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The present is female: Forget the future, these women are pushing boundaries, breaking glass ceilings and making an impact on the valley now

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Erin Sprague, senior VP and chief brand officer, Aspen Skiing Co.

 

Editor’s note: In pursuing this piece, Local Magazine editor-in-chief Sari Tuschman wanted to highlight six “badass women in the valley, the slightly unsung heroes,” especially in light of how many women were driven from the workforce during COVID-19. This story first appeared in the summer 2021 edition of Local.

There are many impressive women in the Roaring Fork Valley, some who summit mountains and others who lead summits. And while there are too many to celebrate on these pages, we chose a few of the forward-thinking, boundary-breaking and wildly intelligent local women forging impressive careers, while affecting positive change in their industries and in the Roaring Fork Valley. Here, the six women who have captured our attention and inspired us to never settle for the ordinary when extraordinary is an option.

Erin Sprague

Erin Sprague took a circuitous route to Pitkin County. Growing up in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York, she and her siblings spent most weekends at Gore Mountain with their police officer-slash-ski patroller father. It was in those early years she discovered the athlete inside of her, developing a passion for running, Nordic skiing and eventually triathlons. After college, Sprague kicked off her career with a job in private equity, but her heart wasn’t in finance, which many miles on her feet ­finally ­revealed to her. (Fun fact: Sprague is the first woman to run a marathon on seven continents.) “Sports unlocked so many opportunities in my life — I wanted to empower that for others,” said Sprague. “Somewhere between Antarctica and Australia, I realized I wanted this to be more of a central theme in my career.”

That realization led her to her first outdoor-industry role at Specialized Bicycle Components, where she headed the women’s category and led it to double-digit sales growth. She followed that with a stint at Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, launching its running/fitness festival business. Three years ago, she came to the Aspen Skiing Co., where she now serves as the senior VP and chief brand officer, working on everything from the company’s brand development, digital marketing and creative initiatives to sustainability, community impact and innovating the guest experience. But being a powerful woman in an industry that was once considered a serious boys’ club can be a challenge — one she believes is finally dissipating. “I’ve experienced the boys’ club, but I feel it’s changing,” said Sprague, who resides in Carbondale with her husband and two young daughters. “Two of our most senior operational leaders at SkiCo are women I look up to. Our global marketing and sales team is majority women, and the next generation is strong. My concerns now are the impact the pandemic has had on working women and in more racial diversity, equity and inclusion in our sport and industry.”

But even as inclusion increases, gender biases can still exist, something Sprague admitted has been a part of her path.

“I have had times where I’ve had to be ‘tough’ in a negotiation, with feedback or when pushing an initiative to be better, and I’ve experienced negative gender-based reactions to this,” said Sprague. “Is this annoying? Yes. But like in skiing, when a line isn’t working for me, there’s always another way down the hill.”

Despite the sometimes rocky road — or, in this case, Volkswagen-size moguls — Sprague has had to traverse throughout her career, she is thrilled her route eventually led her to Aspen.

“What a gift to live at the infinite intersection of nature, culture and recreation,” said Sprague. “This is a town of 7,000 residents that captures the attention of the entire world. That’s a rare and powerful thing to harness for good. Also, I really love Highland Bowl!” —SAT

Jasmin Ramirez

When Jasmin Ramirez found out her son had been served bread, even though he’s autistic and on a gluten-free diet, she approached the staff at Sopris Elementary about it. She started with the cafeteria employees, and when she felt dismissed by them, she went up the ladder — where the same thing happened.

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Jasmin Ramirez, board member, Roaring Fork Schools Board of Education

“That moment fired me up,” she said. “It made me [realize] nobody on the [school] board looked like me or understood my frustration or where I was coming from. In a matter of two weeks, I decided to run for the school board.”

She defeated both opponents in a three-way race — including narrowly edging out an incumbent with a less than two-percent margin — for a seat representing Basalt, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs on the Roaring Fork Schools Board of Education.

