Unstoppable Eastside Women

Imagine what kind of world it would be if everyone took a look around and identified something they could improve, contribute to, or create. And then they did. We met eight women with strong Eastside roots who are working to make things better here at home, and around the world. These women, each with her own goals and challenges, have one major commonality within their missions — a clear focus on the greater good.

By Lauren Foster, Karen Miller, Joanna Kresge, Margo Greenman, and Natalie DeFord


20161215_womentowatch_0045_extendedJeanette Woldseth

Jeanette Woldseth, 63, is a big proponent of Obliteride, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center fundraiser. That’s because for her, it’s personal.

In 2010, Woldseth found out she had stage II breast cancer and went through treatment for two years. Then, in 2013, the cancer came back, and this time it has no cure — stage IV metastatic breast cancer.

“When you (are diagnosed), you’re kind of quiet. You don’t want to tell anybody about it. But I’ve had to open up, especially about asking people for money. I have to share,” she said.

One of the ways she opens up about her diagnoses is by sharing her story to raise money as part of Obliteride.

Obliteride is a weekend-long biking event that raises money for cancer research. Even those who are not able to ride can raise money as a “virtual rider.” Since its inception five years ago, Obliteride has raised more than $9 million. All the money goes to Fred Hutch.

“The fact that all the money is going to research — it’s not going to administration or PR or anything else; it goes straight to the lab — is important to me,” Woldseth said. “You know, I actually have hope that they’ll find a cure for my cancer.”

Over her four years of riding, Woldseth has raised almost $40,000 for Obliteride — $38,807, to be exact. She’s grateful for the friends and acquaintances who every year donate to her ride.

In her first year, she rode 25 miles, and for the last three years she’s biked 50.

“I am a little on the slow side, but that’s OK. It’s more about raising money than riding a bike,” she said.

The bike usually comes out in the spring; Woldseth is a weather-conscious rider. She rides around the Eastside to train, mainly on Sammamish Valley Trail, the Burke-Gilman Trail, or around Mercer Island.

She’s a tried and true Eastsider, having lived here since she was only a year old. Today, she lives in Kirkland. Woldseth had a long career as a firefighter for the Bellevue Fire Department. She retired in 2002 as a captain. She was the third person in her family to work as a firefighter — her grandfather was a captain in the Seattle Fire Department, and her father was a Bellevue Fire Department volunteer.

Woldseth herself started as a volunteer before coming on full-time in the 1970s. She was the first woman to be a Bellevue firefighter.

“It was not very common in the 1970s for women to be firefighters,” she said.

After years of fighting fires, now she’s fighting a battle against cancer.

“I really think it’s important to have hope. If I’m being on my realistic side, it probably is not going to happen in my lifetime,” Woldseth said. “But on my hope side, I hope it’ll happen. I mean, I’m living a pretty good life for having metastatic breast cancer for three and a half years.

“That’s kind of what keeps me going … I choose to stay on the hope side.”

This year’s Obliteride weekend will be Aug. 11-13; Woldseth plans on being there. — Karen Miller

“I choose to stay on the hope side.” – Jeanette Woldseth


20161219_womentowatch_198_editTsion Afman

About eight years ago, Tsion “CeCe” Afman was living in an Ethiopian orphanage. She was 10 years old, both her parents had died, and she could hardly speak English. Today, she’s a University of Washington student who hopes to teach sex education after seeing the effects AIDS had on the people from her birth country.

Afman completed her first year of college credits as a student at Newport High School in Bellevue through the Running Start program. Her passion for HIV/AIDS education earned her a Pedro Zamora Young Leaders Scholarship in 2016. But more broadly, she’s interested in spreading kindness — a quality she sees in the people who have shaped her life for the better.

“My life motto is to always be kind,” she said. “If you see an old person on the train standing, get up and give them your seat. Just little things like that. Just be kind, because you don’t know what anyone’s story is.”

With her big smile and infectious energy, most strangers would never guess the tragedies in Afman’s story. She lost her mother before she was old enough to know her. As a child her father was her best friend.

“Right when I would come home (from school), I would do my homework — this is very vivid in my memory — and I would do homework so I could play with him outside,” she said.

On holidays, her dad would make sure she had new clothes and shoes to wear. He’d play cards with his friends and have her sneak around to look at the hands they were dealt. When she was 7, he died of tuberculosis. Devastated, Afman went to live with her aunt, who later put her in an orphanage, hoping she would get adopted and move to a western country. For a kid who had recently lost her father, it was a difficult concept to understand.

