3. Rather than focusing on what makes you different from your colleagues, identify and celebrate what you share in common. This will help cultivate that sense of belonging.
As an advocate for LGBTQ+ rights, how do you seek inclusion and representation in the workplace? How do you believe LGBTQ+ rights have advanced in the span of your career and what improvements still need to be made?
Employee resource groups are one great example of how companies can catalyze inclusion efforts. I am excited to be the executive sponsor of TripPride, TripAdvisor’s employee resource group for LGBTQ+ community and our allies. Our group provides a safe and supportive space for LGBTQ+ employees, cultivates awareness of issues that our community faces across the globe, and encourages acceptance, understanding, and ally participation.
This might be stating the obvious but as a gay woman, this is personal! Furthermore, I believe that everyone is entitled to certain fundamental human and civil rights. While we’ve seen some good progress (for example, the right to marry at the federal level), there are still plenty of states that do not have laws prohibiting discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community when it comes to employment or housing. The fact that you could be refused a job or a home because you identify as LGBTQ+ is outrageous. Beyond legislation, I’d like to see us as a society advance on a cultural level. It’s appalling to me that we continue to see people attacked and assaulted because of their sexual or gender orientation. I should be able to walk down the street hand in hand with my partner without fear for my personal safety.
What led you to pursue your career choice? Who has influenced or inspired you along the journey?
My path has not been a conventional one, and I honestly have never had a plan. I am a firm believer in serendipity and have been fortunate to have lots of exciting opportunities over the course of my career. Ultimately for me, it’s all about being challenged and working with smart people.
For inspiration, all I need to do is look around me. I am so inspired by my entire team here at SmarterTravel. This is the best and brightest group of folks that I’ve ever worked with. I feel incredibly lucky and blessed to be surrounded by a team that is not only incredibly talented, but also comprised of genuinely nice, really great people.
I’d also be remiss not to give a shout-out to someone I respect immensely: Janet Comenos, CEO of Spotted. I met Janet through RevBoston, a program for women in tech leadership sponsored by Accomplice, a local venture capital firm. Janet raised millions of investment dollars to start her company, which has a majority female workforce. As a founder CEO, she is super busy, but she is always so generous with her time and she gives excellent advice.
As the general manager for SmarterTravel, how have you contributed to the network’s growth?
We’ve been successful in growing traffic to our sites by publishing world-class expert travel content and executing smart and efficient marketing strategies. For example, with Jetsetter.com, we give advice on where to go, the best places to stay and eat, and what to pack for travelers that have a strong sense of style, but also love a good deal. We’ve built a substantial following on social media platforms like Instagram, and people love our emails, so we get a lot of 'free' traffic.
As I am new to the GM role, I have been eliciting feedback from our employees around what they’d like to see from me. The number one ask is for regular, transparent communication. To that end, I have scheduled a monthly company all-hands meeting, which has been very well received by our employees. I am also ensuring we have clearly defined company goals and that everyone understands how their personal efforts ladder up to our overarching objectives.
What advice do you have for women in the workplace who feel marginalized by their sex, race, or other identifying factors?
There are many studies that have shown that a diverse workforce leads to better business outcomes. Sharing this research with leaders in your organization can help make the case for resourcing a deliberate and intentional effort to make your workplace more inclusive.
What significance does International Women’s Day have for you?
I think International Women’s Month is a great reminder to celebrate our accomplishments and to advocate for future change. In the last couple of years, we’ve seen a resurgence in activism with the women’s marches and #MeToo. While I wish we didn’t need these movements, as a woman I am proud that we are vocal in standing up for ourselves and our rights. And, as its International Women’s month, we should also take this time to think about women in countries with less privilege and rights than we have, and think about how we can help support one another from a global perspective.
Michelle White - Next Step Soul Food Cafe Owner
Biker jacket $20, tee $6, pants $20, shoes $7, earrings $5
When Michelle White turned 45, she gave herself an ultimatum: keep running a day-care center, or chase a new dream. That’s what led her to open up Next Step Soul Food Cafe in Codman Square in 2017. With the help of her mother and a rotating roster of volunteering family members, White slings her classic collard greens and fried chicken dishes to a community she’s proud to belong to. Below, she describes her love affair with Dorchester, recommends dishes for first-time guests, and explains what International Women’s Day signifies to a female restaurateur in her 50s.
