Meet 13 Powerful Women Who Are Making L.A. a Better Place

From a venture capitalist to a comedian, these L.A. women are changing the city for the better

From a venture capitalist to a progressive rabbi to a WNBA legend, these 13 leaders and innovators are from all over the map. But they have one thing in common: They’re changing L.A. for the better.


THE BOSS BALLER

Penny Toler 

She’s been changing the game in the WNBA for more than 20 years

Christina Gandolfo

Penny Toler learned to play basketball on the streets of Washington, D.C., at seven years old. Most of the time she was the only girl on the court—a circumstance that helped her to learn an important rule early on. “If you weren’t tough, you weren’t playing,” she says.

That toughness, along with serious skill, led to a number of historic firsts: In 1997 Toler was drafted by the Los Angeles Sparks, where she became the first player to score in the brand new WNBA. After retiring from the game in 1999, the former point guard joined the Sparks’ front office as the club’s first female executive vice president and general manager, and she is one of only five female GMs in the WNBA today. (Even in women’s professional sports, men still dominate front-office and executive roles.)

“The day it’s not fun anymore, I’ll pass the torch and walk away with extraordinary memories.”

After 19 years Toler, 52, is both the longest-tenured and winningest GM in WNBA history. “A lot of people weren’t happy when I was made general manager,” she says. “I said to myself, ‘I will not fail.’ This is about other African Americans, other females, other athletes getting opportunities after me.” She sees the WNBA as a training ground for a new generation of female leaders. “I’m happy to be able to say I was the first to do what I did, but the WNBA has produced a lot of people who have been a lot of firsts,” she says. “The day it’s not fun anymore, I’ll pass the torch and walk away with extraordinary memories.” Here’s what a typical home-game day looks like for Toler. >Brittany Martin

5 a.m. Toler starts with a brisk, three-to-five-mile treadmill sesh at the gym in her downtown building.

7 a.m. Back in her apartment, she answers urgent emails—always with the Today Show on in the background—before heading to Staples Center.

9:30 a.m. Toler stops by practice at Staples and hangs out for a game-day shootaround.

1 p.m. Time for a one-on-one meeting with Michael Fisher, assistant GM, to talk logistics. “I’m ultimately responsible for contracts, schedules, travel—everything that comes with the team—so that’s all in the mix,” Toler says.

3 p.m. Toler meets with Sparks senior VP, Natalie White, to discuss everything from the team’s community relations to its ticket sales.

4 p.m. She writes up an overview of her meeting with White to send to owners Eric Holoman, Stan Kasten, and Earvin “Magic” Johnson.

7:30 p.m. After a final check-in with the trainers and coaches, Toler takes her seat in Staples Center and focuses on the court. “Once the game starts, my job is to pray we win,” she says. “Everything else is out of my hands.”


THE TECH TITAN

Carmen Palafox 

A venture capitalist who is transforming her industry one investment at a time

Christina Gandolfo

Tech is a notorious boy’s club but venture capitalism—the business of investing in start-ups—has an especially bad track record. Per a 2017 PitchBook report, only 11.3 percent of partners at U.S. venture capital firms are women. Last year, about 2.2 percent of the funds raised at those firms were given to companies started solely by women. (Those founded by women of color received a meager 0.2 percent.) All this despite the fact that companies with even one female founder outperform all-male teams by 63 percent, according to a study by Silicon Valley VC firm First Round Capital. That’s where Carmen Palafox comes in.

Palafox is one of three cofounders of Make in LA, an incubator-stage investment firm focused on hardware entrepreneurs. By the time she joined the company in 2015, she’d earned a degree from the executive MBA program at UC Berkeley and logged more than ten years in both Santa Monica and Austin, Texas, at Dimensional Fund Advisors LP, where she eventually became the vice president of investment relations. But her pedigree hasn’t protected her from racial or gender-based bias. “I’ve had an entrepreneur give me the unwanted advice that I should bring my male business partner to investment meetings,” the 43-year-old says. “At a code conference at Terranea, I asked an attendant where should I park, and he asked me if I was staff or a vendor. It’s getting better, but I’ve had several experiences like that.”

Palafox knows that investing in diverse companies can move the needle in a meaningful way. “Thirty-eight percent of the companies in our portfolio are female-founded, and 48 percent have an immigrant founder,” she says of Make in LA. “We can’t let change happen organically. The biggest game changer will be when you see more female investment managers and more institutional investment in women-led funds.” In that spirit, we asked her for some advice she could offer to women embarking on a career in VC. >Marielle Wakim

Learn Your Craft 
“Develop an understanding of the different stages of investing, all the way from friends and family to Series A to Series B to angel.”