“Why would my aunt do this to me?” she remembers thinking.

But eventually, she understood that her aunt just wanted the best for her — an opportunity to get a good education and see the world. In 2008, a Bellevue family adopted her. She was scared, and unprepared for what life in America would be like.

“(It was a) huge culture shock. Like, oh my gosh. I can’t explain it to you. The food. I still don’t like cheese. I still don’t like pizza,” she said.

At school, she enrolled in an English Language Learners program. In about a year, she was speaking English easily. She joined several clubs and tried every sport she could — that’s how she made friends.

She also got involved with AIDS Student Peer Educators (ASPEN). She’d travel to different Eastside high schools to teach her peers about sex education. HIV/AIDS is a subject she has a unique perspective on.

“It’s important to me because back home I could see the effect (the disease) had on people. Especially in Ethiopia, because there’s not as much education or materials,” she said.

Her hope is to go back to Ethiopia and teach sex education. She saved all her lesson plans from ASPEN so she can translate them into the country’s language. In the meantime, she’s focused on school so she can study abroad and travel to people around the globe in need of help.

“Volunteering and helping other people is what makes me happy,” she said. “I mean what is life if you can’t give back?” — Lauren Foster

“Volunteering and helping other people is what makes me happy.”–Tsion Afman


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Photo courtesy Kole Krieger

Kate Deines

Not many women have retired from a career in professional soccer, completed their master’s degree, and scored a career at a top investment firm before turning 30.

Issaquah High School grad Kate Deines did all of that. Today, she is about empowering others through soccer, as well as her newest passion, finance.

The former Seattle Reign FC player retired from soccer and switched gears to complete her master’s of science in finance degree at Pacific Lutheran University in 2016.

During the 10-month accelerated program, she worked part-time for Criterion Institute and its focus on Gender Lens Investing, which Deines centered her master’s thesis around — mentoring wise investments to empower women and adolescent girls.

Deines said there’s a great need to empower women within business, an industry largely dominated by men. “Working to help make key investments in women is very important to me,” she said.

She recently landed a job at Arnerich Massena in Portland as an associate advisor.

Funny enough, things came full circle for Deines when Tony Arnerich called and offered her that job — he just so happened to be Deines’ first-ever soccer coach when she was a little girl.

Photo courtesy Jane Gershovich

Photo courtesy Jane Gershovich

Deines grew up playing soccer on various club teams, including Eastside FC. She played for Issaquah High School, and joined the Seattle Sounders Women when she was still a high school student. She then went on to play at the University of Washington while earning her bachelor’s in communication and media studies.

In 2012, she was named the UW Female Athlete of the Year and also won the Tom Hansen Pac-12 Conference Medal.

After graduating from UW, she traveled overseas to play internationally for teams in Iceland and Berlin, Germany. Shortly after the National Women’s Soccer League was formed in the United States, she returned to play for two seasons as a free agent for the Seattle Reign.

At the end of the 2015 season, she began pursuit of her master’s degree in finance. Finance still gives her that feeling of competition she craves, she said.

Deines still volunteers with Criterion and is partnering with the company on a project to launch a research initiative for gender lens investing.

She also is working with Eagleclaw FC’s executive director and tactical instructor Joe Campos. They hope to bring elite technical training in soccer to underprivileged youth in the greater Seattle area.

“I think we can achieve great things in the community as far as soccer and beyond,” Deines said.

And, although she lives and works in Portland now, part of her heart remains on the Eastside.

“It was not an easy decision to leave once I got offered this new job opportunity,” Deines said. “However, I felt like it was a risk and career move I needed to take at this time in my life.” — Natalie Deford

“Working to help make key investments in women is very important to me.” – Kate Deines


20161215_womentowatch_0775

Shalisan Foster and Suzanne Sinegal McGill

The Eastside’s Shalisan Foster and Suzanne Sinegal McGill are working to empower women a world away.

Give a Rwandan girl an education, and she’ll have the power to alter the landscape of her country. That’s the idea Foster and McGill invested in when they started Gashora Girls Academy of Science and Technology, an all-girls STEM school in Rwanda.

Since it opened in 2011, 90 percent of its students are now attending universities and colleges around the globe — some are at Harvard and Duke. Students from first three graduating classes have earned more than $20 million in scholarships and financial aid. The school’s success rates are in stark contrast to national averages. In Rwanda, about 2 percent of the population 19 years and older have a college degree or higher.

In the beginning, Foster and McGill were not experts on education, or Africa. They were two mothers with a strong desire to do good. They were working out of their kitchens, planning a school more than 8,000 miles away while at the same time wearing oven mitts and baking lasagna for their own families.

