Follow The Leaders

Photography by Barbara Banks By Ruth Lando May 31, 2012

In our recent Top Companies story, which ranked the region’s companies based on revenues, we found that only five of those 58 companies were headed by women.

The national picture is disappointing as well. According to an April 2012 Wall Street Journal article, women accounted for 14.1 percent of executive officer positions in 2011. That means 85.9 percent of the corner offices are still occupied by men. And this is true even though women outnumber men in U.S. graduate programs. The American Association of University Women (AAUW) reports that full-time working women still earn only 77 percent of what full-time working men make.

These numbers have significance for the health of our economy. Not only are women’s incomes crucial to individual household wealth, but highly successful women contribute to our national productivity and competitiveness.

We talked to five women leaders in different industries in our region to find out what they could teach other women about getting—and staying—out front.


LaShawn Houston-FrostLaShawn Houston-Frost

LaShawn Houston-Frost, 43, started out wanting to be an attorney, but after earning her B.A. in psychology and philosophy from Florida State University and counseling young mothers at Cyesis, a Sarasota County school for pregnant teens and young parents, Houston-Frost was encouraged to grow as an educator and mentor. She earned two master’s degrees (in educational leadership from University of South Florida and counseling from Norwich University). A newlywed of one year, the hard-working new principal of Booker Middle School oversees a $5.8 million budget. She has been named the school district’s Teacher of the Year and won its Courageous Leader Award, as well as Woman of Light and the Junior League’s Community Impact Award.


I’ve always seen myself as a leader and as one who would break barriers and take risks. Any good leader is a risk taker.

Being a woman of strength

When people say you’re a strong woman, turn it around and say, “No, I’m a woman of strength.” I think there’s a complete difference. A woman of strength is always growing. She knows who she is. She’s willing to support people. She’s willing to go the extra miles, and that is a huge difference vs. someone who might not know who they are, so they have to play the game of being aggressive.

Leading others

A woman of strength can do things with patience. She’s reliable. She does things with integrity. She leads not only with her heart but with expectation, so that others will grow and become who they were created to be.

On being pushy

If I was tough on some individuals or wanted to coach individuals, I was too “pushy.” I see myself as a very assertive person who doesn’t mind stepping out and articulating exactly what I mean.


I came from women who always encouraged me to be the best I could be and to do my best with a spirit of excellence. So I always felt like I could conquer any obstacle. The awesome thing about that is that it’s always been in my nature to encourage other women I come in contact with.

Women vs. men in the workplace

Women have the ability to multitask and stay calm in very difficult situations and to be able to sense and feel what your organization might be going through. Sometimes we really have to bring our female side in; it’s being empathetic to what other people are feeling and seeing the bigger picture.

Finding balance

I look to women who have been in this profession for quite some time. Being such a goal-oriented person, sometimes that’s difficult.

Leaving a legacy

I always say one of my goals is to work myself out of a job. It’s not about protecting what I feel is mine. It’s about building leaders if you’re going to take an organization from good to great.


State Sen. Nancy DetertNancy Detert

Florida Republican Sen. Nancy Detert, 67, always grabs the spotlight. Blunt (her Tallahassee nickname is No-Nonsense-Nancy) and witty, Detert remains popular with Republicans of most stripes and even some Democrats in her district. Detert started out as a real estate agent and opened Osprey Mortgage Company in 1983. She served on the Sarasota County School Board before successfully running for Florida House of Representatives, where she served from 1999 to 2008. She was elected to the state Senate in 2008 where she is now the majority whip. She sold her mortgage company in 2007, making her $29,000 senate job a full-time position. Divorced, she has three grown children.

Biggest challenge in your political career

Raising money. Women are not connected to the money-raising groups—the chambers, the Rotary, business circles.

On confidence

It’s my best-kept secret. I don’t have a lot of confidence. I need lots of convincing that I’m OK. It took years to be able to talk to people. Early on when I ran for school board, in my first speech, I hyperventilated and nothing came out. I was terrible.

Turning point

I was a wife, a mom, doing my own little thing, thinking I’m not qualified for anything, and then I started my business in 1983. In 1993, my business was chosen Small Business of the Year by the Venice Chamber. Someone gave me a stamp of approval that I was a success. I had only thought of myself as a worker bee.

