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Women to Watch

We call this year’s Women to Watch “Entrepreneurs With Heart” because each started a business that has meaning—to them personally and to other people. Sure, they’d like to make money, but they mostly want to pursue their own ideas to help other people and do some good in the world.


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Vicki Abeles / The Producer

Vicki Abeles was a high-powered attorney who practiced in the lucrative fields of corporate law and investment banking. Then, through friends, this Lafayette mother of three got the chance to help make a short film for education experts on how kids today are under intense pressure to succeed.

A career-switch lightbulb went off, and, with her new production company, Reel Link Films, Abeles entered the cash-starved field of documentary film. Like many others in this field, Abeles does not care about profits but about changing society.

With her first cinematic effort, she hopes to spark a national dialogue about the U.S. education system. She has seen how her kids and others suffer from being taught only what is covered on standardized tests, and how they are pushed to be superhigh achievers.

Her 45-minute film, its title pending, shows Abeles fighting with her son, now 10, over homework and reveals how she learned that her daughters were feeling stressed about school. It also examines the 2008 suicide of a seemingly happy, high-achieving Danville eighth-grader.

“I started the film company because I felt like I was surrounded by kids who were under a lot of anxiety and stress, and not being as engaged as they could be in education and learning,” she says. “There is a better way, and we, as a culture, have to redefine success for kids.”

Abeles gained access to struggling kids as well as to nationally renowned education experts. These experts back Abeles’ contention that our system—which demands that kids master concepts before they are ready and requires hours of nightly homework for Ivy League aspirants—is not just stressing out kids but churning out future generations who can’t think independently or creatively.

Abeles assembled a top-notch production team, including Julie McDonald of Oakland, a Pixar veteran and mom herself. Abeles is working to get the film into festivals, on the Internet, and in schools throughout the country. Abeles and McDonald also plan to give a trailer of the film to Obama education officials. Abeles says Reel Link’s next movie will focus on mothers who are trying to keep up with their overstretched kids.

“It’s a labor of love,” Abeles says of filmmaking. “It’s fun at our age to do something new. For my own kids, it’s nice for them to see how you can remake yourself.”  —Martha Ross


 

Cathy Bennett / The Memory Keeper

After the birth of her first child, Cathy Bennett bought paper and stickers, and sat down to create a baby book. But it wasn’t long before she gave up, discovering that preserving memories of motherhood takes time and energy away from simply being a mother.

“I called myself a scrapbook dropout,” she says, and after talking with other moms, she learned she wasn’t alone. “There is huge guilt for moms who haven’t made a baby book.”

Bennett, a former marketing executive, researched new photo and web technologies, and connected with designers. Five years later, the 44-year-old Walnut Creek mother of two is the founder of How Fast They Grow, a web-based digital scrapbooking company. Hailed by Real Simple, Daily Candy, and just about every parenting magazine, How Fast They Grow makes scrapbooking a cinch for busy moms who want to chronicle their baby’s precious moments—in a matter of minutes.

The site’s 11,000 members use drag-and-drop technology to place photos and text into 540 themed page templates—which are then printed on 12-by-12 card stock and shipped to members’ homes for $5.50 each. “I tell people: It’s half the cost of traditional scrapbooking, and a tenth of the time,” says Bennett.

Because users do not need to crop and glue, nor master a complicated graphics program, they can complete pages quickly. And, unlike bound photo books, these can be created one page at a time, growing as a child grows. One glance at the dozens of kudos from members, and it’s easy to see Bennett is delighting moms everywhere—and she’s only just getting started.

“So many women say to me, ‘This has solved a huge need in my life,’ ” says Bennett. “That is so gratifying.”   —LeeAnne Jones


 

Johanna McCloy / The Food Activist

Ten years ago, if you were at an Oakland A’s game and wanted to eat something healthier than a greasy beef hot dog or cheese-slathered nachos, you were out of luck.

Berkeley’s Johanna McCloy has changed all that. The commercial-actress-turned-activist started Soy Happy, a consumer advocacy service that has helped the A’s and 14 other ballparks add veggie hot dogs and other nonmeat, nondairy choices to concession stand menus.

The vegetarian’s crusade started in 2001, when she couldn’t find anything other than relish and sauerkraut to eat at a Dodgers’ game. McCloy got inspired and put the Dodgers’ concession manager in touch with vegetarian food distributors. A short time later, veggie subs and hot dogs became menu staples.

Soy Happy’s website, soyhappy.org, is now an information clearinghouse for consumers and vegetarian food distributors. Soy Happy encourages pizzerias, for example, to offer soy-based cheese pies on their menu. The Berkeley resident also worked on the 2003 campaign to require all California public schools to provide vegetarian lunch options.

“I want to empower people to speak up and to recognize that their voices matter,” she says. “I encourage them to communicate their concerns and suggestions to businesses. My point is: How will they know if you don’t tell them?”

Today, Soy Happy receives celebrity endorsements from Alec Baldwin and Alicia Silverstone. Although Soy Happy is essentially a one-woman operation, McCloy has enough drive and energy to push for vegetarian choices to become staples in other sports arenas, spas, conference centers, and restaurants. One veggie dog at a time.  —Miriam Wilson


 

 The Biodevas / The Environmentalists

This spring, in the weeks before opening what they call the “most sustainable filling station in the nation,” the owners of Biofuel Oasis in Berkeley were smoothing gravel in trenches they had dug themselves. In one trench, they had laid pipe to carry the biodiesel—made from recycled cooking oil—from a storage tank to their station’s two new fuel pumps.

The term “sweat equity” certainly applies to the effort these eco-entrepreneurs have put into refurbishing a historic 1933 gas station on Ashby Avenue. Because their worker-owned collective has a limited budget, they have done much of the trench digging and other construction themselves.

“We learned to do all this crazy man stuff,” says Novella Carpenter, who, like her four sister “biodevas,” has a white-collar day job—she’s a journalist. (Their spelling of devas is a nod to forest spirits.) “We’re all in much better shape. We call it the Oasis gym.”

Literally building the business is one of the empowering aspects of this operation, which they know won’t make them rich. “It’s like growing your own food. It involves a lot of work, so it becomes more precious,” Carpenter says.

Biofuel Oasis started in 2003 in a warehouse off Fourth Street. Founder Jennifer Radtke and another woman, who has since left the business, wanted to provide greater access to biodiesel, an alternative fuel that is cleaner than diesel. The operation now has around 2,700 customers and the five biodevas: Carpenter and Radtke, as well as Margaret Farrow, Ace Anderson, and Melissa Hardy.

In addition to digging trenches, building canopies to shelter the fueling pumps, and having solar panels installed, the women also overhauled their building to accommodate a shop that sells biodiesel supplies, and an area where they can hold classes on alternative fuels and urban farming. The women’s prior DIY experience involved raising their own chickens, rabbits, and bees.

They envision becoming a hub for locals who want to explore green lifestyle alternatives. “Our whole thing is to be a small business so we know our customers,” Carpenter says. “We want this building to be a community fabric that holds people together.”  —Martha Ross