How did soul food become your passion? When did you realize your dream of opening your own café?
Soul food has always been in my veins. My parents are from South Carolina and they were perfect for each other because they didn’t like eating out, so they always cooked. My mother’s mother and my father’s mother all had gardens, so I grew up around people who cared about farm to table, and that planted the seed long ago. I’d come home from school and help my mom in the kitchen, just watching her; I was one of those ankle biters. My mother did catering for her church Freedom Christ-Ministry, and they always joked that she should open up her own restaurant. Meanwhile, both my mother and I studied early education and childcare. By the time I turned 45, I was running a day-care and I thought, “I need to find something else or I stay in my career.” I took a job skills test and it said I should be in customer or food service, so I enrolled in a kitchen training program for 12 weeks. I wanted to be able to cut it in a commercial kitchen, you know? I graduated top of my class and I loved it. My mom said, “Why don’t you open up a little soul food place?” So, at the age of 46, I got started in the restaurant business.
You say Next Step is a family business. What roles do your family members have within the restaurant? How do you all work together to make it a success?
Officially, it’s just me. No one has titles. But my mother and I work together; she does the majority of the food prep. Soul food isn’t like regular fast food, you can’t just come in here and turn on the fryer. All of the food prep takes hours and we have a small kitchen, so everything is small batch. Different family members volunteer when they have the time and do things like go shopping for me. In my head, I just wanted a window and a few tables, maybe two or three, and you could pick up food or you could eat there if you want. I never thought I would have a restaurant with 30 seats. We’re a small business and this is just the beginning; we’re still changing and growing. I couldn’t do it without my family.
Next Step is known as a designated community café. How would you define your relationship with the Dorchester community?
I always knew I wanted to do soul food, but I didn’t want to push that on people. I wanted to give the community what they wanted, so I went around here and surveyed people about what they’d like to eat. Everyone said they had no soul food around them and they wanted that to change. I went to community meetings with the Neighborhood Development Corporation and got to know the people so I earned their full support. Here, in Codman Square, if they don’t like you, you aren’t going to be here. You need the respect of the people in the community, from both the merchants and the residents. We’re here in the center next to lots of churches and several charter schools, a clinic, courthouse, banks, all that. So, I make sure I’m here for them and that’s why I call it a community café.
What has been the biggest challenge of owning your restaurant? Biggest reward?
The biggest challenge, as weird as it sounds, is just having to be here all the time. I didn’t realize I would need to be here constantly. I thought I’d have opening hours, then lock the door and go home. But that’s not the case. I’ll be here at 1 or 2 a.m. cooking and trying to keep up with what we’re doing that week. It’s a good thing I live barely 10 minutes away. I also have to schedule maintenance and cleaning and deliveries, and it’s just a never-ending rush. I thought it would be more organized or coordinated, like an orchestra or something. But it’s always changing. The biggest reward is the fact that I can provide some economic stability for my family. That’s my goal. All my family is right here, we all live in Dorchester. It can be tough out here and people can’t just have one job. You need multiple jobs to make it. I’m happy that at least I have something that can help.
What dish do you recommend for first-time visitors looking to sample some soul food?
You’ve got to try the fried chicken. Get the traditional stuff: collard greens, candied yams, mac and cheese. Those are the hallmark dishes of soul food. If you’re really adventurous, you can try the pork offerings, which is like chitlins, pig’s feet, all that stuff. My regulars like the pork chops smothered in gravy. People come in looking for comfort food and that’s what soul food is. There’s nothing for the light-hearted. We’ve got heavy dishes and good food.
As a female restaurateur, what does International Women’s Day mean to you?
We run on women power here. Me and my mom—we’re two single ladies! It’s very difficult for women to make it in the restaurant industry. The fact that we did open up is kind of crazy. We’re also women over the age of 50. We are tried and true, and we’re hard workers. Sometimes as you get older, people think women are done and you should settle in. But I feel like this day and month makes women everywhere say I’m going to do something and I’m going to make a change. That’s what I think we’re doing in our community.
