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The 25 Most Influential San Franciscans of 2020

Laura Eckstein Jones & Kendyl Kearly | October 15, 2020 | People Featured

This October, we honor the local luminaries leading the charge in our community. From arts advocates to innovators finding solutions to current challenges, these formidable forces drive change, pushing San Francisco forward for the greater good.

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1. Kamala Harris

When Sen. Kamala Harris spoke at a virtual Democratic National Convention, the timing was lost on no one. Even if it had been, Harris made it clear in her opening lines: “This week marks the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th amendment. And we celebrate the women who fought for that right.” Here, she, a Black woman with Asian heritage, had the right to ask America to vote for her to become vice president of the United States of America. Gone were the stadium crowds, the blue-clad delegates screaming her name, but the solid weight of that right made the occasion just as momentous.

Harris is a Bay Area native through and through. Her biggest debate moment came when she called Joe Biden out for his past opposition of busing and described her own childhood of busing as part of an effort to integrate public schools in California. An anecdote from her book even describes an argument with the chairman of JPMorgan Chase, during which she took off her earrings, part of “the Oakland in me.”

Although the senator has been such a fixture in this community, traveling from Silicon Valley tech campuses to detention centers, she now flies all over the country, stopping in Salt Lake City for the vice presidential debate on Oct. 7. As she said in her DNC speech, “Years from now, this moment will have passed. And our children and our grandchildren will look in our eyes and ask us: ‘Where were you when the stakes were so high?’ They will ask us, ‘What was it like?’ And we will tell them. We will tell them not just how we felt. We will tell them what we did.”

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2. August Sebastiani

The president of 3 Badge Beverage Corporation finds that patience and appreciating the little things go a long way when it comes to being happy, especially during a pandemic.

How would you describe your mission? To introduce consumers to the diversity of high-end spirits. We scour the globe looking for products that celebrate affordable luxury with brands that meet our high standards.

How are you helping the community? We’ve looked at a number of options to help our restaurant partners stay afloat. We started with donating $1 for every bottle sold from our wine portfolio to C.O.R.E. (Children of Restaurant Workers) throughout shelter in place. We’ve also tried to support with to-go packaging that restaurants don’t already have on hand for to-go cocktail programs, and are distributing masks to local restaurateurs so they have one less added expense to worry about.

What does the world need more of now? Patience. It’s amazing how far a little patience can go to understand where others are coming from and what personal challenges they might be facing.

Heather McLeod Grant Headshot3. Heather McLeod Grant

As a co-founder of Open Impact, a philanthropic advisory firm, Heather McLeod Grantis well-versed in how to be a do-gooder.

What’s your goal with Open Impact? My personalmission in life is to help leaders make a realdifference in the world. It’s highly rewarding work!

What does that mean during the pandemic? We’re supporting many clients to address the triple crisesof COVID-19, economic uncertainty and racial injustice. We’ve catalyzed efforts to increase localgiving and have helped our clients develop plans for deploying billions of dollars to these and other issues.

What does society need more of right now? I think the world needs new and diverse leadership:more women, more people of color, more people who bring alternative perspectives to the table—not justa focus on ego, success, power and profit. We needmuch more wisdom, compassion and empathy in our leaders and as a society—and more listening,more honesty and more integrity. Having the first woman of color as VP on the Democratic ticket is a good start!

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4. Seema Krish

The founder and creative director of SeemaKrish puts sustainability,craftsmanship and heritage at the forefront of her interior textiles brand’s mission.

How are you helping your community? These pandemic times have been challengingall around for many people around theworld. Our craft communities in India have been deeply affected. We are providing them financial assistance via a GoFundMecampaign, as well as funds generated from a collection of masks we’ve designed and madefrom repurposed textiles, proceeds of which 100% benefit these communities.

