Women of San Diego: What We Know Now
7 successful local women reflect on the moments that made the difference in their career and lives
Director, San Diego Public Library
Jones oversees all 36 branches of the San Diego library system and is president of the California Library Association.
I came into libraries as a second career. I had been in social services and was burned out. I started in the South Carolina library system and eventually made my way to San Diego.
At our Central Library location, we have a maker space with a 3-D printer and a patent and trademark resource center. We help small business owners and entrepreneurs who want to print a prototype.
One gentleman kept coming in and was really demanding of the staff. They didn’t know what to do. He was monopolizing all the time in the lab and overstepping his boundaries. One day he showed up in the lobby and demanded to see me. He was so argumentative, saying, “They’re not allowing me to use the space when I want to. I’m a patron and a patron is always right. I won’t take no for an answer!” After a while, I said, “You’re not going to let me talk, so I’m going to walk away. You won’t be able to use the space anymore.” I got to the door of the administration office and had my hand on the knob when he burst into tears. I sat back down and said, “What is really going on here? This is not about being able to use the space.” He told me he was homeless. When the economy tanked, he lost his job and was moving around all the time. He’d had an idea for an invention and someone was interested in funding it. When he’d learned he could come in and use the software and print for free, he thought, This could change my life. He had put all this pressure on himself. He was about to have a nervous breakdown.
"You never know what someone else has going on… I almost lost my empathy"
We have a mental health caseworker at Central and I recommended he talk to him. He did, and he also finished his project. He was able to move forward.
He is a perfect example of the kind of people we help. It can be anything from teaching someone to read to preventing someone from having a nervous breakdown. This is why we’re relevant, because where else in San Diego could he have gone to do that? Libraries are the great equalizer. We’re the only organization that would never turn anyone away, and I almost did. You never know what someone else has going on. That was an epiphany for me. I almost lost my empathy because I got caught up in being the director, where I have to look at the system as a whole and enforce policy and make sure people are following the rules.
Ultimately, it’s about the person right in front of you. I chose library science because I thought it was the opposite of social services. That’s what I got wrong. It is the epitome of social services. I know now it’s something I’ll never get away from. I’ll never not work with people.
CEO, Monarch School
Monarch School is a nonprofit that educates and counsels homeless youth. During Spiewak’s five-year tenure, Monarch has raised $17 million and doubled enrollment.
At a philanthropic foundation earlier in my career, I would encounter women who were motivated solely by their own success—and this seemed appealing. I got caught up in worrying about my own advancement. I would focus on what was frustrating to me at the office that day or who was trying to undermine me. I got caught up in the politics. I assumed the competitive and self-serving environment was what I would have to survive in order to carve out my own success.
Then I came to Monarch. Most of our students are cared for by single moms. Many of these women have been abused, and all of them have to get by on far less than any human should.
Last September, one of our alumni was in a terrible motorcycle accident in Mexico and lost her leg. I had to get her back to the U.S. immediately. It was outside of what we do as an organization, but everyone felt compelled to do something quickly. I began asking our supporters for financial help and relied on two of our Spanish-speaking moms to help with logistics. One of them had been trying to get back on her feet by starting a flower business, so she started selling sunflowers in front of our school to pay for the alumna’s cell phone service, which was keeping me in touch with her. I told the mom I had financial support coming in and could pay for the bill. She refused. So I bought 150 sunflowers.
I no longer have the patience for women competing to make their place.
The other mom cooked tostadas and sold lunch to our staff for $2.50 each. She raised $60. Though it was just a tiny fraction of what we needed, all that mattered to her was that she contributed.
I no longer have the patience for women competing to make their place in some particular industry. I wish I had known earlier to seek out a committee of women who were supportive in a work environment. It is such a shift to go from a toxic place where the focus is on negativity and how people are trying to undo each other to an environment where there’s a frantic rush to help one another. There’s not even time to consider who’s doing what—just a spirited energy to help.
Lori Steele Contorer
CEO, Everyone Counts
Everyone Counts makes software that conducts online elections for labor unions, professional associations, and democracies around the world.
Whether you’re building a small company or trying to transform a global, $31-billion industry like voting, the success of an organization counts on people—not just the team, but people outside of your company as well.
Understanding how to respond to your antagonists is critical. When I started Everyone Counts ten years ago, this was not my expertise at all. I knew how to manage money, but I didn’t have corporate training. I never learned how to bring the best out of people or how to manage those trying to stop your progress from the outside.
There are some people who push pretty hard against online voting. But how can they say it’s not possible or secure in this age of innovation? At a TED Talk in San Diego, I reminded the audience that a decade ago, the U.S. sent a robot to Mars and it landed within a football field of where we intended it to, and we communicate securely with it every day. We shoot missiles that are software driven. Still, to send a secure ballot to our military and Peace Corps around the world, we use paper and spit. It becomes absurd.
