Women Opening Minds
Enriching lives and inspiring change are all in a day's work for these four high achievers.
Shelly Kapoor Collins - Founding partner, Shatter Fund
One of the most profound things a human can do in her lifetime is to enlighten others, flipping a switch in someone’s head to open them up to a new world of possibilities. That monumental task takes a special kind of person—someone with an almost superhuman determination and dedication to helping people learn and achieve more than they’d ever dreamed they could. Diablo met four such women in our community. Whether they’re making higher education accessible to more females, empowering formerly incarcerated people to rebuild their lives, sparking young children’s imaginations, or shaking up the tech sector’s vision of what a viable business can be, these dynamos are breaking down barriers for the betterment of all.
Catalyst for Change
By Andrea Vasquez Nelson
Shelly Kapoor Collins has a virtual trophy case of career accomplishments: an impressive tenure at Oracle, prominent roles in campaigns for Barack Obama and former California attorney general Kamala Harris, an appointment to the President’s Council for Women in Business, and two of her own successful ventures—a human resources tech company called Enscient (now reincarnated as Tech Hill Advisors) and Shatter Fund, an investment firm for women-led companies.
Still, Kapoor Collins knows the feeling of being overlooked in a room full of men. She recalls a male venture capitalist pitching a company to a fellow investor—another man—who committed $1 million on the spot. Mission accomplished for the venture capitalist, but he left another opportunity on the table.
“They didn’t even ask me. If they would have asked, I would have said, ‘I’m in,’ but they didn’t even ask,” Kapoor Collins recalls over coffee at a café near her Danville home.
Kapoor Collins has seen women overlooked across the tech sphere, so in 2017 she launched Shatter Fund, which aims to help level the playing field among entrepreneurs. The firm focuses on technology companies and awards capital ranging from seed funding for young start-ups to multimillion-dollar Series A, B, and C funding for more established companies. As a female investor, Kapoor Collins recognizes the value of start-ups whose missions don’t always resonate with male venture capitalists. Among the ventures Shatter Fund has supported are Glam Squad, an app for booking in-home beauty services on demand, and UrbanSitter, which connects parents with babysitters and nannies who have been rated and reviewed by friends and local families.
Most businesses that Shatter Fund works with are in markets where Kapoor Collins’s own background is strongest: health tech, artificial intelligence, and financial tech. That allows them to benefit from the wisdom and relationships Kapoor Collins has acquired through more than 20 years in the Bay Area tech world, as she offers mentorship as well as financing. She’s also helping the next generation get a leg up: Kapoor Collins serves on a science and technology advisory council at Concord’s all-girls Carondelet High School and was instrumental in getting its forthcoming Jean Hofmann STEM Innovation Center built.
“[Women] are more than 50 percent of the population, but we don’t have the access to the basic infrastructure that we need to scale and start businesses,” Kapoor Collins says. “That includes access to capital, access to networks, and access to markets.”
Kapoor Collins hears occasional skepticism from both men and women that “these types of funds” are not needed, because most venture-capital firms supposedly invest in businesses led by entrepreneurs of all genders. But the data paints a different picture. Last year, 19 percent of the total global seed-funding dollars were invested in companies with at least one woman founder—and just 6 percent with female-only founders. Investors also tend to write smaller checks to female-founded businesses than to start-ups with at least one male founder.
Silicon Valley has been puzzling over gender equality for years, yet the disparity remains greater than the progress that’s been made. “It’s become mainstream dialogue,” Kapoor Collins says. “Our goal is to become mainstream action, and to help Silicon Valley really take notice that talking about it is not enough.”
Kapoor Collins can see the fund’s impact on the growth of female-led companies and the number of tech jobs now held by women. But the biggest endorsement of her efforts is being approached by investors and entrepreneurs who want to get involved with Shatter Fund.
“People will say to me, ‘I just want to find a way to work together. I love what you’re doing; I want to be a part of it,’” Kapoor Collins says. “To me, that’s an amazing compliment.”
By Hannah Craddick
It’s not often a high-flying executive trades in corporate America for dragons, puppets, and talking storybooks. But C.J. Hirschfield did just that. In 2002, she ditched a 25-year career in cable television and made a professional U-turn into the gates of Children’s Fairyland, where she has been opening kids’ minds and unlocking imaginations for close to two decades.
