Women We Admire is pleased to announce The Top 50 Women Leaders of San Diego for 2022. This year’s awardees are celebrated for their contributions to their organizations and their personal accomplishments along the way. The city of San Diego, known as America’s Finest City, has historically been home for remarkable women. Clara Shortridge Foltz, the first female attorney in California, and Dr. Charlotte Baker, the city’s first female obstetrician and former president of San Diego’s Equal Suffrage Association, are classic examples of San Diego women who broke barriers, making way for the leaders of today. This year’s awardees have followed in their footsteps trailblazing within their industries to spark progress and change.
Among this year’s awardees is Mahasa Zahirnia, Chief Engineer and Artificial Intelligence Lead of Northrop Grumman, who leads the organization in developing advanced technologies to support some of the world's most advanced products; Patty Gray, Vice President of Global Vendor Management for Westcon-Comstor, who has earned a reputation as a dynamic and accomplished global head with expertise in building strategies to establish sales and realize growth; and Alison Fleury, Senior Vice President of Business Development of Sharp HealthCare, who is entrusted with the organization's strategic planning, long-term financial planning, and financing initiatives.
While this year’s awardees span across a variety of industries, they are all equally committed to the organizations they serve. Please join us in celebrating the accomplishments of The Top 50 Women Leaders of San Diego for 2022.
2. Mahasa Zahirnia
Chief Engineer & AI Lead, Northrop Grumman
Mahasa Zahirnia is the Chief Engineer and Artificial Intelligence Lead of Northrop Grumman. Northrop Grumman is a pioneering company. They design, develop, build, and support some of the world's most advanced products, from cutting-edge aircraft and next-generation spacecraft to unrivaled cyber security systems and all-seeing radars.
Zahirnia is a widely respected technology leader with over 30 years of experience in the areas of program management, system engineering, cyber and Artificial Intelligence. She has published articles in the field of AI and has several patents pending. Zahirnia helps organizations develop advanced technologies and has received several awards for her innovation and cognitive designs from DoD and the private sector. She is a board member of AI4 and AI Data Analytics Network and Intelligent Automation. She is a technical advisor to several universities and engineering organizations such as INCOSE. Zahirnia received her undergraduate degree in electrical engineering and her master’s degree in management with honors. She has received NGC 2019 Woman of the Year Award, 2022 San Diego Outstanding Engineer of the Year Award, and DoD Top 10 AI influencers. She has held positions at Booz Allen, Captiva Software, Cubic, Sony, and Solar Turbines.
5. Lori Schneider
Vice President & General Manager, Collins Aerospace
Lori Schneider is a Vice President and General Manager for Aerostructures Programs with Collins Aerospace. Collins Aerospace specializes in aerostructures, avionics, interiors, mechanical systems, mission systems, and power and control systems that serve customers across the commercial, regional, business aviation and military sectors. Headquartered in Charlotte, North Carolina, the business has 71,000 employees across more than 300 locations of four businesses that form Raytheon Technologies Corporation. Schneider has 26 years of experience. She began her career in 1996.
Before joining Collins Aerospace, Schneider was a program manager and senior director at Boeing. Earlier in her career she worked with Lucent Technologies - Bell Laboratories as a technical staff member. Schneider graduated from Washington University in St. Louis with an Executive MBA, from Princeton University with an MS in electrical engineering, from the University of Florida with an MS in materials science engineering, and from Florida State University with undergraduate degrees in chemistry and biochemistry.
6. Michelle Balatero
Assistant Vice President, Advisor Diversity & Inclusion, LPL Financial
Michelle Balatero serves as the Assistant Vice President of Advisor Diversity & Inclusion at LPL Financial. LPL Financial is one of the top independent broker/dealers in the nation and a leading provider of investment and business solutions for independent financial advisors. She is responsible for championing strategic efforts to push the needle forward in advancing the representation and supporting the business growth and evolving needs of underrepresented financial advisors.
