News & Politics

June 2006: The List of Powerful Women to Watch

To be successful, a lot has to fall into place: brains, drive, personality, and a little luck. These ten women have all those things and more—and they haven’t reached 40 yet. From the president of an IT company to a circus producer, they cover a lot of gr

Washington’s rookie team of power players is already rich with accomplishments. From left, Meisha Bosma, Ilana Goldman, Cydni Bickerstaff, Nicole Feld, Carrie-Ann Barrow, Jumoke Akinnagbe, Jessica Yellin, Aleta Margolis, and Alyse Nelson Bloom, pictured here at the Willard InterContinental Hotel.

Meghan O’Sullivan, who spent more than a year in Iraq, now has one of the most critical jobs in the Bush White House.

Photograph by Matthew Worden

Jumoke Akinnagbe

Helping people get a good night’s sleep

When Jumoke Akinnagbe arrived in the United States 24 years ago from Nigeria, she spoke only her family’s tribal language. While attending Bethesda–Chevy Chase High School, kids weren’t always nice. “People used to ask, ‘Did you swing from trees?’ ” she says.

After graduating from the University of Maryland with a degree in neurobiology and physiology, she worked for a neurologist who specialized in sleep disorders and became fascinated by the field.

Akinnagbe always knew she’d start her own business, and after starting the master’s program in health administration at Georgetown University, she went forward with her plan. The 32-year-old is the founder and president of the Rest Assured Sleep Center, one of the area’s few independent sleep labs. She now has locations in Gambrills and Annapolis.

Akinnagbe has a staff of 13, including doctors, and has treated more than 800 patients. The center diagnoses disorders ranging from insomnia to sleep apnea.

While a good night’s sleep is one of her clients’ big concerns, Akinnagbe has had to give up some sleep herself to reach her goal. “The difference between a person who is successful and someone who isn’t,” she says, “is that the person who is successful is willing to give up every luxury to reach their dream.”

Even the luxury of sleep. “I’ll give it up,” she says. “The American dream comes at a cost.”

Carrie-Ann Barrow

“It was really scary”

Carrie-Ann Barrow, 33, is founder and president of DBTS, a District company that provides IT staffing and consulting to government and business.

The DC government hired DBTS employees to develop, test, and implement its Web site, In 2003, the Center for Digital Government named DC’s site the nation’s top city portal. Barrow’s company also does work for the DC mayor’s office and has done environmental consulting for the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.

After earning a degree in psychology from Salisbury State University, Barrow became a contract specialist for the Navy, then took a job on Wall Street. After working as a help-desk technician, she decided to create her own company in 2000. She now has 55 employees.

Barrow admits starting her own business was a big step. “It was really scary,” she says. “But I don’t really look at things, I just do them.”

She is now the mother of three children, ages six, five, and two, and mentors women who are budding entrepreneurs. “I tell them to network with other women in their industries,” she says. “And be prepared to work more than you’ve ever worked before.”

Cydni Bickerstaff

Learning to play and win

The daughter of NBA coach Bernie Bickerstaff, Cydni Bickerstaff, 37, spent her childhood in Columbia surrounded by sports. She played basketball, volleyball, and soccer and ran track. She was also a budding entrepreneur, running lemonade stands and working at her basketball camps. She hoped to combine those two passions. And after graduating from Hampton University and getting an MBA from Florida A&M, she did.

Bickerstaff started her DC-based sports-marketing and event-management company, Bickerstaff Sports & Entertainment, in 2001. Bickerstaff and her team plan and execute large events, from hiring to marketing, and represent professional basketball players, male and female, as well as baseball and football players.

BSE has grown to include ten employees, with offices in Atlanta, Dallas, and New Orleans. The biggest event the company plans is the State Farm Bayou Classic college football game. It has also done work for the Capital Jazz Fest, the NBA’s All-Star Weekend, and the Washington, DC Hall of Fame.

Being a woman in a male-dominated industry isn’t easy, she says, but Bickerstaff has worked hard for her success. She often advises her interns to volunteer for the companies they want to work for and make themselves indispensable.

“The key to anything is just networking,” she says. “You always have to stay out in front.”

Alyse Nelson Bloom

Giving women a kind of bulletproof vest

While a student at Boston’s Emerson College in 1995, Alyse Nelson Bloom heard about the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, where 50,000 people would meet. Bloom saved up and made the trip to China. After hearing then–First Lady Hillary Clinton speak about the injustices faced by women, Bloom knew what her life’s passion would be—helping women worldwide.

