Webster’s dictionary offers two definitions for kickass: 1. having a strong effect on someone or something; powerful 2. exceptionally good; spectacular, impressive. The women we’ve chosen for our second edition of this feature easily live up to both descriptions. They’re but a sampling of the leaders in our community doing amazing work in many areas. They show off the best of Orange County, and we think you’ll be proud to count them as neighbors and friends.
Chef-owner of Adya
BONA FIDES: Mehra thought she wanted to be a doctor. In her early 20s, she was working in a medical office and realized she would never be as happy as the doctor she worked for. Luckily for diners, she found her home in the culinary world and never looked back. She worked with Floyd Cardoz in New York for five years, then did stints in Washington, D.C., and Northern California. Michelin-starred Tamarind of London lured her to Orange County to be its opening chef. She felt at home in O.C. and opened Adya eight years ago to make the high-quality Indian food she loves more accessible to local diners. She thrives on watching customers’ reactions as they taste something new and find they love it. In fall 2019, she won “Chopped” and had big plans for her next steps, which included using her winnings to launch a sauce company. COVID-19 put a hold on everything. While Adya was closed, Mehra participated in the artisan pop-up market at OC Baking Co and the Orange farmers market, and she started doing virtual cooking classes. Adya offers catering for big events and small private dinners, and last year Mehra debuted Spice Girl Sauces.
IN HER WORDS: “I really think that (being) forced to rethink everything opened a lot of doors in my mind about what I still have to do, and now I’m moving toward all of those things. Orange County has made such huge strides in food in the time that I’ve been here. I think it’s completely changed, and I feel like the consumers are different. Chefs are doing what we really want to do, and people are appreciating what we’re doing in a way that didn’t happen before.”
Jane Fujishige Yada
Chairwoman of the board of directors for Segerstrom Center for the Arts
BONA FIDES: Yada went to see “A Christmas Carol” at South Coast Repertory on a school field trip in the early 1980s. She has been a fan of theater ever since and has 20 years of experience as a board member. She especially enjoys Broadway musicals and classical music performances, and her dream is for Segerstrom Center for the Arts to produce original Broadway-caliber shows. But first she has had to deal with the chal- lenges of operating the center during a pandemic: She moved quickly to upgrade equipment and institute protocols to make patrons feel safe. Born in Orange, raised in Anaheim, and a resident of Tustin Ranch, Yada is O.C. through and through. Her philanthropic interests also include the CHOC Hospital Foundation, City of Hope, Hoag Hospital, and Sec- ond Harvest Food Bank.
IN HER WORDS: “What Henry Segerstrom did was similar to what Walt Disney did in the 1950s. Everybody in the world knows Disneyland, and I’m hard-pressed to find anywhere in the country that has as beautiful and as well-thought-out a performing arts center campus as what we have here. … The Orange County Museum of Art is going to be the final piece of the crown jewel of a campus here. It’s going to be stunning. So we’ve got a little bit of everything here—Broad- way, dance, the symphony, philharmonic, the chorale, now the visual arts.”
President of City of Hope Orange County
BONA FIDES: Her favorite quote is from Joan of Arc, commonly interpreted as “I am not afraid. I was born to do this.” Sometimes Walker “gets her Joan on” by donning a pair of socks or a necklace depicting the 15th-century French teen heroine. Walker adopted the mantra early in her health care career to serve as internal pushback against doubts raised because she was a woman and a mother raising six children. Now she is shepherding City of Hope’s $1 billion cancer care campus in Irvine. Despite pandemic-related disruptions, and the challenge of hiring several hundred specialized staff, Walker is determined to open the Lennar Foundation Cancer Center for outpatient care and clinical research this year. Several satellite locations are up and running. Next, the 2025 completion of a specialty hospital to treat and cure cancer.
IN HER WORDS: “Whether we open exactly the day we want or 30 days later, we’re going to open this year. It’s going to be a big relief to me to have those resources on the ground here. So many people need them. It’s a mission with real love and passion. I just want to get it here for people as quick as I can. We’re getting close. It’s no longer conceptual. It’s so real.”
Surfrider Foundation legal director
BONA FIDES: Howe learned to surf and snowboard and became awed by the beauty of the environment as a student at the UC Berkeley School of Law in the early 2000s. After practicing at a private law firm and volunteering for the Surfrider Foundation, she joined the San Clemente-based organization as its legal director in 2007. Now she oversees Surfrider’s efforts to protect the coast and marine environment by pushing for good laws and making sure they’re enforced. Last year, the foundation scored more than 80 environmental victories on everything from the passage of several #SkipTheStuff local ordinances reducing single-use plastic utensil waste to the resolution of a long-running battle over water pollution on Maui, a case heard before the U.S. Supreme Court. She has taught at the UC Irvine School of Law, USD Law, and Whittier Law School, and she’s co-leader of the PTA Zero Waste Committee at her children’s school in San Clemente. She’s still an enthusiastic surfer and snowboarder.
