Standing on Her Shoulders: Building on the Legacy of Female Founders

One student and one typewriter. That was the beginning of what would become Johnson & Wales University 110 years ago. Six years before women would be granted the right to vote in the United States, Gertrude Johnson and Mary Wales had a pioneering vision to create business opportunities for women. At a time when men were leaving their jobs to serve in World War I, the pair realized the potential for women in the workplace. This ambitious goal helped to create financial independence, mentorship opportunities, and career success for their students.

While there has been much growth and change at JWU over eleven decades, the university’s commitment remains the same; nimbly responding to industry demands, the university continues to expand its academic offerings to meet students where they are and prepare them for in-demand career opportunities. It’s JWU’s network of expert faculty, ambitious alumni, and passionate students that allows for powerful mentorship.

Valeria Molinelli

“I think JWU shaped me into the educator that I have become because of all the role models I met [here],” Senior Instructor and Department Chair Valeria Molinelli ’02, ’08 MAT said, making an effort to now become one of those role models to current Wildcats.

“I like to tell my story to my advisees and students because I think it helps some of them with their journey even if it is slightly different than mine,” Molinelli said.

The alumna-turned-instructor and advisor grew up in Lima, Peru, raised by strong women: her grandmother, her mother and two older sisters. She says her most foundational roots in an all-girls K-12 school formed some of her deepest friendships and support systems, and it was her move to the U.S. when she was 18 to start her culinary career at JWU that opened her up to believing in her work and determination.

“I met wonderful people and wonderful women along the way,” Molinelli said. “Those women (former employers, teachers, and other leaders in JWU and outside JWU) became my "quiet" mentors without knowing it; I learned something from each of them without exchanging much of a conversation.”

In 2012, Molinelli created “Culinaria Latina” within the College of Food Innovation & Technology. She saw a need that she wanted to help fill.

“When I was a student in 1999, there were very few Latin Americans in culinary,” Molinelli said. “In recent years, we have seen an increase in enrolled Latin American students, who miss their home cooking, culture, music, family, friends, and traditions. I enjoy feeling that students can trust me when they truly need an ear and some advice.”

In celebration of Women’s History Month, hear how other female members of the JWU Wildcat community have leaned into the experience and insight of other women to grow both professionally and personally.

Ezenwayi Amaechi

Ezenwayi Amaechi Ejiribe, Ph.D.

Associate Professor & Applied Learning Coordinator, Master of Public Health Program. A Microbusiness expert and a Social Entrepreneur, passionate about women and youth leadership and economic development. 

The decision to become a mentor to women entrepreneurs is personal. As a child, I saw the strides women made with the little they had and knew that with some encouragement and support, they could do more. I was raised in an environment where mentorship was encouraged and celebrated, making it easy for me to take the mantle of serving women and youth globally because of my conviction that they indeed are our future.

Siobhan O'Bara

Siobhan O’Bara

Senior Vice President, Community Engagement, GS1 US, JWU Class of 1984

I was raised by working parents, and experiencing both Mom and Dad working outside the home shaped the goals and expectations for my future self, a model I aimed to pass on to my three daughters. As I was given support, opportunities, flexibility and guidance – all leading to my advancement – it is my top priority as a leader of others to do the same. My core message, especially to women, is this: Anything can be figured out. You won’t always get it all right, but you have the wherewithal to make it right.

Davonna Harris

Davonna Harris

Political Science Major and Criminal Justice Minor, JWU Class of 2025

I serve as the Vice President of the Sigma Nu chapter of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc. Additionally, I hold the position of President in the Johnson & Wales Divine 9 Council and serve as a Secretary in the Johnson & Wales Student Government Association. 104 years ago, my Most Honorable Founders established an organization with a mission to create positive change, promote unity, and uphold high scholastic standards. It’s an honor to embody their vision and contribute to the impactful work our chapter is doing in Rhode Island!