The winners of The Tribune’s 13th annual Top 20 Under 40 competition are a diverse group of young professionals who are making significant contributions in the fields of health care, business, law, government and the nonprofit sector.
Not only have they demonstrated excellence in their careers, they also have shown a profound commitment to public service. Collectively, they’ve volunteered thousands of hours to the community by serving on the boards of directors of nonprofit agencies; coaching youth sports; organizing fundraisers; helping with disaster relief efforts; and volunteering at food banks and homeless shelters.
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The winners were chosen from a field of more than 100 applicants; a panel of seven community leaders from the public and private sectors made the selections.
“The honorees personify the best of our community’s values,” the judges commented. “They are energetic, creative and generous, and are determined to help make their corner of the world better for all.”
Other judges were: Jim Brabeck, a board director for Farm Supply Co., where he recently retired as president and CEO; James Brescia, San Luis Obispo County Superintendent of Schools; Melissa James, director of economic initiatives and regional advocacy at the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce and a previous Tribune Top 20 honoree; Margaret Johnson, chief operating officer of Martin Hospitality Management; Tom Jones, director of strategic initiatives for PG&E’s Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant and a previous Tribune Top 20 honoree; and Anita Robinson, former CEO of Coast National Bank and founder of Mission Community Bank.
The Tribune congratulates the winners and extends its thanks to all who took part in making the 2017 competition a success.
Ashlee Akers, 34, is vice president of client services at Verdin Marketing, where she became the agency’s first partner three years ago. Starting as an account manager seven years ago, she now leads the account team, training and mentoring staff and cultivating the company culture. An interest in tourism led Akers to initiate a new agency focus in that area, landing its second largest client. She also sits on the SLOCal marketing committee and the Central Coast Tourism Council Board, where she led a rebranding effort and participated in a website redesign.
She volunteers with Jack’s Helping Hand and its annual Imagination Park Fall Classic golf tournament and has served on the United Way Board, chairing its marketing committee.
Akers, who studied ag science and business at Cal Poly, enjoys yoga, travel, hiking with her family and spending time with friends. She lives in Arroyo Grande with her husband, Brandon, and two kids.
Matias Bernal, 29, is interim associate director at RISE, a nonprofit offering sexual assault and partner violence advocacy and services. Joining the agency as client services director 18 months ago, Bernal made immediate improvements in communication with shelter coordinators. He also developed and now facilitates an LGBT support group, which helps the organization better serve that community.
Bernal came to the United States at age 14. He has become a resource and advocate for fellow DACA participants and underserved migrant populations.
Bernal earned master’s degrees in criminology and psychology from Fresno State, and is now pursuing a doctorate in law and psychology. He also has certificates in victim services, legal studies and substance abuse counseling.
He can often be found dancing salsa with various area groups. He lives in Santa Margarita and hopes to someday lead a nonprofit, preferably on the Central Coast.
Victoria Rose Carranza, 27, is education director at One Cool Earth, which aims to plant gardens at all SLO County schools and advance outdoor learning and environmental literacy.
She was instrumental in getting the county’s plastic bag ban passed in 2011 and establishing the Kiwanis Centennial Community Garden at Laguna Lake, the first to use recycled water. She also served on the committee for Measure G, the extension of the half-cent sales tax in 2014.
Carranza was president of the Empower Poly Coalition, founder of the Sierra Student Coalition, former board member of the local Sierra Club chapter and chair of the U.S. Green Building Council Central Coast Chapter’s Green Schools Committee, a group with which she is still active.
Carranza has a degree in city and regional planning from Cal Poly. She lives in Atascadero with her husband Brian Engleton, also a Top 20 winner, and just welcomed their first child. She enjoys backpacking, live music and attempting to learn the ukulele.
Brian Engleton, 37, is a champion of sustainable food production and nature connection. He worked as a mentor with Outside Now, engaging with students on products such as organically farming a plot of land for a full year, building solar ovens and eating only whole, unprocessed foods for a time.
He’s a board member of Central Coast Grown, the nonprofit that manages the 19-acre City Farm, providing opportunity for sustainable farming and education. He also co-organized a memorial 50k run for Dusty Davis, a friend and fellow runner who died in a motorcycle accident.
He assisted a pair of teenagers in hiking the 220-mile John Muir Trail and has volunteered with Big Brothers Big Sisters.
A former physics teacher, Engleton works as a shift manager at Diablo Canyon Power Plant, where he’s a certified senior reactor operator. He just welcomed his first child with wife Victoria Carranza, also a Top 20 winner. They live in Atascadero.
