From Entrepreneurs to Industry Disruptors, Valley Women Are Forces of Nature
Our annual Women We Love list is out!
- Photographed and collaged byMichael Becker
High School Teacher | Dream Chaser
(see previous page)
Meet Aidyl Gonzalez-Serricchio and it’s easy to understand why students consider the science lab one of the coolest places to hang out at the Buckley School in Sherman Oaks.
The petite, 5-foot-1 Caltech Ph.D. (molecular genetics) is one of those rare teachers, whose passion, even for such dry topics as the spinal cords of zebrafish, is infectious. Students call her “Dr. G”; she refers to them as “future leaders.”
Married to a JPL rocket scientist, Fred, with whom she has sons, Joey, 19, and Owen, 17, Aidyl (pronounced Ideal) looks a decade younger than her 45 years. She talks fast with a Bronx accent and has that undeniable “cool” factor. Maybe it’s because she attends the annual Comedy-Con convention in full costume every year, performs magic at the Magic Castle in Hollywood and drives a Kia Soul in the shade “alien green”, outfitted with giant black eyelashes above the headlights.
“It definitely eases anxiety when my students know it’s my car,” chuckles Aidyl.
Aidyl is Buckley’s Upper School Science Department Co-Chair as well as their STEAM and Robotics director. She says it is pure devotion that drove the school’s team to a ninth-place finish in a global robotics competition last year and a third-place win at the California State Science and Engineering Fair. She was also named Teacher of the Year at the competition.
In addition to helping students reach their dreams, Aidyl has her own. She’s applied to NASA to become an astronaut. “I’d love to go into space,” says Aidyl, who adds she isn’t scared because her husband is working on the spacecrafts, so she knows it will be safe. With over 18,000 applications she realizes her chances are slim. “Still, you never know,” she says.
The daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants, she grew up in a rough section of the South Bronx, discovering her love of science by experimenting with cockroaches in the family’s tiny apartment. Her commitment to teaching came later—and by accident, literally.
After getting her undergraduate degree, Aidyl and her husband moved from NY to California to attend Caltech. Aidyl was fast tracking as a Caltech researcher, uncommon for Latina women, when in 2003 a freak accident at the Orange County Fair derailed her professional ascent. Aidyl was on the “Adrenaline Drop” ride when things went awry. Instead of being bounced back up bungee-style, she hit a 4-inch-thick pad 15 feet above the ground.
It took her two years to walk again, during which time she lost her research funding, battled pain and eventually found a new career teaching high school students with learning disabilities at Bridges Academy. Following an 8-year-stint at Bridges, in 2013 Aidyl moved to Buckley where she’s known to field light-night phone calls from students and parents. The geneticist spends three days a week during the summer, unpaid, in a lab helping kids who want to do research. Sometimes they meet at Buckley; other times they converge at CalTech.
“All I ask is that they pay it forward,” she says, “and sometimes maybe a sugar-free Red Bull.”
—Written by Susan Spillman
Entertainment Executive | Community Builder
Ask Gretchen McCourt where she’d like to meet for a morning interview, and you won’t hear Starbucks. “Let’s meet at Republic of Pie in North Hollywood. It’s this great community hub right between Sherman Oaks [where she lives] and the studios. Everyone there is super friendly.”
That pretty much describes the ethos of Gretchen McCourt. The executive VP and chief content officer of Arclight Cinemas and mother of four is—at her core—about connecting.
“I grew up in Kansas City and it always strikes me when someone says, ‘There’s no community in LA. I don’t even know my neighbors.’ I believe it’s about building a community. If you want it, build it.”
Gretchen’s first job out of college was working for AMC Theatres. As an economics and urban planning major, she was originally hired to do real estate development but switched to the film department.
In 2007 Pacific Theatres reached out to her for help in building out their more experiential, higher-end Arclight concept. At the time, there was only one Arclight located in Hollywood. Next year the 11th Arclight will open in Boston. Of the countless hours she has put in over the years, Gretchen says matter-of-factly, “If you love what you do, it doesn’t feel like hard work. And I love what I do.”