Her unlikely move was sparked by the fact that she was in New York City during the terrorist attacks on 9/11. “That day made me realize I needed to be doing something closer to my heart, something that I love,” says Hirschfield, a longtime advocate of childhood literacy and an Oakland resident for the past 30 years.
Back then, Children’s Fairyland—an Oakland treasure since 1950 and a park that is said to have inspired Walt Disney when he was dreaming up Disneyland—was a little tired to say the least.
“It needed TLC,” Hirschfield says. “One part was like a dead end: There was a bridge to nowhere, Thumbelina’s Tunnel had been closed for decades, and there was police
tape around the pirate ship. It was not a good look.”
Today, Children’s Fairyland stands reborn. With help from bond-measure money and her own fundraising wizardry, Hirschfield has restored the park’s beloved storybook sets, built a children’s theater, and launched a fleet of community-outreach programs (including horticultural therapy for kids on the autism spectrum and free admission for homeless families). She has doubled attendance and introduced a menagerie of toddler-friendly animals, a culturally diverse reading room, and multiple new attractions.
One of her most popular additions is Jack and Jill Hill, where budding adventurers can ride a piece of cardboard down an artificial grass slope. “When you see kids going down that hill, there’s no language barrier, there are no lines or instructions. They just know what to do,” Hirschfield says. “That makes me so happy.”
A grassy hill might seem old-school, but Hirschfield is a fan of restricting screen time and proud that the park remains no-tech. “I’m interested in turning kids on to things that have nothing to do with screens,” she says. “Playing is learning.”
One of Hirschfield’s brightest stars is Aesop’s Playhouse. The 200-seat theater hosts productions from young performers in the park’s own Children’s Theatre program as well as other groups. “That theater is my heart,” says Hirschfield. “It’s about building kids’ self-confidence and being part of a community. It has been hugely rewarding.”
Under Hirschfield’s watch, the puppet theater at Children’s Fairyland—the longest-running puppet theater in the United States (and where Muppet and Yoda puppeteer Frank Oz once apprenticed)—introduces young people to different cultures by reenacting tales from around the world, such as stories from the Indian Panchatantra or the African folktales of the spidery trickster Anansi.
“C.J. brought us into a renaissance when she came here,” says Randal Metz, the current puppet director of Children’s Fairyland, who has been associated with the park for almost 50 years. “She is very good at putting literacy first, stimulating young minds, and producing shows that relate to our community and that kids don’t normally get to see. She leaves some big shoes to fill.”
At the end of August, Hirschfield will take a well-earned break and hand over her magic wand to a successor. “It has been such a joy, and we did so much,” she says. “I have created a wonderful team, and after 17 years, this park has never looked so good.”
By Autumn Stephens
“Of all the big problems out there that we need solutions to, educating women and girls is one of the answers,” says Beth Hillman, a scholar of history and law and a gender-equity activist. Consequently, Hillman is proud to serve as the president of Mills College, the esteemed liberal arts university that, since its founding in 1852, has admitted only women to its undergraduate programs.
Since 2016, the president has been a familiar figure on Mills’s Oakland campus. An air force veteran with a Ph.D. in history and a J.D. from Yale, an adviser to Congress and the U.N. on sexual assault and justice for women in the military, and a former provost and academic dean of UC Hastings College of the Law, Hillman aims to provide women from all backgrounds with a career-enhancing education and to cultivate their capabilities as leaders.
“Talent is equally distributed; opportunity isn’t,” says Hillman, who grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in a family of five children and attended Duke University on an ROTC scholarship. Symbolically, Mills is flanked by both economically challenged East Oakland and the affluent Oakland hills, and Hillman envisions the college, with its double priorities of racial diversity and gender equity (it was the first U.S. women’s college to admit transgender students), as a bridge between the two.
In fact, the Hillman administration has already implemented some groundbreaking initiatives: a 36 percent across-the-board tuition decrease, “promise” scholarships of $7,000 or more for students who graduate from local school districts with a 3.2 GPA, and key academic partnerships, such as a collaboration that lets students simultaneously earn a Mills B.A. in environmental science and a UC Berkeley B.S. in engineering. She’s also helped to launch an on-campus Google pilot program in machine learning (with six of the college’s computer science students among the 20 accepted to the program nationwide), a STEM leadership program for women, and more.