Courtney Farr, 39, is founder and CEO of HouseCallsMobile.com, where she’s developing an application to provide virtual medical “house calls” to give people access to fast, affordable health care round the clock through live chat for about the cost of an insurance co-pay.
Growing up in Templeton, Farr helped care for her mother through breast and ovarian cancer as the family struggled to access and pay for adequate healthcare. Farr, who was 15 when her mother died, vowed to help improve access to affordable healthcare for others.
She also works full time as a nurse practitioner at the Department of Veterans Affairs and volunteers at the SLO Noor Clinic. She put herself through nursing school at the University of Southern California and earned a full scholarship to get a master’s in nursing from Yale University.
She and her black lab, Monty, live in Pismo Beach and provide pet therapy to veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Angelica Fortin, 37, is the city librarian in Paso Robles. Shortly after moving here from San Diego about a year and a half ago, she convened library and city staff, City Council and community groups to create the first-ever Library Strategic Plan, identifying ways to ensure the library is relevant, up-to-date and serving the community’s needs. Already, more than half the identified needs have been accomplished.
A resident of Paso Robles, Fortin is a member of the Hispanic Business Association, served on its scholarship committee as well as one for the Paso Robles League of United Latin American Citizens and collaborated with Studios on the Park for a month-long Hispanic art exhibit.
She’s been elected to a three-year term on the American Library Association Council and selected for the association’s Emerging Leaders program. She’s also a past chapter chair and lifetime member of REFORMA: The National Association to Promote Library and Information Services to Latinos and the Spanish Speaking.
Luke Fox, 23, is founder and CEO of White Fox Defense Technologies, a maker of technology to identify and intercept rogue drones that has drawn more than $1 million in investment and is working with the U.S. Department of Defense.
A child abuse survivor who shared his story in a TEDx talk, Fox is an active youth advocate. He wrote a foster-sibling rights bill that’s been passed into law, started the county’s Counter Human Trafficking Task Force and worked as a special projects coordinator for homeless and foster youth services at the County Office of Education. He’s won several young leader awards and served on state and federal bodies focused on child abuse and exploitation.
Fox was honored at the 2017 SLO County Disability Employment Awards for his work with the Central Coast Autism Spectrum Center to hire people with disabilities. He graduated from Cal Poly with a degree in sociology/criminal justice and lives in San Luis Obispo.
Daniel Lapidus, 35, expanded his dental practice to include orofacial pain, an underserved specialty treating less common dental conditions. He also worked with the Grover Beach-based PREAT Corp. on alternative materials for dentures that can reduce the cost up to 50 percent.
Lapidus volunteers his services with the SLO Noor Foundation and Give Kids a Smile program and does pro bono work through his practice. A U.S. Air Force veteran, Lapidus organizes an annual Veterans Day program and has been instrumental in Rotary projects such as the community garden at Meadow Park and the Laguna Lake Fitness Trail.
Lapidus attended dental school at the University of the Pacific and earned a master’s in orofacial pain and oral medicine from the University of Southern California.
He and his wife have two young sons. They live in San Luis Obispo and enjoy hiking, swimming and attending Cal Poly events. He also participates annually in the SLO Triathlon.
Jessica Leigh Lorance, 32, is the homeless services program review specialist and M.A.S.H. event coordinator at the county Department of Social Services. She runs outreach events, coordinates the Homeless Services Oversight Council, helps lead the bi-annual Point in Time homeless count and expanded the Mobile Assistance and Services Addressing Homelessness events, connecting homeless people to vital resources.
Lorance has been widely recognized for her volunteer work with organizations, including Habitat for Humanity and winter warming shelters and she’s on the Board of Directors of the SLO County Veterans Collaborative. She won recognition from Congress and the California Assembly for community service and was named among the Women of 2017 by the SLO County Commission on the Status of Women.
Lorance is an avid SLOGleaner, active in the Harloe Elementary PTO and a district award-winning Cub Scout leader and committee chair.
She has a master’s in business administration and lives in Nipomo with her husband, Cody, and son.
Justin Maire, 39, is a commercial risk advisor at Morris & Garritano Insurance, where he recently became a partner. Among many accomplishments over 14 years, he built a winery insurance program that now covers more than 120 wineries around the state, drove growth in the commercial lines division and specializes in the unique challenges of insurance for nonprofits.
