Jane Plitt – The National Center of Women’s Innovations

In 2000, my husband and I tucked away our paper maps and instead relied on a GPS device, a Garmin, that sat on our dashboard. We became accustomed to the female voice that gave us driving instructions and it seemed only proper to give that voice a name. “Thanks, Gladys!” “Got it, Gladys!” “Turning here, Gladys!” Neither of us knew anyone named Gladys and we often wondered how that name had popped into our heads. Now, of course, we know that there really is a Gladys who is credited with creating the mathematical geodetic Earth model that was instrumental in the development of computational techniques for detecting satellite positions with the precision needed for GPS. And thanks to Jane Plitt, executive director of The National Center of Women’s Innovation, more people are learning about Dr. Gladys B. West and other women innovators whose accomplishments have been overlooked for too long.

Plitt has spent her career fighting for women’s rights, including becoming NOW’s first executive director nationally in the 1970s, operating an award-winning business, then becoming a recognized author and Visiting Scholar. The National Center of Women’s Innovation was launched in 2023 and a gala was held in Alexandria, Virginia, on October 27, which also happened to be Dr. West’s 93rd birthday. She attended the event where she was honored as the organization’s 2023 featured innovator. 

Dr. West is just one of the many incredible women innovators whose stories will now be told because of Plitt and the NCWI. “Quite simply NCWI came about because I believed there was/is an urgent need to make the stores of all women innovators easily accessible and known, so that others can follow,” Jane says. “We hope to inspire more young girls to see themselves in these creative fields.”  

Jane and Gloria Steinham at a Veteran Feminists of America (VFA) conference

You have always been on the forefront fighting for women. Where did this passion come from?

I grew up in the 1960s when youth were passionate about bringing about justice for all. As one of those advocates, it was not until 1970 when I realized women needed to be part of the injustice I rallied against. Women were systematically limited in opportunities, access, and careers. As Rochester Telephone’s first woman in labor relations, I couldn’t eat with my male colleagues because they ate at men’s only grills. As part of the Second Wave of Feminism, I joined the local NOW Chapter in Rochester, New York, and we mobilized to successfully integrate those grills, eliminate Gannett’s printing of sex-segregated help wanted ads, protested corporate pay inequality, and integrated the Rochester Jaycees, allowing young women to join the leadership training offered. This led to the eventual integration of all service organizations like Rotary, Kiwanis, Lions, and the like.

You were NOWs first executive director nationally in the 1970s. Does it surprise you that we are still fighting for many of the same rights NOW was campaigning for more than half a century ago?

I am shocked and heartsick. We fought for ourselves, but also for future generations and now the battle needlessly continues.

Tell us about Martha Matilda Harper. What prompted you to learn more about her achievements?

While on assignment for my business consulting firm, someone shared a small clipping about Martha Matilda Harper. I was intrigued to learn about her since it suggested she created modern retail franchising and was the first female Rochester Chamber of Commerce member, and yet I had never heard about her. As President of the Small Business Council of the Rochester Chamber I called and asked what they knew about Harper. Their reply annoyed me because they told me they knew nothing and that I should let them know when I found out.

More determined, I searched unsuccessfully for clues until a Library of Congress librarian found that Harper’s obituary was recorded by the New York Times in 1950 and it, too, cited her business achievements and the fact that Susan B. Anthony was a customer and supporter.

Given the difficulty of just finding that information, I realized that if I didn’t research Harper’s life, no one would. I spent six years crisscrossing the U.S. and Canada since she had been an impoverished servant girl starting at age seven in Ontario, Canada. When she immigrated to Rochester, New York, in 1882, she was still a servant. Ultimately in 1888, capitalizing on her floor-length ravishing hair, her proprietary hair tonic, her invention of the first reclining shampoo chair and the cut-out sink, she opened Rochester’s first beauty salon for women. In 1891 she opened the first modern retail franchise and eventually had 500 shops worldwide serving world leaders and notables. The first 100 of her shops only went to poor women.

I wrote two books about her, Martha Matilda Harper: How Woman Changed the Face of Modern Business for adults and Martha’s Magical Hair for children, and co-wrote Martha the Hairpreneur for young adults. Following the book’s publication, Harper was inducted in the National Women’s Hall of Fame and the American Business Hall of Fame.