Entering politics

I had no intention of being a politician. I had kids in school and wasn’t happy with what was happening, so friends said, “Why don’t you run for school board?” It had never occurred to me. Most women think they have to be extra qualified to run, whereas most men don’t think that.

Being in the minority

As a female business owner for 25 years, I’m used to being in an all-male world. Still, I was a little startled when I was elected to the House of Representatives and went to the first big dinner. I was late and ran into the room, and I said, “Oh, my God!” It was filled with black suits. It looked like a funeral directors’ convention—not even one woman per table.

Getting men to listen

Get to the point quickly. They don’t want to hear the preamble for 15 minutes. They want to know, “What part of this conversation calls for action on my part?”

Women’s strengths

We’re not on a huge power trip. We do what we do because we like doing it. Men have an end game, a different agenda. Men end up in leadership because they’ve been in sports, the military, corporate America. They work their way up, believe in the chain of command and take direction well. Women all have an opinion, which, frankly, makes them more courageous in politics because they don’t believe in the chain of command.     

Balancing work and life

Take care of your family first.

On raising kids

I didn’t think it was hard. I thought it was loads of fun.

Business tip

Take up golf. You’re spending four hours in a cart with someone. Success is all about relationships.

If more women were in office

Only 14 percent of elected officials in the U.S. are women. The issues would change if there were more women. Men think our issues are silly. Women shun the word “power.” It’s a negative to us. We should get more comfortable with that.

Advice for young women

Don’t underestimate yourself. When I speak to groups of young girls, I usually tell them I grew up in Chicago a mile from Hillary Clinton. Sitting on my front porch, the last thing I ever thought of was being a senator in a state I’d never been to. Don’t limit yourself.

Must-have accessory

My Droid.    


Mary RuizMary Ruiz

A graduate and trustee of New College of Florida with an M.B.A. from the University of South Florida, Ruiz, 56, is president and CEO of Manatee Glens, a specialty hospital and outpatient mental health and addictions facility in Bradenton. She is responsible for 455 employees, serving more than 12,000 adults and children annually with revenues in excess of $26 million. Named a Fellow of the Florida Council for Community Mental Health, an Administrator of the Year by the Florida Alcohol and Drug Abuse Association, and a Woman of Achievement by the American Association of University Women, Ruiz is a French Cajun from New Orleans who loves genealogy and is writing a history of her family’s culture. She is married and has a 21-year-old son.

Mentoring matters

Who you work for is more important than what you do. If someone is taking an interest in you, throwing you stretch assignments and teaching you the business, that is irreplaceable.

The value of a liberal arts degree

I have a degree in urban studies; I was going to run cities. What a liberal arts degree allows you to do, no matter what field you’re in, is acquire learning. You’re able to analyze problems with no obvious answers.

Why women succeed

Because we’re inclusive, we’re collaborators. Everybody can help. If you have a better idea than the CEO, you’re making me look good. Where men get in trouble is their tendency to view exclusivity as success. That’s not success, that’s failure.

On leadership

Create a possibility and people will find ways to realize that possibility.

On problem-solving

When I have a really thorny problem, I walk away from it and do something else. Walk. Bike ride. Cook. It will solve itself in my subconscious. And when it comes marching back, I will solve it with a different perspective, because I’ve relaxed and let my creativity flow.

Making it in the business world

What matters is finding your passion. You develop your personal skill sets and competencies. The things that are easy for you are the things your brain is wired to do well. Go for it.

Faking it

Men have a better facility with bluff; women always doubt themselves. I tell people, “Fake it ’til you make it,” because that’s what men do. If you limit yourself to what you know how to do, that’s where you’re going to stay.

When to let go

If you love it, if it makes you do a happy dance, do it. If you’ve been doing something that you hate, that doesn’t fill you with energy and excitement, you have to dump it.

Dealing with stress

I am not all-powerful. So when things happen, I am not all-responsible. You know what you can’t change and you’re at peace with that. You work on what you can change, and you have to have the wisdom to know the difference—the Serenity Prayer.



