Fierce. Enterprising. Inventive. These Orange County women are changing our world, locally and beyond. from an entrepreneur who took her idea from inspiration to international sales to a policewoman who became O.C.’s first and only female police chief, this year’s roster of 20 women to watch inspires.
Consider the young journalist and activist who went to school in Anaheim who made the cover of Time magazine last year. She now reports from the front lines on the turmoil in Egypt. Like every woman featured here, she has followed her passion and has been willing to gut out the hard times.
Journalist/Activist, ‘Gigi’s Revolution’
The next time you see reports of the ongoing turmoil in Egypt, don’t be surprised if you see Egyptian Gihan “Gigi” Ibrahim in the middle of the chaos talking into a cellphone or tweeting the latest news.
Ibrahim, a journalist and political activist living in Cairo, was a vocal organizer leading up to, and during, the 2011 Egyptian revolution. The former Anaheim resident became internationally known due to her media interviews and her Facebook and Twitter posts from Tahrir Square during the protests.
Ibrahim was featured on the Feb. 28, 2012, cover of TIME Magazine as a member of “The Generation Changing the World,” and she’s been a guest on “Frontline,” the BBC, Al Jazeera and “The Daily Show.” A documentary about her experiences and the views of other upper-middle-class Egyptians, called “Gigi’s Revolution,” aired on PBS in February 2011.
Ibrahim was born in Long Beach to Egyptian parents who returned to Egypt when she was 1 year old. Her widowed father moved the family back to California when Ibrahim was 14. She attended Cornelia Connelly School, a private all-girls Catholic high school in Anaheim, and then Orange Coast College. In 2008, she transferred to the American University in Cairo, where she earned a political science degree in December 2010. She hopes to earn master’s and Ph.D. degrees.
Ibrahim remains vigilant in her coverage of the unfolding events in Egypt, posting frontline updates on Twitter (@Gsquare86) and her blog. Additionally, she works as an editor for What Women Want, an Egyptian-based English-language lifestyles magazine, and continues to do freelance photography and produce videos, as well as write articles about the revolution.
“I consider myself a person with a bipolar identity of part free-spirit American and part angry Egyptian,” Ibrahim says on her Facebook page.
“I am so honored and glad that my life led me to this, with all the ups and downs that we have experienced under this revolution,” Ibrahim says. “I don’t regret one thing, and I would relive it all over. I have faith in the power of the people, and this is my source of inspiration that makes me keep going until our victory in achieving bread, freedom and social equality.”
Alice Kim Cowell
Founder/CEO, ReFresh Talent
Alice Kim Cowell is a real talent in the talent business. Her 16-month-old agency is thriving, thanks to her creative take on the role of a modeling agency as a partner to brands and companies.
After years in the field of marketing – working on campaigns, hiring models and directing photo shoots – Cowell, age 40, saw a disconnect in the way business was being done in the industry. She founded ReFresh Talent not to fill a niche or to compete with Hollywood agencies whose main purpose, she says, is entertainment, but “to redefine the agency’s role as purposeful.”
By understanding the client’s purpose, the Costa Mesa-based company can best match the talent and help create meaningful branding.
“As a result, we have a vested interest in the outcome,” Cowell says. “We can collaborate with our clients to make sure their project is seamless.”
Since opening in October 2011, ReFresh Talent has received referrals and repeat business from a growing list of models and clients. Some companies Cowell has worked with include MaxMara, La Perla, and Black, Starr & Frost. Each quarter last year, sales doubled, she says, even as she’s scaled back on positioning the brand.
The approach works with clients of all sizes. A surprising number have come from the pharmacology and direct-marketing industries. Says Cowell: “If the client is experienced, great; I can work alongside you. If not, I can help guide you.”
Cowell is optimistic about plans for 2013.
– Maria D. Laso
Executive VP/CFO, Jamboree Housing Corp.
Marcy Torres, executive vice president/CFO of the Jamboree Housing Corp., is impressive. Consider these numbers: During her tenure, Torres has helped to grow Jamboree’s annual operating budget from $830,000 to $7 million and its net worth from $4 million to $39 million.
She began working part-time for the affordable-housing developer in 2001 as one of just six staff members, handling accounting and finance.
