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Leading the Way

Author: Rebecca L. Rhoades
Issue: February, 2016, Page 88
We share inspiring stories of 11 remarkable women who are making a positive difference in our Valley

Arizona has always been a state driven by innovators, many of whom were women. From Nellie Cashman, famed restaurateur, gold prospector and anti-violence advocate; to architect Mary Colter, who designed some of the Grand Canyon’s most famous buildings; to Isabella Greenway King, the state’s first female U.S. senator, the list of influential and trailblazing women who lived here is long.

Today, there’s a new group of women whose vibrant energies, imaginations and outlooks are transforming Arizona. They represent a broad range of careers: architect, designer, artist, chef, executive and more. And all are leaders in their fields.

We sat down with 11 of these women to learn how they got to where they are today, what inspired them and what help they received along the way. “We have an amazing group of women in this city,” says one of our profiled women, Laura Capello, CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Arizona. “We have some strong, really passionate women in this community who do a lot of good things.”

Despite their differences, there are many similarities to their stories—and to each other. They’re all smart, candid, creative and persistent. And they’re defining the city in which we live.

Moving back to Phoenix gave me a new mission and almost a new career.

Angela Johnson, Fashion Designer
Visitors to Angela Johnson’s home immediately know that a creative soul lives there. After all, not many houses have a giant red octopus on a seafoam green-striped background on the living room wall. Or a studio that’s bubblegum pink and gold. But for the Scottsdale native, this explosion of color is a fun way to stand out in the ocean of beige that covers the Valley.

Johnson has never been one to blend in. One look at her professional resume is enough to boggle the mind: fashion designer, educator, fashion industry leader and insider, to name a few. She made her mark as a designer in Los Angeles, dressing the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Pamela Anderson, Christina Applegate and more. But when a family commitment brought her back to the area in the early 2000s, she was forced to re-evaluate her career. “I thought I could run my business from here, but there are no fabric vendors, no manufacturers. I needed to rethink everything I do,” she says. “I ended up meeting other people in the same predicament. We compared notes and realized that none of us were really able to do what we wanted to do, but we still needed a creative outlet.”

That outlet ended up being the same thing that changed Johnson’s direction in life: a fashion resource guide she developed called Label Horde, which is credited with kickstarting Arizona’s emerging fashion industry. “It was the first real community for a fashion industry out here,” she notes. Today, Label Horde has been reborn as an online directory.

While Johnson also teaches design and serves as the regional director of Fashion Group International of Arizona, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing the fashion industry, she is still drawn to create—but this time not with a mass-produced line like she had in LA. Her signature one-of-a-kind ballgowns are made of upcycled and thrifted t-shirts, something that is readily accessible here. “It’s a business model that works in a city that doesn’t have manufacturing,” she says of the pieces that are available on her personal website. “It’s very unique and very individual.” Just like Johnson herself.

“Moving back to Phoenix was a dream crusher in the beginning, but it turned out to direct a new path in my life and gave me a new mission and almost a new career,” she says. “It’s still fashion, but it’s a different part of it.”

The opportunity to showcase Phoenix to the Final Four fan base is something we feel strongly about.

Dawn Rogers, Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer, 2017 Phoenix NCAA Basketball Final Four
Dawn Rogers may not know much about desert gardening—“After nine years, I still haven’t figured out how to grow grass here, and I’ve killed off two different pots of cacti,” she says with a laugh—but ask her about collegiate athletics, and she is happy to share everything she knows.

After college, the New York native moved to Ohio, where she worked as the athletic director at Xavier University, which is known for its exemplary men’s basketball program. The opportunity to serve as the senior associate athletics director at Arizona State University brought her to the Valley. Now she’s returning the favor and bringing the pinnacle of collegiate basketball to Phoenix. Thanks to the tireless efforts of Rogers and her bid committee, the NCAA Final Four Championship will hit the courts at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, April 1 through April 3, 2017. Leading the charge for the next 14 months is Rogers, who recently resigned from ASU to serve as the Final Four’s executive director and CEO.

“For amateur athletics, the Final Four has become an iconic championship, so the thought of being able to expose the people of Phoenix to it was something that everyone in the committee was excited about,” she says. “But then equally, the opportunity to showcase Phoenix and the surrounding Valley to the Final Four fan base was something that we also felt strongly about. I am so passionate about the championship, but having fallen in love with the state, I am also really excited for people to come here and experience everything that Arizona has to offer.”