How have you had to pivot during the pandemic? My friend Laura Wegman and I ideated our nonprofit UpSpark with amission toward creating beautiful spaces forurban communities in need by reusing excessgenerated from the design industry. We are in the process of pivoting our idea because sadly, gatherings are currently on hiatus.

What does the world need more of now? Empathy, kindness and gratitude. We all need to take the time to listen to each other’s stories to have a deeper understanding of each other, which will allow us to appreciateand celebrate our differences.

5. Bita Daryabari

"Personally, I may not have had the courage to immigrate to the United States 33 years ago and strike out on my own—as a woman, as an immigrant—if my parents had not instilled in me—a teenage girl who refused to wear a headscarf in revolutionary Iran—the confidence and courage to start a new life. I might never have adjusted to a country where classmates in my high school called me ‘terrorist.’ And I might not have earned my master’s degree if it weren’t for my boss at MCI telecommunications, now known as Verizon.” — Bita Baryabari, philanthropist, entrepreneur, computer scientist and founder of Pars Equality Center, during her 2018 commencement speech at Golden Gate University

6. Michelle Dilworth

“At the beginning of the pandemic, we created a resource page dedicated to tracking philanthropy’s response to COVID-19. While the pandemic did not spare anyone, the impacts have been vastly different based on your zip code, race and socioeconomic status. Our data highlights these disparities. As of July, our data showed that despite its undue impact on certain communities, only 5% of COVID-19 funding was specifically directed to communities of color, only 2% to immigrants and refugees, 2% for older adults and 1% for people with disabilities. We are all part of one human race. Mother Nature in all her horrific glory—whether we are talking about the pandemic, climate change, wildfires, hurricanes, earthquakes or whatever else she directs our way—does not discriminate based on the color of our skin, socioeconomics or geographic boundaries.” — Michelle Dilworth, senior director of partnerships at Candid

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7. Rodney Fong

As the business community flounders, the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce president and CEO is working to keep the local economy afloat.

What has been the goal of the chamber of commerce during this crisis? During an economic disaster and COVID-19 pandemic, the mission of a chamber of commerce really shifts: We’ve been focused on keeping businesses, especially small businesses, afloat during this difficult time. People don’t always realize 80% of our chamber members are small businesses. They are the heart and soul of our city. The more businesses we help stay open, the more folks we’re helping stay employed. We are trying to give working communities the support they need during this difficult time.

How do you continue that work exactly? Working with some of our accounting firm partners, we’ve offered pro bono consulting to businesses applying for PPP loans. We’ve worked with the Small Business Administration and Mayor London Breed’s office to connect businesses with grants and loans. We’ve advocated for critical policy changes, asking for fee waivers, tax relief and insurance coverage. I’m also serving as one of four co-chairs on the mayor’s Economic Recovery Task Force, representing the business community. It’s a forum where we can collaborate closely with the labor movement, nonprofits, neighborhood association and elected officials. Together, we are trying to chart a path for the city’s economy through this crisis, and talk about what the city will look like after this pandemic.

How can people help? Shop small, shop often, wear a mask and eat a lot of takeout. I’m serious—we’ve seen retail and restaurant sales drop as much as 90% since March. No amount of tax relief, government grants or zero-interest loans can replace the importance of loyal, dedicated customers. We love our small businesses in San Francisco. They make this city fun and exciting and interesting. They employ tens of thousands of people. They can’t survive without your help.

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8. Karin Rogers

The director of business operations and development for Sonoma’s Best Hospitality Group has worked to provide a staggering amount of meals for a community in need.

How would you describe your mission? Our company mission is to elevate the hospitality experience in Sonoma for our guests and community.

What does that mean during the pandemic? Through COVID-19, we have provided over 50,000 free meals to the community and our employees—all made with love in our own catering kitchen.

What are some ways others can help? These are such challenging times for every single person on the planet. If we start each day focusing on being kind and trying to see how this crisis affects others—not just ourselves and our own businesses—we can create a positive shift and get through this unprecedented chapter in the book of life.

