Leveling the Playing Field

by Staff | Jul 13, 2021
Leveling the Playing Field
South Jersey female business leaders on their rise to the top and what it took to get there

 Sandi Harvey

Vice President of Sales, Meet AC

Harvey has been in the industry for over 30 years and joined Meet AC in 1995. She was installed into her current position in 2018.

Challenges as a woman in business: Truthfully, I felt the road was more challenging because I rarely saw women in my current role. Of course, that was way back when. The anecdote is when you see it you can believe it. I remember meeting a client for the first time and I am still in contact with her today. She was and has been my mentor for over 25 years.

In Atlantic City, I have witnessed the changes in the boardroom, meeting room and the overall industry. We have cracked the glass ceiling with presidents and CEOs in our industry with more women in the C-Suite.

More work to be done: I believe we still have work to do but self-doubt can be dangerous for anyone. Every day I say these words: You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem and smarter than you think.

Words of wisdom: Be confident in your abilities and know your value.


Chrissy Buteas

Chief Government Affairs Officer, New Jersey Business & Industry Association (NJBIA)

Buteas has 18 years of experience in her industry. She joined NJBIA in 2018 after previously serving as president and CEO of the Home Care & Hospice Association of New Jersey.

Challenges as a woman in business: In a way, yes, I did face challenges. The numbers do speak for themselves in terms of women lagging behind in leadership positions in corporate business, nonprofits and in government. However, it’s just as important to realize that everyone is faced with different challenges and you don’t want to succumb to those challenges becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy where you don’t succeed. You just have to commit to working harder and being more prepared and being willing to take more risks. It’s a mindset.

More work to be done: I’ve witnessed changes in terms of more women in our industry, and more acceptance of women in leadership, but again the numbers show we still have a long way to go. I also think there’s more we can do as far as women helping other women on the way to leadership positions. At NJBIA, we’re fortunate—much of our leadership are women and we work like hand in glove. However, I know that’s not the case everywhere. Women working together strengthens us as a whole and individually.


Peggy Allen (Sewekow) 

CEO, Perry iSearch Partners Inc.

Allen joined the staffing and recruitment industry in 1995. Through the years, she took on projects and demonstrated thought leadership at the company, which naturally evolved into leadership and the eventual purchase of the company in 2018.

Challenges as a woman in business: I started as the junior person of a male-dominated executive search team. I had to work really hard to prove myself in a man’s world. I felt like I had to work much harder for the same level of achievement. This adversity is what gave me the drive to be the best of my ability, which ultimately worked out in my favor. Now, I strive to make the earning potential equally attainable by all.

Inspiring the next generation: Women have been the backbone of my company. Unfortunately, they have not always been recognized, due to working more behind the scenes. Now that I’m running things, I’m in the forefront. It’s important that I show up and present a strong company, owned and operated by a woman. … As a leader, I want to be an example of a strong woman to my employees and other aspiring industry leaders. As I mentor others, I encourage women to become aware of their strengths and take on roles that align with their long-term goals, while encouraging them to accept their weaknesses but never stop trying to improve in those areas.


Angela Sicoli

Broker/Owner, Century 21 Award Agency; Immediate Past President of NJ Realtors

Sicoli opened her real estate office, Century 21 Award Agency, in 1986. She began volunteering with New Jersey Realtors as a committee member, eventually serving as treasurer and president.

Challenges as a woman in business: When I first opened my business in 1986, it was unheard of that a woman could own their own business. The industry and brokers were predominantly male, but that didn’t stop me from doing what I love, helping clients achieve their dreams.

Cracks in the glass ceiling: I have high hopes for the younger generation as they enter the workforce. There are a lot more women in positions of power than there were when I first began my career. The real estate industry has turned itself around and it is now more female dominated than male.

Inspiring the next generation: As a broker, I have the opportunity to mentor and help new agents build their careers. It’s so important in this industry, and any industry for that matter, to turn around and help those behind you. A career in real estate extends far beyond the confines of a contract, and once I learned that, I myself grew and grew my business in ways I never thought possible.


Sharon Hammel

Senior VP, Chief Retail Officer, Republic Bank

Hammel’s career in banking began at age 18. By age 21, she was promoted to store manager. Over her 36-year career, she has held several management positions, and joined Republic Bank in 2012. She has been in her current role since 2017.

Challenges as a woman in business: In my career, I’ve always been in meetings with male counterparts and male bosses, and in the past the industry was dominated by male executives. That being said, I never thought my professional journey was more difficult than anyone else’s. I’ve always worked hard and focused on the company’s goals and built meaningful relationships. That’s what helps propel you forward. Believing in my own ability helped get me to the next level.

