By Rena Malai | Photos by Rob Jinks
When Prince William Living launched its first Influential Women Awards seven 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.
As in years past, choosing just a few women from the impressive entries was no easy task for our judges, all past winners themselves.
Although Prince William is home to many women who give their time and talent to improving their neighborhoods, schools and communities, these four women stand out from the crowd and serve as an inspiration to others: Debbie Jones, Dr. Sabrina Ricks, Joyce Connery, and Adelle Settle.
Debbie Jones, Prince William Chamber of Commerce President/CEO
It is said that challenges make people stronger and prepare them to handle a variety of situations. With a career spanning over 30 years, Debbie Jones, Prince William Chamber of Commerce President and CEO, is no exception.
“Debbie is the survivor of not one, but two bouts with cancer, and a number of financial crises; all of which prepared her to be a true leader,” said Ross Snare, Senior Director of Operations and Government Affairs, Prince William Chamber of Commerce. “Her resolve to overcome challenges is a part of who she is.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Jones turned the Prince William Chamber of Commerce into a leading resource of information for the entire Prince William region and beyond. Jones re-evaluated all of the Chamber’s operations, making key decisions on what was able to be accomplished and serve membership in the best way possible.
“She empathized with our struggling businesses, and instead of pushing aside those not able to pay their dues, payment plans were put into place so members could continue to access the vital resources needed to stay open,” Snare said. “She then took the step to open the consolidated resource page to the entire community, so that ALL businesses, not just the membership, could access information.”
Local businesses are a crucial backbone of any community. Jones takes this to heart and has tirelessly advocated for regional businesses from the very start of the pandemic. She has led her staff’s efforts in working with governments across the federal, state and local levels to find ways to alleviate the impact on
businesses through legislative solutions.
Jones also led efforts to tackle the need for food and supplies for Prince William residents impacted by the pandemic. When presented a matching grant challenge by Chamber member Allan Myers, she spearheaded initiatives to raise money for Action in Community Through Service and Northern Virginia Family Service, to help families in need secure food. This resulted in $80,000 raised, meaning an immeasurable amount of families getting the help they needed.
“We all have benefited from Debbie’s valuable 30 years of leadership on how to think outside the box and work hard in order to continue to stay on top,” Snare said. “She has been a true mentor for me over the years, guiding and teaching me along the way to make me a better and more engaging leader.”
Dr. Sabrina Brandon Ricks, President of SBR Workplace Leadership Services
When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. For Dr. Sabrina Brandon Ricks, this meant turning her experiences of being bullied at work into SBR Workplace Leadership Services. This full-fledged business in Prince William helps guide companies to prevent, deter and eliminate issues regarding workplace bullying. Ricks also offers leadership and management training for the most effective workplace practices.
“SBR Workplace Leadership Services is celebrating five years in existence (since December 2015),” Ricks said. “Despite the challenges due to the (COVID-19) pandemic, we’ve shifted the organization to virtual and began to offer sessions and trainings via video conference.”
This is just the tip of the iceberg for Ricks. She serves as an adjunct professor for Northern Virginia Community College, where she teaches about business and public service and student development. She also serves as a part of the COVID-19 Response Team with the Prince William County Community Foundation, serving as the Executive Director and on the front lines while distributing food to nearly 40 school sites.
Additionally, Ricks is approaching her 10-year anniversary as a member of the Occoquan-Woodbridge-Lorton Volunteer Fire Department where she is serving in her fifth year as the department election officer. She also teaches fire history and safety as well as harassment, bullying and hazing prevention classes. Ricks serves on the International Fire Chief’s Association Workplace Bullying and Violence Taskforce to create classes to prevent workplace bullying.
“I greatly enjoy serving the community and the department by teaching, training and encouraging,” she said.
Ricks likes to push beyond limits, whether they’re personal or professional. She was diagnosed with hearing loss 10 years ago, and was prompted to wear hearing aids. In 2020, she was told her hearing had declined and she would now qualify as a cochlear implant candidate. Despite the setback and her hectic schedule — which includes being a wife and stepmother — Ricks is deeply committed to helping others and making the community a better place. “I will fight until the end to positively impact the world as much as possible while I can,” she said.
Joyce Connery, Chair of the Defense Nuclear Facility Safety Board
Joyce Connery, Chair of the Defense Nuclear Facility Safety Board, is like a pin (in a good way), according to Kristina Nohe. “Sometimes there is a pin in a machine that holds the whole thing together. Joyce is the kind of person who serves as that pin,” Nohe said. “For her, it is about the result and not about getting glory for herself.”
Connery has an extensive career in the fields of nuclear security, safety, nonproliferation and energy policy. She served in Kazakhstan, working on the shutdown of the BN-350 fast breeder reactor before returning to Washington, D.C. She has served under two U.S. presidents, worked in the Office of International Safety in the National Nuclear Security Administration and held positions across the Department of Energy and the National Security Council.
Today, Connery is a breast cancer survivor and an active fundraiser for medical research. Her efforts have included raising hundreds of thousands of dollars in support of the Susan G. Komen Walk for Breast Cancer.
“I learned that when I got my cancer diagnosis, so did my community,” Connery said. “And I know each of you has been touched by this disease — whether through me or your mother or your sister, friends, daughter, brother … it doesn’t discriminate. But we can still fight back.”
Connery also serves as a member of the Strategic Planning Committee for Prince William County and is on the Executive Board of the Hylton Performing Arts Center. She is an advocate for LGBTQ+ issues and people with special needs and believes strongly in the power of voting, often registering new voters at community events.
“At a Black Lives Matter event in Dumfries, I watched as she welcomed many new, young voters so that they could help make their voices heard in November,” Nohe said.
Connery stays active in engaging the community by organizing open discussions through a group called Potluck and Policy. Speakers are invited from a wide variety of backgrounds, areas of expertise and perspectives. Topics of discussion have ranged from foster care to the challenges veterans can face.
“She uses her influence to get results. That is the benchmark for what separates a truly influential woman from a pretender,” Nohe said. “She has been the cheerleader on many people’s sideline, but it is time for her to be the main attraction.”
Adelle Settle, Settle the Debt
Adelle Settle has worked tirelessly to help make sure that the overwhelming school lunch debt in Prince William County Schools is paid off. She runs and oversees the Settle the Debt Facebook page, to spread awareness and help kids get the nutrition they need.
Her efforts have gone even further during the COVID-19 pandemic, as she’s gone above and beyond to ensure families know how to access food during a very insecure time. She has also directed $25,000 to the Prince William Food Rescue, to help bridge their funding gaps and keep food distributions going for local families hit hardest during this pandemic.
Settle said, “My biggest concern right now is ensuring that our community has enough to eat. I am working as hard as I can to make sure families know where to go for extra food if they need it and raising money to contribute to those food distributions.”
Settle began her campaign to raise money to pay down school meal debt and end lunch shaming in 2017. Since then, she has successfully advocated for better school nutrition laws in Virginia and raised almost $200,000 for school meal debts and community food donations. She works to support Prince William County School’s food and nutrition staff — as well as churches and nonprofits — to help keep kids and families fed and school employees working.
Rena Malai is a journalist and freelance writer. She has covered a variety of topics from technology and policy, to food and lifestyle. She lives in Prince William County and is a native Washingtonian.