“Hi. I’m Brooke, and I was given the terminal diagnosis of ALS.”
That’s how Brooke Eby, 34, of North Bethesda starts most of her Instagram stories and TikToks. But the words are hard to reconcile with the vibrant young woman on the screen.
Since being diagnosed in March 2022 with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou
Gehrig’s disease, Eby has become one of the most upbeat faces to represent a progressive neuromuscular disorder with few treatments, no cure and certain death. And she has used her positive attitude, charisma and social media acumen to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars—and counting—for ALS research.
“Other diseases have survivors that can go rally the troops. …With ALS, there are no survivors,” she says.
For the first few months following her diagnosis, Eby, a partnership manager at the California-based software company Salesforce, admits she spent her time “crying and shoveling M&M’s into my face.”
But then she started typing into her phone a list of ideas to bring awareness of the disease to a younger generation. She shared the list with her mother, her sister and one of her friends. They were all supportive, she says, “so I just started making videos.”
Eby—who graduated from Winston Churchill High School in Potomac and Lehigh University in Pennsylvania—has since posted about everything from the perils of dating while disabled to videos of her grimacing as she gulps down Relyvrio, her bitter ALS medication. The drug, approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration last year, is one of only a handful of ALS medications on the market.
Eby posted videos from her condo every evening in May, during ALS Awareness Month. In many of the clips, she leans in close and answers her followers’ questions, which range from silly to deeply personal.
“She had prepopulated the donation field on Instagram at five dollars,” recalls Carol Hamilton, vice president of development for the ALS Therapy Development Institute, the world’s largest nonprofit focused on ALS research. “Within days, she surpassed $50,000 [in donations],” Hamilton says.
That same month, Eby appeared on NBC’s Today show. An anonymous couple saw the interview and messaged her on Instagram to offer a $100,000 match. In about six weeks, Eby managed to raise more than $225,000 toward research for an ALS cure.
In June, the Baltimore Orioles approached Eby and asked if she’d throw out the ceremonial first pitch before a game against the Toronto Blue Jays. “If I can’t throw it really well, then I hope it goes so wrong that it goes viral,” she told Bethesda Magazine the day before the game.
Afterward, she posted a video of herself—in a Lou Gehrig jersey—riding toward the pitcher’s mound in her motorized wheelchair and smiling as she lobbed a very impressive pitch right into the catcher’s mitt.
“Brooke [is] able to reach outside of the ALS community using her humor and her social platform to introduce a whole new group of people to ALS in a nonintimidating way,” says Hamilton, who realized how special Eby is after her own 25-year-old daughter, Jae, saw Eby being interviewed on The Toast, a podcast popular with 20-somethings and 30-somethings, and was overcome with emotion.
To Hamilton, it was impactful because, “It wasn’t me telling my daughter about an incredible young woman with ALS. It was my daughter…being touched and inspired by [Eby] on her own.”
Today, Eby has over 86,000 TikTok followers and over 73,000 Instagram followers—and the numbers are rising steadily.
On a sunny June afternoon, sitting in her wheelchair outside a coffee shop at North Bethesda’s Pike & Rose, Eby is still coming up with ideas to raise awareness—and research dollars. Though the disease has left her legs paralyzed, her upper body and her voice are still strong.
As she sips her tea, she says that maybe she could conduct man-on-the-street-style interviews, like YouTube’s Billy Eichner.
“I’d ask a bunch of different people, ‘Who do you picture when you picture ALS?’ and I guarantee 75% of them will say, ‘What’s ALS?’ ” she says, sitting back in her chair to ponder how she’d bring the video to fruition.
“I support anyone who is raising money for ALS,” she says, whether their focus is on covering the exorbitant cost of their own equipment and caregivers, or whether they are in the position to fundraise for research.
“I’m still working, I’m financially comfortable, so I feel like I sort of checked that care bucket off for myself and I want to focus…[on] research,” she says. “The cure is ultimately my goal.”
Angela Graham has come a long way from the Benjamin Banneker middle schooler and Paint Branch High School student who spent her weekends and summers washing glass bottles at her father’s small biotech company.
Today, Graham, 53, is president and CEO of Gaithersburg-based Quality Biological Inc. (QBI), a niche manufacturer of custom “reagents” used in biomedical research (think the substances that help scientists grow cells in a lab).
Since buying the business from her parents 11 years ago, she’s pivoted away from the company’s previous focus on government work, and toward serving the research and development needs of biotech companies in early-stage treatment exploration for diseases from cancer to multiple sclerosis (MS)—a nervous system disorder that Graham has been battling since 1997.
