Walnut Creek Women
Walnut Creek Women
They’re funny, bright and driven. They’re accessible, warm
and effective. And they work in vastly different fields. Meet three inspiring
local leaders who make the city great.
By Fran Miller
Photography by Jessica Freels
Kathleen Odne – Executive Director
The Dean & Margaret Lesher Foundation
After 23 years at the helm of The Dean & Margaret Lesher Foundation, Kathleen Odne knows a thing or two about the mechanics of Contra Costa County – both the challenging and the inspiring. In her role as executive director, Odne oversees the Lesher Foundation’s clear and simple mission: to enhance the quality of life for county residents. Children and families, education, visual and performing arts, philanthropic support, and capital grants all are areas of focus. “My job allows me to see this county on a whole different level,” she says. “There are great obstacles, but there are also wonderful opportunities to make a difference.” Odne’s ‘glass-half-full’ attitude has served her well in the position from which she prepares to retire in June. “There are so few opportunities to move the needle within a community and to make a difference,” she says. “But I’ve been fortunate to see firsthand the positive change effected by the Lesher Foundation.” The longtime Walnut Creek resident admits her job has been at once challenging, rewarding and vexing, but ultimately it’s exciting.
When she is not responding to the multitude of grant applications received by her office, Odne is seeking ways to improve the lives of residents in the community. Case in point–rather than simply applying a monetary Band-Aid, Odne led an effort to install solar panels at the Contra Costa Food Bank’s Concord facility, increasing the organization’s efficiencies and ability to feed greater numbers of people. “Kathleen's greatest strength is her understanding of the role the Lesher Foundation can play in creating collaborations,” says Larry Sly, executive director of the Food Bank. “She listens to those who deliver services in local communities and looks for thoughtful ways to help. Kathleen cares deeply about her community.”
Her ‘triple-threat’ expertise in public education (she was a high school civics teacher), finance (she previously worked in medical equipment sales), and foundations (she has a master’s degree from Indiana University’s School of Philanthropy) has provided Odne with the expertise necessary to comprehend and take-on a multitude of issues. Added to the mix are managerial skills gained from raising three boys who are now grown men. Her fulltime career with the Lesher Foundation began when her children were very young, and she concedes it was difficult juggling a career with parenthood. “There’s really no perfect balance,” she says. “You have to take things day by day. Women need to give themselves permission to follow their own paths and not judge the choices of others. I’ve been a stay-at-home mom, and I’ve been a working mom. Having done both, I understand how hard it is.”Upon retirement this summer, she looks forward to more time for family, exercise and travel with her husband John. She leaves her role with optimism and great faith in the Lesher Foundation’s family leadership. “I have been so fortunate to work and raise my family in this wonderful community,” she says. “When you work in a field you love, it’s not really work is it?”
Interim City Manager, City of Walnut Creek
It’s a long way from Florida to Walnut Creek, but Fran Robustelli’s cross-country journey has been buoyed by support and mentorship. Currently serving as Walnut Creek’s interim city manager, Robustelli was a biology major at the University of Florida when she met her Livermore Valley-rooted husband and moved with him back to the Bay Area. Once here, she worked for 16 years in human resources for the Dublin San Ramon Services District, then moved on to the City of Hayward for a four year stint in Human Resources. From there her career path led to Walnut Creek, a city she now calls home, and a new role as assistant city manager. Today as the interim city manager, Robustelli is highly regarded as a warm, approachable, and open-minded leader.
Robustelli credits her management style to the mentors in her professional life, and to her husband who shares the family duties 50/50, which enables her to work fulltime while raising three boys. “I’ve always had a good support system,” she says. “But I’ve also never been shy about seeking work cultures that value family and allow for some give and take. If I could provide one piece of advice to other women, it would be to seek a work environment that endorses a family-friendly culture. I do believe that you can have it all; you just might not be able to have it all at the same time.”
Employees agree that Robustelli’s optimism and passion for employee development are unparalleled, as is her generosity. She frequently mentors women to help them achieve their goals. “Fran is smart, driven, progressive and always looking to implement creative ideas and solutions,” says longtime employee Sarah Monnastes, a risk management analyst for the City of Walnut Creek. “She values employee input and provides a platform for the sharing of ideas or concerns; even if she doesn't agree. She sees her staff's potential and pushes and encourages them to be better—to be more. She gives credit where credit is due, and her word is as good as gold.”
“I do believe for everyone that the sky is the limit, and that anything is possible,” says Robustelli, citing her own transition from the study of biology to public service. “Any good company should invest in its best resource, and I believe people are always the best resource,” she says. “Give back, give often, and pay it forward— that’s my motto.”
Passionate About People
As a successful restaurateur, Rolla Ghaben’s passion for good food is evident. Her popular Walnut Creek spots, Mel’s Diner and Broderick (formerly Hubcaps), serve hearty portions of delicious comfort fare to loyal diners. Cuisine aside, Ghaben’s true craft is her skill with people. Warm, kind and funny, she’s the boss employees dream about. And she spreads that love across northern California at each one of her 16 restaurants (owned and operated with her two brothers) with more than 400 employees who celebrate her hard work ethic and hands-on approach. Ghaben knows every single one of them, and their children, by name. Each gets full medical benefits, a 401K program and a competitive salary. “I consider all of our employees to be part of an extended family,” says Ghaben, who has two teen boys of her own. “It sounds crazy, but we all get along.”
“Rolla is simply fun to be around,” says Lisa Prather, a 15-year employee and supervisor at Broderick. “She’s definitely the boss, but she’s easy-going and down-to-earth, and we love it when she’s in-house. It’s obvious she loves what she does.” Ghaben can often be found seating diners, serving dishes, or helping in the kitchen. “I love this business and I love being a valued part of the community,” she says.
Firm, fair and funny is how Kevin Watson describes his boss. A 17-year employee and manager at Broderick, Watson once tried his hand at other restaurants, but soon came back into the Ghaben fold. “I thought the grass was greener,” says Watson. “But Rolla creates such a great working environment where employees are truly valued. And it says a lot about her that the door was always open for me to return.”
The restaurant biz is not an easy one: long hours, few days off and physical exertion are mandatory. Ghaben admits she has missed her share of her sons’ lacrosse and baseball games, and she is quick to credit her mother-in-law for the incredible care provided to her boys during their early years. It is this personal appreciation for family support that perhaps allows Ghaben to fully understand the needs of her employees—many of whom work several jobs or care for others. “I try to provide a stable yet flexible workplace where people can focus and grow,” says Ghaben. “If our employees are happy, we are all successful.”