IN HER WORDS: “We take cues from our grassroots. We have 80 chapters nationally, 18 in California, three in Orange County. They’re very in touch with what’s going on with our coasts, whether it be water quality, plastic pollution, erosion, bad coastal development. We’re really listening to them and using our knowledge of the legal system looking at how to best address them, coming up with that legal strategy—should we litigate, should we advocate to decision-makers, should we help write new laws?”
Surfrider Foundation plastic pollution manager
BONA FIDES: Coccia has put her poise and communication skills to work empowering and educating young people about the environment practically since she was a kid herself. As a college student, she hosted a syndicated science show, “Aqua Kids,” and ended each episode with a positive message that resonated with viewers. She continues to inspire kids—and adults—to make a difference through Surfrider’s plastic-reduction programs, including beach cleanups and ocean friendly restaurants. The efforts are complementary: single-use plastics are the top items collected at the 1,000 or so cleanups conducted each year, and the restaurants program tackles plastic pollution at its source.
IN HER WORDS: “What Surfrider is, at our very core, is a network, a community of people who care. We are able to keep people engaged and staying with us year after year because they do see the impact they’re making and how it’s changing things in a big way. Environmental work can be overwhelming, but when you’ve got a really great network of people all supporting each other, it makes it easier.”
BONA FIDES: Actors can spend their entire careers trying to get to Broadway; Allen debuted there at age 6 opposite the legendary Helen Hayes. Later, Allen worked with another theater titan, her mentor Joseph Papp, in the original companies of “Hair” and “Two Gentlemen of Verona.” The latter earned her several accolades, including a Tony nomination. Allen’s career continued to shine in film and TV with an extensive list of credits that includes “ER,” “9-1-1,” and “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman,” where she was the first Black woman to appear as a regular character in a TV Western. Last fall, Arts Orange County honored Allen with its Helena Modjeska Cultural Legacy Award. The longtime Laguna Beach resident has worked as an arts educator throughout the county, including at Saddleback College, and she is a cofounder of The Lynn House, a Costa Mesa sober living shelter for women.
IN HER WORDS: “My life has taken so many different turns, but I’m still continuing to work. I stay connected to the small voice inside me—call it whatever you want to call it—to guide me in the direction of my highest and greatest good. That’s when unexpected blessings can happen. I call it ‘wow’: world of wonder.”
Claudia Bonilla Keller
CEO at Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County; planning commissioner in Placentia
BONA FIDES: Her two years at the county’s largest food bank—first as chief mission officer and as CEO since January—started right as COVID-19 arrived to drive unprecedented need among the county’s most vulnerable residents. Second Harvest’s pantry network continues to feed more than 490,000 people monthly. Keller is the daughter of immigrants to Los Angeles who worked hard to provide a life of what she calls modest but relatively privileged means. A self-described “health, education, and social justice advocate,” she moved in 2005 from a successful career in the retail clothing industry to nonprofits. At Second Harvest, the main mission is addressing food insecurity, the daily uncertainty of a next meal. Keller also aims to ensure that what people eat is nutritious, whether she’s negotiating the bulk price of fresh eggs or helping plan the next harvest at a farm in Irvine.
IN HER WORDS: “I guess I’ve refined my worldview. I always believed that food is a human right, but now I believe food is a necessity for human advancement, however one defines advancement. To me, that can change the course of an individual, that can change the course of a community.”
Knife Pleat co-owner and two-time Michelin honoree
BONA FIDES: Running a successful restaurant requires much more than a great chef, as Sarmadi witnessed often during her time helping finance restaurants in trouble. She learned plenty about the financial underbelly of the dining scene, paired that with her natural grace and knack for finding the best talent in the kitchen, and opened L.A.’s wildly popular Church & State, which earned Bib Gourmand recognition from Michelin. In 2016, she and husband Tony Esnault launched Spring restaurant in L.A. When the opportunity arose to do a French restaurant at South Coast Plaza, Sarmadi knew the clientele would be a good fit for the pair’s vision. Knife Pleat opened in 2019 and was honored with a Michelin star last year. Chef Esnault’s exquisite dishes are complemented perfectly by the ambience and elegant-yet-warm service Sarmadi oversees in the dining room. Her creativity and positive spirit kept the team upbeat and engaged, even during the toughest months of the pandemic and closures.
