9 Women Who Are Changing Chicago

By Novid Parsi
Photography by Billy Rood
May 11, 2015 | People

Dynamic, dedicated, and determined to raise the bar: these nine influential Chicago women are blazing trails in every field.

Nicole Suarez

9 - 9 Women Who Are Changing Chicago
Dress, Max Mara ($895). Saks Fifth Avenue, 700 N. Michigan Ave., 312-944-6500. 21.95-carat white multi-shape diamond butterfly earrings, Graff (price on request). 103 E. Oak St., 312-604-1000

Last year Nicole Suarez became the anchor for Chicago’s leading Spanish-language publication Hoy’s new TV news broadcast, Hoy Noticias MundoFox 13—while still a college undergrad. At DePaul University, the budding journalist had been taking classes at night and on the weekends so she could also work as a producer for Univision Chicago. “For me, education was always going to be a priority,” Suarez says. “I wasn’t going to be one of the girls who gets an amazing opportunity and then completely forgets about school.” Now, behind the anchor desk, Suarez takes a hard look at the stories that deeply affect the local Hispanic community: “We pride ourselves on doing in-depth, investigative pieces,” she says.

WHY BROADCAST JOURNALISM: “It’s my daily mission to come into work and find compelling stories that connect with our audience. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: Not many people get to see a newscast from the beginning and grow with it.”

SPANISH-LANGUAGE NEWS: “Immigration is a topic you don’t see covered as much in the general market. We have an immigration story every day because it constantly impacts our community.”

NOTABLE NEWS MOMENT: “Day care in Illinois hasn’t been receiving funds, so I went out and got the story from parents who depend on this money, who get paid $8.25 an hour, and who don’t have enough money to send their kids to day care.”

ADVICE TO SOMEONE STARTING OUT: “Read the news every single day. Look at life as a story, and find the angle with every situation you encounter.”

STRONGEST INFLUENCE: “My mom. If I say I want to travel to the moon, she would do anything to help me complete that goal.”

GREATEST ACCOMPLISHMENT: “Being where I am today: 23 years old and anchoring a newscast in Chicago.”

Kathleen Henson

8 - 9 Women Who Are Changing Chicago
Dress, Cushnie et Ochs ($1,400). Neiman Marcus, 737 N. Michigan Ave., 312-642-5900. 5.06-carat white round diamond earrings, 19.65-carat white multi-shape diamond butterfly necklace, and 9.71-carat white diamond butterfly-motif watch (all price on request), Graff. 103 E. Oak St., 312-604-1000. Rockstud heels, Valentino ($1,075). Saks Fifth Avenue, 700 N. Michigan Ave., 312-944-6500

When she had the first two of her five children, Kathleen Henson struggled as she juggled being a mom and working for a PR firm. So in January 2001, she decided to start her own firm, Henson Consulting, in the basement of her Wheaton home—right next to the sump pump. “It was not glamorous at all,” says Henson, who turns 44 on June 21. After September 11, Henson says, companies reduced their marketing budgets, which gave an edge to Henson Consulting, a small firm with a big talent. Since then, Henson not only has snagged high-profile clients such as Kraft Foods and LYFE Kitchen, but she’s also racked up prestigious honors such as PR News’ Top Women in PR and Best Small Firm recognition and was recently named Public Relations Society of America’s PR Professional of the Year for Chicago.

CHANGES IN THE INDUSTRY: “The emergence of social media has really made our profession evolve, but what’s stayed the same is that our clients are seeking great ideas that help get their brand or causes known.”

FORMING HC3, THE COMPANY’S PHILANTHROPIC ARM: “I leave my children to work, so I wanted to make sure that when I came home, I had something good to tell them and teach them.”

THE THING I LOOK FOR IN EMPLOYEES: “Kindness. It’s sort of unusual in this business. I actually got fired by a prominent restaurateur years ago because he said I was too nice.”

ADVICE TO SOMEONE STARTING OUT: “Never burn a bridge. You never know where your next client or connection is going to come from.”

GREATEST CAREER GIFT: “Being able to mentor women. I want them to be happy, to feel fulfillment, and to love their lives outside of work.”

A STRONG LEADER IS: “Always changing, always open-minded, always learning.”

