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We Honor Women at the Forefront of Change — Today and Every Day

On International Women’s Day, and in celebration of Women’s History Month, Builder’s Initiative is honored to recognize and stand behind the outstanding leadership and achievements of women creating and advancing innovative solutions to complex environmental and social challenges. They are creators, planters, risk takers, innovators, advocates, mothers, wives, sisters and friends. Working together whether its in oceans, climate and energy, food and agriculture, or community, we celebrate these champions and their efforts to make our communities more sustainable and equitable for all.

Elizabeth Abunaw, Founder, Owner and Operator of Forty Acres Fresh Market

Alarmed by the lack of fresh food options on Chicago’s west side, Liz Abunaw launched Forty Acres Fresh Market, an affordable specialty grocery store with a bountiful fresh food selection on Chicago's Westside. Using an innovative mobile strategy centered on full-selection pop up produce markets to test and develop the right business model, she has grown Forty Acres from idea to a social impact small business built to scale. Since its inception, Forty Acres has serviced over 1,000 customers residing in underserved communities and continues to expand its reach through a delivery service option and participation in Veggie Rx programs. Prior to launching Forty Acres Fresh Market in January 2018, Liz was a partner manager in Microsoft’s sales division and before that spent ten years at General Mills, Inc.

Raissa Allaire

Raissa Allaire, Executive Director of Tree House Humane Society

Raissa Allaire joined Tree House Humane Society in May 2018. Raissa has been a nonprofit leader for the past 20 years, including as COO of a social services organization and as a vice president/Chief of Staff for a Chicago museum. She also developed and managed communications campaigns for major non-profit clients as a PR account executive. As Executive Director, Raissa has overseen the growth of Tree House, including the opening of the Veterinary Wellness Center in 2021, the doubling of the organization’s reserves, and a complete rebrand in 2019. She also serves as the co-chair of the Chicagoland Humane Coalition.

Erika Allen

Erika Allen, Co-Founder and CEO of Operations at Urban Growers Collective

Erika Allen is passionate about social justice and is dedicated to working with multicultural groups in the elimination of racism, related oppressions, and the root causes of poverty by integrating creative and therapeutic techniques alongside food security and community development. Alongside Laurell Simms, Erika co-founded in 2017 the Urban Growers Collective (UGC), a non-profit organization that builds urban farms and gardens and provides fresh foods primarily in underprivileged areas in the West and South Side of Chicago. Allen also serves on the Food Equity Council for the City of Chicago and the IL Leadership Council for Agricultural Education (ICAE), and was recently appointed by the Biden Administration to join the Farm Service Agency Committee for Illinois.

Daisy Freund

Daisy Freund, Vice President of Farm Animal Welfare at ASPCA

Daisy Freund is the Vice President of Farm Animal Welfare for the ASPCA. In this role she oversees the organization’s public education, corporate engagement, and policy advocacy efforts aimed at shifting the food system away from confinement-based industrial animal agriculture toward more humane methods of food production including welfare-certified, pasture-based farming and plant-based alternatives. Informed by her background in farming and food service, Daisy has built the ASPCA’s approach to addressing farmed animal suffering in allyship with farmers, food workers, and consumers. That has included fighting for holistically humane and sustainable policies in animal agriculture alongside environmental, labor and community groups; advocating for funds to go to higher-welfare and historically marginalized farmers; and making more animal-conscious food shopping as accessible and inclusive as possible through the ASPCA’s Shop With Your Heart guides.

Julie Kuchepatov

Julie Kuchepatov, Founder of Seafood and Gender Equality (SAGE)

Julie Kuchepatov has spent her career working directly with a variety of stakeholders in the seafood industry and the sustainable seafood movement to address some of the most pressing environmental and social challenges in global seafood production. As the founder of Seafood and Gender Equality (SAGE), she is building a more equitable, diverse, and inclusive seafood industry and sustainable seafood movement. Prior to SAGE, Julie worked at Fair Trade USA, building a seafood program that impacted thousands of seafood producers and workers became a globally recognized solution to empower seafood workers, ensure workplace safety, and improve environmental sustainability. Her career has been built on a foundation of two decades of experience working with Russian fisheries to improve their environmental performance at the Wild Salmon Center and as a founding member of Ocean Outcomes (O2).

