Power Panel Members Discuss How They've Used Their Influence to Make an Impact

By The Editors | December 4, 2019 | People Feature Politics Profiles News and Features Interviews

Our Power Panel participants share how they've used their success to affect change.

Real estate, design, philanthropy, government, tech, business, activism—San Francisco and the Bay Area are filled with people in these various sectors who are constantly innovating, breaking barriers and paving the way for others. We chose the following representatives from diverse industries and posed the question: How have you used your power to make an impact?

Malia M. Cohen, 41

Chair, California State Board of Equalization

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I am a public policy architect.

“I love to bring people together to build a consensus and to find solutions. Architects help design and build technological wonders like the Getty Center, Marin County Civic Center or the Eiffel Tower. As an architect of change, I am focused on creating and building lasting policy changes that will position California to continue to be a leader for the world. Throughout my life, I’ve fought for diversity and inclusion. I’ve championed policies and programs that protect public health, foster economic development, promote new affordable housing, and create jobs. When I was a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, I led the city’s effort to create the first-in-the-nation law prohibiting the sale of all flavored tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes, flavored cigars and flavored e-cigarettes. In 2017, I introduced the ordinance to ban flavored tobacco products, built a strong coalition to support it, and steered the measure to unanimous passage by the Board of Supervisors. San Francisco’s law has been the catalyst for a growing national movement to end the sale of menthol cigarettes and other flavored tobacco products, which play a pernicious role in attracting kids and directly contribute to health disparities in the United States. At the Board of Equalization, I am leading a series of experts to help us gather information and data for California to modernize our property tax system—a multibillion-dollar revenue stream that funds our local government services. We need to quickly address challenges and focus on emerging issues that may affect the administration of property taxes. We need to make sure our property tax system can be brought into the modern age while continuing to efficiently and effectively collect taxes, as well as protect the rights of our taxpayers.

Change is hard. Modernizing archaic structures can be hard. But if we carefully plan, create consensus, and use the latest technology creatively and effectively, we can positively impact people’s lives and build sustainable and long-lasting infrastructures and communities to better all Californians.”Malia M. Cohen

Rodney Fong, 53

President & CEO, San Francisco Chamber of Commerce

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I am a Business leader.

“I am a native San Franciscan and a third-generation operator/owner of the world famous Wax Museum at Fisherman’s Wharf, where I had served as president. I was also the president of Fong Real Estate Company, overseeing leasing and tenant concerns for the properties, such as the 100,000-square-foot Wax Museum Entertainment Complex building in the heart of historic Fisherman’s Wharf and Broadway Apartments. I’ve been working in the tourism and hospitality business since I was a child. Early in my career, I was responsible for the daily operations and management technique at the Wax Museum, a world-renowned tourist attraction. I eventually made marketing my main focus, gradually learning the concepts, strategies and procedures of that profession. I not only directed marketing activities for the enterprises, but also came to oversee all operational and management issues. I eventually managed the successful sale of the Wax Museum in 2013. I have been active and held office in a wide variety of civic-, tourist- and travel-related organizations, including currently serving as the president of the San Francisco Planning Commission and also formerly served as president of the San Francisco Port Commission. In 2009, I became chair of the San Francisco Travel Association and continue to serve on the board of directors. I also currently serve on the board of directors for the California Travel Industry Association, the San Francisco Bay Area Super Bowl 50 Host Committee, the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank, Fort Mason, Fisherman’s Wharf Merchants Association, Fisherman’s Wharf Community Benefit District, Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation, and the Bay Institute. I am the director of the Fong Family Foundation, a philanthropic organization created by my grandparents to benefit many worthwhile social services in the city and was honored by the City and County of San Francisco as part of the Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.”–Rodney Fong

Oriana Branon (Camacho), 35

Director of Community and Public Relations, Bay Area, Alaska Airlines

Twitter @oriananicolec

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I am a creative, connector and thought-provoker.

“I believe in the power of relationships to enact change for the broader good. Through my board service and my community involvement, I have worked with partners to open up pathways for diverse candidates to pursue education and career opportunities. I look forward to the day when I walk into a room and I am not the only woman of color having important conversations that impact our larger business community. It is my hope that, through my work, I can help bring about change so that boardrooms and business meetings reflect our diverse city makeup. Personally, I also mentor students and young professionals of color who are looking to make inroads into public relations and marketing fields.”Oriana Branon

Nina Dosanjh, 39

Realtor, The Nolan Group; Director, Strategic Alliances and Technology, Vanguard Properties

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I am a change-maker.

