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Portraits of the Valley

It’s more important to understand someone than to judge them. We think the first step to understanding someone is asking them the fundamental questions about who they are and how they became the person they are today. Understanding and empathy are essential building blocks for a better, more compassionate world. We’re incredibly fortunate to be able to ask these questions each week through our interview series. Below you’ll find inspiring interviews from in and around the Valley.

Rory Ross

I grew up in Lockridge, a small town in Southeast Iowa. Most that are raised there tend to stay and become farmers, ranchers, and the like. But for me, it always seemed that I didn’t quite fit in. I suppose this was somewhat furthered when I learned the story of Luke Skywalker while I was in the Iowa City Hospital. When I was six years old, I was being treated for a rare fungus that was causing my scalp to literally fall off. It was there that my mom introduced me to Star Wars: A New Hope & my life was forever changed; Read more>>

Oh My Goodies

I am the founder of Oh My Goodies, a vegan baking company bringing you delicious vegan desserts with a classic flair. I am a performer and also love to bake! When the entertainment industry took a hit in 2020, it was the perfect time for me to begin this new journey of creating my baking vision. I wanted to bring to life my family recipes that I had recreated to be vegan and then dress up in a vintage outfit and deliver to people’s front doors so I could see the delight and joy in their eyes as they received these delicious treats. I didn’t know if anyone would actually go for the idea but I thought why not! So I began building my brand and with the support of my friends and family, I am now delivering delicious treats to customers’ front doors dressed in a vintage outfit watching their eyes light up with joy. Read more>>

Emily Anderson

My love for photography started the moment I was old enough to start snapping pictures. I’ve always been “the girl with the camera” – When I was a kid, I documented everything I possibly could with disposable film cameras before transitioning to polaroid. I got my first digital point and shoot in middle school and eventually started dabbling with film and full-format digital cameras in high school and college. I’ve always been intrigued with documenting life with photographs but never knew I could make a career out of it until I landed my first professional gig in 2007 as a school portrait photographer. Fast forward to 2011, when my time in the PNW was coming to an end. I was desperate to shake up my life and made the conscious decision to move literally anywhere and not look back. Read more>>

Cheryl Bookout

My origin story began in Laguna Beach, CA. My father was stationed at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton and my parents were living in Laguna Beach at the time of my birth. When my father finished his military service, he went to work at the Burbank Airport and bought a home in Canoga Park – officially making me a Valley Girl for all of my school years. Fast forward and you find me residing in the high desert community of Joshua Tree following my two passions, working as a filmmaker and in my studio working on my personal art projects. Read more>>

Yvonne Johansen

As a Speech Language Pathologist who has been working with little ones for more than three decades, it’s rewarding, a little surprising and very fulfilling to look back at the road I’ve traveled and the journey I’ve taken. For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to work with children. I enrolled in college not knowing exactly what my role with kids would be, but after taking a Language Development course with an amazing and inspirational professor, my path became clear; I would pursue a career in Speech Pathology. Read more>>

Christopher Gilstrap

I was born in Elberton, GA, the “Granite Capital of the World.” My father was a Presbyterian minister and my mother was a former TV journalist, so I like to say that my upbringing was an even balance of seeking to know Truth, capital T, and truth, lowercase T. When I was four, the family moved to the city of Warner Robins, GA, which was known for its school system. My parents wanted to ensure my baby brother and I were educated in a healthy environment. Warner Robins is a military town, home of the sprawling Robins Air Force Base, and many of my friends were the children of transplanted military families who would come and go as the years went by, so I had ample exposure to people from all over the country as I grew up. Read more>>

Seychelles Mizel

I’m from a small town outside of Napa called Vacaville. I originally moved away from home to college where I was a competitive cheerleader. I thought cheer would be my whole life until I met Sueanne Edan, who would become my Talent Agent. I met Sueanne at the premiere of an independent feature that my dad had written. We talked about my experience as a cheerleader and she asked if I’d be interested in doing commercials. I made the transition to Los Angeles in 2018, but I still wanted to remain in college. I began full-time online schooling, worked as a children’s gymnastics coach, and began preparing for auditions. My first audition was not for a commercial. It was for a Guest Starring role on a TV Series. Read more>>

