These individuals are changing the face of Sacramento.
If it’s the people that make a city, then Sacramento has a whole lot going for it— and this collection of fresh faces proves it. Their life experiences and professional disciplines vary widely, but there’s one thing they all do well: connect people to one another—through technology, language, the arts, storytelling, the built environment, the airwaves, even animals. It’s what makes these 15 standouts, without a doubt, people to watch.
MATT THOMPSON (pictured above)
25, Actor, Director, Producer
Before he could even read a script, Roseville native Matt Thompson was making films. He recalls how, at age 7, “I had taken my parents’ camcorder and figured out how to do stop-motion animation with my Legos. Even then I knew I wanted to visually tell stories.”
Since then, Thompson’s adventures in filmmaking have grown more sophisticated. He has appeared in feature-length films (Her Minor Thing, Stamped!), produced others (Phase Two) and made his directorial debut with Listen to Your Heart, a film starring Cybill Shepherd currently in post-production.
And he’s not stopping there. “In 10 years, I see myself making blockbuster movies,” says Thompson, whose cinematic heroes include Steven Spielberg, James Cameron and Michael Bay.
But Thompson isn’t about to forget where he came from. “I want to bring more film back to Sacramento,” he says. “I think we’ve got an amazingly talented town here, and I want to build an investor relations base here as opposed to Los Angeles. It’s a great town to live in, and it’s a great place to make movies.”
33, Social Media Maven
For Jessica Smith, it’s all about making connections.
“I’ve always been passionate about creating synergies and connecting people and connecting different elements across different channels,” says Smith, a vice president in the global digital practice group at the Sacramento branch of international PR powerhouse Fleishman-Hillard.
The Washington, D.C., transplant began dispensing advice and sharing insights about marketing, advertising, social media and work/life balance on her blog, Jessicaknows.com, in 2008 as a work-from-home consultant and mom. Within a few months, she attracted an impressive online following. Today, Smith boasts 26,000 followers on Twitter, has a new blog—socialontheinside.com—and is widely respected as a “digital influencer.”
What is it about social media that Smith finds so compelling? “I think it’s a way for people to connect globally and find other like-minded people and in some ways create influencers out of people who we might not otherwise think of as influencers, like celebrities and musicians. It’s about being able to connect authentically, 24/7, across the globe.”
38, Animal Advocate
A chance encounter with a stray dog changed Jennifer Fearing’s life forever.
The experience of trying to rescue the dog introduced Fearing to the sad fate of many unwanted pets. From there, Fearing’s passion grew to the point that volunteering and advocating on behalf of shelter animals was taking priority over her career. “After a while, I felt like my work was intruding on my passion,” she says.
Fearing left her lucrative position at a consulting firm after being offered a job with United Animal Nations, a nonprofit based in Sacramento that aids animals in disasters. Today, as chief economist and California senior state director of The Humane Society of the United States, Fearing has introduced a new way of practicing animal advocacy. “I’m an economist, and I come at things from a very pragmatic, prove-it-to-me, science-based standpoint.”
In 2008, Fearing helped propel the landslide passage of Proposition 2, which outlaws confining cages and crates for gestating pigs, veal calves and chickens in California. Still, she says, there is more work to be done.
“In 10 years, I hope I’ll live in a society that’s treating animals raised for food with more dignity,” says Fearing. “The more questions you ask and the more you’re willing to open your eyes, the more you see that humans are not in every case doing right by our animal friends.”
37, Founder/Managing Partner of The Urban Hive
A self-described “tribe builder,” Brandon Weber thrives on bringing people together.
“I think people crave community,” says Weber. “Whether professionally or personally, people find meaning in working toward something that’s much bigger than they are.”
Community is the draw behind The Urban Hive, a “co-working space” located in a century-old brick warehouse in midtown that Weber founded and manages along with business partners James Pierini and Janna Santoro. Instead of working in isolation, creative professionals pay a daily or monthly fee to join the Hive and collaborate with other freelancers in a decidedly uncorporate setting.
“The way people are working is changing,” explains Weber. As the pool of freelancers grows—some by choice, some not by choice—more people are seeking a work environment that doesn’t feel so much like, well, work. “These people are choosing to be here and be part of the community. They look forward to coming to work here.”
“In 10 years,” predicts Weber, “the town is going to be full of places like this.”
Jennifer Wada refuses to be bound by tradition.
Her local public affairs firm, The W Group—which grew out of WadaWilliams Law Group, the law/lobbying/political consulting firm she started with Anthony Williams—was founded on Wada’s philosophy that “it doesn’t always have to be done the way it has been done in the past.” The firm represents clients in the fields of banking and finance, education, transportation and more.
“We are one of the youngest lobbying firms out there, and we are a woman-owned, minority-owned business,” explains Wada. “We formed for two reasons: first, to give back to the community and be part of the fabric; and second, to reflect more the demographic in the legislature, where there is a pool of much younger, progressive, diverse legislators.”
