2018 Brilliance Awards Top Honorees Announced

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West Michigan Woman magazine is pleased to announce the 2018 Brilliance Awards top honorees.

More than 350 women and men gathered in the Ambassador Ballroom at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel on Thursday, April 26, 2018, to celebrate the success of local leaders.

Now in its second year, the Brilliance Awards shine a spotlight on the dynamic talent, spirit and intellect of women and men who tackle the issues facing professional women.

The awards honor the success of women and men across 10 categories. This year, 30 finalists were selected from more than 200 nominations. The final honorees were determined by a selection committee of local community leaders.


Woman of the Year: Dr. Nkechy Ekere Ezeh, Founder and CEO of the Early Learning Neighborhood Collaborative (ELNC), immigrated to the United States at age 19, leaving behind a Nigerian culture that assumed only males needed to be educated and could rise to leadership positions. She proved them wrong. Today, Dr. Ezeh and her team serve over 400 vulnerable families annually through ELNC. She is a faculty member at Aquinas College School of Education, where she is a tenured Associate Professor and Director of the Early Childhood Education program. She is a globally recognized international scholar and presenter who leads by empowering others, taking calculated risks and encouraging others to do so. She drives early education with the goal of providing all young people the opportunity to succeed.

Tenacity: At 20, Mary Hollebeek, Ambassador and Board Member for Mel Trotter Ministries, lost her father to cancer. Two years later, she lost her mother in a tragic car accident. Yet she forged ahead and became a nurse and mother of twin boys. Shortly after birth, one son was diagnosed with a chronic illness. By age 4, he had eight surgeries. If this weren't enough, a simple flu bug triggered an autoimmune response in Mary's body and rendered her a quadriplegic at 38. After 10 years in a wheelchair, her tenacity got her up and walking again. Today, Mary gives her heart for the disabled, disenfranchised and marginalized. She's served in many capacities, including 25 years volunteering with Mel Trotter Ministries. Mary's life motto is "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me."

Team Player: As Medical Director of Mercy Health Comprehensive Breast Center, Dr. Jamie Caughran has created a leadership approach in which novel ideas are brought forward, heard and implemented—no matter where they come from. These ideas support the needs of breast cancer patients in new and innovative ways, resulting in a new model of care. Her team is a family that believes no question is unreasonable if it will help a patient.

Social Change Agent: Tessa Hessmiller works for the U.S. Department of Justice as the Assistant Attorney for the Western District of Michigan. Outside the courtroom, she turns her knowledge into community activism by educating West Michigan about the dangers of human trafficking and how to stop it before it starts. Her work with the Kent County Human Trafficking Task Force helped lay the groundwork for ensuring human trafficking is stopped in our community. She teaches seminars about recognizing the signs to look for and is committed to building awareness of human trafficking and creating a safe place for all children.

Mentor: Tanell Hills is the Co-Founder and Assistant Executive Director of Endless Opportunities, which offers speed networking with local professionals, interview skills, résumé writing and back-to-school supplies for youth in need. In 2015, she launched IMPACT Girls, a mentoring program, and has spent more than 1,000 hours mentoring young women with a focus on empowerment, professional development, college tours and community service.

Entrepreneur: President and Owner of Green Giftz Karen Scarpino revolutionized her promotional products company by simply asking Herman Miller for scrap fabric, paid for out of her own pocket. She prototyped a bag created from the scrap fabric—and instantly sold it, many times over. Karen prides herself on finding way s to reuse any scrap material to create eco-friendly, high-design, branded merchandise. Her philosophy: "If you have an idea, run with it."

Emerging Leader: Denavvia Mojet, Strategic Communications Coordinator at LINC UP, has managed multiple political campaigns, worked for the City of Grand Rapids Downtown Development Authority, and served on the board of directors for community entities such as Well House GR and Equity PAC. As the host of her show Political Pulse with Denavvia Mojet on 97.3 The Beat, she works to bolster civic engagement. She joined LINC UP to uplift and empower the community's most marginalized residents while simultaneously grow the breadth and reach of LINC UP communications.

Connector: Judy Welch, Executive Director of the Michigan Women's Foundation in West Michigan, is a natural connector. She's used her connections to grow both Inforum and the Michigan Women's Foundation, yet she notes her most enjoyable outcome from making a strategic connection is watching someone advance his or her career.

Champion of Service: Latoya Person, Managing Partner for Management Business Solutions, is described as a "warrior of service." She volunteers on the board of BLEND (Business Leaders Linked to Encourage New Directions) and co-founded One in Christ Ministries, which helps and motivates the underserved population. Her volunteerism doesn't stop there. She has formed multiple partnerships with the Grand Rapids Housing Commission, offering her services to Hope Community, Liz's House, Adams Park Apartment & Shelters and Dégagé Ministries.

Best Supporting Man: Carl Erickson, CEO and Co-Founder of Atomic Object, believes that increasing the representation of women in technology is the right thing to do. He is passionate about including more women on his team and creating a diverse culture. In the past four years, he has shifted his workforce from 9 percent female to 25 percent female—a rarity for the software industry, especially in Michigan. In 2003, he created the nonprofit Software GR and started Bitcamp, a day-long experience designed to introduce middle school girls to technology. Each year, the program builds interested in STEM and encourages the career path for hundreds of girls.

Save the date for the 2019 West Michigan Woman Brilliance Awards: April 25, 2019, at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel. Nominations open in November 2018.

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