For several years during Women’s History Month, Nonprofit HR has proudly recognized women across North America in the social impact sector who have made significant contributions to the nonprofits, associations, foundations, social enterprises and communities they serve. We call on our expanded community to help us identify and recognize outstanding women who accomplish the seemingly impossible against all odds.

We extend thanks to a record-breaking number of individuals who responded to our call for nominations. From these nominations, we discovered the work of dozens of outstanding women and are pleased to now publish the final 2023 Social Impact Women to Watch list. The finalists listed below are 24 professional women who have exhibited extraordinary leadership, unwavering dedication and impactful achievements in the social sector. Additional details on the finalists may be seen below.

Itzel provides support to the Finance, HR and Operations departments at CAIR Coalition. Before her time at CAIR Coalition, Itzel worked as a Program Associate with the National Center for Youth Law (NCYL) and at Independent Sector as the Operations Associate. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Criminology, Law and Society from George Mason University and is a member of the American Association of University Women, the National Organization for Victim Assistance and the National Crime Prevention Association.

Ayana Bias serves as the Director of Community Advocacy & Volunteer Services at United Planning Organization (UPO) in Washington, D.C.  Ms. Bias has over 20 years of experience in Community Engagement, Outreach and Advocacy. At UPO she oversees the Organization’s Community Advocacy Efforts, Community Outreach Activities and Volunteer Initiatives. Ms. Bias developed and implemented the Organizations Community Leadership Academy efforts to train, engage, empower and mobilize residents to use their voice, and actions for change. Ms. Bias has a BS in Business Administration and a MSA in Organizational Development from Trinity University, Washington, D.C.

Sarah Blas is a NYC native, mother of six children, public speaker and nonprofit professional with a background in social sciences. As a social justice champion, she has used her career to dismantle identity-based oppression within vulnerable communities, with a speciality in advocacy for BIPOC and disabled families. As a thought leader, she uses her expertise in developing DEI-A infused professional development curriculum and community advocacy to transform both mental models and policies for over two decades across NYC. She has served as the Executive Director of Staten Island Therapeutic Gardens, fighting for food sovereignty. Additionally, she has served as the Director of Health and Wellness for House of Community, Baitul Jamaat and the Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for Staten Island Women Who March and Community Strategies and Communications Lead with MindOpen Learning Strategies. She currently serves as an elected member of the Community Education Council for District 31, chairing both the Special Education and Diversity and Inclusion Committees. Sarah is also a recruitment specialist for the Clean Energy Academy with the Fund for Public Housing, in partnership with NYCHA connecting youth and young adults across the five boroughs to sustainable green jobs.

She was named Staten Island Woman of Achievement  in 2020 for her heroic efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic. She is the recipient of the State of NY Executive Chamber, Gubernatorial Certificate of Recognition in 2021, State Senate Proclamation for Community Impact in 2021, Harriet Tubman Purple Hat Society honoree in 2020, New York State Assembly Certificate of Merit in 2020, Certificate of Special Congressional Recognition 2021, Certificate of Black Excellence in Public Health Award from the Richmond County District Attorney, City Council Citations 2018, 2019, 2020 and Community Peacemaker with Peace Action Network of Staten Island in 2018.

She holds certificates in results based facilitation (a nationally recognized approach at developing accountability frameworks) and from The Campaign School at Yale University.

Anahid (Baboomian) Brakke is a first-generation Armenian whose father immigrated from Teheran, Iran. She is the first in her family to earn a bachelor’s degree. Anahid grew up in a small, working-class town in Oregon and paid for her own education at Wellesley College in Boston in part by working as a secretary and office manager and by taking numerous semesters off to save money. After graduation, Anahid spent five years managing data on mortgage-backed securities for a financial software company outside Boston. After relocating to San Diego, at the age of 31, Anahid changed her career path entirely and accepted an entry-level position at The San Diego Foundation to apply her skills toward making the world a better place. Four years later, Anahid moved into a grantmaking/program officer role as TSDF’s Director of Health & Human Services.

