Game Changers: Meet Six Local Women Who Make the East Bay Great
May 09, 2016 03:41PM ● Published by Cale Finta
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THE GAME CHANGERS
Strong Smart Funny: Meet Six Local Women Who Make the East Bay Great
By Deborah Burstyn,
Lou Fancher & Fran Miller
Edited by Lauren Kessler
Photography by Jessica
Get ready to be inspired: the women profiled on these pages work in fields ranging from fashion to education, from the law to leadership, and from philanthropy to event planning. But they all have one thing in common: Passion. Their enthusiasm for their careers, family and community is contagious.
SHE RUNS A LEADING DEPARTMENT STORE WITH AN UNERRING EYE FOR FASHION
Sporting her Valentino Rockstud T-strap stilettos, black Dolce & Gabbana sheath, and dramatic jet black pixie haircut, Debbie Dimich’s style leaves little doubt about her profession. As the chic store manager of Nordstrom Walnut Creek, Dimich is a sophisticated reflection of the Nordstrom brand.
At the helm of the Walnut Creek store for just over a year, and part of the Nordstrom family for more than sixteen years, Dimich is clearly one of their star players. She has served as designer regional merchandise manager, downtown Portland store manager, and senior retail director of the designer division in the Seattle corporate offices. After four moves in the past four years, at the age of 49, she’s happy to have landed in Walnut Creek, and excited to be playing an integral role in the Broadway Plaza remodel.
The aisles of tailored clothing, designer heels, and personalized fragrances that surround Dimich each day are a far cry from the San Diego farm where she grew up. “I have always loved fashion and design and knew it was the path I would take,” she says. Shortly after graduating from the University of San Diego with a degree in communication, she got her start at Nordstrom. A few years into her employment she switched gears to interior design, specializing in kitchen and bath. It wasn’t long before her passion for fashion drew her back to retail. “I am proud to be part of a company that so strongly supports its team,” says Dimich. “Nordstrom has given me wonderful opportunities and amazing experiences for which I am truly grateful.”
An advocate of the Nordstrom philosophy ‘the customer comes first,’ Dimich strives to get to know her customers and make anyone who walks through the doors feel comfortable and welcome. “We are inviting customers into our home, and I want them to feel that way,” she says. “I love sharing the store with others, and seeing people leave with a smile. I love my job.”
BY FRAN MILLER
SHE’S A SOCIAL ACTIVIST WHO BELIEVES TEACHING IS A SACRED ART
Although Meg Honey, 37, lives five minutes from her childhood home in Walnut Creek and teaches at her alma mater, Northgate High School, in her work’s global reach, she’s a world traveler. Leading students through US history, government and economics at Northgate or developing future educators at Saint Mary’s College in Moraga where she is a lecturer, Honey believes social media is a powerful platform that connects history to contemporary issues. “Facebook, Instagram and other social media allow young people to share insights and give feedback in a language they understand,” she says.
Honey’s life story includes growing up with a twin sister. “She’s my soulmate, my best friend.
A typical day includes delivering her children, ages two-and-a-half and four, to preschool while her husband, Kevin Honey, heads to his job as Principal at Sequoia Middle School. After three classes at Northgate, afternoons lecturing at SMC extend into the early evening. Back at home by 8:30pm, it’s time to grade papers and plan coursework. “Sojourn work happens in the pockets,” she says. “Grandparents and in-laws are vital to solving the puzzle of childcare.” We push and inspire each other every day.” Honey earned her Master's Degree in US History at San Jose State University. While traveling in the South on a National Endowment grant to research the Civil Rights movement, her passion for social justice was set aflame by a walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge and a visit to Little Rock Nine Central High School. Today, as Director of Communications for Sojourn to the Past, a social justice and Civil Rights education program, Honey says she’s conscious of being a white woman interested in African American history. “I know my white privilege, which is a challenge that continues to teach me. I’ve been received with questioning, but activism comes in many forms. If I can spread the Civil Rights story, I’m going to do it.”
To maintain her high-level performance, Honey says, “I surround myself with strong women. And my children are an awesome responsibility that remind me that teaching is a sacred art. The ritual of engaging with others and the young people I work with every day keeps my fire burning.”
