15 women who broke barriers in Silicon Valley
A view of downtown San Jose from the 18th floor of City Hall. Photo by Jana Kadah.

    San Jose was once known as the “feminist capital of the world”—paving the way for women to enter politics and hold other positions of power usually reserved for men. And while the region still struggles to ensure equity for women, especially in tech, women have shaped San Jose’s rich history and continue to do so today.

    San Jose’s population is comprised of about 49% women, according to U.S. Census data.

    In celebration of Women’s History Month, San José Spotlight is highlighting 15 influential women leaders in Silicon Valley. While this isn’t an exhaustive list of all the tremendous women in our region, these individuals have broken barriers, shattered stereotypes and inspired change in Silicon Valley.

    We also recognized the 15 most influential Black leaders for Black History Month in February.

    Here they are in alphabetical order by first name.

    Blanca Alvarado

    Rita Duarte Herrera with Blanca Alvarado in Alvarado’s home. File photo.

    Prior to 1980, San Jose councilmembers were elected by voters in the entire city—instead of by council districts—which hampered women and people of color from winning political power and seeing themselves represented in office. It was seen as a form of voter discrimination, and Blanca Alvarado is one of the people who worked to change that system.

    Nicknamed La Madrina, or godmother, of the East Side, Alvarado would go on to become San Jose’s first Latina councilmember and first Latina vice mayor. She was then elected to the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors in 1994 and was the first Latina to serve as the board’s chair. As a supervisor, she helped establish the county’s first health insurance program for children.

    Though she is officially retired, Alvarado continues to lead efforts to amplify residents’ voices. She has pushed for the closure of Reid-Hillview Airport on the city’s east side and supported the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band in defending their cultural sites from a proposed dam. Even at age 91, she remains a force to be reckoned with.

    Blanca’s daughter, Teresa Alvarado, is also a notable woman in Silicon Valley. She served as the CEO of the Hispanic Foundation of Silicon Valley, as well as executive leadership roles at SPUR and now at PG&E. She was the founder of the Latina Coalition of Silicon Valley.

    Cindy Chavez

    Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez speaks at a news conference about wildfire risks from illegal fireworks. File photo.

    Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez has notched many accomplishments during her career. As a downtown San Jose councilmember, she helped add park space to District 3 and launched a task force to help law enforcement better track sex offenders. After her time on the council, she led Silicon Valley’s top labor organizations, the South Bay Labor Council and Working Partnerships USA, and was elected to the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors in 2013.

    As a supervisor, Chavez crafted Measure A, the $950 million bond for affordable housing approved by voters in 2016. She also helped create a homeless shelter for LGBTQ youth and adults. Chavez unsuccessfully ran for mayor for the second time last year and is rumored to be eyeing another run next year.

    Pay disparities and scarce child care continue to plague women in our region, Chavez told San José Spotlight. In Santa Clara County, Black women earn 63 cents for every dollar a man makes, while Latinas earn 54 cents.

    “Especially as we move out of the pandemic phase of COVID and more and more offices are reopening, women and families who have come to rely on remote working are facing difficult choices,” Chavez said. “Our employers need to continue to promote remote working in all jobs where it is feasible as much as possible.”

    Debra Figone

    As city manager, Debra Figone led San Jose through the Great Recession. Photo courtesy of Debra Figone.

    Some women remain active even after retiring, and Debra Figone is among them.

    Figone broke the glass ceiling at City Hall by becoming San Jose’s second female city manager in 2007. Despite retiring  in 2013, she remains a powerful figure in Silicon Valley and serves on numerous boards.

    Figone began her government career at the age of 16, working part time after school and during the summer in San Jose’s parks and recreation department. A graduate of San Jose State University, she previously served as the town manager for Los Gatos before joining San Jose as its top administrator.

    Figone’s role as city manager intersected with the Great Recession, during which she oversaw cuts in workers’ pay and hundreds of layoffs.

    Today, Figone serves on the board of directors for the School of Arts and Culture at Mexican Heritage Plaza. She also runs a managerial consulting business, aiding the cities and towns of Los Altos, Los Gatos and Palo Alto, as well as Valley Water.

