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As the capital of the world’s eighth-largest economy, Sacramento has always attracted people looking to make their mark. These seven powerful women are no different. They all have a dynamic impact on Sacramento, from breaking gender barriers to ensuring all Californians continue to have a voice and access to opportunities in the Golden State. 

None of these women is afraid to take chances or step out of her comfort zone. State Controller Betty Yee took on retail giant Amazon to collect California sales taxes, and she isn’t afraid to point out the unpopular need for tax reform. Reporter Cynthia Hubert tackled Nevada’s primary psychiatric hospital, causing it to stop dumping patients with mental illness on other states, including California. Tina Reynolds, owner of Uptown Studios, uses her marketing firm to advocate for causes she believes in, such as affordable housing and marriage equality.

More than 30 years ago, Helene Dillard carved out a career in the male-dominated world of plant sciences and now leads the world’s No. 1 agricultural college as the first female dean of the UC Davis College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. Kate Renwick-Espinosa, who takes over in October as the first female president of Rancho Cordova-based VSP Vision Care—the nation’s largest health care organization by membership—is looking to completely reimagine the vision-care experience. 

These women are committed to creating a better future for the capital city. Wendy Saunders, executive director of Capitol Area Development Authority, works to ensure that new developments offer something for Sacramento’s diverse population. Laura Braden, senior director of communications for the Sacramento Kings, not only promotes the Kings and the new Golden 1 Center but also finds time to connect people and community groups that are trying to make a difference in Sacramento. 

Their insights and experiences offer a rich glimpse into where Sacramento has been and where it is going. 

LAURA BRADEN

SENIOR DIRECTOR OF COMMUNICATIONS, SACRAMENTO KINGS

Laura Braden has a lot of energy. “I really enjoy working. I’m a bit addicted to the adrenaline of it, so I don’t mind the long hours,” says Braden, who once ended a vacation early. “I get bored easily. After three days, I thought, ‘I’ve got to get back to civilization,’ so I left.” Braden manages public relations for the Kings business operations, including the new Golden 1 Center. She prefers living on the grid with her two rescue dogs to living in the suburbs. “I want to be able to walk, bike and Uber everywhere.” The 34-year-old also managed to squeeze wedding planning into her schedule, marrying Michael Quigley in early September. 

You grew up in Knoxville, Tenn. How did you end up in Sacramento?

I was working in Washington, D.C., when my former boss, Adam Mendelsohn [then Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s deputy chief of staff], called and asked, “Would you ever want to live in California?” I moved in March 2006 and became deputy communications director for Gov. Schwarzenegger and later director of events for his re-election campaign. 

From political campaigns to the NBA: Aren’t those pretty different?

From a PR perspective, I tell stories. It’s just the audience, tactics, and strategies that change. Politics is everywhere—even sitting on the board of a nonprofit. I also think I bring a fresh set of eyes to everything because my background isn’t sports.

Were you surprised by the controversy over the Jeff Koons sculpture? 

Yes. That one took me by surprise. [Although the Sacramento City Council ultimately approved the purchase of Koons’ Coloring Book for Golden 1 Center, Braden spent a lot of time talking to people about their concerns and putting out information like the requirement that 2 percent of the construction budget for all city projects must go toward public art.] That was complex. It wasn’t a Tweet.

You have pet projects as well—Girls on the Grid, #SacCircles

With Girls on the Grid [the website she co-founded in 2009], we wanted a platform where we could applaud people and organizations around town that weren’t getting enough love. [GOTG raises funds for WEAVE with its annual Sacramento’s Most Eligible Bachelor and Bachelorette contest.] With #SacCircles, the group is about 70 women who want to be supportive of the community and make a difference. At a meeting, we might try to connect a nonprofit that needs 10 hours of accounting services with someone who wants to donate that resource. 

What do you like most about your adopted city?

In other cities, it’s not even possible to be part of the conversation. Here you can get involved. What is Sacramento going to become? It’s still TBD, and it’s for us to figure out. 

