In many ways, the title alone says it all: Head of People Sustainability and Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer. It articulates that global software corporation SAP is both paying attention to inequities in the workforce and its ecosystem, and also striving to make—and set a standard for—change. Leading the way for those changes at SAP is Judith Michelle Williams.
When we meet, Williams is 60 days into her new role, with well over 100 employees in the extended Diversity and Inclusion network at SAP, as well as her own People Sustainability team. Williams is based in South San Francisco, but travel is a key component of the job, with upcoming stops in Pennsylvania, Vancouver, and New York, as she continues to introduce herself to the multinational company. “Right now, it’s about getting to know all of the key stakeholders, so people know me and I know them and I can have that face-to-face conversation with the folks who are on the ground,” she explains while sitting in a conference room on the 11th floor of SAP’s Tower 1, the skyline a mix of industrial and Bay views. “I talk to all the leaders and understand what their pain points are, what their interest is, help with their communications to explain that this is how we should talk about inclusion.”
Williams is building her own platform as she puts her title into practice, and she brings a unique skillset she earned, in part, in academia. “I have yet to meet someone who has my career path,” she says of earning her Ph.D. from Stanford in Theater and Performance Studies and going on to tenure-track positions at Tufts University, the University of Kansas, and the University of Massachusetts. But she never quite felt at home on those campuses.
“The rubric that everyone had told me one should use for choosing a career or a life really hadn’t worked,” she acknowledges. “We tell young people, ‘Do what you love, and everything will fall into place.’ And I did that. I loved theater and I loved literature and I thought, this is what I will do. But it turns out that it’s not just do what you love—it’s finding a way of working that makes sense for the life that you want. So I had to think differently about what I wanted to do at this stage of my life, and I really had no idea.”
Williams did know two things: she wanted to travel for work and she wanted to have a home base back in California. Over the past 12 years, she has worked for four companies—and started her own business—here in the Bay Area and hasn’t had to move once from her San Francisco home. And over that time, she’s put those academic skills, such as researching, problem solving, and an impressive degree of comfort speaking in front of different groups of people, to work. Knowing she wanted to break into the business world, she started studying The Wall Street Journal and business sections of The New York Times and Washington Post daily, and diligent networking soon landed her at the Corporate Executive Board, as what was then called a Research Director, in Human Resources. “While I was there working around strategic issues around HR, we would get requests for diversity and inclusion. Today, they have more of a practice focused on diversity and inclusion, but at that time (a decade ago), they did not,” she recalls. “I developed the experience by doing that off the side of my desk.” When a company buyout was offered, Williams took it and started her own diversity and leadership consulting practice with an attorney. After career interests took them in different directions, Williams went in-house at Google, where she led “unconscious bias” workshops as Diversity Programs Manager for over four years. Her next stop was Dropbox as Global Head of Diversity.
But after losing her mother quickly to illness, Williams again took stock of what she wanted out of her life and career. She then took on consulting work with startup accelerators, VCs, and organizations like Reframe, “a partnership with women and film and the Sundance Institute. The goal is to increase gender balance in film, TV, and digital media,” Williams explains. “I helped them develop their culture-change roadmap and also some curricula around the question: How do we create a more diverse and balanced ecosystem?” It was also important to see diversity among women as well, she continues. “We worked really hard in thinking about: How do we make sure that intersectionality isn’t lost?”
Then SAP called. Her first reaction? Surprise. But as Williams got to know the company, its focus on innovation, and the members of what is now her HR peer group, she saw real parallels. “If you think about SAP’s mission—we help companies run better so we can improve peoples’ lives—and someone who’s been working to expand opportunity, there’s a really great alignment. There’s also the fact that at SAP we build the technology on which businesses run, so we want to think about: How do we build the technology for inclusion? SAP is truly poised to build that technology and ensure that as businesses grow and change, we’re thinking about building a future for everyone and not just some people.”