For Rogers, those great things include the people and the weather. “I love how welcoming it is to live here. There’s such a great mix of people who are born and raised here and people who moved here,” she says. “And I love that I can be outside just about 365 days a year. We’re officially Arizonans now because we get excited when it rains. Plus, there’s everything you could want to do here.” Including basketball.

A word of advice, though. If you see Rogers at a game and wish to thank her for her efforts, give her a high-five or shake her hand. Just don’t give her a cactus.

I thought the Sisterhood of the Stove would be a good way for us ladies to get together and celebrate us.

Chrysa Robertson, Owner and Chef Rancho Pinot
Chrysa Robertson loves to work with her hands. But if you think she’s talking about her duties in the kitchen, you’d be wrong. She loves to garden. “I absolutely love being outdoors. I love working outdoors. It’s funny that my career keeps me indoors. I should have been a landscaper,” she says half jokingly. 

Luckily for Phoenix residents and visitors alike, Robertson chose a career in the restaurant business. As the owner and chef at Rancho Pinot, she is one of the Valley’s most respected industry professionals. Her eatery, which is known for its locally produced food and smart, seasonal menus, has consistently been rated one of the top places to dine since it opened 23 years ago.

“I want the best, most delicious products for my kitchen,” she says. “Thankfully, these are mostly local items. When people taste them, they understand what a difference locally sourced ingredients make. My main focus is doing what I know best: making sure my guests feel welcome and well-fed. If I can talk to them about those amazing salad greens, gorgeous citrus, local chicken or the eggs from my hens, that’s a bonus I really enjoy.”

She also likes to promote other chefs. Fed up with the proliferation of male-dominated events, in 2014 Robertson organized a dinner event catered by the area’s top female chefs. “I thought Sisterhood of the Stove would be a good way for us ladies to get together and create a big party to celebrate us,” she says. The event, which raised funds for Joy Bus, a Phoenix-based nonprofit that cooks and delivers free meals to patients with cancer, was so successful that it was held again in late 2015.

But back to those eggs, which come from
Robertson’s own 38 hens. As much as she loves the restaurant industry, the chef says she’s happiest when she’s at her home, also known as “the compound,” where she raises many of the ingredients she uses at Rancho Pinot. “I have an old adobe home and a huge cactus garden,” she says. “I harvest prickly pear fruit for my restaurant. I also have an herb garden; citrus, olive and pomegranate trees; and roses. I planted every single cactus and most of the trees.

“My inspiration comes from nature,” she adds. “I love the desert. We need to live in tune with it and not try to make it into something it isn’t. It’s wild and so unique.”

I love what I do. I think of myself as a lifetime learner.

Mary Estes, Landscape Architect, Indigenous Minds
It might have been a childhood spent moving around the country with her parents or an inquisitive nature that sparked her love of learning. But it definitely was time spent living in New York City that shaped Mary Estes’ future profession. Although her formal training was in architecture, it was in the Big Apple that she first worked at a landscape architectural firm.

“Once I discovered landscape architecture, it simply felt like the perfect fit for me as it combined my passion for design and the outdoors,” she recalls.

For the past 25-plus years (the last 13 which were spent in Phoenix), Estes’ artistry has appeared not only in residential and commercial work, but also in children’s gardens, zoological exhibits, rooftop gardens, playgrounds and streetscapes. Her work is about more than creating beautiful settings. She takes great satisfaction in going back to her projects and observing how people are enjoying them. At one urban location, she saw people breakdancing on the plaza, and at a newly renovated garden, a wedding reception was taking place. “Both were so unexpected and amazing to witness,” she says.

Looking back over the years, Estes notes that while her time in New York set her on a solid career path, it was an opportunity to study abroad that influenced who she is today. “We were in a tiny village, in the middle of the Tuscan countryside. Although I was with a group of familiar classmates, I was completely removed from everything familiar in my life,” she says. “It was a profound experience, and I returned home a completely different person. It instilled in me a love for travel and perhaps a bit of wanderlust.” It also gave her the confidence to eventually open her own firm, Indigenous Minds. “I started out with tiny projects while working full time at a plant nursery,” she relates. “It was a true grassroots approach that grew into a dynamic little business.”