Rohini Dey

7 - 9 Women Who Are Changing Chicago
Clothing and accessories, Dey’s own

While working for McKinsey & Company, a job that often had her on the road and dining out, Rohini Dey decided she’d had enough of the buffet-quality Indian food typically available in the States. In 2003, the India native and lifelong foodie opened her first restaurant, Vermilion, in River North, opening a second outpost in New York five years later. “My family was taken aback,” says the PhD and former economist. “Even I’m still baffled by the turn my life has taken.” Yet Vermilion, with its distinctive Indian-Latin fusions, picked up a slew of “best new restaurant” accolades. The 46-year-old mother of two young daughters has also emerged as a vocal advocate for women in her industry. In addition to being a member of a range of organizations that support women in business, from The Chicago Network to the International Women’s Forum, Dey also founded the James Beard Foundation Vermilion Women in Culinary Leadership mentorship program, which cultivates women leaders in the dining industry.

THE GENDER GAP: “It’s very rare to find stand-alone women executive chefs, meaning not part of a family business, and even rarer to come across women restaurateurs. It’s a Catch-22: The paucity of women leads to the paucity of women.”

STRONGEST INFLUENCE: “My husband, Sajal Kohli. He has a very positive, can-do attitude, and I’ve gotten a lot of my sense of persistence and doggedness from him.”

BIGGEST CHALLENGE: “When I opened Vermilion in Chicago, it didn’t help that I was pregnant and that my baby came two weeks before the opening.”

DOWNTIME: “My source of renewal is working out. I climbed Kilimanjaro to celebrate my 40th—physically by far the most difficult thing I’ve done.”

Dr. Michelle Larson

6 - 9 Women Who Are Changing Chicago
Jacket ($1,390) and pants ($495), Akris Punto. Saks Fifth Avenue, 700 N. Michigan Ave., 312-944-6500. Vintage necklace (price on request). LuLu’s on the Avenue, 900 North Michigan Shops, 312-888-9149. Blouse and glasses, Larson’s own

Since January 2013, when Alaska native Dr. Michelle Larson became the first female president of the 85-year-old Adler Planetarium, she has endeavored to make it a more accessible place of scientific inquiry. She established “Hack Days” for teenagers and girls and launched a program that takes the Adler’s telescopes to public parks and libraries. The people are responding: This year saw the venue’s strongest January attendance in six years.

MAKING MY MARK: “I care very much about science for everyone. I will be very proud if, during my tenure, the Adler becomes your explore-the-universe stop.”

TACKLING A COMMON MISCONCEPTION: “One of the questions I get the most from students is, ‘Why did you become a scientist—don’t you just repeat stuff that we already know the answers to?’ The Adler helps people recognize that’s not at all what being a scientist is, that we are [discovering] unknown things.”

GREATEST ACCOMPLISHMENT: “There are a lot of institutions in our lives where we get answers to questions. I don’t think we need museums in this world to do more of that. We need museums to be that place that helps you feel comfortable on that undefined landscape that is true exploration. I feel very satisfied when I see people taking that journey.”

THE GENDER GAP: “Women are equally great at math, science, and engineering, but we are also good, as a gender, at communicating and building teams and finding different ways to look at a problem.”

FAVORITE THING TO SEE IN THE CHICAGO SKY: “The sun. If you look at it through a filtered telescope, you can see phenomenal things: sunspots, erupting flares, beautiful arches.”

A STRONG LEADER IS: “The one who enables others to do their very best.”

Jennifer Park

5 - 9 Women Who Are Changing Chicago
Belted dress, Victoria Beckham ($2,350). Neiman Marcus, 737 N. Michigan Ave., 312-642-5900. Earrings, Park’s own

“I believe architecture is about more than making buildings,” says Jennifer Park. “It can be a catalyst for social change.” To help bring about that change, Park, who until recently acted as Forum Studio’s principal, has ventured out on her own. In her new studio, the forward-thinking architect plans to pursue her passion for both socially mindful design and computationally produced patterns and textures. Last year, her versatile reception wall for Onward Coworking, a shared office space in the West Loop, won the American Institute of Architects Chicago’s Small Project Award. The 36-year-old’s portfolio also includes an upcoming multifamily residence for SOS Children’s Villages in Auburn Gresham. Park traces her love of architecture to her childhood: “I grew up doing a lot of art.” Her high school art teacher recognized Park’s skills in art but also with math and science, so he encouraged her to consider a field that combines those disciplines. Now she’s a mentor herself, teaching at IIT.

