Innovative, dedicated, persevering, deeply involved in their community — all of these traits distinguish this year’s winners of The Tribune’s Top 20 Under 40 competition.
Now in its 12th year, the award honors the accomplishments and achievements of young men and women under the age of 40 who have demonstrated excellence in their professions and a profound commitment to community service. To be eligible, nominees must have lived and worked in San Luis Obispo County year-round.
This year’s winners are nearly all in their 30s. Some have founded their own firms, while others have played key roles in their private business, public agency, university or nonprofit organization.
Without question, all are inspiring.
They were selected from 95 nominees by a panel of six judges representing both the private and nonprofit sectors: Jill Bolster-White, executive director of Transitions-Mental Health Association; James J. Brescia, San Luis Obispo County superintendent of schools; Cara Crye, vice president of communications at Farm Supply Co. and a 2015 Top 20 Under 40 winner; Tom Jones, director of strategic initiatives at PG&E’s Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant and a former Top 20 Under 40 winner; Margaret Johnson, chief operating officer of Martin Resorts; and Chip Visci, former Tribune publisher and communications consultant.
As our judges noted, “These young leaders are excellent role models. Bright, talented and accomplished, each one also finds significant time for community service without expectation of reward. Their generosity is an inspiration for us all.”
The 20 winners will be honored at a special luncheon Friday at the Madonna Inn, where the guest speaker will be Bill Swanson, retired chairman and CEO of defense contractor Raytheon. He grew up in Los Osos, attended Cuesta College and Cal Poly and has maintained ties with the university. He and his wife, Cheryl, donated more than $10 million to the university’s golf program last year.
On behalf of The Tribune, we would like to congratulate the winners and thank everyone who made this year’s competition such a success.
Sandra Duerr, executive editor
President, West Coast Auto & Towing
Ryan Amborn, 38, is president of West Coast Auto & Towing. Since purchasing the business in 2007 he’s opened another location, added a Hertz rental car facility and added specialized equipment repair. The company has recently begun providing roadside service at festivals and events.
Amborn has worked to bring attention to, and helps with, local Career Technical Education programs. He initiated the formation of the Atascadero High School Automotive Advisory Board where he serves as president. He is also on other advisory boards at Atascadero High School, San Luis Obispo High School and Cuesta College. He’s involved in Atascadero Rotary Club and Atascadero Chamber of Commerce.
Amborn enjoys snowboarding, wakeboarding, off-roading and spending time at the lake. Looking ahead, he hopes to teach a business or automotive class at a community college.
Amborn, who has a bachelor’s degree in industrial technology and a master’s degree in industrial and technical studies, both from Cal Poly, lives in Santa Margarita.
Director of Mission Advancement, Mission College Preparatory Catholic High School
Chris Blake, 38, has been director of Mission Advancement at Mission College Preparatory Catholic High School for six years, where he leads and oversees the business operations and development efforts at the private school. Thanks in part to his efforts, the school has had the largest operating revenue ever during three of the last five years. His accomplishments include creating a partnership with Sextant Wines to produce “Missio,” a wine collection that benefits the school with all net proceeds, and initiating a successful “All In For Mission” single-day fundraising campaign.
In 2016 Blake helped create and co-coordinate “Love SLO,” a one-day event where more than 650 volunteers performed local service projects; it will now be an annual event. In addition, he helps with marketing and fundraising strategy at his kids’ school, and he’s involved with his church.
Blake, who has a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies from Cal Poly, lives with his wife, Ashley Blake, and two children in Paso Robles.
Chief product officer, MindBody Inc.
Chet Brandenburg, 39, is chief product officer at MindBody Inc. He began working with the company in 2002 when it was based in Chief Executive Officer Rick Stollmeyer’s garage; a couple of years later Brandenburg built MindBody Online, a cloud-based business management software. He has overseen a team of more than 200 technology professionals and was involved in the launch of the MindBody App in 2013.
