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5 under 35

Never mind those 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling, our first Women in Business feature finds Fayetteville women doing their part right here. They are up-and-comers in the fields of finance, law, industry, charity and the military. Their stories and backgrounds are quite different – Fayetteville native and newcomer from the North, military transplant and military brat, small town and big city. But each of them has energy, the quality we went looking for with the help of the Women’s Center, NetWorth and the Junior League of Fayetteville. They came to us with hardworking, professional and productive young women. We call them 5 Under 35.

Flying came before driving.

Felicia Blair begged her father for flying lessons before she even had a driver’s license. Back then, she flew for fun; now she flies cargo planes for the U.S. Air Force.

“I always wanted to do something different,” she says.

It must be said that the C-130 is quite large, and that Capt. Blair is quite small. But in her hands, the transport plane is agile. She has brought it onto runways that aren’t even runways, just patches of land in remote parts of Iraq and Afghanistan. She has taxied in and out of Baghdad too many times to count.

Sometimes she’s hauling gear, other times people, including the president of Iraq. But the best assignment, she says, is flying soldiers and airmen who are on their way home. For a soldier on the other side of a 15-month deployment, “I’m the first person they see.”

But sometimes they’re surprised to see her. Once, on a stopover, Blair made a quick dash from the plane to the closest bathroom (occupational hazard), and a group of soldiers saw her. “I think that’s the pilot,” one of them said, but their commander cracked, “No, it’s not. That’s a girl.” She returned and politely asked him, “I am the pilot. Do you want a ride?”

As of Sept. 30, 2006, the Defense Department estimated that women in the military made up almost 15 percent of the total active force. The Air Force had the highest percentage. Even so, Blair estimates that she is one of a half-dozen female fliers in an operational group of 200. They have the same expectations as their male counterparts. In fact, due to deployments, Blair has missed Christmas at home for the past four years.

This year will be different. She and her husband, Colin, were married in August; this will be their first Christmas as a married couple. She flies C-130s for the Air Force. He flies them for the Navy. She’s stationed at Pope Air Force Base. He’s stationed in Virginia. Plans are in the works to find stations closer together, something that might ground flying for awhile. But most pilots already divide their time between the cockpit and the office. Blair isn’t worried. “Once a pilot,” she says, “always a pilot.”

Ever wished for a bigger bang for your charitable buck?

At “giving circles” across the country, women are pooling their money and giving it to needy causes of their choice. One woman, one vote – usually over a good glass of wine.

It’s the kind of personal philanthropy that’s catching hold in cities big and small and recently arrived in Fayetteville. By the time the group went live in November, it already had more than 50 members who had agreed to give $550 a year for three years.

The woman behind the women is Meghan Wieten-Scott.

She’s a Michigan native, a newlywed and a military wife. The Scotts had barely been settled at Fort Bragg last summer when the Army sent him on a 15-month deployment to Iraq. In January, she started a new job at the Cumberland Community Foundation, which landed the grant that launched the giving circle.

For anyone else, this might be called a trial by fire. But Wieten-Scott has jumped into the role of rallying her new community.

“This is something I’m passionate about,” she said, “and I’m able to turn it into a job.”

It will be Wieten-Scott’s job to shepherd the giving circle through the process of recruiting new memberswho will eventually decide where they want their money to go. The circle has decided on one broad mission: to improve the lives of women and children in Cumberland County. Now, it’s up to the members to decide what that means. Wieten-Scott says they can be involved as much – or as little – as they want. Chicks with checks or members on a mission, either way, meetings combine fun with the fundraising. Wieten-Scott describes it as investment club meets book club.

But the results are more tangible than any discussion group. “One of the goals is to be more intentional about giving,” Wieten-Scott said. “We want to be able to be that change.”

Taylor Stephenson traded in a job at a large firm in a big city for a job with a small firm in her hometown.

A boy brought her back to Fayetteville.

She and her husband, Grady, both grew up here and graduated from Terry Sanford High School, but they quickly realized that they weren’t the only ones to rediscover their hometown. Bigger cities like Raleigh or Charlotte may have lured their generation away for college and early careers, but community brought them back.

“It’s been great,” Stephenson said. “You feel like you’re part of something.”

She found a job at Todd Rivenbark & Puryear and was made partner about two years ago. She belongs to a cabinet of young professionals in the North Carolina Association of CPAs, a group of 15 men and women under the age of 35. They talk about the balance between work and family and the challenge of convincing clients that young CPAs are just as capable as more experienced colleagues.

Even now, Stephenson still gets second glances. “I feel that initial doubt,” she says. “That bothered me at first.”

But now, she lets her work speak for itself. And anyone who thinks that tax returns and spreadsheets are the sum of an accountant’s work would be mistaken. Stephenson helps business owners balance the books, but she may also help them decide whether to expand or, in some cases, close the doors. It’s a personal connection she never had at her previous job. There, at the giant Deloitte & Touche in downtown Charlotte, Stephenson was one of thousands at a company with offices around the world.

Of course, when folks in Fayetteville find out her profession, they are quick to put her to work. She serves on the finance committee at Highland Country Club, where she also plays on a competitive tennis team. It’s a quick drive down the street to her husband’s family business, Highland Cleaners, and a few blocks to see her mother.

She’s home.

It may be a man’s world, but try telling that to Toni King.

At Miller King & Clouse, Miller, King and Clouse are women. Mere city blocks may separate their downtown law firm from the Cumberland County courthouse, a realm still dominated by men, but King is a woman accustomed to adaptation.

Her military father moved the family to all parts of the map. Her Korean mother made sure her eldest daughter learned her native tongue. Today, King is a litigator who just happens to speak fluent Korean.

“Some people accuse me of wearing rose-colored glasses,” she says, smiling. But though she and her male colleagues may duke it out in the courtroom, “They really want to see you succeed as a young woman.”

She has wanted to be a lawyer since ninth grade civics. Now, King is the one teaching as an adjunct professor at Fayetteville State University. For her students, King makes the study of criminal law come to life; she practices it every day. She may soon add judge to her list of jobs. King is running to fill an open seat on the Cumberland County District Court bench.

King spent part of her youth in Fayetteville, but her father’s Army service kept the family moving. He retired here, and King is close to her parents and a younger sister in college. King grew up comfortable moving between cultures, American and Korean, military and civilian. Now, King helps a new generation do the same thing at the Presbyterian Korean Church, where she is a youth leader.

In 2004, King left her job to open a firm with a fellow lawyer, Sherry Miller. They added another partner, Jo Leigh Clouse, and recently hired the firm’s first male partner, Gregg Illikainen. King says it was exciting to start an all-female firm, but honestly, gender rarely crops up in her career. If anything, it’s her age that has clients examining the degrees on her wall. “I think I have socks older than you,” one told her once.

King just laughed. After all, she’s had a bit of experience blending worlds.

At Jennifer Smith’s job, the rubber really does hit the road.

For every tire that rolls out of the Goodyear plant in North Fayetteville, she’s probably had a hand in it and sometimes on it. Smith is an engineer responsible for quality control. That’s quite a task considering this place produces roughly 30,000 tires on a peak day.

And she hopes that, eventually, every single one of them will wind up on someone’s sedan or SUV. Zero waste? Smith says it’s possible.

She’s come a long way for someone who, just a few years ago, couldn’t tell the difference between a tire fit for touring or all terrain. Smith earned her industrial engineering degree from Georgia Tech University in her hometown of Atlanta and knew that she wanted to work in manufacturing.

But tires?

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” she says, describing her initial reaction. “It’s definitely not glamorous.”

There are several young engineers at Goodyear, but Smith is the only woman among them. Then again, she was outnumbered in college, too. For any man who tells her that she got her job because she’s a girl, the guys told her the same thing about her acceptance to engineering school.

“I don’t feel like I have to prove myself,” she says. “I think people’s perceptions will change over time.”

Smith has had her own perceptions changed – of Fayetteville. After Atlanta, Fayetteville felt like a small town. But she bought a house, joined Fayetteville Christian Church and became a fan of Fourth Fridays downtown.

Goodyear offers the possibility for travel – the company has plants across the United States and Europe with headquarters in Luxembourg.

Smith says she would one day love to try out a new city or a new country, perhaps.

But this is the city that gave Smith her first job out of college.

For now, at least, those (Goodyear) wheels are parked in Fayetteville.