Women to Watch
These five East Bay women are making it big.
One of our 2007 Women to Watch is taking on our nation’s single most pressing issue—the Iraq War. Another is building cultural bridges between the East Bay and her native China. The other three are working to boost the East Bay’s economy, encouraging all of us to eat better, and giving us dazzling things to wear as we go about our daily lives and step out at night to have some fun.
These five heavy hitters represent the diverse ways that women are making our community—and the rest of the world—a better, more beautiful place to live and enjoy our work, health, and families. And we can’t wait to see what they’re going to do next.
In her first year out of high school, Darlene Ayers-Johnson was already a wife and mom. But as with all her big choices in life, Ayers-Johnson refused to give in to a stereotype. She stayed in the workforce—where she started as a $25-a-week cashier—and went on to build a career in several Bay Area industries and management positions traditionally barred to women and people of color.
Ayers-Johnson defied expectations in other ways, too. At 25, she survived cancer. In her thirties, she filed for divorce because she felt it was time “to live for myself, not other people.” She married again, to an administrative law judge, and became a Republican while living in the Democratic stronghold of Oakland. When she was in her forties, she left her business career to work for Governor Pete Wilson, running five departments, one of which rebuilt schools following the Northridge earthquake.
“I like to live life to the fullest, and I cannot be defined by title or category,” she says.
Her aversion to limits has led her to where she is today: an East Bay mover and shaker involved in a wide range of business, political, and nonprofit organizations. Now 64, she is determined to give back to her hometown, improve the East Bay’s business climate, and help disadvantaged women throughout the state. “I love shaping policy for the good of the public,” she says.
Ayers-Johnson is executive director of the nonprofit Friends of Faith, which raises money for services for poor women with breast cancer, and was recently appointed to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Commission on the Status of Women.
Most notably, she’s in her seventh year as a commissioner for the Port of Oakland, which operates the nation’s fourth busiest container port as well as Oakland International Airport. As a commissioner, she has spearheaded a committee to display art in expanded Terminal 2 and will be involved in talks to possibly add a third terminal.
Ayers-Johnson has no intention of slowing down, but, not surprisingly, she won’t commit to any particular plan. She says she could do a lot of things—maybe go back to school or become a golf bum. “I don’t want to rule anything out,” she says. “Most people are afraid of change, and I’m not. Change is constant. If you’re shrewd and know how to handle it, it creates character.”
On a Sunday in February, Jingjing Xu stood at the front of Amador Valley High’s gym and welcomed more than 2,500 adults and children to the Tri-Valley’s fourth annual Chinese Cultural Day. She made a poised and glittering hostess in her red sequined gown—cinched at the waist with an embroidered phoenix—switching easily between Mandarin and English as she introduced groups of local kids and adults performing traditional dance and music.
Organizing this event is part of Xu’s mission to help fellow immigrants celebrate their Chinese heritage and share its customs with her adopted Tri-Valley community. Xu, who works as a venture capital funds manager, investment banker, and attorney, originally came to the United States as a student in 1987. She was completing her Ph.D. in international relations at UC Davis in 1989 when soldiers killed pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square.
In the wake of the attack, she decided to stay in the United States. After settling in Pleasanton in 2000, she noticed that she and her husband and daughter were among a growing number of Chinese settling in the Tri-Valley who didn’t want to lose their cultural identity. Four years ago, she founded the Chinese-American Cooperation Council, which promotes Chinese heritage in the East Bay and business exchanges between the United States and China. She also helped develop the council’s Chinese school, which holds weekend language and arts classes at Amador Valley High for more than 1,000 children, adults, and seniors.
With China transforming into a more open society and an economic powerhouse, Xu has been able to go home again—these days on business. She’s currently working on several projects related to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, including performances leading up to the games. She hopes to involve kids from around the East Bay and from Pleasanton’s Chinese school in some of those events. This dream will fulfill another part of her mission: “We are a global village, and to teach kids to be responsible citizens with global awareness—that’s my passion.”
The Wellness Warrior
For years, few people knew the owner of two of Walnut Creek’s most popular breakfast and lunch spots, Sunrise Bistro and Café. That’s because Cindy Gershen was too embarrassed to come out of the kitchen.Years of noshing on her restaurant’s pastries packed nearly 100 extra pounds onto her five-foot-three-inch frame. She struggled with one diet after another. Then, about eight years ago, she and her husband, Lance, a local pediatrician, hit on a simple formula: eat reasonable portions of healthy food and become more physically active.
Gershen lost those 100 pounds and, at age 51, feels stronger, healthier, and more attractive than at any other time in her life. “I love my body now,” she says.
These days, Gershen has come out of the kitchen to share her philosophy and is leading Walnut Creek’s Wellness City Challenge, a community-wide effort to change attitudes about food, physical fitness, and lifestyle, especially among children. “I think Walnut Creek can pull together and say that we care about our kids and eating healthy.”
