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L.A.'s Most Inspiring Women

When it comes to making L.A. better, those who made this year’s list of power hitters aren’t just leaning in—they’re leading the way

Jane Pisano

As president and director of the Natural History Museum, she oversaw its centennial celebration

Photograph by Christina Gandolfo

When she first took over at the Natural History Museum in 2001, Jane Pisano remembers being struck by its hidden luster. “It reminded me of a dusty diamond,” says the former White House Fellow, who has spent the last dozen years transforming the place. “Los Angeles deserved to have a world-class natural history museum, and I was going to try my best to make it happen.” As the 100-year-old museum completes a $135 million renovation and expansion this year, it’s abundantly clear that Pisano’s best was more than good enough. Construction to bring the main structure up to modern safety standards began in 2007. That same year Pisano launched the campaign that would ultimately fund outdoor gardens, an indoor nature lab, and the six-story Otis Booth Pavilion, where a fin whale skeleton now greets visitors. The result: NHM has become an “institution that helps you understand the world you live in and your place in it,” says Pisano. “We’re dealing with some of the most important issues that we face as a community and as a society.” Angelenos have taken note. Museum membership has more than doubled during Pisano’s tenure, and last year’s attendance was the highest on record. With most of the major changes having been revealed (a temporary exhibit space will open in December), Pisano plans on taking a year to fine-tune operations. “Now we have gardeners and a horticulturist—people with expertise!” she says. “When I look around, I see endless possibilities.”

How our readers helped us name our first Woman of the Year:
Los Angeles
magazine published its first roll call of inspirational L.A. women in October 2011 (Maria Shriver was on the cover). Since then, we’ve featured more than 100 leaders who work hard to improve our city (see previous lists). This year, for the first time, we decided to name a Woman of the Year and invited our readers to nominate candidates. We were looking for mentors, for thought leaders, for entrepreneurs and philanthropists. Readers submitted more than 200 names for consideration, and the editors narrowed those down to 19 finalists. Then we turned that list over to a panel of 14 women we’d chosen for being leaders in their own right. After a spirited debate hosted by the magazine, our judges bestowed the title on Jane Pisano. But all the women on these pages are winners.

Next: UniqueLA founder Sonja Rasula

 

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Sonja Rasula

The interior designer turned event producer boosts L.A. artisans—and the city’s coffers—with Unique LA, a pop-up marketplace for locally made goods

Photograph by Bonnie Tsang

Her lightbulb moment: It happened while I was shopping for gifts for friends in 2008. I went to a couple of stores in Los Feliz and then had to drive all the way across the city to some other favorite shops on Abbot Kinney. I was frustrated sitting in traffic, and I thought to myself, “Why does L.A. not have a giant show where everyone can shop local?” Her elevator pitch: It’s about quality over quantity. You can go to the Gap and buy a T-shirt for $20 or you can buy one made here for twice that amount, but it’s better made and every dollar goes back into the community. The ten-year plan: To help designers grow I’m opening a permanent office for Unique LA on 6th Street between Mateo and Alameda downtown. It will be a new creative co-work space for people who don’t want to work at a coffee shop and are tired of working from home, and a place where the community can collaborate. It’s going to have a full kitchen, a boardroom, a small photography studio, a lounge, a library, and a rooftop terrace.

Next: HollyRod Foundation co-founder and actress Holly Robinson Peete

 

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Holly Robinson Peete

The actress cofounded the HollyRod Foundation with her husband, Rodney Peete, to aid families affected by Parkinson’s disease and autism

Photograph by Christina Gandolfo

Why she does it: I think people don’t realize how much a disorder like autism or a disease like Parkinson’s reverberates throughout a family—financially, emotionally, even physically. I never planned on advocating for so many people, but not everybody has the platform I do. I have a big mouth, I have exposure, and I have the ability to represent. Her secret to success: Raising money is not for sissies. You have to be creative when you approach people because everybody’s hand is out and everybody has a great cause. If you’re not willing to get a few bruises or black-and-blue knees from begging, then you’re not a good philanthropist. The reward: I wish my dad didn’t have Parkinson’s, and I wish my son didn’t have autism, but they have been my pathway to helping others. They led me to a life of service, for which I really am grateful. Maya Angelou said “giving liberates the soul,” and it really does.

Next: Korean Churches for Community Development founder Hyepin Im

 

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Hyepin Im

The founder of Korean Churches for Community Development urges faith leaders to use their pulpits for social change

Why she does it: When pastors answer the call to ministry, they think they will be preaching the word of God and saving souls. But they are more often called upon to respond to community issues—the need for housing, jobs, disaster readiness, you name it. Unfortunately, many don’t know how to leverage their resources, expand their outreach, and impact policies that would translate into developments for their congregation. That’s where we come in. Her greatest challenge: When people talk about who has needs in this country, they usually talk about the black and the brown, and the Asian community is left out wholesale. People consider us a minority only when it hurts us, but not when it would be to our benefit. Her proudest moment: In 2012, KCCD commemorated the anniversary of the Los Angeles riots. Our dream was to bring together the different stakeholders of 21 years ago—the LAPD, the African American community, and local Korean business owners. Organizing it was tough, but on April 29 we had 1,500 people turn out for the event. We mourned the lives lost and the ugliness of the past, and then we lifted up those who had helped to rebuild L.A.