Despite the hefty title and raising kids (ages 11 to 22), Gretchen found the time to kick off the nonprofit Women in Entertainment in 2015. She is the CEO of the organization, which puts on events attended by many of Hollywood’s heavy hitters. “It is not about accolades or awards. We want to have a forum for women to have meaningful conversations about the business.”
One important goal is to help young women get into showbiz. “We work with several LA schools with our mentorship program. Girls who are excelling in STEM programs need to know that they can have careers in entertainment.”
Gretchen is also behind another philanthropic effort. She recently spearheaded the founding of the Mid Valley chapter of the National League of Young Men (NLYM). The nonprofit is aimed at teaching young men about protocol, philanthropy and leadership. “I have three sons. I want them to learn to build their own communities.”
This fall Gretchen will take a step back from Arclight, transitioning into the role of consultant and shifting her laser focus on what has become her true passion, Women in Entertainment. When she talks about the upcoming change, her excitement is palpable. “There is just so much good that we can do there.”
—Written by Linda Grasso
Hair & Makeup by Cat Sherwin
Shideh, Shirin and Shida Kaviani
Owners of Naked Wardrobe | Industry Trailblazers
The Kaviani sisters, who grew up in Woodland Hills, seemed destined to go into business together.
“We always had a lemonade stand when we were growing up. We’d charge 15 cents a cup,” recalls Shida, the 35-year-old middle sister.
“One time we made $42!” adds 31-year-old Shideh, the youngest one.
“We had garage sales too. One time we sold a Guess jean jacket for only 50 cents, and we told our parents about it and we got yelled at,” chimes in 37-year-old Shirin, prompting all three women to burst out laughing.
However no one is disputing their business acumen today. The Kaviani sisters own Naked Wardrobe. Operating out of a large commercial office space in Northridge, the company manufactures a line of form-fitting, viscose clothing, worn by celebrities including the Kardashians, Jennifer Lopez and Selena Gomez.
The all-white contemporary offices, accented with neon wall art, are adjacent to their fulfillment center. Rows of shelves are lined with cardboard boxes, filled with hundreds of different styles. There are mini, midi and maxi dresses and skirts, crop tops, bodysuits, jumpsuits and a maternity line. Most are priced in the $40 to $45 range. And this past summer, a shoe line was added to the mix. High heels, of course.
The genesis for Naked came from Shideh, who graduated from FIDM. She honed her craft by working for a few retailers but aspired to work for a company that sold clothes she could afford. “I started looking at companies like Forever 21 and H&M and noticed that they weren’t selling online,” Shideh explains.
Joining forces with Shirin, a self-described “techie nerd” and a wizard at graphic design, and Shida, a PR executive, the trifecta was born in 2012. Naked originally was a resale business. The sisters would buy items in downtown LA and sell them on the site. Shirin caught wind of Instagram (relatively new at the time) and started using it as a promotional tool, pushing out photos of beautiful models in their sexy, affordable clothing.
“From the first month, we were golden,” recalls Shideh.
Creating their own line seemed the next logical step. As their custom designs were being shipped all over the world, ironically their big break came from a gal who lived just a couple of miles away. Khloe Kardashian was photographed at a restaurant wearing a Naked dress.
“She could wear all the couture she wanted and she chose a $40 dress. I was shocked. I literally dropped to the floor and said, ‘We’ve made it!’” giggles Shideh.
They credit their work ethic and success to their parents, who are both entrepreneurs. The sisters see them frequently. “We all live within a few miles of each other—all of us in the Valley,” says Shida.
—Written by Linda Grasso
Makeup by Karolin Davtyan
Hair by Sylvia Heranchian
For more on the Kaviani sisters, check out the SheSez with Linda Grasso podcast, available on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen.
LA Sparks Leader | Powerful Proponent
Christine Simmons may work behind the scenes, but as one of a very small group of female professional sports leaders, the LA Sparks president and COO lives in the spotlight.
Her job for the professional women’s basketball team entails handling everything on the business side—from sponsorships to ticket sales to PR. But the most rewarding part of it all is outside that realm. “I find most joy when I’m out in the community. And a lot of it has nothing to do with basketball.”
