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Making a Mark: Women to Watch

Jul 07, 2018 11:49AM ● Published by Fran Miller

Making a Mark


By Fran Miller and Robert Stankus
Photography by Jessica Freels


Get ready to be inspired. The five women profiled here are leading the way in their careers and communities.


TRAIL BLAZER

Catherine Aker

VP Communications & Community Relations, Oakland Athletics

 

As one of only two female vice presidents in Oakland A’s history, and the only woman to hold the title in the past 30 years, it’s fitting that Catherine Aker was selected by the San Francisco Business Times for the esteemed 2018 ‘40 Under 40 list.’ The Orinda resident and Sacramento native holds the coveted position of Vice President of Communications & Community Relations at the Oakland A’s where she leads communication efforts, oversees the community fund, and creates popular employee programs like the Front Office Speaker Series. Aker also initiated ‘Women of the A’s,’ a monthly networking group for female employees.

Aker got her start in professional baseball as an intern for the Arizona Diamondbacks while a student at the University of Arizona. “I started when the team was only four years old, and was given lots of opportunity to learn and grow,” she says. “At that time, we were able to create our own career paths.” In 2005, a new ownership group promoted Aker to director of corporate communications, a position she held for more than four years, during which time she earned her MBA at U of A.

After the birth of her first child, she ‘retired’ from the Diamondbacks, and moved with her husband and son back to Northern California. While raising her young family, now including a daughter, Aker founded Give Together, a nonprofit that creates volunteer opportunities for families with children. But MLB retirement didn’t last long. In 2015 she learned that the A’s were seeking a communications director and threw her cap back into the ring.

Aker acknowledges there are challenges in raising a five and six-year-old while working a 162 MLB game schedule, but she loves surrounding her kids with baseball. “I was able to bring Stomper to kindergarten career day recently,” Aker says. “My son thought that was pretty cool.”
Aker admits her demanding schedule only works because of her supportive husband Chris, a Silicon Valley techie. “Chris knows my busy times, like during spring training, and he moves his travel schedule to complement mine,” she says. “I simply could not do this job that I love, without a partner who helps out.” 


CHEF

Cindy Gershen
Culinary Instructor, Mt. Diablo High School

 

Hydroponic lettuce gardens grace Chef Cindy Gershen’s classroom at Mt. Diablo High School where this food futurist works tirelessly teaching kids how to cook healthy food. The founder of Walnut Creek’s Sunrise Bistro and the non-profit Wellness City Challenge, Gershen has set her sights and infinite energy on a much more ambitious endeavor—transforming the way kids eat. Her premise is simple: when kids eat well, they feel better, and when they feel better, they do everything better—school, sports, and life. And once they experience the benefits of being well-nourished, like doing better on a test after eating a good breakfast, students become believers.

To entice kids down the path of healthy eating, Gershen created the Sustainable Hospitality Program, an innovative curriculum in which students don’t just learn, they do. They plant, grow, and harvest produce in traditional campus garden beds and in high-tech vertical tower gardens. They prepare nutritious meals for other students, sports teams, and faculty members. And they teach, helping Gershen spread her wellness message to district elementary schools.

While education and skills are essential to developing good habits, Gershen understands that access to nutritious food is a deal breaker, especially for at-risk children. So she keeps her classroom door sharing trays of roasted vegetables, chicken, and fresh salads with hungry kids, grateful for the generous donations from Whole Foods Market and White Pony Express. Gershen’s passion, energy, and curriculum recently caught the attention of Lennar Homes Five Point Communities who is funding a media project that will broadcast her cooking lessons from a classroom studio this summer.  

Gershen’s journey began many years ago when she battled her own health and weight issues before adopting the heathy eating habits that transformed her body and career. Today it’s kids that fuel her passion, even as she struggles to take care of her husband who was recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. They inspire with words like, “You changed my life. I always eat breakfast. I always choose brown rice instead of white. I stay away from fast food.”
Change can’t come fast enough for Gershen. She’s witnessed the impact of teaching kids how to make better choices. She’s seen the pride they take in cooking and feeding people. She’s driven to create a food ripple that spreads and nurtures. And there’s no stopping her now.

ADVOCATE

Donna Colombo, Executive Director of Trinity Center


Vision, dogged perseverance, and genuine compassion drive Donna Colombo every day to exceed even her own expectations. After a successful career as a project manager in corporate training and development, Colombo decided to pursue her real calling—to help people without a home. Inspired by her mother’s last words, “go make memories,” Colombo and her team of volunteers, transformed the former Fresh Start into Trinity Center, a place where people in need can access a broad spectrum of services eight hours a day, five days a week.

At the helm of Trinity Center as Executive Director since 2012, Colombo has worked tirelessly to raise community awareness about homelessness and inspired support through donations, volunteerism, and grants. Currently serving between 50-60 individuals each day, Walnut Creek’s respite center offers basic safety net services—food, clothing, showers, laundry facilities, mail delivery, telephone service, and a safe place to rest. They also provide advocacy and referral services, and partner with Kaiser Permanente on behavioral health care. Nineteen security cameras monitor members, keeping the facility safe. Local church groups, White Pony Express, Loaves & Fishes and the League of Newcomers Club, among others, support Trinity’s work. “I believe the best way to get things done is to partner and to collaborate. If someone is already doing it, we don’t need to duplicate their efforts,” says Colombo.

