Celebrating Women’s History Month in St. Louis

Tuesday March 1, 2022

By Mark

“If you’re always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be,” – Maya Angelou, Pulitzer Prize-nominated poet

It’s that time of year when Mother Earth celebrates the female game changers in St. Louis.

From Sacagawea, Mary Meachum and Susan Blow to Maya Angelou, Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Jenna Fischer — with hundreds in between and since — women have left their indelible mark on the city’s vibrant history.

Etched into the fabric of this riverfront metropolis are the footprints of activists, authors, inventors, educators, artists, politicians, entertainers, suffragists, military officials, athletes, chefs and civic leaders. No field or industry here is void of a St. Louis woman’s touch. And to give voice to their impact? Paying it forward are numerous female CEO’s and business owners within the hospitality and travel industry who continue to tout St. Louis’ viability and resilience.

St. Louis and the world will celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of these and all women on International Women’s Day on March 8, which also falls within Women’s History Month in the United States. The day has been designated as an official United Nations observance since 1975 and is a national holiday in many parts of the world. This year’s campaign theme is “Choose to Challenge.”

Upon whose St. Louis shoulders do today’s women stand? A few of the city’s many illustrious female forbearers include Julia Soulard, who in 1789 granted the city two acres of land which today is the oldest market west of the Mississippi River – and, sits at the epicenter of the world’s largest Mardi Gras celebration; Harriet Scott, who fought for her freedom alongside her husband at the Old Courthouse; suffragist Virginia Minor, who attempted and was denied the right to vote in 1872; Susan Blow, who opened the country’s first public kindergarten in the Carondelet Neighborhood (1873); and abolitionist Mary Meachum, who helped free slaves through the Underground Railroad. The church Meachum and her husband founded, First African Baptist Church (now First Baptist Church), is still in operation today.

Others local female trailblazers include Katherine Dunham (dancer, author, educator); businesswoman and inventor Annie Malone; entertainer and civil rights activist Josephine BakerFrankie Muse Freeman, first female attorney appointed to the United States’ Commission on Civil Rights; Sally Bensen, whose short stories inspired “Meet Me in St. Louis”; Tina Turner (12-time Grammy winner); comedian Phyllis Diller; actresses Betty GrableShelley WintersDoris RobertsEllie Kemper and Jennifer Lewis; Major General Jeannie Leavitt, who became the U.S. Air Force’s first female fighter pilot in 1993; artist Mary Engelbreit; Build-a-Bear founder Maxine Clark; uber fashion models Kimora Lee Simmons and Karlie Kloss; and Olympic Gold Medalists Lori Chalupny and Becky Sauerbrunn of U.S. women soccer fame.

This, of course, is just a tip of the iceberg, in terms of local women who have and — continue — to inspire and cultivate pride for our city. Those tasked with championing St. Louis within the hospitality industry are just as plentiful.

In fact, Kathleen “Kitty” Ratcliffe, president of Explore St. Louis, is responsible for the sales and marketing of the St. Louis region as a destination for visitors, as well as management of America’s Center Convention Complex, including The Dome at America’s Center.

Ratcliffe’s marketing department has showcased Becky Sauerbrunn, Jackie Joyner-Kersee (voted top female athlete of the 20th century by Sports Illustrated for Women and six-time Olympic medalist) and Jenna Fischer of “The Office,” in Explore St. Louis’ popular “In the Know” ad campaign. The campaign, broadcast throughout the Midwest, has won two Mid-American Regional Emmy Awards and “Best in Show” at the Hospitality Sales and Marketing Association International’s prestigious Adrian Awards.In fact, Kathleen “Kitty” Ratcliffe, president of Explore St. Louis, is responsible for the sales and marketing of the St. Louis region as a destination for visitors, as well as management of America’s Center Convention Complex, including The Dome at America’s Center.

Other current St. Louis women, who were nominated by their peers that embody empowerment and inspiration and are listed below. Take note and consider supporting these St. Louis game changers:

Carolyn Kindle Betz

Co-owner, St. Louis City SC

A third-generation Jack Taylor family member, Betz, who began her career at Enterprise Rent-A-Car as an intern while attending college, now has two jobs.  After working her way up through the years in various positions at the company, she is now responsible for the company’s charitable operation that has benefitted thousands of registered nonprofit efforts focused on community improvement, education and environmental stewardship. In 2019, she became one of nine owners of the city’s soccer team. Besides her uncle, the others include an all-female cast — her mom, aunt and Taylor grandchildren (all girls) —  making the team the first female-majority-owned franchise in history.

Marie-Helene Bernard

President & CEO, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra

Her work is music to the ears of St. Louisans. A Quebec native of Belgian descent, Bernard practiced corporate and tax law in Canada before joining the orchestral management world in 1996. Since she began her tenure here in nearly six years ago, the SLSO has experienced significant increase in both attendance and ticket revenue. Under her leadership, the orchestra is embracing a period of great momentum on all fronts.

