12 to Meet 2019

12 Women to Meet in 2019

At no time in Pittsburgh history have so many women overseen so many cultural, health and public service institutions — agencies that essentially bolster the livability of the region.

They run the Pittsburgh Public Theater, Allegheny Conference on Community Development, Allegheny County Airport Authority, Port Authority of Allegheny County, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Allegheny County Health Department, Pittsburgh Film Office, Kelly Strayhorn Theater, Jewish Healthcare Foundation, Friends of the Riverfront, Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, Allegheny Health Network, Allegheny County Parks Foundation and many other organizations.

Here are the stories of 12 of those women, how they got where they are and what they hope to accomplish. They range from veterans such as Barbara Baker, who has overseen the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium for 28 years, to Joylette Portlock, who stepped into her role at Sustainable Pittsburgh just last month.

JANUARY 7, 2019

Barbara Baker

President and CEO, Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium
Grew up on a farm and started as a veterinarian

A room full of men does not intimidate Barbara Baker, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium for 28 years. “I have no problem being the only woman in a room, and it’s because of the environment I grew up in,” she says.

Her self-confidence as well as her love of animals started early. “I grew up surrounded by cows, horses, pigs and other creatures on a farm in North Carolina — with three brothers.”  She currently lives on a farm with her husband in Indiana Township.

“My parents, God bless them, treated us all the same,” she says. The siblings all worked in the fields of their tobacco farm as kids. “I did carpentry, one of my brothers did welding, car repair, tool-and-die kind of stuff so we each learned different skills [on the farm]. I think my management style is probably very similar to a man’s because of it.”

At last count there were 22 women presidents/CEOs of zoos out of more than 300 zoos and aquariums in the U.S. It was another woman, Louise Brown, former director of Pittsburgh Parks and Recreation in 1990, who took a chance and hired the then-34-year-old veterinarian as director of the zoo.  

“There are advantages to being a woman in this position. Ironically, being a woman opens many doors,” says Dr. Baker, who is 62. “It’s hard to say no to a woman because we can be very persistent,” she laughs. 

“Our zoo is built around a very caring, nurturing environment, but you can be very passionate and intense about what you are doing,” she says.

Dr. Baker says zoos are incredibly important and will become even more so in the next decade because the wild is disappearing. 

“We lose 96 elephants a day to poaching,” she says.

Her job entails being a preservationist, a conservationist, an educator and protector.  

“Our zoo sponsors ranch dogs that protect the cattle of ranchers in Africa so the cheetahs don’t eat the cattle and the ranchers won’t kill the cheetahs.” They also sponsor mounted patrols in Kenya so rangers can monitor poachers on horseback. The zoo also operates a 1,000-acre elephant breeding facility in Somerset County.

In her experience, one of the disadvantages of being a woman is age-old.

“If you are forceful, assertive and resourceful and a go-getter, you can be accused of being too aggressive, whereas with a man, it’s perfectly normal, and it’s considered very commanding,” Dr. Baker says.  “If a woman comes off very commanding they can be criticized for that, which I think is hilarious.”

Patricia Sheridan: psheridan@post-gazette.com

Karla Boos

Founder and Artistic Director, Quantum Theatre
Stages plays on grassy hillsides, in the old Garden Theater, even the grounds of Carrie Furnace

Karla Boos gravitates toward the unexplored.

“The right circumstances for making art, for me, involve making the unknown, going into the unknown and figuring out what’s right for me,” she says.

“And I would like to work with artists who have a similar outlook.”

Anyone familiar with Quantum Theatre can attest to that. Its founder, Ms. Boos, 57, of Forest Hills, goes for thought-provoking content every time. This season alone, she staged “Chatterton,” a sprawling, three-narrative play about the 18th-century British poet, amid the eaves and alcoves of Trinity Cathedral, Downtown.