Brandenburg is an advocate for women in technology, which he attributes in part to being a father of two young daughters. He’s supported the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference and plans to attend it this year, among many other efforts. He’s on the Cal Poly Computer Science Industry Advisory Board and is a former board member of Softec.
Brandenburg, who has a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Cal Poly, enjoys CrossFit. He lives in Pismo Beach with wife Cindy Brandenburg and daughters.
Christie Tjong Clemons
Sales manager, Fidelity National Title
Christie Tjong Clemons, 35, is sales manager at Fidelity National Title for the Central Coast and has ranked in the top 2 percent of sales executives nationwide for Fidelity National Financial since it introduced the honor six years ago. Most recently she ranked in the top 1 percent. Clemons also has traveled as a panel speaker, coaching sales executives in her industry on best practices.
She is president of Big Brothers Big Sisters of San Luis Obispo County, which serves about 300 children. Under her guidance the organization won Agency of the Year for a mid-sized agency from Big Brothers Big Sisters of America.
While attending Cal Poly, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in communicational theory and rhetoric, Clemons volunteered locally with AmeriCorps for two years. She can often be found running with her two golden retrievers as she trains for ultramarathons. She lives in San Luis Obispo with husband Sam Clemons.
Dr. Joel Conn
Owner and veterinarian, Pismo Beach Veterinary Clinic and PETS Hospital
Joel Conn, 35, is owner and veterinarian at Pismo Beach Veterinary Clinic and PETS Hospital. He recently opened the latter — an emergency and urgent care veterinary clinic in Orcutt — which he hopes to develop into a specialty center that offers such services as advanced imaging, oncology and dermatology. Since purchasing Pismo Beach Veterinary Clinic in 2009 with his wife, Dr. Sarah Conn, and his brother, Dr. Maxwell Conn, they’ve significantly grown the business, expanding from two doctors to six, adding house calls, increasing outreach in the community and more.
Among Conn’s many community commitments, he is a board member and immediate past president of the Pismo Beach/Five Cities Rotary Club. He’s also an avid Ultimate Frisbee player, co-founded Central Coast Ultimate and organizes other local Ultimate Frisbee events.
Conn has a bachelor’s degree in biology from Cal Poly and a doctor of veterinary medicine degree from UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. The couple and their young son live in Pismo Beach.
Planning specialist, Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo County
Danijela Dornan, 39, is planning specialist at Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo County (CAPSLO), where she has been for 14 years. Dornan supports the family and community support services division through grant writing, reporting, contract management and coordinating and overseeing three new collaborative positions.
When she was program manager of CAPSLO’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program a few years ago, she expanded the program to ensure that low-income families had access to services. With her guidance the program increased the number of returns completed by 71 percent. In 2013, she led a successful effort in developing the agency’s centralized client tracking database; this contributed to CAPSLO receiving the Award for Excellence from the National Community Action Partnership.
She also has volunteered for the Women’s Shelter Program of San Luis Obispo County for 14 years, completing more than 4,000 crisis-line hours.
Dornan, who has a bachelor’s degree from Cal Poly in business administration with minors in sociology and psychology, lives in San Luis Obispo.
Chief human resources officer, Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center
Kristin Flynn, 36, is chief human resources officer at Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center. Focusing on employee engagement, she helped implement and lead the Lean Daily Management program and implemented night shift rounds to connect with more staff. In 2015 Sierra Vista was recognized for the most improved employee engagement score in Tenet Healthcare, its corporate owner; the high scores were maintained in 2016.
Flynn also worked to improve employee recruitment and retention strategies, which last year resulted in reducing voluntary turnover by 43 percent and a first-year employee turnover by 36 percent. She is part of the Tenet Leadership Academy and graduates in April.
Her community involvement includes the Women’s Legacy Fund, the Foundation for the Performing Arts Center and the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce. She’s a graduate of Leadership SLO Class 23. Flynn, who has a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Westmont College and a master’s degree in human resource management from National University, lives in San Luis Obispo.