In action, that has Williams talking to product managers about their product road maps so the products can effectively drive inclusion. “And that’s going to be really salient to not only the way we use it, but then how our customers use it,” she says. It also has SAP revising goals it strives for and meets, like having 30% of women in leadership roles by 2022 after surpassing its goal of 25% in 2017. “That’s something that we’ll continue to work for, making sure that we continue to promote women at executive levels and ultimately all levels of the business,” Williams stresses. “SAP was one of the first tech companies to be EDGE certified, and that’s really an international standard where we agree to be measured, and we’re going to continue to drive on our gender equality.”
Meanwhile, the leads on programs like Autism at Work, “a flagship program for bringing neurodiverse people into SAP,” Williams explains, are asked to speak globally about establishing such programs and supporting its participants, putting SAP in a real pioneering position. “SAP does have quite a lot of influence, both in its technology in terms of its reputation among its customers and the ecosystem,” she says.
As Williams looks ahead to the rest of 2019, she is excited to keep building on this programming, while bringing critical thought to real impact—and not just activity—measures. So, she says, rather than asking how many sessions might have been held of a certain workshop, ask also: “What do we do next? What’s the impact? And what have we done to change the culture? If we’re saying that unconscious bias is the lever by which we create a more inclusive culture, then we need to have some impact measures so we know that that is happening. I’m really focused on identifying key impact measures, which is why having a goal of 30% women in leadership by 2022 is so important. It is also important to think aspirationally, to ask ourselves: Is this program delivering the kind of impact that we want?”
These driving questions, this professor-like inquiry, harken back to those earlier passions of hers—for performance and education, for communication and connection. “I studied theater as an artifact of culture,” Williams concludes of the correlations, “and I’m really interested in culture, the way culture changes, the way culture thinks about itself. I feel like I still get to do that.”
Written by Jennifer Massoni Pardini
After spending much of her early career as a strategy consultant for the CIA, NSA, and other powerful organizations, Jill Koziol’s resume carries some impressive weight. But even those agencies are dwarfed by the three-letter entity she’s serving now: MOM.
Koziol is the co-founder and CEO of Motherly, Inc., a community-driven lifestyle brand aimed at Millennial women whose aim is nothing short of “redefining motherhood.” Since its launch on Mother’s Day (naturally) in 2015, the company has developed a fiercely loyal and ever-increasing following, based largely on “organic, mom-to-mom sharing” of its content, Koziol says.
Having raised $2.2 million and employing a staff of about two dozen people—both extremely small figures compared to its main competitors—Motherly currently boasts an average of more than 80 million articles read or videos watched each month by an audience of more than 25 million. The week leading up to my interview with Koziol at her Menlo Park home just after Thanksgiving (all of Motherly’s employees work remotely), the site’s unique audience had reached 80% of that of digital media company Refinery 29, which employs about 400 people. “We’re punching far above our weight,” Koziol says proudly.
Koziol is naturally positive, ambitious, and determined—traits that served her well growing up in Southern Maryland to parents who modeled hard work and an entrepreneurial spirit but who had never attended college. Young Jill became a quick study of what it would take to successfully apply to top schools, and she attended Towson University and then Georgetown, where she met future husband Pete and earned a master’s degree in security studies.
Living and working in D.C. after Georgetown, she developed and implemented growth strategies in intelligence, defense, civilian and consumer markets. Then, Pete was accepted to Stanford Business School and the couple moved to the Bay Area with their 6-month-old baby girl (they now have two daughters).
A mother-daughter outing to a school playground near her home led to Koziol’s next venture, after she realized no product yet existed to help turn a standard swing into a bucket swing safe for infants. She designed and patented the SwingEase to solve that problem, and developed the Millennial-focused HoneyBee Child brand to market that and other stylish, upscale products.
In 2015, Koziol was contacted by a loose acquaintance, journalist Liz Tenety, a New Yorker who wanted to create a new type of mom-focused media company. Koziol was happy to share her advice, but she couldn’t shake a nagging feeling that something bigger was out there for the taking—or, as she puts it, “white space” waiting to be filled. “The next Monday, I called Liz back and said, ‘I know you don’t know me but I think we should partner on this and build not a media company, but a brand,’” she recalls. Tenety agreed, and Motherly was born.