Coming in March is “The Gun Show,” a one-man play by E.M. Lewis. In May, there’s “King Lear,” on the grounds of the Carrie Furnace in Swissvale. Past performances have taken place in the basement of the old Garden Theater, in a defunct car dealership showroom, all over Rodef Shalom Congregation and on a grassy hillside in Mellon Park.

When it comes to works and their staging, Ms. Boos is renowned for thinking outside the (black) box.

In addition to the usual chaos of being artistic director for Quantum Theatre’s season, Ms. Boos served as curator for the 2018 Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts. In late November, she finally had time to take a breath.

“It’s on to new things,” she says. “Those were so big and so long in the making, both the play and the festival. But it’s always good in a way to move on, right? It’s bittersweet.

“I’m amazed and excited now; I can think of new things I want to embark on.”

Quantum Theatre, which she started in 1990, is closing in on 100 productions. Its importance to the Pittsburgh cultural community remains strong, as is what Ms. Boos describes as “a climate that encourages innovative arts to develop and younger artists to pursue their own voices.”

It takes confidence to challenge an audience, something Ms. Boos says she developed over the years. She won’t reveal Quantum’s coming productions but did tease “loving to work with music as a language with theater.”

As traditional American musicals are not her thing, that could be a hint toward any number of paths — all, no doubt, adventurous.

Maria Sciullo: msciullo@post-gazette.com or @MariaSciulloPG.

Janis Burley Wilson

President and CEO, August Wilson Cultural Center
The center has a surplus under her leadership, leaving its cash-flow problems in the past

If you judge how things are going by dollar signs, the August Wilson Cultural Center is ending the year with a surplus, reports Janis Burley Wilson, who took over as CEO and president of the center in July 2017. 

“That’s after a full year of so much programming that we’re kind of, ‘Phew!’ We are all really looking forward to a holiday break,” says the single mother of three. “But [the surplus] puts us in a good position going forward and is really exciting.” 

In her time at the helm, the center has developed a new strategic plan and a new name that will soon go up on the Liberty Avenue building that was on shaky financial ground since it opened as the August Wilson Center for African American Culture in 2009.

Ms. Burley Wilson (no relation to the playwright), 53, was chosen to lead the way after local foundations united to maintain the center as a cultural, educational and community hub. In 2018, the AWCC has added board members and staff in key positions — managing director Ronald Lee Newman and former Pittsburgh Cultural Trust colleague Jocelyn Malik as director of development.

The team is operating with a mandated vision “to become a leading presenter of the arts and expression of the African diaspora, and a home for dynamic exchange of ideas that transform how people think about themselves and the world.” One goal is an exhibition to honor the man whose name graces the building.

The late playwright’s estate, scholars, visual artists and a tech firm are involved in creating an interactive display that will include August Wilson’s writing desk and other artifacts. “I want that to be the kind of destination for anyone who is interested in August Wilson, so you have to see this exhibit, it’s the coolest thing,” she says.

She’s also working with the African American Museum in Philadelphia to develop an artist residency program, and the center’s kitchen is being expanded to give it a boost as rental space.

Ms. Burley Wilson of Churchill studied at the University of Pittsburgh, earned her master of education degree at Duquesne University and had additional graduate studies at American University. She signed onto the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust in 2002, where she was a prolific events programmer.

Among the many hats she has worn, she sold her own hat designs through Janis B. et Al Millinery, which she founded in 1995. There’s quite enough to keep the AWCC leader busy these days, and she’s excited about bringing on Ms. Malik, her former co-worker at the Trust.

“We share the same work ethic coming from the Trust, which is go-go-go,” she says, “so that’s my orientation to how you work in the arts.”

Sharon Eberson: seberson@post-gazette.com

Christina Cassotis

CEO, Allegheny County Airport Authority
The airport has gained 28 nonstop flights and 21 percent more passengers since she became CEO

Christina Cassotis’ father was a pilot for Pan American World Airways when she was growing up in New Hampshire. So as a child, she decided she, too, wanted a job that would allow her to fly around the world.

Only problem was, she had neither the aptitude for aeronautics nor the personality to be a flight attendant. She ended up studying English instead.

