WOMEN HAVE ALWAYS HAD A LOT TO JUGGLE ON THEIR RISE TO PROFESSIONAL SUCCESS.
The pandemic’s particular impact on women placed a stark highlight on gender disparities in both the workplace and at home, all while many women have also continued to battle against other struggles—like chronic illness, poverty, prejudice, death of a loved one or career changes. But this also means women have plenty of experience with pushing through and overcoming, often working to help others along the way.
Here we profile six powerful women whose trials and tribulations did not deter them, but only made them stronger and more effective business leaders and public servants.
Owner and Principal | Sage Strategies
Sonya Harris was 8 years old, sitting in the living room of her family’s house in Arboga, when she heard a knock on the front door. A firefighter warned the family that a nearby levee had burst and their house in this part of unincorporated Yuba County would flood.
Her family fled to safety. Harris saw the good life her parents—her mother, a Korean immigrant, and her father, a builder and restorer of cars as a small-business owner—had worked so hard to build tragically taken away. But not for long. While living in an RV in their backyard, her parents ripped their house down to the studs, cleaned it out and rebuilt. Others pitched in to help.
Through this experience, Harris says she had a front-row seat to resilience, which shaped how she views problems and informed her career as a public servant for more than 15 years in California state government.
Harris worked in the offices of a lieutenant governor and two governors, Jerry Brown and Gavin Newsom. While in Newsom’s office, she served as chief of staff on the Census 2020 outreach effort to motivate Californians—especially immigrant families—to get counted. She helped create a model of trusted messengers, people like pastors, local business owners and PTA presidents, to share census information in their own communities.
Harris helped apply this same model when she joined the California Department of Public Health to oversee the state’s COVID-19 vaccine campaign. “We tested this model; we saw that it worked and was really effective, especially with our most vulnerable communities,” she says.
The success of this community engagement led to the state’s new Office of Community Partnerships and Strategic Communications. Harris recently left government employment but is helping the office get up and running as a consultant with her new business, Sage Strategies.
“I’m probably too much of an optimist, but I think there’s nothing that is too hard for us to tackle,” Harris says. “If you put the hard work in as required, if you can see a vision that is brighter . . . if you have a team behind you or that supportive network, you can do anything. I really believe that.”
Director of Communications | California Commission on the Status of Women and Girls
Darcy Totten is often the only one of something in any room, whether she’s the sole woman, queer person, adoptee or adult who once dealt with poverty. During her teenage years in the mid-1990s, feeling different gave her the strength to come out to her parents at the age of 15.
“I was pretty much the only queer person I knew,” she says. “We weren’t on TV, we didn’t really have internet yet, it wasn’t the kind of thing you saw in a magazine. The only time you heard about any members of the LGBTQ community was usually on the news because somebody’s been murdered.”
Totten’s parents were split about her sexual orientation, which she says led to a period of housing instability and a sense that she’d never have a real job, get married or own a house. She didn’t even know if she’d live past 30. “Fifteen-year-old me thought I was going to have to run away and join the circus, either literally or figuratively, and just hope for the best,” she says.
Totten lived for a while in a van and then in an unheated warehouse with too many roommates. She now has a house in Sacramento and a wife of 16 years. (Eventually, both parents embraced her being queer.) She has also had a long career in communications, public policy, advocacy and external affairs, which began with political work in Texas in the early 2000s. In 2019, she became communications director of the California Commission on the Status of Women and Girls.
In November, CCSWG released the California Blueprint for Women’s Pandemic Economic Recovery, and Totten served as the primary author in collaboration with others. The blueprint adopts “a gendered lens on the state economy,” she says, and recognizes how women have been uniquely affected by the pandemic and how their economic recovery impacts all Californians. She sees her involvement in the project as one of her greatest career accomplishments.
“I find that the things I’ve done that I am most proud of are usually done as part of a team, usually in collaboration and usually to a greater end. The goal was to make something better for as many people as possible,” she says.
Lilly Cortés Wyatt
Founder and Chief Engagement Officer | SociosPR
Lilly Cortés Wyatt was headed to the hospital on an August day in 2016—preparing to deliver her baby several weeks early—and on the phone with a reporter about a wildfire happening in the Sacramento region. This was for her job as director of regional communications and marketing for a local chapter of the American Red Cross.
Four weeks later, while visiting her premature baby in the neonatal intensive care unit, she began planning to return to work. She prayed about how she would manage having a baby in the NICU, a 4-year-old at home and a demanding full-time job. Then three potential freelance clients fell into her lap.
“I decided to give it a go as an independent contractor, serving as a communications professional, helping clients basically amplify their brand and their stories,” Wyatt says. She founded her own business, recently rebranded as SociosPR. (Socios is the Spanish word for partners.) SociosPR is a full-service multicultural communications company with a “deep fluency in the nuances of cultural competence” that works with private, nonprofit and government organizations, she says.
Wyatt began her career in broadcast journalism, working for nearly 16 years in newsrooms as a host, reporter, assignment editor and executive producer for NBC Universal, ABC, Univision and Telemundo affiliates, primarily in the Bay Area and Sacramento. “I loved every minute of it,” she says. She launched “Sacramento & Co.” on ABC10 and later hosted a political show on Telemundo 33, called “Enfoque California.” Not long after having her first child, Wyatt went to work as a public information officer for the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services before moving to the Red Cross.