How would you describe 2020? The year of pivoting dangerously.

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9. London Breed

We checked in with the mayor of San Francisco on how she’s managing this difficult term.

What’s your mission as mayor? My focus has been to make San Francisco a more equitable and affordable place to live. COVID-19 has only exacerbated the existing crises we have faced for years. We don’t have time to waste in addressing the issues we face around housing, homelessness and small businesses.

What’s been your biggest challenge doing this? There have been several significant challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic, including a lack of adequate federal leadership from the White House, early challenges with testing and PPE supply, the disproportionate impact of the virus on people of color and low-income San Franciscans, and severe economic challenges. This virus has shown that it targets disparities in our society.

How do you see others helping? Neighbors are looking out for one another. People are getting groceries for those who cannot leave their homes and helping vulnerable individuals get connected to city services. People are volunteering to make face coverings for healthcare workers, and companies have stepped up to provide personal protective equipment and support additional testing. It is these acts of kindness that make this challenging time more bearable. Even though it feels like our current situation will never change, there will be a time when this is behind us. When that time comes, I hope we can look back on this difficult period and know we did all we could to take care of each other.

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10. Eric Schmidt

Few people have such an influence over the world’s technological landscape as Eric Schmidt. The former Google executive chairman and CEO currently chairs the Department of Defense’s Defense Innovation Advisory Board, which helps to bring Silicon Valley innovation to the U.S. military. Schmidt has also been an outspoken critic of the government’s handling of COVID-19, and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo tapped him to lead a 15-person commission on reimagining the state’s economy. Ever busy, he also launched a podcast, Reimagine With Eric Schmidt, to discuss life after the coronavirus. “The pandemic has shed a light on societal issues and systems that hold back progress across the globe,” he says. “With the tools and technology available today, we have the chance to reimagine our future. Now, more than ever, we must call upon and support the creative minds of the next generation to challenge the norms and build back a better world.”

11. Ronnie Lott

The NFL Hall of Famer bumped up his hometown hero status with his nonprofit, All Stars Helping Kids, to help underserved kids be healthy, stay in school and prepare for careers. Here, we celebrate the organization’s work, by the numbers.

Year Lott founded All Stars Helping Kids: 1989

Amount Lott and his wife raised in one night when he hosted a dinner to benefit the community, inspiring him to start All Stars Helping Kids: $100,000

Age of Emeryville’s Jayden Cummings, who won the Congressional App Challenge for his app, iBlinkco, after becoming an All Stars grantee: 17

Approximate amount given to grantees as part of a COVID-19 rapid response fund: $160,000

Number of Bay Area kids All Stars Helping Kids has reached so far: 132,000

12. Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen

“We have to take our philanthropic investments with the same level of seriousness as we do our for-profit investments because it’s individual lives, not profits, that are at stake. With institutional philanthropy, we have this extraordinary opportunity right now, because of how technology is fundamentally disrupting philanthropy, to create an entire new culture of accountability and transparency for what are essentially public dollars for public good under private control. Traditionally, foundations have operated primarily as ivory-towered silos, not sharing their research, not sharing successes or failures, and now we have the opportunity to take all of that extraordinary institutional knowledge and start decreasing the rate at which we are incessantly reinventing the philanthropic wheel. Let’s give in a way that matters more.” — Philanthropist Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen at her 2014 talk at Vanity Fair’s New Establishment Summit

13. Libby Schaaf

Even if you don’t like her, there’s something about Libby Schaaf. Maybe it’s the way the mayor of Oakland talks with her hands or emphasizes so many of her syllables. Mastering the female politician’s tightrope of not seeming either flighty or icy, she enthuses. Sure, you could envision her in line with you at the school car pool, but you could also see her passing out cans at a food bank or demanding stricter guidelines for coronavirus safety. As Black Lives Matter protests spread through Oakland, President Trump called the city “a mess” and suggested that he would send federal agents in. Schaaf responded quickly on ABC7’s Midday Live: “I don’t need law enforcement in Oakland. I need testing.”