It wasn’t until she went from a job in media relations at Massachusetts Port Authority to working with aviation consultants SH&E in Boston that the one-time magazine writer and editor realized her dream job lay in airport operations. The airports she worked with around the world were so complex, “and that fascinated me,” she says.

In 2015, she brought her business and communication skills to Pittsburgh, after a headhunter called out of the blue to offer her the top job at Allegheny County Airport Authority, which oversees and maintains the Allegheny County airport system. 

Initially, the 54-year-old didn’t see a whole lot of opportunity here. After US Airways pulled its hub in 2004, Pittsburgh was left with an airport that was severely underused with a poor reputation. But she loves a challenge.

In the three years since becoming CEO, the airport has witnessed record demand growth. The number of nonstop U.S. and international flights has gone from 37 markets to 65, and there are a lot more passengers — 9.6 million, or 21 percent more than in 2015.

Among new air service she brought here, one big coup was again persuading British Airways to offer service to London’s Heathrow Airport. (There will be four weekly flights starting in April.) She also initiated the myPittpass program that allows non-flyers airside access and brought more local food purveyors into the terminal, along with its first Starbucks. 

Ms. Cassotis, who holds an MBA from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, also has been instrumental in getting a $1.3 billion modernization program underway that when completed in 2023 will bring the Pittsburgh International Airport into the 21st century.

Married with a 16-year-old son, she lives in Bell Acres. She travels more than 100,000 miles a year by plane and rides coach on domestic flights and business on international flights.

Aviation has long been a male-dominated industry, but Ms. Cassotis is proving that the sky’s the limit for women who can problem-solve.  

“I have walked into a lot of meetings where I’ve been totally underestimated, and I think, ‘Wow. That was probably pretty miscalculating of you,’ ” she says with a laugh.  

Gretchen McKay: gmckay@post-gazette.com

Karen Hacker, M.D.

Director, Allegheny County Health Department
Is bringing higher expectations to the department

When Karen Hacker arrived in Pittsburgh more than five years ago, her task was overwhelming. As its new director, she faced the challenge of reorganizing and revitalizing the Allegheny County Health Department. 

Coming from the Boston area, she replaced Pittsburgh native Bruce Dixon, the old-guard director for 20 years who sported a crew cut, a thin black tie and Hush Puppies shoes. He had the pragmatic ability to withstand the job’s political and industrial winds and currents.

So Dr. Hacker drew from a graduate course she took in management that “spoke to the fact that a leader has enormous potential to shift the culture of the organization.” Her initial goal was getting people on board through improved equity and respect that in turn encouraged stronger job performance and ethics.

Accountability is another quality Dr. Hacker says she expects from the department. Shortly after her appointment, a citizen notified her about the lack of assistance from a health department employee in resolving an asbestos problem. Discussing the issue with the employee, Dr. Hacker says she made it clear: “We have to be better than that for our residents.” 

In her own terms, leadership should promote teamwork and competence. On that front, she says, she’s adopted a policy of recruiting and retaining skilled employees whose efforts bring measurable improvements in public health programs. Much like Dr. Dixon, she also showed up regularly at public events to discuss issues and promote programs.

And, by any standard, Dr. Hacker, 63, of Highland Park has made notable changes and “dramatic improvements” in the Health Department and its culture of about 400 employees. One persistent challenge is the number of department “silos” — programs specializing in air and water quality, disease prevention, food quality, immunization and her focus in reducing socioeconomic and racial inequities, most notable in eastern Allegheny County communities.

“You have to make a lot of decisions,” says Dr. Hacker, who received her medical degree from Northwestern University and her master’s in public health from Boston University. “Sometimes you have to concentrate on breaking the logjams — being Solomon — and giving others the ability to find solutions and participate in decision-making.”

She continues working to expand parochial interests into department-wide improvements. And over the past five years, she says, employees have become more aware that higher expectations can lead to benefits for them and the public. 