A daughter of immigrants, Ramirez grew up in California, attending culturally diverse schools until her senior year when her family relocated to the Roaring Fork Valley.

“It was a shock in itself [to move], and then there was the culture shock of how segregated the school was. The white kids hung out with white kids, and the Latinos hung out with Latinos.”

After graduating from Glenwood Springs High School, she went back to California for college — the first in her family to do so — but everyone else stayed here. She eventually moved home and started her own family, and she now has two children, Dylan, 10, and Cataleya, 3. “I did it for my kids,” said Ramirez of running for school board.

“My son is a sixth-grader and hasn’t had a teacher of color yet. Being a proud brown woman, I hope both kids grow up to love themselves in the same way I was taught.” On Ramirez’s to-do list is making sure that district policies are anti-racist and focused on equity, equality and fairness. For example, the district is 55% Hispanic now, and simple things like filing a grievance with officials is made even harder for Spanish-speaking families by the fact most policies and forms are in English.

Ramirez was recently named one of 25 fellows for 2021 in the third cohort for the nonprofit School Board Partners, a nationwide organization that provides resources and works with leaders on how to interrupt systemic racism within the education system. With the organization’s support, she is encouraging anti-racist education for the district. Because of Ramirez’s role in the community, joining other Latinx leaders to found an advocacy organization that works to unite the Latino community was also a priority for her. Along with Blanca Uzeta O’Leary and others, she helped create Voces Unidas de la Montañas in early 2020.

“I’m a mom first,” she said. “I’m a member of this community who wants to make sure the kids are protected and who wants to see equity become a thing, not just a conversation.” —CB 

Robin Smith

Best known for running her 18-year fine-jewelry business Meridian Jewelers, Robin Smith is the go-to person for some of the most exclusive watch and jewelry collections in the world, including Rolex, Cartier and IWC watches and Anita Ko, Irene Neuwirth and Kimberly McDonald jewelry, to name only a few of the top-tier brands she carries. But this past winter she and her husband, Kenny, became famous for something else — their valiant work on behalf of struggling local restaurants, one of the industries hit hardest by COVID. “We are very aware of the challenges of operating [restaurants] even under the best of circumstances with seasonal staff who may be living paycheck to paycheck,” said Smith, who lives with her husband and two sons in Mountain Valley.

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Robin Smith, owner, Meridian Jewelers/Local restaurant advocate

The idea of how to help came to the couple after Kenny made a public comment to a local paper suggesting that people should reach out to friends who were struggling during COVID or perhaps buy a gift certificate to support a local restaurant. The letter received a tremendous amount of positive responses.

“That night, [Kenny] proposed we reach out to our client list and use some of our marketing budget to do a gift-certificate match program, which went viral in about 48 hours,” said the Texas-born Smith. “Initially it just felt like something small we could do for our clients to show our appreciation to them and for them to show their appreciation and support to all of the restaurants they wanted to see succeed and thrive.”

But what started as a small idea quickly became bigger than the Smiths could have imagined. “We were getting calls from all over the country. The entire Meridian team, along with a lot of help from [friend and local] Beth Mobilian, were answering phones, taking orders, creating spreadsheets, running credit cards and collecting gift certificates — and then organizing them for folks to pick up,” said Smith. “Many participants didn’t even want gift certificates — they just wanted to support the initiative. We were able to parlay their support into gift certificates for low-income families.”

The Aspen Chamber Resort Association soon caught wind of the program and stepped in with a budget they had set aside for restaurant relief once Meridian’s was depleted, allowing the project to continue and reach more people. The end result was more than 1,200 gift certificates purchased, which helped get immediate relief to over 55 local restaurants.

Smith may make running a long-term local business and being a thoughtful and committed community member look effortless, but she is quick to acknowledge Aspen isn’t always the easiest place to be entrepreneurial — but it does have its advantages.

