Barbara W. Brown, OD, FAAO
Manager, Student and Special Services
University of Missouri-St. Louis
College of Optometry
St. Louis, Mo

Chosen Because... “Dr. Brown is not only a mentor in optometry; she guides us through every aspect of school, from the entrance interview process before enrollment to the licensing process as we leave school and apply for jobs.”

There are two things that can always be found on Barbara Brown’s desk: the class picture from 2005, the year she almost left the school, and a personal statement that reads “The reason I do what I do is the students—they are the reason I am here.”

Brown oversees recruitment, admissions, placement and scholarships for UMSL/Optometry, in addition to managing all student services and acting as a fundraising liaison.

The list of her professional accomplishments is almost as long as her job description: she’s a member of the American Optometric Association (AOA), Heart of America Contact Lens Society, St. Louis Optometric Society, and a life member of the Missouri Optometric Foundation (MOF), where she was elected to the board in 2003 and has served as Secretary of the Board since.

When Brown entered optometry school there were only seven other women in her class yet her current student body is comprised of about half, or more, women. “I love that women feel comfortable in the science and math areas of optics and optometry.”

SHE SAYS... “I am inspired by the entering class and the graduating class every year. I am inspired by their plans, dreams and their desire to become something different than they are today.”

  Barbara Byrne
Customer Service Manager
Hoya Vision Care
Lewisville, Texas

Chosen Because... “Barbara’s customer service background and years of service have afforded her the opportunity to train many people in the intricacies of customer care. I can attest to the fact that she always goes the extra mile to help customers and is truly a mentor for all who work for her. She leads by example.”

Barbara Byrne went to work right out of high school at International Optical in Dallas, Texas as a file clerk back when that meant using paper files and metal filing cabinets. From there, she worked as a customer service manager at Omega Optical. When her husband decided he wanted to retire and become a farmer, she worked in a small town as a city employee. “I couldn’t wait to get back to the city and return to the optical business,” said Byrne.

As soon as Bill Benedict opened his new lab, Benedict Optical, Byrne jumped back into the optical business as a stockroom manager. “Getting out of the optical business is harder than getting a divorce,” Byrne laughed.

Hoya Vision Care bought Benedict Optical in 2003, where Byrne now works as a customer service manager in the Dallas location. Her responsibilities include hiring and training of customer service personnel. As a mentor to others, Byrne shares ideas, goals, and work ethics with anyone that shows an interest in making the optical business their world.

SHE SAYS... “My first and most life altering mentor would have to be Bill Benedict. He took the opportunity to mold a willing and open mind. When I think back on all of the things I have learned, most of them were established early on in my life, by Bill.”

  Shirley Earley
Focal Pointe
West Chester, Ohio

Chosen Because... “She has been an inspiration to opticians around the country.”

Shirley Earley has been an optician for nearly three decades, and has also played an important role in the Opticians Association of America (OAA) in recent years. She was elected the OAA’s second vice president two years ago, and is expected to move up to first vice president in September when the OAA board elections are held during the 2009 National Opticians Convention in Cincinnati.

Earley joined Focal Pointe when Michael Lyons, OD, launched the practice last fall; before that, she spent 14 years with a multi-optometrist practice.

Earley has been active with the OAA for the past seven years. She began on the board of the Cincinnati-area opticians society, then moved to the state level.

After attending an OAA Leadership Conference, “my interest was jump-started, and I became excited about sharing ideas about what opticianry organizations can do to educate fellow opticians,” she recalled.

SHE SAYS… “I’ve made it a point to be a mentor to others coming along, because our profession always needs fresh blood and new ideas. I believe in our profession, and I got involved in the OAA to give back—I want others to realize the future of opticianry is what you make it.”

  Rebecca Fertig
Brahm & Powell Guild Opticians
Alexandria, Va.

Chosen Because... “Becky followed her father into the industry, working with him for many years. She purchased Brahm & Powell more than 20 years ago and has built it into one of the premier practices in Northern Virginia.”

No one knows better than Becky Fertig that the road to success is not traveled alone. In 1993, she purchased Brahm & Powell Guild Opticians, a “flailing one-man business,” in Old Town Alexandria and turned it into a profitable practice that today employs four full-time opticians.

When Fertig started her business venture there were also “a few women in the field who owned their own business and that gave me hope,” she said. But Fertig is the first to admit she couldn’t have done it without her three long-time employees. “They treat the practice as if it was their own—you can’t ask for more support than that. I am so lucky to have wonderful employees.”