“It was completely just moms in the kitchen. I don’t mean that in a ’50s housewifey way, but it’s like there wasn’t this formal professional office we were going to. It was sort of on the move all the time. I love (for my kids) the example that it sets. It’s possible,” said Foster.

The Roots
Foster and McGill have been best friends for years. They both went to Bellevue High School, where they met. Foster remembers going to McGill’s 18th birthday party right after she got her driver’s license. But their bond really formed when they had toddlers in preschool. They’d work on projects together and eventually started training for marathons.

“Neither one of us, thank God, is a particularly fast runner. So, we would go running for a long time,” said McGill.

The Gashora Girls Academy opened in 2011, and since then 90 percent of its graduates have gone on to study at universities and colleges around the globe. Photo courtesy Rwanda Girls Initiative

The Gashora Girls Academy opened in 2011, and since then 90 percent of its graduates have gone on to study at universities and colleges around the globe. Photo courtesy Rwanda Girls Initiative

The hours spent pounding the pavement made for long conversations that revealed a mutual interest in Sub-Saharan Africa. They knew they wanted to work on education there. But the “how” and “where” were big unanswered questions. Their first thought was to donate to an existing school.

“It is not a joke when we say initially we were thinking of taking soccer balls and computers (to Africa),” said McGill.

But in 2008, a trip to Rwanda upped the ante. McGill had visited the country with her family about six months earlier. Costco sources some of its coffee from the country, and her father, James Sinegal, is the founder of the wholesale company. On that trip, McGill learned that in the wake of its genocide, Rwanda had grown into a progressive country. Right now, it has one of the fastest-growing economies in the world and was recently ranked the fifth-safest country in the world.

“(The genocide) is still very much a part of their history. But what you feel when you’re there is, yes, that’s such a sad thing, and it’s so hard, and it defines some portions of where they are. But this sense of hopefulness of what could be, I think, is the overriding feeling that you get,” she said.

Foster and McGill went back together in May and met with the country’s minister of education as well as other officials. They realized a need for secondary schools (grades 7-12). Before they knew it, they were building their own college prep school (grades 10-12).

“It just started happening,” said McGill.

Giving to Girls
When it comes to investing in the future of a developing country, a girl’s education has great promise. With secondary schooling, a girl in Africa is less likely to contract HIV/AIDS, her children are more likely to live past the age of 5, and she’s more likely to make healthcare a priority.

“For every year a girl goes to secondary school, she increases her eventual earnings by 15 to 20 percent. Well, that’s huge. And not only does that impact her, but her family, her children, incentive to get healthcare for her kids. She can send her kids to school and recognizes the value of not only educating her boys, but also her girls,” said McGill.

Rwanda is a unique place to be a woman. After the genocide, the county’s population was about 70 percent female. Many men were either killed during the turmoil, or perpetrators of the genocide who later fled. With such a high percentage of women, there are many women leaders. Rwanda was the first in the world to elect a majority-female parliament. But while gender parity is woven into some societal norms, there are pockets of the country that don’t see eye-to-eye.

“On the one hand, you have billboards all over the country saying, ‘You must educate your girls.’ Trying to get that message out. How important it is. But the reality is at the rural level, it’s a very patriarchal society, traditionally,” said McGill.

Gashora Girls Academy seeks ninth-grade girls from all over Rwanda who have tested especially high on the country’s national exam. Sometimes they’re girls living in refugee camps or rural areas and attending a school with no textbooks and a teacher who doesn’t speak English (the language of the national exam). Still, they earn an impressive score. Often, they’re girls whose families make sacrifices to allow them to chase their dreams.

One of the Academy’s graduates had a family whose main source of income was coffee trees. When someone in the community disagreed with their commitment to invest in their daughter’s education, they burned their trees down.

“And (the family was) like, ‘We don’t care; we’re going to keep going; we’re going to push her through,’” said McGill. That girl is now a student at the University of Arkansas.

According to The United Nations Foundation, women and girls in developing countries who earn an income invest 90 percent of their earnings back into their families. Men who earn an income invest between 30 and 40 percent of it back into their families.

Students at Gashora Girls Academy have high hopes of being the change they want to see in Rwanda. They’re focused on earning degrees, often overseas, so they can come home and be the country’s top-trained doctors, entrepreneurs, and scientists. For many of them, Gashora Girls Academy is the gateway toward fulfilling dreams.