    Janet Gray Hayes

    Janet Gray Hayes looks on from her mayoral seat at San Jose City Council. Photo courtesy of San Jose State University.

    It was nearly 50 years ago when Janet Gray Hayes started her term as the first female mayor of San Jose. Prior to that, she got her bachelor’s degree at Indiana University before earning a master’s degree at the University of Chicago. She moved to San Jose in 1956 and served on the board of directors for the local YMCA before running for city council in 1970.

    As a councilmember, mayoral candidate and mayor, Hayes grappled with sexism and misogyny, as one biography notes. Some voters refused to vote for her simply because she was a woman. Before she died in 2014, Hayes recounted the first time she attended the U.S. Council of Mayors. She joined the other heads of cities at a special table, and one man asked if she was a secretary. She said, “I’m Janet Gray Hayes. I’m the mayor of San Jose.”

    As mayor, Hayes helped balance the city’s budget, which was reduced from prior years due to the passage of Prop. 13 in 1978. She also worked hard to help other women gain political roles, according to her University of Chicago biography.

    “By the time I left office, we had a female vice-mayor and a female majority on the city council,” Hayes said.

    Jennifer Loving

    When Jennifer Loving, executive director of housing nonprofit Destination: Home, thinks of the women she admires most, she thinks of two of her organization’s clients, Shaunte and Elena.

    Working with these clients, Loving sees the worst traumas faced by women experiencing homelessness. But she also sees incredible resiliency, generosity and hope.

    “I have so much admiration for the journey that these two women and all women who have to be homeless and what they’re able to do,” Loving told San José Spotlight. “I have seen more honor and faith and courage through the people that I know and have worked with that live on our streets, more than any other population of people in this community.”

    Loving has fought against homelessness her whole life. As a child, her extended family would take her to help out at a homeless shelter they owned in Venice Beach. That experience helped show her the various obstacles faced by unhoused people, and the dangers posed to women in the streets.

    Jessica Paz-Cedillos

    Jessica Paz-Cedillos, co-executive director of the School of Arts and Culture, wants to demonstrate to other communities what is possible, even with stark economic divides. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

    Jessica Paz-Cedillos credits her mother for shaping her into the leader she is today.

    The co-executive director of the School of Arts and Culture at Mexican Heritage Plaza in San Jose said her mother came to the U.S. alone at the age of 18, raised three children on her own and weathered poverty and homelessness while living in the Bay Area.

    “How often can a single mother from Oakland say all three of her kids are college graduates, gainfully employed, and homeowners?” Paz-Cedillos told San José Spotlight. “I get my laser focus, passion and fearlessness from her.”

    Prior to her leadership role at Mexican Heritage Plaza, Paz-Cedillos worked at the Bill Wilson Center and then as the resource development director at SOMOS Mayfair.

    She said that women, particularly women of color, have a long way to go before society achieves anything close to gender parity.

    “To put it bluntly, we are not (at scale) hiring, supporting and promoting diverse female leaders with lived experience, two essential qualities I look for in leadership,” Paz-Cedillos said. “From reliable child care to an equitable distribution of chores at home to equal pay, our country can and should do better by women in the workforce.”

    Madison Nguyen

    Madison Nguyen was the first Vietnamese vice mayor on the San Jose City Council. File photo.

    As Blanca Alvarado before her, Madison Nguyen shattered barriers in San Jose.

    In 2005, Nguyen became the first Vietnamese American elected to the San Jose City Council, and later became the city’s first Vietnamese vice mayor. But even before those accomplishments, Nguyen had made waves in a political circles often dominated by white men. She was elected to the board of the Franklin-McKinley School District, becoming one of the first Vietnamese Americans elected to a school board in the U.S. After leaving the council, she served as executive director of Hunger at Home and as the executive vice president of the SVO, now known as the San Jose Chamber of Commerce.

    Nguyen faced adversity just to get to the United States. Born in Vietnam, she escaped the country at four years old in a fishing boat. Now working as executive vice president of AsianNet Media, Nguyen continues to drive conversation in Silicon Valley.

    “The need for greater media visibility among women of color is so critical,” Nguyen told San José Spotlight. “We live in such a diverse community with almost equal demographics and yet we don’t often see or hear from women of color when it comes to issues that directly affect them.”

