Photography and Illustrations by Nate Chappell
Hear the stories of the women trailblazers in Lakeland. Learn how they’re not only making a difference in their fields but building a legacy that we will all remember.
Women — we are resilient. We stand in the face of adversity. With compassion and dignity, we seek to build connection with others. We make a difference and are innovative thinkers that dream of a better world — one that’s filled with empathy, drive, zeal, and efficiency.
Over the last decade, our city has witnessed the development of stronger female role models and leaders within every facet of the community. These are the stories of women who live every day to serve our families and friends to build legacies for the future generations to come.
EDIBLE TAMPA BAY
When it comes to culinary finds, Robin Sussingham keeps the Central Florida community in the loop. She proudly serves as the publisher and editor-in-chief of Edible Tampa Bay. A Lakeland native, Florida holds a special place in her heart, as it’s where many of her close family members reside.
With her passion for food, Sussingham recalls how it began from the experiences she had with her family first-hand and why that’s translated into a quite appealing food magazine. “Family gatherings always involved big meals and lots of traditional Jewish food, like brisket, stuffed cabbage, chicken soup, and chopped liver,” she says. Her love for food isn’t the only way she’s built the success of her career. It’s her zeal for storytelling which has brought her to deeply appreciate the power of communication over the years.
Sussingham served previously as the main radio host at NPR WUSF. She hosted “Florida Matters,” the station’s flagship current affairs program, for WUSF Public Media and spearheading WUSF’s podcast efforts. In addition, she hosted a radio program in Salt Lake City and was the first to announce the news to the audience when Elizabeth Smart, a young woman kidnapped at a young age, was found. She also covered the Olympics and hosted an engaging live call-in show on site.
She shares, “Leadership is a challenge. But what I’m good at is observing, and I’ve had the opportunity to observe some great leaders and some terrible ones. My sincerest goal is to recognize competent people and help them grow.”
Innovator, visionary, and natural-born collaborator, Lakeland-native Teresa O’Brien founded her company Help(her) to introduce a new way of empowering women. To the busy female business owners who could use the extra hands, Help(her) is a concept dedicated to offering contract services through a membership that provides full access to women who can help you run errands, stay organized, clean up, offer office support, event coordination, and so much more.
Looking back at 2020, O’Brien recalls the moment she took the leap of faith to start her new business venture. “Over brunch one Sunday, [my husband] asked me the most romantic question: ‘What dream do you have that we can pursue?’” She began dreaming up her business and developing a plan.
“So many of my friends were doing awesome things, starting new businesses and needing help. They weren’t at a place to hire full-time due to financial constraints and didn’t have consistent work needing part-time help. However, asking someone to help with a project, event, or hourly was what they needed,” she explains.
In January of 2020, O’Brien launched Help(her), and within just a year, she’s established 15 memberships, completed nearly 257 tasks collectively for business owners, and created job placement for now 29 reliable, qualified women.
“You can begin again at any time,” she says, “because you will get these special days where you are reminded that you were never missing — you were just growing to be more of you.”
KAYLOR LAW GROUP
Local experienced trial attorney Brenda Ramirez has built her career with drive and the desire to advocate for people. In 2007, she earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of North Florida followed by the completion of her law degree from Florida State University. In addition to her career in law, she also serves as president for the Polk Association for Women Lawyers.
Her desire to help others stems from injustices she witnessed living in Polk County as a proud Hispanic in the community. As a first-generation graduate, she quickly developed a passion for mentoring other Hispanic women — a way she gives back to the community she grew up in. “I feel a deep obligation for the young Hispanic girls coming up after me who are having to navigate the things I had to navigate alone as a young Hispanic woman in Polk County.” She recalls attending a class in school where her teacher was failing the only two minority students in the class — she being one of them. Watching her mother navigate the discrimination only fueled her future aspirations in advocacy.
“Advocate for people no matter their background,” Ramirez says. Today, she has not only served people through many cases in county and circuit court, but she’s also held awards and notable accolades from the community, including the Athena Award from Junior League of Greater Lakeland, the Spirit of Giving Award from the Lakeland Bar Association, and the Young Professional Award.