Did she represent your “ah-ha! moment,” suspecting that there were many more women whose stories needed to be told?

Absolutely!  I have been wowed discovering that there are thousands of other women who have changed our world for the better without due credit.

What other women surprised and inspired you?

They all do, but here are three examples that should resonate with everyone.

Hedy Lamarr’s portrait is in the National Portrait Gallery where she is cited for her beauty and her life as an actress; yet there is no mention about her brilliant brain! Lamarr is responsible for developing the frequency hopping concept that enables Wifi and Bluetooth, as well as having many other patents.

The world depends on GPS for travel, deliveries, spacecraft, military. Yet few of us know it was Dr. Gladys West’s precise mapping of the world that enabled GPS.  

Duct tape is universally embraced and was developed by Vera Stoudt, because she was a concerned mother working at an ammunition factory during World War II.  She worried that the packing material they were using was inadequate and might endanger her two sons in Europe from getting sufficient ammunition. Her duct tape alternative was immediately rejected by the factory owner but embraced by President Franklin Roosevelt to whom she sent the specs!  

These examples illustrate how inventive, competent, and visionary women have been to better our world, and yet, they are not properly credited. The consequence is a misperception of men being inventors, but not women, and a tangible discouragement to young girls to pursue such fields.

Jane Plitt at NCWI’s Gala with BK Fulton and his wife Jackie Stone

When did the idea of The National Center of Women’s Innovations take hold? How did you go about creating this organization?

I was under pressure to help start a museum for Martha Matilda Harper, but as I thought about it and started to uncover other buried women innovators’ stories, the idea for the Center began to germinate. It became clear to me that our country needed a Center showcasing all women innovators in all fields to change society’s perceptions and inspire young girls. Simultaneously, I moved to Alexandria, Virginia, in 2022, which is near the Capital with an influential assortment of various museums, exhibit halls, etc., but none addressing this need. I also became aware of the upcoming Virginia Tech.’s and George Mason ‘s innovation centers where graduate students would be recruited from diverse backgrounds for innovative studies.

As I met various leaders, I began to test my idea and it was warmly embraced. The Alexandria community foundation, ACT for Alexandria, enabled the group to start fundraising as a catalyst fund under their 501(c)(3) umbrella until we received our own certification in 2023.  Key people stepped forward to serve on our board, including BK Fulton, who is chairman of seven companies and an award-winning filmmaker and author. In 2017 BK founded Soulidifly Productions – a film, stage and TV investment company designed to promote a more inclusive narrative in media. BK is also a principal with Ralph Sampson and Jim Franklin in Winner’s Circle Ventures – a $100 million-dollar strategic investment company targeting all entrepreneurs, especially women and minorities. BK is considered one of the most influential African Americans in technology and as such welcomes this opportunity. Prior to this work in the arts, BK was the President of Verizon in Virginia and West Virginia.

Dr. Gladys B. West at NCWI’s Gala

You had a gala in the fall that honored Dr. Gladys B. West, the Black mathematician whose mapping of the world enabled GPS. I know some of us who talk to our GPS systems, often call it “Gladys!” Maybe not a coincidence?

I for sure thank Gladys daily! When we decided Dr. West would be our featured innovator in 2023, and that her 93rd birthday was October 27, 2023, we mobilized to schedule our Inaugural Gala on her birthday. Blessedly, Dr. West attended. She indicated “It was the best day of her life.”  How thrilling for us to give such a woman the best day of her life and to have her work begin to gain public traction.

Jane in her soulful Joshua Tree National Park

Besides Harper and West, so many of the women on your list are responsible for services and products that are ubiquitous. Why don’t we readily connect these women with these amazing achievements?

Isn’t that an interesting question? Perhaps it is for the same reason women who share new ideas in a meeting often are ignored until a man presents that same idea and then it is warmly embraced. The issue is pervasive, and it is not merely a thing of the past.

Two contemporary women scientists illustrate the problem continues. Dr. Katalin Kariko recently was co-awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for her path-blazing research linked to mRNA which was essential for the development of the COVID vaccine. Yet, until Kariko’s award, she was denied tenure at the University of Pennsylvania, never had her own lab, and was never paid more than $60,000 a year.