Dr. Marissa Greenberg
Associate small animal veterinarian, Animal Care Clinic
Marissa Greenberg, 37, is associate small animal veterinarian at Animal Care Clinic. She also helps coach the veterinary science team at San Luis Obispo High School and in 2014 helped coach the team to both state and national FFA championships. Greenberg guest lectures at San Luis Obispo High School and Cal Poly and helped develop curriculum for a UC/CSU approved veterinary medicine course for high school students that spread nationwide.
Last year she organized a veterinary science career development contest for students — the 2017 contest is already on the books and she’s looking to expand to include more high schools. Greenberg is on the San Luis Obispo High School Agriculture Department Advisory Committee.
She has a bachelor’s degree in animal science from Cal Poly and a doctor of veterinary medicine degree from Washington State University. Greenberg lives in Atascadero with husband
Ramon Vega, her teenage stepson, two dogs and two California desert tortoises.
President, Greener Environments Inc.
Luke Huskey, 31, is president of Greener Environments Inc. He founded the sustainable landscaping company in 2013 with his wife, Melody Huskey; over the past few years they’ve grown the company’s sales exponentially. The pair views the business as a tool to promote environmental stewardship; they teach programs educating others about sustainable landscaping and are writing a book on the topic.
Luke Huskey has already written a couple of guidebooks about smart choices for outdoor spaces. This year the pair plans to improve the company’s environmental impact by taking measures such as implementing a voluntary carbon tax on themselves, using the funds to donate landscaping to a school, nonprofit or someplace else that needs help.
Huskey is involved with Surfrider Foundation’s Ocean Friendly Gardens program. He’s a trained EMT and on call 24/7 as a volunteer with the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue Unit, where he also teaches emergency medical skills. The Huskeys and their young son live in Los Osos.
Project director, Institute for Advanced Technology and Public Policy, Cal Poly
Lance Iunker, 28, is project director at the Institute for Advanced Technology and Public Policy at Cal Poly. An Army Iraq War veteran, Iunker was severely wounded in Iraq in 2007 and struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder. He found significant improvement in his PTSD symptoms after using neurofeedback therapy.
At Cal Poly, he manages Operation Headstrong, which he began to help make neurofeedback therapy more available to other veterans through a new mobile headset and iPhone application created and designed by SenseLabs. Preliminary research has been completed, but the project is on hold until funding can be raised for the next step, which is a major research project.
Iunker, who has a bachelor’s degree in political science from Cal Poly, established a Veterans Success Center and co-founded the Student Veterans Organization for his senior project. He has spoken about veteran issues at the White House, among other places. He and wife Laurie Iunker live in San Luis Obispo.
Director of economic initiatives and regional advocacy, San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce
Melissa James, 33, is director of economic initiatives and regional advocacy at the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce.
Before that, she was director of economic development at the Economic Vitality Corp., where she managed and directed major initiatives and projects to create and sustain a healthy local economy. Her accomplishments included developing and advancing policy proposals to create solutions to housing dilemmas, and developing and launching the organization’s Economic Dashboard to provide a quick look at the local economy.
James is on the steering committee for SLO U40, a group of community leaders under the age of 40 who she says are trying to effect change through civic engagement. She is also a former board member of the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce and is involved in her church, where she serves in the children’s ministry.
James, who has a bachelor’s degree from Cal Poly in social sciences, lives in San Luis Obispo with husband Ryan James and two young daughters.
Financial adviser and limited partner, Edward Jones
Sarah Ketchum, 36, is financial adviser and limited partner at Edward Jones. She has her own Edward Jones practice in Morro Bay where she’s directly involved with clients, helping to grow and protect wealth. She was the youngest partner in the region when she was offered partnership at the firm in 2015.