When it comes to Ramirez’s personal development and leadership style, she narrows it down to one word: authenticity. “I think one of the most important qualities in a leader is authenticity. I don’t think anyone fits into one box [of leadership]. Being your authentic self is number one in being a leader. Anyone can see through it when you’re not.”
Torea Spohr, P.A.
POLK COUNTY JUDICIAL CIRCUIT
North Carolina native Torea Spohr moved to Lakeland with the desire to pursue her career in law. She currently serves as 10th Judicial Circuit Judge for Polk County. “I’ve always been a little different from those around me,” she says. “My mother was 16 when I was born, and I was raised by my maternal grandmother on a farm in eastern North Carolina among the pigs, tobacco plants, and cotton blossoms. I loved the outdoors but was determined not to let my history dictate my destiny.”
Spohr’s unique story and career tenure captured the support of many who voted her in for her current role as she worked previously for seven years in law as public defense. “Drawing no opposition, I was elected and began my commission on January 5, 2021,” she says. Prior to that, she served three years as a homicide attorney. Later on, she would leave to start her own practice for Polk County and Highlands County until her nomination for circuit judge.
There weren’t many lawyers in the small town she grew up in during her time in North Carolina. But, after a friend decided to attend law school in Florida, Spohr decided to “try it out” and move down to study law as well. After discovering her love for defense, she developed a desire to defend people against racial divisions and injustice.
In retrospect of her career, Spohr says “helping people [has been] the biggest highlight.” She says, “The law is the law. We have a responsibility to apply it equally to all people.” Over the course of her career, Spohr admits she’s witnessed bias in the courtroom, but her heart is to ensure her clients are represented accurately and well. As a circuit judge for the law, she believes it’s crucial for her to “lead by example.”
NEW HOPE CHIROPRACTIC CENTER
With an admirable passion to help others and provide excellent holistic healthcare, Ida Abraham serves as a localchiropractor — one of the first female practitioners in the city of Lakeland. After years of dedicated study and overseas mission work, Abraham celebrated six years as a full-time owner and leader of her chiropractic practice.
Born in the vibrant country of India, Ida and her family moved to Mississippi when she was just 12 years old. After her father received a job opportunity in Tampa, she relocated and soon after attended Southeastern University in Lakeland to pursue her degree in pre-medicine/biology with a concentration in chemistry.
Abraham completed her doctorate degree in chiropractic at Palmer College of Chiropractic. “I wanted a career that would be able to travel and help patients everywhere,” she says. When she stepped into her journey toward becoming a licensed professional chiropractor, she realized quickly how rare of a career it was for women.
Over the last six years, Abraham has received incredibly moving stories from patients who have been healed from chronic symptoms and pains through her chiropractic work, which she calls “so fulfilling.” Her practice continues to flourish in the midst of the pandemic, and it’s no doubt due to the positive influence she’s carried within the city through her reputation. “Influence is what we can give and who we are and how we care for people.”
BALDWIN RISK PARTNERS
For Erin King, Lakeland has always been home. “Growing up in Lakeland had a very big impact on the development of my professional career because this is the headquarters of Publix Super Markets, Inc., and Publix was my very first job.” King currently serves as the chief colleague officer with Baldwin Risk Partners (BRP), parent company of Lanier Upshaw — now BKS-Partners here in Lakeland. She began with BRP in July of 2020, in addition to her 25-year career service in human resources.
King leads their team of HR professionals who are dedicated to supporting the office community within their business. Within her role and the role of her team, “[they] focus on enabling colleagues to provide the highest level of risk management insight, consultation, and service to [their] clients, as well as foster a work environment that allows colleagues to learn, grow, and thrive.”
With a passion for serving others, she notes her first job at Publix Corporation had quite a lot to do with her professional leadership development. “During those first working years when I was with Publix, I realized I was part of a unique company that truly cared about people and had a very special culture centered around the people who work within the organization.”
As the corporate industry grows, King is dedicated to lead with intentionality to attribute to the success of her team. “As leaders, we all need to continually grow and develop in our ability to effectively influence others,” she says. “In assessing my own leadership capacity, I strive to define my success as more a result of what my team accomplishes rather than anything I individually contribute on my own.”