Meet 5 women changing the face of Charlotte

As Charlotte grows, some of the people most critical to the region’s development fly under the radar. So here, in our annual women’s issue, we want to introduce you to the faces changing the face of our city, from the world of fine art to professional sports, energy conservation to food deserts.

DeAndrea Salvador, The Energy Educator

Piper Warlick Photography

DeAndrea Salvador is in the business of inspiring others to be heroes—energy heroes.

One goal of the nonprofit she founded in 2014, Renewable Energy Transition Initiative (RETI), is to spread awareness about the fact that anyone can be an “energy hero,” an energy conservationist.

Depending on their disposable income, energy heroes could weatherize their windows in the winter with weather stripping or plastic film. They could install LED nightlights or use a programmable thermostat. An energy hero could even be from a family in low-income housing—if they’re equipped with the right resources.

Salvador’s focus with RETI is on these lower-income communities with energy-inefficient homes. They often struggle with “energy poverty”—a financial burden that occurs when a household has to spend more than 10 percent of its income on energy expenses annually.

Through RETI, she wants to educate local communities and leaders about energy conservation and decrease energy costs for low-income families.

At just age 27, Salvador is gaining international attention for her efforts. The fifth-generation Charlottean and graduate of E.E. Waddell High and UNC Charlotte was selected for the 2018 class of TED Fellows, a group of 20 trailblazers working on solutions to global problems.

Just a few of her lauded counterparts: a Turkish astrophysicist studying how galaxies evolve, an infectious disease doctor in Kenya creating new approaches for controlling epidemics like Zika and Ebola, and an urban landscape architect in Thailand whose firm builds public green spaces and infrastructure.

As part of the program, Salvador gave a talk at the annual TED2018 conference in April in Vancouver, officially bringing some of her revolutionary energy ideas to the global stage.

Until now, RETI has focused on educating local organizations, organizing events, and training local environmental leaders on how to decrease energy costs. In the future, Salvador would like to take bigger steps with energy conservation and energy technology, like retrofitting homes and energy-sharing programs.

“I’ve always worked with nonprofits and I know that change can be slow moving,” she says. “But sometimes it does move.” —Katie Toussaint

Jenny Vallimont, The Revitalizer

From commissioning that cool mural on the side of a new apartment building to helping real estate developers become more eco-friendly, Jenny Vallimont, 38, has had a hand in a lot of the really great things happening in Charlotte right now. And the founder and CEO of Gökotta consulting group does a lot of it from her home office—a 1976 airstream in her backyard.

The engineer and mother of two started her career working in construction in California but moved to Charlotte in 2005 to work with developers. She soon segued into overseeing corporate social responsibility for Crescent Communities, a role that paved the way for much of what she’s doing now.

“I built my early career on my left-brain skills, but my right-brain is where my passion is,” she says. “I get hired to help facilitate creativity. Sometimes it’s a more formal team-building session. Other times I’m just brought in to work with a project team who is having a hard time coming up with the big idea.”

That big idea often means helping organizations do some good in the community. Vallimont is responsible for a lot of the public art around town, regularly connecting developers to artists and bringing the projects to life. She’s also very involved with the revitalization of Charlotte’s North End, working to improve the lives of people living there through better use of technology, bridging the digital divide, and helping to get rid of the current food deserts in the area. It’s a project she says has shown her what’s possible when you work with a community, not just for a community.

“I love coming up with solutions,” says Vallimont. “My biggest pet peeve is people who just tell me what can’t happen or what isn’t working. That’s not helpful. Give me answers. I prefer to focus on what is possible.”—Michelle Boudin

Amy Chiou, The Conversation Starter

Heather Liebler Photography

Amy Chiou knows she’s something of a lightning rod in Charlotte these days and she’s more than OK with that. The candid and often controversial pieces that she’s written as an op-ed columnist for the Charlotte Observer have stirred the pot on everything from lack of diversity in the city to calling out civic leaders for not doing enough.

“My friends call it being ‘Chioued,’” she says. “It has been a real joy and privilege to start conversations with and among friends and strangers. I’ve met some really wonderful people through this experience. I hope that any discomfort leads to growth for individuals, for institutions, and for the community.”

