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The Valley’s Hidden Gems

Every day we have a choice. We can support an up and coming podcaster, try a new family-run restaurant, join a boutique gym started by a local fitness champ or we could keep giving away our money to the handful of giants who already control so much of our commerce. Our daily decisions impact the kind world we live in; if we want a world where small businesses are growing and artists and creatives are thriving then we should support them with our time, money and attention. We’re proud to highlight inspiring creatives and entrepreneurs each week in Hidden Gems series.  Check out some of the Valley’s gems below.

Andrew Chavez

I started out playing Alto Sax in elementary through junior year in high school. I also started DJ’ing in high school. So that took over after I stopped playing sax. A DJ friend of mine asked me if I wanted to go with him to tour MI in Hollywood to check out their engineering program. I didn’t even know what an engineer was at the time. So we went and my mind was blown. I signed up, ran through the course and graduated in 1997. From there, I ended up landing a job as a runner and later an assistant engineer at Enterprise Recording Studio. This is where I met Linda Perry. I started working with her when she was mixing the Pink Album “Missundaztood” with Dave Pensado. This started a 12 year run of working with Linda day in and day out from about 2003-2015. In these years, I really developed my engineering chops. We recorded everything from single vocals to full bands to 36 piece string dates at Capitol Records. We recorded almost everything under the sun. Read more>>

Shabnam Khalili

Born and raised in the city of angels, my life is a plethora of many consistent themes; traveling to beautiful places, devouring all the food (of course saving room for dessert), rooting for the LA Dodgers and most importantly- capturing it all. I love trying new restaurants, whipping up different recipes, decorating my home and sharing everything in between with my followers in the hopes of inspiring them to live their best life. As a kid, I always imagined myself as a news broadcaster or TV host. With the power of social media, I have been lucky to create my own platform sharing the things I love with my little but mighty community. They say, “love what you do, never work a day in your life.” I’ve never been the nine-to-five, sit behind an office desk, kind of gal. As a free-flowing creative, I thrive on the freedom to travel to different places and meet new people while connecting all the dots. I started my career as a content curator in the music + broadcast industry but took a break to finish earning my degree in Business Marketing at CSUN.  Read more>>

Summer Forlenza

Before I became a therapist, I was a teacher. I taught 5th grade in East Harlem, New York City. It was during this period of my life that I first became familiar with mental health professionals and realized their power to create change and influence lives. I have vivid memories of kids in my class who were dealing with grief, trauma, and lack of resources. At the time, I had no background in mental health and I found myself in a constant power struggle. After spending time with some of our social workers and seeing firsthand the impact they had on my students, I started to get curious. I began researching and learning more about mental health professionals and found myself more and more pulled to this field. I began to put together the fact that my strengths in the classroom would extend to the therapy room and that working one-on-one with people who were working to recover from trauma was something that I could offer. Read more>>

Julia Hewitt

I’ve been an event planner/coordinator for roughly the past 20+ years, and then the pandemic hit! Baking helped me deal with the stressors of canceled weddings and events. I started on my journey to create an edible Gluten Free Challah because three years ago, I was diagnosed with Hashimotos disease and discovered that I was allergic to gluten and wheat. Three long years without a Gluten Free challah is a lot of time for someone who LOVES challah. And so the process began. Scouring the internet for every possible iteration of Gluten Free Challah and/or anyone who sold it. Trying every single flour blend that claimed to produce that light, fluffy, doughy bread of my childhood. And so I began, testing and reading. I now own every book on Bread baking. I just needed to know everything I could with regards to baking bread. Read more>>

Will Carpenter

I grew up in a very rural area of northern New England as part of a large family, raised by a single mother and of very humble means. Music has always been something I gravitated towards even before I realized what a valuable escape it can be when life’s circumstances are less than ideal. I did take some music lessons as a child – first violin and then piano, and I played clarinet in my school band, but it wasn’t until I was around 11 years old that I really began to cultivate my passion for popular music forms and begin dabbling in songwriting. I picked up first the bass and then the guitar and I started a very crusty grunge band with a friend of mine – subsequently, my adoption of such a raucous genre led to events that got me kicked out of my house, and I spent a couple of years (from 14 – 16) couch surfing and/or homeless until I was able to get my first job and apartment. Read more>>

