For those wondering if San Francisco has a second, third or even fourth act, ask these next-generation movers and shakers. Their work and vision in everything from fashion to food to the arts prove innovation continues to define the region.
Monique Woodard founded Cake Ventures two years ago.
Founder, Managing Director
“We’re building a firm that is fundamentally different,” says Monique Woodard, who founded Cake Ventures two years ago. This isn’t a venture-cap leader’s bluster. Woodard is a tide-shifter in San Francisco and beyond, as her firm invests in companies that focus on the needs of three key markets: the billion-dollar female economy; the Asian, Black and Latino demographic; and the aging population. Woodard invests in companies like McMullen, Most Days and Bright.
“We have prioritized culture and diversity from day one,” says Woodard. “The makeup of the Cake Ventures portfolio reflects our commitment to founder diversity. To date, 40% of Cake’s initial investments have a female founder-CEO, and 40% of our investments have a Black founder-CEO.” For VC investing, Cake is redefining the notion of walking the walk.
Woodard says Cake Ventures also invests in entrepreneurs who are building technology companies for a future based on the many changes to our population: aging and longevity, the spending power of women, and shift to majority-minority.
“The founders I’ve invested in are some of the best entrepreneurs I’ve ever met. We may be in a challenging economic environment, but great founders build in spite of the challenges. There are so many great companies and founders out there—it’s my job to find them,” says Woodard, who, before launching Cake, was a venture partner at 500 Startups, where she invested in early-stage companies in the U.S. and Africa, and has also worked as a venture scout at Lightspeed Venture Partners. She also continues to advise SoftBank on the Vision Fund’s Emerge program.
Is San Francisco still the driver of big, life-changing ideas? Woodard, a South Florida native, University of Miami grad and Kauffman Fellow, thinks so. “It has always been the place where ambitious people come to build something great,” she says. “I hope SF’s VC and business community starts to look a little bit more like the rest of the world. In order to identify and invest in breakout technology companies, investors have to come to the table with different backgrounds, experiences and points of view. A homogeneous culture doesn’t allow us to fully capture the opportunities of the future.”
KAMPERETT founders Anna Chiu and Valerie Santillo
Ambition manifests itself in countless ways. For the founders of San Francisco-based fashion house KAMPERETT, the word means to boldly remain locally produced, to meticulously craft clothing that lasts for generations and to produce pieces that are gentle to the earth. Ultimately, Anna Chiu and Valerie Santillo want to make their brand’s legion of fans—including Ayesha Curry, Angelina Jolie, Glenn Close, Ali Wong, Eva Chen and Aurora Jones—feel something special.
“We want our clothes to make women feel confident, beautiful, comfortable and unique,” says Chiu, who, along with Santillo, came up with the company’s moniker based on a hybrid of their mothers’ maiden names (Pfedekamper and Garret). From its by-appointment atelier in the Mission and by selling pieces through select retailers like Sherri McMullen (shopmcmullen.com), the duo have dressed thousands of women since the company’s launch.
Chiu and Santillo say they eventually want KAMPERETT to evolve into a lifestyle brand. “We hope to move into a bigger space, where we can offer more variety of special objects, such as curated selections of furniture, art and accessories, in addition to expanding into new categories,” says Chiu. “The dream would be to find a beautiful historic building with a retail-showroom space in the front and creative offices and sewing factory in the back—we’ve always liked having all our operations under one roof. Showrooms in New York and Paris would also be part of that same dream.”
“We’ve been hustling and working so hard on this brand,” says Chiu. “There’s nothing we would rather be doing. The fact that so many women want to spend their hard-earned money on our clothes and that we can provide good jobs for people in our community is the most rewarding and fulfilling feeling ever.”
Chroma founders Leann Conquer and Alexis Tompkins
When Architectural Digest featured Chroma in its New American Voices coverage in 2021, the stakes and expectations became higher for the Dogpatch-based interior design firm. The magazine noted Chroma’s “seductive, moody, slightly eccentric spirit.” The writer, Mayer Rus, pretty much nailed it. Chroma’s founders, Alexis Tompkins and Leann Conquer, are creating a new California aesthetic.
"A lot of California designers are inspired by the landscape or the historic architecture or those sort of laid-back, surfy Californian archetypes, and we like to play with a grittier, more contextually complex aesthetic,” says Tompkins. “Our design ethos is fundamentally experimental, and while our work is ultimately sophisticated and elevated, we’re also subverting the tropes and trends that we see in interior design. Our work is sultry. It’s intoxicating. It’s got swagger.”
Swagger, indeed. And Chroma’s work also represents a transitional time in our culture and lives where the rooms we occupy are at once platforms for our personalities and aspirations and the more yeomanlike tasks of the everyday. “We focus on designing spaces that people actually live in, spaces both radically of the moment and exquisitely timeless, where our clients can not only be really, truly themselves, but the best version of themselves that they’ve always wanted to be,” says Conquer.
