Women of Westport 2021

Amazing Women in Our Community

Gillian Isaacs, Founder of Sheraton Caregivers: Senior and In-Home Care

“In 1997 I became a caregiver for a rabbi’s wife who had Alzheimer’s. We didn’t really understand the disease at the time.”

“She couldn’t articulate anything but she always knew how to say ‘thank you.’ I put her to bed like a baby, I made sure she looked good and smelled good, I’d wake her up with a song; she loved the music.”

“On weekends I met families who had loved ones like the rabbi’s wife. They asked how I knew what she wanted, I said, ‘It’s the unspoken word,’ the touch I shared with her, the smile on my face.“

“She was a schoolteacher and loved educating children. He couldn’t understand why his celebrated wife of so many years couldn’t have a conversation with her.”

“Why can’t she understand me? ‘Rabbi,’ I said, ‘she does by your expressions.’”

“I wanted to go into finance. This changed all of that.”

“Sheraton [in Westport] is the fourth senior caregiving agency I’ve opened in Fairfield County.”

“[In art therapy] we had a simple project of tracing the hand. Our client, a father, was to do this with his wife and his daughter.  He was reluctant and his daughter talked him into doing it, so he finally agreed. A week later the dad passed. The picture is framed in his wife’s home. It’s a happy memory and the last thing they did together.”

“Everybody is somebody, we shouldn’t forget who they were.”


Ruth Mannes, Executive Director of MoCA Westport

“I was an executive managing editor at Harper Collins… then we moved out here and I was PTA president at CMS, in Ways & Means at CES, then on the executive board at Staples and ran the Staples Players fundraising for a few years.”

“I came to MoCA on February 10 and it closed mid-March. I could take a breath and learn what needed to be fixed, repaired, and strengthened. MoCA needed a good spinal cord to run well and the skeleton was really fractured.

"Appreciating and loving art has nothing to do with snobbery or existing in an Ivory tower; that's the biggest misconception, everyone can and should participate in this endeavor.”

“My husband and I started collecting in 1991. For our wedding we asked everyone to send money to a Paul Bloodgood painting.”

“We lived in a 400-square foot apartment in the West Village. We’d wake up on Saturday, get a coffee, walk to Chelsea and spend the entire day walking into galleries and talking to people. It was like an intellectual endeavor: we’d research what we liked.”

“We had luck in the market and developed a good eye. Christie’s and Sotheby’s started ask us to sell our work at auction.”

“So this job is perfect because I have a 25-year history with the art world and I know how to curate. I know what a good show looks like and who are the important artists. I have the managerial side from all my years in publishing. I care about Westport and our community from all of my years volunteering. And I work with six amazing women.”


Ria Rueda, Chief Culture Officer and Instagram BFF

“I started @BuzzCT to promote small businesses - food, beverage, wellness, style, art, design, travel - things that create a ‘buzz’. If I love it, I want to share the experience with others.”

“Small businesses need as much PR as possible now. If I can support them through the power of social media and word of mouth, that’s my way of giving back.”

“[@BuzzCT] has gotten good reception. As for demographics, I run the gamut from 20’s to people in their 60s. It’s a nice range that can afford some high-end things and some more budget-friendly. I try to speak in my real voice so I’m approachable; I want to be that friend that people can ask, ‘Hey what about this?”

“I don’t like to pretend that life is always rosy. I suffer from anxiety and depression, so sharing my mental struggles with others is important to me.”

“I was diagnosed with fibroids and uterine cancer. I didn’t even know that existed. Cancer aside, I realized there’s so much women don’t know about women’s health and when they should go to the doctor. So I launched @KnowYourLadyParts where women can tell their stories, ask questions, and learn from experts.”

“My pet peeves? Entitlement and intolerance at any level does not jive with me.”

“I like people. They can bug the h*ll out of me, too, but I think I’m a good judge of character.”

September Sirico, Owner and Founder, blow dry Southport + Westport

"I’m the first in my family to go to college. My dad didn’t finish high school but he’s a talented, a hard worker, and has a beautiful mindset. His first job was sweeping hair at a salon so he could learn from the hairdressers. He worked for free, showed up early, stayed late, did whatever he had to do to learn. In 1977 he opened Greg & Tony in the location where it still is today.”

“I wasn’t allowed to work at Greg & Tony growing up; my parent’s wanted me to get experience outside the family business. I worked for Westport Pizzeria, Joey’s by the Shore, and Mitchell’s in customer service. I love working for family businesses and having the owners work side by side with you.”

“I still have all my best friends from Staples - we refer to ourselves as Wreckers quite often. As an athlete, I never saw the Wreckers as a gender, it just made me feel strong.”

“A blow-dry bar is an old idea. Back in the 1950’s women never washed their hair on their own. They came into the salon weekly for a blow dry and set.”