Everyone’s journey is specific to themselves and I don’t feel I’ve been impacted being a woman. I feel fortunate that I’ve had great leaders to work for.

Words of wisdom: I believe if you set your mind to something, there’s nothing you can’t achieve. I don’t have a college degree, but I never let it stand in the way of achieving my professional goals. You have to believe in yourself and surround yourself with people who believe in you too.


Jo-Ann Weiner

Owner, J.L. Weiner and Associates, LLC

Weiner spent 35 years as an agent for the IRS before starting her forensic tax accounting practice in 2013. She is in the process of founding a nonprofit, Women, Words and Wisdom, to help women make informed decisions and provide college scholarships.

Support for other women: The pandemic affected many people but women were profoundly affected. Many women lost their jobs or had to resign due to the company closing or having to take care of their children. It’s being called the “Pink Recession,” and this pandemic has set women back for years. We have to find solutions to match women’s skills to jobs and support them as they navigate a career. I believe in raising up other women. We’ll never get to true equality if we don’t have a seat at the table, but sometimes you have to create the seat at the table.

Words of wisdom: I’ve had to pay my dues; work harder and longer to prove myself, no matter where I went. When you go through hard times, don’t let it get you down. Learn from it, find solutions. It makes you stronger.


Kirsten Toler

Managing Principal, KMT Consulting

Toler obtained her CPA in 1997 and although she worked for both the public accounting and corporate side of her industry, she has always helped clients with tax returns as a side business, forming an LLC in 2005. She now operates 100% on her own.

Cracks in the glass ceiling: Opportunities for women depend on the culture of the firm. I worked just as hard, if not harder, than males and still saw them getting promoted ahead of me. Bigger firms seem to be more visible in empowerment of women partners, which is wonderful but not all of them are like that. I do see the tide turning. If a firm is more progressive, it enables them to bring in newer, younger accountants, but the tone is set at the top.

Inspiring the next generation: I am part of the Gail Bierenbaum Women’s Leadership Council at Rider University. I’ve also been a speaker at the New Jersey Federation of Women’s Clubs’ weeklong camp at Rutgers for high school girls. The tagline for my seminar is “Not Your Typical CPA” and I have noticed young women coming in more informed and looking at this as a potential career and seeing that there is flexibility for a work/life balance. It’s refreshing to see.


Dawn Kaplan

Co-founder/Partner, Weinberg, Kaplan & Smith, P.A.

Kaplan has been practicing family law for over 20 years and co-founded WKS in 2012. She is a member of South Jersey Women in Business and a founding member of Woman Owned Law.

Challenges as a woman in business: To be honest, given this area of family law, there were a lot of women who had paved the way or started their own business and it’s been a good experience over the last 20 years. When I first started out of law school, I saw a lot of female partners so I had a lot of great examples. I teach my daughters that there will be obstacles for anyone, but you can be whatever you want and sometimes those obstacles or failures make you the person you ultimately are.

Work/life balance: There’s something to be said for having a career but also being a mom. Family comes before anything else. My mom taught me that you can be a career woman and still have a family and I think more women are finding the ability to do that. There’s also more acceptance for dads out there who need flexibility. You can be successful and still be there for the monumental moments with family.


Meggan Ciaccia

Shareholder/Partner, Montecino & Ciaccia

Ciaccia has been in the accounting industry for 18 years, becoming a licensed CPA in 2013 and a shareholder/partner in her father’s firm the same year. As her father retires later this month, the practice will transition to Ciaccia CPA. Ciacca is also the new president of NAWBO South Jersey.

Cracks in the glass ceiling: As I get more involved with the NJCPA Society, I see more and more women entering the accounting industry. Earlier this year I participated in interviewing college juniors for the NJ CPA scholarships and more than 50% of the applicants being interviewed were women. We know women have worked hard to get to where we are now but I want to focus on the younger generation. I want women to know there is no glass ceiling for them to break. I want men to know how to support, encourage and empower women personally and professionally.

Inspiring the next generation: I would love to see programs for middle school-aged kids and up to help support, empower, educate and encourage them. A few years ago I started Girl Power at my local elementary school for girls in fourth-sixth grades. … It has been an incredible experience mentoring these young girls and helping them realize their full potential.


Eileen Wirth

President & CEO, Moorestown Ecumenical Neighborhood Development (MEND) Inc.

For over 30 years, Wirth has been involved with affordable housing in one way or another. Prior to MEND, she was the president and CEO of an organization in Philadelphia. She is the first woman to serve this role in MEND’s history.

