Bay Area women are leading in forward-thinking sectors that will shape the way we live our lives for generations to come.
On a recent commute from the tail end of Silicon Valley into the Financial District, I listened to KQED’s Forum as guests weighed in on electric vehicles’ bright future, with expanding charging infrastructure across the state. Panelists that day included Commissioner Patricia Monahan of the California Energy Commission, and the conversation covered Governor Gavin Newsom’s executive order identifying 2035 as the target for zero-emission vehicle production in California.
In anticipation of this month’s Women in Power issue, I got to thinking about figures like Monahan, who lead in traditionally male-dominated fields like EV and energy. Monahan’s success reminded me of other arenas where California is guiding society into the future. While the new economy of cryptocurrencies dovetails with the emerging metaverse and AI proliferates just about everything we do, what are the tangible fields to watch? Who are the women working hard today for everyone’s tomorrow?
Reader, I found them, right here in the Bay Area — from the persistence of UCSF’s Dr. Monica Gandhi and her clear communication of the science of infectious disease and Julie Owono’s efforts at Stanford to mitigate the next variants of disinformation, to the equitable mission of cofounder Tiffany Carter’s SF Black Wallstreet and Jeannie Lam’s vision of aviation autonomy at Wisk, which may soon change the way I — and we — commute altogether.
While I can’t book an air taxi to replace my drive to work just yet, that day is coming here in our bastion of innovation. In speaking with these women, their insights reveal the foundation of a future rooted not only on a cutting edge, but also in inclusion, science and technology — and indeed in power.
Tiffany Carter – OPEN(ING) SPACE
Today, chef Tiffany Carter owns and operates Boug Cali at La Cocina Municipal Marketplace in the Tenderloin, with its “California creole coastal” specialities also available at Chase Center. But when she first moved back to her native San Francisco six years ago, she found barriers to reentry. First and foremost with housing, both for herself as well as the customers Carter expected to attract. Instead, they were already commuting home to Antioch or as far as Stockton and weren’t coming back into the City on weekends. “My community definitely wasn’t the same as when I left it,” says Carter. In the Bayview, where her grandmother’s house is across the street from Gilman Park, as well as in San Francisco at large, Carter was not seeing commercial or public social spaces for a young Black woman like herself.
Both of Carter’s parents were also born in San Francisco, after her grandparents moved from Alabama and Louisiana and worked for the former Navy shipyard. Carter’s mother, Lynn Westry, works for the San Francisco Department of Public Health, and Carter’s only daughter is a criminal justice major at San Jose State University with eyes on law school.
For a second-generation San Franciscan with such rich roots, a lack of locations with which to identify is especially poignant. It also, as it often does, led to a lightbulb moment for Carter. In 2020, she put out a call on social media to come together for Juneteenth. The response prompted an in-person gathering at Gilman Park. “We needed to see each other’s faces in our community,” Carter recalls. “And from there it took on a life of its own and it just never stopped because we found that people did need us.”
“We needed to see each other’s faces in our community. And from there it took on a life of its own and it just never stopped because we found that people did need us.” — Tiffany Carter
That life of its own became SF Black Wallstreet, the organization Carter cofounded that summer with six other San Franciscans, primarily women — Gwendolyn Brown, Tinisch Hollins, Bivett Brackett, Kenya Boddie, Geoffrea Morris and Jameel Patterson. SFBW’s overall drive has been to find and fill spaces for Black ownership, both commercial and residential, with an eye on spatial justice in a city whose Black population has dwindled from a 1970 peak of 13 percent to less than 6 percent, according to 2019 U.S. Census Bureau data.
Enter the organization’s Black Millionaire Development Program, aimed to stabilize and increase the number of Black entrepreneurs in the City, while providing points of connection with other business owners and sharing resources. The first of eight planned collaborative cohorts began in January, specifically for women. (Upcoming cohorts will target men and “justice-involved individuals,” transitional-age youth and seniors.) Of the more than 100 women who applied, 10 were chosen for the eight-week program. “With our entrepreneurs in the cohort, I like to pick their brain and ask questions,” says Carter. “Like, where do you see yourself? And one of them, she’s Afro Colombian and she wants to open up in the Marina and I’m like, ‘That’s great.’ We need to occupy these spaces across San Francisco and bring the diversity and the culture to other places.” Two other aspiring restaurateurs are also in the cohort.