Today, Fertig’s main responsibility is overseeing the practice and seeing clients, but she has still managed to find the time to teach opticianry to students enrolled in the Virginia Apprenticeship Program for Opticians for many years. She has also served on the Board of Directors of the Opticians Association of Virginia and was honored as their Optician of the Year in April 2009.

SHE SAYS... “I feel the most important aspect of mentoring is to empower your employees by allowing them to make decisions and be a part of the business.”

  Emily Gelb
Vice President, Field Operations
Emerging Vision
Garden City, N.Y.

Chosen Because... “Her intensely strong personality, commitment to the industry and dynamic enthusiasm serve as an exceptional influence.”

Emily Gelb began her career in optical at age 26, as a contact lens technician in an American Vision Centers store, then shifted to Cohen’s Fashion Optical, where she moved from store to store solving problems and providing sales strategies and training. After joining Emerging Vision’s Sterling Optical chain in 2000, Gelb started working in sales and then switched gears and went into training.

Today, she and her five-person team travel around to Emerging Vision’s more than 150 franchised and company-owned stores evaluating the stores’ operations, then developing action plans as needed to improve store performance—tackling everything from employee dress codes to cost of goods to lab work to marketing tools.

“We help our franchisees and store managers be better at their jobs, whatever it takes,” Gelb said. “It‘s very important that we make a difference. And my days are never the same, which I really enjoy.”

SHE SAYS... “I’ve never heard what I can’t do as a woman in the optical business—I’ve only heard what I can do.”

  Kristina F. Green
Opticianry Program Director
J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College
Richmond, Va.

Chosen Because... “Kristina Green has given a lot to the optical industry training opticians. Whenever there were budget cuts [at JSRC] she’s always stepped up to the plate and filled in.”

Kristina Green has two favorite duties when it comes to heading up the opticianry program at J. Sargeant Reynolds—the first is talking to perspective students about entering the field of opticianry and the second is volunteering as a marshal on graduation day to experience firsthand the fruits of her labors.

Green has been in opticianry for 14 years, but for the past 10, she has been director of the school’s opticianry program. Her responsibilities include the instruction and revision of all courses including ophthalmic optics, finishing laboratory, ophthalmic dispensing, contact lens theory, clinical, anatomy and physiology of the eye, and optical business management.

In addition to earning a Masters of Science in Occupational and Technical Education, Green is an ABO-Master Optician and a Fellow of the Contact Lens Society of America.

She is passionate about spreading the message of the true value and need for formal education saying, “Today’s technological advances demand a higher level of expertise. My personal belief is that opticianry will never reach the level of respect it deserves as an allied health profession without requiring formal education, licensure and continuing education.”

SHE SAYS... “We should never forget: Our clients deserve the very best vision correction possible and it is our duty to consider all the possible variables to design a product that fully meets, if not exceeds, their expectations.”

  Angel Hulen
Vice President, Provider Solutions
OptumHealth Vision
Indianapolis, Ind.

Chosen Because... “A hands-on problem-solver…her ability to build an efficient and functional team is well-known.”

Angel Hulen was named vice president, provider solutions, for managed-vision care player OptumHealth Vision—a division of United Healthcare—in December 2008, moving over from her previous positions as regional VP and national accounts manager in OptumHealth’s specialty benefits operation. Previously, Hulen had worked for the former Spectera (now OptumHealth Vision) in the company’s vision business since 2001.

In her current role with the company, Hulen’s responsibilities now include provider retention and servicing, communicating with the provider network on OptumHealth Vision’s programs and operations, and quality assurance. “I work to help our providers in terms of how our benefits are administered, and manage provider files as well,” she said.

She also prides herself on working as a mentor, “passing my knowledge along to help someone else flourish,” Hulen said, adding, “Mentoring is one of the most rewarding components of my leadership role.”

SHE SAYS... “I’m happy to see the way the eyecare business includes a large number of women, and how our company embraces women in leadership positions.”

  Candace O’Keefe
Area Manager
Younger Optics
Peachtree City, Ga. 

Chosen Because... “She is very enthusiastic about her product, and eager to share her knowledge with labs and opticians. She is always willing to go the extra mile.”

With 26 years of optical industry experience, much of it working as a dispensing optician, O’Keefe is respected by customers and colleagues alike for her extensive knowledge of dispensing and spectacle lenses. Currently Younger Optics’s wholesale products manager in the Southern U.S., O’Keefe works with wholesale labs and vertically integrated retail labs.