    Michele Lew

    Michele Lew is pictured in this file photo. Photo courtesy of The Health Trust.

    Collaboration and mutual aid are at the core of Michele Lew’s work. The CEO of The Health Trust, which functions as both a foundation and a provider of health care services for vulnerable residents, believes that women need uplift each other to thrive as leaders.

    “Many of us believe, ‘I don’t shine if you don’t shine,’” Lew told San José Spotlight. “We strive to support each other, increase visibility and collectively advance our organizational missions.”

    Before joining The Health Trust, Lew worked as the president and CEO of health nonprofit Asian Americans for Community Involvement, as well as the community relations director for Stanford Health Care. She took over the reins of The Health Trust in 2017.

    Lew says the COVID-19 pandemic has helped society rethink how to provide basic services to its most vulnerable residents.

    Nuria Fernandez

    Nuria Fernandez, former VTA CEO, waves out of a cable car at a news conference celebrating the 100-year anniversary of Women’s Right to Vote in 2020. Photo courtesy of Brandi Childress.

    Before joining the Biden administration in 2021 as the administrator of the Federal Transit Administration, Nuria Fernandez made her mark in Silicon Valley as the top leader of the area’s largest transit agency, the VTA. Fernandez, who was born and raised in Panama City, served as VTA’s CEO for seven years prior to her appointment by President Joe Biden to the FTA.

    Before joining VTA, Fernandez worked at the the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the Chicago Transit Authority and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. She also helped lead O’Hare and Midway airports as commissioner for the Chicago Department of Aviation.

    She was the first person of color and woman to lead VTA.

    “I am even more humbled to be recognized for my dedication to public service and being an influencer in the public transportation industry,” Fernandez previously told San José Spotlight. “I am among a list of great company: highly qualified, talented Black women who have mastered their craft and dedicated their lives to making their areas of expertise better.”

    Sharon Chatman

    Sharon Chatman, second from left, and friends take part in an event put on by Chatman’s nonprofit Building Peaceful Families. Photo courtesy of Michelle Peterson.

    As a superior court judge, Sharon Chatman made an extraordinary effort to do whatever she could to help individuals work their way out of the criminal justice system. She created a calendar to track court dates for domestic violence offenders with mental health disabilities. She also coordinated multiple departments across the county to help residents complete their required coursework so that they wouldn’t end up back in jail. She served as a judge for 20 years.

    Chatman founded Building Peaceful Families in 2004, a nonprofit that helps residents whose family members have been affected by the incarceration system.

    Before her death in 2021, Chatman was a basketball coach for San Jose State University. She retired from the bench in 2020 and held a law degree from Hastings College of Law at University of California, San Francisco.

    Susan Ellenberg 

    Supervisor Susan Ellenberg is pictured in this filed photo.

    A few years ago, Supervisor Susan Ellenberg was an unknown in local politics. Now, she’s a formidable force in Silicon Valley, having championed measures around equity, access to child care and addressing mental health issues in the county.

    Ellenberg grew up in Pennsylvania, she is a long-time resident of San Jose, having lived here since 1991. She previously worked as a real estate attorney, a social justice educator and as the senior director of development for the San Jose Chamber of Commerce, then known as the Silicon Valley Organization. She was elected to the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors in 2018 and was recently reelected and is now board president.

    In Silicon Valley’s stratified society, all women face harassment and discrimination, regardless of socioeconomic status, Ellenberg told San José Spotlight. Women need greater support to help them speak out against hostile and inappropriate behavior in the workplace.

    “The risks of retaliation, being deemed ‘not a team player,’ upsetting the group or worse still result in women tolerating hostile behavior and not speaking out, often to significant personal detriment. Worse, when they do, they are often not supported by women colleagues who do not want to be seen as disruptors of the climate,” Ellenberg said. “Until women know they will be believed, supported, and protected from backlash when reporting inappropriate behavior in the workplace, that imbalance of power will perpetuate a culture of disrespect, objectification, and erasure.”

    Susan Hammer

    Photo courtesy of the Hammer family.

