2019 Agents of Change
Meet 23 innovators, movers and shakers, and groundbreakers who are blazing trails in the East Bay and beyond.
Founder, CEO, and President, Vericool Inc.
Works: Walnut Creek
Darrell Jobe became interested in the packaging industry after asking a friend about her father’s job. “He had a 10,500-square-foot home on a five-acre estate near Diablo Country Club,” Jobe says. “When she told me he sold boxes, I laughed.”
Eventually, the friend’s dad became a mentor, but Jobe’s career path was far from easy. An ex–gang member in Richmond, he dropped out of school, was incarcerated, and became a father at 17. “Being able to articulate with a professional was impossible because of my limited vocabulary and business acumen,” Jobe says. “I had to push myself to get up to speed to … navigate in a professional environment.”
Jobe would go on to found Vericool, which produces a recyclable, reusable, and biodegradable cold-shipping alternative to Styrofoam. “We are in midst of a global plastic-waste crisis,” he says. “Our products are made from 100 percent postconsumer paper waste, turning trash into treasure.”
Vericool also offers a second-chance program for the formerly incarcerated. —Emilie White
Founder, President, and Chief Scientist, Covariant.AI; Professor, UC Berkeley
Pieter Abbeel is catapulting robotic technology into the next frontier. Abbeel develops artificial intelligence (AI) software to “equip robots with the ability to think and learn for themselves,” he explains.
As the director of the UC Berkeley Robot Learning Lab, Abbeel and his students created “the first [simulated] robot [that learns] to run from trial and error,” he says, “[and] robots that learn to navigate buildings they never visited before.” These advancements dramatically improve robots’ performance and efficiency.
He’s not just pioneering automaton research. Abbeel’s company, Covariant.AI, is bringing smart robots to the commercial sphere, mainly in warehouse and manufacturing settings.
So, what drove him to pursue this work? Says Abbeel: “Building intelligence through robotics always struck me as a way to better understand our intelligence.” —Virginia Shannon
Roy and Tara Gilad
Cofounders, Vitality Bowls
After discovering that their daughter, Ella, was born with several severe food allergies, Roy and Tara Gilad took action by launching Vitality Bowls. The fast-casual superfood café specializes in acai bowls, smoothies, fresh juices, salads, and paninis—all made with organic superfoods that are entirely filler-free and produced in kitchens specially designed to create an allergy-friendly environment.
“As a company, we’re challenged with educating consumers on the importance of clean, high-quality ingredients,” Tara says. “Vitality Bowls is focused on true healthy eating with carefully sourced superfoods that naturally taste good—without the bad stuff.”
The concept has clearly struck a chord both locally and nationally. The Gilads opened their first Vitality Bowls eatery in San Ramon in 2011—and today, along with five corporate-owned Vitality Bowls locations in the Bay Area (including spots in Pleasanton and Walnut Creek), they’ve licensed more than 70 franchise outposts across the country, and have about 60 more currently in development. —Gabby Vanacore
Founder and CEO, Little Feminist
Media can expose children to new worlds. But, as Brittany Murlas discovered while going through a box of her childhood books, children can discover the first seeds of inequality in media as well.
“Just 31 percent [of recent kids’ books] have female central characters, and … only 13 percent feature a person of color,” says Murlas. “I dreamed of starting a company to help diversify children’s media.”
So, in 2016, she launched Little Feminist, a monthly subscription box for kids ages 9 and under that contains books featuring diverse characters. Discussion questions and an activity are included in each package to help parents and kids engage with the story. Little Feminist is also branching out to publish three books under its own label.
“When asked to explain the lack of diverse books available, book publishers cite ‘low demand’ … even though demand for them is skyrocketing,” Murlas says. “My mission is that Little Feminist not only sheds light on the inequities of children’s media, but also disrupts the industry.” —Morgan Mitchell
Alex Mehran Jr.: A Sense of Place
President, Sunset Development
Works: San Ramon
One of the biggest additions ever to hit the East Bay’s retail landscape arrived late last year, thanks in large part to the efforts of Alex Mehran Jr., the 38-year-old president of Sunset Development. San Ramon’s much-anticipated City Center Bishop Ranch—a shopping, dining, and entertainment complex—is an upscale suburban downtown, designed by the famed architect Renzo Piano.