After 10 years in philanthropy, most recently as the Leichtag Foundation’s Director of Self-Sufficiency Grantmaking, Anahid joined the San Diego Hunger Coalition as its Executive Director in January 2015, and now serves as the organization’s President & CEO.

Cynthia N. Colbert, MSW has been the President/CEO of Catholic Charities Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston since 2012, overseeing assistance to individuals in southeast Texas by providing food, clothing, shelter and support services.

She served for six years as vice president of community resources at United Way Capital Area‐Austin and was previously executive director of Catholic Charities in Austin, Texas, and Wichita, Kansas.

Colbert is Chair Pro Tem for the Houston Branch of the Federal Reserve Board of Directors and a board member of the Texas Executive Women, United Way of Greater Houston and Catholic Charities USA. She also serves as treasurer of the Network of Behavioral Health Providers. She is also a senior fellow at the American Leadership Forum.

She earned a bachelor’s degree from California State University in Sacramento and a master’s degree in social welfare, planning and administration from the University of California, Berkeley.

Denise is a leader in social justice, a mentor to fellow women of color and a family work integration innovator. She serves as Senior Advisor for External Affairs at Faith in Action, the nation’s largest faith-based grassroots organization working for racial and economic justice.

In 2010, a Marine approached Mary seeking assistance in acquiring a service dog to help him overcome anxiety disorders caused by combat hyper-vigilance. The multi-year waiting lists for trained dogs from existing organizations were just one more source of frustration for that returning vet.

Mary knew that she could leverage her extensive dog-training experience to teach the vet to train his own service dog. She also realized there are thousands of dogs waiting for loving homes and that many of them have the right temperament for service work. Those factors combined to form a strategy that would dramatically reduce the waiting time.

The approach turned out to do so much more: It gave the vet a sense of mission and purpose, and as the training proceeded, it provided a sense of accomplishment and renewed confidence as well. Thus was born the Operation Freedom Paws (OFP) program, and for Mary, the alignment of her skillset, her capacity as a gifted leader and her life purpose. (Note: Operation Freedom Paws was originally named Operation Freedoms Paws to reflect the many freedoms that our service men and women give up to go into service, and also the multitude of freedoms that they protect.)

Jennifer D. Dobbs is the Executive Director for the ArtsBridge Foundation at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. Since her arrival in May of 2017, Dobbs has increased revenue exponentially and acquired over $500,000 for the organization. She facilitated the Foundation’s 10th Anniversary Gala that raised over $100,000, secured funding from many individual donors and corporations, hired and developed the new ArtsBridge Team, and organized various committees to assist with the educational programs the Foundation offers. Dobbs hopes to expand outreach at ArtsBridge and encourage businesses, organizations, foundations and individuals to become invested partners.

Most recently, Jennifer Dobbs was the Executive Director of the Alonzo F. and Norris B. Herndon Foundation in Atlanta, GA since 2015. Prior to that Dobbs was the Director of Development for the Center for Ethics at Emory University, where she raised funds for an inaugural international summit.

Marilyn Edmunds Bowser is a People Operations leader with a decade of experience in the nonprofit sector. She currently serves as the Head of People Operations for Vital Voices an NGO investing in women taking on the world’s greatest challenges to achieve gender equity globally.

Her passion lies in designing and implementing people-centric HR policies to support equity and wellbeing in the workplace. Her experience is in People Operations including Recruitment, Change Management, Employee Experience, Performance Management, DEIB, Employee Relations and Coaching. She is known as a direct, empathetic and pragmatic leader who uses clarity and context to drive results.

As a Recruiter, Teacher and Compassionate Change Agent she has recognized the importance of transforming systems through the power of connection. Over the course of her career, her eye towards equity ignited her focus on recruiting and supporting women and other historically marginalized communities to open access to opportunity.

She’s a native Virginian and lives in Washington, D.C. with her husband and three children.