As the company grew, Torres grew with it. She’s now second in command, and her responsibilities include managing a staff of more than 30, plus overseeing resident services, asset management, fundraising and marketing, among many other duties. She manages growth with a combination of organization and efficiency and is known for asking, “Do we really need to do that?”
Torres was promoted to executive VP/CFO in 2010. “I remember thinking,” she says, “‘I’m not just an accountant anymore. I’ve proven myself.’”
Torres stays active in the community and attends all Jamboree events and property grand openings, and she gives back by helping the homeless in O.C. and by visiting seniors in residence homes who are suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s.
“You can be dedicated to your career without having to sacrifice other important aspects of your life,” she says.
Torres also encourages her co-workers to meet with those who use Jamboree’s homes and services. “I always encourage my staff to go to as many Jamboree events as they can so they can see exactly what Jamboree does.”
– Amy Bentley
Chief of Police, Cypress Police Department
As a teenager, Jackie Gomez-Whiteley went on a police ride-along as part of a law school class. She was hooked and knew right then she wanted to become a police officer.
Her mother allowed her to join the Los Alamitos Police Explorers, but only after offering her some sage advice, says Gomez-Whiteley.
“There were many women before you who took a stand against incredible challenges to become a police officer,” she recalls her mother telling her. “You have an obligation to the women entering law enforcement behind you to persevere and make it more acceptable for them to succeed.”
Gomez-Whiteley took that advice to heart. Today, as chief of the Cypress Police Department, she oversees 55 sworn officers and about 80 other staff members. She mentors younger officers – both men and women – not only within Cypress but also with the California Police Chiefs Association’s Women Leaders in Law Enforcement program.
After attending Loyola Marymount University on a basketball scholarship, Gomez-Whiteley was hired by the Orange Police Department in 1986, where she rose through the ranks to become its first woman motor officer, sergeant and lieutenant.
In 1989, she happened to be on the scene as a kidnapping was unfolding. She shot and killed the gunman who was threatening a family, including a newborn baby.
As a result, Gomez-Whiteley was awarded the department’s Medal of Valor, though she says she simply did what she was trained to do.
“You can remove and replace any officer, and they would do the same,” she says. “You train to protect people your entire career. You’re just grateful that you responded appropriately.”
She became chief of Cypress PD in June of 2011. While the city does not have much violent crime, she has been dealing with a rise in property crimes during the economic downturn. She is also focusing on community outreach, including partnerships with schools to promote character education and teach children to make the right choices.
“My hope is that being a woman in a non-traditional career and finding success will inspire others to work hard, remain focused and never give up on their dreams,” she says.
– Kelly St. John
Marnie O’Brien Primmer
Executive Director, Mobility 21
Marnie O’Brien Primmer regularly speaks on behalf of Southern California’s 21 million residents at both the state and federal levels. The 38-year-old is executive director of Mobility 21, a coalition that brings together public, business and community stakeholders to address regional transportation issues. The advocacy group, whose primary goal is to unite Southern California transportation leaders around a common set of policy priorities, consists of more than 30 partner organizations and 5,000 members.
Primmer, who has more than a decade of experience in public affairs and transportation infrastructure planning and development, joined Irvine-based Mobility 21 in 2008. Under her leadership, the coalition expanded its original reach of five counties to seven: Orange, Imperial, Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego and Ventura.
“The ultimate goal is to get people home to their families faster and give people a better quality of life by making sure that they’re not spending all their time sitting in traffic or waiting for the next bus or train,” she says.
Primmer also oversees Mobility 21’s annual Transportation Summit. The largest one-day transportation conference in the state, its 2012 event attracted some 1,000 transportation, business and political leaders.
Last year, Mobility 21 was the recipient of the Organization of the Year award by the California Transportation Foundation, and Primmer was named Woman of the Year by WTS Orange County, an international organization dedicated to the professional advancement of women in transportation. The Costa Mesa resident was also recently named chair of the National Alliance of Public Transit Advocates.
– Sandy Bennett
Director of Government Relations and Minority Business Development, Disneyland Resorts
As the director of Government Relations and Minority Business Development for the Disneyland Resort, Carrie Nocella works to maintain a business-friendly climate in Anaheim and ensures that local leaders and lawmakers are aware of how much the resort helps the community. One of her key triumphs was working with businesses and industry partners to create Anaheim’s Enterprise Zone, a state-designated area that promotes economic development and job creation.