So far, the brand has engaged with its audience primarily through online content, whether a week-by-week guide to pregnancy, an online video class on decluttering your home, news stories relevant to parenting, or Instagram mantras that convey Motherly’s “aspirational, empowering, nonjudgmental” tone, Koziol says. But many more things are coming this year, including the launch this month of “The Motherly Podcast,” an ongoing collaboration with online publishing platform Medium on “The Future of Parenthood,” the March debut of a line of breastfeeding and pregnancy pillows, and the publication that same month of This Is Motherhood, Motherly’s first book (available now for pre-order on Amazon).
“We felt that no one was talking to the new generation of mothers in a way that reflects their experience,” Koziol says. She describes the brand’s expansion as an effort to build the Martha Stewart Living of the Millennial generation, minus the omnipresence of a single personality. “For the Motherly mom, we’re already in her heart, we’re on her phone, and now we want to be in her home.”
Koziol stresses the belief that mothers these days should not have to choose either/or—loving or ambitious, nurturing or strong. Simi-larly, she sees no limits when it comes to her company’s potential. And so far, we don’t either.
Written by Jennifer Massoni Pardini
“My parents both hail from Baghdad,” relates Gabrielle Zilkha, who goes by Gabby. “Our family ancestry dates back thousands of years there. It was incredibly difficult for them to leave, but they escaped and started lives in New York. There is a strong Iraqi-Jewish community in New York and that’s how my mother and father met.”
Zilkha’s father started his immigrant journey as a dishwasher in a New York restaurant. He finally put together enough savings to purchase a coffee cart. His new bride pitched in and started baking for the enterprise that eventually became a successful catering business. “I grew up on Long Island,” recalls Zilkha, “in a entrepreneurial household that placed a strong emphasis on work ethic.”
Zilkha was fascinated by business from an early age. “I saw it not just as a way to gain security, but as a tool to make change,” she says. “In high school, I joined a business club called DECA and simultaneously watched a documentary on the founders of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream. I was fascinated by the concept that a business could have a social impact—that a flavor of ice cream could help the rainforest and more.” Zilkha majored in business and psychology with a minor in East Asian studies while at Brandeis University, where she earned the Eli J. and Phyllis N. Segal Fellowship for Citizen Leadership at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management.
“Eli Segal helped develop the AmeriCorps program under Clinton,” says Zilkha. “The Segal Citizen Leadership Program was established to commemorate his legacy and to develop new generations of citizen leaders.” As a Segal Fellow, Zilkha had the opportunity to spend a summer internship at Time Warner in the Corporate Responsibility department, where she worked closely with Segal Program Founder Steve Silverman. “After that experience,” says Zilkha, “I knew that I wanted to go into some kind of National service.”
But not before she gained some international experience. Zilkha traveled to China for a two-month college program at the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics. “I got involved with some entrepreneurs who were launching an app geared at the expat community and decided to stay for an additional four months and intern with their development team,” she recalls.
Upon graduating from Brandeis, Zilkha joined the City Year program with Americorps, working with 4th- and 5th-grade students on STEAM lessons in Silicon Valley. “I created activities and plans to help catch my students up to grade level—it was an incredible experience. While I was there, I discovered that SAP was a big supporter of the program and had the chance to take a shadow day at SAP. I was so excited to learn about the purpose-driven nature of SAP.” It was Zilkha’s first exposure to enterprise software. She was quickly offered a spot in SAP’s Silicon Valley Next Talent Program. “I am now a Product Owner @ SAP Conversational AI,” she notes. “I work with a team of product owners developing an AI app. We are constantly asking questions and discovering ways to build value for the customer service field.”
While Zilkha’s career is in its formative stage, it is clear that there is a bright future ahead for this talented and multi-faceted young woman.
Written by Stefanie Lingle Beasley
To sum up Katie Ledecky’s accomplishments in the pool is no small task. The freestyle force and world record-holder made her first ascent onto an Olympic starting block back in 2012 at the London Games, where she won gold at just 15. When it came time to compete in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, she made that four golds and one silver—making her the most decorated female athlete of those Games and second-most decorated athlete, behind only teammate Michael Phelps. And while it comes as little surprise that she has sights on Tokyo 2020, she is also carrying a full course load at Stanford, where she is a psychology major in her junior year.
