Women Who Changed My Life

Local Businesswomen and Their Mentors

A good mentor can enhance your career, but a great mentor can change your life. For these local women, their mentor has not only had a substantial impact on their work life but also the way they view their community and themselves. We asked them to share in their own words just how beneficial these relationships have been in guiding their paths and changing their lives.


Photography by Rich Smith

Alison Lebovitz Caroline Walker Terri Holley Mentors Chattanooga


Caroline Walker

VP Commercial Banking, BB&T

Pictured with her mentors, Terri Holley (right), Owner, Embellish, and Alison Lebovitz (left), Television Host, WTCI

met Terri Holley through my mom in passing, right when I moved back from New York City. All I remember about Terri at first was her really cute boots, which was fitting I came to find out later. Terri and I would continue to run into each other at various luncheons and gatherings, and I remember being so impressed with the way she carried herself.

We started having lunch every so often, and the friendship blossomed from there. She has taught me so much about what it really takes to be a business owner. I have enormous respect for how she found her passion and calling in life, and how she has always stuck to her instincts. Her passion for her family, the community, and her business pours out into everything she does. She has guided me into always pushing myself to learn more and be the best I can be.

Today, we serve in the Junior League together. Through it, she has helped me understand the value of women supporting women and how important it is to stay involved in organizations you believe in.

With Alison, I actually saw her before I met her. She came to GPS while I was working there and talked about the United Way campaign. I immediately said, “Who is that!?” Her energy, passion, and quick wit impressed me right away, and I knew our paths would cross again.

Sure enough, a few years later while I was working at McCallie, she became one of my parent volunteers for the Phonathon. I knew if anyone could get the job done, it would be her ­­ she has a magical way of rallying groups of people together. We currently sit on the Jordan Thomas Foundation board, and it has been there that I have really gotten to see her passion come to life. She has taught me what it means to be a good steward of the community and to put the causes you believe in first. She has also taught me to think differently about raising money and giving back to my community.

I am forever grateful for these two women. They have helped shape the way I think about business, myself, and helping the community.

Ronelle Sellers Cindy Todd Mentors Chattanooga


Ronelle Sellers

Founder & Partner, Southside Creative

Pictured with her mentor, Cindy Todd, VP, Chief Marketing and Communications Officer, Tennessee Aquarium

phone call with Cindy Todd forever changed the course of my life. I was a college senior when Cindy, the marketing director at Hamilton Place, called UTC asking if the cheerleaders could help with a pep rally at the mall. I was the captain of the cheerleading squad at the time and had to tell her we were already booked that day. As I was talking to her though, it hit me – I needed an internship to complete my marketing degree. So, I told her most of the squad would still need to attend the event we had already committed to, but if she would be okay with four of us doing the pep rally, we could make it happen. I also mentioned needing an internship, hoping she could help.

To my delight, she agreed and offered me an internship with Hamilton Place, but before I started, she left to open the Tennessee Aquarium. When that internship ended, she offered me a second one with her at the Aquarium. I took her up on the offer and worked with her through the opening, watching the entire celebration come together under her direction. It was then that I first saw her incredible passion for marketing, her creativity, and her attention to detail, which are still what I admire about her most to this day.

While I moved away for a few years after that, I never stopped learning from Cindy. She was always willing to take a call or visit from me, no matter how long it had been since we’d last spoken. Her impact on my life was enormous – by investing in me, she solidified my career direction and showed me how someone so passionate about their profession worked on a day-to-day basis.

Today when I look back on our relationship, my favorite thing about it is that it has spanned 25 years. I started my career as a starry-eyed young woman entering the marketing industry, and she was the first, and thankfully most incredible, influence on me. Today, we are members of Rotary and serve on the Chattanooga Women’s Leadership Institute board together as peers and friends. Not many people are able to spend so much quality time with their first mentor years later, and I’m thankful that I’m still able to learn from her today!

Laurel Zahrobsky Cathie Kasch Mentors Chattanooga

Laurel Zahrobsky

Middle School Dance Educator & Terpsichord | Associate Director, Girls Preparatory School

Pictured with her mentor, Cathie Kasch, Performing Arts Coordinator and Terpsichord Director, Girls Preparatory School

At 16, I was spending hours trying to decide what I was going to do with my life once I graduated from GPS. I could not picture myself as a ballerina, yet dance was my passion. At exactly the right moment, this beautiful woman walked into the dance studio with grace, fierce convictions, and a playfulness I coveted. Cathie Kasch led a modern technique class like I had never experienced before.

When it came time to apply to colleges, Cathie helped me find one that supported my dream of dancing and stayed in touch with me, encouraging me all four years. Her support continued when I went to Chicago to dance.

Then a phone call from her completely changed my life. Cathie had previously asked if I would consider returning to GPS to teach, but it was always a part-time position and I loved our Chicago life too much to leave. But on this morning, she offered me a full-time position to teach dance and assist with Terpsichord. From the moment I arrived in August 2003 until as recently as last week, she continues to tell anyone who will listen what I am teaching, how I interact with students, and why everyone should come and watch my class. She is still one of my biggest fans.

Cathie began as my teacher and became my friend and colleague. She taught me to connect with my students in a way that was true to who I was as a person but also as one who gave grace as often as possible. She’s talented, intelligent, kind, gracious, and giving.