Nocella is part of the team that helps protect the Anaheim Resort Area and ensure that new development in the district continues to support and drive tourism in the city. The Anaheim Enterprise Zone designation was awarded in 2011 and became active last year.
“It attracts every type of businesses and creates jobs,” says Nocella. “Maintaining a business-friendly political climate locally and statewide among elected officials is something that is a huge accomplishment and challenge. After all, the resort area generates 50 percent of Anaheim’s General Fund.”
Nocella, who joined the resort in 2007 as the government relations manager, also works with multicultural groups to enhance relationships with minority businesses. Under her leadership, the resort has maintained a positive bond with the Association of Latino Professionals in Finance and Accounting, recruiting several ALPFA members to work for the resort. She also works with the Asian Business Association of Orange County to match qualified firms with the resort’s procurement needs and bring in more local Asian vendors.
Nocella is on the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce board and serves as vice-chair of the Orange County Business Council’s Government Affairs Committee.
– Amy Bentley
Assemblywoman, California’s 65th District
Sharon Quirk-Silva isn’t one to shy away from a challenge, whether it’s being the first in her family to graduate from college, balancing the budget of one of Orange County’s largest cities or coming from behind to unseat her opponent in a political race.
In 2012, the wife and mother of four was elected to the California State Assembly. She represents California’s 65th Assembly District, which includes more than 460,000 residents in West Anaheim, Buena Park, Stanton, Cypress, La Palma, Hawaiian Gardens and her hometown, Fullerton, where she has lived since age 2.
“I love the art of creating policy – the action involved in serving and how one individual can make a difference for many,” she says.
The 50-year-old was a schoolteacher in Fullerton for 27 years. She also served two terms on the Fullerton City Council and as mayor of the city whose budget she helped balance during harsh economic times.
The recipient of numerous awards, including the Golden Apple Award from the Hispanic Education Endowment Fund, she’s known for her interactive approach.
“I believe in being available – accessible to my constituents,” she says. “My role is to serve my district, and I can only do this by understanding their needs, expectations and concerns.”
Silva currently serves on three standing committees – Transportation, Higher Education and Accountability and Administrative Review – as part of her role as assembly-woman for the 65th District.
– Sandy Bennett
Chief Financial Officer, Rakuten.com Shopping
Throughout her career, Laura Tuthill has made sense from dollars, all while advancing her career in a male-dominated industry. As the chief financial officer for Internet superstore Rakuten.com Shopping, she is now at the helm of finances for Japan’s largest e-commerce company.
In May 2010, Rakuten Inc. acquired Aliso Viejo-based Buy.com. Tuthill had started with Buy.com as a part-time consultant just prior to the acquisition but soon after accepted a full-time position that tapped her skills at a critical time for the company.
Working for a Japanese mega-business has brought some new challenges for Tuthill, who was one of only nine women out of the 43 people nominated this year for the Orange County Business Journal’s CFO of the Year. Tuthill frequently communicates with co-workers in Japan via video conferencing. And while international communication can often be difficult, she praises Rakuten for becoming the first Japanese company to accept English as the main company language.
In 2007, Tuthill became a CFO for the first time with her previous employer, Ambassadors International Inc. She worked her way up to the job from the position of divisional controller.
Tuthill encourages other women in business to never back down or fear a challenge – and to have each other’s backs.
“I really believe that women should support each other. Leading by example is something we all need to be doing,” she says. “It’s a wonderful time for women in business, a time for us to make our mark.”
– Amy Bentley
Christina Prandini Sanchez
Owner, Body & Sole Comfort
Christina Prandini Sanchez, the founder and creator of Body & Sole Comfort, designed her washable and reusable comfort gel foot cushions with high heel-loving women in mind. She had no idea her cushions would end up bringing relief to thousands of American troops.
She sold almost 10,000 units last year and forecasts a five-fold increase in sales this year, thanks to the U.S. Marine Corps.
Prandini Sanchez, who studied graphic design at Long Beach City College, was watching a morning television show one day and was shocked when a plastic surgeon injected silicone into a woman’s feet so the woman could wear high heels more comfortably.
Prandini Sanchez thought, “That’s crazy!” and began cutting out different shapes with gel.
