Power: The Headhuntress

Judee von Seldeneck, Michael Nutter’s point woman to fill top-level city posts, has built a worldwide executive recruiting company with her Southern sass and fierce intellect. That’s made her one of the most powerful women in Philadelphia

A friend in the office was a whiz at it, and offered to stand outside the door and eavesdrop. “You just pretend like you’re taking it,” he said, “and I’ll be out here and I’ll get it all for you, no problem.”

So as Walter Mondale barked out correspondence — “Dear Lyndon: Great seeing you the other day …” “Dear Hubert: Hope this finds you feeling better … ” — Judee furiously doodled into her notebook. She got the friend’s notes, and the next day placed the stack of neatly typed letters on Mondale’s desk. “At my going-away party, we’re all there and Walter says, ‘The first time I met her, she came in here and never even looked at me as she sat there scribbling. I knew she wasn’t taking dictation!’ He knew all along and never said anything.”

She witnessed the turbulent history of ’60s Washington unfold right outside her window. She walked in the procession for JFK’s funeral, and stood at the Lincoln Memorial to listen to Martin Luther King deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech. “I think we’re on the threshold of another exciting time like that. It reminds me of those days,” she says of the current presidential race. It was the excitement of ­Camelot-era Washington that led to her fascination with power — how it was manifested and cultivated, used and wasted. And how women didn’t seem to have any of it.

LIKE A LOT of people in Philadelphia, Judee von Seldeneck landed here by chance. While in D.C., she got romanced by and engaged to investment banker Clay von Seldeneck, a Philadelphia native; once they were married, they moved here.

After a decade in the epicenter of the tumult of the national political discourse, she found herself bereft. Antsy to not just do something, but really do something, she bought into a small, female-owned firm that placed women in time-share jobs. In 1974 she bought out her partners, took office space in the Western Savings Building at Broad and Chestnut, and changed the firm’s focus to finding full-time jobs for women. “We had a card table and chairs, and we’d sit there and smoke cigarettes and figure out what to do,” she says.

The mid-1970s turned out to be the right time to figure it out, as the federal government — taking its cue in part from the burgeoning feminist movement — began setting aside federal contracts for female- and minority-owned businesses. “She didn’t approach it as a social or civic exercise,” Rimel says of Diversified’s start. “She approached it as a business.”

Eventually that business expanded beyond placing women, and — year by year, through relentless door-knocking and the occasional big break, like landing Fidelity Bank as a client — Judee von Seldeneck combined muscular intellect, Southern sass, a competitive golf game, a girly wardrobe, and a set of brass ones to elbow her way into the circles of the city’s corporate elite. Take, for example, the hunt for the CEO of the Kimmel Center in 2002. The Kimmel search committee — a who’s who of Philly business, culture and ­philanthropy — wanted a firm specializing in arts execs to make the hire. It invited Diversified to pitch for the gig “as a courtesy to Judee,” Comcast executive vice president David Cohen recalls. Armed with her steel-magnolia grace and citing both her personal commitment to the city and the turning point the Kimmel represented, she dazzled everyone. After she left, committee member Midge Rendell was the first to pipe up: “Anyone change their mind?” Diversified was hired within a week.

But for all her glass-ceiling-shattering, perhaps the most interesting thing about Judee von Seldeneck is how little she seems to think about being a woman in charge of a multinational company. And this may explain why she’s been so successful at it. While she has always understood that there were going to be men who didn’t want a woman anywhere near their businesses, it seems never to have occurred to her that this was an obstacle she couldn’t overcome. Such resilient belief runs through the cabal that Judee calls the “Ya-Yas,” a sisterhood of some of the city’s most powerful women that meets covertly from time to time to drink wine, talk shop, and gossip about local goings-on. In other words, an Old Girls’ Network. And Judee firmly believes the Old Girls have a duty to the Young Girls coming after them. “She keeps her eye out for people she thinks have potential, particularly women,” says Aqua America executive director Melissa Grimm, who in 2006 was placed by Judee as the executive director of the city’s effort to land the Olympics. “She’s accessible to give you advice, and when she gives it, she’s got a certain directness that I think is good in a mentor.”