14-Year-Old Meredith Casey - Mighty Meredith Project Founder
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Three years ago, fifth-grader Meredith Casey hit her head. She had no way of knowing that her accident would launch her into starting her own non-profit to give back to the medical community, raise awareness of traumatic brain injuries, and promote kind acts everywhere—all while still attending middle school. Now, the 14-year-old shares what inspires her mission, how others can help, and why International Women’s Day can encourage young girls everywhere to make a difference. Meet the face of the next changemaker generation.
Please describe the events of your injury. What was the recovery process like, and how did you learn you had a TBI?
I hit my head on a granite countertop on December 15, 2015, while picking up my science homework from the kitchen floor. There was no bruising or bleeding, but rather an immediate onset of headaches. After visiting the school nurse, it was determined I most likely had a concussion. Over the course of three more months, my health deteriorated significantly with no known cause. Activities were stripped away, school days were reduced, and homework was no longer an option, yet my health continued to worsen. It wasn’t until one of my doctors recommended to remove my braces that my growing medical team could see a blood clot had formed in my brain, also known as a sagittal sinus thrombosis.
I was first hospitalized in April through June 2016 to address the blot clot and pain management, missing out on my last year of the fifth grade. During this time, I also had a myriad of other medical conditions that came with the blood clot. I was under the care of several different types of doctors that each addressed a different medical condition that included a neurologist, hematologist, ophthalmologist, otolaryngologist, interventional radiologist, psychologist, and pain management. I also attended physical therapy two to three times a week, participated in alternative treatment options like acupuncture, had a tutor, and managed by the grace of God to get to the sixth grade.
Over the course of the last few years, the blood clot went away but left me with some residual medical ‘benefits’ that require long term medical care. Let’s just say, my medical journey is not over, but I am learning how to manage it and make the best of my new normal.
What inspired you to start the Mighty Meredith Project? What is the mission?
I can no longer participate in contact sports or activities that have a high likelihood of brain injury. Both at Tufts and The Brain Injury Center at Boston Children’s Hospital, I was encouraged to get involved with something that would help replace what I had lost to help with the associated psychological impact. One of my doctors learned that I donated my birthday gifts and had a bake sale with my two best friends to raise money to purchase gift cards for the Hematology Clinic at Tufts. He advised me to ‘take that and run with it!’ After months of discussing the purpose and potential charitable offerings with my parents and getting them on board, I decided I wanted to start a non-profit organization built around my experiences in suffering from a TBI. The mission for the Mighty Meredith Project is simple:
Mighty Kind: Promote kindness, especially to those who may have a hidden injury or illness. It was the kindness from friends and strangers that got me through some of the hardest days of my recovery.
Mighty Giving: An avenue to give back to the local medical community who has given so much to me.
Mighty Smart: Bring education and awareness to Traumatic Brain Injuries as an adolescent, with specific attention on their hidden impact—both physical and psychological.
The hope for the MMP is to bring a bit of hope, joy, and education to as many people as we can.
How does the ‘kindness pledge’ work? What are some examples of acts of kindness through the project?
To me, kindness is not something big or overdone, but rather small things that can really make a difference in someone’s day. It is a nod, a gesture, a hello, a card, a note, or any single act that has an impact. The kindness pledge is a way to get someone to think about their actions, write it down and commit to doing it. In 2018, we held a Kindness Day at my middle school where I introduced the kindness pledge and everyone had to write down one or two things they would do to make the school community a kinder and gentler place.
Another kindness initiative is that I send notes of encouragement to those who may be suffering in silence. Anyone can go to our website to send a note of kindness to someone who may be suffering in silence for any reason and could benefit from an act of kindness from the Mighty Meredith Project. Upon receipt, we will send a note and a small gesture of kindness to the suggested individual. I have received requests from as far away as California and as close as my own community of North Reading. I let them know I know what it is like to have a hidden injury or brain injury and that they are not alone. I try to find out through the requestor something that they like and send a token gift.