Get Involved 
“Get into a community where tech innovation is going on. Hustle your way into a tech festival by volunteering, go to VC speaker events, or join an online community.”

Put in the Effort 
“You can follow VCs online. Connect with one and offer to do your due diligence for them. Offer to write an investment memo on a company they’re looking at. There’s always an opportunity to do something.”


THE VISIONARY

Naima Keith

The curator of the California African American Museum is redefining the role of art institutions

Christina Gandolfo

Exhibition openings at the California African American Museum feel more like a party in a good friend’s backyard than a stuffy social gathering: A few times a year, DJs and food trucks gather under string lights outside the Expo Park institution, drawing thousands of individuals from both the art world and the surrounding neighborhood. “We wanted to make it known that we were welcoming all types of museum goers,” says 37-year-old chief curator Naima Keith, “not just the ones with a degree in art history or who were fans of Shinique Smith.”

Keith, who held positions at L.A.’s Hammer and at the Studio Museum in Harlem, has worked to transform the state-run black art and history museum since arriving in 2016. Aside from rethinking CAAM’s branding and modernizing its main lobby, she’s organized events with L.A. dancers, filmmakers, and artists as well as panel discussions about issues like activism and gentrification.

A Los Angeles native, Keith grew up going to CAAM with her parents; her mother, a radiologist and collector of black art, was on its foundation board. Keith was working toward an economics degree at Spelman College in Atlanta when, in her sophomore year, she took an art history course that changed everything (beginning with her major). She remembers being particularly struck by The Waterbearer, a Lorna Simpson photograph of a woman pouring water out of two vessels in a stance that evokes Lady Justice. “Thinking about art in this capacity and seeing a black female form—it just kind of set of a light bulb for me,” she says.

Last year, in what Keith calls a “full-circle moment,” the image was featured in the CAAM exhibition We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women. It wasn’t the first exhibition Keith has organized around politically charged art made by women of color. “We’re well aware of discrepancies between the amount of exhibitions that men get versus women,” says Keith. “I have the ability to help close that gap.”

Occasionally Keith brings her two-and-a-half-year-old, Ella, along to openings in the hope of instilling an appreciation for art in her (she gave birth to her son, Evan, earlier this year). But you can’t force it, she says. Her kids will just have to have their own Waterbearer moment some day. “I try to expose them, of course, but there are times when Ella’s just like, ‘Mom. I’m ready for ice cream,’” says Keith with a laugh. >Zoie Matthew


THE GIN BLOSSOMS

Roselma Samala, Christine Sumiller, and Patricia Perez

Three cocktail connoisseurs bring a shot of culture to their neighborhood

Christina Gandolfo

The women behind Genever are changing the Los Angeles bar game. Their Historic Filipinotown spot is one of only a handful in the city that’s female owned and operated—a welcome change in an industry dominated by men. Through their ownership group, Red Capiz Partners (a hat tip to their Filipino roots and their first initials), Samala, 44, Sumiller, 42, and Perez, 41, are paying homage to their heritage by building a vibrant social hub for locals. Oh, and they make a mean martini, too. >Garrett Snyder

Where did the idea for Genever come from?

Perez: “The three of us met at UCLA through a student cultural group called Samahang Pilipino. We worked in different industries after graduating, but we stayed close. In 2013, as we were recovering from New Year’s Eve with mimosas the next morning, we talked about opening a business together, both as a way to work for ourselves and as a way to have control over our wealth and income, especially as women. That was when the idea for a bar came up—we’ve always enjoyed drinking together.”

Biggest challenge opening the business?

Sumiller: “Each of us had our strengths working in small business, but some people we dealt with saw us as three little girls. We had to put our foot down when it came to construction or landlord issues. We got used to people underestimating us. But we stuck to our business plan and had a very clear vision of what we wanted.”

What elements of the bar were most important to you?

Samala: “Our goal was to make the bar feel special, to give it a sense of place, which meant incorporating our culture and our flavors into the cocktails. We also wanted to challenge the idea of what people think women like to drink. It’s not all fruity and flowery things. We want something with whiskey or with gin. Going back to Prohibition, there’s a whole history of women operating speakeasies and running the show behind the scenes.”