I had to put myself in the position of someone who reads David Dill [a computer science professor at Stanford and vocal opponent of online voting]. I spent years thinking, These guys are idiots. They’re not. They have an agenda that I’m not okay with, which is keeping voting in the 18th century.
I spent years thinking, ‘These guys are idiots.’
It occurred to me to not go head-to-head with the naysayers but instead give people evidence that what we say is true. So we built a better product that no one could say no to. That was the hard way. You can vote on paper, vote by mail, or vote on your mobile device—all methods are equally fine. And we stopped calling it “online voting” and started calling it “perpetually state-of-the-art software-based voting.” The language matters.
Our customers, including the governments of California and Bosnia-Herzegovina as well as the Academy Awards, can have four audit records of every ballot submitted: two digital, two paper. Online voting is more reliable and accessible. We are getting it certified by the federal government.
Had I known how unbelievably hard it would be, there’s no way I would have signed up for this—but I’m glad I did. We are transforming voting. If we can ensure that everyone knows for at least that moment their voice matters, impressive things could happen in the world.
CEO and Founder, PsychArmor Institute
PsychArmor provides more than 100 free online courses taught by national experts, to educate health care providers, volunteers, employers, educators, caregivers, and families about understanding and supporting military veterans. PsychArmor partners with the White House, the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs, and more.
When I was starting out, there were people who weren’t nice to me and wouldn’t give me the time of day. They wouldn’t take my call or would schedule a meeting and cancel it four times.
I always promised myself I wouldn’t do that. People tend to be callous because they are focused on what they need. We’re so trained to focus on the mission and push out all the noise, but I feel like that “noise” is people who could potentially help you carry out your mission. Society tells us to work smarter, not harder. That’s bullshit. You’ve got to work smart and hard. We’ve somehow let people think that easier is better and there are shortcuts to doing things. True, not everybody wants to be a trailblazer. Not everybody wants this crazy life. I’m on an airplane every week. I’m going back to D.C. tomorrow, and I was there twice last week. But part of that is this feeling that I need to be taking all the opportunities I get to speak and share our message.
I’m not balanced. I’m a workaholic. Is that so bad?
In a way, I’m resentful when people tell me I need to have a work-life balance because it makes me feel like I’m failing. I’m happy doing what I’m doing, I’m happy working a lot, and my kids are doing fine. But I’m not balanced, that’s for sure. I’m a workaholic. Is that so bad? We need to reevaluate the message we’re giving women. Balance means you do have to do it all. I’m not balanced, but that relieves me from having to do everything perfectly.
I’m a huge advocate for working moms. There are so many women who have given up their careers to stay at home—their next career is their child. Their kid is expected to be perfect because that’s what mom gave up her career for, and yet the kids need to be who they are going to be. We need to stop with all this pressure to get the balance thing right.
A fixture of La Jolla Village, Warwick’s is the nation’s oldest family-owned and operated bookstore.
In 1996, my parents shocked me with the news that they had decided to retire. This was not in keeping with family tradition. My grandmother had worked at Warwick’s until the age of 98; my parents were only in their 60s and going strong. They were able to travel a lot as it was, and had a lot of freedom while they were running the store. It didn’t seem necessary to me.
I was in the final months of completing my dissertation in anthropology, and living in Los Angeles with my husband and newborn son. I had anticipated both an interesting and sometimes frustrating career working on research projects, but I didn’t doubt that that was what I wanted to do.
While taking over the store was not an easy decision, it was an obvious one. Throughout my childhood and teen years, the store was a part of our daily family life, and it became an intrinsic part of my identity from an early age.
My husband was very unhappy about the move to San Diego, and it took him a long time to adjust. I feel fortunate that we worked it out. A year later, after completing my graduate work and after my husband had adjusted his own career plans in order to relocate, I was working and learning how to run the business.
It was an important part of our overall sales, and I wanted to drop it.
To work with my parents in this new relationship, as someone to carry on the family tradition, was an experience I’ll always treasure. This is not to suggest, however, that everything was smooth sailing. After all, we’re talking about a family business.
The battle was over Hallmark cards. I don’t know when we first started carrying Hallmark, but it was no later than the 1950s. Our entire card department was given over to Hallmark. Company policy did not allow a retailer to display other card lines, except during the summer. It was an important part of our overall sales, and I wanted to drop it because it perpetuated negative stereotypes. (For example, in the 1990s, men were still depicted as cheap, lazy, or interested only in drinking or sports. I was hard-pressed to find a Hallmark card that I would give to my father.) My father and mother were so appalled that they threatened, for a brief period, to make keeping Hallmark one of the conditions of selling the store. They considered it too much of a risk to lose the line.