“It is so, so hard but incredibly gratifying,” said Smith. “The sense of community here is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. So many of my friends are in awe of the very deep, very broad community of friends and support in this Valley, how we all work together and support each other—talk about, ‘It takes a village.’” —SAT

Blanca Uzeta O’Leary

Among the mentors Blanca Uzeta O’Leary credits for her sense of civic responsibility, her grandmother sits at the top of the list.

“My maternal grandmother, Abuelita Herminia Gutierrez, was very much my role model,” she said.

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Blanca Uzeta O’Leary, co-founder, Voces Unidas de las Montañas/board member, Colorado Legislative Redistricting Commission

So it’s fitting O’Leary was recently nicknamed “madrina” (godmother) by fellow board members at Voces Unidas de las Montañas, a Latino advocacy organization in the Roaring Fork Valley she co-founded in early 2020.

“I kept looking at this [Zoom] grid, and they’re all babies,” said O’Leary, who has been running campaigns and engaged with nonprofits for decades. “The Latino population is getting bigger and more educated and professional. I was trying to figure out where they were when I was doing outreach for my campaigns.”

In addition to her many other pursuits, O’Leary serves on numerous boards. While she was born in California, this work started in Texas, where she was raised and also earned a law degree. When she moved to the Roaring Fork Valley in 2001, it didn’t take her long to delve into area issues. “Within about eight months of moving here I joined the board of Roaring Fork Legal Services,” she said. Under her six-year tenure as president, the nonprofit — which offers legal assistance — expanded from Aspen to Rifle and was renamed Alpine Legal Services.

Her work is heavily focused on social justice and political and immigration issues, which is what led her to start Voces Unidas with five other community members. Though the organization was started as an advocacy network for Valley Latinos, it almost immediately pivoted to offer COVID relief, providing more than 18,000 masks and offering vaccination clinics to 2,200 people.

But her service with Voces Unidas is not even O’Leary’s newest role. Recently, she was appointed to the state’s 12-person Legislative Redistricting Commission (six members are drawn at random out of the applicant pool, and six are appointed), which redraws the boundaries that determine Colorado’s 35 state senators’ and 65 state representatives’ districts in a process that continues through December.

“There wasn’t much of a gender or geographic balance whatsoever,” said O’Leary of the six that were randomly picked, noting five were white men from Denver. She was appointed with the second half of the commission. “They worked hard to get people of different genders, ethnic and cultural backgrounds and more geographic diversity.”

So when will it be time for O’Leary to slow down? Not anytime soon. As a mother of a 24-year-old son who went through Aspen’s education system, she has her sights set on working on child care in the area.

“We’re smart people, and we need to be obsessive about affordable child care in Aspen,” she said, saying the community will continue to lose families if a solution isn’t found.

Clearly, family is important to O’Leary. Besides her grandmother, she cites her father as another selfless community member and someone she wants to emulate.

“We should do our best to always help others,” said O’Leary. “The importance of living a life of promoting social justice is something my father and grandmother ingrained in me at a very young age.” —CB

Lori Spence

When Lori Spence joined the Aspen Highlands Ski Patrol she had only two female colleagues. It took four chairlifts to reach Loge Peak, and there were just six radios to share among the staff. That was 1985, and Highlands was still owned by Whip Jones, before he sold it to Aspen Skiing Company in 1993. Thirty-six years later, she’s the interim director of Highlands Ski Patrol, a role she has taken on since Mac Smith announced in February he would be partially retiring after a 42-year reign. (He will remain on as a patroller.) “Mac was a little leery of hiring me at first because I was a small woman,” said Spence. “We ended up doing the rig test [a toboggan test], which is really more technique than strength, and he hired me. I’ve been here ever since.” Spence did take a few seasons off from Highlands in the early ’90s to ski patrol at Squaw Valley while her husband finished his medical school residency in Reno, Nevada. But otherwise she’s been a constant on the hill, even when raising two sons and overcoming breast cancer in 2012.