On campus, the swimmer in Ledecky is impossible to miss, her posture and strength formed by 15 years now in the pool. “My mom thought the best way for us to meet people was to join the swim team,” Ledecky recalls of her earliest laps at age 6 back in Bethesda, Maryland. “We started swimming and all of a sudden had a hundred friends.” Ledecky also stayed active with basketball, soccer, Irish dancing, and piano, but when she broke her arm playing basketball in 4th grade, she was most disappointed about being kept out of the water. When she got back in, there was no stopping her. She worked her way up from local and national records to qualifying for Olympic trials at the age of 14.
Of walking onto an Olympic stage one year later, Ledecky says, “It was never something I dreamed of, but it was like a dream when I was there. My race wasn’t until the very end of the swimming, so I got to sit there and watch everybody, and I think that made me feel like I belonged in that setting and with those swimmers. Just watching them succeed gave me so much excitement and motivation.” As for her race, the 800-meter freestyle, she took home that first gold. By the time she got to Rio four years later, Ledecky had a full swimming schedule, and the rest is Olympic history. “I wasn’t a spectator until the very last day,” she says.
Within weeks, she entered Stanford as a college freshman. And here at the university, it’s easy to spot something else definitive in Ledecky—the absolute joy she finds in being on campus. With a big smile you would recognize from her iconic wins, she walks us over to the Quad and catches us up about her latest decisions and endeavors, both in and out of the pool. After leading Stanford to two NCAA Championships, she turned professional last March while remaining a full-time student. She will be able to focus on preparing for 2020 and still train with her team, an arena Ledecky continues to rely on for those friendships and camaraderie. “They are just really great people, very motivated both in the pool and in their academics, and that, I think, sharpens all of us,” she says of teammates, many of whom will also be competing for Olym-pic trials.
While she is carrying a full class load right now, she will cut back leading into 2020 and come back to full classes to graduate, though she isn’t rushing it. “I love it here. The longer I spend here the better. If I could live at Stanford the rest of my life, I wouldn’t be opposed to it,” she says in good humor.
She will also have more time to continue the educational outreach she is passionate about, as she adds local schools to the long list of those she’s spoken to back home in D.C. and works on programs and partnerships that explore STEM or entrepreneurship, which she sees being of interest to kids in Silicon Valley.
Ledecky, having followed her own interests from swimming to psychology to education, is an ideal representative. “At the end of the day, I started swimming just for fun and never imagined it would take me this far,” she says. “I can give back that message that I found something that I loved and got pretty good at and am continuing to do. I think if kids can find something like that and grow with that, that’s a great thing.”
Written by Jennifer Massoni Pardini
“Curiosity has shaped my career and defines who I am,” Mala Anand relates. Anand grew up in Mumbai and had a passion for science and math from an early age. “I was always very curious to learn and try new things,” she notes. Anand’s parents held science in the highest regard and instilled in her a love for how things work. “They are both physicians,” she says, “my father a cardiologist and my mother a pediatrician.”
Anand earned a spot at the University of Massachusetts to study computer science. She followed it up with a master’s in Computer Science from Brown University. “I selected Brown because I wanted to pursue research in data, and Brown was very strong in the data base arena,” she says.
Upon graduating from the university, Anand worked for several startups and jumped into the VC world as Entrepreneur in Resi-dence for Kleiner Perkins. She also developed software products for Corosoft (BMC), Rapt (Microsoft), and Beyond, Inc. Anand went on to lead enterprise software and go-to-market teams at Oracle and Digital Equipment Corporation, focusing on software products and technology vision, go-to-market strategies, and delivering enterprise software and services. From there, she spent a decade at Cisco leading the company’s Data and Analytics | Automation Software Platforms business with a focus on innovative solutions to aggregate and analyze today’s hyper-distributed and real-time streaming data.
A strategic thinker with multiple technology patents to her credit, Anand was recruited most recently to SAP for the role of Exe- cutive Vice President Leonardo | Data & Analytics with a goal of delivering innovative solutions to the market that help customers develop informed, timely insights to establish new modes of engaging their workforce and customers. “SAP’s Leonardo digital innovation platform is fascinating,” notes Anand. “It combines software capabilities across machine learning, Big Data, the Internet of Things (IoT), and analytics, all on the cloud platform using advanced design thinking services and creating differentiated business outcomes for customers.” Her primary focus is on market acceleration, product development, and adoption in one of SAP’s core areas of integrated innovation.
