Suzanne Mayes, Fiona Ma are 2020's Freda Johnson award winners

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Suzanne Mayes of Cozen O’Connor and California Treasurer Fiona Ma have been chosen as this year’s private and public sector winners of the Freda Johnson Award for Trailblazing Women in Public Finance.

Ma and Mayes, who is co-chair of Cozen O'Connor's Public & Project Finance Practice Group, were chosen on the 10th anniversary of the award and the sixth year the Northeast Women in Public Finance along with The Bond Buyer expanded it to cover two public finance professionals, one each from the public and private sectors.

Suzanne Mayes and Fiona Ma
Suzanne Mayes and Fiona Ma

The award is named for Freda Johnson, a founding board member of the organization who was an executive vice president and public finance division head at Moody's Investors Service from 1979 through 1990. Johnson and the Northeast Women in Public Finance will formally present the awards virtually at The Bond Buyer’s Deal of the Year ceremony on Dec. 16.

In addition, the NEWPF has named 12 Trailblazing women in public finance in both public and private sectors.

For the first time,The Bond Buyer DEAL OF THE YEAR celebration is open to the whole municipal finance community.

Join us virtually December 16th to hear from the most innovative deal teams in 2020.


“Both Fiona and Suzanne have achieved unique and outstanding success in their respective fields, and I am delighted they are this year’s recipients of the Freda Johnson Award,” Johnson said. “Clearly, hard work, intelligence, talent, and determination paved the path to their respective achievements.”

In addition, both women have “demonstrated a strong commitment to mentoring which is so important, especially to young women in the workplace, be it in the public sector or the private sector.”

“Having initiated the mentoring program for Northeast Women in Public Finance, with the help of many others, I know how important mentoring is. We are especially proud that this year’s winners of the Freda Johnson Award have made mentoring a priority,” Johnson said, adding that “Fiona and Suzanne represent the very best qualities for women of achievement.”

“I am humbled to be the 2020 Freda Johnson Public Sector awardee,” Ma said. “My first job after graduating from RIT was working for Ernst & Whinney in the Real Estate Tax Group. Today I am the first woman of color and the first woman CPA to hold this position as California’s 34thState Treasurer.”

Mayes, who co-runs Cozen O'Connor's municipal bond practice and also co-manages all of its transactional practices, said she is “thrilled to be receiving the Freda Johnson award, especially in this year in which everyone had to come together to continue the important work we do in this industry.” Mayes said the challenges she and others in the industry face have made the work all the more rewarding.

“We have fared reasonably well. We’ve been quite busy working with our clients on how to manage through COVID. We view ourselves as problem-solvers and that makes all the difference,” Mayes said.

Ma echoed this sentiment.

“This has been a very challenging year for all of us however I am proud of my dedicated team at the State Treasurer’s Office who have demonstrated their strong commitment to the people of California,” Ma said. “We have been ‘open for business’ since our ‘shelter-in-place’ order.” She noted that California was the first post-COVID state to sell bonds in April and the market “responded favorably.”

Johnson, Ma and Mayes all had some words of advice for young women coming up in the ranks in the public finance industry during the COVID-19 pandemic, when working from home is the norm and social interactions have been severely curtailed.

“Clearly, it is a very difficult time for young women (and young men) to start a new career. The absence of in-person interaction with peers and superiors creates a void hard to fill. However, using the internet can provide a valuable substitute,” Johnson said.

Young people, she said, should not hesitate to reach out to the people with whom they work with new ideas, suggestions for streamlining the workplace.

“They should keep in mind that everybody feels some level of isolation in the workplace today when they are unable to gather together, so reaching out, not only for professional matters but also to invite someone to a social gathering, can be beneficial to both sides,” Johnson said.

“The pandemic aside, it's a great time to come of age in the business. There are lots of opportunities for younger women to shine,” Mayes said. “Early on in your career, put your head down and learn the technical aspects of the business,” Mayes said. “But within a few years, you need to lift up your head, get out of your office, and start building relationships.”

At Northeast Women in Public Finance, the group has tried to make those connections possible and have organized virtual social gatherings for its members (over cocktails or dinner — sometimes with a topic and other times just to chat) and they have had a very favorable response to the events, Johnson said.

“People want to feel a connection and we need to use all means available to connect,” she said.

And while the Freda Johnson and Trailblazing awards go to women, all agreed young professionals should reach out to all mentors in the business.

“Sometimes younger women look only for women mentors to the exclusion of men, and the reality is that there are a lot of supportive men in important positions that can provide helpful and different perspectives.” Mayes encouraged young women to seek advice from all those willing to give it.

Ma and Mayes both noted that those who came before them have built a foundation for their careers and they want to do the same for the younger generation.

“In these tough times, I am cognizant that I stand on the shoulders of such icons as Freda Johnson who tamed the ‘Bull’ on Wall Street and blazed the trail for so many of us who serve in the public finance space today,” Ma said.

“A lot of women came before me and made the path easier for me. Now, my generation of women is helping the younger generation to come up,” Mayes said. “We’re finally reaching critical mass. Within our client ranks, we see a lot of women sitting in important positions across the country, doing great work. And they have their eye on helping to promote women in the industry.”

“The picture is better. While change is slow, it is coming,” Mayes said. “I feel like for younger women, the stage is set to thrive.”

The Trailblazing women in public finance are:

Public:

Marge Basrai, chief financial officer of the Metropolitan Nashville Airport Authority
Sheila Robinson, chief financial officer at NYS Homes and Community Renewal
Denise Olson, chief financial officer of the City of Phoenix
Marjorie Henning, deputy comptroller for public finance for New York City
Carmen Pigler, associate treasurer of debt and grants Washington, D.C.
Rachael Eubanks, treasurer of the state of Michigan

Private:

Emilie Ninan, partner and co-chair of the Finance Department at Ballard Spahr
Grace Chionuma, executive director at Morgan Stanley
Juliet Stiehl, managing vice president and head of public finance, East Region, Build America Mutual
Laura Porter, Global Group Head for Public Finance & Infrastructure, Fitch Ratings
Beth Wolchock, managing director at Oppenheimer
Seema Mohanty, managing director at Mohanty Gargiulo

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Trailblazing Women in Public Finance
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