Nevertheless, Hillman isn’t known at Mills for her high-profile background and achievements alone. She’s also appreciated as a close listener and attentive mentor.
“She wants us to take care of ourselves in every manner,” says Jessica Carmeen Greely, a junior majoring in public policy, economics, and legal analysis. Following Hillman’s advice to stretch her wings, Greely recently applied for several undergraduate research fellowships and was named a Public Policy and Leadership Scholar by the Harvard Kennedy School. “She makes me feel like I have a stake at the table,” Greely says.
And, as a college president whose official Christmas card photos have included her wife, construction manager Trish Culbert, and the couple’s five children, Hillman serves as an inspiring role model for the 51 (or more) percent of Mills undergraduates who also identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community.
“I’ve heard many students say it means a lot to them to see Beth and Trish walking around campus, introducing themselves as the president and the first lady,” says Aviva Wilcox, director of counseling and psychological services at Mills.
As for Hillman, she, too, feels inspired by her presidency—but it’s not her own tenacity and accomplishments that buoy her optimism; it’s that of the students she’s come to know and admire.
“It would be a mistake to underestimate the resilience of the people who will reshape our organizations, lead our governments, and take on the challenges of the world,” she says. “Being around students at Mills has opened my mind.
By Andrea Vasquez Nelson
In the heart of Richmond, just a few blocks from where she grew up, Tamisha Torres-Walker works in the sunny headquarters of the Safe Return Project, a nonprofit that empowers and supports formerly incarcerated people in Contra Costa County as they get their lives back on track.
Not long before Safe Return’s inception in 2010, Torres-Walker was returning home from six months in jail to find that her conviction made it nearly impossible to get even minimum-wage jobs—which, in turn, made securing housing and regaining custody of her two sons seem that much further from reach. On top of that, formerly incarcerated women encounter unique challenges and a shortage of programs addressing their needs.
Staggering numbers of girls and women in the criminal justice system face sexual and physical abuse prior to incarceration, creating what’s called a sexual-abuse-to-prison pipeline. “[The women were] in there doing hard time for what people would consider pretty heinous crimes, but no one was there for them,” says Torres-Walker. “Most of them were raped, abused, taken advantage of mentally, emotionally, and physically for years with no resources, no support, nobody coming to their aid. Instead of treating trauma, we arrest and incarcerate trauma. So for me, it’s not enough just to have a re-entry program.”
Torres-Walker was soon hired among a handful of formerly incarcerated people to lead a community research project investigating the many obstacles people face after completing their sentences. She embraced the work, eventually turning it into the Safe Return Project. Like her, the entire staff has direct experience with the criminal justice system.
“I think what Tamisha has done with Safe Return is a really great model,” says Eli Moore, program director for the Haas Institute, one of the organizations that spearheaded the research project. “Being able to stay true to her community’s experience but also build bridges and alliances is really important, these days especially.”
Nearly 10 years later, the Safe Return Project has many arms: grassroots research to identify issues impacting the community, policy advocacy to reform policies that aren’t working and draft those that are needed, intensive leadership training for people who want to create change in their communities, political education to get residents involved in local boards and councils, and a fellowship for the personal and professional development of formerly incarcerated people. “My whole thing is teaching people to be part of their own rescue,” Torres-Walker says.
One of her innumerable success stories involves a woman who walked into a workshop at Safe Return three years ago, feeling isolated by the challenges she faced coming home from incarceration. The networks, relationships, and skills she gained at Safe Return gave her a sense of purpose, and she began seeing herself as an advocate not only for others but also for herself. She now works for the local youth services bureau, helping families access resources and stay out of the criminal justice system.
“There was no support for her and her family, and she ended up in jail and her kids ended up disconnected from her,” says Torres-Walker. “Today, her whole life has come 360 degrees. Now she gets to help families stay together.”
Safe Return’s broad reach and many accomplishments create a ripple effect through Richmond and Contra Costa County. That impact has also opened conversations about what happens before people enter the criminal justice system and how best to do preventive work in the community.
“When you start to build something, you got to keep going,” Torres-Walker says. “You can’t just think, OK, it’s done. It’s never done. We always got to keep going.”