Fran Caradonna

Caradonna is one of the founding mothers of the local beer scene. Back when Anheuser-Busch dominated St. Louis, she and her then-husband Tony Caradonna started the area’s first craft beer distributor, then launched O’Fallon Brewery in the early 2000s. Caradonna joined Schlafly in 2018 and was quickly promoted to CEO 2019, which was one of her first clients in the distribution game. As Schlafly’s CEO she fosters an environment for women in the craft brewing industry and has four of the six leadership positions at the brewery filled by women.

Katie Collier

With two successful eateries in her pizza empire, self-made chef Collier’s house-made pastas and wood-fired pizzas menu items are quite renowned. Since the pandemic, she has added a national frozen pizza delivery service.

Khalia Collier

Owner, St. Louis Surge

Vice President of Community Relations, St. Louis City SC

Her working motto: “Don’t just play the game. Change it.” In her new role with St. Louis City SC, Collier will continue to channel her passion for sports management and community development as she redefines winning through community impact and outreach. Since 2011, Collier has won two national championships as owner of the Surge, the first sustainable women’s professional basketball team in St. Louis.

Vanessa Foster Cooksey

President & CEO, Regional Arts Commission of St. Louis

As RAC’s third leader and first president and CEO, and a true arts lover, Cooksey is responsible for the organization’s day-to-day operations and leading the implementation of the five-year strategic plan released last year.

Simone Faure

Co-owner & Executive Pastry Chef, La Patisserie Chouquette

This bakery hotspot in the Botanical Heights neighborhood produces some of the more mouth-watering and artful creations that have inspired thousands of Instagram posts. Her delicate macarons filled with jams, curds and creams satiate any sweet tooth. But be sure to try the sticky, caramel bourbon pecan bun, bacon cheddar corn muffin and sweet potato loaf, among others delicacies.

Beth Fitzgerald

President, The Magic House

Fitzgerald has been with the museum for more than 40 years, spearheading the effort to engage and energize young minds through hands-on creative play. The attraction has won numerous accolades from Zagat (highest score for “child appeal”) and Family Fun Magazine (top 12 destinations in the country), among many others.

Tara Gallina

Co-owner, General Manager, Vicia

Since opening in 2017, the locally sourced food and dining experience at Vicia in Midtown has been recognized regionally and nationally: Best Chef in America Midwest (2019) by the James Beard Foundation, Best New Restaurant in American by Eater, Esquire and Bon Appetit and Best New Chef in American (2018) by Food & Wine.

Amy Gill

Gill personally supervises construction and the architectural and design details for her company’s residential and commercial properties. She and her team work to build back communities block by block by supporting city-based minority-owned businesses and repurposing vacant monuments to the past. Projects have included Hotel Saint Louis, Seven Gables Inn in Clayton, the Moolah, and more than 60 properties in The Grove, to name a few.

Wendy Hamilton

Inspired by her love for the Tuscan & Northern California wine regions, Wendy and her husband’s Eleven Eleven restaurant, located in a 100—year-old  former warehouse in Lafayette Square, was an instant success, and the beginning of what has turned into a multi-concept restaurant group: Moulin, an events and meeting facility; Vin de Set, a rooftop restaurant with one of the best views the city has to offer; Grand Petite Market, a wine and culinary shop: upscale PW Pizza; 21st Street Brewer Bar; Rhone Rum Bar; Charleville Brewing Co.; and Hamilton’s Urban Steakhouse & Bourbon Bar.

Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge

The region’s flight hub, of which Hamm-Niebruegge has been director since 2010, serves more than 14.7 million passengers annually. She is also the chairwoman of the 17-member St. Louis Airport Commission. Hamm-Niebruegge previously logged more than 25 years in aviation management positions with American Airlines, Trans World Airlines and Ozark Air Lines. She serves on numerous boards, among them the International Women’s Forum and the St. Louis Regional Chamber.

Amber Held

Human Resource Manager, Butler’s Pantry

In addition to the day to day HR duties and continued development of the entire Butler’s Pantry team, Held has been responsible for all pandemic-related compliance regulations, providing an invaluable contribution to navigating the unknown.

Leslie Hoffarth

President & Executive Director, Forest Park Forever

Hoffarth, considered a leader within the field of park conservancies and management, is a force of nature. A civil engineer first, she was a 20-year veteran of the Missouri Department of Transportation where she led the $535 million New I-64 project to completion one month ahead of schedule and $11 million under budget. Under her leadership since 2010, she has expanded Forest Park Forever’s conservancy role to not only help restore the park after decades of deterioration but to partner with the City of St. Louis to sustain the park forever, as well as improve the visitor experience. The results of her fundraising campaigns have raised more than $139 million in gifts and pledges to do just that.

Dea Hoover

Hoover combines her knowledge of history and the travel industry to uncover the iconic stops and hidden gems of any location for her clients. Deeply committed to tourism in Missouri, Hoover also serves as Vice president of the Hill Business Association. She is also a board member of the St. Louis Women’s Society at Washington University.