She experimented for over a year while developing her products and then tested them on focus groups of women she’d found by networking with friends. Her line of gel cushions, including the patented Lily Pads, hit the market in late 2011.
She asked her husband, a former U.S. Navy pilot, for help selling them to the military, thinking they’d be a great product for the troops. He made scores of phone calls, and six months later, Prandini Sanchez showed her products to physicians at Camp Pendleton and a clinic for Marines in San Diego. The doctors loved them, and Prandini Sanchez was given approval to sell them in the Marine exchanges. She sells 500 to 600 units a month to Marines nationwide.
She’s now seeking approval to sell them in Army exchanges, too, and to have all U.S. military branches issue her cushions as standard equipment. “We’re getting there,” she says.
The cast of “Dancing With the Stars” also uses her cushions, she notes, having learned about this from Cash Feschyan, a cobbler in Los Angeles she contacted who is known as “the cobbler to the stars.”
On occasion, Prandini Sanchez talks to other women who are hesitant to start a business for fear of failure or criticism. She tells them, “Don’t be swayed by people who may discourage you. You’ve got to follow that instinct that you have. I tell them to go for it.”
– Amy Bentley
Executive director, Corazón
Jennifer Allen was taught by her parents to recognize her gifts and to use them to help others. As executive director of Corazón, a Santa Ana-based nonprofit best known for building approximately 1,500 homes for poverty-stricken residents in northern Mexico, she applies those childhood lessons every day.
After graduating from college, the Chicago native moved to Mexico, where she worked for 12 years with nonprofit organizations as a fundraising and communications manager. A promoter of social change, she most recently served two years as operations manager for the Mexican Association for Rural and Urban Transformation in Mexico City, before joining Corazón in February 2012.
Today, the 35-year-old splits her time between Mexico neighborhoods and her Santa Ana office. During her first year of leadership, she oversaw and participated in approximately 30 construction projects, ranging from new homes to roof repairs.
Allen, who received a full scholarship to Southern New Hampshire University’s MBA program after competing in a contest that involved an essay, live TV interview and online voting, also oversaw Corazón’s annual fundraiser. The event raised nearly twice its targeted goal and three times more than the previous year’s fundraiser.
She also led the launch of the organization’s new program – Up on the Roof, which allows smaller-sized groups to participate in homebuilding projects – and increased the organization’s social media presence from 10 to nearly 1,000 (and growing) Facebook fans.
She is currently focusing on expanding the organization’s donor and volunteer base to bring homes to 500 qualified families.
– Sandy Bennett
CEO, Kapture Vision
Founder, The Breast Cancer Fundraiser
In a region where social, charity and coporate events are plentiful, it takes a lot to stand out as an event producer. Nilo G., principal of Kapture Vision, an event-production company, is in demand. That’s why she was tapped last year to deliver a nationally televised 90th-
birthday party for actress Betty White.
“The key to both leadership and inspiration is listening,” says Nilo, age 29, who launched Kapture Vision four years ago.
Her first year in business, Nilo and her first associate designed and coordinated a celebrity wedding that was recognized by People magazine and then proceeded to produce beach fashion shows all over the country for global eyewear and lifestyle company Oakley. The Cal State Fullerton grad, who has degrees in business marketing and communications, was on her way.
Since then, she’s created events for brands including Chrysler and BASF, appeared on NBC’s “Today” to comment on the royal wedding of William and Kate and recently opened Kapture offices in New York and L.A.
The seeds of Nilo’s philanthropy may have been planted a decade ago, when the Iranian-born Corona del Mar resident hosted 30 friends for a fundraiser. She collected $5 from each guest and then sent a check to the Orange County affiliate of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation. More than 500 are expected at The Breast Cancer Fundraiser on May 18. Events now occur annually in several U.S. cities, and the goal is 20 cities by 2020.
– Maria D. Laso
President/CEO, Make-A-Wish O.C./Inland Empire
As president and CEO of the region’s Make-A-Wish office, Stephanie McCormick brings 35 years of experience in nonprofits to the task of helping make dreams come true for children with life-threatening conditions and their families.
She wasn’t seeking a job change, says McCormick, who nevertheless took the challenge, leaving the Mariposa Women & Family Center in Orange in September 2011 to join Make-A-Wish.