We also offer a kindness scholarship to a graduating senior in my hometown who has made kindness a part of their character. I am currently in the process of working on a children’s book about kindness and the impact of having a hidden injury, such as a TBI.
How does the project give back to the medical community? What are the ‘Fill the Box’ and ‘Helmets for Heads’ campaigns?
Giving back to the medical community became a core objective of the Mighty Meredith Project based on personal experiences. This is driven by the care I have personally received across hospitals, physicians, nurses, and child life specialists. As an inpatient for longer hospital stays and an outpatient for many of my procedures, I have personally benefited from the generosity of a stranger’s donations during difficult visits and hospitalizations. I wanted to help bring joy to those who may be in a similar situation by giving back to hospitals where I have and continue to receive treatment.
‘Fill the Box’ is a program that benefits patients and families at the Floating Hospital for Children at Tufts Medical Center and Boston Children’s Hospital. This year, our focus expanded and included families who have fallen on hard times due to the cost of medical care and need assistance with the purchase of gifts during Christmas, children hospitalized or receiving treatment in Neurology Clinic and the Neuroscience Floor at Tufts, the Child Life department at the Floating Hospital for Children at Tufts with a targeted focus on clinics where I have personally received treatment and areas that have the greatest need, and the Boston Children’s Hospital Neuroscience Floor – 9NW Child Life Group with focus on teenage population. Our latest campaign donated over 1,000 toys, personal care items, and gift cards with a value of over $15,000 as a direct result of private donations and funding from our organization. Having been on the receiving end many times from the donations of people I will never know, I can tell you how important this is to the patient and family.
‘Helmets for Heads’ is a program we started after an appointment with my neurologist at Tufts as we were just getting started. He had explained to us one of the biggest reasons why kids experience head injuries and brain trauma is due to bike accidents when they were not wearing a bike helmet. In 2018, we launched the first ‘Helmets for Heads’ bike helmet collection during the month of March, which is also Traumatic Brain Injury Awareness Month. Together with donations from our surrounding communities of Reading and North Reading and our fundraising efforts, we were able to collect 75 helmets and purchase an additional 200 that were donated to the Neurology Department at Tufts and local paediatricians. We also used them as promotions at each town day we attended throughout the year to promote education and awareness of TBIs.
In what ways does the project seek to educate others about TBIs?
We’re not doctors or medical practitioners, so we’re not creating any new material that doesn’t already exist today. However, when first diagnosed as a family, we found it hard to dig through all of the material that was available. Therefore, I wanted to provide an easy way for people to access information in one spot. On our website, we provide a simple list of places to seek online information on the topic of TBIs and concussions. We also started an annual speaker series to bring information and awareness to our local community. In 2019, we are partnering with Tufts in bringing education and awareness to medical providers and will be sponsoring medical research on the topic of TBIs.
One of the most important aspects of education and awareness of TBIs is sharing the fact that they are the ultimate hidden injury. You just cannot see what is going on inside of someone’s brain like you can when someone breaks a leg or arm. Their cast is visible and what goes on in the brain is invisible other than the symptoms, which in many cases are doubted. When I was first diagnosed with a concussion, there were very few people who believed that I did not feel well. I worked hard to feel normal but that took a huge toll. If I can educate one person, one teacher, one friend to look beyond what you see on the outside of someone suffering from a concussion or brain injury, I feel as though we are making progress.
As a young girl looking to make a difference, what does International Women’s Day signify to you?
International Women’s Day signifies the importance of women and the roles we play in society today. International Women’s Day honors those women who have stood up for what they believe, and who have made a difference in this world we live in. It recognizes those who have accomplished social, economic, cultural, and political achievements. Whether those accomplishments are big or small, we, one by one, step by step are changing this world to be a better place a day at a time. This is the day that women are recognized for trying to make the world that you and I live in every day, a better place. This is the day that I am honored to say that I have been recognized for a charity I started after having suffered a traumatic brain injury for the past three years and hopefully making a difference in someone’s life.
*This sponsored content was first published on www.bostonmagazine.com, March 2019. Copyright © 2019 Metro Corp. Reproduced with permission.