He’s been an advocate for affordable housing and championed the recently approved Avila Ranch project. He’s a former president of SLO Executive Networking, former board member and secretary of Softec and volunteer ambassador with the SLO Chamber. He was named Grover Beach Rotary’s New Rotarian of the Year in 2004.
Maire holds a degree in business finance from Sonoma State University. He and wife Gina have four children and live in San Luis Obispo, where they are active in youth sports. He enjoys travel, golf, snowboarding and fishing and would like to create the next digital currency.
Jamie Maraviglia, 37, is a marketing strategist at Cal Poly, where she has been modernizing digital communications to better meet the needs of students though a new website, Snapchat, email and campus tour scheduling.
After losing her 2-month-old daughter to a birth defect called Hirschsprung’s disease in 2011, Maraviglia became active in the March of Dimes and helping other bereaved parents. In 2012, she successfully lobbied the state to require testing to detect disorders in newborns. She single-handedly started a March of Dimes walk in Arroyo Grande in 2014 that now attracts more than 200 walkers and has raised more than $100,000.
Her second daughter was recently born with the same disorder but is recovering from corrective surgery.
The Cal Poly graduate is on the board of the Clark Center and a Parks and Recreation Commissioner in Arroyo Grande, where she lives with husband, Daniel Manolo. She enjoys hiking, yoga, reading and terrible ’90s television.
Elizabeth Merson, 35, is program manager for public health emergency preparedness for the SLO County Health Agency. She developed video training that won her an Innovative Solutions Award from the state health department in 2017.
She facilitates a monthly advisory group that brings leaders from diverse fields together to plan for averting or responding to various public health emergencies. Through outreach and relationship-building, she has also involved local healthcare businesses, which nationwide have low participation in emergency planning.
Merson is active in San Luis Coastal Unified School District’s parent participation program and is on the Cal Poly Philosophy Department’s Advisory Board.
Before joining the county health agency, Merson worked for the American Red Cross and was sent on disaster relief operations ranging from a Santa Cruz wildfire to Hurricane Rita in Texas.
She earned her bachelor’s degree in philosophy and a master’s in public policy from Cal Poly and lives in San Luis Obispo with her husband, Scott, and two young children.
Heather Muran, 39, is executive director of the SLO Wine Country Association, where she has forged a united wine community and raised the region’s profile. Muran has grown membership, spurred increased tourism, spearheaded new partnerships and doubled the annual budget in her six-year tenure. She’s also grown the Fund-A-Need program, raising more than $120,000 for local nonprofits, and represented SLO wine country on Visit SLO County’s marketing committee and the SLO Chamber’s business and tourism councils.
She is active in the Shell Beach Elementary PTO, 4-H and the local Campfire chapter and has served on the board of the United Way and SAVE — Sexual Assault Victim Education.
She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from San Diego State University and lives in Pismo Beach with husband, Patrick, and two children. The family enjoys snowboarding, paddle boarding and exploring the outdoors. Muran also enjoys cooking from the family’s home garden, singing with the Crushtones winemaker band and playing ukulele.
Mary Mott Okimoto, who recently turned 40 (nominees have to be under 40 as of Dec. 31), is an oncology nurse practitioner with SLO Oncology & Hematology Health Center. Realizing there were no pediatric oncology resources when she moved back to the area nine years ago, Okimoto partnered with local oncologists to become the county’s only medical provider specializing in pediatric cancer. By coordinating with patients’ doctors in other cities, this means that families no longer have to travel several hours for much of their treatment.
She’s also director of Camp Reach for the Stars, a free weekend camp for children with cancer and their families run by Jack’s Helping Hand. She has volunteered teaching pediatric cancer care to nurses in Latin America and served local kids with cancer through a surf camp and annual Christmas party.
Okimoto earned her nursing degree from University of San Francisco and her master’s at UC San Francisco. She lives in San Luis Obispo with husband, Kevin, a previous Top 20 Under 40 winner, and three young children.
Elizabeth (Libby) Parker, 29, is a registered dietician specializing in eating disorders through her practice, Not Your Average Nutritionist. Treating many Cal Poly students, Parker was asked to join the university’s health center team as the first campus dietician to focus specifically on the growing problem of eating disorders.
Parker has improved treatment by convening a multidisciplinary team to better serve the hundreds of students seeking help, improving awareness and understanding of eating disorders and how to treat them and holding in-person and online training to assist other providers.
She also volunteers time speaking to various groups on topics such as emotional eating, food choices and physical activity. She has volunteered with HEAL SLO and First Presbyterian Church, serving on the committee hiring a new pastor.