When asked how the landscape has changed for women in technology over the years, Anand stresses that she sees positive improvements, but believes it’s up to wo-men with established tech careers to give back. “Mentoring is so important,” she says. “I think being able to mentor and encourage women in this field is critical to instilling confidence and learning to take risks. Women need to aim high and know that they can walk through the doors of technology and succeed, but they must be surrounded by a network of mentors.” A strong believer in teamwork, Anand points to Nelson Mandela as a source of inspiration. “He shaped a lot of my thinking,” she relates. “He had a desire for constant learning and was a great uni-fier—so critical when building teams.”
Team building extends into Anand’s home life as well. When she’s not at work, Anand loves to travel with her husband and two teenage sons. “Travel and exploration have always been a great passion of ours,” she says emphatically. “We treasure that quality time together and have worked hard to maintain that over the years.”
Written by Stefanie Lingle Beasley
Speaking from her new office at the Silicon Valley Organization (formerly the San Jose Chamber of Commerce), Madison Nguyen recalls her childhood. One of her very first memories is of leaving her homeland, Vietnam, via a fishing boat in the middle of the night—she was just 4 years old. “My parents risked everything for the American Dream,” she says. “All nine of us crowded onto the boat (Nguyen had seven siblings at the time). We were at sea for seven days before a ship from the Philippines rescued us.”
The Nguyen family spent the next three years in a refugee camp in the Philippines until a Lutheran church in Scottsdale, Arizona, sponsored them to come to the U.S.. Nguyen’s father worked as a janitor at the church, but his single salary did not go far enough to care for the family. In need of finding work for more of the family, they moved to Modesto. “I woke up at 4am,” notes Nguyen. “I was in the fields picking fruit with my parents by 5:30am every day—weekends, summers, any day that I was not in school.”
College wasn’t an option for Nguyen. “It was a necessity,” she says emphatically. “It was my only way to a better life.” The ambitious young Nguyen was accepted at UC Santa Cruz, where she majored in history. “I then went to the University of Chicago for my master’s degree,” she notes, “and returned to Santa Cruz to pursue a Ph.D. in sociology, and then taught sociology classes at De Anza.” It was during that period of time that Nguyen began studying the local Vietnamese community.
“I realized that this vibrant community had been in San Jose for 25 years, yet did not have a voice in local government,” she recalls. “I decided to run for a seat on the local school board.” She ran against three incumbents in 2001 and won. Four years later, Nguyen ran for San Jose City Council in a special election to replace Terry Gregory in District 7. She won with 62% of the vote and became the first Vietnamese American to serve on the San Jose City Council.
In 2011, Mayor Chuck Reed nominated Nguyen as Vice Mayor, and she was unanimously approved by the City Council. “It is still hard for me to believe that an immigrant like myself could be Vice Mayor of one of America’s 10 largest cities,” she notes. “This is why parents risked so much—they wanted us to have opportunity.”
Nguyen attempted to run for Mayor in 2014, but came in fourth. She says, “Once you run for public office, it’s in your blood.” Ngu-yen does not rule out jumping back into an election in the future, but for now her focus is on pushing Silicon Valley Organization (SVO) to be a driver of public policy throughout the Valley. She wants SVO to work with more nonprofits like Hunger at Home (the nonprofit she ran until January 2018). “Groups like SVO,” says Nguyen, “don’t typically touch on issues like homelessness and hunger, but they can have a major impact of small and large businesses.”
During her precious downtime away from advocating for SVO’s 1,400-member businesses, Nguyen enjoys spending time with her daughter and husband. “I love to read, too,” she notes. “I think my years in academia have really influenced me. I will read policy position papers late into the night.”
When asked if her parents are proud of her accomplishments, Nguyen relates, “They are now, but not at first. They left Vietnam because of politics and couldn’t believe I would choose to go into this field, but now see its value. Politics is really a mechanism to enable people without a voice to have one.”