Chiou, 35, is the executive director of Queen City Forward, an organization of social entrepreneurs and innovators who want to use business to tackle some of the community’s greatest social challenges, such as poverty, injustice and systematic racism. Chiou grew up in Texas, moved to Charlotte to help with the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign, and then decided she liked the Queen City enough to stay put—at least for a while. She says she worries that Charlotte doesn’t do enough to cultivate the entrepreneurial spirit. Chiou, an entrepreneur herself, created an app that makes it easier for people to vote. It’s that what’s-next approach that always has her wondering what’s around the corner for the city—and for herself.

“All of the important conversations that are happening in Charlotte are missing critical perspectives that will shape the future of the city,” Chiou says. “In my opinion, we need to be talking about who is missing from these important conversations. What perspectives and voices are not included? …I think as people and places change, it’s important to revisit big questions like: ‘Who do you want to be? Where do you want to be? What do want to give to the world?’” —Michelle Boudin

Donna Julian, The Entertainment Maven

Donna Julian has had an open invitation to some of the city’s best entertainment from the first day the uptown arena, now Spectrum Center, opened in 2005 with The Rolling Stones.

But most of the time, the senior vice president of arena and event operations/general manager of Spectrum Center prefers the beginning of the night—standing at the lobby doors when the fans and guests first start to arrive.

“I love when people are coming in and you can see the excitement,” says Julian. “They’re thrilled and creating memories…whether it’s the first time they’ve gone to a basketball game or the first time a son’s brought his father to see The Eagles. That’s what it’s about.”

Raised in Columbia, Md., Julian, 55, moved to Charlotte 13 years ago, with her husband, David, and two sons, Griffin and Donovan. She oversees every aspect of Spectrum Center events and operations, from booking guests (thank her for helping bring acts like Beyoncé, U2, and Paul McCartney to Charlotte) to facility improvements, ticketing to guest services.

And when inclement weather during the 2012 Democratic National Convention required a last-minute move from Bank of America Stadium to what was then Time Warner Cable Arena, Julian was the person the U.S. government (and hundreds of Secret Service members) called upon to make sure President Barack Obama’s appearance and speech went off without a hitch.

But Julian thrives under pressure and has big plans for Charlotte and the city-funded arena that has been a major contributor to the region’s economic growth since 2005. And she works with the city on everything from capital improvements to how to land the big acts that will continue to make Charlotte a destination for athletics, musicians, arts, and politics alike.

“We want to be representative of the city,” says Julian. “We want people to say, ‘If you’re coming to the Carolinas, you’re coming to Charlotte and you’re coming to the Spectrum Center.”—Caroline Portillo

Mary Deissler, The Entertainment Maven

Photo by Justin Driscoll

When Mary Deissler took the reins as president and CEO of The Charlotte Symphony Orchestra in 2016, she knew the monumental task before her: show a growing, diversifying city that one of its oldest arts institutions is not only still relevant today but worthy of investment.

Originally from Boston, Deissler, 62, accepted the challenge with aplomb and a bold plan. And in the last two years, she—alongside the Symphony’s beloved British Music Director Christopher Warren-Green—have written a new score that’s all about reaching across the city, not just into the neighborhoods (and pockets) of its most wealthy.

Take, for example, the “Music for All” program Deissler spearheaded to allow families on welfare to buy up to six Symphony tickets for just $1 each. Or consider the “Symphony on Tap” mini-series, where a segment of the orchestra performs classical hits at NoDa Brewing Co., which creates libations for each occasion.

Thanks to Deissler and her team, Project Harmony (an intensive after-school youth program) has grown nearly three-fold, and the program for dementia and Alzheimer’s patients at communities such as Sharon Towers and Southminster is bringing lots of joy—and some happy tears.

“It’s very powerful to see people who haven’t been able to see music for a decade or more, come up weeping, saying, ‘Thank you so much for doing this,’” says Deissler.

Deissler, who has spent more than 35 years in the performing arts arena, even loves to remind people: You don’t have to be dressed formally to come to a show—or be in one.

We saw that at the April performance of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” a collaboration among the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra, dancers from Charlotte Ballet II and Charlotte Ballet’s apprentice program, and young Reach dancers from three local recreation centers. After 18 months of coordination and work, more than 150 artists or all ages came together to create a thoroughly modern, spellbinding performance that earned an immediate standing ovation.

“As a public institution, a public charity, we depend on the support of people from our community in order to survive and thrive,” says Deissler. “And I feel like we have a responsibility to give back to that wider community, not just the folks who choose to come hear Brahms on a Friday night at the Belk [Theater]. We need to demonstrate our value.” —Caroline Portillo