IN HER WORDS: “I think through COVID, it shifted my perspective in a positive way. We had a lot of downtime we normally don’t have. Being at home and having time to reflect was actually great. … It opens other things up and allows you space to be creative. We’re so happy to be where we are. The tasting menu dinners have evolved into what the identity of the restaurant is becoming now. We feel really supported, and we’re looking forward to pushing the envelope a little more.”
Michal Mimi Lee
BONA FIDES: Trying to get Lee to talk about herself is nearly impossible. She’s focused on helping other people, no matter what she’s doing. As an integral part of the group behind Toast Kitchen and the new Tableau restaurant at South Coast Plaza, Lee charms diners, business owners, and philanthropists alike with her nonstop smile, deep empathy, and willingness to listen. The daughter of Japanese Americans who were interned as children, she graduated from UC Irvine, became an optometrist, and married Ed Lee, who had just started Wahoo’s with his brothers. Eventually she decided the restaurant business was where she wanted to be, and she devotes herself completely to behind-the-scenes tasks and the philanthropic strategy behind Tableau’s mission. She rolls up her sleeves at events around the county and remembers everyone she meets. Better still, she connects people with others in the community to deliver phenomenal partnerships, tremendous fundraising potential, and great friendships along the way.
IN HER WORDS: “Human beings are amazingly resilient. We’re all survivors. We want to get together and laugh and share food and take care of each other. I think most Americans have a heart to give, too. Having this restaurant brings more people along and gets people involved. I think God put me here uniquely to help.”
CEO and director of Orange County Museum of Art
BONA FIDES: Zuckerman believes that access to art is a basic human right, not a privilege. People will be freer to exercise that right when the Orange County Museum of Art opens in October because of a grant she obtained that will cover general admission for the first 10 years. As she pursues her vision of a 21st-century museum—housed in a sleek 53,000-square-foot building by architect Thom Mayne of Morphosis—the former head of the Aspen Art Museum has forged strong ties to the O.C. arts and philanthropic communities. “What’s most exciting and impressive is people’s open-mindedness,” she says. “The people I’ve met here are incredibly entrepreneurial, innovative, freethinking, and it’s a great match for contemporary art.”
IN HER WORDS: “I’m really looking forward to seeing art in person with other people every day. It’s really different to look at art in a defined environment like collection storage or a closed museum. It’s totally different to have unexpected encounters with people you don’t know who are looking at art and talking with them about what they’re seeing.”
Alana M.W. LeBrón
Codirector of the UC Irvine Center for Environmental Health Disparities Research
BONA FIDES: An assistant professor of Chicano/Latino studies and public health, LeBrón researches how structural racism contributes to health disparities in vulnerable communities and collaborates with local partners to address those disparities. It’s personal to her. She grew up a Latina in a small Texas town and has a vivid memory of negotiating with a pharmacist on a Friday night to get just enough medication for a diabetic family member to manage the disease until the family could pay for more. “Race and socioeconomic status have always been salient in my lived experience,” she says.
IN HER WORDS: “What keeps me hopeful is that so much is happening outside of the academy—the work that local health equity leaders are really innovating on. They’re the folks who are connected on the ground, who are visionaries. The other thing that keeps me hopeful are the students who I have the pleasure of working with on research projects. They often identify as coming from communities where there are mostly low-income residents of color, and they’re committed to strengthening their understanding of factors that shape health inequities and returning to their communities, or communities similar to theirs, to really be part of the sea of change in this area.”
Codirector of the UC Irvine Center for Environmental Health Disparities Research
BONA FIDES: Wu’s expertise is in environmental engineering and environmental health, and she is a force of nature herself. With the center, she aims to harness UC Irvine experts from a range of disciplines—including engineering, medicine, urban planning, and anthropology—and to tap community collaborators not only in Orange County but also across Los Angeles, Riverside, and San Bernardino counties. She works with the Orange County Environmental Justice organization to study lead soil contamination and its sources, and also with a group in Santa Ana’s Madison Park neighborhood to find ways of dealing effectively with air pollution issues. Her many other projects include guiding university undergraduates who work with the Anaheim Union High School District installing air-quality sensors in schools, and other students who use high-resolution satellite images to study large-truck traffic patterns and estimate diesel exhaust exposure and health impacts on affected communities.
IN HER WORDS: “Collaborating with local communities is very important because most previous research in academia focuses on finding problems instead of really solving problems. Communities have the lived experience, and that is essential in solving the problems. … By continuing to work on this model, I hope the center will be a regional leader in Southern California in promoting health equity and environmental justice.”