Written by Stefanie Lingle Beasley
You’re on deadline for a big work project. You volunteered to be room parent. You sit on a charitable board. You fit in exercise when you can, not to mention running a household, where your partner or kids have competing commitments. If any of this sounds familiar, you have a lot in common with the “overscheduled women” described in author Yvonne Talley’s new book, Breaking Up with Busy.
You’d also have a lot in common with Tally herself, whose personal breakup with busy started after suffering an eye-opening panic attack—her first and only—back in 2012. “I missed my own signs of being overscheduled and over busy,” Tally explains of once getting by on five hours sleep while maintaining a heavy-duty work schedule and the responsibilities of raising her daughter as a single mother. “Now, we can do this, and I mean ‘we’ as women,” Tally emphasizes. “But it’s being able to sustain it in a healthy way. And that was the knock on the head.”
As co-founder of Poised—a health and fitness company based in Menlo Park that she has run with business partner and best friend Jill Plant since 2000—Tally was in the ideal position to make necessary lifestyle changes. “I work with companies, organizations, nonprofits, and individuals to expand their wellness through mindfulness and health,” explains Tally, who found her own starting point with mindfulness, something she had ironically lost track of as she both prescribed and pursued an otherwise healthy lifestyle.
It’s easy to lose track when “busy” has become the norm, Tally lays out in the book. It’s part status symbol, part cultural ideology, and part measure of success. “Busyness is not just a behavior; it is an ethos that claims ownership of our time,” she writes. “Moving away from busy behavior takes more than just solutions; it requires each of us to discover the motivation underneath our behavior.”
To identify those motivations and seek solutions, Tally spoke with other women and found she wasn’t alone. “Most women have felt like an overscheduled woman at some point in their lives, especially when raising a family and building a career simultaneously,” she says, noting that many of her female clients who do not have children still experience unrealistic levels of expectation and demand. It’s this “imbalance between obligation and expectation and the lack of personal replenishment that leaves many women feeling like they can’t catch up with their lives.” The things that would help—a little more leisure time, saying no to that next ask—often come with a sense of guilt, especially for women. (Again, sound familiar?)
While Tally’s book is full of exercises to help identify your own motivations and solutions, she says there are three things anyone can do to break free from common busy traps in small, incremental shifts: simply slow down the way you walk, talk, and drive. “Try that for one day just to get a feel for where your pace is. Then you can start to see or create a shift,” says Tally, who advises making one shift at a time—from one minute of daily meditation to cutting back on social media by five minutes a day—in order to make manageable and valuable changes in overall wellness, as well as the well-being of our most important inner circles of family and enjoyments.
Having now raised her daughter, Juliette, who is 26 and building a marketing career, Tally notes she is already leaning on mindful solutions. “I’m thrilled she’s adopted, at her young age, the meditation, the yoga, that holistic lifestyle when it comes to solving difficult situations. I think a big thing, especially for Millennials, is that they can create that space where they can unplug in a way that’s going to nurture them, away from the tech and the fast pace of continuous distraction.”
No matter our generation, be it the one that worked so hard to have it all, the one often overscheduled with it all, or the one connected 24/7, Tally’s thesis is an important reminder that we can all afford to slow things down. Perhaps then, busy for the sake of busy will look a little less familiar.
Written by Jennifer Massoni Pardini
What do Tim McGraw, Ronnie Lott, and Hunter Pence have in common? They’ve all worked closely with Bay Area-based events specialist Kelley O’Brien. Indeed, O’Brien’s rock-star contact list reads like a who’s who of the entertainment, sports, and philanthropic world. For nearly 25 years, she’s perfected her craft of creating flawless events that range from intimate 20-person dinner parties to concerts, to major fundraising events that fill up venues like AT&T Park.
“I started in retail,” recalls O’Brien. “While I was going to school at FIDM, I took a job at Nordstrom. I rose through the ranks quickly and became the youngest Personal Touch manager in the company’s history.” O’Brien’s skills were spotted by the special events team and she quickly started developing programs for the retailer.