“We didn’t expect blow dry so busy from the start; we were caught off guard.”

“We talk about health, fitness, and nutrition just as much as cut, style, and color. I thought ‘If i’m going to talk about this all day I should have some accreditation.’ So I became a certified nutrition coach."

"Our comeback from Covid has been slow but steady thanks to our loyal clients. Our team stuck together and put in the work. We just want to know we're doing everything we can do. "


Valeria Baikoff, Co-owner of Nova Design Build with her husband. Valeria emigrated to the U.S. 30 years ago.

“In Russia, we didn’t know much about America. We had a famous Russian journalist [Vladimir Pozner] who did a public interactive show about American people. I remember a show, Space Bridges, which he hosted with Phil Donohue - and now we live in the area he lived in!”

“I remember Michael Bolton from Russia, I remember his different hair - who could have thought we’d be in the same town?”

“It’s the immigrant mentality - you see something you like, you work hard to get it.”

“I was in sales at Prada, my husband was in construction. We bought an apartment across from the Brooklyn Museum. There was an exhibition there, SENSATION. It was a scandal! The artist was Damien Hirst - before he was ‘Damien Hirst!’”

“We renovated this apartment - we got it from an estate sale, it was dilapidated and we fixed it up. The people who bought it from us loved it and bought everything in it.”

“[My husband] and I wanted to spend more time together, so we opened a business renovating homes.”

“Time is the most precious thing any of us have.”


Dr. Jessica Melman, Bespoke Veterinarian Services

“I moved to Weston because I wanted to have a farm. I’d love to have an animal sanctuary.”

“Four cavaliers, a Bernese Mountain dog, a rabbit, two geckos, three cats, a fish, and two rescue pigs. The chicken count is hard because I’m constantly taking in chickens. 17? One is a rooster. Eight ducks, three goats, and three sheep who are huge troublemakers. They break into the barn office and everyone follows.

“When you have a farm you find so many people who want to help with animals. A young boy with special needs comes once a week to feed and interact with the animals.

“Major silver lining in the pandemic - a lot of people got dogs; the shelters are empty. I’ve had people cry, telling me it’s the best thing they ever did.”

“One of my biggest fears? I’m afraid a lot of these puppies won’t be socialized and won’t know how to live on their own when their owners go back to work. Their owners may not be able to manage them and their jobs.”

“My sheep are sheared twice a year. I bought the clippers because it looked so easy but it’s so hard to flip the sheep. It didn’t happen. Then I found a nice young girl an hour away to shear them. I learned if you grab them in the area behind their teeth you can flip them pretty easily.”

"Uh oh. The goats just broke into the barn.”


Edie van Breems & Rhonda Eleish, Founders and Owners of Eleish Van Breems Home

“We started as antique dealers in the 90's in Woodbury. As things changed, we morphed to interior design and added interior design and more transitional furniture into the mix. We looked all over for a store space then thought ‘We love Westport!’”

“Our store is in Saugatuck - it’s the gateway of Westport. Our landlord’s grandfather bought the building in the 1930s.”

“It was the mercantile area back in Jesup’s day. When they built the railway, Italian railroad workers were moved to Westport. Their families stayed, creating a whole immigrant community.”

“We want to rebuild that Mom & Pop historic part of Westport in our small little itsy-bitsy way. We were also able to restore the Old Saugatuck Grain and Supply at 99 Franklin Street.”

“We met at GFA when we were eleven. Rhonda was the new student who had moved from Austria. She was this exotic, very cool funky girl with all the clothing and cool music.”

“Edie probably had the greatest influence on me creatively. Her mom was a New York City ballerina. It was incredibly inspiring. She also had a great dollhouse. I would rearrange it - and we’re still arranging furniture 30 years later!”


Christy Charise, Founder and Principal, Strategic Advisor  

“I grew up in upstate New York. My dad’s a master mechanic and my mom was a surgical nurse. As the first to go to college in my family, I only applied to Cornell. I didn’t realize how competitive it was or that I probably should have also applied somewhere else.” 

“In 2021 inclusivity and diversity are increasingly spotlighted in the workplace: LBGTQ, race, women. Professionally, I’m cognizant of the balance between being a leader who sets the tone and being a supportive ally that allows each community to drive its own discussion and experience.”

“My mom’s an incredible role model. I want my kids to see the value of hard work and the fulfillment that comes from achievement and also from service to others.”

“At 16 I wanted to be a motivational speaker. Do you know Dr. Rick Rigsby? He has an incredible laugh! As a high school student, I heard him speak about a gas station cashier who gave him too much change. Though the line was long, he waited to give her the extra change back. She started crying as she told him the money would have been taken out of her paycheck. This story changed how I thought about my own ethical litmus test.”

“You write your own moral code. In a lot of your decisions in life, no one else is looking.”


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