“I can’t take credit for the idea,” Mehran says modestly, noting that his grandfather and father—the founder and chairman/CEO, respectively, of Sunset Development, City Center’s parent company—had been kicking around the notion for the past 30 years. “It was a cool opportunity to establish a new site where there wasn’t one before, and we realized that the time seemed right to do it now.”
The result is an accessible, pleasingly scaled destination with high-quality tenants (such as an Equinox fitness center, The Slanted Door restaurant, Williams Sonoma, and many more) and a full slate of family-friendly activities. “We took a risk to do this at a time when retail was in a state of upheaval,” adds Mehran, who steered the project through to completion and beyond. “But people believed in it … and we’re very proud of it.”
Mehran joined the family business at age 29, after graduating from Brown University and spending several years at Goldman Sachs in New York. Over the last decade, he has played a key role in many of Sunset Development’s projects, but City Center is perhaps his signature achievement.
Now a Danville resident, he is married to ex-supermodel Maggie Rizer, with whom he has four children. In his free time, Mehran is an avid sailor, and his passion for the outdoors inspired him to launch a specialty shop at City Center: Trader, which carries men’s travel gear and clothing.
“It’s been an amazing opportunity,” he says of City Center. “We saw this great possibility, and we just rolled up our sleeves and made it happen.” —Deborah Kirk
Mayor, City of Concord
Did you know that Contra Costa is the only California county with a population over one million that does not have a full-fledged California State University or University of California campus? Concord’s current mayor, Carlyn Obringer, is highly aware of that fact. That’s why she’s been pushing to transform 120 acres of the former Concord Naval Weapons Station into a public four-year college.
Her mission is on its way to becoming a reality: On June 10, the California State Legislature included funding in its budget to study the feasibility of building a new CSU campus
and research-and-development facility in Concord. “I won’t give up until we realize our community’s goal,” she says.
Obringer—who became mayor in December 2018 and, at age 39, is the youngest female mayor in the city’s history—has more ambitious initiatives on her to-do list, such as bringing new businesses, jobs, and investors to Concord. The tax revenues they would generate, she says, would “make it possible to deliver more of the services Concordians rely on.” —M.M.
Executive Director, I-GATE Innovation Hub
Decades ago, the Lawrence Livermore and Sandia national laboratories sparked an “ecosystem of innovation” in the Tri-Valley—and Brandon Cardwell has been taking it to the next level. Cardwell runs i-Gate Innovation Hub, a nonprofit that “builds entre-preneurial support networks and helps start-up founders launch new companies,” he says. Via i-Gate, he oversees the shared work space The Switch, the incubator Switch Labs, the NextTech Speaker Series, and the Tri-Valley Life Sciences Summit. “Entrepreneurs [are] taking this incredibly brave step of trying to build something out of nothing,” he says. “I wanted to help them do that.”
It’s not just start-ups that benefit from i-Gate. Cardwell, a Livermore native, believes the businesses i-Gate fosters will “invest their success back into their communities.”
His plan is working. The Tri-Valley is now the fastest-growing part of the Bay Area, with a surging economy and more than 450 tech companies based there, many of which have been supported by i-Gate. —V.S.
Katy and Ricardo Osuna
Coproducers, Copper and Heat podcast
You can partly credit Katy Osuna’s anthropology degree for the genesis of Copper and Heat, the Oakland-based podcast that takes a critical, in-depth look at the cultural divides that exist within fine-dining kitchens.
“When I started doing research on this, it consumed my thoughts,” she narrates in the opening episode of season 1, which explores the gender dynamics of being a female chef in a male-dominated industry—something she experienced firsthand working in the Michelin-starred Bay Area eateries Plumed Horse and Manresa. “There were so many things I wanted to ask my coworkers about and really understand.”
While Katy discusses her personal culinary history with an academic’s curiosity, her husband, Ricardo, brings the production value. A digital media producer, musician, and sound engineer, he seamlessly layers in music, ambient kitchen noise, and interviews with Katy, her colleagues, and friends, to create a polished 3D listening experience.