Sumiller: “The design of Genever was meant to be like you were in your living room having drinks with family and friends. It’s a strong part of Filipino culture to be hospitable to anyone who comes to your home, and we feel like this is our home.”


THE PUBLIC ART DEFENDER

Danielle Brazell 

She’s the fearless leader of the Department of Cultural Affairs

Christina Gandolfo

L.A.’s Department of Cultural Affairs does an astounding amount of work on a shoestring budget: It manages historic sites like the Watts Towers and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House; it also doles out grants (ranging from $2,000 to $60,000) to local artists and organizes thousands of programs and festivals throughout the city each year (including the 37th annual Watts Towers Day of the Drum Festival & 42nd annual Simon Rodia Watts Towers Jazz Festival on September 29 and 30). Running the operation is general manager Danielle Brazell, the 52-year-old Northridge native who spent eight years as a nonprofit arts advocate before stepping into her current role in 2014. Since then she’s been on a mission to weave art into the everyday lives of Angelenos. “People often think that art is this thing that’s put up on the wall,” says Brazell. “But it’s fully integrated into civic life.” She tells us why she thinks access to the arts makes for a better L.A. >Zoie Matthew

It can help civic leaders solve tricky problems. “Artists are puzzle masters, bringing out-of-the-box thinking to problems facing our cities. We’ll put an artist-in-residence in virtually any department. For instance, we have an artist working with the Department of Transportation on the Vision Zero initiative to reduce traffic deaths.”

It builds stronger communities. “Culture and creativity inspire and connect people, and cohesive communities have a greater voice to address issues of displacement and gentrification. We need to find ways to give artists access to capital. We don’t need to import art; every community is inherently creative.”

It helps us make sense of the sprawl. “We have a massive landscape. Two years ago, the first Public Art Triennial, Current, brought temporary public art into 15 communities along the L.A. River. It was focused on water. The next iteration, in October 2019, is going to focus on food and will be anchored along the public transportation system.”


THE RISING STAR

Jen Richards 

The actor-writer is putting authentic LGBTQ experiences onscreen

Christina Gandolfo

When Jen Richards and Laura Zak uploaded Her Story to YouTube in 2016, they weren’t sure what to expect. Centered on a group of queer and trans women living and dating in Los Angeles, the six-part web series was made on a modest budget and featured a cast of relatively unknown actors. “We took bets on how many views it would get the first day, and most of us guessed around 500 to 700,” says Richards, the show’s star and co-creator. “In less than 24 hours, we had 12,000.”

Emails poured in from fans, particularly trans women who felt like they’d finally been accurately represented onscreen. In August 2016 the show became the first indie web series to earn an Emmy nomination—something Richards couldn’t have imagined when she went through her own transition in Chicago in 2011. Back then trans performers were so few and far between that she’d all but given up on her goal of becoming an actor. “It was inconceivable to me that I could play a female role, and there weren’t any trans roles,” says Richards. “It seemed like it wasn’t even an option.”

But, encouraged by acting teachers, she kept at it, landing a role alongside Zak on the web series #Hashtag. In 2015 she moved west to work on Her Story, which was born from a lack of realistic queer and trans romance narratives in mainstream media. “I felt like I was sitting on a gold mine,” she says. “I was in a community of trans people whose story had never been told—at least not the way that they really existed.”

These days Zak is writing for Netflix’s Twelve Forever, and fellow Her Story star Angelica Ross is a series regular on FX’s Pose, which features the largest transgender cast in TV history. Meanwhile Richards appeared in CBS’s Doubt and CMT’s Nashville, and she was recently cast in the Kathryn Hahn-fronted HBO pilot Mrs. Fletcher. Her short film, There You Are, took the Best of Fest award at this year’s Outfest. “It’s like the origin of a team of superheroes,” says Richards, laughing. “We feel like Avengers going of in the world and doing amazing things.”

