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NA Women Making their Marks on the World

In September 1971, Newark Academy became a fully co-educational institution, opening its doors to 49 female students. This transformation marked an important part of NA’s history and further demonstrated the school’s ability to empower global citizens, preparing them for a diverse world. We are honored to share with you these glimpses of just a few of the many inspiring women in our ranks who are making their marks both on and off campus.

Taffi Ayodele ’00
Trailblazer, Entrepreneur

For those Newark Academy students and faculty fortunate enough to have heard Taffi Ayodele kick off the 2018 – 19 academic year with her inspiring Convocation speech, it became clear that the path of a talented and courageous young alumna does not necessarily follow a straight line. Taffi came to NA through a scholarship from New Jersey SEEDS (an organization she now serves as a trustee) and showed herself to be a leader in the community at a young age.

Taffi looks back on her four years at NA as truly transformative. “There is no doubt in my mind that being a part of SEEDS and then joining the NA community changed the trajectory of my academic and professional life,” she says. Taffi recalls teachers who were invested in her development, both as a student and as a person, holding her to high standards while making themselves available for extra help, as well as peers and upperclassmen who offered support, both academic and personal.

After spending time in such a close-knit community, Taffi thought she wanted more of the same for college, but she soon found herself swept up in the energy and opportunities available to her at New York University (NYU), from which she graduated in 2004 with a degree in economics.

Leading a Groundbreaking Diversity Initiative

Upon graduation from NYU, Taffi embarked on a career in finance, starting at Blaylock Van, LLC, a boutique, minority-owned investment bank, and moving in 2008 to the Dormitory Authority of the State of New York (DASNY), the country’s second largest issuer of municipal debt had been charged with a mandate to increase the percentage of female and minority-owned businesses with which the state worked, specifically in the professional services (legal, financial and insurance). Taffi was appointed to lead this ground-breaking diversity initiative. “After my experience at Blaylock, I was uniquely poised, despite my young age of 27, to understand the challenges facing women- and minority-owned businesses, and the initiative spoke to me on both a personal and a political level,” she says. Within three years, the number of the state’s women- and minority-owned partners grew from two percent to 20 percent. Taffi considers presiding over this growth to be a highlight of her career, and she is thrilled to note that the current governor has increased DASNY’s mandate to 30 percent.

“There is no doubt in my mind that being a part of SEEDS and then joining the NA community changed the trajectory of my academic and professional life.” – Taffi Ayodele ’00

The Inspiration of Folding Flats

Taffi Ayodele ’00 (left) presented a micro loan of the 100,000 Niara gift that her company, Thando’s, gave to SESOR, a nonprofit organization that provides relief supplies and micro loans to displaced families in Nigeria.

Taffi decided that the best way to further her career goals would be to return to school for her M.B.A. “The work I was doing at DASNY was entrepreneurial in nature,” she says. “The challenge thrilled me and I wanted more, so I decided to specialize in entrepreneurship, global business and innovation at NYU’s Stern School of Business. The idea of working in footwear never crossed my mind!” In fact, the footwear that would come to define Taffi’s next professional chapter was neatly folded in her carry-on bag as she flew to South Africa for an internship after her first year of graduate school.

Taffi had connected with an NYU alumna running a gourmet tea company in Johannesburg and spent the summer working at this start-up. Although Taffi brought her interesting and diverse work experience to this new challenge, along with her deepening interest in Africa, “it was my folding flats that really caught the attention of my colleagues!” she recalls. Taffi, a seasoned New York commuter, was in the habit of throwing on her “train shoes” at the end of the work day. The women at the tea company loved the idea of carrying comfortable walking shoes to wear home after a long day of work or a big night out. “I went to Dis-Chem, a South African version of Walgreens, to pick up a pair for my boss almost as a gag gift, but it turns out there was no similar product on the market.” This got Taffi’s wheels turning. She immediately reached out to her favorite business school collaborator (now her husband), J.G. Ayodele, and they realized the idea had great potential.