“They say with great power comes great responsibility. As the first woman of color to ever hold the position of president of the [San Francisco Association of Realtors], I’m a supporter of more intersectional inclusivity in real estate. On this journey of rising into positions where you have the opportunity to influence, I have often found that, along the way, I was learning a lot about finding my own voice. With that ownership came a sense of responsibility to other women, to my fellow colleagues and community. Most importantly, I was learning how my voice could amplify to encourage positive change. It was then that I realized that I needed to find a company that had the same beliefs I did, and I’m so lucky to have found Vanguard Properties, a company that recognizes the importance of women in leadership. A few years ago, I became involved in a movement called WomanUP! Women account for 60% of Realtors in the state of California, but only represent a fraction of executive and brokerage positions. This movement encourages and supports women to take control of their journey to career advancement, and brokerage leadership and/or ownership. The stories of positive change for myself and other woman that have come out of this movement fuel the desire to be more of a change-maker in our industry.”–Nina Dosanjh

Schuyler Hudak, 36

Founder and CEO, Cor Media

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I am a Community leader/bridge-builder.

“In a time that is overwhelmingly filled with division and isolation, one of the most powerful qualities any one of us can practice is the compassion to be a champion of empathy and see issues from a perspective other than our own. I have fought against the increasing entrenchment in our divisions by bridging the tech sector and the civic sector, new San Franciscans with those whose families have been here for generations, and progressives with moderates. Through entrepreneurship and service in San Francisco politics, I have spent my life building bridges between different communities in San Francisco because we can accomplish so much more when we set aside dogma and instead focus our incredible collective resources on progress. The stakes are too high for us to be divided. That is why I’m so passionate about the work I do on the board of the San Francisco General Hospital Foundation. It is the perfect platform to empower the people who are doing the important frontline work: the doctors, nurses and caretakers who don’t have time for divisiveness; they just need to heal the people they serve. [Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital] is the only psychiatric emergency center in San Francisco, but it needs more support from our community. I am chairing the 2020 SF General Hospital Foundation fundraiser, Hearts in SF at Oracle Park, Feb. 13, to bring our community together and raise the critical resources necessary to support the doctors and nurses who serve the most vulnerable people in our city. This event gives our partners in the technology and business sectors an opportunity to collaborate with us to fund the hospital programs that are making a difference. The mental health crisis is the most important challenge facing San Francisco today and will only be solved through empathy and unity. I will do whatever it takes to make sure we set aside our differences, work together and rise to the challenge.”–Schuyler Hudak

Jose Antonio Vargas, 38

Founder, Define American; Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist

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I am a writer, filmmaker and theater producer.

“At Define American, we tell help tell stories to fight the anti-immigrant narrative that has spread like a virus in a country founded by the freedom of movement. As a writer, filmmaker and theatrical producer who happens to be undocumented, gay and Filipino, I tell stories to claim all parts of myself, where I am not an ‘other’ or a ‘minority,’ not someone to be ‘marginalized.’ Storytelling is freedom to me, and, as Toni Morrison said: ‘The function of freedom is to free someone else.’”–Jose Antonio Vargas

Rhonda Hirata, 66

VP Marketing, San Francisco Design Center

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I am a bridge-builder.

“I’ve always loved a quote from Winston Churchill: ‘We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.’ My role at the SFDC has given me the incredible opportunity to galvanize the design community in creative ways to positively impact the greater community. Our largest project began with a cold call to the Ronald McDonald House at Stanford and became Where Hope Has a Home, a milestone pro bono effort. The project saw 48 interior designers from around the Bay Area designing and furnishing the new 52,000-square-foot Ronald McDonald House—at their own cost—to create comforting and beautiful spaces to house the families of critically ill children. My father inspired me with a sense of community from an early age—giving back was just what one did. We were of modest means, but he taught me that giving one’s time and expertise are, in so many ways, more valuable than money. That ethos still drives me.”–Rhonda Hirata

Tom DeCaigny, 43

Director of Cultural Affairs, San Francisco Arts Commission

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“I have championed a historic increase to the city’s investment in arts and culture through Proposition E (November 2018 ballot measure) and positioned San Francisco as a global leader in nonprofit sustainability, cross-sector collaboration, and advancing racial equity in and through the arts.”–Tom DeCaigny



Photography by: Illustrations by Dale Edwin Murray