South Florida has no shortage of women who inspire change and lead by example. From arts to education to philanthropy, these five women share insights into how they rose through the ranks to helm some of the area’s most impactful institutions.
President, Boca Raton Center for Arts & Innovation
Andrea Virgin knows how to own a stage. The former professional ballet dancer-turned-civil engineer is spearheading the creation of the Boca Raton Center for Arts & Innovation: a state-of-the-art facility that will house multiple spaces for performances and events. When Mizner Park was planned in the early 1990s, residents were promised that 40 percent of the land would be dedicated to culture. “This center fulfills that promise in a future-forward way,” Virgin says.
In the wake of Virgin’s husband’s death in a 2015 plane crash, she was determined to move forward with purpose. “I needed…to make an impact,” she says. “I saw how our time here can be cut short.” She launched a civil engineering design company and joined the board of Boca Ballet Theatre, the organization that ignited her own love of dance. At her first board meeting: kismet. On the wall hung a master plan for a performing arts center that had been a decades-long dream. Virgin felt she could bring the plans to fruition—combining her passion for the arts with her engineering know-how. “That was the inception of the center,” she says.
Today, Virgin is well beyond the inception phase. She’ll wrap lease negotiations with the City of Boca Raton early this year. Next on her agenda: schematic designs, launching a capital campaign, selecting a construction partner, and getting shovels in the ground. Virgin knows there will be several years of hard work ahead—but she keeps her eyes on the prize. “I cannot describe the feeling I will have on opening day, when we realize this dream has become a reality,” she says.
Timolin and Casey Cole
Founders, Nat King Cole Generation Hope
Music is a powerful force. It inspires, it entertains, it teaches, and it heals. That’s precisely why twin sisters Timolin and Casey Cole have made it their mission to honor their father Nat King Cole’s memory and tremendous career by making sure music programs are accessible to all—not to mention introducing his legendary music to a whole new generation. For the past 12 years, the dynamic duo has run Nat King Cole Generation Hope in the face of arts budget cuts across the county. The organization creates and funds music education programs in area schools.
Among the slew of inspiring activities is Timolin and Casey’s favorite: their signature Summer Songs program. “It’s the epitome of music education at its best,” Timolin explains. The intensive two-week program welcomes about 90 underserved elementary students to participate in music programming. “They are enthusiastic and full of positive, fun energy, and we get so much joy out of it,” Casey says. “It’s wonderful to be able to see them inspired and watch their growth.”
Timolin and Casey say they have weathered the storms of life together, while channeling their father’s inspiring determination and their mother’s resilience. But both women admit the key to success is putting yourself first in order to create space to inspire and mentor others.
“We come into this world alone and we die alone,” Timolin says. “At the end of the day, you must learn to be your own best friend. Taking time to nurture your own soul is the first step to everything else.”
Casey agrees, saying: “In order to be the best that you can be and in order to inspire others, you have to be inspired. It’s all about the self.”
Debra A. Schwinn
President, Palm Beach Atlantic University
Debra A. Schwinn was named Palm Beach Atlantic University’s ninth president in May 2020—in the middle of a global health crisis. But as a leader in academic medicine, an innovator, a physician-scientist, and a member of the National Academy of Medicine, Schwinn’s medical background came full circle as Palm Beach Atlantic organized itself and quickly assembled a team of medical professionals and a system of safeguards to protect students, faculty, and staff while offering transformative, in-person education.
“The university prides itself on having strong, compassionate, and visionary leaders, and I’m happy to be a part of that team,” says Schwinn.
As a Christian liberal arts university, Palm Beach Atlantic gives students an opportunity to deepen their faith while discerning their vocation through rigorous academics and “workship,” the school’s signature community service program. “I love bringing people together across the university,” says Schwinn.
Schwinn believes that being a successful woman requires hard work, consistent quality, and innovation. “Women may have a competitive advantage when it comes to innovation,” she says. “We are, by nature, creative problem-solvers.”
For Schwinn, life is not about how smart you are; it’s about joyfully serving others. A relatively young school, Palm Beach Atlantic has big plans for the future. With Schwinn at the helm, the academic institution hopes to double enrollment, offer new programs, and reimagine its West Palm Beach campus for the future.
CEO, The Community Foundation for Palm Beach and Martin Counties
Danita Nias, the new CEO of the Community Foundation for Palm Beach and Martin Counties, inspires philanthropy to address her community’s needs. A vehicle for philanthropists to make an impact, the organization aims to enhance local lives and ensure a strong quality of life for residents of the counties it serves, through awarding grants and offering scholarships to deserving students. Nias says what distinguishes the organization is its highly customized approach. “We are creating programs for people to help [them] think through their philanthropic strategies and choose causes that resonate with them.”
Nias started her career in sales at Xerox, where she learned that customer needs are the focal point of any successful venture. She says that her skill set lies in connecting with people one-on-one. “Relationship building comes naturally to me. It’s divine and it’s who I am.”
But the corporate world wasn’t Nias’ only training ground; she says that being a high school and college cheerleader was key to preparing her for her current role. “Cheerleaders build relationships with the crowd and with each other, and that’s what I am doing here. I am cheering for these counties.”
While her corporate cheerleading work entails many programs, providing mental health therapy to children is particularly important to Nias. In fact, she recently introduced a childhood mental health program called Rebound and Recovery, which the Boys & Girls Clubs of Palm Beach County will implement this year.
For Nias, the key to success—in any realm—is authenticity. “When you can be yourself and you embrace yourself, you can’t lose.” she says.