“A lot of designers today—maybe it’s the pace of the world, client demands or maybe it’s a sort of apathy—they don’t fully surrender to the process of storytelling,” says Conquer. “The vision is really about how we invest in people, how we engage with our clients and how we support each other too. It’s amazing, because we get to experience the artists and designers we love in these new, exciting ways. It goes far beyond putting furniture in someone’s home.”
Christopher Bedford, SFMOMA’s new director
Christopher Bedford, the new director at SFMOMA, has a simple philosophy about art: “I believe art changes people, and people go on to change the world.” The Scotland-born museum leader comes to the venerable Bay Area arts space after serving as director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, commissioner for the U.S. Pavilion for the 2017 Venice Biennale and director of the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University. He’s also held curatorial roles at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the J. Paul Getty Museum.
SFMOMA, of course, has distinguished itself, Bedford says, by the idea of radical hospitality and opening as many doors to as many people as possible. “This includes establishing more free spaces within the museum and animating those spaces with a spectrum of art presentations,” he says. “You can see this taking form already with the installation of Susan O’Malley’s vibrant and inspirational works at our Howard Street entrance and the presentation of artist Wu Tsang’s ‘Of Whales’ in our atrium, with comfortable seating that encourages long looking and socializing. We’re also deeply focused on diversifying the range of artists presented within our galleries and in our collection.”
During his short time with the museum, Bedford has been inspired to create new partnerships with other institutions like the Museum of the African Diaspora (moadsf.org) and establish additional opportunities for SF art fans to gather and socialize, including the launch of the museum’s restaurant, Grace. He also thinks visitors will love the upcoming show Frank Bowling: The New York Years 1966-1975 (May 20 to Sept. 10). “We’ll also continue our commitment to and celebration of Bay Area artists. For example, Oakland-based Sadie Barnette’s site-specific Bay Area Walls commission, SPACE/TIME, is on view through June and the artist’s The New Eagle Creek Saloon.”
As someone who has staked his career on art affecting people deeply, Bedford is naturally bullish on the state of the arts. But he sees changes that are more heartening than ever. “The depth and range of work that is currently being produced by artists, especially artists of color, is extraordinary and speaks to incredible formal evolutions as well as to art’s capacity to engage with social issues of significant importance,” he says. “As is often the case, artists will lead us forward, and I am excited by the innovation happening within artistic circles, both in our vibrant creative community here in the Bay Area and more globally. “
Na’ama Moran, co-founder and CEO of Cheetah, is disrupting food service.
Co Founder, CEO
Meet one of the lone wolves, or, rather, cheetahs, in the last mile of food service. Na’ama Moran is redefining the status quo of the restaurant wholesale distribution business with head-turning efficiency. The Pleasanton-based company is a sustainability-focused, tech-driven app that provides a new way for restaurants, businesses and grocers to order and receive daily supplies.
So far, the company has built partnerships with more than 3,000 clients and shipped more than 1 million products from Sacramento to Monterey.
“Cheetah’s commitment to making sure all customers receive the same fair price, regardless of their size or negotiating skills, is one of our most unique differentiators, as the rest of the distribution industry keeps opaque and antiquated pricing practices that benefit them, not their customers,” says Moran. “Our marketplace offering is giving local, artisanal vendors a major platform for last-mile distribution, changing the way restaurants have access to unique, local and sustainable products.” Moran says the latter is especially important as it relates to an industry that has taken a significant hit during the pandemic.
The entrepreneur notes that her company is committed to becoming the sustainability leader in food service distribution. “This isn’t just a notion—it’s a responsibility that we take very seriously. I’m happy to report that not only do every one of our clients support or echo our vision but also insist on it,” says Moran, whose service also helps restaurants track margins, manage supply chains and reduce food waste.
Over the next five years, Moran envisions Cheetah expanding to multiple U.S. markets and leading the industry with transparency in pricing, sourcing and carbon footprint. Above all, though, the Bay Area food service industry remains front and center in the company’s plans. “We hope the region will resume its place as one of the country’s most important innovation hubs in terms of sourcing local and sustainable foods, and leveraging technology to further that mission with culinary innovations such as plant-based proteins and dairy or cultured meats,” she says.
Along with painting portraits of machines, Bay Area artist Agnieszka Pilat also creates innovative work with a robotic dog, Spot.
In the age of AI, it might be all too much to introduce the world to a robotic dog named Spot who paints. But Bay Area artist Agnieszka Pilat’s work reflects what she thinks are the planet’s real power brokers: machines. “I like to say that I work for the machine, that my true patrons are intelligent machines of the future,” says Pilat, who was born in Poland. “I want to do for technology what Diego Rivera did for the working class: give it a voice.”