With her upbringing as a military child and spouse, Balatero got her start in 2010 as a financial advisor serving military families and has since served in a spectrum of roles within the financial services industry including relationship management, compliance, and sales before transitioning to diversity and inclusion in 2021. By experiencing her own challenges of being a financial advisor and seeing very little representation and mentorship opportunities for minority women, Balatero has grown a passion and drive for helping advisors overcome their barriers to growth and to provide a positive impact on diverse investor communities. She has spearheaded multiple diversity and inclusion initiatives that include providing access to financial tools and resources in a foreign language and cultivating an inclusive environment for advisors to connect and amplify their stories. Balatero holds an undergraduate degree in finance from the University of Maryland Global Campus and the CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNING™ designation, a standard of excellence and the most recognized designation in financial planning.
8. Cirina Catania
President & Founder, The Catania Group
Cirina Catania is the President and Founder of The Catania Group. She founded the company in 1989. Catania Studio is a multidisciplinary agency that pursues dynamic results, favoring interactive communications. This means that each need of its clients is dimensioned in order to promote concrete results, be it in the projection of the brand, be it in the promotion of sales of its products and/or services. Founded in 1994, initially to serve clients in the communication and marketing areas, Catania Studio is dedicated to "construction of images" of public figures and entrepreneurs. As time goes by, the market demands have summoned the agency to meet all formal communication demands that involve the relationships of companies with their public including propaganda, publicity and journalism.
Previously, Catania was a showrunner and supervising producer at Digital Production BuZZ and before that a writer at Technorati Media. Earlier in her career she worked with MGM/UA as a director of national publicity in the theatrical division. Catania earned an undergraduate degree in business and journalism from the University of Utah and an undergraduate degree in music and performing arts from the Queens University of Charlotte.
10. Whitney Hodges
Partner, Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton
Whitney Hodges is a Partner of Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton. Sheppard Mullin is a full service Global 100 law firm. From their 15 offices in North America, Europe, and Asia, they offer global solutions to their clients around the world, providing seamless representation in multiple jurisdictions. Global companies turn to Sheppard Mullin to handle a full range of corporate and technology matters, high stakes litigation, and complex financial transactions. In the US, the firm's clients include half of the Fortune 100 companies. Hodges has nearly 13 years of experience. She began her career in 2009.
Before joining Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton, Hodges was a law clerk at Advantage Sales & Marketing. Earlier in her career she worked with Beckett Cantley as a research assistant. Hodges graduated from USC Gould School of Law with a JD and from the University of Southern California with an undergraduate degree in history and communication.
12. Jami Debrango-Palumbo
Senior Vice President of Client Services & Operations, Foundation Medicine
Jami Debrango-Palumbo began her professional career nearly 34 years ago. Today, she is the Senior Vice President of Client Services and Operations for Foundation Medicine. Foundation Medicine is a molecular information company dedicated to a transformation in cancer care in which treatment is informed by a deep understanding of the genomic changes that contribute to each patient's unique cancer. The company offers a full suite of comprehensive genomic profiling assays to identify the molecular alterations in a patient’s cancer and match them with relevant targeted therapies, immunotherapies, and clinical trials. Foundation Medicine’s molecular information platform aims to improve day-to-day care for patients by serving the needs of clinicians, academic researchers, and drug developers to help advance the science of molecular medicine in cancer.
Debrango-Palumbo first got her start in 1988 in management commercial operations at Limited Brands-Division of Express World Brands. From there, she went on to IDEC USA, before eventually rising to become a VP and global head of sequencing operations at Roche, her most recent position prior to joining Foundation Medicine. Debrango-Palumbo graduated from UC San Diego - Rady School of Management with an Executive MBA and from The College of Saint Rose with an undergraduate degree.
13. Shannon Lackey
SVP & Chief Merchandising Officer, Excelligence Learning Corp
Shannon Lackey is an exceptional leader with over 15 years of experience driving retail growth. She currently serves as the Senior Vice President and Chief Merchandising Officer with Excelligence Learning Corp. Excelligence is one of the world's leading innovative companies providing educational classroom services and solutions to the global early childhood education market. Lackey is responsible for developing and driving merchandising and product development strategy for several of the company’s distribution channels. Through her team, she leads multiple business units including merchandising, product development, sourcing, and inventory management.