BEING ON THE CUTTING EDGE: “I’ve worked on projects that use parametric scripting. I use digital technology to create what looks very complex and make it efficient.”

FAVORITE BUILDING IN CHICAGO: “The Tribune building. I’m fascinated with that level of detail and ornamentation and craftsmanship. Those are the things I try to translate into a more contemporary fashion.”

A STRONG LEADER: “Knows who they are and what they want and how to articulate that to a variety of audiences.”

WHAT I HOPE MY LEGACY WILL BE: “I understand that my buildings won’t last forever. As long as what I’ve designed has a positive impact on people and the way they live and work and play, then I would be happy with that.”

Barbara Gaines

4 - 9 Women Who Are Changing Chicago
Basila cardigan, Escada ($1,575). 51 E. Oak St., 312-915-0500. 7.98-carat white pear-shape and round diamond half earrings and 16.02-carat white diamond leaf bracelet (both price on request),Graff. 103 E. Oak St., 312-604-1000. Top, pants, and shoes, Gaines’ own

In the mid-1980s, when Barbara Gaines told a local arts patron she was starting up a Shakespearean theater company, he laughed. “I was mocked,” Gaines, 68, recalls. “It never affected me in any way, strangely enough.” No one’s laughing at Gaines now. Over the past three decades, the Chicago Shakespeare Theater has become the city’s largest employer of local actors and one of the world’s most respected Shakespearean companies—winning a Regional Theatre Tony Award and 78 Joseph Jefferson Awards along the way. Yet the whole thing started as a sideline. Gaines was a Chicago actress (“I wanted to be a big Broadway star,” she says) when knee surgery forced her to stay off her feet and find another way to pay the rent. So she began teaching Shakespeare to actors, who performed in the company’s first production on the roof of Lincoln Park’s Red Lion Pub in 1986.

STRONGEST INFLUENCES: “First, my entire family because I was so loved and supported as a kid. Second, Shakespeare and Dr. Wallace Bacon. At Northwestern, I had Dr. Bacon, a great Shakespeare professor, senior year. We used to call his course ‘Shake and Bake.’ I was a lonely kid until I started reading Shakespeare, and I realized someone understood everything about me.”

BIGGEST CHALLENGE: “Trying to balance my personal artistic life with the needs of an artistic director.”

THE CHICAGO THEATER SCENE: “You can make something extraordinary happen, and you don’t need a million dollars to do it. It’s not easy, but if you have the will and you have talent, the city will crack open for you.”

DOWNTIME: “I haven’t had time off in over a year and a half. If I had three days right now, I would spend them working at my desk here at home. That, to me, is a vacation.”

Joanne C. Smith, MD

3 - 9 Women Who Are Changing Chicago
Dress, Akris Punto ($1,290). Saks Fifth Avenue, 700 N. Michigan Ave., 312-944-6500. Necklace with pearls, Blanshay ($595). LuLu’s on the Avenue, 900 North Michigan Shops, 312-888-9149. Beaded necklace, Smith’s own

With its world-renowned clinical care, the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC) has long been considered the finest in its field—earning the top spot in the U.S. News & World Report rankings every year for almost a quarter century. For Dr. Joanne C. Smith, however, being the best isn’t good enough. After getting tapped as RIC’s head in 2006, Smith successfully turned around the organization’s then financial troubles at breakneck speed. Now, Smith, 53, intends to turn around rehabilitation medicine itself. RIC’s new $550 million hospital in Streeterville, set to open in early 2017, will “redefine the field of rehabilitation medicine,” the Detroit native says, by taking clinical and research teams that traditionally have been siloed and bringing them together to provide patients with cutting-edge care.

MEASURING SUCCESS: “Our colleagues every year say we’re the best there is, but if even we can’t prove with a defined metric that we get a better outcome for patients, then who are we? We must prove with complete certainty that patients who are given care at RIC do, without question, get better outcomes.”

GREATEST ACCOMPLISHMENT: “Other than my family, this vision for RIC has taken off with all 2,000 members of the team in ways I never could have imagined.”