14. Dr. Sandra Hernández

Dr. Sandra Hernández utilizes her medical degree not just for healing but as a tool to serve her community for decades. She is president and CEO of the California Health Care Foundation, which works to improve the state’s healthcare system, particularly for low-income residents. She also spent 16 years as CEO of The San Francisco Foundation and director of public health for the city and county of San Francisco, as well as a Covered California board member. She calls COVID-19 “a perfect storm of healthcare inequality” and calls on California to look out for its underprivileged.

15. Dr. Tomás Aragón

In a two-minute video on his blog, Dr. Tomás Aragón demonstrates how to use an N95 respirator, a Golden State Warriors mask covering the device. Serving as health officer of the city and county of San Francisco and director of the population health division at the San Francisco Department of Public Health, Aragón inhales and exhales, and the respirator hisses. “The respirator is great right now in San Francisco; because of the fires, we have poor air quality,” he explains. “So I want to protect myself against the air quality, but I also want to have a face covering to cover the valves here so I’m practicing good source control.” Since January, he’s instilled compulsory mask-wearing, signed the stay-at-home order and helped the city to activate an emergency operations center. The Northern California wildfires only intensify the situation, but Aragón persists in trying to get the information out to the public.

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16. Kim Meredith

As the new CEO of San Francisco General Hospital, Kim Meredith is focused on equality in healthcare and beyond.

What’s your background? On Friday Juneteenth, I completed my first week as CEO of San Francisco General Hospital Foundation with resolve and in solidarity. I am the daughter of a Latin American immigrant who arrived in San Francisco with my family at age 10 speaking only Spanish. My father went on to become a doctor serving the Central California migrant worker, farm and rural communities where I grew up. I am proud to continue his legacy of supporting vulnerable populations, communities of color and immigrants in my own community.

What is your 2020 motto? Health equity! It takes all of us to keep our community healthy as we have learned throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. We are only as healthy as our most vulnerable neighbors and community members.

What does the world need more of now? Courageous, compassionate and fact-based leadership!

Pam and Jennifer

17 & 18. Jennifer Bielstein & Pam Mackinnon

The executive director and artistic director of American Conservatory Theater strive to build a better world through the power of live theater.

How are you helping your community? JB: Right now, I’ve been focused on collaborating within our community as a member of the mayor’s Economic Recovery Task Force, through the Arts Alliance, in national and regional advocacy work with other theater colleagues and in efforts to support racial justice and equity. PM: Theater stimulates empathy and critical thought. At A.C.T., we value inclusion, transformational learning, participation and rigorous fun. We give artists in our community a major platform to make and share stories.

What is your 2020 motto? JB: Flexibility. Adaptability. Collaboration. PM: Acta, non verba (Deeds, not words).

What does the world need more of now? JB: Healthy civic dialogue and engagement. PM: Laughter and respect.

Bill Higgins

19. Bill Higgins

The restaurateur behind Playa Mill Valley, Pizzeria Tra Vigne, Zero Zero, Fog City and more navigates a troubled industry.

How do you see your place in the community right now? First, our restaurants are trying to survive this while pledging consistent service to the public. Next, through partnerships, we are sending raw and prepared food products to local entities representing people in need. The mission for our restaurant group for years has been ‘Making people happy one table at a time.’

How do you recommend others get involved? By continuing their heartfelt and much-needed support of all local independent restaurants and businesses. By identifying charities and concerned groups that are focusing on feeding local people in need.

What has been your silver lining this year? Getting to spend more outdoor time with family, embracing the slower pace (this took a while) and actually reading books for the first time in years.

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20. Jon Squire

With Cardfree, CEO and co-founder Jon Squire is helping the hospitality business adjust to pandemic-related business pivots.

What’s keeping you busy right now? We’re helping hospitality businesses—big and small—establish scalable contact-free solutions for the current environment’s immediate needs, but also for the long term.