Prior to joining Excelligence, Lackey was the VP of merchandising at Hollar (acquired by Five Below) and before that a merchandising director for Petco. She first got her start as an assistant buyer with Burlington Coat Factory. Lackey earned an undergraduate degree in business marketing from the University of Pittsburgh.
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15. Allegra Heyligers
Head of Distribution Enablement, Allspring Global Investments
Allegra Heyligers is the Head of Distribution Enablement at Allspring Global Investments. Allspring is a company committed to thoughtful investing, purposeful planning, and the desire to elevate investing to be worth more. In her role, Heyligers is responsible for initiatives aligned to support global distribution efforts, including investment insights and thought leadership, institutional client service, client materials and the integrated distribution analytics, and data strategy.
Heyligers joined Allspring from its predecessor firm, Wells Fargo Asset Management (WFAM). Prior to this, she was a managing director and head of client engagement at Strategic Insight. Earlier, she was a chief operating officer of U.S. and Canada defined contribution and head of retirement strategy at BlackRock. She began her career in transition management at Barclays Global Investors. Heyligers earned an undergraduate degree in communications, graduating cum laude, from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. She is an executive board member of the Defined Contribution Institutional Investment Association.
17. Michelle Jackson
Assistant Vice President of Student Affairs, Alliant International University
Michelle Jackson is the Assistant Vice President of Student Affairs of Alliant International University. She first joined the university in 2013. Alliant is a private university accredited by the WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC), offering graduate study in psychology, education, business management, law and forensic studies, and bachelor’s degree programs in several fields. In her current role, Jackson oversees the Office of International Student Services, Intake Officer of Accessibility, Student Assistance Programming and is the lead investigator on bias/discrimination complaints. She has over 15 years of experience in higher education, serving students from all walks of life equally.
Jackson has served various roles interacting with students in the capacity of a student advisor, senior director of student advising, student government staff advisor, campus director of San Diego. She has earned a master’s degree in business administration, master’s degree in psychology, and a doctoral candidate in leadership.
18. Julie Bryant
CEO & Founder, Rancho BioSciences
Julie Bryant is Chief Executive Officer and Founder of Rancho BioSciences, on a mission to save lives through data. Rancho BioSciences is an international fee for service data curation company with analysis and developer services. Their customers include pharma, foundations, government, and biotech companies. Rancho BioSciences is celebrating its 10-year anniversary and is experiencing exponential growth. Their strong culture code attracts the best scientists and developers that want to make a difference.
Over the years Bryant has built strong teams in GenenGo and later sold to Thomson Reuters. She was also involved in the acquisition of FreedomVoice by GoDaddy. She is on the advisory board of Rady Children's Hospital and the Brain Trust Committee at John Wayne Cancer Institute. Bryant is a graduate of Coventry University.
21. Mary Fisher
Mary Fisher is the Chair, Chief Executive Officer, and Board Director at Colorescience. Colorescience is a former division of SkinMedica Inc. where Fisher previously served as Chief Executive Officer from 2008 until 2012. She led the successful sale of the company to Allergan, Inc. for $350 million with the potential for another $25 million contingent on certain sales milestones.
Fisher has spent more than 30 years in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries, including management and leadership positions at Acorda Therapeutics, Cephalon, Immunex, and Boehringer Ingelheim. She also serves on the board of directors of Sientra and Dermata Therapeutics. Fisher was honored as Ernst & Young's Entrepreneur of the Year for San Diego, California, and received the EY Venture Capital Award of Excellence. She was also recently named a finalist for Most Admired CEO by the San Diego Business Journal.
23. Victoria Switzer
Chief Operating Officer, Gomez Trial Attorneys
Victoria Switzer is the Chief Operating Officer of Gomez Trial Attorneys. Gomez Trial Attorneys is the largest plaintiffs' trial firm located in San Diego. They are a team of San Diego personal injury attorneys and handle cases ranging from catastrophic injury to wrongful death and several others including insurance disputes, elder abuse, and business disputes. In addition to their San Diego personal injury and wrongful death practices, they also work tirelessly for children's rights. Several children's rights lawyers work at the firm, and they protect rights with regards to physical harm, psychological abuse, and bullying. Switzer has nearly 12 years in the legal services industry. She began her career in 2010.