In 2000, she was recruited to join NFL Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott’s All Stars Helping Kids—a charitable organization designed to seed-fund nonprofit startups serving low-income youth. “Ronnie launched All Stars Helping Kids after gathering a few friends together for a dinner to benefit the local community,” says O’Brien. “The evening raised $100,000. In 1989, that was a large sum. It spurred Ronnie to create the charity. I was brought in as Director of Special Events to design/execute events that would help fund the organization’s goals and take their existing events to the next level.”
O’Brien oversaw The Ronnie Lott Celebrity Invitational Golf Classic at Pebble Beach, which included over 40 different celebrity performers and participants, including Al Gore, John Elway, Buzz Aldrin, Penny Marshall, Howie Mandel, Dwight Clark, Joe Montana, Sterling Sharpe, Keri Walsh, and Kristi Yamaguchi, as well as An Evening of Music, Art, & Heart, which featured such world-renowned artists as Jackson Browne, Kenny Loggins, Lionel Richie, Harry Connick, Jr., Natalie Cole, and Darius Rucker.
Five years later, the CEO of UCSF personally asked O’Brien to establish and build a Special Events and Community Relations department at UCSF Medical Center. “I loved the challenge,” recalls O’Brien fondly of her decade-long position at UCSF. “We were able to be really creative.” Highlights during her tenure included the opening events and gala for the Mission Bay Hospital, the Chancellor Leadership Speaking Series, which included speakers like Sheryl Sandberg, and the UCSF Concert for Kids in partnership with the Salesforce.com Foundation, which draws some top names in entertainment like Bruno Mars, the Foo Fighters, Green Day, and U2.
In 2015, O’Brien made the move to launch her own eponymous firm. “The timing felt right,” she says of the move. “I wanted to be able to leverage my skills and relationships to help clients and a variety of charities. I so love what I do. We don’t just put on great parties, we strive to make memories. We bring people together often for inspiring causes. There’s nothing more rewarding than spotlighting a charity that’s making an impact.”
Written by Stefanie Lingle Beasley
When speaking to Aleesa Pitchamarn Alexander, one can hear two distinct emotions in her voice. First, there’s the relief. The Assistant Curator of American Art at Stanford University’s Cantor Arts Center recently completed her dissertation, earning her Ph.D. from UCSB’s Department of the History of Art and Architecture. Over seven years, she worked on “Unaccountable Modernisms: The Black Arts of Post-Civil Rights Alabama,” researching, meeting, and eventually assisting in exhibiting work by a group of black male artists from the Birmingham area of Alabama.
As for that other emotion in her voice, it comes from her genuine, energizing excitement for bringing a broad and diverse field of American Art and American Art History into wider focus. “The black South has produced some of the greatest artistic movements and artists of the 20th century,” she notes. “Long overlooked, the production of this region is an essential part of the narrative of American art.”
As the Jane and Morgan Whitney Fellow in Modern and Contemporary Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City over this past year, Alexander assisted curators Randy Griffey and Amelia Peck with the exhibition, History Refused to Die: Highlights from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation Gift. Three of the artists she was then writing about were included in the exhibit (and she continues to write about two of them today for an upcoming showing at the Cantor). “Museums have a social, intellectual, and moral imperative to really address the inequities and the oversights that have occurred institutionally throughout the history of art,” Alexander says. “Ultimately, this address only enhances the state of field, because you get to tell more challenging—and more representative—stor-ies. We’re in a moment right now where a lot of museums are reevaluating their role, and, importantly, value, in contemporary society. So I’m very excited to be able to participate in that conversation.”
In her new role at the Cantor, Alexander is continuing to bring her passion to the invaluable contributions of so-called “outsider” or “self-taught” artists, as she works to reinstall the Cantor’s modern and contemporary galleries. “I’ll be bringing some of these artists’ work into the installation to reinvigorate our collection and help us more accurately reflect the diversity of modern and contemporary art,” she says. In that vein, the Cantor is opening three exhibits beginning in February: The Medium is the Message: Art Since 1950; Josiah McElheny: Island Universe; and STRAY: A Graphic Tone, featuring the work of Shannon Ebner. And in March, Alexander is bringing artist and musician Lonnie Holley to the Cantor, where some of his pieces will be on display as part of The Medium is the Message.