Anavee Girlfromtheheat

My name is Ana Valenzuela & go by the name of Anavee Girlfromtheheat. I am a Mexican American artist/songwriter. When I was nine years old, I’d close my eyes at the apartment complex playground of where I lived at & I’d pretend to perform in front of thousands of people. I knew exactly from that moment I wanted to be an artist, but High school is where everything started. I began to write my own music & record myself at home with my laptop & a guitar hero game microphone my junior and senior years. Life happened, work, college, career, etc and I didn’t make music my priority for a few years but I always kept writing music. Three years ago, I recorded my first album called Throwback. During the pandemic 2020, I recorded my 2nd album Perseverance. I’m currently finishing the final touches of my Spanish album. The album consists of trap corridos, reggaeton, and rap. Future performances on the calendar are marked, and new English music will be out 2022. I am where I am today thanks to my consistency, hard work, struggles, late nights, my family and my fans. Read more>>

Toribel Mora

Being in the hair/beauty industry has always been something I’ve had an interest in since I was in middle school. Of course, it started when I discovered box dye, I used to love changing my hair color even if it was a simple light brown or black, I then started cutting my own bangs & braiding friend’s hair in P.E class. Moving onto junior year of high school is when I started getting more information on cosmetology school & realizing it was something I could do after high school but coming from a Hispanic family they wanted me to focus on a nursing career. I gave nursing a try & dropped out twice which finally led me to beauty school, I attended Paul Mitchell in Sherman Oaks & after graduating, I got an assistant position in a salon called Bigoudi located in Woodland Hills. Read more>>

Diana Sanchez

Most people are surprised when I share that I was voted shyest in middle school, but all my childhood friends can attest to it. When I graduated high school, I decided to attend Cal State Long Beach. It was more affordable than a University of California school and I would not have to transfer from a Junior College which for someone who was shy would have been hard to meet new people. I struggled a bit at first, going from a high school class of over 400 students to a school with over 32,000 students. I decided I had to find a way to make it work because going to college was instilled in me, something I expected of myself. Read more>>

Jennifer Aguilar

I have always been a healthy eater but mid pandemic, I decided to go plant-based for the good of my health and well-being. I am a super curious person and sometimes I would say it can get me in trouble. I started researching what ingredients and products were used in making cosmetics because I want to be aware of what I apply to my body externally as well. When I became aware that animals are used in the making of lipsticks, it didn’t feel right so I did research in how I can make my own organic vegan lipstick. I started formulating light red lipstick then eventually when I was confidence I started formulating other pigments. It wasn’t easy at first but when I started wearing my own formulation and females would ask where I purchased it, I knew it could get me beyond the limits. Mutaats will be launching in 2022. Read more>>


Duymong (Duy) Nguyen

I am a born-and-raised valley boy. The 818 is my luckiest number and the deep history and rich cultures that inhabit the San Fernando Valley make it hard to leave. By day, I am a space systems engineer working on exploring the final frontier. By night, I transition all that nerd energy into baking, which has been a passion of mine ever since I found the Food Network at age thirteen. In 2014, I decided to adopt a plant-based lifestyle (a completely vain decision to attempt losing ten pounds). After going plant-based, I started baking exclusively vegan goods. Being an engineer by trade, I always love a good challenge, and vegan baking tickles that fancy quite well. I lived for my officemates’ reactions to my cupcakes when they “can’t believe it’s vegan.” Read more>>

Richard Krumwiede

My wife and I have always loved wine tasting and tourism and developed an affinity for the wines and landscape of Santa Barbara County and Paso Robles. As a Landscape Architect, I had also designed vineyards into many of our projects in the Rancho Cucamonga area to reflect the areas heritage. In about 2005, many of the pine trees in our area of Crestline and on our 3.5 acre property were dying of bark beetle infestation and needed to be removed. This opened up an otherwise forested area of our property to sunshine. Since I’ve created many garden areas on our property, this sudden open area sparked my imagination, and I thought how cool it would be to overlook a vineyard/garden destination area on our property. Read more>>