BY LOU FANCHER
SHE TAKES THE MEANING OF THE WORD PHILANTHROPIC TO A WHOLE NEW LEVEL
Retirement for Angie Coffee is busier in many ways than her days as senior managing director of First Republic Bank. In her relentless philanthropic pursuits, Coffee, age 69, serves as president of the Diablo Regional Arts Association, is a member of the East Bay Leadership Council Board and the John Muir Foundation Advisory Board, and an ardent advocate for the arts on both coasts. She also finds time to travel and care for her beloved six-year-old grandson Vincenzo.
Born in New York City and raised in Tucson, Coffee attended the University of Arizona and went on to complete the Pacific Coast Banking School Graduate Program of Management Education. She then spent 14 years as senior vice president and regional manager for Civic Bank of Commerce, nine years as senior vice president and managing director with Greater Bay Bank, and in 2007, joined First Republic. She has lived in Walnut Creek since 1972 and feels fortunate to call the area home. Though her impressive curriculum vitae lists multiple professional accomplishments and volunteer efforts, the humble and self-effacing Coffee is most proud of her family. She is mother to Chris, an architect in Oakland and Vincenzo’s dad, and Matt, a graphic designer in Concord. She has been married to Pete Coffee for 43 years. “I am blessed,” she says.
She loves the East Bay’s hiking trails and open space, and the many opportunities to experience the arts. Her typical day begins with a walk along the Lafayette-Moraga Regional Trail, and might include a visit to a Bay Area museum, or a volunteer stint at Vincenzo’s elementary school. She’s an avid reader who loves to cook and explore Walnut Creek’s great restaurants: Prima, Va de Vi, Lark Creek and the café at Neiman Marcus are among her favorites.
Her inventory of accolades includes recognition by Assemblywomen Catharine Baker as the 2015 Woman of the Year for the 16th Assembly District, a 2014 Most Influential Women in Business award from the San Francisco Business Times, and the Kennedy Laureate Award by John F. Kennedy University in 2014. The list goes on, but Coffee must excuse herself for what matters most; it’s time to pick-up Vincenzo.
BY FRAN MILLER
SHE’S A SAVVY LEADER WITH HIGH FLYING BUSINESS ACCUMEN
President & CEO of the East Bay Leadership Council (EBLC), Kristin Connelly was born at Kaiser Walnut Creek and raised in Martinez, and is leading the charge at an organization aimed at boosting the area’s economic vitality while maintaining residents’ high quality of life. “Walnut Creek is a fantastic hub and connection point for diverse, interesting people and organizations. Our office moved from Concord to Walnut Creek in March and it’s great to be close to BART and connected to city leaders in all sectors of the economy,” she says.
Growing up in the East Bay, Connelly says her parents inspired her broad-lens perspectives. “We had a laminated world map covering our kitchen table. It was a place for talking about the world and being civic minded.” In college, participation in the California Association of Student Councils solidified her “basket of leadership skills.” After working in the non-profit sector, Connelly earned a Master’s Degree in Public Policy and attended Fordham Law School before becoming an employment lawyer. Applying her expertise to education reform, civil rights, public health, good government and other social justice applications, Connelly assumed leadership of the EBLC in 2014.
Her organizational goals include aligning the education system to support the workforce needs of the community, improving income mobility by connecting the East Bay’s community colleges to local businesses, and solving the discussion around a half-cent sales tax increase initiative. “We need to develop housing near transit hubs,” she says. “And support both businesses and environmental groups by thinking collaboratively.”
Balancing her days with work and family, Connelly leaves her Lafayette home at 7:40am to drop her two children, ages seven and ten, at school. Meetings begin 20 minutes later, and from then on it’s full-throttle through the business day and home by 6pm. She and her husband, T.J. Connelly, remain “unplugged” until the kids are in bed. “My refueling comes from reading aloud to my kids every day. And quiet time with my husband. Simple things mean a lot to me.”