“They’ll say what it is specifically that they want to study. ‘I want to be the first pediatric oncologist because there’s not one in Rwanda … I want to go back and be able to fulfill that need.’ And it’s just breathtaking, really,” said McGill. — Lauren Foster

“It is not a joke when we say initially we were thinking of taking soccer balls and computers (to Africa).” – Shalisan Foster & Suzanne Sinegal McGill 


20161215_womentowatch_1058Margo Engberg

From the time Margo Engberg was old enough to recite her ABCs, she was a baker.

“I always loved baking,” Engberg said. “I grew up baking with my grandma, and I loved just being in the kitchen and creating. I’ve always been known amongst my group of friends for my sugar cookies; they always loved my frosting.”

Despite her love of sweet treats, the founder and CEO of PinkaBella Cupcakes tried on a few hats before she found herself back in the kitchen for good. Engberg graduated from Seattle Pacific University with an education degree in 1989 and worked for a short time as a teacher before leaving to start her own house-cleaning business. For more than 20 years, Engberg cleaned the homes of the Eastside’s professional athletes and tech company executives.

It wasn’t until Engberg and her husband, Doug, began adopting their four children that Engberg began thinking about baking once again.

“When I was adopting (two of my four children) from Guatemala, I found out they never had a birthday party,” she said. “That’s when I volunteered to be the cupcake mom at my kids’ school; I just said, ‘Hey, if there’s a kid that can’t do treats on their birthday, please let me know’ … it just evolved from there.”

The first PinkaBella opened on Halloween 2009 at the Redmond Town Center and — despite getting its start following the recession — has grown with leaps and bounds in the following years. Today Engberg has six PinkaBella locations, and she’s in talks to franchise her cupcake empire around the state and beyond.

Engberg says her favorite part of her job is making other people happy.

“We are a huge part of people’s special day all the time. To me, that just makes my heart smile, and I think that’s why I keep going even on a bad day when everything seems to be going wrong. I feel like there is so much good around us,” she said.

The mission to improve the lives of others doesn’t end there for Engberg. A portion of her proceeds, as well as 100 percent of each store’s tips, goes directly to local charities benefitting everyone from homeless youth to people with cancer. Moreover, PinkaBella has donated more than 500,000 cupcakes for countless charity fundraisers.

“PinkaBella is about cupcakes, PinkaBella is about sweet treats, it is about celebrations, but for our family it really is about the business of doing the most good,” Engberg said.

By donating proceeds to charity, Engberg said she hopes to perpetuate a circle of giving.

“I think it makes (customers) feel good that when they are buying something from you, in their own way they are giving back,” Engberg said. “Being a giver, it naturally engages other people to give.” — Joanna Kresge

“I think it makes (customers) feel good that when they are buying something from you, in their own way they are giving back.” – Margo Engberg 


20150528_jessiewooleywilson_0020_editJessie Woolley-Wilson

Jessie Woolley-Wilson is all about finding the excellence in people — be they students, employees, or others. That’s the attitude she has in her role as CEO of Bellevue’s DreamBox Learning.

DreamBox Learning is a math-based program that presents challenging problem-solving, concept-teaching games to students. It uses its trademarked Intelligent Adaptive Learning technology to tailor lessons to each student as the student progresses in the program.

For Woolley-Wilson, DreamBox is about more than just tech-advanced math lessons; it’s about getting students to believe in themselves as they grow to learn concepts. The model is “productive struggle,” she said, meaning DreamBox sets out to challenge and not discourage by going too high above a student’s skill level.

“We are in the business of belief … we want people to believe that everyone has brilliance,” said Woolley-Wilson.

She said she believes that when you shape a young learner, you shape the nation.

DreamBox started out as a consumer-driven product, but started marketing to schools in 2011. Woolley-Wilson said that when the software was consumer-driven, it was landing in the laptops of only wealthy or affluent students.

To level the playing field, DreamBox went to where it could do the most — school districts.

“Everybody has an individual learning path regardless of wealth,” said Woolley-Wilson.

DreamBox is being used in all 50 states; Washington, D.C.; and across Canada. Woolley-Wilson said there are 2 million students online using DreamBox. Locally, DreamBox is in all 16 Bellevue School District elementary schools. It also is still available to consumers for at-home use.

The program is very data-driven. DreamBox gathers 50,000 data points on a student per hour and adapts to how they learn — something difficult for a teacher managing a classroom of students.

However, DreamBox isn’t about substituting teachers or curriculum; it’s about enhancing it, said Woolley-Wilson. It’s about helping what the company calls a “learning guardian” help a student.