Lately she’s been kicking around ideas for sci-fi and fantasy scripts. She’s excited to keep pushing the boundaries of what a trans narrative can be. “I feel less pressure to advance the conversation around issues,” she explains, “and more freedom to just organically include trans people in a broader form of storytelling.” >Zoie Matthew


THE DYNAMIC DUO

Erica Chidi Cohen and Quinn Lundberg 

Their educational clinic prepares new parents for all stages of family planning

Erica Chidi Cohen

Christina Gandolfo

Quinn Lundberg was just starting her public policy master’s program at UCLA when she got pregnant. “I thought, ‘I can do this,’” she says. “And I was thrown on my ass.” Overwhelmed by the challenge of balancing school and motherhood, she found a champion in her Venice neighbor Erica Chidi Cohen, a doula who conducted prenatal classes in her backyard. Wanting to bridge the gap between traditional medical care and community-based education, Lundberg, 35, and Chidi Cohen, 31, opened the reproductive wellness hub LOOM last October. Covering everything from child loss to queer family planning, the pastel-hued center in Mid City prides itself on fostering the sort of open dialogue that’s hard to come by. >Zoie Matthew

Quinn Lundberg

Lisa Cole

Your classes tackle periods, sex, parenting, even abortion.

Chidi Cohen: “When a person who has a menstrual cycle doesn’t know how it works, it puts them at a disadvantage in terms of their reproductive health. Abortion, miscarriage, stillbirth—these things are physiological events. We felt it was important that all of them were anchored in one environment.”

Lundberg: “Stigmas around miscarriage or abortion often end up making grief worse. Classwork, events, smart panelists, and good discussions make things easier.”

What challenges do you help queer parents work through in your Kin workshop?

Chidi Cohen: “A big barrier for same-sex couples is how quickly doctors have to get involved, and finding a donor is a complicated process. That puts emotional strain on the relationship. A lot of it is getting care that feels competent.”

Why does L.A. need an organization like this?

Chidi Cohen: “Families in Los Angeles are from different parts of the country or the world. Postpartum mood disorder rates here are pretty high, and that is because of the geographic challenges of being able to see people.”

Lundberg: “The traffic, the way that the city is laid out—it all creates challenges for building a community that is present when you need it.”

What’s on the horizon for LOOM?

Chidi Cohen: “Our next step is trying to bring this education to as many people as possible. We’re excited to see what the digital environment can do for us.”

Lundberg: “We’re also excited to mobilize the community around policy issues, like having events with calls to action.”


THE SEEKER

Sharon Brous 

The progressive rabbi’s putting her faith in social change

Cheryl Himmelstein

Sharon Brous knows that faith is a sticky subject in contemporary America. “Religion is increasingly defined by either violent extremism or really regressive policies and politics,” says the 44-year-old rabbi and activist. That’s why she founded IKAR, a progressive Mid City space for Jews who are seasoned or seeking, on the fence or all in. Counting Mayor Eric Garcetti among her congregants, she’s been at the forefront of a movement that puts social justice at the center of spiritual practice. Here’s why she thinks religion still matters in 2018. >Zoie Matthew

Community can be a powerful thing. “Many people are driven by a yearning for community, a desire to be around people of shared values, and an inherent human interest in ritual. We have a lot of atheists who are in Shabbat services every week because they have faith, if not in God, in the message that as human beings we are called to work for something more than our own personal fulfillment.”

Ancient texts are relevant in the present. “Our country has continually neglected to deal with the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and now mass incarceration. This was written in the Mishnah 2,000 years ago: ‘If someone steals a beam from his neighbor and then builds a beautiful house around that stolen beam, you can’t pretend that beam isn’t stolen. You have to pay for the value of the beam.’ This is where reparations come in.”

Faith allows us to focus on the big picture. “A lot of the work of clergy and faith leaders is to help people find a little crack of blue, even in a very gray sky. It’s not some kind of cheap trick to get people to feel good; it’s because without hope we die. My job is to help people remember not where we are, but where we want to be—to remind them that we can live in a society in which all people are honored.”

Religion doesn’t have to divide us. “There’s incredible potential in this city to manifest a multi-faith community of purpose. In the last couple of years we’ve seen the Latino community, the African American community, white progressive churches, the Muslim community, and the Jewish community coming together to say we will stand with one another. We will not allow policies and rhetoric that divide us to become dominant.”


THE ICON

Shirley Kurata

The under-the-radar stylist who’s shaking up L.A.’s street-wear scene 

Christina Gandolfo

Even if you don’t know Shirley Kurata‘s name, chances are you’d recognize her work. Combining midcentury silhouettes and colors with eclectic patterns and details, she’s styled advertising campaigns for brands like Kenzo and Oliver Peoples and has lent her outré skills to celebs like Zooey Deschanel, Beck, and Mindy Kaling.