In April, the Osunas won a prestigious James Beard Media Award for Copper and Heat’s inaugural eight-episode season, titled Be a Girl. This fall, they hope to begin releasing season 2, in which they tackle hot-button restaurant issues such as tipping systems and wage disparity.
“It’s important to start having those conversations,” Katy says. “It’s rough and awkward, but ultimately I think it brings people together.” —Ethan Fletcher
Founder and Board Chair, Lazarex Cancer Foundation
After a family member suffering from pancreatic cancer underwent a clinical trial to help fight the disease, Dana Dornsife was struck by the thought that many patients do not have access to means that could provide them such lifesaving or life-extending treatments.
Despite not having a background in the nonprofit or medical sectors, Dornsife founded the Lazarex Cancer Foundation in 2006 to forge connections between patients and clinical trials, and to eliminate financial barriers for those who want to participate. In her full-time volunteer role, Dornsife travels to confer with policy-makers, academic leaders, pharmaceutical companies, and cancer centers.
“Lack of patient participation in trials has plagued the drug-development industry, leading to a 48 percent clinical-trial failure rate,” she says. “Lazarex is the only nonprofit offering a complete solution to address this disconnect, and we are doing it in a replicable and sustainable way.” —E.W.
Riya Kataria: Teen Trailblazer
CEO and Cofounder, the PFA Institute; High School Student
Riya Kataria has led demonstrations, contended in national speech and debate competitions, and interviewed former First Lady Michelle Obama. One might be tempted to label the 17-year-old as fearless, but she says she learned to push fear aside in order to deliver her message.
“We need to learn to speak as youth if we want to use our voices as adults,” she says. “At some point, the passion outweighs the nervousness.”
Kataria, a senior at Irvington High School in Fremont, is the CEO and cofounder (along with classmate Roshni Sudharsan) of the student-run nonprofit PFA Institute, which is launching a new curriculum this fall that empowers young people to advocate for their chosen causes.
“In the first year, [students] learn the basics of public speaking and how to make their voice heard in the government,” Kataria says. “[In the] second year, we pair them with mentors and have them start working on a passion project, whether it’s trying to get a law passed or doing exten-sive research in a certain area, such as representation in STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] fields.”
The focus on civic engagement marks a shift from the PFA Institute’s earlier emphasis on preparing local students for public-speaking tournaments. Kataria is collaborating with teens she met through competitions, the International Congress of Youth Voices, and the Women’s March Youth Empower team to recruit high school– and college-age mentors and establish PFA Institute chapters across the country. “We hope to create a network of trailblazers that keep … giving back to their community,” she says.
Clearly, Kataria has a busy senior year ahead—and beyond that? “I want to major in political science, get a degree in civil rights law, and … I’d like to play a representative role in our national government,” she says. “For any 12-year-old who doesn’t think she sees herself in a decision-making role in the future, I want to … give a little bit of hope.” —Melanie Anderson
Want to make your voice heard? Kataria shares her tips here.
Chef and Co-owner, Café Ohlone
Lives: San Lorenzo
Soft-boiled quail eggs with walnut oil and bay salt. Dandelion soup cooked with Indian potatoes, wild onions, and duck fat. Sweet acorn pancakes with hazelnut butter, blackberries, and honey.
No, this isn’t the menu at a hip Scandinavian restaurant; rather, they’re a few of the dishes at Café Ohlone, where Vincent Medina and his business partner, Louis Trevino, use indigenous East Bay ingredients to put a modern spin on the food eaten by their Ohlone ancestors hundreds of years ago. Medina says the eatery, which opened last year inside UC Berkeley’s University Press Books store, was a natural extension of Mak-’amham, his organization dedicated to resurrecting the traditional Ohlone diet and sharing it with tribal members through gathering trips, cooking classes, and dinners.
The café serves as an accessible way to connect with the East Bay’s Native culture. “We want to revive practices that those generations before us kept alive,” Medina says, “and see them flourish in the world a second time.” —E.F.
Education Specialist, Ygnacio Valley High School
Lives: Walnut Creek
Works: Concord and Moraga
English Teacher, Northgate High School
Lives/Works: Walnut Creek
On September 27, 2018, Kelly Perkins and Rosie Reid of Mount Diablo Unified School District were named Contra Costa County’s 2018–2019 Teachers of the Year.