Now I am 46, and she continues to teach, guide, and challenge me as teacher, friend, and mentor. Had she never stepped into that dance studio or into my life, I can honestly say I don’t know if I would be dancing today. I owe her an incredible debt, but I already know how she wants it repaid: to do the same for another dancer trying to find her way. And Cathie will continue to praise and support me as her mentee becomes a mentor.

Kim Shumpert Marj Flemming Mentors Chattanooga

Kim Shumpert

Executive Director, Chattanooga Women’s Leadership Institute

Pictured with her mentor, Marj Flemming, CEO, Launchpoint Leadership

What can you say about Marj Flemming that hasn’t already been said? You have to get five pages into a simple Google search of her name before you see even one article that isn’t related to her. That is the mark of a woman who has dedicated her life to ensuring people have access to the information they need to succeed.

Even though she could, Marj doesn’t keep the good stuff just for herself. She understands the value of shared knowledge and has made it her life’s work to navigate the minefield of experiences in order to refine and extract the very best information for those who follow her.

I met Marj as a result of my work with Chattanooga Women’s Leadership Institute (CWLI), which Marj founded in 1996. For a moment, she was somewhat illusive. Others would say, “What would Marj think?” about this or that. It was quickly evident she is an influencer. But I have been fortunate to know Marj in a different way. Since beginning my position with CWLI, Marj has been dedicated to bridging vital gaps in information so that I have context for where CWLI belongs in the fabric of our community. She has helped me understand that CWLI exists as part of a strongly woven garment and not as a stand-alone entity.  I have relied on her many times to raise the tough questions that make the whole room stop and think. She has a gift for this. When she could have stepped away, she decided to continue to engage with CWLI to ensure we remain dedicated to our mission.

Marj has a deep desire to see women mature into their full potential. We share that passion. She has an innate ability to understand how to navigate from an idea to a reality. This gift has been valuable as we navigate from one generation to the next. Marj understands the challenges of this generational and demographic shift that we face and embraces its opportunities. I feel privileged to get to call her my mentor, but I feel blessed to call her friend.

Elin Bunch Joli Anderson Mentors Chattanooga


Elin Bunch

Director of Community Service, Baylor School

Pictured with her mentor, Joli Anderson, Assistant Director of Community Service, Baylor School

People live up to or down to what is expected of them.” Each year, Joli Anderson begins her first meeting with students with these words.

Joli built the community service program at Baylor School from scratch over the past 23 years. Today, the program partners more than 100 Baylor students with 100 children from area schools each afternoon for tutoring. Her fierce belief in the power of high expectations has become a force for change in our community and in countless lives, compelling parents to now enroll their children in the same program that impacted their own trajectory.

When I was a part of the program as a student at Baylor, Joli taught me and countless others the importance of expectations by helping us understand institutionalized racism’s crippling ability to prescribe an outcome before a life even begins. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned from her is that I could either accept that some people succeed and some don’t, or I could expect all children to succeed and do my part to dismantle existing barriers so they can.

Joli did not just tell us she believed in us; she created opportunities for us to develop belief in ourselves. She raised money to create the first grant writing program for high school students in the country and formed a student-run leadership board that continues to manage all aspects of the program.

She also established a relationship with the Ferry community in Kingston, Jamaica. In the 20 years since the first service trip to Kingston, she and her students have raised over $1 million to fund the education of over 180 individuals living in the informal settlement of Ferry, a journey that continues to exemplify how education empowers communities.

Now that I work alongside Joli, I find myself again learning from my lifelong mentor. She demonstrates the importance of approaching our service-oriented work through the lens of respect; she has taught me to listen first, to align myself as a partner rather than a helper, and to empower rather than aid. With great respect, and with confidence that I speak for many more than just myself, I say thank you, Joli.

Emily O Donnell Ann Coulter Mentors Chattanooga


Emily O’Donnell

Executive Director, Women’s Fund of Greater Chattanooga

Pictured with her mentor, Ann Coulter, Owner, A. Coulter Consulting

When I met Ann Coulter in 2011, I was working as an attorney at Legal Aid of East Tennessee. We had applied for a grant through the Nightingale Network, the collective philanthropy program of the Women’s Fund of Greater Chattanooga. During the grant process, Ann told me about how the Women’s Fund worked in advocacy and philanthropy. She was kind and smart and clearly very knowledgeable about many of the things I found fascinating. Legal Aid didn’t win the grant, but I immediately became involved with the Women’s Fund, not knowing that many years later I would become the executive director. 

Ann is a great connector. As she and I got to know each other, she began introducing me to people. I have found some of my best friends in Chattanooga through those introductions! Ann also invited me to join the advocacy committee at the Women’s Fund, then fostered my growth and leadership in the group. Through these connections to new people and opportunities for community involvement, I finally began to feel like Chattanooga was home for the first time since moving here in 2008.

I learned a lot from Ann just by watching her run advocacy committee meetings. She is a great listener, and also knows how to move the conversation forward to cover the whole agenda in the correct amount of time. Ann asks great questions like, “Who should we engage at the beginning of this process?” or, “What does success look like?” She’s taught me a lot about how to build consensus in a group and encourage participation from everyone. These skills aren’t taught in law school.

Her career as a strategic planner has trained Ann to be a great mentor. Just as she facilitates thoughtful growth for organizations, so does she guide individuals toward their potential. Over the years, Ann has talked me through career changes and working mom challenges. She has challenged me to think more strategically and taught me so much about community building and organizational governance. She has mentored many people, and I feel remarkably lucky to be among them.

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