Back in New York, the couple developed a business plan for what would become Thando’s Footwear. Soon, with Taffi still in New York and her fiancé at a new job in Nigeria, they launched their operation in the latter location, using locally designed and sourced textiles. Their shoes caught on quickly, and they began receiving orders from both Nigerian and American customers. “It was always our mission

to provide a useful product to African women,” says Taffi, “but equally important to me was employing African designers and involving them in all aspects of product development.” Soon after graduating from Stern (where she was the first black woman president of the student government, as well as vice president of the Stern Women in Business Club), Taffi finished third in the She Leads Africa start-up competition and landed on Forbes’ list of 10 Women Entrepreneurs to Watch.

Thando’s customer base is now 4,000 and growing. But what makes Taffi most proud are the delight with which their shoes are received by the women who wear them and the impact the company’s success is having on the Nigerian designers it employs, who receive significant royalties for their work.

Asha Talwar Coco ’99
Creativity Redefined

In the spring of 1999, with her NA graduation in sight, Asha Talwar Coco embarked on her senior project, a stint in the beauty products department at Ralph Lauren. It promised to be an interesting way to pass the brief time remaining in high school, but what she soon discovered was that the internship would set her on a path toward her future career.

“After my internship,” Asha recalls, “I knew I wanted to continue to explore this industry.” She crafted a cover letter and sent it to all the beauty companies in New York for which she wanted to work, and she soon secured a four-year internship at Estee Lauder, returning each summer during her college years at New York University (NYU).

While at NYU, Asha carved out an inter-disciplinary course of study in marketing and communications at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study, taking classes in business and the liberal arts along the way. After working for the iconic cosmetics companies Estee Lauder and Coty, Asha segued into the world of fragrance and joined the Swiss company Givaudan, a large fragrance house that formulates scents and flavors for use in a wide variety of foods, beverages, consumer goods, fragrances and cosmetic products.

Asha Talwar Coco ’99 traveled to the flower fields in Grasse, France and took in the beautiful scents, including the roses.

Asha has always been a trend seeker, which made her a perfect fit for her newly created position at Givaudan, vice president of sales and business development. She loves to hunt out the “next big thing” in beauty, fashion and lifestyle products. “There are many indicators a brand may be on the rise,” says Asha. “A big part of my job is to see how a brand’s quantitative metrics, such as sales, combine with more subjective elements like the brand’s visual aesthetic, its social media presence and the retail experience it has created, and to use this data to identify potential partners for Givaudan.” She seeks out companies that align with Givaudan’s capabilities in fragrance and cosmetics, helping them realize their visions for their products.

An Invaluable Link

At Givaudan, Asha leads a team of younger professionals, thinking of herself as the “Elder Millenial” – with her finger on the pulse of popular culture, but with additional business and life experience (including recent motherhood) also under her belt. “I have a team of five women who report to me,” she says. “I believe that one of the best ways to inspire them in their careers is to be very transparent about what has worked for me in the past and where I have stumbled. My willingness to share stories helps to create trust among us, and in that environment I know we can all do our best work.” Asha considers herself lucky to have on her team some true “Instagram Gurus” whose passion for social media aligns perfectly with her goal of inspiring consumers through the visual power of this platform.

 

“Parfumerie is a creative endeavor. It requires one to make connections between art, beauty and daily life.” – Asha Talwar Coco ’99

As a student at NA, Asha’s passions ran toward art and dance. Looking back now, she sees a logical path that led her to express her creativity in new ways. “Parfumerie is a creative endeavor,” she explains. “It requires one to make connections between art, beauty and daily life. It’s also filled with French terminology, so there is yet another aspect of my studies at NA that I am still putting to good use!”

As Asha has learned first-hand, one never knows which of one’s life experiences will turn out to be truly defining. She takes great pleasure in hosting NA seniors in their own senior projects and values her role as a mentor to the younger professionals on her team. “The beauty industry contains many examples of women in top leadership positions,” she notes. In fact, Asha was drawn to Givaudan largely by the significant number of women in senior management – one of whom, her current boss, she had worked with at a different company shortly after college. “My career is a great example of the importance of maintaining and nurturing your connections, whether they are with classmates, teachers or colleagues you meet along the way.”