Before joining Gomez Trial Attorneys, Switzer was an accounting specialist at Dye Precision, Inc. Switzer graduated from San Diego Miramar College with an undergraduate degree in social sciences.
25. Perla Torres
Chief Human Resources Officer, Center for Community Solutions
Perla Torres is the Chief Human Resources Officer at the Center for Community Solutions (CCS), a non-profit organization that is a regional leader in the intervention and prevention of domestic violence and sexual assault. Since her arrival at CCS in 2018, she has led human resources initiatives in support of an organizational commitment to diversity, leadership development, and implementation of policies and tools for a growing workforce. She has a 17-year track record of human resources success in identifying growth opportunities, executing, and sustaining strategic initiatives, overseeing contract and legal compliance, and fostering professional development. Torres is the epitome of hard work, accountability, and commitment. She was raised in an underserved community in South San Diego by her parents, who immigrated from Mexico and instilled in her a sense of responsibility that guides her professional success to this day.
Torres first got her start in payroll and quickly rose to an entry level option in human resources. While enjoying her new position in HR and felt she found her calling, she knew a college degree was essential to her professional growth. She went on to National University where she earned an undergraduate degree in organizational leadership and a master’s degree in human resource management.
27. Allyson Markey
Founder, The Forum
Allyson Markey is the Founder of The Forum. Founded in 2015 and headquartered in San Diego, California, The Forum is an agency designed specifically for small to mid-sized companies seeking assistance with everything from digital marketing services to PR strategy. Its global team’s expertise, combined with cutting-edge technology and a hands-on approach, means that their clients get focused marketing and public relations support at a highly competitive cost. The Forum has the tools, processes, and relationships to make sure their client’s story is told to the right people at the right time.
Previously, Markey was a content manager at AbacusNext, and before that, a social campaign manager at Save San Diego High. Earlier in her career she worked with Kleinfelder as an environmental geologist. Markey earned an undergraduate degree in geology from the University of California, Davis and an undergraduate degree in biology from Palomar College.
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30. Erin Clark
Founder & CEO, ClarkRN
Erin Clark began her professional career 15 years ago. Today, she is the Founder and CEO of ClarkRN. ClarkRN partners with firms and organizations involved in the design and implementation of cutting edge, efficient, and holistic healthcare environments. It brings knowledge and experience to ensure the designs are developed and tested against the current trends in healthcare delivery including lean methodologies, evidence-based design, high reliability, the flows of healthcare, and others. ClarkRN works on a contractual basis and is used when needed both onsite and offsite throughout the course of a project. It has a team of subject matter experts in various nursing and ancillary fields that are pulled in as needed to ensure all aspects of a project are looked at through the eyes of the experts.
Clark first got her start in 2007 as a registered nurse and community health worker at Peace Corps. From there, she went on to UCSF Medical Center, before eventually rising to become the director of transition planning at HTS, her most recent position prior to founding ClarkRN. Clark graduated from the University of California, San Francisco with an MS in nursing and health systems leadership, and from Seton Hall University with an undergraduate degree in nursing.
33. Rebecca Taylor
Vice President of Operations, Equabli
Rebecca Taylor is the Vice President of Operations of Equabli. She first joined the company in 2021. Equabli is a fintech company dedicated to rethinking debt recovery through innovative technology, insightful analytics, and a wealth of expertise. Its comprehensive, fully managed platform consolidates, simplifies, and optimizes the debt recovery process for creditors and consumers. With a single connection, Equabli becomes an extension of a business, providing complete end-to-end management of debt recoveries through an intelligent, highly integrated ecosystem of multi-channel solutions. Taylor has over 22 years of professional work experience in the financial services, retail sales, and legal industries working with Fortune 100 and 500 companies.
