Amplifying trans voices
When Josie Caballero was 8 years old, growing up in Mineral Wells, Texas, she assumed every little boy secretly wished to be a girl. Caballero had been born the oldest male in a conservative Latino family. “In Latin culture, the first-born male child is kind of the person that leads the family,” she says. “So to turn all that around, and become the woman I’ve always been, was very hard on me.”
At 18, she joined the U.S. Navy. (In those years, she was “Josie before the ‘i,’ ” she says). She became a nuclear reactor operator and spent four of her six years in the military stationed aboard the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan. “I wanted to prove to the world that I was a tough person,” she says.
One evening in 2010, while stationed in Afghanistan, the crew was shown footage of mountain villages they had struck that morning, using aircraft Caballero helped launch. “It was the first time I saw the blood on my hands,” she says. That night, she made the decision to leave the military and take her life in a new direction. She attended San Diego State University on the GI Bill and remained in Southern California for 16 years, running political campaigns for progressive candidates, and eventually her own for U.S. Congress.
Now 36 and living in Silver Spring, Caballero is a proud queer transgender woman. She’s the director of the 2022 U.S. Transgender Survey, the largest survey of trans people in the country. Under her leadership, the survey is expected to reach 60,000 trans people—more than double the number of participants in the 2015 survey. The 2022 survey, which launched this past summer, asks members of the trans community about their experiences with everything from COVID-19 to abortion access to identification-card barriers. The results, she says, will help inform lawmakers, educators, researchers and the community about the needs of trans people.
An outspoken advocate of both LGBTQ and veterans’ rights, Caballero has been public from the start about her own transition. It began two years ago, when she was 34. A month before the congressional election she was running in, she came out to herself, she says, and broke down. After she lost, she had the time to start her transition, reclusing herself for about four months before coming out publicly. “I was accepted by a lot of people, and ostracized by a lot of people,” she says.
Early this year, she was named the U.S. Trans Survey’s director, and moved to Montgomery County with her partner, Katie Meyer. This past summer, Caballero helped organize an event at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) for families of young trans people to share their stories with HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra.
One of the youths in attendance was a trans girl Caballero began mentoring when she lived in California. “I was the first trans person she ever met,” Caballero says about the little girl, whom she now thinks of as a niece. The first time Caballero sat down with her, she told the girl about the challenges she faced growing up in Texas. The girl’s face lit up with hope that everything would turn out OK, Caballero says. “I feel motivated to work harder for a better future when I think of her.”
Carmen Ortiz Larsen
Breaking barriers, building bridges
It was 1978 and Carmen Ortiz Larsen was seven months pregnant when she decided to leave her job at a management consulting firm and branch out on her own. At 27 and recently separated from her husband, she became an information-technology consultant and conducted as much business as she could over the phone so that no one would know that hers was a one-person operation and that she was about to give birth.
When she finally had to meet a client in person, she nearly lost the contract. “I hope I’m dealing with a company and not just you,” the client asked after glancing at her swollen belly. “Of course not,” she said, and rushed to the ladies’ room to think of a corporate name that would exude quality—and start with an “A” so it could be found at the front of the phone book.
She kept the contract, she says.
Today, Larsen, 70, of Chevy Chase, is still running AQUAS Inc., the company she founded more than 40 years ago. Over the past four decades, Larsen also has been a mentor to more than 100 people who have wanted to start their own businesses, say those close to her.
As president and chairman of the board of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Montgomery County—and as an executive board member of the Montgomery County Economic Development Corp.—Larsen has orchestrated dozens of public-private partnerships to help aspiring entrepreneurs. She’s especially focused on assisting young people who are new to the country, single moms, even older people who find themselves “aged out” of the hiring process, she says.
“She is a bridge builder who enthusiastically supports ways to promote different cultures and traditions,” says Maury Peterson, the executive director of Rebuilding Together Montgomery County, where Larsen serves on the board.
Larsen’s accomplishments include organizing a program to teach technical language classes in fields such as automotive repair and landscaping to people seeking management positions who lacked enough English to be eligible for promotions. And she co-founded an initiative providing internships with stipends to immigrant teenagers. “Otherwise, they’d drop out of high school at 16 to go to work to support their families,” she says. “I have a tendency to [want to help] people who have a lot of talent and a lot of desire but…who have a barrier to get them where they need to get in order to be successful.”
The daughter of Ecuadoran parents, Larsen was born and raised in Rome, Italy. When she was 16, her father’s job at an international nonprofit transferred the family to Washington, D.C.
