Women to Watch: Think Tank
Women who bring ideas into action.
Illustrations by Chi Birmingham
Sometimes, a thunderbolt of inspiration strikes. Sometimes, one idea leads to another. For all these women, an idea turned into a solution. They’re a generation of innovators—women of creativity and courage who are changing the way our world works. And they’re doing it from right here in the East Bay.
— Anya Fernald set out to prove humane agriculture can work on a big scale. Belcampo offers a midsize model for raising and selling quality sustainable meat.
Belcampo / Oakland
• Anya Fernald’s goal with Belcampo is to build the first scalable, sustainable quality-food business. A lover of craft food—she founded Oakland’s Eat Real Festival—Fernald believes the country will only move away from industrialized food production if someone can prove that quality agriculture can be profitable beyond the farmers market. Her dream is that through vertical integration—owning every aspect of the chain of production—she’ll be able to create humane, delicious meat that entices the entrepreneur as much as the gourmet.
Cofounded with business partner Todd Robinson in 2011, Belcampo now sustainably manages farms in California, Belize, and Uruguay. At its Shasta Valley farm, Belcampo raises 12 species of animals on 12,000 acres.
Belcampo controls every part of the supply chain, from farm to table, making it unique among mid-sized producers. Belcampo can ensure the highest quality by controlling every part of the production process, from the temperature of its refrigerated transportation to the thickness of its cuts. Fernald calls her company’s approach “values-driven” farming. At its USDA–certified processing plant in Yreka, Belcampo ages beef a minimum of 21 days. Products like bacon, sausage, all-beef hot dogs, and duck confit are also made there, and soon the company will introduce a line of dry-cured meats.
Belcampo owns the distribution network that links its Shasta Valley farm to its Marin restaurant and meat shop.
Belcampo makes up inefficiency in running a medium-scale operation with what Fernald calls its “human scale”—the creativity and energy of its employees. “We’re small enough to run an order down and make a change,” Fernald says. “And you can actually get someone on the phone when you call who’s ready to solve
At Belcampo Meat Co. in Larkspur, which is both a restaurant and a butcher counter, the chef and the butcher collaborate to determine each week’s needs, reducing waste.
Customers can buy the usual cuts at the counter, but Fernald hopes people will try some lesser-known alternatives. For her mom’s birthday recently, she made chicken liver pâté and fried chicken hearts in butter. “There’s so much deliciousness to discover,” Fernald says.
How Belcampo Works
One: Own farms Two: Supply sustainable meat
Three: Own the distribution Four: Run a retail business
— Saint Mary’s Bethami Dobkin reached out to students, staff, and the community to get them talking about challenges and reinvigorate the college.
Saint Mary’s College / Moraga
• What does a Jewish woman know about running a college founded by the Christian Brothers? Plenty, it turns out. Since taking over as provost and vice president of academic affairs at Saint Mary’s College of California in 2008, Bethami Dobkin has reinvigorated a campus that was reeling from a negative accreditation report. Her efforts paid off this year when Saint Mary’s was named to the prestigious Colleges That Change Lives, the first time a Catholic institution made the 40-school list.
A Rocky Start
Just weeks after Dobkin took over as provost of Saint Mary’s, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), a major accrediting institution, issued a disquieting report. After a comprehensive evaluation, WASC concluded that Saint Mary’s was not fulfilling several of its missions, including its commitment to maintain a diverse campus rich with free-flowing ideas. The report faulted the school’s leadership. “They told us that we needed to start building the kind of inclusive community that’s central to our mission,” Dobkin recalls.
Fostering Effective Communication
Dobkin came to Saint Mary’s hoping to spark increased collaboration among students, faculty, and the community, and the report lent her effort new urgency. Guided by her belief that big problems are best solved through dialogue and engagement, she got the campus talking.
“My background in rhetoric helps immensely in modeling how to get beyond talk that is increasingly polarized. We can learn to understand the perspectives of others, learn to understand that they’re not necessarily challenging what we think. We can learn to understand people and to synthesize competing perspectives.”