Bonnie has cultivated an innovative, award-winning adult literacy program from a grassroots beginning to national accreditation and recognition. She has overseen the growth of Seeds from serving 100 students to 1,000 annually, making Seeds larger than the average high school. She was instrumental in preparing for the 2014 GED, work that outpaced peer agencies state-wide and nationally. In 2020, she launched a Virtual Classroom to continue offering services during the pandemic.

She is responsible for all operations of the organization and serves as the key staff liaison to the 20-member Board of Directors, 20+ full and part-time employees, and more than 300 volunteers. This includes the oversight of core programs and services, human resources, fundraising, finance, community relations, strategic planning and building operations.

Chavi Khanna Koneru (she, her) is co-founder and Executive Director of North Carolina Asian Americans Together. Koneru moved to North Carolina in 1989 and has spent the majority of her life living in the state, including attending college and law school locally at the University of North Carolina. This has allowed her to gain a deep, personal understanding of what it means to be Asian American in the South. Additionally, her legal background in voting rights law has given her the opportunity to interpret and enforce laws impacting the Asian American community, including during her time in the Voting Section at the U.S. Department of Justice, where she focused on language access for Asian American voters.

Indra Lahiri, PhD is the founder of Indraloka Animal Sanctuary as well as a speaker, author, consultant and executive coach. She has over twenty years of experience rescuing thousands of animals of a wide variety of species, in countries around the world. In addition, she has taught, mentored, coached and keynote addressed more than 10,000 people on a range of topics that are always, at their core, based on ethical leadership and compassion for all. Her award-winning blog is followed by nearly 20,000 subscribers on every continent. Indra has been a featured speaker at both the National and International Animal Rights Conferences for the last several years. Indra is also co-founder and co-organizer of the newly formed Global Coalition of Farm Sanctuaries, which creates a safety net for animals in sanctuaries, a support system for those running sanctuaries, and a simpler means for sanctuaries to communicate and coordinate with one another.

In addition to her work with rescue animals, as the founder of Global Inclusion Strategies, Indra provides expert coaching and support on communicating across differences. She is the author of an academic book chapter, a critically acclaimed manager’s guidebook, several research reports and numerous articles on cultural competence and leadership. Having experienced firsthand the benefits of close friendships with animals, Indra has expanded her focus to helping other humans reap the same rewards. Indra is now combining her two loves by offering inspirational keynote talks, one-on-one coaching, workshops and retreats to help humans and other animals communicate.

The sanctuary is not named after Indra, but rather she is named after the Hindu God Indra who created Indraloka (Sanskrit name for the heaven for the Gods). She has dedicated her life to helping traumatized animals rediscover joy, love and trust.

Pamela Leins, also known as Pam, is a Boston-born, first-generation Chilena-Americana Latina who received her education from Boston Public Schools (BPS) and Boston Centers for Youth & Families (BCYF). As a Double Husky, Pam recently joined Northeastern University, majoring in Leadership and Non-Profit Management. She takes pride in her educational journey, which she likes to refer to as the “scenic route,” having taken 18 years to obtain her Bachelor’s Degree and another 3 years for her Master’s Degree. Pam believes that her journey has shaped her into the person she is today and considers her educational accomplishments as one of her greatest achievements. She shares her mother’s sentiment that education is a valuable asset that nobody can take away from her.
Pam brings an extensive leadership and administrative experience of over 20 years in both the public and nonprofit sectors. She has a proven track record in program and partnership development, strategic planning, organizing, advocacy, and resource development.
Pam is known to wear many hats. Most recently, she joined the Boston Education Fund (BEDF) as the Executive Director, where she is dedicated to making a positive impact in advancing educational equity in Boston Public Schools. Prior to BEDF, Pam served as the Director of Planning and Development for BCYF, where she managed the Foundation for BCYF and, during her last year, concurrently served as Interim Deputy Commissioner.
Aside from her academic and professional pursuits, Pam is also a mother to two young boys who attend Boston Public Schools. Additionally, she is a small business owner of a local barbershop, In the Cut Boston, located in Mission Hill. She is also a co-leader of the TAG Association, Inc, a nonprofit organization serving the Latino community of Greater Boston. In this capacity, she co-leads New England’s largest Latino holiday gala, El Jolgorio Navideño, a 33-year-old institution that celebrates the strength, talent and contributions of the Latino community in Boston while raising funds for Latino youth programming.
Throughout her career, Pam’s leadership has been instrumental in cultivating a culture of collaboration, appreciation, dialogue, innovation, transparency, and accountability, resulting in service and programming expansions and improvements, increased fundraising efforts, better data collection and reporting, and creating more efficient and effective equitable operational processes across the city. She is wholeheartedly invested in elevating Boston’s youth to their full potential and plans to continue to do so for many years to come.