Christine prides herself on community outreach, whether she is speaking at a women’s event, putting on a program for underprivileged kids or helping graduates, in her role as head of UCLA alumni relations.
It’s her fifth season leading the Sparks. She worked in business development for Magic Johnson (who co-owns the team) earlier in her career and went on to a job at NBC Universal. Then Magic approached her about the Sparks.
“On paper, I was not qualified for the job. I think he saw in me a competitive nature that he has himself. And he knew I’d put in the work.”
The Sparks franchise—part of the Women’s National Basketball Association—is the only professional women’s sports team in LA. In 2016 the team won the championship and one year later made it to the finals.
“It’s crazy, but our 2016 championship was the last one this city won.” And yet filling the seats (even though you can get a ticket for just 10 bucks) is a challenge. Many basketball fans don’t think women have the same skill level as men. Christine aims to change that. “Every guy I know who is a hard-core NBA fan, they come and say, ‘Dang these girls can ball!’ These women are global athletes!”
A divorcee, she is mom to a 7-year-old son, Christian. With such a demanding job, at times it’s a juggle.
“I love being a working mom. Hats off to moms and dads that choose to stay home. I’ve always enjoyed my career. I feel like I’m the best mother I can be when I’m learning new things and pushing myself. It’s just who I am.”
—Written by Linda Grasso
For more on Christine, check out SheSez
with Linda Grasso on Apple Podcasts
or wherever you get your podcasts.
Clothes Designer | Creative Force
Growing up in suburban Van Nuys, Rachel Pally had little hint of the glamour and excitement that was to come. The elegant, soft-spoken designer has been creating luxe dresses, wide-leg pants and feminine tops for the last 15 years. Her eponymous line can be found at high-end department stores like Neiman Marcus and chic boutiques—from Madison to Planet Blue.
Rachel’s entree to the world of fashion was somewhat unconventional. She didn’t attend FIDM or Pratt and never held a haute couture apprenticeship. Her fashion sense is derived from her own innate sense of style as well as unbridled tenacity.
While studying geography and modern dance at the University of California, Berkeley, Rachel began sewing her own creations, using remnants from the local fabric store.
“The clothes had this handmade, deconstructed kind of look. They’re really funny when I look at them now, but people were really liking them,” Rachel recalls.
One of her dresses caught the eye of a trendy LA shop owner, during a trip home from college.
“I ended up showing her some of the other clothes I had made and she said, ‘Make some stuff and I’ll see if I can sell it.’ It ended up working, and people were actually buying it. It was totally insane to me!” Rachel admits.
The positive feedback incented Rachel to pursue a new career path. After graduating from Berkeley and moving back in with her parents, Rachel got to work on her sewing machine.
“I had a black and white roll of fabric that I cut and sewed together in whatever way made sense to me. I made a bunch of samples and started calling people: ‘Hi, I’m Rachel. Can I come and show you my line?’ Most people said ‘no,’ but I just called again and again. I was 22, totally fearless and had nothing to lose. Finally people started to say yes.”
She landed accounts at some of the hottest luxury boutiques in Los Angeles and moved her headquarters to an apparel manufacturer in downtown LA.
In 2003 Rachel got a lucky break: Singer Jessica Simpson, a fashion trendsetter at the time, arrived at an event in one of her designs.
“Jessica wore my jersey, wide-leg, cropped pants and afterwards my doors were literally being banged down. I joke that Jessica Simpson wore my pants, and I bought a house—but literally I was 22 and bought a house in Los Feliz from the sales of those pants,” remarks Rachel.
Now 38, Rachel lives in the hills above Studio City with Kevin Circosta, a fashion designer and musician, along with their two boys, Tao (5) and Luca (2).
“I feel like our company has always been about making women feel good. We support our local economy. We do “Made in the USA.” All of these things are just who I am in terms of my humanity. It’s given me an amazing life, and I’m so grateful.”
—Written by Heather David
LA Family Housing CEO | Barrier Breaker
You may recall seeing Measure H on the ballot last March. Giving a thumb’s up to that 10-year, 25-cent LA County sales tax might not have meant much to you, but it has turned Stephanie Klasky-Gamer’s world upside down—in a good way. “There’s never been a time like this before,” she says.