Ketchum, who said she grew up in poverty, found herself homeless at 18 and worked three jobs to put herself through school.
She said that growing up with nothing has given her a greater appreciation for what she has now. She volunteers as a “Level New Coach,” training new financial advisers to go into the field. A few of the organizations Ketchum gives her time to include the Community Foundation of Estero Bay, the Rotary Club of Morro Bay and Wilshire Hospice.
Ketchum, who has a bachelor’s degree from Cal Poly in business administration, lives in Morro Bay with fiance Lupe Santana and her son and daughter.
Attorney and real estate broker at the Law Offices of Daniel J. Knight, Licensed general engineering contractor and principal at Dan Knight Construction & Plumbing
Dan Knight, 31, is an attorney and real estate broker at the Law Offices of Daniel J. Knight and a licensed general engineering contractor and principal at Dan Knight Construction & Plumbing. He’s also a Cal Poly lecturer in construction law and construction accounting and a planning commissioner for the city of San Luis Obispo.
Despite his many hats, Knight remains active in the community and volunteers for Grizzly Youth Academy, is a member of the Rotary Club of San Luis Obispo, an adviser to the Cal Poly club Happy Cart, and was appointed to the city’s Administrative Review Board to hear contested municipal code enforcement appeals. Looking ahead, he hopes to run for San Luis Obispo City Council or another elected position in 2018.
Knight has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in accounting from Walden University. He received his Juris Doctor degree from The Santa Barbara and Ventura Colleges of Law. He lives in San Luis Obispo with wife Shawn Knight and young son and daughter.
Manager of Business Customer Success, PG&E
Eric Linkugel, 38, is manager of Business Customer Success at PG&E, where he’s worked for nearly 15 years. He recently created a system to track customer service calls and identify trends, giving the company access to a database that shows what problems are happening in which areas. In order to easily capture and share employee knowledge, Linkugel used wiki software to create a “best practices” database and rolled it out to his team; other departments are now looking to use the method.
Linkugel is president of the Rotary Club of San Luis Obispo and is involved with Cal Poly’s Industrial Technology Advisory Board, the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce and the San Luis Obispo County YMCA. He’s a graduate of Leadership SLO Class 18.
Linkugel, who has a bachelor’s degree in industrial technology and a master’s degree in industrial and technical studies, both from Cal Poly, lives in Grover Beach with wife Maren Linkugel and young son and daughter.
Science teacher and activities director, Paso Robles Joint Unified School District, Paso Robles High School
Anthony Overton, 29, is a science teacher and activities director at Paso Robles High School. He teaches advance placement chemistry and oversees the Associated Student Body (ASB) leadership course, through which he’s involved with most student-run activities, assemblies and dances.
Among his accomplishments: He helped create and organize Bearcat 101 Day, a chance for eighth-graders to see what’s offered at the high school. He implemented a successful “5-star student” or “Bearcat Pride Point” program that rewards students for participation in school activities. He helps raise money for Bearcat Boosters. And he has helped coordinate the Learn By Doing Lab at Cal Poly, among many other school and community involvements. Overton also coaches track and field and has coached cross country in the past.
Overton has a bachelor’s degree and teaching credential in chemistry, both from Cal Poly, and expects to obtain a master’s degree in educational leadership and administration from Cal Poly this year. He lives in Paso Robles.
Technology trainer and coordinator, Grizzly Youth Academy
Matthew Pauls, 27, is technology trainer and coordinator at Grizzly Youth Academy, or as he puts it, the “IT Guy.” He is the sole IT support at the school of about 200 students; every student has a computer. Pauls works directly with the students and teachers to take care of their tech needs, along with handling all other tech support needs.
He guides a handful of students selected as “tech mentors” who help him out in the classroom. He leads a site tech committee with staff to make technology decisions for the school and hosts lunchtime training sessions for teachers. Pauls also co-teaches a yearbook class.