“This morning we had a meeting, and afterward, an employee told me, ‘This is a nice place to work now,’” Dr. Hacker says. “I felt good about that.”

Dave Templeton: dtempleton@post-gazette.com

Marya Sea Kaminski

Artistic Director, Pittsburgh Public Theater
Invited 150 steelworkers to a preview of a play about blue-collar woes

The first question locals posed to Marya Sea Kaminski when she was named the Pittsburgh Public Theater’s artistic director was: “Where are you going to live?” Then they tried to persuade her to move to their neighborhoods.

She wound up renting an 1800s carriage house in Deutschtown on the North Side and is “basking in the character of that,” a choice also within walking distance of her job, which officially began Aug. 1.

Ms. Kaminski, 41, the Public’s first new AD in 18 years — following the tenure of Ted Pappas — arrived from Seattle having met with local theater artists and with her picks for the 2018-19 season in place, and having formed a tight leadership team with managing director Lou Castelli. She often points out that she looks to Mr. Castelli for guidance; he has been with the company for two decades.

Mr. Pappas, who led the company for 18 years, enjoyed the spotlight and was part of the process of picking his successor. It’s now Ms. Kaminski who mingles in the lobby with pre-show audiences. She looks forward to her first directing gig here, her own all-female adaptation of “The Tempest.” 

Hours before opening night of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Sweat” and with the season-opening “Pride & Prejudice” under her belt, it was the first Pittsburgh snow that gave her a warm feeling of home.

“It had been a little while since my sweetheart and I had seen a real snow, so we just walked around the Allegheny Commons, got some food at the Park House … maybe it was the fact that we were embarking into the Pittsburgh winter, but we both felt like it was the beginning of a new chapter,” she says.

Before arriving in Pittsburgh, when Ms. Kaminski served as associate AD of Seattle Rep, she worked with New York and Dallas companies to create Public Works Seattle, partnerships that produced an epic musical of “The Odyssey.”  For “Sweat,” about blue-collar woes in Reading, Pa., the Public invited more than 150 steelworkers to a preview, and Ms. Kaminski led a postshow Q&A with USW president Leo Gerard. 

It was a moment reflective of her vision of the Public and its Downtown home, the O’Reilly Theater, as a hub of creative and civic activity.

“In my wildest dreams, I show up here, and in the afternoon, kids are doing homework in the lobby, and at night, we have education programs running all over the building and artists collaborating onstage,” Ms. Kaminski says.

But first, there’s a “Tempest” brewing at the Public, and “it’s going to be amazing,” she says.

Sharon Eberson: seberson@post-gazette.com

Katharine Eagan Kelleman

CEO, Port Authority of Allegheny County
'Mass transit is a civil right and a human right'

How does a city demonstrate that it’s the most livable city in the country?

By working toward creating a more equitable transit system, for one. And that’s what Katharine Eagan Kelleman, 45, is doing as she leads the Port Authority of Allegheny County as its CEO.

In this position since January 2018, Ms. Kelleman is used to rolling up her sleeves and getting to the heart of issues that need solving. “I believe that mass transit is a civil right and a human right,” she says. “It opens doors and helps to build community.”

Originally from Colorado, she has lived in many places; her father was in the military and her family moved five times during her childhood. “I looked at it as, ‘Oh I get to make more new friends,’ ” she says.

That gregarious and outgoing nature served her well as she made her way through school, traveling 90 minutes each way to attend Angelo State University in Texas, where she received a full scholarship and her graduate degree in public administration.

After settling into a position as transportation planner for San Angelo, Texas, she spent the next seven years working for Dallas Area Rapid Transit before moving to Baltimore as a transit planner for a year.  A recruiter connected her to Tampa, Fla., where she was for three years, directly reporting to the CEO of the city’s transit authority. She worked as the chief of service development, eventually rising to COO before becoming interim CEO.

Then, Pittsburgh called. “There’s only so many hurricanes you can take,” she jokes.