Vanessa Sanchez

Vanessa Sanchez, Director of Education and Yollocalli Arts Reach at at the National Museum of Mexican Art (NMMA)

Vanessa Sanchez is the Director of Yollocalli Arts Reach, the youth initiative of the National Museum of Mexican Art (NMMA), as well as a practicing artist, music festival planner, and activist. Born and raised in Chicago, Vanessa has dedicated her career to enhancing her communities as a civic-focused leader by designing and facilitating numerous arts and activism initiatives. She has collaborated with hundreds of youth, artists, journalists, media producers and civic leaders throughout Chicago garnering national and international recognition. As an arts administrator, program director and mentor, Vanessa has helped build a more diverse, equitable, and vibrant city through arts education for over 15 years. Vanessa is also the Board Vice President for Villapalooza-Little Village Music Fest, an artist and collaborator in the Chicago Artists Creating Transformation (ACT) Collective.

Laurell Sims

Laurell Sims, Co-Founder and Co-Executive Director at Urban Growers Collective

Passionate about expanding urban farming, Laurell Sims serves as Co-Founder and Co-Executive Director of Urban Growers Collective (UGC) and works closely with the Chicago Food Policy Council on committees regarding zoning and urban livestock policy. In 2021, Erika Allen and Laurell received the Wild Innovator Award for their work at UGC, alongside 10 other women internationally, whose leadership addresses the interconnectedness of wildlife, people and plants in climate change. Laurell previously worked as the Production and Marketing Manager for Growing Power Chicago and as the Director for the Victory Program’s ReVision House Urban Farm, a farm-training program for mothers experiencing housing instability in Dorchester, MA. In 2011, Sims was selected as a Bold Food Fellow, a State Department exchange with farmers from Uganda and Kenya to strengthen urban farming programs, and has overseen projects with urban farms in Port-au-Prince’s Cité Soleil District in Haiti.

Paula Sylvia

Paula Sylvia, Aquaculture & Blue Technology Program Director at the Port of San Diego

Paula Sylvia is the Program Director of the Aquaculture and Blue Technology Program at the Port of San Diego, a program that was created in 2015. She oversees a variety of planning and pre-development initiatives aimed at developing environmental and economic opportunities for aquaculture, blue technology, climate resiliency, and other nature-based solution businesses in and around San Diego Bay. Paula also manages the Port’s Blue Economy Incubator, a platform to support entrepreneurship and innovation partnerships to facilitate and scale pilot projects and build a portfolio of nature-based solutions and new businesses that can deliver multiple social, environmental, and economic benefits to the region.

Kim Wasserman

Kim Wasserman, Executive Director of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO)

Kim Wasserman is the Executive Director of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO), where she has worked since 1998. Kim joined LVEJO as an organizer and helped to organize community leaders to successfully build a new playground, community gardens, remodel of a local school park and force a local polluter to upgrade their facilities to meet current laws. As Executive Director of LVEJO, she has worked with organizers to reinstate a job access bus line, build on the victory of a 23-acre park that was built in Little Village, and continue the 10-plus-year campaign that won the closure of the two local coal power plants to fight for remediation and redevelopment of the sites. Kim is Chair of the Illinois Commission on Environmental Justice and, in 2013, was the recipient of the Goldman Prize for North America.

Alma Wieser

Alma Wieser, Director of Heaven Gallery and Founder and President of Equity Arts

Alma Wieser has been the director of Heaven Gallery for 11 years and she is founder and president of Equity Arts. She started Heaven Gallery’s alternative retail model and created an internship program to teach young artists how to run and operate an art gallery. Alma also authored racial equity policies for a 60% BIPOC majority for board members and artists featured by both organizations. The Equity Arts project is developing The Chicago Model for Sustainable Culture.