NA is delighted to welcome Asha to its Alumni Board of Governors, where her voice will be invaluable as a link between NA’s current student body and the working world they will soon inhabit.

Denise Jamieson ’83
Advocate for Women’s Health

Doctor Denise Jamieson’s distinguished career as an advocate for women’s reproductive health has led her all over the world, and in October it led her back to New Jersey for NA’s Homecoming & Reunion Weekend, at which she received this year’s Alumni Achievement Award.

In April 2018, Denise was named James Robert McCord Professor & Vice Chair for Population Health and Division Director for Gynecologic Specialties at Emory University School of Medicine. Previously, she served for 20 years at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, most recently as a captain in the United States Public Health Service and chief of the Women’s Health and Fertility Branch in the CDC’s Division of Reproductive Health.

A Nurturing Community Inspires

While it may be hard to imagine that such an accomplished physician and epidemiologist was once a shy middle school student, Denise recalls feeling lost and overwhelmed in her large public middle school. “My mother recognized that the more nurturing culture at NA would make a huge difference. She couldn’t have been more correct.” Denise entered NA in seventh grade and soon set out on a new course. “I gained tremendous confidence at NA. I remember feeling for the first time that there were absolutely no limits on what I could do,” she says.

“Once, I was running in a big track meet, the Newark Academy Invitational, in fact – there was no girls’ team but Mr. Blaskopf had no problem with me running with the boys – and I realized I was the only female runner in a field of hundreds. Knowing I could compete there gave me the feeling that I could do anything, and I carried this with me through college, medical school and beyond.”

At NA, Denise discovered a passion for science – but also for writing and journalism. She would go on to combine these disciplines in her career as a frequently published researcher in the public health arena. Most of all, she classroom, so I took some time off to pursue a master’s degree in maternal and child health.” During her master’s program, Denise interned at the CDC, where she had hands-on experience combining public health with gynecology and obstetrics. This period in her studies set the stage for her post-graduate work with the Epidemic Intelligence Service of the United States, where she researched global disease outbreaks such as HIV and, later, Zika virus, working to mitigate these diseases’ effects on pregnant women.

 

“My mother recognized that the more nurturing culture at NA would make a huge difference. She couldn’t have been more correct. I gained tremendous confidence at NA. I remember feeling for the first time that there were absolutely no limits on what I could do.” – Denise Jamieson ’83

After receiving the 2018 Alumni Achievement Award at Reunion, Dr. Denise Jamieson ’83, a champion of women’s health, reflected on how Newark Academy gave her many gifts and shaped her life and career.

Breaking the Glass Ceiling

In the early 1990’s Denise found the medical field to be quite inhospitable to women, especially those with leadership aspirations. “It was such a contrast to everything I had learned at NA, where gender had never been an obstacle and where I never encountered barriers to anything I wanted to pursue.” Denise feels that working for women’s health and being an inspiration to the next generation of female leaders in the field are personal obligations. She has also made a point to be a strong female role model to her own twin boys, who are in seventh grade, demonstrating through her daily practice that devotion to her work both has great value for the larger community and brings her great satisfaction. She knew they were absorbing her lessons when, at a young age, one of her boys commented with great admiration, “I don’t know exactly what you do in the hospital, but I know it has something to do with tools and blood and stuff!”

Denise has enjoyed the transition from government service to academia. She loves the variety she experiences on any given work day – from teaching in Emory’s medical school, to working with residents at Grady Memorial Hospital, to serving patients directly while caring for pregnant women and delivering babies. “Grady Memorial actually has quite a rich history,” Denise notes. It is a local landmark as the birthplace of many notable Atlanteans, including former presidential advisor Vernon Jordan, Outkast’s Andre 3000, Indigo Girl Amy Ray, former Secretary of Health and Human Services Dr. Louis Sullivan, and rapper T.I., to name a few. “Around here, being a ‘Grady Baby’ is the ultimate pedigree for a native son or daughter of the city,” says Denise.