After college graduation, she interned for the President’s Interagency Council on Women. Later, after moving to a position in the State Department, she helped start Vital Voices, an organization dedicated to empowering women economically, politically, and socially. The bipartisan organization began as a series of conferences organized by the government and grew into its own nonprofit. Bloom, 32, became the organization’s first employee in 2000.

She travels the world identifying and coaching female community leaders and brings some to Washington for training sessions and conferences. Often, these sessions with government leaders give women legitimacy in communities where they might be persecuted for running for office or starting a business. Bloom recalls a woman from Guatemala telling her, “This picture with Hillary Clinton is my bulletproof vest.”

Bloom gains strength from the women leaders she meets and believes strongly in the Vital Voices message. “The smartest investment countries can make is to educate their girls and young women,” she says.

Meisha Bosma

Making life’s awkward moments beautiful

Growing up in Michigan, Meisha Bosma saw dance as a hobby. She majored in journalism in college and seemed destined to work in broadcasting. But after enjoying more time in the dance studio, Bosma, 32, realized where her heart was.

“It was the first time that I started thinking about myself not only as a dancer but as a choreographer,” she says. “The time that I spent in the dance studio working and creating was the time I felt most like myself.”

She received her master’s in dance and education from American University and set out to create her own company. After dancing in Israel, she returned to the United States in 2001 and started BosmaDance, a contemporary dance-theater company. She started out with four dancers and no rehearsal space.

Five years later, she has 11 dancers and an artistic team including costume and lighting designers and is closer to finding her own space in Northern Virginia. The company won six Metro DC Dance awards and gets financial support from the Alexandria Performing Arts Association and the American Dance Institute. The company has appeared at the Kennedy Center and Dance Place.

“Meisha Bosma is not afraid to let her dancers weep, laugh, gag, twitch or wriggle in decidedly unattractive ways,” a Washington Post critic wrote last year. But Bosma has a way of making life’s awkward moments beautiful through modern dance.

“Winning awards and gaining recognition is very flattering,” she says. “But that’s not the reason why I create my work. . . . I love that people feel something by it and that it makes an imprint on someone’s emotions.”

Nicole Feld

“You love it even on the bad days”

Nicole Feld’s life is the stuff of fantasy. She spends days traveling the world and nights at the circus. For Nicole, coproducer of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, it’s a job she’s spent a lifetime preparing for.

Feld’s father, Kenneth, is producer of the circus, and for a time, it didn’t seem like Nicole, the eldest of three Feld daughters, would follow his path. She attended New York University and wanted to work as a photo editor at a magazine. After a year at People, Nicole, now 28, realized that something wasn’t right. “I missed my circus life,” she says. “I thought, ‘What am I doing? I have this great opportunity that, besides me and my two sisters, no one else has.’ ”

Nicole returned to DC in 2001 and now goes around the world looking for new talent. She’s met all kinds of acts, from a man in Germany who can regurgitate goldfish to acrobats in rural Chinese villages.

When she’s home, she helps keep the show young and fresh. A new version of the circus, called Circus of Dreams, has a story line, a big video screen, and an open stage instead of the traditional three rings.

Feld likes to sit in the audience to get feedback from viewers. She’s been to the circus hundreds of times but is never bored. “It’s exciting every day to do what I love,” she says. “My father always tells me, ‘You know you love what you do if you love it even on the bad days.’ ”

Ilana Goldman

From county sheriffs to US senators

At five-foot-one, Ilana Goldman is often mistaken for an intern. But the 31-year-old is the new president of the Women’s Campaign Forum, an organization that’s been around almost as long as she has. A bipartisan organization that focuses on supporting pro-choice female candidates, WCF is going through a restructuring with Goldman at the helm. It has just broken into three parts: a membership nonprofit, an educational foundation, and a political action committee.

Goldman graduated from Boston University in 1995 with an offer from Georgetown law school. At the last minute, she took an internship with the United Nations, and then worked on congressional campaigns, including that of New York Democrat Carolyn Maloney. She later got her MBA and a master’s in government from Harvard, then worked for an education nonprofit.

Goldman encourages women to donate to the campaigns of female candidates and to get involved in politics. She is also working to inspire more women to run for office. Candidates who register with WCF must refer the organization to three other women in their community who they think should run for office.