One of the first women to attend Georgetown University in 1969 (it became fully coed her freshman year), Larsen still remembers an admissions interviewer asking if she wanted to attend the prestigious school to find a husband. No, she recalls saying, “I want to study physics.”
After graduation, she became the nation’s first computerized tomography technician, she says, handling the machine’s complex digital imaging. Just as important, she says, was her role of calming and reassuring nervous patients, many of them suffering from brain injuries or mental health challenges.
Her aptitude for computer software and data processing soon led her to the corporate world, but her interest in serving as a bridge between people who need help and those in a position to offer it only grew stronger. “Sometimes people don’t help you out because you look different or behave different or speak different,” she says. “That is where I want to step in.”
Emboldening African women around the globe
It’s a muggy July morning, and Tope Fajingbesi is wearing a sparkly teal hijab, a long-sleeved shirt and dark slacks. She’s straightening the gardening supplies in a shed at Dodo Farms, the certified-naturally-grown farm in Brookeville that she runs with her husband, Olaniyi Balogun. The couple and their farmhands use no pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers, only compost manure, to grow their crops—which are spread out in neat rows across their tidy 1-acre parcel. In the five years that Dodo Farms has been in business, its customer base has grown from 20 weekly regulars to more than 200, and it recently added another 4 acres.
Fajingbesi, 45, doesn’t look like the stereotypical farmer, and she isn’t. The Silver Spring resident is also a certified public accountant, a published author, a professional speaker and educator, and a social media personality who created and hosts a YouTube show called Impact Africa.
She grew up in a middle-class family in Lagos, Nigeria, and came to the U.S. in 2002 to pursue an MBA at Emory University in Atlanta, then got hired at PricewaterhouseCoopers in Manhattan. She arrived in the D.C. area in 2004 to take a job at Constellation Energy, where she worked until 2008. After that, she stayed in the region, traveling around the U.S., Nigeria and Europe, focusing on projects to help women and children across the African continent.
To that end, she’s the founder and president of a global platform for professional, mostly college-educated women of African descent called She-EO (thesheeo.org). Three times a year, She-EO conferences around the U.S. and in London and Lagos host women from across the African diaspora who gather to talk about the topics that matter most to them, both professionally and personally. Those includes painful histories of domestic abuse, divorce, child-custody battles and infertility, as well as the uncomfortable stares they get when they arrive at meetings—many wearing hijabs and headscarves—in conference rooms filled with white men. The next She-EO conference is scheduled for October in Houston, Texas.
Fajingbesi is so forthright about her own personal tragedies—the domestic abuse she suffered in a previous relationship, her struggles with childlessness—that she makes people around her comfortable in sharing their stories, too, says Lydia Nylander, an international risk and policy expert at the United States Agency for International Development and a panelist at the first She-EO. “Tope unpeels the onion with such care,” Nylander says. “She leans into who she is, and she gives the permission for others to do the same.”
Fajingbesi’s next project under the She-EO umbrella will focus on Black women in the food and agricultural sectors. When she and her husband started Dodo Farms, she had never known a farmer in America who was Black, let alone a migrant, or a woman, but she knows they are out there, she says. “Giving people who look like me, who speak like me, who have names as long as mine, a forum to belong—to speak—is, I think for me, my most important work.”
Feeding people, body and soul
Radha Muthiah has dined with some of the world’s most powerful corporate leaders, but she’ll never forget the lunch she had four years ago with an 8-year-old girl named Mikaela. It was at a local after-school meals program co-hosted by the Capital Area Food Bank, and Muthiah had recently been named the organization’s president and CEO. A little girl with “a sparkle in her eye” sat down at a nearby table with a tray of food and caught Muthiah’s gaze. Before long, the executive and the girl were playing tic-tac-toe and talking about the girl’s plans for her birthday. “She wasn’t shy,” Muthiah says.
In the back of Muthiah’s mind was one of her nieces, who was about the same age as the girl and lived only a few miles away. She knew that her niece’s life was filled with possibilities, and that Mikaela’s would likely be fraught with challenges. “Girls like her inspire me every day,” Muthiah says about her lunch companion. “I don’t want her to be a 20-something-year-old who is still dependent on the food bank, or a 45-year-old or a 70-year-old. [I] want to clear the pathway for her to be able to succeed to whatever her aspirations are.”
The Chevy Chase mother of two has devoted much of her life to removing the barriers that hold people back. Before joining the food bank in 2018, she spent six years helming the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, now known as the Clean Cooking Alliance, a public-private partnership, and before that she worked at global nonprofit CARE—first as chief operating officer of CARE India, based in New Delhi, and then as vice president of strategic partnerships and alliances at CARE International, in Washington, D.C.