While she still enjoys working outdoors, Estes says she is happiest when sitting at her drafting table and sketching while surrounded by the aroma of markers and a rainbow of colored pencils. “I love what I do,” she professes. “Learning something new every day … I think of myself as a lifetime learner. My design work involves the creation of space for outdoor living, which for me is what the desert Southwest is all about. The ability to live without being enclosed, without walls. We are so lucky!”

I’m very interested in the fabric of our history and how that contributes to the quality of our environment.

Marlene Imirzian, Founding Principal/Owner, Marlene Imirzian & Associates Architects
When Marlene Imirzian first arrived in
Phoenix from her hometown of Detroit—recruited here as a young architect—she had no knowledge of the Valley or its many diverse districts. So in a move befitting a creative mind, she took a somewhat unorthodox approach to finding the perfect spot to put down roots. 

“I did a concentric drive,” she says. “I started on the outskirts of the city and kept going inward, doing a big loop.” Her end destination? Sunnyslope,
a centrally situated neighborhood located just south of North Mountain. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is amazing!’ You’ve got mountains. You’ve got
Central Avenue with its mix of residential and commercial. It was close enough to everything, but it still had that back door to the Phoenix Mountains Preserve. I thought Sunnyslope was perfect, and I wanted to be there.”

Her then-naive instincts were right. Today,
Imirzian still lives in Sunnyslope. It’s also where she built her own award-winning architecture firm (see Best of the Best, Page 63), which provides design services for a diverse clientele, ranging from residential to education, health care and commercial. But she doesn’t just design new projects; her firm is also well-known for the work it does to preserve the city’s historic buildings.

“There’s something about history. You can’t quantify it; you can’t put a number on it and say why it’s important.  I’m very interested in the fabric of our history and how that contributes to the quality of our environment,” she says. “There’s been so much lost, and there was so little here to begin with. So where we can, we’ve restored a number of projects in Central Phoenix.” One such example was the Gold Spot Market, a 1925 building that had been shuttered since the 1980s and considered a total loss. “We came in and saved everything, the structure, the masonry, the courtyard.”

Summing up, Imirzian adds, “I hope people see my work, whether it’s residential or public, a new build or a historic preservation, as an indication of how we can use architecture to create a richer experience for everyone.”

Now the kids have someone in their corner whom they can depend on.

Laura Capello, Chief Executive Officer, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Arizona
Like many kids today, Laura Capello grew up with a single mom. But unlike some who face struggles and hardships, she had a large, extended family whose members mentored her and helped her succeed in life. “I’ve had some amazing mentors in my life,” she says. “I don’t think anyone can say that they got someplace by themselves. We all have people in our lives, whether it’s parents or an uncle or a friend, who have helped guide us.”

As a result, she knew that she wanted to help others. But it wasn’t until she was diagnosed with breast cancer that she decided to forgo her career in public relations and marketing and give back. “I never really had these grand visions of running a nonprofit agency, but cancer helped everything make sense and helped it come together,” she recalls. I said, ‘If I can get through breast cancer, I can do anything.’”

As CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Arizona, Capello helps match kids with adults who mentor and guide them through everyday challenges. The majority of the kids are from single-parent homes, and 95 percent live below the poverty line. “These kids are dealing with a lot of hardships,” says Capello. “When I see some of those kids and the kinds of struggles they’re going through, it’s amazing how just one person in their life changes them. Now they have someone in their corner whom they can depend on.”

She continues: “I don’t think people realize just how far a little gesture of kindness goes. With our 24-hours news culture, sometimes you get drained from all the ugliness in the world and forget about all the good stuff that’s going on.”

As a release from her challenging work, Capello enjoys getting outdoors. She recently moved near Tempe Town Lake where she runs, cycles and spends time with her two puppies. “As much as I love it here, I’m a water girl,” she admits. But it’s the people in the Valley who really inspire her.

“It’s amazing to see how people get together and work so hard for the community,” she says. “I’ve never seen a place as warm. I can’t imagine living any place else.”

It’s important to pay it forward and mentor someone.

Chevy Humphrey, Chief Executive Officer, Arizona Science Center
Most people’s career goals are simple: become a doctor, a teacher, a carpenter. Chevy Humphrey’s was a little more specific. “My goal was to become the CEO of a nonprofit before I was 40 years old,” she says. “And that’s exactly what I did.”