Nicole Williams, a participant in the program, has been running Belle Noire Accessories — jewelry, head wraps, fanny packs and other specialties made by artisans from Africa and the African diaspora — for the past three years. She works largely at pop-ups around the Bay Area, such as Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center’s event in Hayward on March 19, during Women’s History Month. “The information has been priceless,” says Williams. “What SF Black Wallstreet is really striving to do is create sustainable, successful Blackowned businesses in San Francisco, along with other things, like home ownership and collective economics.” Williams stresses how important that economic piece is, also noting the City’s cost of living. She plans to use her grant money to hire a web designer and create a direct marketing path for her merchandise, so women both here and in the communities where her products are made can build wealth. “I would like to reach a place where this becomes financially sustainable, financially successful so that I can teach other women to do the same,” Williams says.
And while it’s too early to share details, Carter is working on her own business development as well, aiming to open a third Boug Cali. For now, operating alongside a collective of women entrepreneurs at La Cocina, in a space that was formerly a cityowned post office, is a perfect example of SF Black Wallstreet’s mission. “Having space in San Francisco — it’s survival almost. It shows how much we’ve been pushed out of these spaces,” Carter says. “A normal landlord probably wouldn’t look at me as equitable. I have proven because I’m able to occupy these spaces that we are able to run successful businesses.”
Dr. Monica Gandhi – CLEAR AND PRESENT SCIENCE
Harvard’s Dr. Jeffrey Flier recently described UCSF’s Dr. Monica Gandhi as “a consistent voice of reason on the pandemic and its most contentious issues. She has the training, academic accomplishment, values and integrity to do this as few can.” Gandhi retweeted it with her appreciation to her nearly 93,000 followers, which include public health professor and CNN medical analyst Dr. Leana Wen, FiveThirtyEight founder Nate Silver and Crooked Media cofounder Jon Favreau.
Soon, Gandhi has said, she will step away from Twitter. In addition to praise, she has borne the brunt of anger and polarization on the platform, largely from detractors of the harm-reduction and risk-stratified reason she voices. Steeped as that reason is in decades of infectious disease research. Gandhi is a UCSF professor of medicine and associate chief of the Division of HIV, Infectious Diseases and Global Medicine at UCSF, as well as the medical director of Ward 86, the HIV clinic at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital.
She has stayed on Twitter largely to get us through Omicron, though what it will mean to get through the pandemic as a whole is shifting. In the Bay Area, highly effective COVID-19 vaccines are widely available, as are antiviral therapies, quality masks, testing and wastewater surveillance for new variants. Postponed FDA approval for Pfizer’s vaccine use for children under 5 is a setback, but we could see it in the next couple of months, Gandhi says. This “will be important during this phase as many parents feel anxious about having them be the only group without a vaccine, although children under 5 are very low risk.”
With her bylines everywhere from Mission Local to the Atlantic, I can say as a parent that Gandhi’s science-based perspective is a sincere salve in a 24-hour, fear-based media landscape.
“It isn’t about completely opening society because we’ve had to try to contain the virus, and it isn’t about completely closing society,” she says before starting her clinical service for the day. “It’s the middle ground. It’s harm reduction.”
“I became extremely interested in social justice and — to me — nothing speaks more to the intersection between inequities and human disease than infectious diseases.” — Dr. Monica Gandhi
It’s also a position that two years in, more and more people seem to agree with. Gandhi defined “endemicity” in the Washington Post last September, well ahead of the Omicron surge in the U.S. that put the concept — lowering incidence and reducing harm for society rather than eradicating the virus — into the mainstream conversation. Just last month, California lifted its indoor mask mandate for vaccinated individuals and adopted the country’s first endemic virus policy.
“It’s not that we didn’t try,” Gandhi says. “That we didn’t mask hard enough, and we didn’t keep our children out of school hard enough, and we didn’t keep things closed long enough. It’s because of the nature of the virus. … It has animal reservoirs. It has a long asymptomatic period. It doesn’t have sterilizing immunity to vaccines, and it looks like other respiratory pathogens. Fundamentally that means it can’t be eradicated. It’s infectious disease epidemiology 101.”
Gandhi’s deep knowledge of the history and behavior of infectious diseases goes back to a long-held fascination in microbiology. “However, it was when I went to Harvard Medical School in 1991 that I saw the politics and polarization of a relatively new infectious disease,” she says of HIV. “I became extremely interested in social justice and — to me — nothing speaks more to the intersection between inequities and human disease than infectious diseases.”