HELENE DILLARD

DEAN, UC DAVIS COLLEGE OF AGRICULTURAL AND ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCES

Helene Dillard grew up in urban San Francisco but fell in love with plants and agriculture at an early age. She studied at UC Berkeley and received a B.S. in biology of natural resources; later, she got a master’s in soil science and a Ph.D. in plant pathology at UC Davis. She worked as a plant pathology professor as well as an associate dean and head of Cooperative Extension at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. Now 60, Dillard and her husband returned to her native California in 2014 when she was tapped to be the dean of the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. The college is a world powerhouse. Its agriculture and forestry programs have been ranked No. 1 in the world for three consecutive years. 

How has the role of women in the sciences changed since you entered the field?

When I first started, it was still the Stone Age. There were very few women in the sciences. We were isolated. I remember being told not to get married until I had a faculty position. Once women got positions, they worried about getting pregnant before they had tenure. And there was enormous pressure. If we failed, it was as if we were failing for all womanhood.

And how is it now? 

Science is not as male-dominated as it used to be. There are support systems for women. Now there are women who start families in graduate school, before they start teaching. And the ratio at the college is now almost 50/50 men and women.

How would you describe the importance of the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences?

The college is a unique place because it includes agriculture, the environment and human sciences. When you combine those three, it fosters collaboration. You have people from Agricultural Sciences and Environmental Sciences departments working together to solve critical problems. There’s not an us and them mentality. Also, a unique aspect of California is that we have so many different climate zones: ocean, mountains, desert and valleys. So when we do research, it almost always has implications for other places around the globe.

Is your college involved in the UC Davis World Food Center?

All the UC Davis colleges are involved. The center is sort of an overarching think tank put together by Chancellor Linda Katehi. It brings in people from around the world to discuss solving problems like food insecurity and how to feed the 9 billion people expected to be on the planet in 2050.

CYNTHIA HUBERT

REPORTER, THE SACRAMENTO BEE

Cynthia Hubert covers stories that are often heart-wrenching. A widowed grandfather raising his three very young grandchildren after his daughter is stabbed to death by her husband. A young woman trying to put her life back together after her boyfriend and four dogs are run over and killed by a hit-and-run driver. The story that garnered Hubert and her colleague, Phillip Reese, national attention was also unsettling: A state psychiatric hospital in Las Vegas had deliberately bused more than 1,500 mentally ill patients to 48 states over a five-year period. Hubert and Reese’s investigative series put an end to the practice and garnered them national prizes. They were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize. Hubert, 54, has been a reporter since she graduated from The University of Arizona with a bachelor’s in journalism. A huge animal lover, Hubert also covers local animal stories.

How did you become interested in journalism? 

Both my parents were big newspaper readers, scouring the paper cover to cover each day. I remember being in awe of the power of those stories to impact people’s lives. I loved writing, so journalism seemed like a good fit.

What was one of your first big stories as a reporter?

A local woman in Tucson was denied the chance to qualify for a liver transplant because of her advanced age: 40. At the time (this was in the late 1980s), that was the standard protocol. My stories about this dying woman led to her receiving a new liver and to a change in policy. 

How did you end up in Sacramento?

I grew up in Tucson, Ariz. My father was a copper miner and my mother was a homemaker. After graduating from The University of Arizona, I worked as a medical writer for Arizona Daily Star for five years. I wanted to get out of my comfort zone, so I moved to Iowa for a job with The Des Moines Register. I did well, but after five years I got the itch to return west and took a job with The Sacramento Bee. I’ve been at The Bee for 23 years.

Do the stories sometimes take an emotional toll?

While researching and writing the stories, I try to stay focused and not get too emotionally involved. But there are definitely times when I’ve cried.

Which story do you think has had the biggest impact?

The Nevada busing stories. They spurred changes not only in the policies of the Nevada state psychiatric hospital but facilities across the country. It’s my hope that the lives of people with mental illness are a little bit better thanks to our revelations.

What motivates you to tell the stories of Sacramento’s homeless population? 

There’s a saying that journalists should afflict the comfortable, and comfort the afflicted. My mission has always been, whenever possible, to tell the stories of those who are voiceless or powerless.