Wada, who hails from a family of potato farmers, tells how hers was the only Asian family in a rural community in Idaho. The experience served to bolster her ambitions. The McGeorge School of Law graduate first worked in public relations, then for a “top 10” lobbying firm before establishing her own firm.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Sofia Lacin is obsessed with color. “That happened as an early development thing,” explains the painter. “As a kid, I was already hyperaware of color and all types of aesthetics.”
Lacin credits her father, a professional photographer, with cultivating her strong work ethic (“I learned from his constant drive to create,” she says), and praises her mother for nurturing her aesthetic sensibilities. “She really has a good eye for what looks right.”
Of course, studying art for a year in Florence didn’t hurt, either. “I guess that’s where you could say I found myself, especially my artistic self.”
When she’s not creating vibrant abstract works or stirring portraits, Lacin can be found working on commercial mural projects with business partner and creative confidant Hennessy Christophel. Their work adorns several local restaurants and businesses, including the East Sacramento Trader Joe’s.
As for the future? “I am always going to be an artist in some regard. The support system that I have—meaning Hennessy and my parents—has really propelled me.”
29, Social Marketing Guru
Although no one who knows him today would believe it, Alejandro Reyes was shy as a child. That all changed with some advice from his best friend. “He told me to meet everybody you can,” says Reyes. “I just realized that you can learn a lot from people. I think there is something about friendship that is very powerful.”
Powerful indeed. Reyes built his business, Sacramento Marketing Labs, around teaching people how to tap into social media and make business connections from personal ones.
“In the end, people still want to do business with people they know, like and trust,” explains Reyes. “My thing is not just connecting people but creating a community to make people feel like they’re a part of something.”
Reyes, who grew up poor, has always been ambitious. “My parents worked 15 or 16 hours a day and we would be eating cereal or Top Ramen for dinner. I knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur because I knew what they were doing wasn’t working.”
Reyes’ new website, getinternetfamous.com, is “basically about how people can use social media to get their messages heard.” As for his own fame: “I want to eventually be an international speaker and have a thriving web TV show.”
49, Developer, Alley Activist
Julie Young gets a thrill from creating something out of nothing.
“My mom and dad grew up during the Depression, so there was no wastefulness in our home,” explains Young. At the time, Young resented her parents’ thrift; now it’s a guiding principle in her professional life, something she and business partner Linda Clifford call “the luxury of enough.”
So it’s perhaps fitting that alleys are this developer’s passion. “They’re so obviously underutilized,” says Young, who started the Alley Activation project with developer/architect Jeremy Drucker to foster development along some of the city’s most neglected passageways.
“It’s a grass roots public/private partnership that has grown out of a common desire to see this underutilized real estate become something more,” explains Young about the 75-member-and-growing, all-volunteer group.
Where others see only Dumpsters and decay, Young imagines new possibilities for her beloved city. She’s working on a residential project behind Zocalo restaurant in midtown. “Ten years from now, I expect Sacramento will have a very compelling pedestrian story,” says Young. “It will be so welcoming for people to have this European-style intimacy where businesses and residences can be alley-facing.”
26, Founder/Artistic Director of New Helvetia Theatre
Connor Mickiewicz was just 11 when the theater stole his heart. “The first show I did was Music Man with the River City Theatre Company,” he recalls. “My sister convinced me to try out, and I fell in love.”
Fifteen years later, Mickiewicz finds himself at the helm of New Helvetia Theatre, the Sacramento musical theater company he recently founded.
A graduate of the prestigious Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, Mickiewicz, a fifth-generation Sacramentan, returned to his hometown in 2008 with dreams of adding a new dimension to the city’s theater scene.
“We’re dedicated to doing lesser-known works,” Mickiewicz explains, “so we have a lot more creative freedom on how we present them. We’re trying to build up a new generation of theater artists and audience members who appreciate our worldview: interesting, exciting, intense live performances.”
After receiving glowing reviews of its 2009 productions—Tick, Tick . . . BOOM! and Hedwig and the Angry Inch—Mickiewicz’s New Helvetia is off to a propitious start.
27, Community Organizer
Even at a young age, Elaine Abelaye had a sense of what it felt like to be marginalized.
“My family was a low-income family in the Bay Area and from a very early age I realized that there was some kind of disconnect between my family and other families,” she explains. “I got the sense there was something wrong about my life situation compared to others.”
In college, Abelaye’s interest in social justice and equity continued to take shape. “I was able to put words and context and history behind things that I innately understood and knew but couldn’t describe,” she says. “Now I had all the theory and philosophy and the data to articulate what I had known since I was very young.”