Natalie Kamajian

I am an Armenian dancer and teacher born and raised in Los Angeles. I specialize in ազգագրական պարեր or azgagrakan dances, which are indigenous, communal dance practices of the Armenian people. I am also a Ph.D. student in Culture and Performance and a Teaching Associate at UCLA’s World Arts & Cultures Department, where I research and write about Armenian dance and its intersections with historical, political, and cultural realities. In one way or another, dance has always played a major role in my life. As a diasporan Armenian and great-grand daughter of Armenian genocide survivors who does not live in either of her ancestral homelands (Jugha, Nakhchavan or Anteb, Western Armenia), deportation and displacement are narratives that my family and I know well. As a result, I was exposed to other dance forms far before I learned traditional Armenian dance. Growing up, I was obsessed with tap. I practiced the form for around twelve years. Given the choice between tap and ballet as a four years old, I chose the loud, percussive elements of tap. Read more>>

Cherokee Jackson

I started pinup modeling in the myspace days and started amassing a following. Then in 2012, I started a youtube channel and Cherry Dollface really blew up. I took my videos on the road and for seven years, I traveled all over the world full time teaching vintage hair and makeup classes and doing hair and makeup for pinup photoshoots. After doing that full-time for so long, I was tired and needed to figure out a plan to be able to work full time from home while still being creative. My real passion has always been skin, so I got my esthetics license and opened up my own studio in Glendale in the middle of the pandemic. It was terrifying but so worth it to be home doing what I love. I now also provide cosmetic tattoo services because my second love is makeup and I missed doing brow and liner– so why not learn to do them permanently, right? I just love helping women from all walks of life feel confident and beautiful and I love that that means something different for everyone. Read more>>

Shannon Gibbs

I think I’ve always been a pan-creative storyteller, oscillating between different ways of tackling the human experience. From as early on as I can remember, I’ve written stories, put on performances for extended family, directed my friends (my earliest memory of this being a production of Harry Potter on the playground), and played dress up, just so much dress up. When I was little, I was sensitive and shy, and I often imagined that I woke up each morning as every other person in the world before waking up once more as myself. In retrospect, I think this was a way of framing my intense sensitivity, how I felt myself absorbing the pains, highs and lows of everyone around me. I think it was an overwhelming experience to a young kid, only just scratching the surface of their own place in the world. So I think, for me, storytelling and the process of doing so has always been a powerful way of connecting with others, of having a set time and place to release some of those emotional multitudes. Read more>>

Jason Rodgers

I describe my story as “Love at first shuffle”. My dance journey began at age seven as a pupil of Paul Kennedy & Arlene Kennedy at Universal Dance Design in Los Angeles, CA. The majority of my current teaching & performing style is a direct reflection of the standard they set for me & so many others that studied at their dance school. I’m a proud “Kennedy Kid” forever. At age 15, I moved to New York & studied improvisation under Derick K. Grant at Funk University. Derick’s mentorship was a career-defining moment for me. I learned improvisation as a form of self-expression and artistic freedom. I still carry these philosophies with me today as I continue to evolve as a teacher/choreographer/performer. Read more>>

Matt Cook

I graduated from Rider University, worked for the summer saving as much money as I could and then made the journey from New Jersey to Los Angeles. My first job out here was as a waiter at Maggiano’s at the Grove where I spent most of my time unsuccessfully trying to talk individuals out of ordering themselves a “large” portion of whatever family-style pasta they were interested in. And then being scolded because their order was way too much food for one person. I worked there for almost a year before I got into dog walking which ended up becoming my full-time gig for almost ten years. Right when I moved out here, my uncle told me, “You need to be at Groundlings.” He took me to see my first Groundlings show and then watched as my mind exploded. He was right, I immediately fell in love and jumped headfirst into taking classes. The program there was such a blast and such a huge part of me finding my “voice” and growing as an actor and performer. Especially once I made it into the Sunday Company where you do a new sketch show every Sunday for six months at a time. Read more>>

Joel Pulido

As a child (don’t worry, not going too way back), photographs have always interested me, most likely on the fact that my father would always take videotapes and polaroids for family moments, even to this day. I myself would take one of those disposable cameras in elementary school until no longer allowed, ha. Now, at some point, my parents divorced stayed with my mom, it wasn’t too bad, for me at least. Kept in contact with my father and the step-family, and sometime later my mom remarried, and to my surprise, my step-father would work with film cameras as work back in his youth. I dabbled in different art mediums, learned several instruments, some art and graphic designing, but something about photographs just kept calling out to me. During later high school years, I would bring a compact digital camera, birthday gift from my father, and over time after graduation of 2011, I would review those photos, not only for the memories but also how changes occur as time goes on for individuals. I definitely have both my father and step-father to thank, one because of moments you can never redo yet reflect on what has happened in that time period, and the other for having an understanding of business ethics in the photography realm. Read more>>