As the VP of Strategy & Talent at GlobalGiving, Jenny is a member of the executive team and leads strategy, HR, learning & innovation, and the organization’s race, equity, diversity and inclusion (REDI) initiative. Jenny’s role combines the strategy, innovation and people functions into one team responsible for developing and implementing strategy, designing and delivering a top-notch employee experience, building organizational resilience, and ensuring GlobalGiving consistently operates in line with its values.

In addition, Jenny ensures the staff interface with the Board of Directors is strategic and productive, and works to improve board governance. Throughout her career, Jenny has been passionate about transforming organizations to increase their positive impact on the world. She previously led strategy and served as the Chief of Staff to the CEO at ChildFund International, worked as a strategy consultant at IBM, and supported education and private sector development projects in Africa. She began her career as a Peace Corps volunteer in Benin, where she honed her French and fell in love with West African culture and cuisine. From 2008-2021, she served as board chair of the Benin Education Fund. Jenny earned her MBA from the Yale School of Management. She lives in Alexandria, Virginia, with her husband and two sons.

Heather brings a passion for women’s health and over 25 years of senior executive leadership skills needed for NPWH at this important moment for everyone on the front lines in health care. She has a proven track record leading the development and execution of innovation programs and products that will continue to meet the needs of our members, women’s health providers and the women we are privileged to serve.

Most recently, Heather led the Accreditation Commission for Midwifery Education as its first executive director. She is only the third CEO in NPWH’s 40-year history. She follows Gay Johnson, who is retiring after 23 years of service to NPWH.

MaryEllen McGuire is the Founder and President of the Postsecondary National Policy Institute (PNPI). Prior to creating and launching PNPI, MaryEllen served on the White House Domestic Policy Council as President Obama’s Senior Advisor for Education. In this capacity she focused her efforts on developing and advancing the president’s higher education agenda.

Apart from her work with the administration, MaryEllen previously served as the Senior Education Policy advisor to Senator Chris Dodd on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and as Majority Staff Director of the Senate Subcommittee on Children and Families. Before her time with Senator Dodd, she worked on education and social policy issues for then-Senator Joe Biden, was the Assistant Director of Research to former First Lady Hillary Clinton, worked for the Connecticut General Assembly and served as a Connecticut public school teacher. In 2018 she was named to the Board of Trustees of Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) and in 2020 she was named to the Board of Directors of the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) where she now serves as vice chair.

In 2002, MaryEllen received her doctorate in politics and education from Teacher’s College, Columbia University and in 2018 she received a certificate in Transformational Leadership from Georgetown University. In 2016, MaryEllen was awarded a Distinguished Alumni Award from Teacher’s College for her contributions to federal higher education policy. 

Carolyn leads benefits, compensation, wellness and compliance. Carolyn is a member of SOME’s safety committee, chair of the employee recognition nomination committee and a member of the diversity committee. Carolyn is also a member of the financial advisor committee for retirement planning. She holds a Master of Business Administration degree with a concentration in Management. She is a member of the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) with a Professional Human Resources (SHRM-CP) certification. She holds a Professional in Human Resources (PHR) from the Human Resources Certification Institute (HRCI). Carolyn is certified as a DC retirement plan sponsor. Carolyn was recognized as SOME’s Employee of the year in 2011. She also received The Griffin Service Award for Service Excellence with SOME in 2014. In her early career before working in Human Resources, Carolyn served for five years in SOME’s family services department as Family Service Case Manager, Program Manager and Director. Carolyn is a proud mother and wife and enjoys mentoring, poetry and music of all genres.

