By Marianne E. Weaver | Photos by Kathy Strauss
When Prince William Living launched its first Influential Women Awards two years ago, we quickly realized that this topic resonated with readers. Entries poured in, and the issue announcing the inaugural winners was one of our most-read to date. Choosing just five women from the numerous impressive entries received was no easy task for the previous winners and magazine staff. Many women in Greater Prince William give of themselves to strengthen our community, leaving their marks on the business world and serving as inspirations to others. However, a few rose to the top: Bryanna Altman, Kathy Bentz, Diana Paguaga, Marlo Thomas Watson and Ramunda Lark Young. Although each brings different gifts and talents to the table, they all share one common trait. Their passion lies in using their connections to create and cultivate new relationships. They all give back to their communities, but are quick to brush off the accolades and pass on the credit to friends, co-workers and colleagues. Congratulations to these Influential Women!
Social Media Maven: Bryanna Altman
Bryanna Altman and her husband moved from Florida to Prince William in February 1993 just in time to experience the March blizzard of 1993, which dumped more than a foot of snow on the region. Despite the frosty welcome, the Altman’s decided to make Prince William their home.
“We chose an apartment in Lakeridge, so when it was time to buy a home, we bought one within a mile of the apartment,” she said. “My husband was a military kid and moved around a lot. This is the longest he’s ever lived anywhere. This is his home, and this is my home too.”
Altman has spent more than 20 years making Prince William not just a home for her family, but an appealing destination point for families throughout Northern Virginia. Today, she is not only the president and CEO of the company she founded in 1999, The Computer Doctor, but she also has maintained positions on numerous boards, including president of the Prince William Public Library System Foundation and Occoquan River Communities (ORC), where she is the immediate past president of the board of directors; and committee chair of the ORC Public Art Project as well as the ORC WinterFest and the Lake Ridge Santa Parade committees. She is also the founding member and president of the Occoquan Lake Ridge Civic Association and a convention and visitors bureau task force representative for the Prince William Visitors Center.
“Bryanna was raised where the importance of community and giving back was stressed,” said Gayle Whitlock, operations manager at Whitlock Wealth Management and a board member of the Prince William Chamber of Commerce, who nominated Altman for this award. “She is thankful for her success and desires to leave the world a better place.
“It gives her great joy to connect people and facilitate building friendships,” Whitlock continued. “She is a planner and a realist, but also positive and optimistic—looking for the best in every person and opportunity. This helps her to put teams together that utilize each person’s talent, strength and interests, which helps to make each venture not just successful, but fun as well.”
An IT professional by trade, Altman most recently created an online networking group for local women, The Real Housewives of Prince William County, which has nearly 900 members. Members are approved to participate in the closed Facebook group, but often take their meetings offline.
“If you don’t have kids in the public school system, it can be difficult to find opportunities to feel safe and comfortable meeting other women and making friendships,” Altman said. “I had a lot of acquaintances, but this helped me transition acquaintances into friendships. It is a wonderful referral network and a way to bring people together in the community. It has been a life-changing experience.”
Connector: Kathy Bentz
Kathy Bentz left Capitol Hill for a job with Prince William County in 1989 and hasn’t looked back since.
Bentz has lived and served the region for more than 20 years. She held the job of communications director for Prince William County government and founded Bentz Communications, a consulting firm that worked with a variety of clients, including the Prince William County Arts Council, Americans in Wartime Museum and Greater Prince William Community Health Center. While running this business, she learned about Leadership Prince William, a private, nonprofit 501(c) (3) organization that trains emerging community leaders for leadership positions in business, local government and community affairs.
“In 2010, I was in business for myself and became familiar with the program and the people who went through the first classes,” she said, adding that she quickly applied to the 10-month program. “I had a fantastic experience and made lifelong friends. We have almost 300 alumni.”
Today, she is the executive director of Leadership Prince William. “I went through the class, served on the board and then got hired,” she said. “When this opportunity came up, I thought it was a way to have an impact on the community. I went for it and was lucky they hired me. For me, it was a perfect fit.”
Although it’s a perfect fit, Bentz isn’t comfortable taking credit. “For years I was the county communications director, and in that position, you never want to be the story,” she said.
Others, however, are quick to give her credit, including Mark Shaaber, Leadership Prince William board of regents chair, who nominated Bentz. “Kathy Bentz not only serves the community, but has always spent time encouraging and inspiring others to serve the community,” he said. “She offers opportunities for new people to enter the job market as interns and opportunities to successful CEOs and business owners to engage in a way that suits their business interests. She also supports and connects everyone in between because of her in-depth working knowledge of Greater Prince William.”
Bentz said she learned the true meaning of leadership through the Leadership Prince William program.
“Real leadership is coming out of our program, taking what you gain and giving back to our community,” she said. “I love when our graduates spread their wings and fly and have a greater impact in the community.”
Advocate: Diana Paguaga
Born and raised in Nicaragua, Diana Paguaga came to the United States in 1987 as a Fulbright Scholar in American University’s development banking program. With MBA in hand, she returned home. “But the political situation was bad,” she said “The communists took over, so I left.”
She returned to Northern Virginia, looking for affordable housing and good schools for her children, then four and six years old. Her realtor suggested Lakeridge or Reston.
“Lakeridge was popular because the houses were new and cheap and the schools were good,” she recalled. She bought a home and raised her family while finding a calling in helping others do the same.
For more than a decade, Paguaga was a realtor, who helped many clients purchase their first homes. According to USAFR/USA Maj. (Ret.) Angela McConnell, president and CEO of NOVA Veterans Association, Paguaga helped more than 100 first-time Hispanic home buyers achieve the American Dream of home ownership.