What does the world need more of now? Kindness and decency.

How are you helping the community? Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have offered our services absolutely gratis for the first three months, but we have gone beyond that for those that need it.

What’s your advice to others for helping the Bay Area? Go out to your favorite restaurants more—even if it’s grab and go—and be generous with your tips, if you are able! We all need each other. This has shown us how vital the people we come in contact with every day are. Patience and graciousness go a long way.

What is your 2020 motto? Whatever it takes.

21. Noosheen Hashemi

"One of the areas that I’m really excited about is the amount of human suffering that will go down due to biotech changes. They’re just radical, and everything you can think of will be turned on its head. In terms of even classic civil society issues, in terms of corruption, transparency, every one of those things that the world suffers from, there is a technological solution or tool to make that issue either more transparent, more obvious [or] have it be shown for what it really is. I think technology can make fundamental differences, gigantic leaps. Technology in the hands of social entrepreneurs that are really driven is just fantastic, and I think those things can have quantum leap changes.” — Noosheen Hashemi, president and co-founder of The Hand Foundation, at the 2015 World Affairs Global Philanthropy Forum Awards Dinner

22. Jillian Manus

“There’s a defining moment for every person, almost every day, and it’s how you handle that one moment. Are you going to let it rob you? Are you going to let it take you down? No, you’re going to turn that moment around. I have to say, you try to gain a lot of respect in life, and you can’t tell anybody to respect you. You just have to earn it. It’s all about believing in yourself and owning that moment.” — Jillian Manus, managing partner at Structure Capital and advocate for domestic abuse survivors, during a 2018 speech Draper University

Dr Matt Willis

23. Dr. Matt Willis

Marin County’s health officer faces unprecedented challenges.

What have you been doing as public health officer? Mainly, I’m working to protect people through sensible policies and clear messaging. It’s a lot about understanding the science and translating it, so people see what’s behind the policy decisions that are being made and have the tools to navigate choices they’re facing. We’re all balancing risks, and the science is evolving. I also work to make sure we have the raw resources we need to tackle this—testing capacity, contact tracers, income supports, housing for isolation. Demand for these things increases as case counts rise, and given that there’s no real national plan, this happens mostly at the local level.

What do you hope society learns from this? That’s a key question we should all start focusing on, even as we tackle the immediate crisis. I hope we can use this experience to reset, and that we don’t get stuck in just returning to how things were. Infectious diseases teach us that we’re all connected and how we all suffer if one community is neglected. When we pull on one thread, we see how it’s all one fabric that could unravel.

What does the world need more of now? Respect for science. When we’re facing existential threats, we need to lean into the talents that allowed us to survive this long. As humans our superpower is our brains, and the way we work together in communities to fight off threats. With pandemics and climate change, our ability to use science and work in solidarity will get us through again. It’s up to us.

Steph Aesha Curry

24 & 25. The Currys

With him being a three-time NBA champion, two-time MVP and six-time All-Star and her the maven behind hot spot International Smoke, Stephen and Ayesha Curry top the list for most beloved Bay Area power couples. But what makes the community really gush over the Currys is their philanthropic work for the Bay Area. During the pandemic, their Eat. Learn. Play. Foundation distributed tens of thousands of meals to Oakland kids who weren’t in school. “This moment has clearly demonstrated the need for all of us to have a holistic approach to food security,” Steph says. “It starts with sourcing from farmers who have been historically disconnected by traditional supply chains, to delivering the food in a manner that meets families where they are.” The complex initiative involved pooling together mostly minority farmers, out-of-service restaurants and parents in need of employment, among many others. Ayesha says, “Honestly, I think it is really inspirational to see what happens if a group of people put their heads together in order to fix a problem.”



Photography by: Kamala Harris photo by Michael F. Hiatt/Shutterstock.
August Sebastiani photo courtesy of 3 Badge Beverage.