A native Angeleno, the 47-year-old grew up in the San Gabriel Valley and attributes her aesthetic—what she has called “futuristic folky”—to two early influences: a collection of brightly dressed ’60s Barbie dolls she inherited from her aunt and the imported fashion magazines she’d pick up when her parents took her to Japanese bookstores. “Those magazines were more fashion-forward,” says Kurata. “They were quirky and daring.”

Kurata moved to Paris at 19 to study fashion; in 2005, she scored her big break styling Kate and Laura Mulleavy’s first runway show (you know them better as the sisters behind Rodarte)—a gig she’s continued in the 13 years since. Her latest project is Virgil Normal, an East Hollywood boutique she opened in 2015 with her boyfriend, Charlie Staunton, offering street-wear basics with a distinctively gender-neutral appeal. “I like the fact that clothing shouldn’t just be geared to one sex,” she says. “Why not create something open to everyone?”

We asked Kurata to give us a peek at a few of the events on her calendar related to a short film she’s working on for Prada. >Linda Immediato

Day 1: Kurata meets with photographer Autumn de Wilde to discuss the characters and general story line of the film.

Day 2: Drawing up a mood board of Prada’s latest looks, Kurata decides which would work best for each character and presents it to the brand.

Day 3: Kurata has the run of the Prada store on Rodeo Drive. She selects outfits for a fitting the next day.

Day 4: Back at the store, the talent arrives. Amber Valletta, Elijah Wood, Emma Roberts, and Natalia Dyer try on their looks, which are finished with shoes, handbags, and jewelry. Kurata makes necessary alterations.

Day 5: She heads to the shoot location at Santa Anita racetrack. After dressing the actors and extras, she hangs out to take care of last-minute tweaks. Twelve hours later, filming wraps.


THE FUNNY ACTIVIST

Danielle Perez

The 34-year-old stand-up is using her sense of humor to make comedy more inclusive

Christina Gandolfo

“I’ve lived in L.A. pretty much my whole life, but went to San Francisco State for college. When I was 20, I was run over by a Muni streetcar. When I came to at the hospital, my mom said to me, ‘You don’t have feet.’ I was like, ‘OK!’ and went back to sleep. It was incredibly surreal. They had these people come in and talk to me about prosthetics, and I said, ‘Hang on, stop. I have two questions: Can I be taller, and can I wear heels?’ I was transferred to Huntington Hospital in Pasadena, and I started trying to wear prosthetics, but because of the nature of the accident, they hurt a lot. So I thought, ‘I guess I use a wheelchair now.’

“I moved into my mother’s house in Eagle Rock. I got really depressed and put on a bunch of weight. My dad finally took me out to lunch, and I was really scared. I could feel all the eyeballs on me. I remember crying, but also being thankful to my dad for taking me out and letting me know that I could be a person. I decided I couldn’t be worried about what people thought about me.

“I’m disabled. I’m Latina. I’m a woman of size. If I can’t be in the room, I’m left out of the conversation.”

“I started doing comedy as a fluke when I was 30, with my friend Madison Shepard. Immediately we encountered open-mic spaces that were straight and white and male where a lot of what they say is misogynistic and homophobic. Plus comedy happens in very ‘cool’ places, and very cool places are not accessible. Things that are accessible: the Cheesecake Factory, the DMV, the post office. Like, no one wants to go there. The Comedy Store is completely inaccessible. Because of liability, a lot of venues won’t allow their employees to help me get onstage. Really. I have to crawl or get friends to help me. I remember the first time I performed at Meltdown. The creative director reached out and said, ‘How can we make this space more accessible for you?’ They were the first venue in Los Angeles to get a ramp for me.

“I’m disabled. I’m Latina. I’m a woman of size. If I can’t be in the room, I’m left out of the conversation. A lot of my humor tries to break down the whole ‘inspiration porn’ narrative, that disabled people can do no wrong. I go out there and talk about weird stuff guys say to me on the internet.

“Madison and I started Thigh Gap to support diversity in comedy. We came up with the name because we’re both big bitches—we do not have thigh gaps. We asked Danielle Radford, who’s black and thick and dope and funny, to do it with us. We’re about underrepresented voices that are, first and foremost, funny. Now I’m doing comedy surrounded by a lot of really awesome women of color, LGBTQ people, non-binary people, and disabled people. And it’s like, ‘Oh, we can change things. We don’t have to be left out.’” >As told to Zoie Matthew

Correction: This article has been updated to remove an inaccurate mention of the Department of Cultural Affairs’ participation in CicLAvia.It has also been updated with Danielle Brazell’s correct age.


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