A STRONG LEADER IS: “Someone who has clarity of vision, who is doing everything ethically and legally possible to make the organization succeed.”

CHANGES IN THE INDUSTRY: “Right now we value cost more than quality in medicine. That is a perilous journey. Value has to include quality.”

WHAT I HOPE MY LEGACY WILL BE: “I don’t think about my legacy. I have too much work to do.”

Holly Hunt

2 - 9 Women Who Are Changing Chicago
Jacket, Tom Ford ($3,200). Neiman Marcus, 737 N. Michigan Ave., 312-642-5900. Top, Jason Wu ($2,595). Saks Fifth Avenue, 700 N. Michigan Ave., 312-944-6500. Pants and watch, Hunt’s own

“If I spend my time doing it,” Holly Hunt says of her eponymous home furnishings firm, “I want to do it the best.” The soaring standards that have driven Hunt for the past three decades have paid off, literally: Last year, the design firm Knoll doled out $95 million to buy Holly Hunt Enterprises Inc., where Hunt remains as CEO. While she likens that transition to the end of a marriage, it was an actual marital breakup that first led to the company’s formation. “I was getting a divorce, and I wanted a job. I needed something to do,” says Hunt, who hails from a small town in West Texas. In 1983, she bought a showroom in the Merchandise Mart and, a decade later, started creating her own high-end modern line. This year’s opening in Houston marks her brand’s 11th showroom.

THE BIG SALE: “When I started this business, I thought this tall, dark, handsome man would come around and rescue me. Suddenly this tall, handsome business came along and wanted to buy it.”

CHANGES IN THE INDUSTRY: “The days of being dragged around by an interior designer, listening to what they tell you, are over. Everybody wants to make decisions about what’s theirs.”

THE DOWNTURN’S IMPACT: “The best thing that happened to my company was the big recession. It made us clean up, get rid of the fat, look at it like a business.”

A STRONG LEADER IS: “One who cares about the success of others. You can’t be a strong leader if you don’t have followers, and you can’t have followers if you don’t care about them.”

ADVICE TO SOMEONE STARTING OUT: “Worry about the product. The money will come.”

GREATEST ACCOMPLISHMENT: “Making it through all these years on my own with three healthy sons—and taking a business [in debt for] a half-million dollars to selling it for a hundred million.”

Elizabeth Dozier

1 - 9 Women Who Are Changing Chicago
Jacket, Elie Tahari ($568). Saks Fifth Avenue, 700 N. Michigan Ave., 312-944-6500. Dress, Stella McCartney ($1,095). Saks Fifth Avenue, SEE ABOVE. Vintage necklace ($275). LuLu’s on the Avenue, 900 North Michigan Shops, 312-888-9149

Elizabeth Dozier’s mother, a lifelong educator, used to tell her, “Don’t become a teacher,” the 37-year-old principal of Fenger Academy High School recalls. “She said teachers don’t make any money.” But Dozier knew teachers could make a difference. Since becoming Fenger’s principal in 2009, the Eastern Illinois alum has implemented an array of educational and social services programs that helped boost the school’s graduation rate from 40 percent to more than 80 percent, with 93 percent of freshmen now on track to graduate. Yet, Dozier says, her roughly 300 students continue to face daunting challenges, from gangs to violence to poverty. Over half of them are homeless. Still, she remains positive: “I really believe that people can be empowered to do amazing things if given the resources, the time, and the help to build their talent.”

TURNING FENGER AROUND: “We know the students we are serving intimately. We know what’s going on in their lives and we get them connected to resources, making sure their basic needs and their social and emotional needs are met.”

CONFRONTING GANG MEMBERS: “Sometimes you just get pissed off. Like, ‘Everybody, just back up—this is not about to go down today.’ They might be involved in a gang, but I’m still their principal.”

A STRONG LEADER IS: “Pushing people beyond their limits. Pushing them to lead.”

STRONGEST INFLUENCES: “My faith. This work is really hard, really emotional, and you have to connect it to a higher purpose—the ethical obligation we all have to live our lives to our best potential and to help others who might be less fortunate. Also, my students inspire me.”

WHAT I WANT PEOPLE TO SAY WHEN I’M GONE: “Look at all these lives that are now on a totally different trajectory because of what she was able to do and inspire.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *