Stefani Pashman with Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Mark Latterner, board president of Partner4Work. Photo courtesy Partner4Work.

As a little girl, Stefani Pashman was inspired by her grandmother’s success as the first woman in medical school in Philadelphia, and then as a white, Jewish woman employed by a predominantly African-American school system.

“She was a role model for me, fueling my ambition and drive for wanting to have a big career,” says Pashman, who would tell her mother that she wanted to grow up “to work in a big office, doing important things.”

“She’ll say to me, ‘Well, are you doing that now?’ And I think I am,” Pashman says.

As the new CEO of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, Pashman has assumed a top leadership role in the region, alongside Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, to work with leaders of foundations, universities, the Airport Authority, Port Authority and leading employers such as UPMC and PNC.

Her first steps will be to consult with the Allegheny Conference board to develop short- and long-term goals for the organization, and to get to know her team’s strengths, she says.

“To come to an organization that is already successful, relevant and important, and to be able to say that for the time I’m given these reins I want to create something important – I consider this my public service,” says Pashman. “I want to look back and say, ‘We did what was important for the time and we had an impact.’”

She is the first woman to head the Conference, long dominated by white males, since its founding in 1944. Pashman recognizes the pioneering aspect of that role: “In some ways it’s a shame that it took this long, but on the other hand, it’s terrific that it’s happening,” she says. She succeeds Dennis Yablonsky, who is retiring after nine years. He’ll remain as an adviser through the end of the year.

It’s a big job, but a natural step up from Partner4Work (formerly Three Rivers Workforce Investment Board), where Pashman was CEO since 2010.

“She’s going to do a terrific job,” says Fitzgerald, who considers her selection a sign of Pittsburgh’s progression. “I’ve worked with her for years on Partner4Work. She’s very collaborative, very driven. I think it’s going to be very successful.”

The Downtown-based Conference emphasizes partnerships that cross geographic and political lines to improve the economy in the 10-county Pittsburgh region. It has more than 300 members in its Regional Investors Council. A search committee chose Pashman, of Squirrel Hill, from “an impressive list of exceptionally experienced and well-qualified candidates,” says board Chairman Richard Harshman.

Stefani Pashman joins top leaders of the region as head of the Allegheny Conference.

“I like to listen to what people need,” says Pashman. “I can solve really hard problems. I’m willing to take risks and push the needle a little bit when it’s necessary.”

With its affiliate organizations – the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce, Pennsylvania Economy League of Greater Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh Regional Alliance – the Conference markets the region to employers and individuals and develops policy solutions to address competitiveness issues. In recent years, it has worked to diversify the region’s economy, encouraging today’s technology-driven economy.

Bill Demchak, who chaired the search committee, calls Pashman “an accomplished leader, well respected by the many organizations and officials with whom the Conference partners,” and predicted that with her leadership, the organization will achieve great things.

At Partner4Work, Pashman led a transformation of the organization from a fragmented mix of government-run programs to a comprehensive workforce system that connects funding, expertise and opportunities for employers and job seekers.

Under her direction, Partner4Work evolved from a policy-making group to an action-oriented organization. Its annual budget grew from $1 million to $20 million and its staff, from seven to 35 people. Its community engagement strategies led to the creation of Pittsburgh Works, a three-year-old nationally recognized model of 80 public and private organizations that work together to match available talent with employers.

Though she’s proud of the accomplishments Partner4Work made in addressing workforce challenges, key issues remain, Pashman says. Among them are reaching and including minority populations in the developing job market to diversify the region’s workforce, and supporting the tech economy by training people to learn skills that apply to the technological needs of all sorts of companies.

“Technology is pervading all of our occupations,” says Pashman. “There’s a lot of growth and I think we need to make sure our education system can keep up. We should not be scared of change, but embrace it and align our training with the needs of employers. It changes fast and it’s hard to change programming at that speed.”

She’s hopeful that with the Allegheny Conference she’ll be able to more broadly influence policy-making.

“We have policy and laws that limit ways we can use our funding, and that can impair our ability to do the progressive programming that’s needed when you’re living in a developing, vibrant economy,” Pashman says. “We want to marry policy with action, and sometimes government dollars aren’t the best dollars to use because the rules are so rigid. So, the blending of public and private funding — which is embedded in Pittsburgh culture — is critical.”

Prior to joining Partner4Work, Pashman was director of policy and special assistant to the secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Human Services. She also worked in consulting and policy analyst roles in Washington, D.C., and for health care consulting firms.

She and her husband, Jeremy Feinstein, are parents of children ages 15, 13 and 11. Her oldest son, a freshman at Taylor Allderdice High School, recently had a homework assignment in civics class to interview a parent about the five most important problems in Pittsburgh. When he turned in his essay, his teacher asked, “Who is your mom?” and his classmates said, “No way your mom has that job,” Pashman says.

“My kids appreciate [my career commitments] and understand why dinner may not always be perfect every night, or why I might miss a race or a game,” Pashman says. “I think my oldest, especially, is proud to have a mom who works and does something that in his mind is important and cool.”

Sandra Tolliver is a freelance writer, editor and public relations professional in Upper St. Clair.