At SociosPR, Wyatt oversees a team of seven subcontractors; she says her biggest challenge now is finding qualified job candidates passionate about the work. But Wyatt, who describes herself as solutions-oriented, isn’t dismayed. “We all face different challenges, and these challenges always help us get better,” she says. “So whenever there’s a challenge, I always see it as an opportunity for growth.”
Nighttime Economy Manager City of Sacramento
Tina Lee-Vogt remembers, as a child, attending her grandmother’s church and the pastor telling young girls how they needed to find a man to take care of them. “My father taps me on the shoulder and he goes, ‘You take care of yourself,’” she recalls.
She realized right then and there the importance of strength and self-direction, a value she has held closely in the face of adversity several times over.
In 2000, her brother was shot and killed by a Los Angeles Police Department officer. At the time, he was a 39-year-old actor and she was working as an administrative officer for the Sacramento Police Department in their hometown. She says the department provided “great support” during a heartbreaking time. In 2011, her husband died, and since then she has often thought of her brother, who practiced Buddhism and whose mantra was “be absolutely happy.” That motivates her to be grateful for the time she had with loved ones.
“You learn the strength that you didn’t know you had,” Lee-Vogt says. “Sometimes people will say things like, ‘Oh, you’re so strong.’ And I’m like, ‘Sometimes that’s all you can be.’ So what I really learned was the importance of really being strong, being resilient.”
In her professional life, Lee-Vogt has worked for more than 30 years for the city of Sacramento in various departments, including the Community Development Department, Finance Department, Police and several others. Since October, she has been in a newly created role for the city as nighttime economy manager. She acts as a liaison with business owners, business improvement districts, city departments and neighbors impacted by nightlife activities with the overall goal of growing the nighttime economy.
“The one thing that I really learned throughout my journey, especially with my city career, is the importance of just really being true to yourself,” she says, adding that her career blossomed when she stopped trying to be what others expected. “It’s really freeing, just being able to say, you know what, I’m just gonna be Tina, because once I’m Tina, that’s when the magic happens.”
Communications & Patient Initiatives Director | Opennotes
Liz Salmi has never been traditional. Once a punk rocker, she has spent the past six years working in some capacity for Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, a teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School in Boston.
Since April 2022, she has been the communications and patient initiatives director of OpenNotes, in the medical center’s Division of General Medicine. (She works remotely from Sacramento.) The project has long aimed to get medical systems to voluntarily share doctors’ notes with patients.
Salmi is not a trained academic. She is not a doctor. Her vast expertise comes from being a patient. In 2008, at the age of 29, Salmi was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. She soon found herself blogging about brain cancer, advocating for patients and landing a job in public health at the Coalition for Compassionate Care of California.
For OpenNotes, Salmi works on getting the word out about the organization’s research and translating it to a lay audience so they can make informed decisions. She preaches the value of transparency and patients having access to their own health information. Federal policies now require medical systems to provide electronic access to most kinds of notes.
Salmi is proud to be part of this culture change, and she recognizes her unique role in this advancement. “I used to say I was like a baby researcher. I wouldn’t identify as a researcher,” she says. “Now I’m like, no, I am a legit researcher.” She has had several articles published in peer-reviewed journals, including one this past December in The New England Journal of Medicine about her first-person, patient perspective of having awake brain surgery.
In 2021, Salmi’s brain cancer returned, and she has had two more surgeries. And although her career journey has been nontraditional, it’s one that allows her to fulfill her rebel instincts. “The punk-rock ethos is DIY, do it yourself,” she says. “It’s not about the institution, the man telling you how to do things, but it’s finding your own path and voice and staying true to what you believe in.”
Co-Founder & Chief Executive Officer | Clutch
Rachel Zillner knew she was taking a big risk. After a 20-year career in banking, she gave six weeks’ notice at a job she enjoyed, with bosses she appreciated at a company she loved, to leap into—well, those exact details remained unknown. But Zillner realized she couldn’t pursue her new professional vision unless she was fully devoted to the task.
“I just felt like maybe I could try something different,” Zillner says. “Maybe I could do it myself. Once I got to thinking about that line of what if, then it became almost like an encouragement to myself: Would I invest in my own startup? I thought, heck yes, I would.”
In late 2019, Zillner left her position as vice president of community banking and membership at SAFE Credit Union and co-founded Clutch, a business services consulting firm with offices in Folsom and Roseville. (Clutch also owns and manages the BOLD Speaker Series, which features women telling their stories of overcoming struggles.)
Clutch has roughly 150 employees and a diverse clientele. “We’re continuing to grow in a way that honors our vision and purpose,” says Zillner, who became CEO in November. Zillner has a long history of entrepreneurship, inspired by her dad. Growing up in Sacramento, she hustled any way she could. She sold her artwork out of an old-fashioned suitcase, bred hamsters and started a babysitters’ club and car-washing, lawnmowing and baseball card trading businesses.
Being an entrepreneur as an adult, she says, will give her the opportunity to retire early and spend a year traveling with her husband and two daughters. While she says leaving SAFE Credit Union was one of the hardest decisions she ever made, she has no regrets.
“Something I’ve embraced in my life, and I think it’s why Clutch has been successful, is I believe in a limitless space in business,” Zillner says. “We can achieve whatever we want to as long as we will allow ourselves, and that mindset is where the growth comes from.”