Denise was excited to return to NA in October and recalls visiting campus once in the early 2000’s, when she was so impressed by the confidence of the young people who spoke at Morning Meeting. “Students stood up to deliver the scores from the prior day’s games or to make announcements about upcoming events, and then a young man got up and recited a poem to kick off National Poetry Month. It was a moment that said so much about the community and its support for all kinds of voices.” It was NA’s nurturing of Denise’s own voice that helped her achieve so much in her career, and she was thrilled to be honored at the Alumni Awards Recognition Ceremony by a community that still holds true to this essential part of its character.

A Leader, Mentor and Friend

Arts Department Chair Elaine Brodie is a tireless supporter of the arts – and especially of the artists of Newark Academy. “Art is innately human,” says Elaine. “It’s a pursuit that comes from the heart and involves great vulnerability and risk-taking. I have the privilege to observe and support our young artists in this pursuit every day, which makes me feel incredibly lucky.”

Working across all the artistic disciplines, teaching, managing a large budget and leading the Arts Department, Elaine’s charge is far-reaching. A typical day might include a morning check-in with her advisees, teaching ceramics and sculpture to Middle School students, facilitating a critique in 11th- and 12th-grade IB Art, collaborating with an Arts Department colleague, overseeing set construction for the Middle School play, and attending an evening dance performance.

In addition to these responsibilities, Elaine is charged with fulfilling a mandate from the estate of David Teiger ’47 to create a world-class visual arts department at NA. “We were so fortunate to receive this gift, and fulfilling Mr. Teiger’s wishes has been a career highlight for me personally.”

Elaine oversaw the physical renovation of the David Teiger ’47 Gallery for Studio Arts and has designed an ongoing program interspersing the work of artists-in-residence with student exhibits. “It was essential to me that the artists we bring to campus will spend some time connecting with students in addition to sharing their work.” The fall program included two exhibits: PAX Rwanda: Embroideries of the Women of Savane Rutongo-Kabuye, an exhibit of vibrant embroideries created by Rwandan artists from previously warring tribes, who have collaborated and connected through their art; and Dancers Among Us, works by the celebrated photographer Jordan Matter.

Elaine is constantly amazed by the talent and depth of NA’s arts faculty. “They are committed to selecting choral arrangements, instrumental pieces, dances, plays and art projects that stretch NA students – and themselves – in new directions,” she says. “My first priority regarding the members of my department is to show up for them – to support and appreciate their work. Equally as important, I connect with them on a human level and do my best to understand what is going on in their lives outside of NA.” Finally, Elaine firmly believes that NA’s arts faculty must feel they are on a team with a common purpose. By publicly acknowledging her teachers’ successes and thanking them regularly for their dedication, she hopes to build an environment in which creativity can flourish.

NA’s commitment to a world-class arts program is ongoing, with plans well underway for the renovation and expansion of the auditorium. Groundbreaking is anticipated in June 2019, and Elaine has gathered her ideas and those of her colleagues, to ensure that they make their mark on this premier space for the arts and the NA community for many years to come.

NA’s Young Women to Watch

Samantha Powell ’19 shared her experiences as a Newark Academy student with members of the NA community at the Alumni of Color Breakfast at Reunion in October.

Samantha Powell ’19 is a senior at NA, co-president of Umojaa Club, and a leader of two on-campus singing groups.