Gershen’s involvement in the community began three years ago, when she started a cooking show for Rossmoor’s video club to teach seniors simple ways to prepare nutritious meals. She then began working with the Walnut Creek School District to initiate lunchtime student walks and nutrition education classes—a program that could improve the habits of 25,000 students and their families.
She also works with the district to provide more nutritious cafeteria meals. In addition, she is showing the city’s restaurants that it doesn’t hurt profits to stop using trans fats and processed foods. She holds up her own restaurants as a model. Sales went up after she “cleaned up” her menus, cut portions, and began offering healthy choices.
Gershen’s campaign may be going statewide. After hearing her speak in February, State Senator Tom Torlakson and Assemblyman Mark DeSaulnier invited her to share her message with legislators in Sacramento—which is fine with Gershen. “It starts with our schools, our city, and it goes from there,” she says. “The message doesn’t stop at our city’s borders.”
In 1989, Oakland-born Mary Frances Shaffer left commercial real estate to turn a purse-making hobby into a full-time career. Mary Frances Accessories has since become one of the few female-founded brands (including Kate Spade and Judith Leiber) to fuel a growing demand for stylish arm adornment. Shaffer crafts her bags with beads, buttons, stones, and other embellishments, and, like any artist, infuses each of her designs with her unique vision.
Shaffer’s Lafayette-based firm, which has annual sales averaging $10 million, was touted as one of the fastest growing private companies in the Inc. 500 in 2005 and 2006. In 2004, Shaffer beat out Cole Haan and Francesco Biasia for the coveted title of Accessory Designer of the Year, bestowed by the prestigious Dallas Fashion Awards. “I don’t rest on my laurels,” Shaffer says of her drive. “I produce new designs on a regular basis. That keeps [shoppers] excited.”
It also keeps her busy. The Orinda resident scours the globe to find inspiration for the 250 styles she designs annually. When they hit local boutiques, such as What’s in Store in Danville, loyal fans snap them up. The frenzy extends well beyond the East Bay. Her bags have been spotted in the clutches of such red-carpet divas as Teri Hatcher, Eva Longoria, and Jessica Simpson. And like many of her celebrity customers, Shaffer has her own fan club. The Mary Frances Purse Club is made up of 172 collectors from all over the country who dote on her totes. These collectors might own 40 or 50 of her handbags, some of them just to put on display. Karen Pellouchoud, the owner of a Las Vegas–area boutique where club members gather four times a year, says Shaffer is “just as sweet as she is talented. She has said that her motivation is keeping her loyal [all-female] employees and their families secure.”
Fans are excited about the new Mary Frances Street Collection of more casual day bags made from fine leathers, suede, and exotic fabrics, as well as other accessories such as beaded denim jackets, belts, scarves, cell phone cases, and cosmetic mirrors. In August, she’ll introduce a fall line of accessories inspired by her travels in Indonesia. As for what comes next, Shaffer will follow her inspiration, she says, adding that she has toyed with the idea of creating shoes and costume jewelry.
Washington, D.C., has been an inhospitable place for Democrats for nearly a decade, but that didn’t stop Congresswoman Ellen Tauscher (D-Walnut Creek) from becoming a Beltway power broker.
A native of Newark, New Jersey, Tauscher was the first member of her family to attend college, and at the age of 25 she became one of the first women to hold a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. She moved to the Bay Area in 1989 and seven years later ran for Congress against Republican incumbent Bill Baker because she thought the district needed “more moderate” representation. Tauscher won and went on to carve a niche in Congress as a moderate willing to work in a bipartisan fashion. This approach led her to be elected chair of the influential New Democrat Coalition and to be recognized as one of “the 50 most powerful people in politics” by George magazine in 2001, despite being in the minority party. Now, thanks to the Democrats’ victory in November, she’s no longer in the minority.
Since the election, Tauscher has taken criticism from some organizations that see her as too moderate, but her power has increased. She is now the chair of the Strategic Forces subcommittee of the Armed Services Committee, giving her authority over about $56 billion of defense spending. She is only the third woman in history to chair an armed services subcomittee. Tauscher is also the senior Bay Area representative on the Transportation Committee. She says transportation is the East Bay’s most pressing issue. “We have a fabulous topography here in the Bay Area, some of the most beautiful area in the world,” she says, “but it’s difficult to traverse.”
The only thing more difficult to traverse than our geography is the politics of the war in Iraq. Although Tauscher voted to authorize the war in 2002, she now believes that the way to achieve a solution is not through military action but through political accommodation and regional diplomacy. She says that if the president does not follow this path, “Congress is going to have to look for ways to wall off funding [and] authority from him.” In March, she introduced a bill to limit the president’s power and force a phased withdrawal of troops.
Even with a showdown looming between Congress and the president, Tauscher continues to work in a bipartisan fashion. She insists that a moderate approach to legislation “doesn’t mean that it’s not progressive legislation, clear-ly written by Democrats. That’s really what I support.”