She is responsible for introducing new products and technologies through marketing and educational training for both laboratory customer service/technicians and ECPs through CE/seminar training and workshops. She maintains customer loyalty through seasonal promotions, customer appreciation events and customized marketing ideas.

An ABO-certified and state certification CE speaker nationally, O’Keefe is also a contributing writer to Focal Point, a publication of the Professional Opticians of Florida organization. She is pleased to see women making progress in all areas of the optical industry.

As she observed, “Today, women are much stronger and more confident in themselves and in their ability to lead. They are building businesses, nurturing families, mentoring young people. I predict this upward trend of women in leadership positions will continue for a very long time.”

SHE SAYS... “As women in our industry continue to become great leaders and role models, their influence sparks others to rise to the occasion, to act on opportunity, to take chances, to not be afraid to rattle the cage once in awhile.”

  Cheryl Oberlee
District Sales Manager
Essilor Labs
Dallas, Texas

Chosen Because... “Cheryl is an extremely talented, dedicated individual with impeccable integrity. She works 70-hour-weeks training and helping private practices improve their profitability. She is a well-respected professional as well as an innovator, teacher, mentor and creative thinker. ”

In her 20-plus years in the optical industry, Cheryl Oberlee has worn many hats while working for Essilor of America. She’s been a sales consultant, senior consultant, sales trainer, corporate seminar speaker, district sales manager, strategic accounts manager, director of national accounts, director of sales and marketing, marketing development manager and she is currently in the position of district manager for Essilor Labs.

Oberlee was presented with the New Sales Person of the Year award and then the National Sales Person of the Year award for four consecutive years.

“This Most Influential Women Award is especially appreciated as it involves being nominated by my peers as a mentor. I love the people that I have been fortunate enough to work with over the past two decades,” said Oberlee.

She is pleased to see more women in the three Os taking leadership roles. She believes that, while men and women may have different and unique talents and abilities, it is the coming together of diversity that makes us stronger.

SHE SAYS... “Remember to take your PDs… because being successful in any optical position takes the following; Patience, Practice, Persistence and Personality as well as Desire, Drive, Determination, Dedication and Diplomacy.”

  Michelle Skinner
Vice President of Sales
Altair Eyewear
Rancho Cordova, Calif.

Chosen Because... “Innovation, growth, passion, and transparency are the values she has built her career upon, while instilling the importance of excellent customer service in her sales team.”

“Smooth seas do not a skilled Captain make,” has been a lesson learned by Altair’s Michelle Skinner from a coterie of what she calls “amazing optical industry female mentors” who have taught her by example how to be a strong female leader, to embrace change, and that the best learning can come out of the most challenging times.

So after 15 years in the optical industry, and currently being responsible for leading the entire Altair sales team, it is no surprise that Skinner herself has been nominated as a Mentor this year.

“Women have a huge opportunity to leverage our exceptional skills to make a difference in leading our companies and individuals to work as stronger teams with a unified vision,” said Skinner.

All it takes is “embracing new opportunities and challenging yourself. When an opportunity comes along that sounds interesting but takes you a little outside of your comfort zone…go for it. My experience has been that those are the times you learn the most,” she said.

SHE SAYS... “When working with different personalities the goal is to ‘tap into who they are’ so they can learn to leverage their skills and talents.”

  Aurora Susi
Metro Optics
Bronx, N.Y.

Chosen Because... “A master optician whose approach to the profession combines the science of optics with the social skills to understand patients’ needs.”

After taking a few years off to have children, Aurora Susi joined Metro Optics in 1987 as a part-time receptionist. Seeking a job at Metro with no prior optical experience, she offered to work for free for a week, to see if she met the owner’s standards. She did…and has been with the two-store operation for 22 years.

As her children grew, Susi’s hours at Metro Optics increased; she moved into sales, then took over the responsibility for the stores’ frame buying. “I needed to understand optics and lens design to buy frames, so I took opticianry courses,” she recalled.

Eventually she took a seven-hour bus ride to Albany, N.Y., to take her ABO certification exam…and failed it (she did pass and get the certification her next time around).

“I always tell that story to young people I work with, so they know never to give up,” Susi said. That kind of mentoring is a key part of her career: Susi has sponsored four opticians for their state licenses, teaching them the ropes as her apprentices.

In addition to managing Metro’s Westchester Square store, Susi is still a dispensing optician who regularly works with patients, and
enjoys it.

“You have to offer people everything, and let it be their choice,” she said. “But patients also want to be told why a particular frame is good for them.”

SHE SAYS... “Eyewear is not just about seeing any more—patients want to feel and look good, and I can help them do that.”