Her husband, Chris, a stay-at-home dad with their two boys, ages 5 and 6, had family outside of Harrisburg. The opportunity to be closer to them was another benefit.

“I try to have a work-breathing balance in my life,” she says.

Her family has settled in Upper St. Clair, and she takes public transit regularly, connecting directly to her customers as well as the people she works with.

Does she consider herself a trailblazer in what some might consider a male-dominated field?

“I think we all stand on shoulders and then it is up to us to become the shoulders for those coming up to stand on,” Ms. Kelleman says. “As CEO, I set the vision and strategy, but I know that success cannot be ephemeral. I want our public transit system to be part of what makes this region great for everyone, opening doors to success for all.”

Natalie Bencivenga: nbencivenga@post-gazette.com

Jayne Miller

President and CEO, Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy
Minneapolis parks were rated the nation's best city park system for five years under her leadership

Jayne Miller grew up in New York’s Adirondack Mountains, 45 miles southeast of Lake Placid.

Her father was a large- and small-animal veterinarian, and her family lived next door to the hospital where he worked. Ms. Miller spent a lot of time outdoors and encountered many stray animals. In the winter, her father flooded the yard to create a skating rink, and one year, they built a rope tow.  

Now, Ms. Miller lives in a home that’s a short walk from Highland Park with her partner, Diana Sepac. Articulate and focused, Ms. Miller, 60, is the new chief executive officer of the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy. Founded in 1996, the nonprofit is active in 22 parks. The 40-member staff has completed 17 projects over the last 20 years.

Ms. Miller and Ms. Sepac became friends while both worked in Ann Arbor, Mich., during the 1990s and have been together for nearly 20 years. The two women have visited many national parks, including the Badlands, Big Bend, Bryce, the Grand Canyon, the Grand Tetons, Mammoth Cave, Mount Rainier, Saguaro, Theodore Roosevelt, Voyageurs, Yellowstone and Zion. 

In 2019,  Ms. Miller will attend more than 40 scheduled community meetings to hear what people want most in the 165 city parks. The large regional parks — Frick, Highland, Schenley and Riverview — have improved dramatically during the past 20 years since her predecessor, Meg Cheever, helped found and lead the nonprofit parks conservancy as its CEO, but a monumental task remains.

As the steel industry declined during the 1980s, Pittsburgh stopped investing in its neighborhood parks, creating a mind-boggling backlog of deferred maintenance. During an interview in Highland Park in December, Ms. Miller estimates it will cost $400 million to address all of the work that accumulated during the past 40 years.

“To take care of a public system, we really need more capital investment,” Ms. Miller says. 

Previously, Ms. Miller ran the Minneapolis parks, which was rated the nation’s best city park system five years in a row by The Trust for Public Land. She was credited with persuading Minneapolis leaders to commit an additional $250 million over 20 years for 160 neighborhood parks.

Well-tended public parks attract today’s college graduates, Ms. Miller says, because they “go to cities where they want to live, then get a job.” One of her main goals is to connect small and large parks in the region despite Pittsburgh’s challenging topography.

Marylynne Pitz: mpitz@post-gazette.com

Joylette Portlock

Executive Director, Sustainable Pittsburgh
'Meet people where they are'

In a winning series of 34 short Communitopia climate-change videos titled “Don’t Just Sit There — Do Something!” Joylette Portlock stars as a scientist — you can tell by the white lab coat — and news anchor and wisecracking woman on the street. They’re just characters, but they’re also her.

The Delaware City, Del., native studied biology and anthropology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and earned her doctorate in genetics at Stanford, designing genetics programs for science museums. 

But she warmed to climate change and to communicating its dangers and solutions. And she aims to do so in practical and approachable ways. 

That’ll be one part of her new job, which she started in mid-December, as executive director at Sustainable Pittsburgh. She comes from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, where she was associate director of science and research, to fill the big shoes of Court Gould, who 20 years ago founded this nonprofit that promotes sustainability programs for businesses and collaboration on regional policy initiatives for sustainability.