My interest in ending our contract with Hallmark was not an attempt to put my own mark on the store. Instead, it was a decision I thought best for the store. The card industry was growing in exciting ways. In the end, I prevailed, and the Hallmark battle helped my parents and me come to a better understanding of the changing of the guard. I also learned that my parents trusted me to make decisions about the store, even ones that were against their own advice, and that has been a source of ongoing strength for me. It was the right decision, both in terms of sales and the store’s identity as a place to find unique products. From a personal perspective, the process in debating Hallmark significantly shaped who I am as a businesswoman today.
Founder and CEO, Vix Swimwear
ViX, named after Hermanny’s hometown of Vitória, Brazil, is a global resortwear brand that sells 600,000 swimsuits a year. Its newest store opens in Miami this October.
Twenty years ago, I moved here from Brazil to learn English. I fell in love with San Diego and decided to finish university here. But I noticed there was no fashion at the beach. People were shy and kept their cover-ups on. In Brazil, we grew up going to the beach every weekend. It’s the same thing as getting dressed to go out at night. I saw an opportunity to create a resort line that would introduce that lifestyle.
The first two years were a learning experience. I tried to introduce the Brazilian cut to the American market. The buyers said, “Oh, no, this is too small.” They didn’t know that if you cover skin, you look bigger. Still, they wanted a big bottom with extra fabric. It was hard—people could not adapt as fast as I wanted. I had to realize that it doesn’t have to be the way I grew up, and every country has its own culture. I had to be patient and adapt to American eyes.
Also in the U.S., you deliver on time, with the quality you promise. There are no excuses. Half of my business is in Brazil, and holding myself to American standards helped. We have a reputation for being organized and professional.
I had to adapt to American eyes.
My first buyer was Gone Bananas in Mission Beach. Urban Outfitters was my first big order. Saks was the first big department store. My life changed. We got our product in magazines. We started selling to Victoria’s Secret. The brand started evolving; I added cover-ups, hats, bags, shoes, and clothing.
Nowadays, thanks to social media, it’s more acceptable to wear a cheeky bottom—at any age. Showing skin is not as vulgar as they thought.
You have to believe what you want is a good thing. The barriers are there to make you stronger or give up. We never gave up, and I’m glad for that.
Executive Producer, ABC’s Notorious
As a producer for Larry King Live, I had tie lines to the L.A. bureau. I commuted when I needed to, but I did most of it from San Diego. I had a four-digit number to call L.A. so I could talk to Larry on the air. I had 30 monitors in my office. It was crazy and kind of cool. I was a producer on the show for 17 years. My kids grew up with it and they’d ask, “Why did you let that person have 20 minutes? He’s not worth it.” They were never going to say that I made an amazing meal. You just have to take what you’ve got.
I think our generation made a mistake with our kids. Our parents really didn’t do a lot. They threw us out in the backyard and said, “Come in when it’s dark.” I don’t ever remember my parents going over college stuff with me. They just let us do things on our own. And when we became parents, we wanted to do things for our kids because we’d never had them done for us. It’s our fault. We didn’t send them out to play, we wanted to figure out what they needed to play with and how their minds were working.
Do the best job you can and work harder than the other person, and don’t get hung up on the clichés.
In my generation, if you graduated from college and had a ring, that was a big deal. So I don’t understand where I got my work ethic. When I started working in news, I got really competitive; I’d see the next job and put myself out there to get it.
Women have to work harder. They have to prove themselves. Do the best job you can and work harder than the other person, and don’t get hung up on the clichés.
I had an amazing career; I was at CNN for 32 years. I thought it was over, and now I’m an executive producer on a show that’s going to be on ABC. I had always wanted to get into drama and scripted shows, so I pitched this idea about a character based on me and a character based on [famed criminal defense attorney] Mark Geragos. It’s about the two of us, how I worked on the show and how he used my show to present his clients, who were usually in trouble, in a different light. And I used him for ratings and stories.
The fact that this show that was in my head is now going to be on the air is amazing. It’s easy to give up or say you’re not good enough. But I always think, “Well, they did it.” We don’t come out of the womb with a clipboard in our hand. Everything is learned, and some people are going to push through further.
You can do what you want if you put your mind to it. You have to put yourself in that place where it’s going to happen and make sure you are on a path that’s going to lead you there, making the right choices along the way. Stick to it.
Notorious debuts September 22 on ABC.
Styling by Cecelia Church | Hair & Makeup by Melissa Graaff of Melissa Rae & Co.