BETTY YEE

CALIFORNIA STATE CONTROLLER

Betty Yee was not a shy child. Her parents, immigrants from China, owned a laundry and dry cleaning business in San Francisco’s Parkside District. The family spoke no English at home. In addition to taking care of the laundry’s financial transactions (keeping the books, paying bills, filing taxes), Yee liked talking to the customers. The family of eight lived in a studio apartment behind the laundry. “I grew up poor,” she says, “but I never felt poor a day in my life.” She and her five siblings all received college degrees, with Yee graduating from UC Berkeley in 1979 with a B.A. in sociology. As an elected member of the California Board of Equalization, she squared off against retail giant Amazon, advocating for closing the loophole that allowed online businesses to avoid paying state sales tax. Amazon fought but eventually reached an agreement with California. In the past three years, the state has collected more than $1 billion in online sales taxes. Yee, who turns 58 in October, lives in Alameda but has a place in Land Park for when she’s in Sacramento. 

Most politicians seem terrified to talk about tax reform; you’re not.

Right now we have fiscal stability, so now is the time to talk about tax reform. We need a comprehensive discussion. There’s a shrinking base of people paying taxes in California, and that’s not sustainable. What motivates me to push for tax reform is not wanting to abandon the opportunities the state has to offer.

Why did you to go after online retailers for sales tax? 

I grew up in a small business surrounded by other small businesses. I did not want to see another independent store shut down because it couldn’t compete with online retailers. I thought at the very least we could get tax rules to be on equal footing.

What are some of the challenges you see for California?

California is a truly great global economy, but it also has a high rate of poverty, widening inequality and an affordability gap with regard to housing. A growing class of Californians aren’t able to access opportunities. There’s a tremendous need for affordable housing: 1.7 million units are needed to meet current demand, not just for the very poor but also for the working poor. 

What happened to your family’s laundry and dry cleaning business? 

My father died 30 years ago. My mother kept the business going for another five years. She now lives in the upper flat of the building. I used the bottom floor—what had been the laundry—for my campaign office when running for state controller in 2014.

What are your hopes for California’s future?

That we continue to be a state known for innovation—that California will be a global hub of innovation.

KATE RENWICK-ESPINOSA

PRESIDENT, VSP VISION CARE

On Oct. 1, Kate Renwick-Espinosa becomes the first female president of VSP Vision Care, the largest of VSP Global’s five lines of products. It is the nation’s largest health care organization by membership. Based in Rancho Cordova, VSP Vision Care has 75 million members throughout the world and a network of 32,000 doctors. One in three Californians is covered by VSP Vision Care. Renwick-Espinosa, 46, came up through the ranks at VSP. She started working at the company 23 years ago, just after she graduated from UC Davis with a bachelor’s degree in economics. She grew up all over California and now lives in Gold River with her husband and two children: a daughter, 11, and son, 14. 

What were some of your early responsibilities at VSP?

I started in the sales department as a market research analyst. At that time, VSP was only in a handful of states. With sales, I got a great appreciation of customers and an understanding of the products.

How are you preparing for the transition from chief marketing officer to president?

I’m doing a listening-and-learning tour for three months. I’m not making any presumptions about our business. I’m meeting with customers, sales teams and doctors to understand the environment today to see how we can make eye care and vision available to everyone. We ask things like, “If you went for the first time to get an eye exam and glasses, what would you like that experience to be like?” We are looking for ways to reimagine eye care.

How do you manage your time? 

I think about it as attention management rather than time management. You only have so much attention and energy, so it’s important not to spread it too thin. I try to focus on the right items getting attention, rather than getting caught up in the “urgent.” I recently started the GTD system from the book “Getting Things Done,” and I love it.

Is VSP working on any innovations in eye care?

There’s now a lot of discussion about “wearable technology,” and that’s what eyeglasses have been for the past 700 years. One of the innovations coming out of The Shop, VSP’s innovation lab, is health-tracking technology in an optical frame.

How would you describe your management style?

I would describe myself as a learning leader. I believe in making ourselves uncomfortable. And by that I mean, to get something you’ve never had, you have to do something you’ve never done. And that will likely be an uncomfortable experience. But if you never feel uncomfortable, you probably aren’t learning; you probably aren’t stretching yourself.

WENDY SAUNDERS

EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, CAPITOL AREA DEVELOPMENT AUTHORITY

When referring to her responsibilities as executive director of Capitol Area Development Authority, Wendy Saunders tends to say “we,” “us” and “our” a lot. She’s quick to credit her staff. Those cool downtown utility boxes dressed up with public art? That was Todd Leon. “He said, ‘Let’s make this about real art.’” This year, CADA saw several high-profile projects—now former state properties—come to fruition, including the mixed-income artist community at Warehouse Artist Lofts on R Street and 16 Powerhouse at 16th and P streets, a mix of high-end, urban-chic apartments with retail and restaurants. Saunders, 56, describes her role as being like a movie producer but with property: “I make connections between people and try to connect the right people with the right places.”