The Tustin-based Make-A-Wish chapter, which serves Orange County and the Inland Empire, had a record wish-granting year and is on target to grant 335 wishes in 2013. However, that’s not even half the need for this area, as estimated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The goal is to grant every eligible wish they receive, and that means “inspiring the community to vest itself in our mission,” says McCormick, age 56, of San Clemente.
For the fiscal year ending in August 2012, McCormick used “passion, persistence and humor” to cut the agency’s deficit from 26 percent of the operating budget of $4.22 million to just under 8 percent of $3.75 million.
The key is to engage people in the network and “to tell the stories,” McCormick says. “And I don’t let people say no,” she adds with a laugh.
Challenges are familiar to McCormick, who in 2002 became the first female CEO of United Way of Allen County, Indiana, in its 80-year history. There’s inspiration in every daily task.
“Never underestimate the power of the smile of a wish child,” says Pepperdine alumna McCormick. “It truly is transformational.”
–Maria D. Laso
Director, Laguna Dance Festival
Associate Professor of Dance, UC Irvine
Jodie Gates has shared the art of dance with millions of people worldwide since she first began dancing with the world-renowned Joffrey Ballet at age 16. A principal ballerina, she also danced with the Frankfurt Ballet and the Pennsylvania Ballet. Other stages include former President Bill Clinton’s inauguration, two television programs, a rock-ballet video by Prince and an appearance on “The Tonight Show” with Jay Leno.
Following a 25-year performance career, Gates began choreographing works for professional dance companies. Esteemed for her neoclassical dance choreography, she has created more than 40 works, including a commission by Ballet West, the company currently featured in the popular reality television show “Breaking Pointe.”
But perhaps those who benefit most from her energy and talents are local community members. Honored by the American Association of University Women for her achievements in the arts, Gates is an associate professor in the Department of Dance at UC Irvine, where she teaches eight classes a week and serves as a mentor for student research projects.
“It was more than just my passion,” she says. “I felt like it was my responsibility [to share] the art form with my new community.”
The California native is also the founder and artistic director of the Laguna Dance Festival. The award-winning nonprofit works to increase public appreciation of the art form. Its signature event draws thousands of people each year and offers an array of educational opportunities through its free and paid performances.
– Sandy Bennett
CEO, The Sili Company
New mom Kristin Ahmer wanted a reusable, mess-free pouch for fresh purees. When she realized that it didn’t exist, she invented it.
“In April ’09, I came up with the Sili Squeeze idea and wrote down that I was
going to make it come to life,” says Ahmer, age 32, who studied at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology. That first sketch, done on a napkin at her kitchen table, is still on the bulletin board of the Sili Company’s CEO, who has sold a half-million units since launching the product in August 2010.
While working at Rip Curl, Ahmer realized she preferred product development to design. Later, at a fleece company in San Clemente, she was the liaison between the sports-industry customers such as DC Shoes and Quiksilver and factories in China, overseeing sample and sourcing processes, as well as production.
“I love production; bringing a sketch to life is fascinating,” says the UC Santa Barbara graduate, who researched the idea online for three months and surveyed local moms’ groups about usage, cost and colors. With $100,000 in savings from a family trust, Ahmer drew on her work experience and training to design and
produce the PBA- and phthalate-free bottle.
It took 13 months to find a manufacturer, eschewing American companies as cost prohibitive. She sought an American agent with a presence in China to secure a medical manufacturer for medical-grade/food-grade silicone.
The pouch launched online three weeks after daughter Sage was born. Ahmer and her husband filled orders from their garage, selling out 5,000 units in five weeks. For the next 10,000 units, Ahmer’s dad invested $100,000 in exchange for company shares.
There are now 70 Sili retailers (and counting) across the U.S. and Canada. Next: Ireland and New Zealand. Hundreds of Squeezes have been donated to children’s hospitals and to special-needs adults and children.
– Maria D. Laso
Business Editor, Orange County Register
When the new owners of the Orange County Register launched an ambitious plan to revitalize the paper, they turned to an experienced hand to oversee a revamp of its business coverage: Donna Wares.
It was a homecoming of sorts for Wares, who spent the early days of her journalism career in the Register newsroom as a legal affairs editor and projects reporter.
Wares is overseeing the ongoing development of the Register’s new stand-alone business section, which debuted in October. She has hired new reporters and expanded coverage of the local economy from eight to 12 pages daily.