She also makes the distinction that DreamBox is not a game system, nor is it “edu-tainment.” While the product is engaging and fun, it’s not trying to be something it’s not; it’s not trying to trick kids into learning.

“We’re not a gaming company,” she said. “We don’t try to hide the math in the game … We are unabashedly math-forward.”

The reason for putting the math in front of the student, without luring them in with flashy games, is DreamBox wants students to know they’re accomplishing math learning.

“We want to get beyond getting the answer right to helping the student learn,” she said. — Karen Miller

“We want to get beyond getting the answer right to helping the student learn.” – Jessie Woolley-Wilson 


20161215_womentowatch_0357-racheleditKat Holmes

Let a group of kids loose at a playground, and — regardless of their ages or abilities — they’ll find a way to play. That’s because most playgrounds are designed to be inclusive, providing children many ways to interact with the space and each other.

Many public spaces are designed this way. Public buildings, for example, must meet certain accessibility requirements so that wheelchair-bound or visually impaired people can access them. When diversity in ability is considered during the design process, more people benefit. But not all things are created this way.

Kat Holmes, director of inclusive design at Microsoft, is working to make technology more useful for people of varying abilities by creating products designed with everyone in mind.

When Holmes started working for Microsoft in 2008, there wasn’t an inclusive design department. At the time, she was working as an industrial designer looking at big picture product development, specifically for phones. It wasn’t until several years later, during her work with the voice-controlled personal assistant Cortana, that the seed for what would become the inclusive design department was planted.

During her work with Cortana, Holmes was responsible for overseeing what made the virtual assistant personal to each user. To better shape Cortana, Holmes and her team met with real-life personal assistants who were experts in their field. This experience got her thinking about human-led design and how consulting with human experts during the design process could not only make technology more effective for the user, but more personal as well.

A little more than two years ago, Holmes’ work with Cortana evolved into what is now the inclusive design department at Microsoft. As director for the department, Holmes and her team work to identify how the design of certain products can be improved to better serve more people.

One way Holmes and her team do this is by identifying the needs of a certain demographic, working hands-on with a group of people who represent that demographic, and creating innovative products that can best serve those people.

“The real ‘a-ha’ moment for me and for our team has been, when you design for the strongest constraints, and when you spend time with a person who has spent a large portion of their life — if not all of their life — interacting in the world with (for example), one arm, you will learn things about the emotional impact of being excluded from a lot of these environments,” she said. “The motivation and desire to participate is largely about a sense of belonging, but then you also learn about the ingenuity of people making the design of the world around them work for them.”

One of Holmes’ favorite products to come out of inclusive design is the app Hearing AI. The idea for the app came from developer Swetha Machanavajhala.

Machanavajhala, who is deaf, got the idea for the app after a neighbor had to alert her that her carbon-monoxide detector was going off. She couldn’t hear it. “That moment inspired (Machanavajhala) to think, ‘How can technology make me aware of sounds in my environment?’” said Holmes.

The app allows people who are deaf or have limited hearing to visualize the intensity of the environmental sounds around them so they can gauge the mood of a physical space.

“Showing you the intensity of a sound or the direction of it actually empowers the person to go look and see, and make conclusions for themselves,” said Holmes. “It’s more about something that supports and empowers a person, opposed to trying to do it for them.”

Another example Holmes likes is OneNote Learning Tools. The program is designed to help people learn to read and write. Holmes said her team spent a great deal of time with students with dyslexia during the development of the product.

“The work there is so broadly beneficial to children at different stages of learning to adult learners who are learning a new language for the first time,” said Holmes. “We’re learning a lot about the cognitive aspects of inclusion, not just the traditional sight, hearing, feeling, and mobility.”

Currently, Holmes and her team are looking at gender inclusion, and how genders think differently. “People learn in different ways, so the work we’re doing is both research and product work to understand how many different kinds of learning styles there are out there and which ones disproportionately benefit male customers or female customer across genders,” said Holmes.

Holmes said there is a lot of work to do, but as technology designers and developers start thinking differently about the way they design products, the way products are developed will start to change — and it starts by identifying exclusion.

“Recognizing exclusion is the most powerful entry point in creating inclusive products,” said Holmes. “When a person who designs technology considers a wider range of people, especially people who have traditionally been excluded, it then makes it possible for the rest of society to see people who have previously been invisible or not participating in that society, and in essence changes that society just by inclusion.” — Margo Greenman

“The motivation and desire to participate is largely about a sense of belonging.” – Kat Holmes


Meet More Women to Watch

425 presents an inspirational event March 9 in Kirkland

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