Every spring for the past seven years, Mimi Brodsky Kress has invited a mix of friends, business colleagues and family members to join The Hammer Chicks, her Habitat for Humanity Metro Maryland building team.
It is one of several groups that participate in Habitat’s annual Women Build event, in which women from all backgrounds come together to work on homes for families in need. Kress often hosts the kickoff party for the teams at the office of her company, Sandy Spring Builders in Bethesda, complete with music, food and prizes.
Once on the work site, Kress has rock ’n’ roll music playing. “I’m not building to smooth jazz,” says Kress, 64, a longtime “Deadhead.” “It’s hard work. You’re lifting lumber. It’s not pretending to do construction work. You’re out there sweating.”
The women Kress recruits often have no experience with power tools, but many say they are drawn to the cause because of Kress’ enthusiasm and the chance to meet others in her orbit.
“I was kind of nervous at the beginning, but if Mimi says something is important to her, it’s important to me,” says Libby Snyder, 29, a private wealth adviser with Rockefeller Capital Wealth in Bethesda who considers Kress a friend and mentor. She says it was empowering to learn how to operate a circular saw, work alongside other women, and see the progress on the house by the end of the day.
Snyder was one of a dozen members of The Hammer Chicks who helped raise over $30,000 this year—the highest dollar amount among 48 teams raising money for Habitat. (The team average is about $5,000, according to Habitat.) Unabashedly competitive, Kress encourages her friends to tap into their networks for donations so they will feel invested, and they usually raise the most money.
“Not only does [Kress] bring you into these organizations, but she makes you feel like it’s your organization, too, and you want to become a supporter,” Snyder says.
Habitat is one of many nonprofits that Kress champions. She’s had leadership positions with the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Montgomery County, Jewish Women International and the Jewish National Fund. She’s also supported the Montgomery County Coalition for the Homeless and Mary’s Center (a community health center in Washington, D.C.), and helped produce a play written by a North Potomac woman about sexual abuse.
Kress, who grew up in North Chevy Chase and now lives in Bethesda, says she learned the Jewish principle of “tikkun olam”—engaging in action to repair the world—from her parents. At 12, she was a volunteer candy striper at a nursing home. By 15, she was recruited by her dad to make cold calls and encourage people to buy Israel bonds to rebuild the country’s infrastructure after the Yom Kippur War.
“It came straight to me, this feeling that I wanted to do more in the community,” Kress says. “And it feels good to be able to help.”
For her years of contributions—financially and through hands-on service and connecting others to opportunities—The Community Foundation in Montgomery County has named Kress the 2022 Philanthropist of the Year.
“She has this amazing energy. You just feel it when she walks into a room. She’s a doer,” says Anna Hargrave, executive director of The Community Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports philanthropy in the area. “Some people are great at responding to a crisis. Others are more focused on a longer-term goal. Mimi is one of those people who can do both.”
Kress is known as a trailblazer who friends say is authentic, takes charge and is deeply committed to several causes. While her professional specialty is overseeing the construction of high-end homes, she says she is keenly aware of the need for affordable housing.
When a client’s home is being renovated or torn down, Kress often arranges for appliances, cabinets and fixtures to be donated to Habitat’s ReStores, where proceeds benefit the organization. In addition to Women Build, she has helped raise money for Habitat’s annual benefit breakfast for 16 years and serves as an informal consultant.
“She not only supports us financially, spreads the word about us, but she also gets her hands dirty and is willing to do whatever,” says Jeff Dee, president and CEO of Habitat for Humanity Metro Maryland. “She’s direct. She will tell you how things are, but you know that she really cares. And if she says she is going to do something, she’s going to do it.”
In 2017, Jewish Women International named Kress one of 10 “Women to Watch” from across the United States. She was honored for her dedication to the community and serving as a role model, deftly navigating a male-dominated profession, says Meredith Jacobs, the CEO of JWI, an organization that works to end violence against women and girls.
Kress says she likes to find ways to “cross-pollinate” her charitable efforts.
Earlier this year, JWI was helping My Sister’s Place, a domestic violence shelter in Washington, D.C., create a children’s library and renovate a playroom. Kress arranged for a playhouse to be delivered from Habitat for Humanity.
Jacobs and her 25-year-old daughter, Sofie, had so much fun with The Hammer Chicks earlier this year, using nail guns and framing a wall, that Jacobs was inspired to bring a similar service opportunity to JWI. She invited volunteers to paint and stock new rooms at the women’s shelter. “We were screwing together furniture and decorating the space with women who ranged in age from their 20s to their 70s,” Jacobs says. “It was a remarkable day.”
Kress’ philanthropic work extends to the company she co-owns, Sandy Spring Builders. She got into the profession at the suggestion of her dad, who was a builder.