Codirector of NK Cell Therapy Research at Hoag Family Cancer Institute
BONA FIDES: Nangia is at the forefront of cancer research. She leads a clinical trial studying the treatment of advanced triple-negative breast cancer, an aggressive form of the disease that is more common among women under 40, Black women, and those with the BRCA1 mutation. Her research involves cell therapy, a type of immunotherapy where the body’s immune system helps destroy cancer cells. Specifically, the study uses natural killer (NK) cells in combination with other agents, potentially delaying the cancer’s progression while maintaining the patient’s quality of life. It is the first and only such trial in Orange County.
IN HER WORDS: “What drives me is (patients’) bravery—their resilience and their will to fight all of this. Their tenacity, their desire to be normal, their thought that ‘I’m not a patient; I’m a human being. I want to go on a trip to Hawaii. I have a grandkid who’s just coming home today.’ They’re facing the inevitable but they’re dealing with it so bravely.”
Chief program officer at Orangewood Foundation; professor; board member at California Conference for Equality and Justice
BONA FIDES: Sorrells left foster care after 13 years in the system when she was 18. With nothing but a laundry basket of clothes, she boarded a Greyhound bus to Santa Ana. She had no one to call and didn’t have a ride to Vanguard University, where she would complete her undergraduate work. She earned her master’s in social work at Cal State Long Beach and her doctorate in the same field at USC, one of her proudest accomplishments. From a young age, Sorrells knew she wanted to help foster youth—from starting a peer mentor program in her high school to working at the nonprofit Boys Town, where she managed programs for the organization locally and then nationally. In 2019, Sorrells started at Orangewood Foundation, where she manages all 14 programs that offer support to around 2,000 foster youth per year with education, housing, and more. Her specialty is human-centered design—creating programs that are tailored to a specific individual. She’s working toward having youth hold leadership roles in the organization.
IN HER WORDS: “When you don’t have a safety net, you don’t have someone to call, you don’t have anywhere to lay your head, life is much more difficult. Our goal is to be the one stability in their life; the people they can count on. They show up, and they know we’re going to be there, and we’ll find a way to help them.”
Stephanie Camacho-Van Dyke
Director of Advocacy and Education at The LGBTQ Center OC
BONA FIDES: Camacho-Van Dyke started as a volunteer in 2011 and then was hired as youth program director. Working with volunteers, interns, and staff, she built The Center’s weekly youth drop-in group into a suite of programs for young people. Those services cover social support, mental health, education, and advocacy for LGBTQ youth from ages 10 to mid-20s. Camacho-Van Dyke grew up in south Orange County at a time when homophobic bullying was common at school. As director of advocacy and education, she oversees LGBTQ outreach and advocacy on school campuses, directed at district and school administrators, teachers, student-run Genders & Sexuality Alliances, and parents. Much has changed, but there has been a rise in hate crimes and hate incidents directed at the LGBTQ community since 2016. Speak out against it, she says.
IN HER WORDS: “What drives me most is this need to create environments where LGBTQ people and youth can have a space where they can be themselves and just thrive. Just come as they are. And no matter how they’re dressed or how they present, they can walk into it and just be themselves, be as creative and wonderful as they want. And be respected and valued for that.”
CEO at Project Hope Alliance
BONA FIDES: Project Hope Alliance provides school-based programs to students struggling with homelessness. Friend knows that life well—her family lived in Orange County motel rooms during her adolescence. Academic success at Huntington Beach High propelled her to UC Irvine (where she now serves as a trustee), then law school. She left a law firm partnership for the full-time position of CEO at Project Hope Alliance in 2013. She has grown the nonprofit from a staff of two to nearly 20, to work with Orange County students—and their families—on campuses in three public school districts and through a charter school partnership. The organization’s bywords: For the Kids.
IN HER WORDS: “I loved being a litigator, and I enjoyed being an attorney. But this isn’t just a job for me; I feel like it’s my purpose. It gives me the liberty to be able to always think about what’s best for the kids, versus what would advance my personal career or even what would advance the interests of Project Hope Alliance. It changes the ‘why’ I show up to work every day. It changes my perspective in every decision I make.”