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Lori Spence, interim director, Aspen Highlands Ski Patrol

“I hiked the Highland Bowl every day and tried to keep my life as normal as possible,” said Spence about the time in which she was undergoing radiation in Glenwood Springs.

In fact, Highland Bowl is where you’ll find Spence most days, as she makes it part of her daily routine. Assuming more responsibility — she became assistant ski patrol director in 2017 — means more time in front of the computer, but getting on the mountain is key to monitoring its safety.

“I want to keep the ‘ski’ in ski patrol; I love to hike,” she said. “I feel like I have an uphill problem. I get up to the Highland Bowl at least once a day.”

Though many parts of the job have changed during her nearly four decades — technology, infrastructure — other aspects have stayed the same. There are still just three women on AHSP out of the now 40-member department. “There are so many qualified women, and if they love this job, we want them to be here too,” she said.

Aspen Skiing Co. officially announces the new ski patrol director this summer — Spence said she’s obviously applying for the job. Hopefully, seeing a woman in the role would be a positive signal to others.

“As long as you like the exercise and the hard work, this is the place to be,” said Spence. “I’d love to have more women here.” —CB

Sarah Manning

Sarah Manning came by her love of flying rightfully.

“I was blessed with a family full of aviation mentors,” said the American Airlines pilot who was raised on Lake Minnetonka, Minnesota. “My father was a jet fighter pilot in the Air Force during the Korean War, then flew for Northwest Airlines for 32 years. He met my mother, who was a Northwest Airlines flight attendant, on an airplane during the glamorous era of aviation. Additionally, I had two uncles who were military pilots, and my two older brothers are airline pilots for United and Delta Airlines.”

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Sarah Manning, pilot, American Airlines

Unsurprisingly, Manning followed the family footsteps at a young age. She took her first flight lessons at 12, flew her first solo flight at 16, and obtained her private license at 17. While others her age were partying and having mindless fun, Manning continued to train and fly throughout college, attaining her commercial license and flight-instructor certificate shortly after graduating. In 1995, she moved to Aspen to fly business jets before eventually transitioning to her dream job at American Airlines after eight years of working toward it.

“I didn’t expect to remain in Aspen for this long,” said Manning, who flies out of American Airlines’ hub in Dallas. “I thought I would spend a few years skiing, hiking and enjoying the social scene, then move to an American Airlines pilot base and start a family. I didn’t think I’d create lifelong friendships and acquire such a deep connection to the mountains.”

When COVID wreaked havoc on the airline industry, Manning questioned if her hard-fought, hard-earned career would ever recover. “The economic uncertainties of COVID have been very stressful,” said Manning, who transitioned from flying overseas to domestic flights when the pandemic halted international travel. “Would the public ever feel safe traveling again? Would American Airlines survive? I didn’t fly from mid-March of 2020 until I began training on the Boeing 737 on September 1 — my longest time away from flying since college. Being grounded for so long was a difficult personal challenge. I felt incomplete.”

Manning recently celebrated her 22-year anniversary with American Airlines, and yet she still finds herself in a unique position — being a woman in a largely male-dominated profession.

“In the United States, less than 6% of all airline pilots are women, with less than 2% flying captain,” said Manning, who was recently upgraded to captain on a 737. “I definitely experienced added pressure at times as a woman pilot, especially in my early 20s. Flight schools and regional airlines are full of young, ambitious pilots fiercely competing for jobs at the next level. I always felt I needed to fly as well or better than all the guys to be accepted as a woman pilot. Luckily, I grew up with two older brothers constantly pushing and challenging me in and out of the cockpit.”

Manning hopes more women take to the friendly skies, the ideal place for fearless, powerful women ready to literally and figuratively take flight.

“To be a successful airline pilot or any successful career woman you need to be strong and have unwavering self-confidence,” said Manning. “Be unapologetic for your achievements in life. You can be feminine and strong, smart, sweet, athletic and gentle all at the same time.” —SAT