Humphrey credits a former boss in her hometown of Houston, Texas, with sparking her desire to reach the top. As a subscriber services assistant at the Houston Symphony, she would often supply the CEO with information for his board meetings. “He’d go in and report on what I’d just said,” she remembers. “After a couple of times, I stopped him and said, ‘If you’re asking me for insights, which you’re telling to the board members who are your bosses, then I should be able to do your job.’ And he replied, ‘You can do my job.’”

To make her dream a reality, Humphrey moved with her 6-year-old daughter to the Valley to work at the Phoenix Symphony. A few years later, she interviewed for a position at the Arizona Science Center.

“The interview was with my predecessor,” Humphrey notes. “She asked me, ‘Where do you see yourself in five years?’ I said, ‘In your job.’ She laughed, we shook hands, and she said, ‘Chevy, I will teach you whatever you think you need to get to here.’” More than six years and six positions later, Humphrey stepped into her current role, which she’s held for the past 11 years.

So what exactly does a CEO do? “My job is to provide the resources and tools for my team so that they can be successful and have a greater impact on the community,” she says. “I’m here to provide the framework for our organization and our people to thrive so that our community can thrive.”

In addition to opening kids’ minds to the world of science and encouraging learning, Humphrey hopes to inspire others as she was inspired so many years ago. She lives by the concept of pay it forward. “There are so many people who mentored me and provided me with resources and knowledge, that I am honored to be able to transfer that over and teach others,” she says. “It’s important to pay it forward and mentor someone, because we have the power to help build and grow our community and our world.”

Vow to say “yes.”

Amy Bubier, Interior Designer/Principal, AB Design Elements
When Amy Bubier was 24 years old, she decided to take a chance and move to Scottsdale from Baltimore, Md., in search of sunshine and new experiences. As she was driving away, nervous about leaving the familiarities of her East Coast home, she took comfort in something her mother had said: “What’s the worst that could happen?” These words have guided her ever since.

“It’s just such a nice way to think about life,” says the interior designer, who arrived in the Valley
in 1992 during a time of growth and excitement. “Phoenix was such a fun place to be, because everything was kind of new. Everybody was coming here.”

More than two decades later, Bubier is the owner of her own interior design firm. But she is still inspired by her architect father and art consultant mother—“a union of methodical and free-spirited creativity,” she says. She describes her aesthetic as simple and elegant yet complex. “Simple elements in combination can be even more interesting than when they’re used alone,” she explains. “A curve is best realized next to a straight line, rather than two curved lines that are parallel. Certain plants, when looked at up close, can be incredibly interesting but are based on simple patterns, shapes and colors.

It’s her positive energy and optimistic outlook, however, that help Bubier stand out in a city filled with talented and inventive professionals. “A lot of this business is about handling details and coordinating people,” she says. “It’s about helping people through a stressful time and being their advocate.”

And just like her mother encouraged her to take chances, she’s now imparting those same words of wisdom to her children. “Vow to say ‘yes,’” she says. “I keep telling them to be in the current of life. The more you say ‘yes,’ the more you experience things that will take you in interesting directions. But you have got to say ‘yes.’”

Your home is your center. It should inspire you and be a place for both renewal and celebration.

Jessica Hutchison-Rough, Architect, Urban Design Associates
Jessica Hutchison-Rough distinctly remembers the moment she knew that she wanted to become an architect. She was 7 years old. “My grandparents had come to town, and my dad [Phoenix Home & Garden Masters of the Southwest award winner Lee Hutchison] was taking them on some home tours, and I went with them. They were just the most beautiful homes I had ever seen, and I remember thinking that he had such a great privilege and honor to bring beauty to the world with his designs.”

Today, the younger Hutchison is working side by side with her father as a partner in the family’s architecture firm, adding her own beauty to the Valley’s residential landscape. But if you’re expecting a copycat version of her dad, you might be surprised.
Following a 10 year hiatus from the Valley to live, study and work in Vancouver, British Columbia—“I needed to figure out my own path without my dad’s influence for a while, and that was really good for me,” she says—Hutchison-Rough brings a sleek design approach to the firm’s projects. “My aesthetic tends to be cleaner lines, more Modern, more contemporary, she explains. “I still draw inspiration from the desert. I think the Arizona sunlight is harshly beautiful, and I love what it does to buildings, so I tend to work in a warmer palette. But most of my stuff is contemporary.”