Alexander is quick to point to John & Jill Freidenrich Director Susan Dackerman as the driving force behind the Cantor’s “re-envisioning,” saying, “One of the major reasons I wanted to come to the Cantor is because her vision for the museum is so exciting and necessary.” Alexander also tips her hat to fellow curators Dr. Padma Maitland, Patrick J.J. Maveety Assistant Curator of Asian Art, and Dr. Elizabeth Mitchell, Burton and Deedee McMurtry Curator and Director of the Curatorial Fellowship Program. “We’re all collectively working on turning the Cantor into an even more vibrant arts center of Silicon Valley,” she says. Being housed on the Stanford campus is an extension of that collaborative ethos for Alexander, who loves being part of a university, a setting that offers both the opportunity to be experimental as well as the vital curiosity of a student body.
The theme of education also plays back into Alexander’s driving passion for inclusion. “Often, artists who are not formally trained tend to get marginalized in Art History, or the intellectual power of their work is not thoroughly acknowledged,” she says. “We must have a more nuanced and expansive understanding of what constitutes an education, and who has the ability to access certain kinds of education.” Under such direction at art institutions like the Cantor, greater access indeed feels granted.
Written by Jennifer Massoni Pardini
My work writing about Yael Garten for this issue began with a question—but not for Yael Garten. “Siri, what is data science?” I asked my iPhone. The response (pulled from Wikipedia): Data science is an interdisciplinary field that uses scientific processes and systems to extract knowledge or insights from data.
This seemed insufficient to describe the profession Harvard Business Review dubbed “the sexiest job of the 21st century” in 2012. So to find out more, it was time to turn to Garten, Apple’s director of Siri Data Science and Engineering. Speak to me like a kindergartener, I requested; what’s your job all about?
A data scientist, she explained, is “a person who finds a problem that is important to solve —like predicting weather, how safe a piece of electronic device is, how good a medicine will be for a specific person, what part of a pro- duct experience can be measurably improved, where a company should invest its resources (money and people)—and solves it using math and statistics, creative analytical thinking, and computer programming, to prototype, experiment, analyze, recommend, and build.” The “science” in data science comes from creating a method of analysis that is both rigorous and reproducible, she continues, and there’s an art to it as well, in the form of figuring out how to represent an often-vast, real-world problem as data points that can be analyzed. Okay, that’s more like it.
Garten joined Apple in 2017 after six years spent working in data science at LinkedIn. She describes her team’s mission as improving Apple’s voice assistant “by using data as the voice of our customers. At Apple, we focus on creating products that enrich people’s lives, and Siri enables people to get things done better, faster, and safer.”
A lifelong passion for scientific experimentation, two parents who worked as computer programmers, and a stint in the Israeli Army working in Intelligence (Garten was born in Israel and her family moved back when she was 14 after a dozen years on the East Coast) all helped point her toward pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Computational Biology—the use of software and algorithm design to solve problems in biology and medicine.
She went on to receive a master’s in Bioinformatics from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel and then moved to California to attend Stanford, where she received her Ph.D. in Biomedical Informatics in 2010. Her thesis focused on pharmacogenomics, the study of how genetic variation in humans impacts our response to drugs. She developed a system that understands and infers from scientific literature the critical interactions between genes, drugs, and diseases, and provides researchers and clinicians with useful predictions of potentially harmful drug interactions.
“I really believe in data-informed (not data-driven) product development,” Garten explains. “Fundamentally any problem can be better solved, and any decision can be better made, using data.”
When she’s not hanging out with Siri in Cupertino, Garten can be found spending time with her husband and three kids, ages 11, 9, and 4. Her hobbies include hiking, travel, and photography—preferably all three at once. She also volunteers her time to Project Cornerstone, an initiative of the YMCA of Silicon Valley that works to build a web of support around young people so they feel valued, respected, and known. In and out of work, she is an active advocate advancing Women in STEM.
Garten’s passion is evident and infectious. “I want to make sure that the work I do has real impact on as many people as it can,” she shares. “My passion for data science leadership is about enabling organizations to realize maximum potential utilizing measurement as a way of life to make better decisions.”
Written by Robin Hindery