Wares previously worked as managing editor at Entrepreneur Media and national weekend editor at the Los Angeles Times. She has also worked extensively in book publishing, as co-author of “The Wonder Years: Portraits of Athletes Who Never Slow Down” (with former Register photographer Rick Rickman) and editor of the anthology “My California: Journeys by Great Writers.”
Wares says working on the best-selling “My California” anthology was one of her proudest accomplishments. She co-published the collection of narratives by 27 California writers. All of its sales proceeds benefited writing programs for California schoolchildren.
“I’ve always loved being a storyteller, both as a writer and an editor, in newspapers, online publishing and in books,” Wares says. “I’ve always believed that what we do at newspapers makes a difference in people’s lives.”
– Kelly St. John
Founding Project Director, Orange County Women’s Health Project
Allyson Sonenshine was among a group of five key women in the community who gathered around a kitchen table in July 2009 for an informal conversation about the well-being of women. This tableside chat resulted in Orange County’s first
coordinated effort centered on women’s health.
Sonenshine is the founding project director of the Orange County Women’s Health Project, a grassroots collaborative launched in 2010 to identify gaps and facilitate improvements in women’s health in the community.
“In other counties in California, you would find either a Commission on the Status of Women or some kind of grassroots coalition,” says Sonenshine. “While we have so many wonderful organizations focusing on women’s health issues, there was no coalition or central voice.”
Sonenshine’s initial efforts focused on data collection and discussions with healthcare providers, nonprofit executives and researchers. Representatives from 30 community-based organizations and individuals, ranging from physicians and nonprofits to universities and government agencies, quickly came on board to assist in the effort. The group met monthly to further define objectives and plan its flagship event, the inaugural Orange County Women’s Health Policy Summit.
Held in May 2012 at UC Irvine, the daylong conference drew 150 community leaders dedicated to women’s health. Topics included data on the state of women’s health in the county and the impact of the Affordable Care Act. Areas where Orange County women fare less well compared to women in other counties were also identified, setting the stage for the first three health issues – breast and cervical cancer, intimate partner violence and teen reproductive health – to be tackled by coalition members.
The overwhelming response from like-minded leaders and institutions serves as a testament to Sonenshine’s vision and leadership. A former attorney and nonprofit consultant, the 41-year-old has also volunteered at several health-related organizations, including Planned Parenthood of Orange & San Bernardino Counties, the California Family Health Council and the Rape Treatment Center at UCLA Medical Center.
She currently serves as an assistant adjunct professor for the Nursing Science Program at UC Irvine, where she is working to launch the university’s Nursing Center for the Advancement of Women’s Health.
– Sandy Bennett
Founder/Designer, Erin Cole Design/Erin Cole Couture Bridal
When Erin Cole was 23, she began working in the bridal industry because she needed a “job that was happy” after the death of her parents.
Cole quickly recognized a disconnect between couture gowns and the accessories being sold with them. Dresses costing upwards of $5,000 were paired with low-cost – and lower quality – accessories imported from China.
So Cole began making veils, tiaras, jewelry and other accessories on her own time. Before long, she built a line that was quickly picked up by Saks Fifth Avenue and New York’s famous Kleinfeld Bridal.
Today, Cole’s award-winning accessories are sold in more than 175 stores worldwide. They have been featured on magazine covers from Town and Country to Modern Bride to People, and on television shows such as “Glee” and “Say Yes to the Dress.”
Her flagship salon, in Costa Mesa’s 17th Street Promenade, draws brides from as far away as Dubai, looking for gowns by designers Jenny Packham, Oscar de la Renta and Vera Wang. It’s also the showcase for Cole’s modern vintage-style accessories, and she personally works with brides to style them for their big day.
The company has seen its sales grow every year. Cole says her success is in part because she never settles for mediocrity.
“I don’t stop creating a piece until it’s over the top and perfect,” she says.
– Kelly St. John
When Terry Corwin was a teen, she logged many hours of community service working with her mother and volunteering with the National Charity League.
But when her son, Spencer, was 13, Corwin and her family couldn’t find a boys’ service organization that fit their aspirations. So the Corwin family founded its own: Lion’s Heart, a secular organization that’s run by volunteers.
What started out in 2004 as a group of 20 boys has exploded. In 2012, Lion’s Heart expanded into five states beyond California. Last May, its teen members surpassed a milestone of 100,000 hours of volunteer service to their communities.