After graduating from Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School and then Colby College in Maine with a degree in American studies, Kress returned to Bethesda. She enrolled in an apprenticeship course in construction and says she loved everything about it—from learning how to read blueprints to bidding jobs and laying a foundation.
In 1998, she and longtime friend Phil Leibovitz became partners at Sandy Spring Builders. As CEO of the 28-employee business, Leibovitz is the big-picture sales executive, while Kress is chief operating officer, specializing in administration, contracts and finance.
Kress has organized drives at Sandy Spring Builders’ office to collect items such as school supplies, food and household cleaning products for A Wider Circle and the Montgomery County Coalition for the Homeless. The company sponsors events at county public schools; contributes to environmental sustainability efforts, such as Bethesda Green; and has restored youth baseball fields, including one in Cabin John Regional Park.
It was through Leibovitz that Kress met her husband, Michael. A photographer, he grew up in the area and graduated from Winston Churchill High School. They have been married for 35 years and have two children: Max, 32, who lives in Rockville and volunteers regularly at Habitat for Humanity, and Jenna, 27, of San Jose, California, who studied social work in college and now works in the field of restorative justice. Growing up, Jenna says her mother invited her along to volunteer and showed her the value of helping others. “She understands how deeply interconnected we all are and that when some of us are struggling, we are all struggling,” Jenna says of her mother.
When deciding where to put her energy, Kress says she looks to support causes that resonate. She has close family members who have struggled with mental health issues, which led her to the National Alliance on
Mental Illness in Montgomery County (NAMI MC). Mimi and Michael say they experienced firsthand the value of NAMI MC services in 2011, when they enrolled in a family-to-family class taught by others who had loved ones with mental illness.
Kress joined the NAMI MC board of directors in the fall of 2012. A few years later she was approached to be board president. Kress initially said she’d serve “in name only,” but soon became heavily involved. “If she’s putting her name on something, if she says she cares about something, she’s going all in,” says NAMI MC Executive Director Stephanie Rosen.
In her six-year tenure as board president, which ended in 2021, Kress was instrumental in expanding the reach of the organization, Rosen says. (Kress continues to serve on the board as a member.) NAMI MC added extensive evaluation of its programs and made strategic decisions to connect with underserved communities.
The NAMI MC budget has grown from about $250,000 in 2013 to more than $750,000 today, Rosen says. With that, the staff has tripled in size, enabling many more people to be served.
The organization’s annual fall gala netted about $25,000 in 2012. In 2019, proceeds topped $200,000, according to Rosen. In the spring, NAMI MC had traditionally participated in the state NAMIWalks fundraiser in Baltimore. Kress helped the local NAMI MC spin off its own walk in Montgomery County in 2018. This year’s walk brought in about $150,000, including about $20,000 from Kress’ team, Rosen says.
For years, Kress was also a volunteer for the NAMI Ending the Silence program, giving presentations in middle schools and high schools to build awareness about mental health issues.
“The impact Mimi has had at NAMI is going to reverberate in the community for years,” Rosen says. “She’s helped people accept their illness, get treatment for their illness, and helped health caregivers be better caregivers. That kind of change, it can’t be measured because it not only affects their lives, but their entire family’s lives and then how the community functions.”
Kress says she sees so many needs in the community and rarely says no when someone asks to meet for advice.
In 2018, in the midst of the #MeToo movement, Amanda Moskowitz of North Potomac was writing a play about her experience with sexual abuse when she met Kress at the Montgomery County Coalition for the Homeless gala. Moskowitz asked to meet about the project over coffee and Kress agreed.
“I just was drawn to Amanda, what she’d gone through,” says Kress, who immediately began to offer her theater connections. “It’s hard to hear something like that and not be both empathetic and want to help her get this out to more people. I felt it was so important what she was trying to do and say.”
The two collaborated on hiring the cast and crew, and on raising $20,000 for the production of the one-act play, I Am Her. Four performances were held at Woolly Mammoth
Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., in 2019, each with an audience discussion after the show.
“For several people, on a personal level, it was very helpful and cathartic,” Kress says. The play was never just about the performance, Moskowitz adds; it was about the conversations afterward. The experience changed the trajectory of her life, Moskowitz says, and she credits Kress with making it happen.
“She has this empathy and intuition about her that you really feel safe and valued and heard,” Moskowitz says. “Mimi approaches everything in her life like that. I’ve watched her interact with her husband, her children, her business partners, her clients and her volunteers. It’s so much a part of who she is that you can’t help but want to be a better version of yourself because she inspires you to do that.”
Caralee Adams is a regular freelance writer for Bethesda Magazine who covers education, health and other topics.
This story appears in the November/December 2022 issue of Bethesda Magazine.