Karen Heath Clark
Founder of Women in Leadership; retired partner at law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP; chairwoman of Newport Beach Public Library Foundation
BONA FIDES: Clark earned her law degree from the University of Michigan but was eager to leave the climate there and return to Southern California, where she was born. She started at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP in the late 1970s as the firm’s first female attorney and later became its first female partner. Her interest in sports helped ease the introduction to her colleagues, who were a little unsure about how to relate to her request to leave work every night by 6 to get home to her young children. In 1993, she helped start Women in Leadership, a bipartisan political action committee whose focus is to support pro-choice women running for office. Women’s issues have been a priority for Clark for decades, as is obvious in her participation on boards for Planned Parenthood, Southern California Council on Aging, New Directions for Women, and more. She’s now the board chair of the Newport Beach Public Library Foundation, which has approval to build a lecture hall that will be the home to the Witte Lecture Series and other com- munity events.
IN HER WORDS: “My focus right now is the lecture hall. We have the architectural drawings. It’s going to be gorgeous—the most iconic building in the city and the center of cultural and civic life. You know the Newport Beach Public Library is one of the best libraries in the state. People come from Irvine, Mission Viejo; some of our board members live in Laguna, one lives in Huntington Beach. It’s a countywide facility—anyone can get a library card.”
Founding director of the Orange County Women’s Health Project
BONA FIDES: Sonenshine started her career as an attorney and has been focused on women’s issues since college. Upon moving to Orange County, she joined the board of Planned Parenthood of Orange & San Bernardino Counties and served as chair. The match was perfect for her passion and led her to transition to the nonprofit world. She worked with the Merage Foundations to create the SOS-El Sol Wellness Center at a school in Santa Ana. She and others saw that there was no group in O.C. that was an umbrella for women’s health—though there were many such offices around the state. So Sonenshine cofounded the Orange County Women’s Health Project in 2011, a neutral nonprofit to promote education, advocacy, and collaboration. The group connects various state agencies, dozens of nonprofits, and medical providers to focus on specifics of women’s physical and mental health. The pandemic has forced the project to scale back a bit, so it is zeroing in on collaboration and its latest initiative, Healthy Teen Collective. For a fun release, Sonenshine sings with ’80s cover band The New Originals.
IN HER WORDS: “I’m usually an optimist, but the future of abortion access outside of California is quite stark right now, and the deterioration of public discourse isn’t helping. We must relearn how to agree to disagree and find solutions that allow people to coexist peacefully. What does it mean to be an American, or an Orange County resident? What does it mean to live in a civil society? To me, these questions are inextricably linked to a pregnant person’s ability to control not only their physical and mental health but also their reproductive destiny. I’m hopeful that these issues, more urgent than ever, will galvanize a renewed level of activism to protect women’s health.”
Portola High senior in Irvine; adviser to Girl Scouts of Orange County Board of Directors
BONA FIDES: At 14, Pavani learned during a Laura’s House workshop for Girl Scouts that one in three women experience domestic violence. So she started a high school Domestic Violence Prevention Club as a freshman, and an Instagram page (@phsdvp) spreading awareness. A presentation by a nurse on how to prevent someone from bleeding to death led Pavani to organize Stop the Bleed trainings that have reached more than 150 youths and adults, and earned her the Girl Scouts Gold Award last year. Other volunteer work, including for Southern California Hospice Foundation, has garnered recognition. All the while, Pavani captained the girls varsity tennis team that won a Division 3 CIF title in 2019. She aims for a career in health administration, hoping to bring affordable and accessible quality care to all.
IN HER WORDS: “Realizing how little I had known about these issues led me to wonder how much did my peers know? If I’m so in the dark, how oblivious might my peers be? Just wanting to bring that kind of awareness to my school and people my age is what drew me into these issues. I want to share things with other people and be part of a community.”
Co-founder of Elder Law and Disability Rights Center in Santa Ana
BONA FIDES: As a public law attorney, she champions the rights of homeless people and fights to achieve housing for all. Weitzman has helped initiate more humane treatment of homeless people by law enforcement and local governments through legal action—in particular, a landmark 2018 federal civil rights case in Orange County. The UC Irvine Law School graduate is one of two lawyers who opened Elder Law and Disability Rights Center in early 2017, providing low-cost legal services. She was 33 at the time. Most of the work Weitzman handles involves housing and homelessness. She sits on the American Bar Association’s Commission on Youth at Risk and is working to bring about ABA best practices in local Homeless Outreach Court.
IN HER WORDS: “If people don’t know where they’re going to sleep and have a safe room with a door that closes and know where their next meal is coming from, the idea that we as a community can expect them to do anything other than focus on survival is just not realistic. It seems like people should have that safe place before we ask them to do more or different. And jail doesn’t count. No matter what others may tell you, that is not housing.”
Read more in our March 2022 issue on newsstands today, or get it directly delivered to your home with a subscription!