Dobkin asked school administrators to pore over feedback from students. “It was a way to say, Let’s be realistic about what this campus environment is like. Where are some areas we need to improve?” Students helped define the scope of the shortcomings outlined in the WASC report, and town hall meetings with faculty and administrators brought additional needs to light.
“We had started an honors program that hadn’t come to fruition,” recalls Dobkin. “We had some good experiences that involved student travel that really could have used support. We had faculty scholarships that deserved greater recognition. We had specific student programs, high-potential programs, that needed to be scaled to the level where people were seeing an impact on the community.”
Keeping the Faith
Although Dobkin is Jewish, she also began linking the college’s push for a diverse community with its larger Catholic tradition. When the newly formed College Committee on Inclusive Excellence began drafting its vision statement, Dobkin insisted on including a line “acknowledging God in and among us.” When the committee presented its vision statement at a town hall meeting, a member of the Saint Mary’s community argued that words of faith might be alienating for some.
“What more powerful experience for students,” Dobkin poses, “than being able to talk about religion in a way that is mutually respectful and inclusive?” It’s a lesson she has learned many times since taking over as provost of a Catholic college. “There’s value in the perspective of someone who occupies different social spheres,” Dobkin says. “And really, what we’re about is bringing those spheres together.”
— Angela Blackwell wanted to promote community change on a larger scale. PolicyLink identifies effective grassroots work and transforms it into public policy.
PolicyLink / Oakland
• While serving as senior vice president of the Rockefeller Foundation in the 1990s, Angela Glover Blackwell saw a need: “I recognized that there really weren’t organizations devoted to doing policy from the wisdom and experience of community leaders.” She founded Oakland-based PolicyLink in 1999 to help “lift up what works.”
Take nutrition. In low-income communities, nutritious food remains out of reach for many residents. “There are no grocery stores, particularly in black communities,” says Blackwell. “These are places where it’s difficult to find a tomato.” The incidence of childhood obesity in the United States has doubled since 1980, and communities of color have been particularly hard hit. That’s a bleak picture, but PolicyLink shines a light on what works to encourage problem solving and spread existing solutions.
How does it work?
Identify Encouraging Community Solutions
In West Oakland, a notorious food desert, City Slicker Farms operates a stand where produce is priced on a sliding scale based on customers’ income. In cases of real need, the produce is free.
An urban garden can supply 30 percent to 40 percent of a family’s produce needs, and can yield between $500 and $2,000 in produce per family per year. With 16 percent of Oakland children—roughly 13,000—living in extreme poverty (defined as households with income below $11,057), urban gardening can be a real lifeline.
Lift Up What Works Nationally
In 2004, Pennsylvania invested $30 million from the state’s economic stimulus package to bring more grocery stores and fresh food outlets to low-income communities. To date, that $30 million investment has produced 5,000 jobs and given 400,000 people access to fresh fruits and vegetables. PolicyLink used Pennsylvania’s success to lobby the Obama administration for a national-scale version of the program. A direct result of its effort is the 2011 Healthy Food Financing Initiative, which has funded more than $77 million in projects to eradicate food deserts.
Use the Information Gathered to Encourage More Local Innovation
PolicyLink’s Healthy Food Access Portal, which went online this year, provides resources and important information on financing opportunities for community groups looking to start their own local programs aimed at promoting healthy eating.
— Julie Corbett hated the piles of wasteful packaging her family went through. Ecologic Brands makes eco-friendly bottles that use 65 percent less plastic.
Ecologic Brands / Oakland
Julie Corbett thought the waste-reduction program at her daughters’ school was great—until it turned into a contest. The class with the least amount of trash would win an ice-cream party. Corbett’s daughters began demanding she remove all potential trash from their lunches before school.
“It was ironic,” Corbett recalls. “Here the school is trying to mitigate waste, and I just end up throwing it out instead of them.”
Plastic packaging bothered Corbett the most. She recycled what she could, but the volume of plastic her family ran through seemed so wasteful. When she tried to shop smarter, Corbett found that she couldn’t avoid buying products encased in plastic. “I have at least 20 choices with every product I buy,” she says. “I have choices based on taste, freshness, size, even price. But I have no choice on packaging. I’m stuck with what they give me.”