Before Muthiah arrived, “We were very scattered and working with close to 1,000 different companies,” says Helene Gayle, who was president and CEO of CARE when Muthiah joined its D.C. office in 2008. But Muthiah zeroed in on Walmart, The Gap Inc. and about 50 other large corporations and “really helped [these companies] build out their market” for small producers in developing countries, says Gayle, now president of Spelman College in Atlanta. “She had a huge amount of vision.”
Muthiah was raised in her parents’ native Malaysia, arriving in the U.S. at age 13. The plan was for the family to return to its home country, where Muthiah and her younger sisters would eventually enter into arranged marriages. Instead, she graduated from high school in three years, began college at Tufts University at 16, and took a job at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, where she quickly moved up the ranks. At 28, she got her MBA at Stanford University in California and came to Washington, D.C., with her boyfriend (now husband), human rights advocate Adotei Akwei. It was tough at first for her parents to understand the direction she wanted to take with her life, but they’ve always been supportive, she says.
Today, the Capital Area Food Bank has more than 450 local partners and helps source food for more than 45 million meals a year. Muthiah’s goal is to ensure that girls like Mikaela aren’t just the recipients of food, but also of possibilities. A girl like Mikaela, she adds, “has every right to achieve her ambitions, and we have a role to play in removing whatever roadblocks exist for her.”
Blazing a trail in hospitality
As a teenager, Stephanie Linnartz spent her summers cleaning guest rooms at her parents’ Phoenix Park Hotel on Capitol Hill, and bussing and waiting tables at the hotel’s iconic Irish pub, The Dubliner. “Every human being should have to wait tables at least once in their life,” because nothing teaches the importance of eye contact, hard work and grit like working in the service industry, she says. Now married and the mother of two, the 54-year-old Linnartz is president of Marriott International, the world’s largest hospitality company, managing more than 8,100 properties, including 30 brands, across 139 countries.
The oldest of six kids, she graduated from D.C.’s Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School; majored in political science at the College of the Holy Cross, in Worcester, Massachusetts; and briefly considered a career in politics before deciding that hospitality was her passion. After a couple of years with Hilton Hotels, she headed to the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, for her MBA.
Marriott hired her shortly after graduation, and over 25 years, she worked her way up from the finance and business development department to the C-suite. Marriott insiders say that she played a critical role in the company’s 2016 acquisition of Starwood Hotels & Resorts, she was instrumental in the company’s rollout of its 150-million-member Marriott Bonvoy loyalty program, and she was the force behind Marriott’s expansion into the luxury home and villa rental market. She was named Marriott’s new president in February 2021.
What she’s most proud of is how she and her team navigated the turbulent COVID-19 days of March and April 2020, when the company lost nearly 90% of its business in a matter of weeks. “It was the worst time this company has seen in its 95-year history,” she says. “We leaned into the fact that the world was changing; we didn’t just sit back and say, ‘Let’s hang on.’ ”
Instead, she and her team led the company in investing in new technology, such as mobile check-in and checkout, and focused on what they could do to help the global community and their employees—many of them suddenly laid off or furloughed. Under Linnartz’s leadership, Marriott turned hotel ballrooms into blood banks for the American Red Cross, donated food and linen to local hospitals, even trained more than 800 customer service associates at Marriott call centers throughout the U.S. to help out-of-work New Yorkers file unemployment claims.
Marriott Global Human Resources Officer Bridgett Price, who has known Linnartz for more than 20 years, remembers her saying that even though they needed to downsize, they should be looking for ways to help in the global crisis while providing job opportunities to as many Marriott associates as possible. “[She] had to balance making the tough calls—furloughs, job eliminations—but also [be] kind and compassionate as we were doing it.”
Linnartz chalks up her success to what she calls “healthy paranoia.”
“There’s always a disrupter around the corner, and if you are not innovating and…coming up with new ways to grow your business—if you don’t have a little bit of healthy paranoia—I don’t think you are going to survive in the world today,” she says. “It’s moving too fast.” It’s OK if not every idea works out, she adds. “Take risks…take the project that nobody else wants to take. Even if you fail, you are going to get recognized for trying.”
Amy Halpern is a journalist who has worked in print and television news, and as the associate producer of an Emmy Award-winning documentary. She lives in Potomac.
This story appears in the September/October 2022 issue of Bethesda Magazine.