Aldo Felix

It was an idea brought to me by a buddy of mine whose sister had her own photo booth business in another state. We talked about starting it together, but he ended up having no time since he got a really good position at his company and works the majority of the week. I looked into the equipment and the market myself and finally decided to invest. I decided on the name Mission City because I’m from the city of San Fernando and that’s essentially San Fernando’s nickname. Read more>>

Maria Nicolacakis

I’m a professional actor, writer, teacher, and independent college consultant from a Big Fat Greek family in Ohio. I’m a fun-loving and fiery mom of three, an outdoor fanatic, and wellness enthusiast. I love cooking, kale, and California! Like most working artists, I have had the privilege and unique challenge of constantly reinventing myself throughout my journey as a performer; at times exchanging one passion for another depending on where I was in the country or in my personal life. I began my career at the Chicago ImprovOlympic and store-front theatre scene and ended up in LA for graduate school at CalArts with the intention of leaving after graduation. I swore I’d never live or work in Hollywood, yet, I kept getting work here and I love it, so never left! I’ve written and performed solo shows in LA, toured the US performing in repertory, and performed internationally. I’ve played opposite Hollywood veterans, co-founded the first theatre company in LA to provide full equity contracts for all mainstage productions, and recently, performed in my first globally streamed Zoom play, Strange Fruit, via The HowlRound Theatre Commons. Read more>>

Ali Brown

Born and raised in Santa Clarita, I have been in the event industry for over 15 years. After graduating from Le Cordon Bleu, I put my culinary skills to work as an assistant pastry chef at Wolf Creek Restaurant & Brewery. It was there that I realized my real passion was interacting with people, which meant getting out of the kitchen. I was quickly promoted to the Catering Manager and learned all the basics needed. From there, I went on to become the Food & Beverage Director at The Paseo Club, where I learned many valuable tools while building the business and networking within the community. In 2012, I moved to Santa Barbara to take a job at the beautiful Bacara Resort & Spa. There I was fortunate enough to work with top conference and event teams such as Colin Cowie Lifestyle, Google’s Executive Circle, and many others to produce one of a kind events for couples, corporations and celebrities alike. After getting married, I knew that we would need to move elsewhere to start a family and buy a home, so we came back to our hometown. Read more>>

Sara Levy

I actually started as a young kid always wanting to be an architect. I ended up going to UCSD for my undergraduate in Economics. Although I liked the subject, I knew I had to find my way back to design in some manner. Once I was close to graduating, I found a program at UCLA for interior design. There I received my master of interior architecture. When I returned home to LA, I started attending classes right away and after my first year, I started working at HBA. It was a great learning experience, but living in the valley and commuting to Santa Monica was not going to last very long for me 🙂 So I found a job at another hospitality firm in the valley and then spent four years at a restaurant design firm shortly after. Then everything changed, for the better I should add, but we added a member to our family. With a new kid in tow, I decided to start my own firm. I had all the experience I needed and just needed the push to go out on my own. I have been in business almost three years now and could not be more proud. Read more>>

Eric Christiansen

It’s been over 30 years since I lost all my worldly possessions in the Painted Cave Fire disaster. To be exact, it was June 27, 1990. I call that my “ground zero.” The fire was savage, starting in the foothills of Santa Barbara, and, by the time it was over two days later, it had destroyed 450 homes and a human life in its wake. Seemingly a disaster that I would never recover from, the fire turned out to be one of the greatest gifts I could ever receive. At the time, however, I wasn’t quite feeling so blessed. I turned to drugs and alcohol to bury my sorrows and mask my pain. Finally, I sought help, and through divine and human intervention, I became clean and sober. Read more>>

Alan Milstein

I was born in Mexico City to a very entrepreneurial family and lived there for a big chunk of my life. Ever since I was little, I enjoyed creative things like building or taking apart toys and art. I got involved with music at the age of five when my great-grandfather started teaching me how to play the piano and ever since, I became obsessed with playing music since it worked hand-in-hand with my passion for creativity even winning some local band competitions from the age of 13. After finishing high school, I decided to follow my passion for music and got a scholarship to attend Berklee College of Music in Boston where I graduated Summa Cum Laude with a dual-major in Music Business and Contemporary Music Production. I wanted to pursue a career in writing music for TV and advertising and I joined one of the major advertising music production houses in LA. After working there for a while, I decided to jump out and start my own company which launched earlier this year and that is what I’ve been doing right now!. Read more>>

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