How can one person impact change? These people will tell you.
These days, the term “influencer” often refers to people on social media. Even the Merriam-Webster dictionary has updated the definition of the word to include “a person who is able to generate interest in something (such as a consumer product) by posting about it on social media.” The definition is rooted in one’s ability to impact or guide the actions of others—whether it’s disrupting an industry, advocating for equality, sharing one’s own story of overcoming adversity or simply sharing experiences about food and travel. In this feature, we honor all with the understanding that influence, no matter what scale, requires an ability to inspire and lead by example. From social media to social impact, here are just a few people who are changing and challenging the way we think, buy, interact and live.
JENNIFER SIEBEL NEWSOM
In addition to being First Partner of the State of California, Jennifer Siebel Newsom is a filmmaker, advocate and founder of the nonprofit organization The Representation Project, which uses film and media as catalysts for cultural transformation, so that everyone, regardless of gender, race, class, age, sexual orientation or circumstance, can fulfill their human potential.
How have you used your influence to make changes?
I have always used my voice to speak up for what I believe in, even when (perhaps especially when) it’s hard. Whether it is sexist media representation or fighting for a world that works for working moms, there is nothing more powerful than speaking your truth, and speaking it loudly.
If you could have more influence with anyone, with whom would it be?
Having the ear with Republicans in Congress might be nice. But also… I have been very disappointed by the way the media continues to treat female presidential candidates. I don’t think we’ve learned our lesson from 2016, and I think this country still has a major problem with women in power.
How has being First Partner impacted your ability to influence others?
The role of first partner is both a platform and a convening power. I use the office to lift up important work, and to bring folks together to advance that work faster. From pay equity to the health and well-being of our kids, having someone in the governor’s office prioritizing the issue makes a big difference.
In what way can residents of California use our influence to effect change?
Speak up and vote! And then make sure your friends and family vote too. This year is the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage, and we cannot take that right for granted. All of us are better off when women, especially diverse women, have seats at the tables of power. Your biggest influence? Growing up in a family of all girls, my mother’s and father’s belief in me as a leader gave me confidence and the belief that my voice mattered and I could make a difference in the world.
Tanya Holland is the executive chef and owner of Brown Sugar Kitchen. She is also the author of the Brown Sugar Kitchen cookbook and New Soul Cooking, was the host and soul food expert on the television series Melting Pot and competed on the 15th season of Top Chef. Holland will be opening a new “plant-forward” cafe called Town Fare at the Oakland Museum in August.
How have you used your influence to make changes? Through a lot of my support in fundraising for nonprofits that serve the community feeding vulnerable communities such as No Kid Hungry and Alameda County Community Food Bank.
If you could have more influence with anyone, with whom would it be? With the food media, especially TV; with developers in terms of creating housing to support the income of hospitality workers and small-business owners (rent).
How has being a ‘celebrity chef’ impacted your ability to influence others? I’m being asked to participate in conversations regarding sustainability, equity, inclusion, etc., and I’m able to share this with my customers. I’m very direct and transparent, and I’m not afraid to share with people how I’ve experienced the world as a black woman in this field, as an entrepreneur. ‘Celebrity’ doesn’t come without challenges.
In what way can new or aspiring chefs influence change in their circles? Restaurants and other food operations are microcosms of our community; we have so much opportunity to influence and change how people eat, what they eat. To have mindfulness around sustainability and hospitality is more important than molecular gastronomy.
Your biggest influence? Besides my mom and dad, all of my aunties, biological and play. I have so many of them, and they are and were all very strong women with independent thought. There was a big emphasis on higher education, being a leader, being authentic and being nurturing. My dad’s younger sister who became a general counsel for several large international companies made me believe that I could do anything.
Anne Devereux-Mills is an accomplished CEO, entrepreneur and documentary film executive, and is the founder of Parlay House, a modern salon designed to spark authentic conversations and build relationships across a diverse range of women. It currently has more than 5,000 participants and operates in 12 cities across the U.S. and Europe. She is also the author of The Parlay Effect: How Female Connection Can Change the World ($17, Parlay House Books).
How have you used your influence to make changes in your field? It was the other way around. Creating a new ‘field’ is what gave me influence. In 2012, there were few organizations where it was safe for women to talk about their vulnerabilities and concerns or their aspirations and truths. That was the case for working women as well as for women at home, and true across race, age and sexual orientation. By bringing diverse groups of strangers into my home and presenting them with content, ideas and connection, we ignited a cascade of influence that is passed from one woman to the next.
If you could have more influence anywhere, where would it be? I’d want to see Parlay House gatherings in every city and town where women would benefit from increased connection with others. And, as we rise to have equal levels of empowerment, inclusion and access to that held by our male counterparts, our influence will create space to bring men into those empowered conversations as well.
How has your book and being founder of Parlay House impacted your ability to influence others? The book has been terrific at extending both my personal story and the value of Parlay House communities much more broadly and quickly than would have otherwise happened. Thanks to interested women around the globe who read the book or a related communication, we will be launching in Atlanta, Denver, Seattle and Amman, Jordan, in the next two months alone. We receive inquiries on a consistent basis from women around the world who want to be the champion for chapters in their towns, and our organization is scaling quickly so that we can welcome and support them.
How is Parlay House making an impact? We are an organization which was created and continues to exist in order to get outside of our daily bubbles and find ties with women whose lives are very different from our own. Since we frame ourselves based on our authentic experiences and values rather than by power or title, we are creating new forms of community which are inherently more diverse, accepting and inclusive.
Your biggest influence? My grandma, Sarah Ettenheim. Born in 1911, she redefined the role of women by being one of the first to run a department at a major university, one of the few to teach aerial navigation during the Second World War, and an early advocate for equality, social justice and prison reform. When she died in 2006, her funeral was filled to the brim with the young people who she related to, with gay friends who she considered the dearest in her life, and with values-based people she partnered to enhance her community.