Taylor has held positions in HR, operations, and business development throughout her career. These positions have provided her with the unique opportunity to lead global change management, operational strategy, process improvement, compliance, and mergers and acquisitions initiatives for the organizations she has worked for while having a seat on both the business and human resources sides of the house. Taylor also has vast experience developing and managing cross-functional global teams and is recognized as a strategic thought partner and driver of organizational change. She is also the co-owner and managing partner of RCS Global Services, a boutique HR Consulting firm, and she also serves on the Viejas Grande Estates Board and on various Receivables Management Association International (RMAi). She is a High Honors graduate from the University of California, Berkeley with dual bachelor’s degrees in economics and political science.
34. Lauren Hirota
Corporate Counsel, Pathways Management Group
Lauren Hirota is the Corporate Counsel of Pathways Management Group. Pathways Management Group (PMG) is a non-profit organization that manages a network of programs and services designed to get students excited about their education again and prepared for their future. PMG managed schools provide one-on-one attention and guidance, individualized learning plans, and a focus on social-emotional growth to allow students to find personal and academic success in high school and beyond. They proudly serve communities throughout Illinois, Tennessee, Arizona, Louisiana, and Idaho.
Hirota earned an undergraduate degree in philosophy and political science from San Diego State University and a JD in law from the University of the Pacific - McGeorge School of Law.
36. Liesl Bernard
Chief Executive Officer, CannabizTeam
Liesl Bernard began her professional career 33 years ago. Today, she is the Chief Executive Officer of CannabizTeam. Founded in 2016, CannabizTeam is the world’s largest cannabis-focused executive search and staffing firm providing services for the top cannabis and CBD businesses in the U.S. and Canada. CannabizTeam takes the time to learn the beliefs, values, culture, and goals of each client. By achieving a comprehensive understanding of each client, CannabizTeam can match them with ideal candidates and help them achieve sustainable success. Through an extensive global reach and unparalleled business relationships, CannabizTeam and their temporary and consulting arm, CannabizTemp, place over 1,000 candidates a year.
Bernard first got her start in 1989 as an audit senior at KPMG. From there, she went on to Moss Adams, before eventually rising to become a managing director of executive search at Robert Half, her most recent position prior to joining CannabizTeam. Bernard graduated from the University of Cape Town with an undergraduate degree in accounting and information systems.
38. Rae P. Revelle
President & Creative Director, Ray Norris Design
Rae P. Revelle is the award-winning President, Creative Director, and Visionary of her firm - Ray Norris Design. Ray Norris Design is an international multi-discipline design consulting firm specializing in creating world-class interiors. Their customer-centric approach ensures that their interiors fully actualize the needs of their discerning clientele and their expectations are exceeded. They adopt a similar philosophy for all of their projects, namely to design spaces that align form and function yet challenge the status quo. Ray Norris Design’s mission is to showcase each client's individuality through a confident mix of design thinking, history, and attention to detail. They firmly believe no element of the design process is too great or too small. From design conceptualization to furnishings and accessories they provide concierge-level service wholly focused on their client's complete satisfaction. Rae began her design career in 2012 with the opening Ray Norris Design and has over 9 years of design experience.
Before founding Ray Norris Design, Rae’s holds an extensive background in Accounting and Acquisition Management. Working for some of the top 10 defense contracting companies. She holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Interior Architecture & Design from the Academy of Art University. As a firm believer in the transformative ability design can play in one’s life, Rae launched the Ray Norris Design Foundation in early 2015 dedicated to the betterment of design students globally. Rae is a member of the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) and an honoree of the nation’s Top 20 African American Interior Designers.
40. Maleka Ali
Founder & President, Arc-Serv
Maleka Ali is the Founder and President of Arc-Serv, a woman-owned consulting firm with expertise in anti-money laundering, combating the financing of terrorism, and sanctions compliance. She has developed the company to provide education/training, guidance, and consulting services on risk mitigation, auditing, and regulatory compliance to financial institutions and fintech companies. She has over 35 years of experience serving over 750 financial institutions as a subject matter expert in BSA/AML compliance and operations.