Her Aha Moment
In parts of Canada, where Corbett grew up, milk is sold in pouches that contain about 75 percent less plastic than rigid bottles. To provide structure, consumers put their pouches in reusable carafes. It’s less convenient, but less wasteful. Corbett knew there had to be a compromise. When she brought home a new iPhone, it hit her.
“I opened up the box and saw this beautiful molded paper tray, which normally would be plastic. It was fiber, and it was shaped to be round and curvy. So I thought, What if you could start making bottles with this?”
That’s exactly what she did. Corbett’s bottle consists of a molded fiber shell surrounding a thin inner pouch. It can hold liquid or powder, and it uses about 65 percent less plastic.
Spreading the Word
Corbett patented her idea and put Ecologic Brands on the marketplace in 2011. At first, companies were wary. “It’s extremely hard to compete against plastic,” says Corbett. “Plastic is reliable, and it’s moldable. It locks in freshness, and it won’t leak. If you’re a brand, there’s a huge comfort in that.”
Eventually, companies saw the value in using a bottle that projected an eco-conscious image. These days, Ecologic Brands’ bottles hold detergent for Seventh Generation and protein powder for Bodylogix. More than two million bottles have been produced, and this summer, Ecologic Brands plans to open a new factory in Manteca that will have an initial production capacity of six million bottles per year.
— Lisa Dyson was concerned about the country’s overreliance on petroleum. Kiverdi taps a plentiful resource—trash—to provide a sustainable alternative.
Kiverdi / Berkeley
• Lisa Dyson figured out how to take something abundant—trash—and turn it into useful chemicals used in everyday products. With a Ph.D. in physics, Dyson is no stranger to big thinking. Kiverdi, the company she cofounded in 2008, is now primed to help reduce our reliance on petroleum, which is used to manufacture everything from plastics to detergent.
What problem did you set out to solve when you cofounded Kiverdi with John Reed?
Chemicals are used to manufacture products we use every day, and many are derived from petroleum. How do you replace petroleum sustainably and cost effectively, and in a way that can help consumers and companies change their practices?
It’s a big question with huge implications. Where did you start?
We started with waste, such as agricultural residue, wood waste, construction waste, or the waste you find in landfills. We realized that there was already this technology that could take solid waste and break down the material into the basic building blocks, the hydrogen and carbon that make up solids. We wanted to see if we could take those building blocks and turn them back into useful chemicals in a way that’s economically attractive.
You break the trash down and use the parts to make usable chemicals?
We use microbes that take gases, the broken waste, and synthesize these long molecules that can be used to make detergents, to make plastics, to make fabrics and fuel additives. Our innovation is that biological process, the microbes that take displaced gases as the input and make chemicals.
How long have you been studying microbes and chemistry?
I actually did research on string theory at MIT. A logical leap, right?
Why the change to applied biology?
What led me here was that I wanted to have a more immediate impact. String theory was revolutionary, but it would be a while before the impact was seen. We’re doing something innovative at Kiverdi, cutting edge. The questions we’re addressing could change society in a really positive way in the near future.
— Shelley Hunter wanted to make the act of giving feel more meaningful. Gift Card Girlfriend packages gift cards in a more thoughtful, creative way.
Gift Card Girlfriend / Danville
• Seven years ago, a reporter interviewed Danville resident Shelley Hunter about being a work-at-home mom. The reporter asked Hunter, then a freelance jack-of-all-trades, to describe the different projects she’d tackled since leaving full-time work—everything from teddy bear design to computer programming. At the end of the discussion, the reporter said something profound: “I get the impression that you’re planting seeds for future harvest.”
“I could have cried at the kitchen table when she said it,” Hunter recalls. “I thought, You’re right: My future harvest is coming.”
Hunter kept her eyes open for quirky projects. She designed a Rosie the Riveter teddy bear for a company that supplied toys to the U.S. Postal Service. “I just started moving into a creative space,” she says. “Once I have that seed planted, then I look around and start to research.”