CARLA CASSANDRA SAMSON
Carla Cassandra Samson is a transgender model currently working as a content creator at Sephora, where she was featured in a company campaign that follows her journey, challenges and support through her transition. She shares her story openly on all her social media platforms
How have you used your influence to make a change? One thing I’ve always wanted for people in both my personal life or on my social platforms is to be truthful and happy. I remember not having a role model or navigation at the beginning of my transition, so I really try to use my platform as a way to show others that you can live your truth and you can enjoy your life at the same time. I hope that inspires others to do the same, no matter what their truth is.
If you could have more influence with anyone, with whom would it be? I’d love to have more influence over our future generations. I would love for them to grow up truly knowing they can be who and what they want to be. I want them to live without fear or shame. They’re going to create what our world looks like tomorrow, and one can only hope that it’s a happier, accepting, loving place.
How has social media or working for Sephora impacted your ability to influence others? Sephora’s We Belong to Something Beautiful campaign feature was such a pivotal moment for me. I’ve always openly shared my story and journey but never on that scale, and I initially didn’t understand the magnitude of it. It really gave me the ability to show others in similar situations that there is huge light at the end of the tunnel and you can come out on the other side stronger, more brilliant and more resilient.
In what way can others hoping to transition influence change in their circles? Educate and have patience. One mistake I made transitioning was expecting everyone to get on board overnight. I’d been living with my feelings throughout my whole life, so I knew what I wanted and who I was. I realize now that I had to give everyone in my life time to catch up. Approach these situations with an open heart and mind, understand both sides and educate from a place of love and with the intent to teach empathy.
Who was your biggest influence growing up and why? My biggest influence was and is my sister, Kate. She was such a light and force. My sister really built my tough skin and taught me that being a woman wasn’t about how you dressed or did your hair and makeup—it’s how you treat people and make them feel; it’s about being stronger than what life throws at you.
Teresa Barajas uses her social media platforms to provide an online resource for travel, experiences, food and wine. She began posting more than 10 years ago, and since then, has been sharing places, products and services with her growing number of followers.
How have you used your influence to make changes? I try to make changes in this field by bringing my perspective as a Latina, which is significantly underrepresented in the Bay Area in this field. I have conversations with brands and other companies to encourage collaborations with other Latinx creators. I also make myself available for up-and-coming creators by sharing my knowledge with them and taking the time to answer their questions about the field.
If you could have more influence with anyone, with whom would it be? I would want to expand my influence to my local community, particularly the youth. Social media has a lot of weight on how we perceive ourselves and others. The youth need to know that not everything online is what it’s made out to be. I would also love to instill in them the value of travel and experiences over material things.
How has a solid IG following (@teresa_) impacted your ability to influence others? The growth of my IG following has made me narrow in on what I love to post. I have always tried to partner with brands that I know align with my passions, and have become more selective with new brands. I try to remain authentic and be responsible to those that follow me. I can’t know for sure how my IG impacts all people who follow me, but I do hope I can encourage their sense of adventure and taste.
Where do you see the future of social media influencers going? Helping build brands, or having personalized products, for example, you might find the Teresa drink at a restaurant or the Teresa travel experience with a travel company. Also, influence for good, making the content that shines light on whatever social issue the influencer is passionate about.
Who was your biggest influence growing up and why? Without a doubt, my mom was my most significant influence; she taught me how to create something out of nothing and gave me thick skin to handle life. She was humble but smart and always gave me the right advice.
Colin Walsh is the co-founder and CEO of SF-based Varo Money, which is on track to become the first mobile-centric national bank in U.S. history. Walsh founded Varo with the goal of helping millions of people improve their financial lives.
How have you used your influence to make changes? We are applying technology and a customer-first mindset in ways that could change the entire banking industry. We have built a company that can profitably serve a massive group of consumers that have been left behind by the incumbent players. We designed Varo as a fully digital banking business from scratch that has radically lower costs. With our national banking license, we will develop a wider array of products and role-model for other banks and fintechs the importance of customer focus and human-centered design, while expanding inclusion.
If you could have more influence with anyone, with whom would it be? Varo has attracted amazing backers who have both vision and resources that have helped us bring our mission to life. However, there are a group of investors who I would love to be able to influence to think more outside the box. Many venture investors follow a fairly narrow playbook that companies and founders either fit or they don’t. As a result, I believe there are a lot of missed opportunities.
How has the success of Varo impacted your ability to influence others? Varo is helping open people’s eyes to just how many people are struggling financially. The rapid success of fintech innovators points to how much pent-up demand there is in this country for better banking services, especially among the tens of millions of consumers who have been underserved and overcharged by the traditional banks and financial services providers. As Varo becomes more successful, we will create greater awareness of the role technology can play in helping people live better financial lives.
In what way can aspiring or new entrepreneurs influence change in their circles? As an entrepreneur, it’s important to have deeply held beliefs and conviction around the problem you are trying to solve. Your own enthusiasm converts others into becoming evangelists for change. Your company or solution must be rooted in a real pain point, and you have identified a new way to address it.
Your biggest influence? First, my paternal grandmother was a force of nature. She was strong and determined. We had a close connection. She was the matriarch of our family, and I took a lot of inspiration from her. She had grit and resilience and passion about things—and also the ability to have a good laugh. I also had an uncle who took me under his wing—he was quite cultured and traveled and also had a curiosity about life that influenced me and made me want to question things. I would say I got grit from my grandmother and curiosity from my uncle.
Photography by: From top: Andrew Paynter; Smeeta Mahanti; Jamie Nease; Michael Sevilla; Teresa Barajas; Ryan Holmes