“I am not a scientist, so I cannot go into the lab and develop a cure for MS or any other disease,” she says. “But [now] my company can manufacture the…tools required for the research and development of new medicines.”
She’s also become a leading voice in promoting Montgomery County as the ideal place for life science businesses to set up shop—not only to encourage innovative companies to locate here, but also to bring high-paying jobs to folks with and without a college degree.
Early in the pandemic, Graham even helped create a Biotech Bootcamp, through a partnership with Montgomery College and WorkSource Montgomery, to provide lab training to displaced
hospitality workers, according to Judy Costello, special projects manager of business, innovation and economic development for the county executive’s office.
“Angela’s support of local entrepreneurs always includes a special interest in helping our historically underserved communities,” Costello says.
Pavel Khrimian, co-founder and chief business officer of Germantown-based Deka Biosciences, which devises therapeutics to treat cancer patients, says Graham let him and his business partner “incubate” their fledgling company at QBI for several years before they had the funds to branch out on their own. “We need more leaders like Angela who have the ability to give startups the opportunity to get started,” he says.
Graham has provided mentoring for other early-stage biotech companies too, particularly women- and minority-owned ones, though she says there’s still a shortage of them. “I am always the youngest, the only woman and the only Black [person] in the room,” she says. “The further up you go being a Black female, you definitely get accustomed to not having anyone in the room look like you.”
It was a recruiter from Dow Chemical, while Graham was a fourth-year student at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, who made her appreciate the unique role she could play in the industry. She was showing him around campus when he told her he couldn’t think of another Black family with a business in biotech. “That made me look differently then at what my dad had done,” she says. “It made me really step back to understand the risks that he took.”
The recruiter ended up offering her a job, but his words inspired her to return instead to QBI—which her father, a U.S. Navy vet who had used the GI Bill to study tissue culturing at the National Institutes of Health, founded when she was 13.
After she spent three years at the family business, Bristol Myers Squibb lured her away, and then Pfizer offered her a high-level management spot. In 1997, shortly after taking that job, she was diagnosed with MS. “That was the first time I remember really feeling alone and afraid,” says Graham, who was 27 at the time. “I don’t think that feeling ever goes away for MS patients, but you learn to live with it.”
Eventually she left the pharmaceutical industry and used her and her husband’s life savings—and a hefty home equity line of credit—to buy QBI. “I learned a lot from my parents, and one of the lessons was that…if something’s given to you, you don’t necessarily have the same dedication or passion for it,” she says.
One thing she hasn’t changed at the company is its longstanding tradition of giving back to the community. Graham, who now lives near Olney, says her focus is on the eastern part of the county where she grew up. “I know that it’s kind of like the forgotten area where economic development has stalled,” she says.
“I’ve been very fortunate to have [had] some opportunities but…I grew up with people who didn’t,” she adds. “I believe that business can do good and…this is how we can make a difference.”
It was nearly 20 years ago when Anne Khademian first led a class of “nontraditional” students, she says. By then, the recognized scholar and author had already taught at some of the country’s most prestigious universities, but most of her students lived on campus while earning four-year degrees.
Shortly after she joined the full-time faculty of Virginia Tech at its Northern Virginia campus, though, she found herself teaching a graduate-level evening seminar on U.S. homeland security policy to seasoned individuals, many in lofty government roles. They were people who went home to their spouses and children, not their dorm rooms, and came to class with a wealth of experience.
“I thought, Oh my gosh, what am I going to teach these people?”
Once the class started, she found that she had much to offer, and so did her students. “It was this wonderful collaborative learning opportunity,” she says. “They were so committed, and they were so smart. …I loved everything about it.”
Fast forward to today, and Khademian, 61, who lives in Chevy Chase, is still focused on educating students who don’t fit the traditional fresh-out-of-high-school, four-year-degree model. But now it’s in her role as the executive director of the Universities at Shady Grove (USG) in Rockville—a campus that partners with nine institutions in the University System of Maryland (USM) to deliver undergraduate and graduate education programs to transfer students, many with limited time or resources.
“This is the job I’ve waited for my whole life,” she says.
Hired in 2020 after a nationwide search, Khademian came to USG with the goal of making higher education more accessible, affordable and better geared toward serving the needs of “fluid” students, as she calls them, who now comprise nearly three-quarters of all students in higher education, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
“They predominantly work, they predominantly have family responsibilities, they often are financing their own education, and oftentimes they are first in their family to go to college,” Khademian says. Many times their life situations dictate that they spread out their classes over many years, maybe even decades, she says.