Inspiring the next generation: In my spare time I really enjoy the involvement with the Gail Bierenbaum Women’s Leadership Council at Rider University. I sit on the board and our mission is to mentor female students ranging from juniors, seniors and graduate level. We provide education on leadership, negotiating, financial planning for women—I wish I would have had those opportunities as a student. It really makes a difference on showing these young women what they can aspire to.

More work to be done: It’s still not a level playing field, and there are so many segments of the population impacted by the pandemic, especially for women who stayed home for the kids. How much ground was lost by women in any industry because of family coming first? It should come first but the ripple effects will be felt for years.

Words of wisdom: Don’t be afraid to say no. It is possible to have it all if you recognize your limitations. Admit when you can’t take on one more thing.


Shereen Chen Gray

Partner, Chen-Gray Law Group LLC

A practicing attorney for over 25 years, Chen initially began in the fields of construction litigation and professional malpractice, however, for the majority of her career she has focused on immigration law.

Challenges as a woman in business: I have to say that I never felt that being a woman was a hindrance. For me, not only am I a woman, but I am also Chinese, so I never thought to be bogged down by labels. I do remember that I was told that “young women” attorneys had to wear a suit with a skirt to court to be taken seriously. I hate skirts. Needless to say, I always wore a pantsuit and I don’t remember ever being treated differently by the court or my colleagues because I did not wear a skirt.

Cracks in the glass ceiling: I feel that the younger generation is stronger than us already. They are growing up in an atmosphere that is more cognizant of the strife and conflict that certain groups and labels have to overcome and they have a louder voice that is ready to be heard. I do think that all of us look up to those that came before us that are successful and strong. It makes us feel that “we can do that too.”


Sharyn McTaggart

Vice President, Community Banking Manager III, Firsttrust Bank

McTaggart has been in the banking industry since graduating college in 1997. Her passion for helping people with their finances proved that this was the right fit for her career.

Challenges as a woman in business: I’ve felt the banking industry was very welcoming. I’ve been fortunate to be surrounded by a lot of great leaders, both men and women. The companies I’ve been with also provided support and education to learn new things within the industry to help meet new goals. It’s about the culture in the business of being one team and helping people every day.

Inspiring the next generation: I’ve been involved with the Power of Professional Women, a nonprofit that mentors young professionals. I think organizations that offer mentoring are critical. Not everybody may be comfortable going to their parents or an educator for advice; sometimes when you have someone else on the outside to talk to about your goals and professional situations, you can find a new perspective.

Words of wisdom: The power of networking is everything; building relationships is the key to success.


Anne Caruso

Agent, First Choice Business Brokers

Caruso is most well-known as the former co-owner of Networks Plus, which she and her husband Jerry sold in 2020. She now helps others navigate the process of selling their business. Caruso is also the immediate past president of NAWBO South Jersey.

Cracks in the glass ceiling: I see a shift in the way women are treated. People are making a more conscious effort, which is wonderful. Even women’s organizations have changed. Think of the Girl Scouts. They used to teach the correct temperature to wash dishes, but now it’s all focused on building women leaders. … As women, we are looking at ourselves and feeling more confident in our abilities to do our jobs and take care of our families. And because there are more women in the workforce, it gives the younger generation the confidence to start their own business. I notice they are not hesitant to ask questions of other women and find out how they did things. Sharing these experiences in an organization like NAWBO is empowering. The women here want to raise each other up.

Words of wisdom: Let the other person do all the talking, and be a better listener is one of the best things I’ve learned.


Mary Ann Boccolini

CEO, Samaritan Healthcare & Hospice

A nurse by profession, Boccolini’s career has progressed through some of the most esteemed health care institutions, including Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and the National Institute of Health. She joined Samaritan in 1997 and assumed her current position in 2001.

Challenges as a woman in business: In short, I don’t think it has been particularly challenging because I am a woman. Nursing was and is primarily a profession of women, however it has gained more diversity. I think in health care, it’s about the experience you’re bringing and the care you can give to patients and families.

Inspiring the next generation: I’m not in an official mentoring role but I do role model. We have about 400 employees and I feel blessed to be able to help provide them an environment that is respectful, honors their gifts and helps them grow. I practice what I preach, and to me, that’s the best way of mentoring in any organization.

Words of wisdom: It’s about being authentic. The root of any leadership role is about affecting others and helping them succeed. How can you help others advance with their talents and gifts?



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Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Biz, Volume 11, Issue 6 (June 2021).

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Author: By Staff


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