Ms. Portlock also worked for Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project and has served as Western Pennsylvania outreach coordinator with PennFuture, a statewide environmental advocacy group where she worked with its members, elected officials and the public on energy, air, water, mining and transportation issues. 

All of this is a natural fit for the girl who persuaded her parents to recycle and co-founded her high school Earth Club. Now the 40-year-old resident of Swissvale (where she founded the farmers market) has two children, ages 10 and 7, with whom she loves to spend every rare second of free time that competes with roles such as serving on the Allegheny County Board of Health.

Couldn’t she have picked something easier than, you know, saving the Earth? 

She laughs a big laugh and pauses for several seconds. “I’m not afraid of a challenge!” She takes another long pause and quotes Jonas Salk: “ ‘Are we being good ancestors?’ It’s important.”  

When the magnitude of the challenges starts to get to her, she buoys herself by looking at all the gains that have been made, including existing programs and relationships of Sustainable Pittsburgh, and she’s confident that she can build on those to help communities make the world better together. Don’t be surprised if she does so with a joke. 

“You have to figure out a way,” she says, “to meet people where they are.” 

Bob Batz Jr.: bbatz@post-gazette.com

Janera Solomon

Executive Director, Kelly Strayhorn Theater
Has made queer, multi-racial arts and social arts activism cornerstones of the theater's programming

For Janera Solomon, a theater isn’t just a place to see a pricey performance a few times a year. It should be a neighborhood hub for friends, family and fellowship that anyone can enjoy. 

In her 10 years as executive director of the Kelly Strayhorn Theater, she has strived to transform the 104-year-old theater in East Liberty into a space where artists and audiences from all walks of life can come — and will want to come back again and again. In 2011, the historic theater merged with Dance Alloy in Friendship, where the Kelly Strayhorn holds artist residencies, dance classes and other programming. 

“The first year I started this job I took a trip to New York and I went to the Apollo Theater,” Ms. Solomon says. “While I was standing in line, a woman who I didn't know started to talk to me. She said, ‘I live around the corner. This is my neighborhood theater.’ ... That stuck with me from the very beginning. I wanted Kelly Strayhorn to be that kind of place.”

A varied path — dotted with stints in music, teaching and museum work across the country — led Ms. Solomon, 43, of Shadyside to KST. Born in Guyana, her family moved to the U.S. in 1984 when she was 9. They lived in Oakland, where there were a lot of immigrant families at the time, she says. She attended the University of Pittsburgh and designed her own major: a mix of Africana studies, economics, a bit of history and philosophy of science.

She admits the role of executive director is one she has had to grow into.

“There were lots of people who just couldn't see how an arts organization outside of Downtown could really thrive,” Ms. Solomon says. “I think that was also part of the challenge. What niche could we fill as an arts organization?”

During her tenure, the Kelly Strayhorn Theater and Alloy Studios have made queer and multiracial arts and social arts activism cornerstones of programming, along with dance, music and theater works by Pittsburgh-based and national artists.  

Her family life greatly impacts her work at the theater, she says. She has an 8-year-old daughter who regularly accompanies her to events and isn’t shy about sharing her ideas. 

“She has a sense that she can make something happen, which is really what I want to give her,” Ms. Solomon says. 

When life gets tricky, she looks to her parents and grandparents for inspiration.

“So many times when I’m having challenges, I think, well, if my parents could pick up and move to another country with their four kids, I can make it,” she says. “I try to bring that kind of energy to what we do here at KST.”

Sara Bauknecht: sbauknecht@post-gazette.com

Melia Tourangeau

President and CEO, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
Sold her childhood piano to pay off student debt

A conservatory-trained pianist, Melia Tourangeau, 47, doesn’t have time to do much but noodle around on the keys on occasion. Her job as president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra takes up the bulk of her time.