In her three years on campus, Khademian has partnered with industry leaders and employers across the region to ensure that the skills taught to these students are the skills employers need.
She’s also led the charge in developing the 23-year-old institution’s first-ever strategic plan—USG 2.0—which lays out USG’s promise to help students attain meaningful employment and sustainable-wage careers. And she’s secured nearly $12 million in grants, gifts and federal funding to help make her vision a reality, according to the USM.
Since she’s taken the helm, the graduation rate among students who transfer into USG—which was already the highest of any campus in USM—has climbed even higher. At 81%, it’s now more than 10 percentage points higher than the statewide average, according to USM data.
“You’ve got a workforce that is in desperate need of educated, degree-holding employees” and an education system that’s geared toward serving students who live on campus, Khademian says. For those who are juggling work and family demands, “the traditional model is not going to cut it.”
Her biggest priorities now, she says, are that every student has an experiential learning opportunity, has access to a coach or a mentor, can use their degree or certificate to build a more meaningful career, and—with the help of scholarships and financial aid—can earn their credentials without taking on additional debt.
“[Anne] not only understands the big picture of where the institution should go and what its main mission should be…she’s also the person who helps bring the people together,” says former County Executive Isiah “Ike” Leggett, her USG 2.0 co-chair, who also serves as a USM regent.
Khademian’s backstory is just as impressive. A star runner on the boys cross-country team at her Michigan high school, Khademian attended Michigan State University on a full athletic scholarship and later entered its Athletics Hall of Fame. She went on to earn a master’s degree in public policy there, then a Ph.D. in political science from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. She’s since taught at the University of Wisconsin, Madison; the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; and the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. She was a tenured faculty member in the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech’s Northern Virginia campus for 17 years until USG lured her away.
“All of these places…they are beautiful institutions; they transform lives,” she says of the universities where she’s served. “But we need additional models. Maybe we can do it here.”
Susan Lee will never forget the day in June 1968 when her father drove her and her two sisters from their Bethesda home to Washington, D.C.’s National Mall. He wanted his daughters to see the 3,000-person “protest camp” set up as part of the Poor People’s March on Washington—a six-week-long event that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. orchestrated but didn’t live to see.
“It was a sea of an endless number of tents everywhere,” Lee, 69, recalls. “These people came from all over the country…to essentially fight discrimination and poverty and to bring their cause to national attention.”
The scene had a profound impact on Lee, and so did her father—a second-generation Chinese American who enlisted in the U.S. Navy at age 17 to fight in World War II. He instilled in his daughter a lifelong commitment to defend the rights of the most vulnerable: women and children, people of color, and those struggling to make ends meet.
“He gave me a moral compass,” Lee says of her father, who died in 2014. “He wanted to change the world.”
Today, Lee is Maryland’s secretary of state under Democratic Gov. Wes Moore. Among many responsibilities, she serves as his top foreign affairs adviser and leads the charge to promote Maryland as an international hub for science and technology.
On a sunny midday in June, Lee is sitting in her Annapolis office, taking a short break between meetings. She spent the morning hosting the Argentine ambassador, and now a half dozen staffers are scurrying around her, asking questions and handing her documents to review before a full slate of afternoon appointments.
In her first six months in office, Lee met with representatives from more than 50 countries—encouraging them to expand their operations in the state. “I always feel like there isn’t enough time,” says the longtime Bethesda resident. “I’m always trying to get to the finish line.”
Bringing high-tech jobs to Maryland is just one of many causes Lee has championed over her decades-long career. As a Maryland delegate and state senator, she sponsored or co-sponsored more than 100 bills in support of victims of domestic violence and human trafficking, pay equity, transgender rights, consumer and identity-theft protections, gun safety, expanding Maryland’s hate crime laws and more.
“When I see an injustice, I feel like I’ve got to do something about it. …I refuse to be a passive spectator,” she says. “A lot of times the constituents come to you because there’s a problem. …I want to get all the stakeholders to the table so we can…have everybody air their position [and] pass a bill that’s fair to everybody.”
U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Takoma Park), a longtime friend and colleague of Lee’s, credits her with seeing more bills to passage during her eight years in the state Senate than any other state senator from Montgomery County. “She can always be counted on as an ally of the underdog,” he says.