A Walnut Creek resident for over 35 years, Colombo understands that homelessness is tied to economic vitality, housing, mental health, and public safety. In partnership with the WCPD, she created the Homeless Task Force in 2013, bringing key city partners together to find effective solutions for homelessness.

As Bay Area rents soar, Colombo points to the affordable housing crisis as the primary reason for the increasing numbers of people without a home. “We’re not talking about criminals, it’s not a crime to be homeless. Our members come to us from all walks of life. Many have kids and grandkids.” One of her greatest challenges is finding a place for Trinity’s members to sleep at night. “When the police clear out the camps, the people have nowhere to go,” Colombo says.

After six years of tireless perseverance and dedication, May 16 marked the groundbreaking of Colombo’s innovative housing project, St. Paul’s Commons on Trinity Avenue, a partnership with St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and Resources for Community Development. Uniting affordable housing units—44 studios and one bedrooms—with the services and resources required to elevate individuals out of poverty, St. Paul's Commons is a model for other communities. “We need to work together so projects like this one happen all over the Bay Area,” she says.



TREND-SETTER

Sandra Dudum

 CEO VICI

 

Sandra Dudum is a creative visionary. At age seven, well ahead of the Gatorade curve, she was making her own flavored juice blends. She went on to study at the Fashion Institute of Design in Los Angeles and after graduation landed a job with Guess. She then spent nearly 20 years as a stylist, curator, brand promoter, and buyer for Nordstrom, before marrying Rick Dudum and helping him conceive and create Bing Crosby’s restaurant.

“I’ve always been motivated to make things, bring people together, and share ideas,” says Dudum who founded Walnut Creek’s boutique clothing store VICI with her step-daughter Aimee. “It was post-recession when I was inspired to create the VICI brand. Consumers were cautious about spending and I sensed women’s desire for affordable fashion. So I curated a line that offers quality, affordable, on-trend styles for all ages and body types.”

Success was immediate for VICI; one store quickly grew to two. At her second location in Newport Beach, The Real Housewives of Orange County are regulars. Beyond the reasonable prices—99% of VICI items are $68 or less—Dudum says what sets VICI apart is an unwavering commitment to customer service and a zeal for social media marketing. She credits her talented team for VICI’s success, who work closely with customers to style outfits.

“We post 20 new looks each day on Instagram and Facebook so women can see how to style themselves,” says Dudum, who regularly jets back and forth between Walnut Creek and Newport. The company’s Instagram following is 350K strong and its office walls are lined with framed features from Harper’s Bazaar, InStyle, and Redbook.

“I’ve always had a passion for fashion, for trends, and for empowering women,” says Dudum. “And what’s more empowering than looking good and feeling good?”


CITY PLANNER

Sandra Meyer
Community and Economic Development Director, City of Walnut Creek

 

City leaders from around the world travel to Walnut Creek to glean ideas on how to replicate the city’s quality of life in their own communities. And there’s a good chance Sandra Meyer, Walnut Creek’s Community and Economic Development Director, has had a hand in the revered city planning. Since 1989, Meyer has played an integral role shaping the city’s present and future. She realized her civic calling at UC Davis, but after graduating amidst the Proposition 13 revolution, found few opportunities in city government. Instead, she worked for a developer of retirement communities and gained insight into the private sector’s perspective – lessons that have contributed to the “big picture” in her current role.

After a stint with the City of Fairfield, Meyer joined the City of Walnut Creek as an associate planner in a job share position while was raising her two boys. Working her way up the ranks, she went on to serve as the city’s planning manager before taking the director’s reins from Valerie Barone eight years ago.

During her 29-year tenure, Meyer has seen a lot of change, and she’s played a key role in creating it, most notably at the “Golden Triangle” Cal Plaza office park, BART station, Plaza Escuela, John Muir Medical Center, and many other places. She recalls there was a time when Walnut Creek was desperate for more traffic downtown. Vacant stores and empty streets in 1989 prompted the city to boost the downtown economy with an “Alive After Five” campaign, which turned into a successful partnership with the Lesher Center for the Arts.

What’s kept her here all these years? Meyer credits a city government and a community supportive of long range planning, providing opportunities to grow. “People generally don’t realize that planning is what distinguishes Walnut Creek from other communities,” she says. And while changes in growth policies, height restrictions, and zoning can alter plans, the longer term vision has remained intact.

In her role today, Meyer is focused on people and policy management, building a sustainable, skilled team, and working with the city manager and the council to inform and implement goals. She is also committed to the city’s future­—understanding that maintaining a high quality of life is dependent upon having the resources to maintain it. A changing world with fewer cars, fewer retail stores, and ultimately less sales tax revenue point to the need for new local economic stimulus. She loves her job, the people, and the good fortune to do work that makes a difference for generations to come.
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