Pauls and his wife, Margaret Pauls, help out with the academy’s Run Club; he’s also a Big Brother with Big Brothers Big Sisters of San Luis Obispo County. Matthew Pauls has a bachelor’s degree in business administration majoring in management and human resource management from Columbia College. The couple lives in Atascadero.
Music education director, San Luis Obispo Symphony
Mi-Young Shin, 39, is music education director with the San Luis Obispo Symphony. She has been a violinist there on and off since 2005. Shin has doubled the number of schools participating in the Strings in the Schools program, increasing enrollment by 57 percent, and has added an additional ensemble for the Youth Symphony that engages 200 students weekly. She also oversees the Music Van Programs. Together, these programs reach about 16,000 community members each year.
Shin said she is inspired through her faith in Jesus to give back to the community. She helps the homeless population through the Overflow and
Prado Day Center programs and is a licensed foster-adopt family for San Luis Obispo County, among other efforts. She is part of the Leadership SLO program, Class of 26. She has a bachelor’s degree in music from Cal Poly and a teaching credential from Virginia. She lives with husband Mark Shin and two sons in San Luis Obispo.
Fatma Umut Spanton
Director of Conference and Event Planning, Cal Poly Corporation
Fatma Umut Spanton, 38, is director of Conference and Event Planning at Cal Poly Corporation.
When she was promoted to the position about four years ago, the department had 39 events a year. Under her leadership, the department identified new opportunities and now coordinates more than 125 events annually. Besides increasing the number of staffers, her budget has increased nearly 300 percent and the department has been financially stable after more than 10 years of deficits.
Spanton began stress management training for staff along with a weekly yoga program. She’s taking night classes for Juris Doctor and master of legal studies degrees at San Luis Obispo College of Law. She hopes to use the degrees to advance her career at Cal Poly.
Spanton is also on the board of directors of Rotary Club of San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, serving as foundation chair. Originally from Turkey, she moved to Paso Robles in 2008. She has bachelor’s degrees in business administration and tourism and hotel management, both from Turkish universities.
Registered nurse, owner, administrator and director of Patient Care Services, Cherish Home Health Inc.
Misty Tartaglia, 39, is a registered nurse, owner, administrator and director of Patient Care Services at Cherish Home Health Inc. Recognizing the need for a home health care agency, Tartaglia established the company in 2013 with a business partner. The following year her business partner passed away unexpectedly and Tartaglia assumed the responsibilities of both administrator and director of Patient Care Services.
She has grown the business from four to 14 employees and continues to expand. She oversees all of the clinicians, physical therapists, occupational therapists, nurses and social workers, and occasionally sees patients herself.
Outside of work, she volunteers for several organizations including the Cambria Education Foundation, the Cambria Youth Athletic Association, Community Emergency Response Team and the Cambria Connection. She loves ranching and horseback riding and has deep agricultural roots in the area. Tartaglia, who has an associate’s degree in registered nursing from Allan Hancock College, lives in Harmony with husband Derrick Tartaglia and two daughters.
Brian J. Weiss
CEO and co-founder, ITECH Solutions
Brian J. Weiss, 37, is chief executive officer and co-founder of ITECH Solutions, begun in 2005. Weiss and his business partner own three companies: ITECH Solutions, a managed IT service provider; LIFTOFF Digital, a digital marketing and web development agency; and QueTech, online courses for continuing education units. Weiss’ business partner manages the other two companies.
Together, the three firms employ 21 people, including 10 with ITECH Solutions.
Outside of work, Weiss is active in the community. He’s president of the Templeton Education Foundation, a nonprofit that
raises funds to benefit the students of Templeton Unified School District. He’s involved with the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce, the Rotary Club of San Luis Obispo, the San Luis Obispo Elks Lodge and is a graduate of Leadership SLO Class 24. He used to also work as a DJ and loves the arts. He lives in Templeton with wife
Michelle Weiss and daughter.