LUMEN MAGAZINE: Now that you are a senior, can you reflect on the changes you’ve seen in yourself since entering NA in sixth grade?
SAMANTHA POWELL: A lot of people on campus have heard my voice as a singer with NA’s jazz band, Chameleon; the a cappella group, LumeNAtion; and NA’s Advanced Choir. But, believe it or not, I barely had a voice at all before coming to NA. I was so painfully shy in elementary school – I hardly spoke, let alone sang. I used to confide in one of the cafeteria workers in my old school and she encouraged me to try out for the fifth-grade talent show. I gained confidence and made friends, but once I came to NA the shy girl returned as I acclimated to my new school. It was on the last class trip in sixth grade when Mr. T (Jazz Director Julius Tolentino) heard me singing on the bus. He asked me to sing with Chameleon when school resumed in the fall, and that’s when I really started to break out of my shell.

LM: Since that fateful day in sixth grade, how has music played a role in your educational experience, both at NA and elsewhere?
SP: At NA, singing has introduced me to new forms of music (choral, jazz, a cappella, musical theater), new people and new experiences. Performing at school functions, I’ve met many parents and alumni, and performing for a huge audience with Chameleon at the Essentially Ellington competition last spring was something I never imagined I would do. I am also involved in music outside of school, where I lead my church’s new youth choir.

LM: How do you use your platform as a leader in NA’s African-American community to speak about diversity?
SP: Last winter, I attended the Student Diversity Leadership Conference sponsored by the National Association of Independent Schools. We learned how to facilitate conversations about diversity and how to respond to questions and opinions that might be in opposition to our own thoughts or experiences. The conference helped me understand how important it is to use my voice to advocate for and inspire others, and to empower other students of color to keep the dialogue going themselves.

LM: What are you looking forward to in your college experience?
SP: Academically, I am interested in African-American studies, sociology and public policy. However, music will definitely play a role in my college experience and long after.

LM: When you come back to NA in 25 years for your reunion, what do you hope to see?
SP: First, I hope my classmates are all thriving, and that they all come back for reunion! But as far as changes I’d like to see at NA, I hope the number of students of color will continue to grow, and that their faces will be reflected even more fully in ranks of the honored students and alumni leaders.

Sophia Ludtke ’20 presented information to her peers about environmental justice at a Green and Blue Committee Meeting.

Sophia Ludtke ’20 is a junior at NA, co-president of NA’s Green and Blue Committee and president of the Class of 2020.

LUMEN MAGAZINE: How did you become interested in environmental issues, and how are you exploring this passion both at school and beyond?|
SOPHIA LUDTKE: I have always been passionate about the outdoors and I love being in nature. Last summer, I had the opportunity to do climate change research in Acadia National Park in Maine. I want to do more research in this area, and I hope to combine my environmental studies with biology and health sciences to better understand how climate change affects human health.

LM: As a co-president of NA’s Green and Blue Committee how are you bringing your passion for the environment to the NA community?
SL: Our goal on the Green and Blue Committee is to help NA students and teachers find ways to make small lifestyle changes that will decrease our harmful impact on the environment and lead us to make more conscious decisions. So far, we have worked with the maintenance and cafeteria staff to bring composting to campus and to make the switch to reusable frozen yogurt cups. We’ve also sponsored a reusable water bottle competition and are trying to raise awareness about living sustainably.

LM: Describe your experience conducting research through the Rockefeller Summer Science Research Program this past summer.
SL: I conducted research in the Harold and Margaret Milliken Hatch Laboratory of Neuroendocrinology, comparing the effects of environmental stress on the male and female dorsal dentate gyrus region of the hippocampus. It was fascinating to learn how the infinitesimally small neurons in our brain can be changed by large-scale, global forces ranging from the stress associated with poverty to the amount of green space in a city. I also participated in weekly classes on science communication, laboratory skills and the ethics of scientific research, and I presented my research findings at a program-wide poster session at the conclusion of the seven-week program. It was a very meaningful and eye-opening experience!

LM: When you come back to NA in 25 years for your reunion, what do you hope to see?
SL: I hope to see the school continue to develop its conservation mindset, maybe with an expanded garden and a transition to renewable energy sources. I also hope that NA will continue to develop its relationship with the city of Newark. There’s currently a housing complex on the site of NA’s original school building, and I think it would be great to support the residents there in some way and stay committed to the school’s socially conscious values.

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