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Women to Watch


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Photography by Katrine Naleid

All year, we’re on the lookout for stories about East Bay residents who are doing outstanding things. For this month’s women’s issue, we highlight five women who are breaking new ground in a variety of fields: sports, health care, publishing, technology education, and the media. As Diablo’s 2008 Women to Watch, they’re not only dazzling us with what they’ve accomplished so far, they will continue to amaze us in the future.

Kelly Corrigan - After publishing a best-selling memoir about surviving cancer, Corrigan is working on the screenplay and writing new works about faith.

These days, the only health matter troubling Kelly Corrigan is a standard-issue sore back. That will be a relief to anyone who gobbled up The Middle Place, her memoir about surviving breast cancer while raising two small children and experiencing the classic rude awakenings of midlife. In The Middle Place, Corrigan realizes her parents’ mortality and faces her own incontrovertible adulthood.

This 40-year-old mother had just begun her own cancer fight when her beloved father back in Philadelphia, George, was diagnosed with bladder cancer. A few pages spun from a sleepless night of trying to cope formed the germ of a book that’s as much about the decent, ordinary people who raised her as it is about cancer.

“Part of the thrill of putting my parents out there in the world was to celebrate the uncelebrated,” Corrigan says. “These simple people who did a good job as parents.”

The solid values they instilled led her to spend 10 years working for nonprofits like the United Way. Her childhood also must have included a lemonade stand or two, because she knows her way around the business of turning sour fruit into sweet succor. Her website, www.circusofcancer.org, offers advice on helping your loved ones through cancer. And she’s in hot demand on the fundraising circuit for cancer research and outreach programs. It’s easy to see why: There’s nothing Pollyannaish about this lovely, irreverent woman, but after meeting her, you feel fortified.

Her many fans—the sweet, sassy book hit The New York Times best-seller list a few weeks after its January release—will also be cheered to hear that Corrigan is not done with writing. “I thought it was going to be like exercise, where I’d only like it when I was through,” she says with a wide grin. “But I love it.”

She weighs in on the issue of faith in this month’s O magazine and may expand that into a book. Her most important intended audience? Her own daughters, Georgia, six, and Claire, five. “I just want to give them a worldview, tell my kids what I believe is true.”

After writing about faith, there may be fiction in Corrigan’s future, and The Middle Place has been optioned for film, with the author herself taking a crack at the screenplay. Whatever comes next for Corrigan is likely to be as dynamic as the woman herself. 

Jessica Aguirre - Now at NBC-11, Aguirre has ushered in a high-tech broadcast that is shaking up the way TV delivers the news.

It’s 5 p.m. in San Jose’s NBC-11 studios, and Jessica Aguirre is doing the nightly news. Her news anchor appearance differs from any other anchor’s only in that she is standing right in front of the camera instead of sitting behind a desk. The veteran television journalist runs through the day’s top stories—including the hotly contested presidential primaries—with the usual combination of enthusiasm and professional remove. But when Aguirre gets to a story about controversial budget cuts that would halt sports and music programs in Alameda County schools, her manner changes slightly.

“Are these cuts excessive? What will students do without these programs?” she asks. She invites viewers to post comments in the NBC11.com chat room. “We’ll read your responses on the air.”

If you’ve never before heard of a news anchor asking for viewer input during a broadcast, that’s because NBC-11 did it first. Aguirre, 44, was the first anchor in the country to lead an interactive live newscast, a new media experiment that her Silicon Valley station launched last June. The interactive program allows viewers to contribute opinions as well as news content: During the torrential rains of early January, viewers’ cell phone photos and videos helped the station report storm damage around the Bay Area. Aguirre spends commercial breaks in the chat room, posing questions to viewers, and wraps the show by reading their comments.

It’s been nearly a year since Aguirre moved to NBC-11 from ABC-7, after spending a decade at the San Francisco powerhouse. Last March, ABC management dropped a bombshell on Aguirre—the station would not extend her contract when it ran out at the end of the year. Meanwhile, NBC-11 was looking for an experienced anchor to launch its high-tech newscast—and it went after Aguirre. When she took the offer, Channel 7’s management immediately fired her. The situation was awkward, but she says she found a lot of support in the community.

“It was in the papers, and people were coming up to me saying, ‘I’m so, so sorry,’ ” she says. “My youngest daughter asked, ‘You were fired?’ I had to say, ‘Yes, but it’s OK. …’ ”

Aguirre and her husband, Jay Huyler, sold their house in Walnut Creek and relocated to Pleasanton, where they found a new school for their two girls. Aguirre hit the ground running at NBC-11 and now coanchors the station’s 11 p.m. news as well as anchoring the 5 p.m. news. The latter’s interactive format was an instant hit, and within months, it was being copied at network affiliates across the country.

“The format is exciting,” says Aguirre. “I’ve never anchored alone before. Add in the interactive element, and it really raises your game.” 

Kate Dwelley - Already a member of the U.S. swim team, Dwelley hopes to make the Olympic team at time trials in July.

Farm kids often get up at the crack of dawn and help with chores. Growing up on her father’s Brentwood sweet corn farm, Kate Dwelley was up before the sun, but she wasn’t out in the fields: She was headed to swim practice.