Prepaid gift cards from various merchants were just becoming popular, and Hunter saw an opportunity. She presented a new idea to the teddy bear company: Why not design plush toys that serve as gift-card holders? The concept was well received, but it never got off the ground.
“In all honesty, I could look at every single project from that time as a failure,” Hunter says. “There were many times I thought I should just go get a job.”
But she persisted. Something about gift cards had been nagging Hunter. Then, it clicked.
“It was that lightbulb moment: This is it, this is what it’s been leading to.”
Hunter’s “harvest” came in 2009, when she founded Gift Card Girlfriend, a website chock-full of tips on how to give gift cards to friends and loved ones without seeming cheap or insincere. “There’s a moment when giving a gift card that just feels awkward,” Hunter explains. “There’s nothing to give, nothing to say.”
Gift Card Girlfriend solves that problem with creative presentation ideas and sage advice on everything from dollar amounts to the touchy subject of giving gift cards to children.
In December 2012, three years after Gift Card Girlfriend went live, Pittsburgh-based website, giftcards.com, approached Hunter about partnering. The company acquired her site earlier this year, and it has hired Hunter to stay on as the voice of its brand.
“You are zigging and zagging your way toward something,” Hunter offers, looking back on her winding path. “And if your something hasn’t come up yet, don’t stop. Keep experimenting.”
— Jennifer Pahlka saw real-world problems caused by government inefficiency. Code for America pairs tech geeks with public officials to create effective solutions.
Code for America / Oakland
• There’s nothing sexy about rooting out inefficiencies in Oakland’s City Hall. But that’s the task this year’s crop of innovation-minded fellows from Code for America—a kind of Peace Corps for computer geeks—has taken on with enthusiasm. Code for America is a yearlong service program that connects top computer coders with local governments. Each year, Code for America fellows investigate problems facing partner cities, dream up novel solutions, and then code community-minded apps to solve the problems.
Take Boston. In 2011, during Code for America’s inaugural year, fellows saw that fire hydrants were getting buried in snowstorms—a real problem for firefighters. Coders created Adopt-a-Hydrant, an app that allows Boston residents to pick a fire hydrant to dig out. The city encourages people to use the app through advertising on its website, and the app also spreads virally as residents tell their friends to participate. A version of Adopt-a-Hydrant is being used in three other cities, including in Honolulu, where residents sign up to check the batteries in tsunami sirens.
“Community can be part of a government’s capacity,” says Jennifer Pahlka, executive director of Code for America.
Pahlka’s aha moment came in mid–2009 when she was cochairing the Web 2.0 conference, an invitation-only summit for innovators in the web community. “We were meeting with people in Washington, D.C., about how government is using technology. It was such a contrast to the start-up world, where technology is adapted faster and at much lower costs.”
Outdated technology and inefficient procedures can make government ineffective. “Some of these processes are not just inefficient in an abstract way,” Pahlka explains. “People are held in jail who don’t need to be. People are hungry in the richest counties in the U.S. because it’s hard to figure out how to apply for benefits. Families are trying to get housing, and there are beds for the homeless that go unfilled because the reservation system is so wacky. Lives can be destroyed from bad systems and bad processes.”
Although Pahlka wanted to build a bridge between savvy technologists and local governments, she didn’t know how to get coders excited about fixing the shortcomings of bureaucracies. That’s when a friend told her about his experience as a Teach for America volunteer. The program enlists talented young educators to teach in underserved areas for a specific length of time. Teach for America gives volunteers valuable incentives, such as training and access to a professional network. Pahlka decided the same incentives might appeal to civic-minded coders.
Code for America received more than 550 fellowship applications for 28 spots in 2013, putting to rest any lingering skepticism about talented coders being willing to pass up lucrative jobs for a year of service. In addition to plans for revamping procurement processes in Oakland this year, fellows hope to untangle the city’s inefficient handling of Freedom of Information Act requests—good news for area journalists.
How Code for America
One: Identify a problem Two: Code an app
Three: Rally residents Four: Solve the problem