“It has taken off because it’s simple,” says Corwin, who hopes to ultimately bring Lion’s Heart chapters to every state. “It’s inexpensive. It requires very little parental involvement. And there’s no fundraising.”
Lion’s Heart organizes kids from grades 6 to 12 by age and gender into chapters that choose their own service projects. While a parent acts as a scheduling coordinator, the teens do everything else, from electing officers and leading meetings to deciding what volunteer projects to pursue.
Corwin says that one Lion’s Heart project that has stood out was carried out by her son’s group, which ran an annual day of fun for a women-and-children’s shelter in Tustin.
“It was heartwarming to see the older boys playing hopscotch or doing face-painting with the little ones. These kids sometimes don’t see other people in different situations,” Corwin says. “The leaders of tomorrow need to see the bigger picture, and that is not
always right in their neighborhood.”
– Kelly St. John
Liz Fiacco, Lauren Gragg, Jessica Kernan
Co-founders, Fallstreak Studio
This trio of young entrepreneurs hopes to make a mark in the video game industry this spring, when their Android-based game, “Axle,” goes on sale. If history is any indication, their future will result in a high score.
Liz Fiacco, Lauren Gragg and Jessica Kernan met as freshmen in Chapman University’s Digital Arts program. With the help of James Fiacco and Alex Solano, they are launching a game studio with “Axle”: a cute gear that has to dodge and wind his way through dangerous clockwork to fix machines.
“Axle” won first place in the regional Institute of the Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ Intercollegiate Computer Game Showcase last year, prompting its creators to bring it to market and launch their own studio.
Working out of Chapman’s eVillage, a business incubator for Chapman students and graduates, they raised $20,000 with the crowd-funding website Kickstarter. Now “Axle” will be available on Droid phones in late spring.
This trio seems undaunted by their gender, even in an industry still overwhelmingly dominated by men.
“Halfway through a semester at Chapman, I realized I was the only girl in one of my gaming-development classes,” says Fiacco. “I wasn’t uncomfortable. I just thought it was funny.”
The Fallstreak Studio founders plan to bring “Axle” to the iPhone and Kindle Fire and develop new games that are both fun and educational.
– Kelly St. John
Manager, Union Bank
U.S. banks have been struggling, but at least one person is compounding interest daily: Maryam Rakhshani was a teen when she joined Union Bank in 2004 as a part-time teller in the bank’s Woodbridge branch. In August 2010, at the age of 25, she was promoted to the top position at Union Bank’s in-store office in Mission Viejo – one of the youngest managers in the company’s history.
“I love dealing with people,” says Rakhshani, now 27 and an MBA candidate at UC Irvine’s Paul Merage School of Business and an assistant vice president of the bank.
Colleagues and supervisors agree. “Rakhshani has the ability to engage and motivate her team,” says Union Bank’s Tina Robinson, senior vice president and regional manager for central Orange County. “She is an extraordinary leader.”
Good leadership involves “treating others the way you wish to be treated,” says Rahkshani, who supervises seven to 10 full-time employees. “It’s important to care for each employee and bring out their best.”
Rakhshani has received bank-wide recognition several times. In November 2011, she was promoted to the bank’s Quail Hill branch in Irvine.
“Every manager I have had has helped me to be where I am,” says Rakhshani, adding that inspiration also comes from her team. “I love creating an engaging, motivating and fun work environment and seeing my team succeed.”
And succeed they do: The Quail Hill office was No. 7 bank-wide in performance for 2012 and No. 1 bank-wide for the fourth quarter.
Rakhshani was 3 years old when her family left Texas for Iran. Moving to O.C. a decade later made for a culture shock, she says. Learning English as a high school student wasn’t easy, either. Laughter and friendship helped her through the tough times, as did good parenting.
“My parents taught me many of the positive traits that I try to implement in my professional life as well as personal life: patience, tolerance and compassion.”
Rakhshani also credits Union Bank for her success. “I always believed in working hard ... but it’s the organization that can allow individuals to grow.”
Such investments seem destined to pay handsome dividends. As Robinson says, Rakhshani “is a representation of Union Bank’s core values of integrity, respect, service, collaboration, inclusiveness and stewardship.”
– Maria D. Laso