What is CADA?

To understand CADA, you have to know about its history. In the 1960s, Gov. Pat Brown wanted to develop a large state office campus, so the state bought 40 blocks of downtown property. But when Ronald Reagan became governor, he thought the state shouldn’t be in the real estate business and leased office space. The state-owned property went to seed and the area became a slum. Then, when Jerry Brown became governor in 1975, he thought the state shouldn’t lease when it owned property. Brown also recognized that a neighborhood had been destroyed. So CADA was formed in 1978 to manage the properties acquired by the state in the 1960s and to rebuild the neighborhood.

What does CADA do?

Our bread and butter is leasing and property management. We have 50 residential buildings. [CADA is also charged with creating new urban infill housing and enhancing the State Capitol environment.] Our mission is for the properties to have something for everyone—25 percent of everything CADA owns is affordable to low-income housing. We want a diverse population in downtown Sacramento. With new development projects, my role is to set the agenda: What are we going to do next?

How did you get interested in development?

When I was getting my M.B.A. at UC Davis, I got an internship at the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency and then ended up working there for five years. I loved it. The ability to have an effect on the physical environment was exciting. It appealed to me in a big way. 

How does CADA decide what gets developed?

If the state is not going to build, CADA can sell the property to the private sector for development. We go through a process. We do community engagement, meet with our board, do some visioning. We ask what would be appropriate here? Should there be retail? What’s traffic like? Is there a need for affordable housing or market-rate housing? Developers can then submit different plans for the site.

What do you find most satisfying about your job?

I love being able to set the stage for people to pursue their passion in the environment in a way that makes our city really interesting.

TINA REYNOLDS

OWNER, UPTOWN STUDIOS

Tina Reynolds, 66, uses her marketing firm to advocate for social causes she believes in. “I’ve always wanted to change the world,” she says. “I thought I’ll work with nonprofits and change the world through the work we do with them.” In 2014, the Sacramento native won Sacramento Business Journal’s Women Who Mean Business award; in 2015, she won the Small Business Administration’s Sacramento District Woman-Owned Business of the Year. Uptown Studios, which employs 14 people, has the motto Designs for Social Change. It operates out of a bungalow in East Sacramento but is moving to a converted warehouse Reynolds bought at 23rd and Broadway. Reynolds opened her first design business almost 40 years ago, in 1976, but she has no plans to retire. About 70 percent of the company’s business is from nonprofits like the Center for Tobacco Policy & Organizing, Mutual Housing California and Center for Land-Based Learning. Reynolds has three adult kids and six grandchildren, and she and her wife live in midtown.

Can marketing really influence social change?

Marketing is just a tool; it gives you a roadmap for success. Social change first begins with an idea or realizing there’s a problem. The first tobacco campaigns in the 1960s created awareness about the health issues of smoking, and then eventually laws protecting people were enacted. With marketing for social change, you create knowledge that eventually changes attitudes, which then brings about new laws.

How would you describe your management style? 

I’m everybody’s mentor. I hire people who can manage themselves. When they get stuck, I give them help.

Homelessness and affordable housing are two of your causes?

Yes. One of my first jobs in the late 1960s was as a mail carrier for the downtown post office. I would carry stacks of green general-assistance checks to people living in places like the Marshall Hotel. The people who got those checks had a safe space—a door with a key, a shower and clean clothes. Lack of affordable housing and homelessness go hand in hand. The way to get rid of homelessness is to get people into rooms.

You were also an advocate for marriage equality.

I’ve been an LGBT advocate forever. My wife and I—Kate Moore, who works with me at Uptown—got married in 2008 before Proposition 8 passed. The day after Prop 8, we started the grass-roots group Equality Action NOW. We eventually put on eight rallies for marriage equality at the Capitol. And on June 26 [the day the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage], we celebrated our last marriage-equality rally in Midtown.

Ever thought about going into politics?

No. I do way better where I am. 

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