Born in San Antonio, Texas, Lee was 13 when her father took a job with the federal government and moved the family to Bethesda. Back then, many neighborhoods that fed into what was then Leland Junior High School had racially restrictive covenants that allowed for discrimination against Black people, Jews and other people of color, and she suffered tremendous bullying, she says.
When her family moved to Potomac a year later, “my attitude improved, my grades improved, my self-esteem, everything,” she says.
After graduating from Winston Churchill High School and the University of Maryland, College Park, Lee headed to the University of San Francisco for law school and then returned to Montgomery County to take a job with the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. She eventually left the federal government for private practice but stayed active in local politics.
She never intended to run for office herself, she says. Then she overheard a local elected official say that “the Asian American community doesn’t matter because we don’t vote,” she says. “That made me so mad I couldn’t see straight.”
In 2002, when then-Gov. Parris Glendening asked if she’d fill the state House seat vacated by Nancy Kopp, she said yes—and proceeded to win the next three House elections, before running for the state Senate, where she served until Moore came calling.
Lee has never lost a race, and she’s been a “first” at every political office she’s held: first Asian American woman—and first Chinese American—elected to the Maryland House of Delegates; first Asian American elected to the Maryland Senate; and now Maryland’s first Asian American secretary of state.
“I didn’t mean to be the first of anything,” she says. “What I hope I’ve done is lay the foundations for others who haven’t been represented in government to be able to be elected…and to…change the world for the better.”
It was the summer of 2017, and construction on The Anthem, the highly anticipated music venue that anchors Southwest D.C.’s District Wharf, was almost complete.
The project had been Donna Westmoreland’s baby. She’d spent nearly seven years working with engineers, architects and designers to make sure the space was state-of-the-art. The interior plans centered on an elaborate and expensive stage on wheels that took more than a year to design. Westmoreland had proudly called it an “engineering masterpiece.”
A few months before opening, though, she and her team were about to sign pop phenom Lorde when the singer’s production manager casually mentioned on the phone to Westmoreland that the interior space of The Anthem was the perfect size and dimension for Lorde’s stage.
In other words, Lorde would be bringing her own.
That meant that the high-tech stage already under construction would need to be hauled away for Lorde’s show or perhaps scrapped altogether.
“Is that a problem?” Westmoreland recalls Lorde’s rep asking after dropping the news.
“Let me call you right back,” she calmly told him, even though she winced at the thought of the time and money already spent, she says.
Hours later, after consulting with her team, she made the executive decision to swap the planned stage for one that could accommodate not only Lorde’s requirements but those of pretty much every act that could draw a sellout crowd of 6,000.
It wasn’t an easy choice to make, she says, but as chief operating officer of I.M.P., Westmoreland, 61, makes critical decisions like these every day. The native Bethesdan is second in command of a regional music empire that includes not only the 9:30 Club and The Anthem, but also The Atlantis and the Lincoln Theatre in D.C., and Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Maryland.
“What people don’t realize…is that she’s the one doing all the work,” says I.M.P founder and chairman Seth Hurwitz. “She’s really the one who’s run all the companies all these years, not me.”
It was 30 years ago when the University of Maryland grad was hired to be bar manager at the original 9:30 Club—the only venue I.M.P. owned or managed at the time. Within three months, she was named I.M.P.’s production manager, tasked with booking larger venues around D.C. and Baltimore for acts that could draw more fans than the club could accommodate at its former F Street Northwest location.
As a woman in what is still a male-dominated industry, she remembers security guards demanding to see her backstage pass when she was the one giving out the passes. And being told “no, honey” by those who didn’t realize that she was the person in charge.
Hurwitz recalls artists’ reps calling him up and saying things like, “Your girl told me this or that,” flummoxed that a woman could have the authority to make major decisions. “I used to really get a big kick out of it when people would underestimate her and didn’t realize the buzzsaw they were walking into,” he says. “She has no trouble being a bad cop. Believe me—she’s not afraid of anyone.”
Under her leadership today, women serve as general managers in four of I.M.P.’s five venues. And Westmoreland has used her platform to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for causes from breast cancer awareness to women’s reproductive rights to gun safety advocacy.
A triathlete in her spare time, she competes in about five races a year and has competed three times in San Francisco’s notorious Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon. These events are her “outlet,” she says, but she has also organized hikes up Sugarloaf Mountain that have cumulatively raised $250,000 for Breast Cancer Prevention Partners.