Tamara Keefe

CEO and self-proclaimed “Flavor Temptress,” Clementine’s Naughty & Nice Creamery

Keefe is able to trace the exact provenance of each individual ingredient in her expertly crafted, original recipes thus qualifying Clementine’s as one of only 14 certified micro creameries in the country. The out-of-this-world selection includes “nice” flavors like Salted Crack Caramel, Gooey Butter Cake and Midnight Pleasure, along with the “naughty” alcohol-infused flavors like Chocolate Cabernet and Maple Bourbon.

Deanna McClintock Lester

This one-of-a-kind design candle making experience in the Central West has become a popular hot spot for date night or girls’ night. The candle library features more than 100 different regular and seasonal fragrances.

Frances Levine

Levine invites St. Louisans to view history through a St. Louis lens. An author, co-editor and contributor to several award-winning books, Levine arrived in St. Louis in 2014. A native of Connecticut, Levine attended the prestigious Getty Museum Leadership Institute (2009) after receiving her bachelor’s, master’s and PH.D. in Anthropology. She has also served as an evaluator for the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) for museums in the U.S. and Mexico.

Josie Littlepage

Owner + Producer, Cosmopolitan Events

One of only 380 Certified Special Event Professionals in the world, Littlepage has more than two decades of experience with planning and producing events, beginning with elite-level corporate sponsor extravaganzas at the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta. From there, she spent the next few years operating events throughout the world, learning and sharing ideas with other cultures, before returning to St. Louis to start Cosmopolitan Events.

Julie Matheny

Vice President of Corporate Sales, TravelPlex

With more than 25 years of travel industry experience, Matheny is on the short list when it comes to those notable women who know St. Louis so thoroughly. She currently focuses on the client experience at TravelPlex and shares her extensive travel knowledge on various boards including the St. louis Lambert International Air Advisory Board. She has also received the Business Travel Professional Service Award from the Global Business Travel Association.

Linda Mueller

General Manager, Hampton Inn Downtown

Mueller has been in the hotel and hospitality industry for nearly 20 years, most of them at various hotels in the St. Louis area. She enjoys working within walking distance of the Mississippi River, the Gateway Arch and The America’s Center Convention Complex.

Olivia Ridgel

This Maplewood-based coffee shop’s floral wall is quite Instagram-able and causing quite a draw of local café au lait aficionados. Ridgel, who opened the shop in the fall of 2019, was inspired by her parents love for the regular cup of Joe.

Katy Robertson

Director of Development, Jazz St. Louis

An unsung hero in preserving jazz in the heart of Grand Center during the pandemic, Robertson has worked tirelessly to convince St. Louisans that the city’s role in the history of jazz is significant. During this past year, the commitment of donors has grown stronger than ever, solidifying the art of jazz an integral part of our region’s tourism.

Geneya Sauro

General Manager, Live! by Loews

Sauro, who has been with Loews Hotels & Co. for nearly 20 years, has worked in various capacities for the company before arriving in St. Louis during the summer of 2019. The new luxury hotel is in the midst of the city’s sports and entertainment mecca of Ballpark Village, just steps from Busch Stadium. Needless to say, the views are great.

Theona Simbrat

General Manager, Marriott Grand

For more than 20 years, Simbrat has worked in the hospitality industry, most of them for Marriot. The company’s downtown location is ideal for anyone wanting to experience the Gateway Arch, a Cardinals game or the Aquarium and Wheel at St. Louis Union Station.

Denise Stevenor

Assistant General Manager, Orlando’s Catering and Banquets

Stevenor is in her 38th year with the Orlando’s organization, a three-generation family owned and operated business serving St. Louis for more than 52 years. Safe to say, she IS family. Working through the ranks as server, bartender, party leader, party manager, corporate and social events sales, HR director and assistant general manager to Sam Orlando, Jr., Stevenor has pretty much done it all.

Kelsey Templeton

Director of Hospitality, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra

Her smile often greets patrons of the city’s renowned orchestra at Powell Hall. Thanks to her work during the pandemic, the SLSO was one of few major orchestra in the country to host live, socially distant concerts in the hall this past year. AS other venues have begun reopening, many have turned to Templeton for her expertise and track record of creating a safe and inclusive environment.

Angie Weigel

President/Owner, Destination St. Louis

For more than 20 years, Weigel has produced everything from a World’s Fair Carnival for 3,000 to parties at the Zoo for 2,000 – and lots of shuttle logistics in between. She previously worked for Gateway Riverboat Cruises for 10 years where she experienced nearly every aspect of the business from sales and catering to event planning and crises management (during floods). She recently served as committee chair for the tours affiliated with the Lewis & Clark Bicentennial event.

So…join Mother Earth in March and #ChooseToChallenge to celebrate these brilliant St. Louis torch bearers.

If you know of a deserving St. Louis Woman in Tourism, please send a note to pr@explorestlouis.com.