A resident of San Luis Obispo, Parker sings and performs with local theater groups. She recently completed a master’s degree in nutrition and earned her bachelor’s at the University of Minnesota.
Chris Porterfield, 39, is an electrophysiologist at Coastal Cardiology, performing advanced procedures to treat life-threatening abnormal heart rhythms that patients previously had to travel out of the area to undergo. In bringing new advancements to the Central Coast, Porterfield has trained hospital technicians and staff in complex, computer-mapping technologies.
He volunteers time teaching at Cal Poly, delivering guest lectures, mentoring students in biomedical engineering and presenting them with workplace experience and real-life engineering challenges. He also screens Cal Poly athletes for potential cardiac conditions.
He earned a bachelor’s in radiation physics and his medical degree from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, master’s degrees in physics and public health from Duke and Eastern Carolina universities and completed a fellowship at the University of Virginia.
Porterfield lives in San Luis Obispo with husband, CJ, and their twin daughters. He enjoys hiking and biking and would like to someday become a pilot.
Richard Smith, 34, is founder and CEO of Fluid Sports Nutrition, which makes award-winning hydration, enhancement and recovery products used by professional athletes and weekend warriors worldwide.
He recently expanded Fluid’s offerings with a new line targeted to workers engaged in strenuous activity packed in small “tactical units” that are easy to store and consume. The new line is now used by the FBI, U.S. Forest Service, SunRun Solar, Chevron Oil and CalFire, including firefighters battling last summer’s Alamo Fire. He also customized a formula specifically for Cal Poly’s athletic department.
Smith was involved in the development and growth of Gymnazo, has served on the YMCA board, volunteers with Cal Poly’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship and donates products to local races such as the SLO Marathon and City to Sea.
Smith studied kinesiology at Cal Poly while developing his product and lives in San Luis Obispo with his wife Adrienne.
Katherine E. Soule, 35, is director of the UC Cooperative Extension for SLO and Santa Barbara counties, where she’s earned state and national recognition for improving community health and increasing diversity in youth participation.
As the extension’s youth, families and communities advisor for the last several years, Soule developed new 4-H programs engaging underserved youths and promoting healthy living, leadership and social development. Her efforts nearly doubled enrollment and boosted Latino participation 26.8 percent. She’s delivered nutrition education to more than 10,000 people through various partnerships.
Soule is a founding member of the Cultivating Change Foundation, working to improve inclusivity for the LGBTQ community in agriculture locally and nationwide.
She has a bachelor’s in English and master’s in agriculture from Cal Poly and a Ph.D. from the Counseling and Development Human Service Department at the University of Georgia. She and her daughter live in San Luis Obispo and enjoy music, board games, arts and crafts.
Courtney Taylor, 33, is an attorney and partner at Simas Taylor LLP, a law firm she co-founded in 2016 with an innovative approach to legal representation involving virtual locations, 24/7 accessibility and largely paperless operations. Taylor specializes in wine law and also fosters a passion for sustainability, which she pursues in her personal and professional life.
She lectures on wine law at Cal Poly, is fundraising chair of the board for Stand Strong (formerly the Women’s Shelter) and serves on the SLO County Workforce Development Board. She became involved with the American Heart Association following her mother’s emergency heart surgery and has chaired record-high fundraising events.
Taylor earned Phi Beta Kappa honors pursuing degrees in communications and Spanish from UC Davis, where she also got her law degree. She lives with husband Ben and two young sons in Avila Valley, where they enjoy cooking, outdoor adventures, riding bikes and art projects.
Erik Wright, 33, is co-founder of Precision Building Group, a planning, building and technology firm involved in several ground-breaking transportation innovations. Wright’s firm became involved in designing and building a test track for the pioneering Hyperloop project after several prominent firms failed to meet the specifications.
New, lower-cost tunneling concepts and inductive charging roads to wirelessly power low-emission electric vehicles are among other arenas the firm is pursuing and seeking patents for.
Wright serves on the task force developing the SLO Museum, has volunteered with organizations such as the Prado Day Center and Food Bank Coalition and was instrumental in several projects and increasing membership through his leadership at Rotary in Action.
Wright earned a construction management degree from Cal Poly, where he was awarded the prestigious Horatio Alger Scholarship. He’s an avid rock climber whose firm was involved in building The Pad Climbing gym and lives in San Luis Obispo with his wife, Jessica.
Corrections: The biographies of Victoria Carranza, Courtney Taylor, Chris Porterfield and Elizabeth Merson have been updated to correct errors.