Hutchison-Rough looks to the homeowners as well as the property for inspiration. “It all relates to who is going to be living there and how they want to live,” she notes. For each project, she visits the site at different times of the day and during different seasons, drawing inspiration from the views, the winds and the patterns of the sun in order to create the perfect home for her clients.

“I get the privilege of creating places that are going to be lived in, whether it’s every day or just a couple months each year,” she says. “Your home is your center. It should inspire you and be a place for both renewal and celebration. You should have a place that you love.”

My art is about the experiences we all share.

Emily Costello, Artist
Iconic Mexican painter Frida Kahlo once said, “I paint my own realities.” Those same words could just as easily have been
spoken by Emily Costello. Known throughout the Valley for her colorful paintings and mixed media assemblages, Costello seeks inspiration from the people and places she grew up with.

“I’m a native, and I don’t know anything other than what I paint and what I’ve lived through,” says the self-taught artist who was born to a Mexican mother and a Czechoslovakian father and raised by her grandparents in Superior. “I’m inspired by my Mexican
heritage, its cultural icons, its images. When you look at my artwork, you can see its strong influence. I’m also inspired by the stories my grandmother used to tell me when I was growing up.”

 A full-time painter for the past six years, her work is a combination of traditional and contemporary styles. There are the familiar paintings of calaveras, luchadores, Loteria symbols and saints that are so popular in Mexican art. There are mixed-media retablos and nichos. But there are also works that go to a deeper level, such as a mixed-media piece that incorporated photos of friends’ family members who were miners. “When I was growing up, everybody was a miner. My father was a miner. I’d hear their stories about what it was like to work in the mines and the horrible conditions the men would face,” she explains. “My art
is about the experiences we all share. It’s about death, love,
spirituality, life and humor.”

And Frida. Whether it’s work inspired by the artist or a painting depicting her, she features prominently in Costello’s art.  “Frida painted for herself; she didn’t paint for anyone else,” says Costello when discussing her love of the self-portrait artist. “In spite of her adversities, or because of them, she became this iconic figure, and she was larger than life, even in her own life.”

Costello is also a member of the Phoenix Fridas, a Latina collective of nine female artists who share a common passion for the legendary artist and her work. “I was asked to join eight years ago,” she says. “I was still working full-time [as a human resources director for a large media company], and here was this group of women whom I really admired who wanted me to join their group. It was really encouraging. They’ve always been so supportive.”

When asked about life as a full-time artist, Costello notes that she recently started teaching art classes to kids at Vision Gallery in Chandler. “The more I do this, the more I can inspire other emerging artists.”

Phoenix Art Museum is right up there as one of the top in the country, and I want to support it.

Amy Cohn, Chairperson, Independent Woman Luncheon 2016
In 2011, Amy Cohn was invited by a friend to the first Independent Woman Luncheon at the Phoenix Art Museum. She loved the annual event so much that in 2014, she hosted her own table. The following year, she was asked to sit on one of the luncheon’s committees. Now, she’s chairperson of the one of the Valley’s premier philanthropic events, which celebrates the area’s most creative and influential women.

“The Independent Woman Luncheon celebrates successful women, and it has evolved to celebrating women in design,” she says. Each table at the luncheon is designed by a local interior designer, with the centerpieces and tablecloths being auctioned off; proceeds benefit the museum. “Walking into the room and seeing the tables is like going into 50 different design showrooms and seeing everyone’s beautiful work,” notes Cohn. “I love how it brings the whole design industry together. It’s a wonderful way to collaborate together as a trade.”

The design industry is one Cohn knows well. With a degree in architecture and environmental design, she worked as a space planner and kitchen and bath designer before taking time off to raise her children. After her family, though, philanthropy is Cohn’s main passion.

“Phoenix Art Museum is right up there as one of the top in our country, and I want to support it,” she says. “I want to make sure that in this digital age, my children and the ones who come after them still enjoy going to an art museum. Museums are really important.” In addition, Cohn is the national fundraising chairperson for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and she sits on the board of directors of the Arizona Diamondbacks Foundation.

“The worlds of art, architecture and design really operate in a similar universe as far as how professionals think and where they receive their inspiration. It’s why the Phoenix Art Museum is so integral to my interests,” she notes. “It’s also why so many designers like to participate in the Independent Woman Luncheon. It’s become one of those events that people look forward to.”
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