Her philanthropic bent goes back to the late ’90s when she left I.M.P. for a few years to join musician Sarah McLachlan on the West Coast to launch the original Lilith Fair, a traveling music festival that consisted solely of female artists.
Over its three-year run, the Lilith Fair grossed more than $52 million—more than $10 million of it going to charity by directing $1 of each ticket sale to a women’s shelter in each of the cities where the festival was held, Westmoreland says, and one of her jobs was to select the recipients.
“The impact…of these [charities] receiving a check for something like $17,500 that was going to make a real difference…was so gratifying and so powerful that it’s now just a part of me,” she says.
“We’re not curing cancer or solving world hunger, but…there’s something spiritual about music and bringing people together,” Westmoreland says. “And when you are doing [something for the greater] good as well, it’s awesome.”
Wearing a lab coat, hairnet, shoe coverings and disposable gloves, Margarita Womack is walking a visitor through her nearly four-year-old empanada plant in Rockville. She stops to make small talk in Spanish with practically every worker she passes, and to share with her guest the backstory behind almost every piece of equipment.
“We put this together ourselves,” she gushes over a conveyer belt designed to cool the empanadas after they are fried.
It’s clear that the Bethesda mother of three is also the proud mom of a burgeoning empanada dynasty. “It’s like my fourth baby,” she says.
In 2020, Womack’s empanada business, Maspanadas, had seven employees; now it has 55. It’s on track to earn revenue of $8 million this year and triple its square footage before the end of 2023.
But business success is only part of Womack’s mission. Just as important, she says, is partnering with churches and nonprofits to provide jobs, training and other support to people who need it most. Currently, 90% of her employees are immigrants, more than 80% are women, and about half are refugees, mostly from Central and South America, she says. She offers her employees wellness classes and instruction in digital and financial literacy.
When you are new to this country, “you need much more than a paycheck,” says Womack, 43, who grew up speaking French in school and Spanish at home and learned English after moving to the United States to finish college.
She requires only that her hires have valid work permits and are “responsible, reliable and willing to learn,” she says. “We do have very often people at the front door looking for a job.”
Born and raised in Bogotá, Colombia, Womack came to the U.S. at age 20. At the time, guerrillas in her home country were targeting people at random for kidnappings. Her family, like many others, had started to receive threatening phone calls. She says she’ll never forget the ominous message warning that her family would be declared “a military objective” if they didn’t cooperate. That means, Womack explains, “they are going to kill you.”
Under her mother’s instructions, Womack, then a sophomore in college in Colombia, quickly sent out as many college transfer applications as she could and ended up completing her bachelor’s degree at Tulane University in New Orleans. Then she headed north to Princeton University in New Jersey, where she earned a doctorate in ecology and evolutionary biology, began a career in academia, got married and started a family.
After her husband was accepted into a fellowship program that brought them to Washington, D.C., she took a job teaching middle school science at the National Cathedral School. She loved teaching, she says, but after four years, “I [had] two boys, a baby and a full-time job, and [I was] ready to jump out a window.”
She switched gears and started a catering company in 2017 that soon morphed into a manufacturer of frozen empanadas that she sold to restaurants and delis around the D.C. region. She squeezed in an M.B.A. from Georgetown University. When the pandemic struck and restaurant sales ground to a halt, she pivoted to retail sales—mostly packaging her empanadas under large chains’ private labels—and business took off.
The skills required for scientific research aren’t all that different from those required to launch a consumer products line, Womack says. “It’s all [about] problem solving…you generate a question and then have a working hypothesis.”
In 2019, Maspanadas was so successful that it outgrew its space at D.C.’s Union Kitchen—the accelerator where it got its start—and she opened her Rockville plant.
Today, Womack’s empanadas are still sold under large chains’ private labels. But they are also in the frozen-food aisles of more than 2,000 stores around the country, including Whole Foods, Costco, Target, Stop & Shop and Sprouts, and online via HelloFresh—all in brightly colored packaging that bears the Maspanadas brand.
“I would call her the prototype entrepreneur because she had a big vision, very driven to succeed and…fearless,” says Richard McArdle, a retired food industry executive who met Womack as she was transitioning from restaurant sales to retail. He’s now a Maspanadas adviser and investor.
“She grew the business several hundred percent in a year, and it’s just kept going,” he says. “She [also] goes out and hires and trains and nurtures and raises up people that are out there just looking for a chance. …A lot of people say [they do] stuff like that, but she really lives it.”
This story appears in the September/October issue of Bethesda Magazine.