From county sheriffs to US senators, more and more women are being elected with help from the fund. “It’s such a turning point for women,” Goldman says. “I’m just inspired every day.”

Aleta Margolis

She says school shouldn’t be boring

A third-generation Washingtonian, Aleta Margolis always knew she wanted to make a difference here. After graduating from Brown University, getting her master’s from Northwestern, and teaching in Illinois schools, Margolis returned to her hometown to teach education at American University. While teaching teachers, she noticed that educators had accepted the notion that school was boring to a lot of kids.

“It was really upsetting to hear teachers saying ‘School’s not supposed to be interesting,’ ” she says.

That led Margolis, now 39, to start the Center for Inspired Teaching, a nonprofit that organizes seminars for area public-school teachers to show them creative and meaningful ways to teach. Instead of being taught math with textbooks and chalkboards, students might create their own business to learn about money or use cardboard cutouts to learn the Pythagorean theorem.

Inspired Teaching has trained almost 5,000 area teachers over the past 11 years—and that number is quickly rising. In 2001, Margolis won an Ashoka Fellowship, an award given to social entrepreneurs with unique causes. Her ultimate goals, she says, are for her brand of teaching to be used in schools around the country and for students of inspired teachers to have a new perspective on learning.

“I’ve never worked so hard,” one teacher told Margolis. “But I’ve never liked school this much.”

Meghan O’Sullivan

Contributing to this moment of history

Even as a child growing up in Lexington, Massachusetts, Meghan O’Sullivan was always a risk taker.

“I was always sort of drawn to the unknown,” she says. “My parents would say I had a sense of adventure that wasn’t necessarily characteristic of my family.”

At 36, O’Sullivan is now deputy national-security adviser for Iraq and Afghanistan, providing both the President and the national-security adviser information and analysis on what’s happening and developing policy proposals. It’s a natural position for a person who’s spent much of her life learning about other cultures.

After graduating from Georgetown University, O’Sullivan traveled to Indonesia on a Henry Luce Fellowship. She spent a year there learning about Islam and working for an Indonesian development agency.

She then worked for the late Democratic senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, doing foreign-policy work on ethnic conflicts. After that, O’Sullivan received her master’s and doctorate from Oxford, with a thesis on ethnic conflict in south Asia, then came back to Washington to work for the Brookings Institution.

After September 11, convinced her expertise in ethnic conflicts could help the administration, she went to work for the director of policy planning at the State Department.

In 2003, O’Sullivan traveled to Iraq with General Jay Garner, at the time the head of the reconstruction and humanitarian effort, becoming one of the first civilians to enter that country after the invasion. “The desire of Iraqis to build something better was so evident,” she says. “In my own small way, I felt like I was contributing to something that could change the course of history.”

She worked in Baghdad as part of the Coalition Provisional Authority for more than a year as an adviser to Garner and his successor, L. Paul Bremer. Upon her return, she was named senior director of strategic planning and Southwest Asia, a portfolio that included Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

O’Sullivan says the most exciting part of her job was watching the Iraqi elections of January 2005. While she doesn’t know her future, she’s amazed at how far she’s come. “I want to keep being able to contribute to this moment in history that I think will last several years,” she says.

Jessica Yellin

It was “an out-of-body experience”

She interviews fishermen in Maine and covers the Michael Jackson trial and meets the President on Air Force One—an “out-of-body experience.” Jessica Yellin rarely has a boring day at the office. The Californian worked her way from Harvard political-science and women’s-studies major to local news reporter in Orlando to her current job as White House correspondent for ABC News.

She appreciates the importance of her job. “There are only so many seats in the briefing room,” she says. “You have a responsibility to question your president. I’m a little bit corny about that, but I take it very seriously.”

Before being named to her current position in February 2005, Yellin, 35, had worked as a correspondent for ABC News and overnight anchor for MSNBC. She started her broadcast career at Central Florida News 13, a position she got as a result of her hairstylist’s connections.

But before that lucky break, she had been turned down for jobs repeatedly, sometimes because of inexperience, sometimes for reasons like the color of her hair.

A recent highlight for Yellin was an impromptu interview with President Bush on Air Force One about the controversial deal that would have allowed a Dubai company to operate US ports. She’s traveled all over the world with the President and learned a lot along the way.

“Don’t listen to anyone who tells you no,” she says. “I’ve been discouraged by so many people along the way. Focus on what you want, and you can do it.”