Reid (left, bottom), an English teacher who went on to become a 2019 California Teacher of the Year, focuses her lessons on diverse voices, challenging sexism, racism, and homophobia. She also launched an equity task force on the Northgate High campus and a community-wide Anti-Racist Educators and Lovers of Education discussion group. “I don’t wait for someone else to change our broken systems,” Reid says. “I don’t slow down to go fast. I just go.”
Perkins’s special education students turn their classroom into a haunted house, host holiday events, and have real-world math and social experiences at Trader Joe’s. Perkins (left, top), who is also an adjunct professor at Saint Mary’s College, is using her Teacher of the Year grant money to create a “supersensory room” at Ygnacio Valley High that will benefit students on the autism spectrum and those with disabilities. “I work to change the idea of what special students can’t do into the realization of what they can do,” she says.
“This is my passion, my heart and soul,” Perkins adds. “Everyone really should love what they do for a living, shouldn’t they?” —E.W.
Music Director and Conductor, Oakland Symphony
From an early age, Michael Morgan was intrigued by the idea of leading an orchestra, and he was just 12 years old when he started conducting. Gradually, that passion grew into a greater love of making music and impacting social policy. His roles at the Oakland Symphony have allowed him to interweave the two.
Under his leadership, the symphony debuted the Playlist series last year, in which a public figure compiles a list of songs that have influenced his or her life. Those pieces are then performed by the symphony, with the special guest providing introductions to the selections. Comedian and CNN star W. Kamau Bell and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta are among the luminaries who have participated, helping to draw new fans to the art form.
“[I use] a symphony orchestra to bring together a community across socioeconomic, racial, ethnic, and generational lines to hear great music from many genres—from classical, to jazz, to musical theater, to gospel and others,” Morgan says. “It’s art, it’s political, it’s peacemaking.” —E.W.
Olga V. Mack
Vice President of Strategy, Quantstamp; Founder, Women Serve on Boards
Works: San Francisco
Olga V. Mack measures each opportunity by how much she’ll learn and how big of an impact she can make. In her role at Quantstamp, “the first decentralized security-auditing blockchain platform,” she works to increase understanding about blockchain technology. As the founder of Women Serve on Boards, she targets gender parity, advocating for women to hold seats on corporate boards of Fortune 500 companies, as well as government boards and commissions in California. And as the organizer and curator of TEDxEmeraldGlenPark, she is bringing voices from the Tri-Valley to the global stage. “We have so many ideas worth sharing with the world,” she says.
Mack earned her J.D. from UC Berkeley School of Law and specializes in technology. “I went to law school to scale justice and change the world for the better,” she says. “I am fortunate that throughout my career, I’ve discovered numerous opportunities and tools to stay on that path.” —Rachel Orvino
Dave Kaval: In Scoring Position
President, Oakland Athletics
Lives: Menlo Park
Oakland A’s president Dave Kaval can see the future from his office window.
Kaval’s corner office in Jack London Square has a panoramic view of the San Francisco Bay and hovers above the Port of Oakland’s Howard Terminal property that the team has proposed as the site for a new, state-of-the-art stadium.
“I believe the ballpark is going to create a home-field advantage,” Kaval says. While he might be referring to the team’s World Series chances, he could also be speaking about the stadium’s potential impact on the East Bay’s economy and morale. “It will bring an influx of people so local business can thrive,” he notes, citing estimates that two-and-a-half million people would visit the ballpark each year, bringing the city an estimated $7 billion in revenue and 5,000 permanent jobs.
As for the stadium itself, “It’s intimate, with a bold design that will have fans closer to the action than any [other] ballpark,” Kaval says. “We’ll also have an incredible roof-top park—something that has never been done in baseball.”
Kaval’s enthusiasm to keep the A’s in the East Bay is a welcome relief to fans, who have spent years wondering if the team would move to San Jose or Las Vegas or North Carolina. With the Warriors relocating to a new arena in San Francisco and the Raiders building a stadium in Las Vegas, the A’s are the last professional team in town.