BY LOU FANCHER
SHE’S A FOCUSED ENTREPRENEUR WHO LIKES TO THINK ON HER FEET IN THE OPEN SPACE
If you spot a blonde woman with a German pointer running past you on a trail in the Open Space, it may not look like it, but she’s hard at work. A modern-day multitasking wonder woman, Walnut Creek resident Katy Grant heads an event-planning business with an impressive clientele of A-list tech companies. She’s also a married mom with two young children ages seven and nine, and a board member of the Walnut Creek Education Foundation. Katy credits her husband Doug with making it possible for her to juggle multiple roles. “We family job share,” she says. “I take the kids to school. He picks them up and runs them to activities.” Taking advantage of her self-employed status, Katy works from a home office. And when the going gets tough, she heads to the Open Space. “I call it my outdoor office,” she says with a laugh.
After graduating from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo as a Recreation/ Business Events major, Katy planned on travelling in Europe. But during a visit with a friend in Seattle, she started working as a temp for an event-planning company whose main client was Microsoft. “This was 1995 and the launch of Microsoft Windows. It was huge,” she recalls. Soon after she met Doug and eventually moved to the Bay Area. “My husband is from Illinois and likes the old growth trees and the personality of the older homes in Walnut Creek. We both value the proximity to open space. And the schools are great.”
The home-centric lifestyle provides Katy with a counterbalance from the pressures of handling multi-million dollar corporate events. In the twelve years since she and her business partner Betsy Johsmiller founded their company Event Alchemy, Katy’s had to contend with a hurricane forcing an event cancellation, a truck full of folding chairs catching on fire en route to an event, a CEO changing an event theme 48 hours before it started, and a rainstorm prompting a beach event for 6000 people to be moved into a nearby convention center. “There are a lot of opportunities for things to go wrong. There are times when you plan it, and it doesn’t happen. Other times it gets postponed, and you have to plan it all over again.” So when you see her in the Open Space, realize you’re seeing a businesswoman hard at work, Walnut Creek-style.
BY DEBORAH BURSTYN
ANGELA DE LA HOUSAYE
SHE’S A CHARISMATIC ATTORNEY WHO TAKES PRIDE IN SERVING HER COMMUNITY
Angela De La Housaye’s energy seemingly has no bounds. As the founding attorney at De La Housaye & Associates, with offices in Walnut Creek, San Francisco and Los Angeles, she oversees a staff of 13, while also spending countless hours as a community volunteer and advocate. The list of her civic and philanthropic involvements is vast. Highlights include: former chair of the Walnut Creek Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors, Walnut Creek on Ice co-chair, Walnut Creek Downtown board member, Shadelands Business Owners Group facilitator and co-founder, founder of the City Coalition Group, and co-chair of the Small Business Task Force for East Bay Leadership Council co-chair.
But for De La Housaye, these involvements are not simply networking opportunities. She cares deeply about the city in which she lives and works, and giving back is a personal choice. “Yes, I stay very busy,” she says. “But it’s a conscious decision to make the time and go all in, in order to leave our community a better place. I strive to participate in opportunities that will have long lasting impact.”
With a family full of attorneys––grandfather, father and uncles––De La Housaye was practically destined for a legal career. She received her Juris Doctor from Loyola Law School in 1989 and in 2000 started her own firm in Los Angeles. Family brought her to Walnut Creek, where she opened what is now her main office at the corner of Civic and North Main. De la Housaye and her staff attorneys focus on business law and civil litigation, and specialize in employment, real estate and mergers and acquisitions. Her firm was recognized by the Walnut Creek Chamber of Commerce as 2016 Small Business of the Year.
Full days begin with an early morning trip to the gym, and might include business development meetings, lunch with clients, board meetings and firm operations and management. She recently began using Twitter for sharing legal news. “Social media is not a strength for many law firms,” she says with a laugh. “If I can engage a new audience with interesting information about legal issues, then it becomes a valuable resource.”Down time might be lunch or dinner at two of her favorite local restaurants, Sasa and Pomegranate. And then there are her three boys: 15-year-old Nico, 22 year-old Dylan, and 24-year-old Matthew. "My job is pretty demanding, but my son Nico keeps me grounded. I love to go to his water polo games at De La Salle. I carry snacks and yoga pants in my trunk for his sports events. I love my work,” says De La Housaye, “But what I most love is spending time with my kids.”