Founder and President of BeLoved Atlanta, Amelia Quinn, came from a background where she saw the devastating effects of abusive, controlling, manipulative men. As the Lord worked healing into her own life, she decided that she would dedicate her life to seeing the healing power of Jesus displayed in other women and men whose lives had been shattered by abuse specifically in the sex industry. In June 2011, Amelia welcomed advocates for these women into her life and began sharing her vision to begin a home and restoration program for women over the age of 18 seeking freedom from street prostitution, exotic dancing, sex trafficking and pornography. With the help of many supporters, friends and family, and God, BeLoved Atlanta, Inc. launched and the first BeLoved Transitional Living Home was opened in March 2013!

Nikki’s Indian name is khwhele’ which means Meadow Lark. She is a member of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, and is also Kalispel, Yakama, Nisqually, Cowlitz, Squaxin Island and Taino. She is a direct descendant of Chief Spokane, Chief Ignace, Chief Kamayakin and Chief Leschi. Nikki takes pride standing on the shoulders of her ancestors, honoring the foundation they have laid and being a vessel for her grandmothers to uplift the next generation. With a true passion to support Native youth and youth-led programming, Nikki serves as the Executive Director at the Center for Native American Youth at the Aspen Institute. Prior to her appointment as Executive Director, Nikki was Acting Director, Associate Director and Program Manager at CNAY. Before coming to the Aspen Institute, Nikki served in several capacities at the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, including Student Success Program Director, Federal/Tribal & Special Initiatives Associate, Advocacy Associate and Student Outreach Coordinator. Nikki sits on the Partnership with Native Americans Board of Directors, an Advisor for Doris Duke Charitable Fund’s Indigenous Peoples Portfolio, Advisor for REI Co-Op Action Fund, a Commissioner for the Aspen Institute’s K-12 Climate Action, Co-Chair for the Aspen Institute’s Forum on Women and Girls, Artist Ambassador for NYCLU, a proud committee member for the Miss Indian World Pageant for the Gathering of Nations Pow-wow and promotes other organizations in advisory capacities.

As Executive Director, Nikki works closely with the Board of Advisors, manages staff and sets the vision, strategy and priorities for the Center. Nikki oversees finances, manages development of communications, advocacy, programs and is the lead in resource development, partnership development and collaborative strategies. Nikki has worked on behalf of her people her whole life. Her biggest inspiration comes from her daughter, Aplnmarimn’tsu’tn (Carries the Medicine).

Wanda Steptoe, Executive Director of New Endeavors by Women, has more than 20 years of experience working in various residential settings, including group homes for adolescents and adults with developmental disabilities. She has extensive experience in capacity building, supervision, quality assurance and compliance monitoring for federal, state and accreditation standards and regulations. Before coming to work with NEW in 2005, Ms. Steptoe worked at Covenant House Washington, where she established a crisis center and transitional living program for youth who were homeless. Under Ms. Steptoe’s leadership, New Endeavors has realized significant growth and expanded its service capacity with the addition of a family program, two programs for women 55 and older and one for unaccompanied women. In addition to her program development, administration, management, monitoring and evaluation experience, Wanda Steptoe brings a strong personal drive to her work with NEW. Ms. Steptoe holds a degree in Special Education from Old Dominion University.

Paula Thompson is an experienced leader, visionary and consensus builder with 20 plus years of progressive leadership and effectiveness working in executive management, united with a passion for equity, human rights and advancing social justice issues by creating opportunities for vulnerable populations through comprehensive service delivery, community engagement, and public and private collaborations. She is skilled in nonprofit management, advocacy, policy, resource and organizational development, community engagement, and strategy and program implementation.