Dr. Svetlana Mojsov was an early Mass. General researcher who helped discover GLP-1, a key hormone that led to Ozempic, probably the most significant pharmaceutical innovation in decades. Literally, even though she gave the hospital and other researchers her work’s documentation she was not given patent credit. It took years of legal pursuit for her to finally get her name on the patent, but even recently she is not getting the public recognition.  An example is the 2021 Canada Gairdner International Award for “{the research} work underpinning the diabetes and obesity drugs” that never acknowledges her fundamental work.

Jane with Dr. Carolyn West Oglesby, daughter of Dr. West at the Gala

How are you getting the word out about NCWI? 

The Inaugural Gala in October 2023 helped put us on the map of credibility with nearly 300 distinguished education, corporate, government, not-for-profit groups represented from across the country. Now we are forming alliances of key institutions with groups like colleges, schools, the Alpha Kappa Alpha International sorority (Dr. West is a member), along with the Divine 9, as well as chambers of commerce, the National Women’s Hall of Fame, and other public bodies. Since at the moment we are all devoted volunteers, we are trying to capitalize on our volunteer skill base, using social media, the website, media exposure like yours, institutional joint outreach, meeting outreach, networking and presentations.  Clearly, it is an enormous task, and we can use all the support we can creatively muster.

You once ran your own business. How does that experience help you to relate to these women entrepreneurs?

As a female businesswoman, obtaining credit and recognition were challenges, as were networking opportunities since often they occurred at men’s gathering or on the golf courses and those courses limited when women could play. Women innovators of yesterday and today are facing similar challenges getting published, financial credit, funding, patent recognition. Women innovators who want to “go to market” face double to triple whammies. 

Girls for a Change at the NCWI Gala with Jane, BK Fulton, and his wife Jackie Stone

How will NCWI use what it has learned to inspire younger women?

NCWI has five planned strategies to influence younger women:

One: Launch STEM based hands on experiences with individualized stories of the women innovators who worked in highlighted fields.  Example, we are working with Rosie Riveters to develop a “Dr. Gladys West GPS Challenge” program containing a series of GPS- related stem modules for young girls to work through, gaining self-confidence and interest in the field and then being inspired by learning about Dr. West’s life via a video and story-telling material.  We will be implementing this program for grades 3-8th at the Washington School for Girls in DC serving minority girls.  Once beta-tested and finalized, we will make it available nationwide through schools, STEM camps, and the like.

Jane with Title 1 class delighting in learning about Martha

Two: Create the most comprehensive, searchable data base of women innovators allowing girls to find their foremothers. To date, the data base has over 1,000 innovators identified. There are tens of thousands more to go!

Three: Outreach via our ambassador program to the Girl Scouts and other youth-oriented groups to engage them in our services and student intern opportunities.

Four: Design and locate mobile exhibits about women innovators that excite young girls and boys, as well as the public in at innovation centers. 

Five: Sponsor student internships researching and promoting the stories of these forgotten women innovators.

Top photo: Jane in Rochester, New York, by the the home of Susan B. Anthony connecting with Susan and Fredrick Douglass.

Gala Photos, including the one of Dr. West, credit to NCWI photo library
Other photos: Credit to Jane Plitt photo library

For more information:
NCWI’s website

About Charlene Giannetti (715 Articles)
Charlene Giannetti, editor of Woman Around Town, is the recipient of seven awards from the New York Press Club for articles that have appeared on the website. A graduate of Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Charlene began her career working for a newspaper in Pennsylvania, then wrote for several publications in Washington covering environment and energy policy. In New York, she was an editor at Business Week magazine and her articles have appeared in many newspapers and magazines. She is the author of 13 non-fiction books, eight for parents of young adolescents written with Margaret Sagarese, including "The Roller-Coaster Years," "Cliques," and "Boy Crazy." She and Margaret have been keynote speakers at many events and have appeared on the Today Show, CBS Morning, FOX News, CNN, MSNBC, NPR, and many others. Her last book, "The Plantations of Virginia," written with Jai Williams, was published by Globe Pequot Press in February, 2017. Her podcast, WAT-CAST, interviewing men and women making news, is available on Soundcloud and on iTunes. She is one of the producers for the film "Life After You," focusing on the opioid/heroin crisis that had its premiere at WorldFest-Houston International Film Festival, where it won two awards. The film is now available to view on Amazon Prime, YouTube, and other services. Charlene and her husband live in Manhattan.