After graduating, she moved to the Bay Area in 1996 for her medical residency at UCSF because, she says, “San Francisco was the epicenter of the HIV epidemic in the U.S. in the ’80s and early ’90s and I wanted to learn from the great scientists and doctors here,” adding that she was interested “in the holistic and harm-reduction approach the region took with confronting the HIV epidemic.” Gandhi has been at the university ever since, teaching medicine, treating patients and conducting research. It’s also where she met her late husband, UCSF Professor of Medicine Dr. Rakesh Mishra, with whom she had two sons. For more than 25 years, she has remained in San Francisco and committed to the public health of its residents.
“I think the Bay Area did a great job with HIV but did not adopt a harmreduction approach to the COVID-19 pandemic, and — after the Bay Area declares endemicity — the health care establishment should take over COVID-19 management with vaccines and therapeutics. I hope the Bay Area public health enterprise then turns to some of our other pressing public health needs: HIV, TB, childhood vaccination and mental health, sexually transmitted diseases, substance use, homelessness and overdose deaths, to name a few.”
For her part, she will remain dedicated to her honored role at Ward 86. “My true love is HIV medicine,” she says. “I also love HIV research and do a lot of work on adherence to HIV prevention and treatment, including in women. I am super excited about the Moderna HIV vaccine trial.” Preliminary work with the mRNA vaccine developed for HIV has shown promise, and Gandhi will be watching the human trial closely. Because while COVID has been appropriately top of mind these past two years, there has been another virus in our midst for more than 40 now. And were it to finally be preventable with a vaccine, we may soon have cause once again to marvel at the power of science.
Julie Owono – GLOBAL CITIZEN
It’s appropriate that Julie Owono has three spearheading roles — as the executive director of both the Content Policy and Society Lab at Stanford and Parisbased Internet Sans Frontières (Internet Without Borders) as well as an inaugural member of Meta’s independent Oversight Board. After all, the ability to mitigate disinformation and hate speech with any meaningful impact increasingly depends on making connections across language and industry.
Originally from Cameroon, the mother of two young sons came to the Peninsula by way of France in January 2020 for a Digital Civil Society Lap Fellowship at Stanford for nonprofit leaders. “I was working on freedom of expression and content moderation and platformization of our societies, and so many other issues,” she says. The fellowship evolved into her current role, where Owono’s work continues to intersect policy and international technology law, human rights, digital rights, freedom of expression and privacy. Also always in the balance: the stability of democracy. In other words, no low stakes here.
“There has been a lot of discussion on regulating content platforms, social media in particular,” Owono says. “But the problem is, the way the regulations are drafted and applied is not working. Because we’re still here nearly six years after 2016, talking about disinformation. So it must be that we’re not doing something quite right.” Case in point: The Oversight Board, which has been operating since May 2020 as a fully independent external entity, recently noted that Facebook’s community standards were not translated into Punjabi, a language spoken by 100 million people in India.
Owono and 19 other members of the Oversight Board (supported by 72 others in the organization, which has offices in San Francisco and London) can illuminate such blind spots. Board members hail from around the world and various fields of expertise — including Yemen-based Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Tawakkol Karman, former Prime Minister of Denmark Helle Thorning-Schmidt, PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel and Stanford Law School’s Michael McConnell, who directs the university’s Constitutional Law Center.
“Many of the threats that we are barely seeing right now in the United States are actually, at this moment as we are speaking, being tested, tried, perfected by bad actors in markets where there is less — Julie Owono
While the board’s work makes retroactive decisions about Meta’s policies, Owono is always thinking about tomorrow. “Many of the threats that we are barely seeing right now in the United States are actually, at this moment as we are speaking, being tested, tried, perfected by bad actors in markets where there is less scrutiny, where there is less regulation,” Owono says. “While we are fighting disinformation here, we should also open our ears, first of all, to disinformation that is not in English.”
Owono points to small African countries where Russian or Chinese digital influence is growing as well as the massive amount of COVID-19 misinformation circulating in Spanish across the U.S., which has been under-addressed in comparison to that in English. “In light of misinformation that has been spread about COVID-19, vaccinations and the 2020 election,” Axios reported in February, “the Congressional Hispanic Caucus requested meetings with leaders of Meta, TikTok, YouTube and Twitter [in January] to discuss what steps platforms are taking.”
Kelly Born, the director of the Hewlett Foundation’s Cyber Initiative, is familiar with Owono’s efforts to preserve a safe global Internet. “Julie has deep insights into how challenges around disinformation and Internet freedom are playing out on a global scale, including how authoritarian-leaning regimes can use the problem of disinformation as an excuse to shut down these platforms — which in effect are the Internet in many of these countries — that are also being used to help voice and organize legitimate dissent.”