Akilah Watts

Music has always been a passion of mine since I was a child. I started off playing the piano, then learned trombone, bass, and later on, guitar. I was a music education major in undergrad at The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. I played trombone in the marching band, affectionately known as The Marching Musical Machine of the Mid-South or M4 for short. An experience I will never forget is marching in the first inaugural parade for former president Barack Obama. That whole experience feels so surreal. I remember the preparation for the event with practices occurring at 5 am while it was still cold in Arkansas so we could get a feel for what it would be like in DC. I remember so vividly marching past President Obama as he waved and the excitement I felt in the moment. It was truly incredible. After undergrad, I taught general music K-6 for two years before deciding to go back to school to get my Master’s in music therapy. Read more>>

Emily Barth Isler

I have always been obsessed with stories. My father and my grandfather were both journalists, and I knew I had to be some kind of storyteller. I started acting professionally in musical theater when I was five years old and spent most of my childhood in at least two or three plays or musicals at any given time! I loved being on stage in an ensemble. I went to college (Wesleyan University) and studied Film and TV, planning to go into writing then, but got swept back into the acting world for a few years– moving to New York to appear on soap operas (I had a small, recurring role on One Life to Live and guest-starred on Days of our Lives in LA briefly!) and other TV shows like Saturday Night Live. It was hard and fun and fascinating, but my true love of writing was always calling to me. In my late 20s, I decided it was time to really take writing seriously. I worked on the writing staff of a web series with Emmy-Award-winning PhoebeTV and also started writing novels for teens and tweens. Read more>>

Christina Villegas

For well over a decade, I had a wonderful career as a reality television producer on docu-reality series for various networks. I was a Co-Executive Producer when I left the industry after a tragic incident that changed the trajectory of my life. After the incident, I realized that I wanted to move onto a different chapter of my life. I started a video production company, MercVille Productions, with my boyfriend, Jeff (who was also a reality tv producer). I also established Flying Curves Dance Studio where I teach Pole Dance and Burlesque classes. Read more>>

Jessica Rotter

I have been singing since I was a little girl. I sang professionally for movies/tv shows/etc. From the young age of four! I studied opera and went to school for that but ultimately that lifestyle wasn’t what I saw myself having for the rest of my life. I had started songwriting in high school and then finally got up the courage to share my own music in college. Once I learned how to merge my creativity with my vocal abilities, I found something I really love. I released an album as a soloist and then formed my trio JEMS. We are still together, writing and performing and recording our second album. I am currently working on my first album as my new project Monsterra. I’m excited to put out some new solo music in 2022! Read more>>

Michael Castaneda

My journey as a photographer began on my move from Florida to California. I was never a nature person, yet on that trip I saw parts of this planet that simply amazed me. I only had a cell phone at the time but I knew I wanted to capture what I was witnessing for all others to see. I bought my first camera not much longer after that and the rest has been a never ending road trip that is constantly evolving. Read more>>

Gerard George

I started my company back in 2018. I had no idea what I was doing and was pressured into creating it. However, that’s another story for a different day. My journey to where I am today was disorganized and accidental but completely necessary. I originally graduated with a B.A. in Psychology and landed my first job working in a pleasant organization that traded small securities (stocks). I knew early on that this wasn’t the place for me. On the day I got promoted, I handed in my two-week notice in exchange for interning at a theatrical booking agency, where I learned an insurmountable amount of information about the entertainment industry. Read more>>

Kristy Li

EXP Gained was conceptualized from the idea that life is an adventure and our experiences define who we are. EXP is an abbreviation for ‘experience’ and experience gained is inspired by the video game concept of the hero’s journey of gaining experience to level up which we find applicable to everyday life. We built the brand and created art to celebrate the experiences of others (heroes/customers we meet along our own art journey). Although the brand is based on a nerdy concept, we felt these concepts are applicable towards everyday life as well since everyone has goals they are striving towards everyday whether they be menial tasks to large milestones. Read more>>

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