Today, Abelaye is the executive director of Asian Resources Inc., a nonprofit social service agency that helps individuals gain self-sufficiency through job training and placement, and other programs. “The end goal for me is full civic engagement coupled with self-sufficiency,” explains Abelaye. “You can’t be civically engaged if you’re worried that the lights are going to be turned off tomorrow. When people are self-sufficient, they have the space to participate, and they have the resources to participate.”
41, Attorney, Senate Staffer
In an environment where far too many people are fluent in double talk, Anthony Williams proudly speaks a different language.
“The thing that guides me on a day-to-day basis is that there’s nothing more important than your honor and your reputation,” says Williams, who recently left WadaWilliams Law Group, the law/lobbying/political consulting firm he founded with Jennifer Wada, to serve as special counsel to California Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg.
“It’s tempting to be shortsighted about things and, frankly, to be dishonest,” Williams continues. “But there will be someone down the line who will remember that you were dishonest, and no client, no issue, no legislation is more important than my reputation.”
Williams, who grew up amid a backdrop of poverty and drug addiction in Bakersfield, is accustomed to doing things his own way.
“I saw a lot of difficult things growing up, and I felt that I wanted to work my way out of that,” he says.
ELIZABETH MILLER, M.D.
42, Expert on Adolescent Violence
Sometimes a single life event can send you on a trajectory you hadn’t quite anticipated. For Elizabeth Miller, M.D., an assistant professor of pediatrics at UC Davis Medical Center, it happened while volunteering at a Boston teen clinic during her fourth year of residency training.
“A 15-year-old girl came in for a pregnancy test, and I remember asking her about birth control and whether she felt safe in her relationship,” Miller explains. “Two weeks later, she was back in the E.R. with head injuries because her boyfriend had pushed her down the stairs.”
The girl’s trauma startled Miller, who had studied gender-based violence while earning a Ph.D. in anthropology from Harvard. “I thought I knew what gender-based violence was, and there it was staring me right in the face.”
Miller has since become a tireless advocate and nationally recognized researcher in the field of adolescent dating violence. She was tapped by “The Oprah Winfrey Show” to discuss the subject during the Chris Brown/Rihanna controversy.
Her hope? “I would like to see Sacramento become the model city for youth engagement, where youth are valued members of the community and where young people are directly engaged in making Sacramento a better community.”
42, Teacher, Novelist
Patrick Vang understands the power of language. He has spent much of his professional career preserving his native Hmong language so that Hmong youths might use it to forge a positive personal identity.
“I see a lot of young Hmong losing their culture, and when they lose it, we see a lot of misbehavior,” explains Vang, who teaches Hmong literacy at Luther Burbank High School. “When they know their culture, they start to respect themselves and their community. That’s how we can reduce crime, reduce gangs and help them become productive members of society.”
To that end, Vang published a Hmong language textbook—a noteworthy feat considering Hmong has existed as a written language for less than 50 years; before that, it was strictly an oral language.
Vang also has penned two historical novels. A third, in progress, he describes as “a scary story mixed with Hmong folktales.”
“Hmong have good stories and I want to preserve them in books because, in the past, the Hmong history was an oral history and we tend to lose a lot of things that way,” says Vang. “And I want people to know that, in any language, people can write beautifully.”
31, Radio Show Producer
Jen Picard’s family was living on an U.S. air base in Sicily when the then-sixth-grader made a chance visit to the military radio station with her father.
“They would play Dr. Demento every Sat-urday, and I remember thinking it was the coolest,” says Picard. The studio tour sealed her fate. “I got to check out the equipment and watch them prepare for next week’s show. I thought: I want to do this.”
For two years in college, Picard hosted a music show and got her feet wet in radio production. In 2006, she began working on “Insight,” Capital Public Radio’s well-respected interview program on 90.9 KXJZ, where she is now senior producer.
“There’s something neat about being able to talk to somebody through the airwaves,” enthuses Picard. “Even though you’re talking to a bunch of different people, it still feels like it’s this one-on-one conversation.”
The work satisfies her natural curiosity about people. “I love being able to meet somebody new and talk about something different every single day,” says Picard. “I thought we were going to run out of interesting people to talk to, but we haven’t even come close.”
37, Novelist, Assistant Professor of English at UC Davis
Yiyun Li has loved telling stories since she was very young, yet she didn’t set out to be a writer. When she moved to the U.S. from Beijing in 1996 to study immunology, Li enrolled in a writing class to improve her English—and, boy, did she.
In 2005, Li wowed literary critics across the globe with her first collection of short stories, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers. In 2009, Li’s debut novel, The Vagrants, landed her a coveted spot on the cover of the “New York Times Book Review.”
That English is Li’s second language makes her accomplishments all the more impressive. “The very first English book I remember reading was not even a novel,” says Li. “It was an abridged version of The Diary of Anne Frank. That was in high school.”
Li is set to release a second collection of stories this year and is hard at work on her second novel.