So far, the ballpark proposal has been greeted with unanimous support from local and state legislative authorities. If an Oakland City Council vote passes in the first quarter of 2020, the stadium will break ground later that year and open in 2023. During this streak of bureaucratic victories, the A’s have also been winning on the field. They surprised everyone by earning a Wild Card berth last year and are competing for another postseason appearance in 2019.
“Part of the run-up to opening a new ballpark is investing in the team we put on the field now,” Kaval says. “These players are role models for young people and help build the fan base. We’re rooted in Oakland, and having a professional sports team here is a point of civic pride.” —Peter Crooks
CEO, Maximum Games/Modus Games
Works: Walnut Creek
Video games are a booming field, with a recent report from the analytics company GlobalData estimating it could become a $300 billion industry by 2025. Christina Seelye and her teams at Maximum Games and Modus Games are an integral part of that growth, publishing a diverse collection of video game titles internationally and supporting talented independent developers with top-notch services. “[It’s] a breakthrough moment in time for independent game publishing, and we are at the forefront,” Seelye says.
An alum of Sonoma State University and Harvard Business School, Seelye was named the 2018 Female Executive of the Year by the Stevie Awards for Women in Business. And Maximum Games, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary, has made the Inc. 5,000 and the San Francisco Business Times Fast 100 lists for the past four consecutive years. Asked to reveal the secret to her success, Seelye cites hard work and hiring talented people, but notes, “Finding your niche and believing in what you do is number one.” —R.O.
Yuliya Tarasava and Catherine Berman
Cofounders and CEO/COO, CNote
Live: Alameda and San Francisco
Upon being introduced to one another, Catherine Berman and Yuliya Tarasava were told they were “two women in finance who want to make the world a better place.” CNote, a financial-investing platform they founded, aims to do just that.
“When you invest with CNote, your money is deployed to fund small businesses in low-income communities, build affordable housing, and support education and community-development projects,” says Tarasava, the company’s COO. “As the … capital is deployed, jobs are created, communities grow to be more economically resilient, and individual livelihoods improve.”
CNote’s goals focus on inclusivity and ending the wealth gap for all, regardless of gender, racial background, or geographic location. Since its inception, the company has created or maintained more than 2,500 jobs.
“Finance does not need to be … intimidating and opaque,” says Berman. “We can and should expect financial services to serve us.” —E.W.
Andrew “Pete” Peterson
Chief Information Officer, City of Oakland
Andrew “Pete” Peterson is leading the charge to bring the speed and agility of the tech industry into the notoriously slow-moving public sector. After a 30-plus-year career developing groundbreaking technologies for the likes of IBM and Siebel Systems, he’s now using his expertise to give back to his home community of Oakland.
As the city’s CIO, Peterson has launched a number of forward-thinking initiatives, including the Police Early Intervention System, aimed at deterring “undesirable behavior” by members of the city’s embattled police department, and the OakApps digital-delivery platform, which gives residents access to city services online. “This is particularly helpful for the underserved and/or disadvantaged,” he says, “as it [saves them] several trips to City Hall.”
Perhaps most ambitious is Peterson’s plan to provide free public Wi-Fi in some of the city’s more economically challenged areas, which would help to increase “techquity” among low-income and, especially, school-aged residents. The pilot program was slated to roll out in the Lockwood Gardens housing project this summer, in time for the school year. —V.S.
Arnold C. Magcale
Founder and Chief Technology Officer, Nautilus Data Technologies Inc.
“I love technology, and I always dreamed of [using] technology to help humankind,” Arnold C. Magcale says. Throughout his career, Magcale has been a pioneer, contributing to early advancements in smartphone, cloud computing, and droid technologies. The United States Navy Special Forces veteran also helped to launch one of Silicon Valley’s first data centers (large spaces filled with servers that store and transmit masses of data)—and now he’s designed a new wave of commercial data centers, located aboard barges or other seafaring vessels, that use water to cool the notoriously hot facilities. Nautilus’s innovative, autonomously operated data center “is one of the most energy efficient and disaster resilient in the world,” Magcale says. The company has already installed one off Mare Island in San Pablo Bay, and more are in the works. If we’re on the brink of an eco-friendly data-center revolution, we have this Danville resident to thank. —V.S.