It’s been 14 years since the one-time TV sports and news reporter, hospital PR pro and lifelong baseball nut started helping out with fans and answering the Baltimore Orioles’ phones during spring training in Fort Lauderdale. Now she’s the Orioles’ first female director of Florida operations and has one of the highest managerial positions in major league baseball, where she is in charge of 125 Orioles’ seasonal employees. She personally led the team through the massive, controversial rebuild of Sarasota’s Major League Complex at Ed Smith Stadium and the Minor League Buck O’Neil Baseball Complex at Twin Lakes Park. Divorced, she has a 26-year-old daughter.

Getting to yes

I kept sending my résumé to everyone in the Orioles organization until they realized my background and that I had exhausted my finances attempting to reach for what I wanted to be: a Baltimore Orioles employee. After several years, I told the club that I had no resources left and the next day they created my position—Florida operations manager.

The importance of relationships

I can build our community relationships effectively, because I love to get out and to meet people. I love seeing the fans’ faces as they come into this beautiful new stadium and experience Orioles baseball.

The Nike rule: Just Do It

There are times in life when you just sit down and say, “This is what I really want to do,” and you just go after it.

Being a role model for young girls

When I speak to the girls at Girls Inc., I say, “Take a chance.” When you know what you really want to do, channel your energy and go for it. It might not be an easy road, but you can achieve it. That’s what I did.

Don’t assume barriers

Baseball is definitely a male-dominated field. But I’ve been blessed because the guys have always treated me as an equal. In any profession historically dominated by men, the proof is in our performance. If you get the job done with excellence and professionalism, then you earn the respect of your colleagues.

A different business focus

I think the guys tend to focus on the statistics; they like the numbers. Females tend to focus more on feelings and emotions, and interact with the fans in a different way.

Life balance

I have no personal life! I swapped it for a construction hat. I’ve done nothing in the past three years but review blueprints, walk construction sites and put in furniture and equipment. I haven’t slept in three years.

Job advice

So many people just go day-to-day in a job they don’t love. Realize that life is worth taking that extra step, and that often it’s going to take you down a path you never envisioned—one you’re going to enjoy so much more than you were currently doing.


Roxanne JoffeRoxanne Joffe

Roxanne Joffe, 57, president of CAP Brand Marketing, is also a Leadership Florida alumna, winner of the Athena Award for inspirational leadership worldwide, and recipient of The Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce’s Frank G. Berlin Sr. Woman Entrepreneurial Excellence Award. She oversees 10 employees in the firm she owns with her husband, Sam Stern. Passionate about offering mentoring advice to women in business through her blog, Joffe is now following her own advice to “hit the pause, reset and play buttons” as she goes through breast cancer treatment. The South African native, former fashion designer and manufacturer, radio executive and veteran of five New York City marathons has a grown son and daughter and three grandchildren.

Work-life balance

I have some wonderful theories and blogs and papers and lists on work-life balance and I don’t believe I was there—ever—until I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I’m going through a transition. If I could give any advice, it’s don’t wait to be forced into it. It isn’t healthy not to have balance, whatever balance works for you.

The feminine vs. feminist perspective

For me, the feminine style is being maternal, caring and nurturing and then adding strength to that. Not necessarily male strength, where I’m wearing a dark suit and commanding a room.

Learning from men

The key is to surround yourself with some pretty good men. I’ve always valued men who could mentor me and who respect me as a woman. You don’t have to be one of the good old boys, but it’s OK if those good old boys are around.


It’s not really what I think and how I think life should be. It’s listening to where their life is and what their aspirations are, and then giving advice suited to the situation. The constant is focusing on intuition, authenticity and strengths.

Success vs. failure

As much as women can give men lessons about being leaders, I have failed at some things because I’ve been too concerned with how people feel and how they’re going to react to what I’m doing. That is a hindrance in business.

Being strong

It’s really about being authentic and individual. Abandon your weaknesses. Let them live there; let them be there. But deal with your strengths.

Getting to your goal

I believe in visualization. You can’t just believe and not put any work in and think you’re going to get there. Visualize, and then create a road map and look at your strengths and your authenticity.

Don’t be ageist

I’ve noticed that women who are aging and insecure sometimes dismiss younger women. It makes younger women feel awful; it’s almost like being rejected by your mother. I really think we should be cognizant of age discrimination as much as racial and sex discrimination.

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