    As one passes through the grand lobby of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Library in downtown San Jose, it’s a reminder that this unique institution—the first jointly-owned state and city library in California history—may not have been possible without Susan Hammer.

    Hammer began the partnership between the city and San Jose State University, which led to the creation of the library.

    The former downtown councilmember and mayor also played a major role in other significant projects across the city, including the construction of SAP Center and Mexican Heritage Plaza. She also pushed for greater racial diversity in the city’s commissions and created the San Jose Conservation Corps.

    “San Jose is such a terrific city,” Hammer said on Valley Politics before she died in 2020. “Just driving in the neighborhoods throughout this large, large city, you see that different ethnic communities are really participating in their city.”

    The historic Susan and Phil Hammer Theater in downtown San Jose pays homage to Hammer and her husband’s contributions to the arts community.

    Susie Wilson

    Supervisor Susie Wilson takes seat at Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors with Supervisor Sig Sanchez. Photo courtesy of county archives.

    Susie Wilson was a trailblazer in Silicon Valley politics, becoming the first woman elected to the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors in 1978.

    Wilson paved the way for other women to serve in elected office. During her tenure as a county supervisor until 1991, women held the majority of seats in San Jose City Council and the county board.

    But even before paving the way for women in Silicon Valley politics, Wilson make an impact by helping families in need. In the early 90s, she volunteered for the Silicon Valley YWCA and led a fundraiser to build low-income apartments in downtown San Jose, which have since been named after her.

    She was also notable for completing her undergraduate degree while serving on San Jose City Council from 1974 to 1978. As a county supervisor, she prioritized protecting the county’s Valley Medical Center from closure during severe budget cuts prompted by Prop. 13. Prior to her death in 2018, Wilson helped promote an $840 million bond to support VMC, which was passed by voters in 2008.

    Yvonne Maxwell

    Yvonne Maxwell, executive director of Ujima Adult and Family Services and lecturer at San Jose State University. Screenshot from a video from San Jose.

    Recognizing the harm police presence can cause Black communities, Yvonne Maxwell has led the way on reform efforts and calls to allow nonprofits to handle mental health crises instead of cops.

    A licensed social worker and San Jose State University lecturer, Maxwell has been the executive director of Ujima Adult and Family Services since 1991. The nonprofit, named after the Kwanzaa principle of collective work and responsibility, provides behavioral health care to local residents.

    A woman of principle and courage, Maxwell has spoken out against the construction of a new jail in Santa Clara County, calling for those resources to be used to fund housing, job training and universal basic income. She also worked on a San Jose public safety committee, and she quit in 2021 to protest the group’s lack of focus on police reform, which had been its original stated purpose.

    “What if behavioral health professionals responded to mental health emergencies instead of police?” Maxwell asked last year. “Sometimes the only reason a person experiencing a mental health emergency ends up in jail is because law enforcement responds to a 911 call.”

    Zoe Lofgren

    Rep. Zoe Lofgren is pictured during a news conference on Capitol Hill in this file photo.

    The daughter of a beer truck driver and cafeteria cook, Congressmember Zoe Lofgren studied at Stanford University on a state scholarship. She was a staff member for Congressmember Don Edwards before being elected to the San Jose Evergreen Community College Board and the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors. She was then elected to Congress in 1994 and has served in that role ever since.

    Now she is a top ranking member in Congress—a position she won as the underdog in her race—and was called on by congressional leadership to serve as an impeachment manager for Donald Trump and a member of the Jan. 6 committee.

    Lofgren is one of the only people on Capitol Hill believed to be present for three impeachment proceedings against former President Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton and Trump.

    A big part of Lofgren’s work has focused on helping women pursue careers in science and technology.

    “Right now, women are still underrepresented in STEM, and we need to encourage more girls to consider careers in these fields,” Lofgren told San José Spotlight. “There are, however, many women in leadership roles in the valley. Two of the top scientists involved in the recent ignition breakthrough at Lawrence Livermore National Lab are women. These female physicists should be an inspiration to young women about how they can work on hugely important projects in Silicon Valley that have the potential to change the future for the better for our children and grandchildren.”

    Contact Sonya Herrera at [email protected] or follow @SMHsoftware on Twitter.

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