Those early tolls of the alarm clock helped create one of the best swimmers in the nation. In 2004, as a 15-year-old freshman from Liberty High, Dwelley went to the Olympic trials in Long Beach and missed a spot on the U.S. team by less than a quarter of a second in the 200-meter freestyle. Now, four years later, she’s a 19-year-old Stanford freshman preparing to take another crack at qualifying.

Dwelley began swimming at age three and joined the Concord Terrapins club team at six. By the time she graduated from Liberty High in 2007, she held numerous titles and records. As a swimmer at Stanford, she helped break the World University Games record in the 800-meter freestyle relay last summer in Thailand, and in February, she won the Pac-10 Championship in the 200-meter freestyle. In June, she heads to the Olympic trials in Omaha, where she’ll be competing against former Olympians such as Dana Vollmer and Concord’s Natalie Coughlin for a trip to Beijing.

Her success may have raised expectations, but Dwelley keeps a level head. She’s a world-class swimmer with a 3.3 GPA, but she’s also a cheerful freshman who laughs constantly, loves ice cream, and admits to being obsessed with Disney movies.

A key to her success is her unrelenting positive attitude, which she credits to the influence of her late grandmother. Dwelley certainly didn’t let missing out on the Olympic team on her first try drag her down.

“I was actually not disappointed at all, because I wasn’t expecting [to make the team],” Dwelley says. “It was just a thrill to be in that position and have that chance. Since then, I’m kind of like, ‘Oh, man, I was so close,’ but it’s given me a lot of drive to get better.”

Roxanne Fernandes
- The onetime R.N.  leads UCSF’s nationally ranked  Children’s Hospital as it builds a new home and pioneers research in pediatric medicine.

Roxanne Fernandes may have the ambition of a corporate leader—she manages one of the most prestigious pediatric hospitals in the country while overseeing the building of an even better one in San Francisco’s Mission Bay neighborhood—but she has the practicality borne of nearly 30 years in nursing.

Reared in Dublin, Fernandes began her career as a registered nurse, working in hospitals throughout the East Bay before joining UC San Francisco Medical Center in 1999. She took on the position of executive director of the Children’s Hospital in 2000. The frontline experience she’s had caring for kids, she says, sets her apart from other executives. “I learned long ago that if you advocate for the best interests of children, a doctor, a CEO, or CFO—it doesn’t matter who it is—will listen to you.”

Fernandes works with a staff of hundreds, including a brain trust of 150 medical specialists in 40 different disciplines, top experts at dealing with a wide range of chronic or life-threatening illnesses that afflict kids. The hospital’s Mission Bay construction project has her shepherding along a 200-bed state-of-the-art facility, slated to open in 2014.

Despite Fernandes’s long list of responsibilities, the kids in her hospital come first. Fernandes hopes to help her staff break ground in crucial medical research, cracking the long-standing enigmas of cerebral palsy and birth brain injuries. “I get excited to think I’ll actually live to see improvements in these areas,” she says.

Her strength, she says, comes from her mother, who raised her while managing the hardware department of a local Sears Roebuck. Fernandes describes her as a feminist before the popular coinage of the term. “My mother had quiet but strong convictions about what each woman should be,” Fernandes says. “We both see obstacles as a chance to make things better.” 

Anita Khurana - Khurana nurtures future tech visionaries by letting kids play with computers and LEGO robots.

By teaching kids to build robots, design computer games, and produce podcasts, Anita Khurana is getting them excited about science, engineering, and the kind of creative thinking that inspires future entrepreneurs and lifelong learners.

Khurana’s VisionTech is a nonprofit Tri-Valley–based company that offers after-school programs and summer technology camps at more than 20 elementary schools and eight city recreation centers around the Bay Area. Khurana herself is a creative thinker. Trained as a biologist in her native India, she became a self-taught tech whiz and started VisionTech in 2002 after her homeschooled fifth-grade son wanted to enter a robotics tournament. Even in our tech-savvy pocket of the Bay Area, prospective teammates were few. “I just couldn’t find anybody in the East Bay who was interested,” she says.

She learned robotics herself and decided to start a class at Danville’s Green Valley Elementary. She continues to be one of the few women who teach robotics. “I have seen the kids look at me differently when I walk into the classroom. Everyone expects a man,” says Khurana, who hopes to get more girls to sign up for her classes.

Her venture at Green Valley Elementary was an instant success, and Khurana expanded VisionTech to other schools and to community recreation centers throughout the Bay Area. “When I begin teaching [both girls and boys] game design, you should see the look of amazement on their faces. I can’t get them to leave at the end of the lesson.”

One of her projects allows kids to make their own robot sentry. Using a programmable robot, students add a wireless web camera so that the robot has vision and can work as a house sentry, beaming images to them while they are away on vacation. “Robotics includes engineering and computer programming,” Khurana says. “The whole hypothesis of science is brought into understanding through robotics.”

Khurana is gearing up to offer VisionTech classes at several middle schools around the East Bay, including Danville’s Diablo Vista and San Ramon’s Windemere Ranch. But she’s not stopping there. She plans to take VisionTech to other cities (Los Angeles, San Diego, and Washington, D.C.), and to offer scholarships. She also plans to encourage local schools to integrate VisionTech programs into the regular school curriculum. “The kids are so brilliant,” she says. “With the kind of entrepreneurial skills we have in America, adding some technology education early on in life [will put us] on top of the world. I do believe that.” 

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