She realized early during her stint at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music that she didn’t want to pursue a career as a performer or teacher. She discovered a passion for orchestral management during a spring break trip to meet the president and CEO of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

After beginning her orchestral career in the education and operations departments of the Grand Rapids Symphony in Michigan, Ms. Tourangeau quickly rose through the ranks to become president before jumping to the Utah Symphony and then the PSO in May 2015. At 44, she was the youngest CEO in the orchestra’s history.

She sold her childhood piano to help pay off student debt (“My husband wouldn’t marry me until I was debt free,” she says) and later purchased an inexpensive replacement to begin teaching her children, with just a cursory look at the instrument.

“I got my degree in piano performance and was running the largest performance organization in the inter-mountain west at the time, and I bought a piano with only 85 keys,” she recalls, laughing. Standard pianos have 88 keys. Ms. Tourangeau has since upgraded instruments.

Her daily routine is anything but standard. She often begins with breakfast meetings with the orchestra’s music director, Manfred Honeck, and board chair before meeting with various committees and subcommittees. She regularly meets with the orchestra’s senior leadership team and often the musicians themselves to discuss news and changes.

Ms. Tourangeau attends symphony concerts, speaks at performances and fundraising events, and often attends after-show dinners with artists and donors. It isn’t unusual for her day to run from 8 or 9 a.m. to 1 or 2 a.m. the next morning.

Ms. Tourangeau’s husband is a stay-at-home dad to two children, ages 10 and 13. She says she struggles with a work-life balance but makes sure to attend all of the important moments in her kids’ lives. 

Even with the meetings, Ms. Tourangeau says she’s naturally introverted and that “walking into a room where I don’t know anyone is still intimidating. Like with the piano, practicing speaking with donors is key, but connecting my passion with theirs is the part of the job I love the most. I’m the face of the orchestra when the music director isn’t around and the bridge builder for the outside community.”

Jeremy Reynolds: jreynolds@post-gazette.com

Cheryl Tracy

Executive Director, National Aviary
Making every penny count

Cheryl Tracy, executive director at the National Aviary, says although her skill set turned out to be in finance and business, she’s found the work that blends that experience with her passion for animals.

Ms. Tracy, 54, of South Park first came to the Aviary 12 years ago as chief financial officer after working for 25 years in the business world. “It was the job of a lifetime,” she says. Then five years ago, she took on the top position at the nonprofit, with different responsibilities.

“My love of animals probably came from my dad,” she says. “We had stray dogs we rescued … we went to zoos, went on hikes in nature. I remember that was my most favorite place to be, with my dad and with animals.

“We have to keep the decisions we make in line with our business goals,” she says. And they must line up with the Aviary’s mission to inspire an appreciation of nature and an appreciation of birds.

“My younger self would be very happy and very proud,” she says. Would she tell her younger self to do anything differently?

“I wouldn’t change a thing. Every experience prepares you for the next one.”

Standing in the Aviary’s Grasslands exhibit, where smaller birds sing and swoop past, Ms. Tracy says, “It’s hard to have a bad day at the National Aviary. Grasslands is one of my favorites, it’s serene, calming, peaceful.”

The Wetlands habitat probably has more activity and sounds, and the Tropical Forest habitat is more immersive, with tropical plants and its growing variety of colorful birds flying freely and perching near the new waterfall.

The Aviary has more than 500 birds of more than 150 unique species from around the world. “Because of the movement, the variety in shapes and sizes and colors, people really do connect,” she says. “People are enamored with birds.”

There’s a lot going on behind the scenes as well, Ms. Tracy says. In addition to the exhibits and educational programs, conservation activities include breeding programs for threatened species, such as the Guam rails and African penguins.

“Everyone who works at the Aviary is passionate about their work. It’s a great thing.” United by their common passion for birds and the environment, they’re encouraged to work collaboratively.

One of the challenges at the Aviary is its growth over the past five years, doubling in size.

“It is important to keep everyone motivated,” she says. “The resources are behind the demand and the growth has been so significant. ... We have to make every penny count.”

Jill Daly: jdaly@post-gazette.com

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Development: Laura Malt Schneiderman