Paguaga has moved from selling homes to selling security as an independent insurance agent. “Because she treated all of her buyers with dignity and respect, they continue to reward her to this day with countless referrals,” said McConnell, who nominated Paguaga. She added that referalls are not just for real estate, but also for healthcare insurance, especially Medicare. McConnell said Paguaga often refers to her business as her “Medicare ministry,” treating clients as she would want her own mother to be treated. “I like to talk to people,” Paguaga said. “I always try to help people. If you help someone, other people help you.”
Through her “ministry,” Paguaga discovered that many clients could not speak English. She said she met many women from Afghanistan, who took their children and fled from their husbands. “They want to learn English, so they can talk to teachers and function as better parents,” she said. She also met many clients from Central America who want to learn English. To help them, Paguaga refers them to the Beacon for Adult Literacy in Bristow.
However, her involvement doesn’t end with the referral. Paguaga sits on Beacon’s board. She is also the chairperson of the Hispanic Council Prince William Chamber of Commerce and the Hispanic liaison at the NOVA Veterans Association as well as the vice chair of the Salvation Army advisory committee and an active member of the local branch of Zonta International, which aims to improve the legal, political, economic, educational, health and professional status of women globally and locally through service and advocacy.
Master of Re-invention: Marlo Thomas Watson
All was well for Marlo Thomas Watson and her family in 2010. She had a great career, her husband was settled in his career, and her daughter was well on her way to her dream college.
“But then the bottom fell out,” Watson said. Within three months, her family had moved out of state—closer to her daughter’s first-pick college—and back. “Before moving, I had this great career as a staffing specialist, and my colleagues told me not to leave,” she recalled. “I was too embarrassed to go crawling to get my job back.”
As if that wasn’t enough to handle, her daughter was getting bullied. Although she resisted the urge to swoop in and protect her, Watson said she started substitute teaching. Her presence in school, she said, gave her daughter confidence.
“She graduated in 2013 with a 4.55 GPA. The sacrifice was worth it, but I realized I had to go back to work,” she said, adding that she came across an opening for a community relations coordinator for the Prince William County Service Authority. “The job was to educate people about water and water reclamation. I had done some teaching, and I have always been a community advocate,” Watson said.
She was hired, and today is the PWCSA community relations manager. “Marlo taught more than 2,000 elementary and middle school youth about drinking water treatment and water reclamation,” said Ramunda Lark Young, nominator and community relations specialist for Northern Virginia Community College. “In addition to classroom education, she also participated in several community outreach events where she engaged more than 8,000 members of the community.”
Her community involvement doesn’t end with the PWCSA. Watson was elected vice president of the Prince William County Committee of 100 where she had previously served as the secretary. She sits on the executive committee of Keep Prince William Beautiful where she has served as fundraising chairperson and transition committee chair. Watson also serves as a relationship manager for Human Resource Leadership Awards (HRLA) of Greater DC and the Protect Your Pipes subcommittee chair for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments Community Engagement Committee. She also serves on the American Water Works Association (AWWA) water awareness and outreach committee.
“I have witnessed her passion to create positive impact within the community,” Young said. “She has a very outgoing personality, but actually prefers to operate behind the scenes.”Watson agreed, “I like to be behind the scenes to get it done. There is a thrill for me knowing when I had a miniscule part in [accomplishing] a great thing.”
Champion for Literacy: Ramunda Lark Young
According to Ramunda Lark Young, community relations specialist for Northern Virginia Community College, one meeting—just one encounter— can change the trajectory of one’s life.
“For me, it was the Virginia Leadership Institute in 2014,” she said. “I want to be the creator of those encounters.” That belief guided her in founding two businesses: Ramunda Lark Young Inc. and MahoganyBooks.
“Ramunda’s love and passion for marginalized populations is evident in her work,” said Marlo Thomas Watson, who nominated Young. “The businesses that she built are all centered on helping to bring others up.”
According to Ramunda Young Inc.’s website, founded in August 2013, the company’s mission is to create innovative events that uncover the gifts and success potential of women by impacting four critical pillars of their lives: relationships, health, finance and purpose. MahoganyBooks, founded in 2007 by Ramunda and her husband Derrick, is an online bookstore that sells books written for, by or about people of the African Diaspora.
With a combined 20 years in the retail book industry, the Young’s noticed shifts in the industry around 2003. “A lot of books stores were closing, and African-Americans didn’t have access to books,” she said. “With MahoganyBooks, anyone in the world who does not have access to books in their communities can order. African-American books are still being read, and people have access them even if they don’t have a bookstore in their neighborhood.”
Here in Prince William, Watson said the Youngs have partnered with the county’s Boys & Girls Club to host community-wide book drives, benefitting local libraries, including a more than 300-book donation to Chinn Library.
“She has spearheaded three years of the National Young Readers day events at two local elementary schools,” said Watson. “Close to 2,000 students enjoyed a fun day of reading due to the teams she’s assembled.”
Young also sits on the board of Reading Is Fundamental’s RIFofNOVA and PWC Chamber of Commerce where she is the vice chair of the education and innovation committee, the Leadership Prince William board of regents, where she is the chair of alumni engagement; the Manassas City Education Foundation, where she is co-chair of the marketing committee and the Bell Foundation, where she is a trustee. She is also a commissioner for the Prince William County human rights commission.
“My job is to be an advocate for my community,” said Young. “I want my daughter to see the example that it is better to give than to receive. I want to leave this earth knowing that I left a legacy, and I did good.”
The full list of nominees can be found at princewilliamliving.com/2016/01/2016-influential-womensaward-nominees-announced.
Marianne Weaver ([email protected]) is a freelance editor and writer. She earned a BA in English from the University of Pittsburgh and an MJ from Temple University. She lives in Gainesville, Va., with her husband and two children.