Stephanie, 50, is solidly grounded in activism—from a childhood growing up in Northridge with parents committed to social justice and advocacy, to volunteering in junior high at a north Valley shelter to her current position as president and CEO at LA Family Housing (LAFH). When she joined the 35-year-old nonprofit in 2007, its operating budget was $6.25 million. Today with the revenues from Measure H, LAFH’s budget is $41 million. Under Stephanie’s direction, LAFH’s staff has grown from 75 people to 230. “I sign $400,000 a week in motel vouchers for families,” says Stephanie, to give an idea of the volume of need among LA County’s 53,000-person homeless population.
Stephanie, who lives in North Hollywood with her husband and three children, describes her job at LAFH as “a marriage of personal passions. It’s who I am at my core combined with the skill set I had.” Stephanie earned her bachelor’s degree in art history at the University of Michigan and went on to get a master’s degree in urban planning from UCLA. Early on she thought she might pursue public-art advocacy or other public-sector work, but then, “I got very intrigued with the notion of the ‘built environment’—who gets to decide what gets built for who and where? I made a shift during grad school to become a ‘houser.’”
As property-development work goes, Stephanie chose the field that is probably the toughest row to hoe: the construction of what they call “bridge,” (aka shelter) and affordable housing. But she is close to seeing a decade of struggle pay off, with the opening of the Campus at LAFH on Lankershim Boulevard in NoHo. Ironically the $10 million project occupies the site of the old Valley Shelter, where Stephanie volunteered with her youth group from Temple Judea in junior high, bringing her efforts full circle. Nearly complete, the attractive, LEED-certified, block-square complex features housing for about 300 people, plus a medical clinic and centralized counseling services. The Campus will serve about 10,000 people a year.
The Campus is just one of 23 properties LAFH owns and operates. Most are in the north Valley. “We work on a philosophy of removing barriers to housing,” Stephanie says. “You need to give people a stable environment first; you need routines and stability.”
—Written by Anne M. Russell
Nonprofit Founder | Activist for Life
At 5 feet 10 inches tall, wearing one of her signature flower print dresses and sneakers, it’s immediately clear when you meet Rachel Sumekh: She is a force of nature.
Recognized by Forbes Magazine as one of their 2017 “30 under 30: Social Entrepreneurs,” Rachel is the founder and CEO of Swipe Out Hunger. The program allows college students with extra money on their dining hall meal plans to donate it to students in need.
“Initially it started off with my friends and I going to the dining hall and buying food and giving it out to homeless people around Westwood,” explains Rachel, who at the time was in her second year at UCLA.
Soon after, Rachel heard about a food pantry that was opening on campus, to serve undergraduates who couldn’t afford to eat. For Rachel, it was a mind-blowing revelation.
“We had no idea that there were hungry students on campus, and we wanted to help our own peers first,” she says.
She shares that recent studies show one-third of university students in the United States are “food insecure,” meaning they don’t have consistent access to enough healthy food.
Rachel, who grew up in Tarzana as a “quiet bookworm,” became an outspoken advocate, ultimately helping persuade the UCLA administration to adopt the Swipe Out Hunger system in 2010.
“I got on this big kick, realizing my voice is the most valuable thing, and it was such a self-actualizing experience. I was doing what I love, which is leadership and getting my friends involved too.”
In 2012 President Obama invited Rachel, along with other young innovators from across the country, to celebrate their accomplishments at the White House. Two years later, Rachel opened Swipe Out Hunger’s office in downtown LA. Currently the nonprofit has 48 colleges and universities on board and has collected hundreds of thousands of dollars from meal plans to aide others.
Rachel is buoyed by what she has been able to accomplish and is fully committed to remaining an altruistic leader.
“I never want to use my voice or any power that I have unless it’s advancing society and making a difference in people’s lives.”
—Written by Heather David
It’s not as if Leslie Danelian didn’t already have a following when she opened Sweet Butter Kitchen, Café & Market earlier this year. The self-described foodie had run her own local catering operation for years. Still, she and husband Rick Berge were shocked when, days before the restaurant’s debut date, the phone started ringing off the hook.