By painting portraits of machines, robots and technology, Pilat, who is currently artist-in-residence at SpaceX and Agility Robotics (she previously had a studio at Boston Dynamics), says she elevates their status to show off their power in contemporary culture. “We’re living in a moment of huge disruption in the creative fields due to AI, and I’m aware many artists are forced to adapt fast,” says Pilat, who has spoken about the intersection of art and technology at the annual Founders Forum in London and at Stanford’s Institute for Human-Centered AI. “Many are feeling threatened and violated. I’ve been very lucky in that I work with robotics, a still relatively new field. I feel validated that, in the real world, physical art objects have a different sense of authenticity in an increasingly digital world.”
Pilat loves the paradox of cocreating with Spot. “In our body of work, no two pieces are alike. So that’s where the optimism in my work comes from. I’m convinced that Spot and the art we co-create have a place in history,” says the artist, who recently sold “B70 Self Portrait 02” at Sotheby’s for a hefty sum. “We moved the needle of innovation—as we should have as artists—from the most innovative place on earth, Silicon Valley.”
David Yoshimura received Michelin’s 2022 Young Chef Award.
When patrons dine at Nisei, a few glorious dishes may be difficult to shake until they visit again. Which makes sense, given the impressive work chef-owner David Yoshimura is doing in the kitchen at the Polk Street restaurant these days. Gourmands rave about dishes like Japanese black curry, with squab katsu, chanterelles and fermented cabbage, as well as grilled unagi, with local sushi rice and house furikake and grated daikon.
Late last year, the toque was given Michelin’s 2022 Young Chef Award, and for good reason: Yoshimura is having a blast (notice the 1980s power ballad playlist in the dining room) synthesizing heritage washoku cuisine with little modern miracles on the plate. “We hope to push Japanese American cuisine into the future, while still staying true to our heritage,” says Yoshimura, whose restaurant’s name refers to American-born children of Japanese immigrants.
These days, Yoshimura thinks the San Francisco dining scene is leaning more toward seafood, and Nisei is at the forefront of that movement— breaking almost every rule in the culinary book. “Seafood is a key component to Japanese cuisine, and combining that base with our contemporary fine dining style, we’re able to create new dish ideas and combinations never seen before. On top of that, Nisei features a fantastic wine pairing, which isn’t commonly paired with Japanese cuisine.”
Ruben Harris is the CEO of Career Karma.
For Ruben Harris, innovation has two manifestations, personally and professionally. Regarding the former, he notes that “innovation is taking time to use your imagination and create something that’s truly unique in the world to help others.” And professionally? “It’s using technology to constantly solve a problem in a large market in a way that creates a category and positions the company in a league of its own,” says Harris, who leads Career Karma, which helps workers navigate their career through advice and coaching. He has built the company from the ground up, raising $10 million Series A in 2020 and a $40 million Series B in 2022.
“CEO doesn’t stand for chief executive officer, it stands for creating every opportunity, and that truth is a stressful requirement for most people to handle—which is why the CEO seat isn’t for everybody,” says Harris. “As a CEO, managing your psychology is one of the most important things to do. Whenever I’m feeling lost or searching for answers, I just remind myself: Pray or worry; don’t do both.”
As for the best career advice he’s ever received, Harris says it arrived from two sources: influencer Jason Mayden and a graffiti wall in San Francisco: “The wilderness is a place of separation, preparation and revelation,” he says. “Trust your struggle, and remember that startups don’t die when they run out of money; they die when founders run out of energy.”
Adam Swig launched Value Culture to increase collaboration between for-profit and nonprofit organizations.
Founder, Executive Director
Adam Swig has a soft spot and unmatched skill for raising money for amazing causes, which is why he launched Value Culture in 2019. The nonprofit produces and supports artistic, educational, charitable and spiritual events to inspire people to give back to their communities.
“We remove barriers to arts, culture and philanthropy,” says Swig, a Santa Clara University grad who started his career in sports, entertainment and marketing. After a life-altering accident, Swig says he immersed himself in culture and community to aid his recovery. While he spent the next seven years consulting with 50 nonprofits, he felt there were barriers to bringing people together to celebrate diverse cultures and to give back. “I felt creating my own organization would be the best way to dig my feet further in, to be able to make a positive difference, increase collaboration with other organizations and for-profit businesses, involve more professionals in the effort and build a fun, impactful philanthropic brand to let people know we mean business,” he says.
“The city is going through major changes, and we’ve lost some of our favorite places to go,” says Swig. “I sit on the cabinet committee for the India Basin Project—a world-class park more spectacular than Crissy Field. It’s being built right now in the heart of the Bayview. Good things are happening!”
And happening soon. Swig’s spring juggernaut event is AAPI Love A La Carte with artist-in-residence Reniel Del Rosario at Yank Sing (May 20, yanksing.com), all in celebration of APA Heritage Month in San Francisco.
Photography by: RICHARD MISRACH; BRENDAN MAININI; RENEE FRIEDRICH; SAM FROST; DON ROSS; AARON RICHTER; COURTESY OF CHEETAH; TINA YANG; COURTESY OF RUBEN HARRIS; ADAM JACOBS