Before founding Arc-Serv, Ali was an early employee of a highly successful BSA/AML startup, where she helped grow the company into an industry leader. She has participated as a task force member in several mergers, acquisitions, and system conversions and has developed and implemented anti-money laundering programs at many financial institutions. Ali is a founding member of several ACAMs chapters in Southern California, where she has served as a co-chair and program director. Additionally, she was the founder of an Anti-Money Laundering system school located in Austin, Texas. Ali has blazed a trail for other women in an otherwise male-dominated industry and has mentored many who attribute her leadership and enthusiasm as a prime example for pursuing and following their own aspirational career journeys.
42. Dessi Day
Partner, Greene & Roberts
Dessislava (Dessi) Day is a Partner at the law firm of Greene & Roberts LLP in San Diego, California. She represents employers in wage and hour class actions, wrongful termination, discrimination, harassment, retaliation, trade secrete disputes, and advises clients on California HR compliance, leaves of absence, accommodations, compensation, and employee separation matters. Over the years, Day has led a community of over 1200 employment and labor law attorneys throughout the U.S. and Canada, presently serving as the chair of the DRI Employment and Labor Law Committee. Day is also a past Chair of the San Diego County Bar Association Litigation Section.
A native of Bulgaria, Day relocated to the United States in her early 20’s to pursue her legal studies and obtained a law degree from the University of North Carolina School of Law where she served on the Editorial Board of the Journal of International Law and Commercial Transactions and was a member of the Moot Court Team of the UNC Trial Law Academy. She received her undergraduate degree in political science and management with honors from Guilford College.
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44. Jennifer Ramos
Founder & CEO, JR3 Consulting Group
Jennifer Ramos began her professional career over 18 years ago. Today, she is the Chief Executive Officer and Founder of JR3 Consulting Group. JR3 Consulting Group was founded with the intent to help business owners find financial freedom. Ramos has also been a successful business owner with over 20 years of ownership and experience in the health care and senior care industries, having owned and operated home care agencies in both California and Colorado.
Ramos is a California Licensed Business Broker with M & A Business Advisors, the Leader in Business Sales & Acquisitions. She has earned the designation of Certified Exit Planning Advisor (CEPA) from the Exit Planning Institute (EPI). Ramos graduated from San Diego State University with an undergraduate degree in social work and psychology.
47. Wendy Pizarro
Chief Legal & Diversity Officer & Corporate Secretary, Calidi Biotherapeutics
Wendy Pizarro is the Chief Legal Officer, Chief Diversity Officer, and Corporate Secretary of Calidi Biotherapeutics. Calidi Biotherapeutics is a talented, seasoned group of world-class executives, doctors, and scientists producing revolutionary work. It is a clinical-stage biotechnology company at the forefront of oncolytic virus-based immunotherapies for cancer. Calidi Biotherapeutics has developed a novel cell-based delivery system shown to overcome the host immune defense mechanisms, amplify the oncolytic viruses, and instantly modify the tumor microenvironment leading to effective virus expansion and optimal tumor cell targeting. Pizarro has over 9 years of experience. She began her career in 2013.
Pizarro graduated from Harvard Law School with a JD, from the University of Oxford with an MS in modern history, and from Yale University with an MA in political science and an undergraduate degree in political science and government.
48. Elizabeth Uslander
Elizabeth Uslander is a counselor and conscious entrepreneur dedicated to facilitating transformation and empowerment in the fields of Grief, End of Life, Family and Spirituality. She is the founder of Voyages, an international counseling practice in which she works closely with clients to heal the wounds of a lifetime as they navigate major transitions. She co-founded Empowered Endings™, established to teach about and further social paradigm shifts in End of Life Care, and the Aid in Dying Foundation, a non-profit organization offering access to End of Life resources to those in need.
Uslander earned her Bachelor of Arts with honors from Georgetown University, her Master of Theological Studies from Wesley Theological Seminary, and her Master of Social Work with honors from the University of Southern California. She was ordained in the ecumenical Universal Life Ministry.
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