NEXT: Los Angeles City chief of staff Ana Guerrero

 

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Ana Guerrero

In the L.A. mayor’s office, the first Latina chief of staff helps shape the city’s future

Photograph by Jon Endow

Her lightbulb moment: I was hired as an office manager at a community organization, and I realized there the power of civic engagement. I saw people who didn’t think they could make an impact on their world suddenly taking control of their lives—attending a meeting with a mayor or a police chief and asking for things to make their neighborhoods better. Her secret to success: I don’t leave the room until we have figured out a solution to a problem. I learned at an early age that whoever does the work controls the outcome. I have to give my husband credit. He is supportive of my career, so if I need to stay at work until 2 a.m. or show up at 6 a.m., I can do that knowing that my family is well taken care of. The reward: I enjoy my job. My father was in the guest worker program, and I grew up on an apple farm in Sonoma County. My family is tremendously proud that I’ve come this far, that my hard work has paid off. It’s very humbling.

NEXT: The Art of Elysium founder Jennifer Howell

 

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Jennifer Howell

Her celebrity-lauded nonprofit, The Art of Elysium, brings artists into hospitals to brighten the lives of children who are ill

Photograph by Christina Gandolfo

Her lightbulb moment: I moved to Los Angeles after film school and was working for Universal when a dear friend who’d had leukemia relapsed. He told me about children he saw in the hospital who were left to go through treatment alone because their parents had other kids to take care of or were working nonstop to pay for medical bills and health insurance. It was the call to action that changed my life. Her greatest challenge: The only thing keeping us from working with a million children instead of 40,000 across the country is money. We have completed volunteer orientations. We have been approved by all of our hospital partners. We have been published in five medical journals. Our program has been proved time and again. We need financial stability to start taking bigger steps. The reward: It’s one of the hardest things in the world to see suffering. Every time I walk into a hospital I still, to this day, have to take a moment to ground myself and catch my breath. But when you see these children come alive with the artists—writing a song with a musician or creating a new nightgown with a fashion designer—you realize the power of creativity.

NEXT: Los Angeles Philharmonic president and CEO Deborah Borda

 

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Deborah Borda

The president and CEO of the Los Angeles Philharmonic since 2000, she oversaw the opening of Walt Disney Concert Hall and had the idea to hire conductor Gustavo Dudamel

Photograph by Mathew Imaging

Her lightbulb moment: I was about four years old when I heard a record of “Eine kleine Nachtmusik” by Mozart. It was love at first sound. I had one of those 45 rpm record players, and I played it again and again. Her greatest challenge: Classical music has been typecast and as such has been somewhat removed from the central discourse of society. That troubles me because it makes it harder to attract new audiences and have them absolutely adore this art form in the way it deserves to be adored. Her ten-year plan: It is frightening to keep pushing the boundaries, but if you succumb to fear, progress does not occur. The Phil has its centennial coming up in 2019. I want it to be definitional in the world of classical music.

NEXT: City Year Los Angeles executive director Allison Graff-Weisner

 

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Allison Graff-Weisner

The executive director of City Year Los Angeles, which places volunteer tutors and mentors on local school campuses, gets more students into graduation caps and gowns

Photograph courtesy City Year Los Angeles

Why she does it: L.A. is a city with incredible need and incredible possibility. There are remarkable things happening in schools in the toughest neighborhoods, but we are hovering around a 66 percent graduation rate. Her greatest challenge: There is a widespread sense of the deficiency in Los Angeles, but there’s less awareness of how to make a difference. We have schools lining up out the door to have City Year on their campus. We have young people who want to serve. But continuing to build awareness across the city is critical to our growth. Her elevator pitch: Education is the civil rights issue of our time. It’s the place we have to make a difference to have a healthy economy and, on a more individual level, take care of those who deserve the opportunity to be successful. Her ten-year plan: It’s all about pursuing a strategy so that at least 80 percent of the kids we’re working with get to tenth grade on track and on time. As a working mom, I have the goal of raising healthy, happy children. Achieving both would be remarkable.

Next: Unite Here organizing director Lorena Lopez

 

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Lorena Lopez

The organizing director of the hospitality workers union Unite Here labors to improve job conditions for hotel employees

Photograph by Antonio Mendoza

Why she does it: Latina housekeepers are the engine of the hotel industry, but people don’t see how difficult their job is and how many health and safety problems there are. These women clean 15 rooms in a shift, and in many hotels they get down on their hands and knees to do it. No matter how hard it is to organize them or how scary it can be to push them to take risks, these women give me the courage to stay committed. Her secret to success: I educate people about their rights. We’re fortunate to have the right to organize, to demand a ten-minute break and a 30-minute meal break, and to stand up against companies that violate the law. I tell people, “Even if you don’t speak up, your job is at risk. If you do speak up, you risk your job but with people backing you up.” Her proudest moment: My first assignment was organizing a hotel in Santa Monica. I saw a group of workers win their first union contract, and they went from earning $6.75 an hour to $8 or $9 an hour. I heard stories like, “I can take my kids to McDonald’s now. I can buy more school supplies.” It changed their lives.

Next: Pink Lotus Breast Center founder and surgeon Dr. Kristi Funk

 

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