Owono hopes that companies here in the U.S. also understand their users’ hunger for transparency and accountability. (Former Redwood City resident Neil Young and other musicians’ recent standoff with Spotify over podcaster Joe Rogan’s dissemination of hate speech and COVID-19 misinformation is a good example.) For its part, in October, the Oversight Board published its 12-month transparency report, which included some 70 recommendations to Meta, all of which were responded to publicly. “That is a big step because three years ago there were no public conversations with platforms on content moderation decisions,” says Owono, who is aware that even oversight such as hers cannot catch or predict all threats. “We are helping the company have hard public conversations, but necessary conversations, about how it’s dealing with expressions of citizens around the world.”
Owono’s initial desire to come to Silicon Valley is part of her effort to incorporate its entrepreneurial mindset into her own global outlook. “Stanford is a well-placed institution, in my opinion, to welcome these types of conversations or initiatives,” she says. “And many of the companies coming will be created at Stanford.”
Jeannie Lam – AUTONOMOUS HORIZON
For Jeannie Lam, it was love at first sight. And she doesn’t mean her 11-years-and-counting bond with the Bay Area, the delicious dim sum back in her native Toronto, or California life with her husband and two young children. She’s talking about electric vehicles.
After starting her career in the automotive field as a consumer market researcher in 2002, Lam served on a small team in 2007 that began planning for the Nissan Leaf’s 2010 launch. Over the next decade, the Leaf would become the top-selling plug-in EV, only surpassed by the Tesla Model 3 in 2020. “I fell in love with the whole space, the whole ecosystem,” says Lam, who had a driver’s seat view as the industry evolved.
Today, Lam is in a similar seat — or cockpit you might say — with her role as director of strategy at Wisk, the autonomous air taxi startup headquartered in Mountain View. Backed by the Boeing Company and Kitty Hawk Corporation, Wisk is working with eVTOL technology (vertical take-off and landing, like a helicopter) to produce small planes that fly themselves, without the need for a pilot. “I could get up every day for another 10, 15, 20 years and see a whole new industry build out,” Lam says. “My hope with the advanced air mobility and urban taxis is that we’re going to have a whole pool of people that are already believers in electrification.”
Boeing recently awarded Wisk $450 million, which the company will use for further development of its sixthgeneration aircraft, an intensive growth phase, preparations for the launch of scale manufacturing and its go-to-market efforts.
“This space doesn’t only need engineers. We need people from go-to-market. We need awesome comms people. We need all skill sets to come over to advance air mobility.” — Jeannie Lam
With FAA approval, Wisk and similar startups will help usher in a future of advanced air mobility. Unlike with players pursuing piloted versions first, however, Wisk’s sights have been on autonomy — with the first autonomous U.S. air taxi in flight five years ago. It has conducted more than 1,500 test flights to date for five versions of its air taxi technology, which currently has a 25-mile range and speeds of up to 100 miles per hour.
While the public can’t hail an air taxi today, that reality is on the horizon. “It’s for the next generation,” says Lam, who has a 10-year-old and 3-year-old at home. And while it sounds futuristic, self-flying technology may prove easier to bring to market than the variables associated with an autonomous future on wheels — pedestrians, cyclists and oh-so-many cars. As Lam says, “Our CEO [Gary Gysin] tends to say that we will be flying fully autonomous before we’ll be driving fully autonomous.”
So what might this future look like? Well, my 75-mile commute to San Francisco under good traffic conditions that would take 90 minutes would take half that amount of time by air taxi between designated landing sites (e.g., an existing airport or new or converted infrastructure). “San Carlos Airport is so close to my home and it’s so convenient,” Lam says. “I could literally bike there if I wanted to.” Palo Alto Airport, Half Moon Bay Airport and Buchanan Field Airport in Concord also spring to mind. “It’s a way to revitalize this aging infrastructure into mobility hubs for communities, improve first response, improve the power grid,” she notes.
As for other women leading in her field, Lam is co-chairwoman of the Bay Area chapter of Women of Electric Vehicles, which aims to empower and “elEVate” women in the industry. “A lot of engineering still lacks a proportion of women. So that’s why this group kind of started,” says Lam, who points to General Motors CEO Mary Barra as a great example of progress. “This space doesn’t only need engineers. We need people from go-to-market. We need awesome comms people. We need all skill sets to come over to advance air mobility.”
Coming out of the pandemic, the chapter, in coordination with those in Sacramento and San Diego, will grow its networking and career development support. One of Lam’s goals “is to recruit [a] younger generation, right out of school or interning and trying to figure out their path, and just say, ‘Hey, there’s so much to be done here. And you would have such a fulfilling long career in this space that’s right at its beginning.’”