Dr. Kimberly Townsend is President and CEO of Loretto Management Corporation in Syracuse, NY. She is an expert in the fields of healthcare management, board governance and leadership. Dr. Townsend is also the author of leadership books Lifecircle Leadership: How Exceptional People Make Every Day Extraordinary and Lessons in Lifecircle Leadership: A Guide to Pragmatic Altruism.

Kimberly Townsend, MBA, MPA, JD, Ed.D, CPA, GPHR, joined the board of Loretto Management Corporation in Syracuse, NY in 2011 and was named President and CEO in 2014. Before that, Dr. Townsend spent 13 years at Welch Allyn, a medical devices and software company, working her way from Attorney to Associate General Counsel to Senior Director of Government Affairs. Previous work includes positions at PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP and Ernst & Young LLP.

Dr. Townsend earned a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration, a master’s degree in Business Administration, a Juris Doctorate and an executive master’s degree in Public Administration from Syracuse University and a Doctorate in Executive Leadership from St. John Fisher College in Rochester, NY. Other professional development includes Measurement, Design and Analysis Methods for Health Outcomes Research and Leadership Strategies for Evolving Healthcare Executives, both at the Harvard School of Public Health.

In addition to being an attorney admitted to New York, New Jersey and Washington, D.C. Bars, Dr. Townsend is a Certified Public Accountant and is SHRM-certified in Global Professional Human Resources. She was Adjunct Professor at Syracuse University from 2001-2011 and the recipient of the 2010 President’s Award-Customer First at Welch Allyn, Inc.

Dr. Townsend is a prolific speaker and writer whose work has been published in industry journals and business publications.

Ellen Voie is an internationally recognized speaker and authority on gender diversity and inclusion for women working in non-traditional careers in transportation. She has been invited to speak to audiences in Sweden, Australia, New Zealand, Vietnam, France, Mexico and Canada in addition to being a popular speaker at conferences throughout the United States. She has also been interviewed by major news networks including Fox News, Bloomberg News and Voice of America.

Voie founded the Women In Trucking Association in March of 2007, with a mission to promote the employment of women in the trucking industry, to remove obstacles that might keep them from succeeding and to celebrate the successes of its members.

Dr. Karen P. West received her undergraduate degree from the University of Louisville in 1977 and is a 1982 graduate of the University of Louisville School of Dentistry where she received her Doctor of Dental Medicine degree. She completed a General Practice Residency at the Medical College of Georgia in 1983 and was a 1992 graduate of the University of South Carolina School of Public Health where she received her MPH degree in Health Administration. Dr. West also has a Certificate in Medical Management from the University of Kentucky Gatton College of Business and Economics and was a 1999 Fellow in the Executive Leadership in Academic Medicine Program. Dr. West is a Fellow in the International College of Dentists and the American College of Dentists.

Before joining the academic ranks at the Medical College of Georgia in 1985 where she taught in the Community Dentistry Department and was the Director of the Children and Youth Dental Clinic, Dr. West was in private practice in Caneyville, Kentucky.

From 1990 until 2007, she was a faculty member at the University of Kentucky College of Dentistry, serving in various capacities such as Clinical Team Leader, Associate Dean of Academic Affairs, Interim Director of the Public Service Division and Interim Assistant Dean of Admissions and Student Affairs. Dr. West became Dean at the University of Nevada Las Vegas School of Dental Medicine in 2007 and served as Dean and tenured Professor in the Department of Biomedical Sciences, until June 30, 2019. She is currently Dean Emeritus.

July 1, 2019, Dr. West became the President and CEO of the American Dental Education Association headquartered in Washington, DC. Dr. West has been involved in ADEA throughout her career. She has served as Chair on both the ADEA Council of Faculties and the Council of Deans Administrative Boards. Dr. West is a Past Chair of the Commission on Dental Accreditation and has served as a consultant for international accrediting bodies. In 2018, Dr. West received the ADEA Distinguished Service Award.

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