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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.

Manda Malina

I’ve been singing all my life, almost dreamt of being on big stages and becoming a songwriter. My dad is an audio-engineer so I’ve been around music since I was a little kid and remember my first “Roxette” concert he engineered in the 90s and how I just longed to be them one day. I’ve always been very outspoken with strong opinions and values and always felt that it’s through music and my songwriting that I want to share my stories and inspire others. I started my career when I auditioned for Swedish X-Factor in 2012, and I ended up 7th in the finals. That catapulted my career in the Swedish music industry to then released my first single, “Sweeteest Heartbreak” in 2014 that peaked #1 on the Swedish iTunes single chart. I then went on to perform at the Swedish election of the Eurovision Song Contest “Melodifestivalen” in 2014 with the song “Glow” (Warner Music Sweden). I learned so much being a signed artist, but I missed my creative freedom and independence so I went indie and moved to Los Angeles. Read more>>

Brandon Rendon-Torres

I was born in Austin, Texas to my two beautiful mothers, Maria and Nancy Rendon-Torres. I grew up in and around the city as well as in the country. It wasn’t always easy having lesbian parents around close-minded people but I was able to find myself in movies, films, books and stories in general. I fell in love with them and more than that, I realized I, myself, was a storyteller. Then, I began performing in any and all ways I could, dancing, singing, acting, building; all forms of art. It took a while, but I realized all of my passions fit into filmmaking so I went to the University of Texas at Austin. Soon after, I moved to California and have been working in the industry since! Read more>>

Timur Civan

I am a Commercial Tabletop Cinematographer with WSM agency. I grew up in Brooklyn, NY. Immigrant parents, the whole schpiel. I was a real art geek. Since I was a child, I was attending Art Students League, then later La Guardia High School of Music and Art, and finally wound up in the Studio Art program at NYU. I was a sculptor, working with varied materials in the end. I had a few shows and actually sold a few pieces. I started incorporating Video into my work, and as a person used to using pencils, paper, wood, steel and paint, digital video was a big unknown, especially then. I suppose knowing nothing was an asset, as I didn’t know what was “correct” and what wasn’t. I made wild videos, putting a cameras lens anywhere and everywhere. A group showing that featured one of my works got some press, and they used my video installation as the image in the article. Someone that worked at an ad agency saw the article, visited the gallery, liked the video and contacted me to shoot a commercial. Read more>>

Mario Carlock

I always knew I wanted to end up in a field where I could create… Initially, I thought I’d become an artist, moving through the motions of a BFA program and then an MFA program at Tufts (working toward the ultimate goal of art professor). I worked with painting, installation work, then screenprinting and pattern-making. Six years of higher ed and 180k of student loans later, I fell completely out of love with the notion of working in academia. The hierarchies, the ass kissing, the pretension were all such a buzzkill. I thankfully found baking as a way to regain some creativity in my life! Read more>>

Mario Carlock

I’m from a little place called Tulsa, Oklahoma. It’s truly an incredible place, real salt of the earth, but most people don’t ever leave. After getting out of Highschool, I really didn’t know what to do. I felt totally screwed. I kinda just got a job working on engines for Dodge, I’ve always been into cars, even restored a vintage Jeep before I could drive. I quickly became fully certified by my 21st birthday and was one of few Viper and Hellcat techs in the entire state. Meanwhile during my free time, I was friends with some of my favorite musicians and constantly getting into trouble with friends around town like hiking an 18 rack and some weed up a 30 story building rooftop downtown and having little rooftop parties several nights a week. After getting tired of being an expert in a field I wasn’t entirely passionate about and having absolutely no creativity to it, My authority issues got the best of me and I dropped the career at 21. Read more>>


My music was born out of doubt, procrastination and friendship. I never set out to have a career in music, but I have always been a performer. I have a background in musical theater, and growing up in NYC, I had the privilege of studying performing arts in middle school and high school; Mark Twain Junior High School and LaGuardia Arts, respectively. When I went to college, however, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to keep acting. Also, I was terrified of singing – by myself – in front of people. So I studied journalism at Emerson College. I’ve always been passionate about storytelling, and I wanted to become a better writer. Majoring in journalism helped me realize that. I never enjoyed remaining objective and often found myself avoiding assignments. Instead, I began to write music. Read more>>

Courtney Fishman

Getting to this point in my career, I wouldn’t say came easy. I had a few different career paths. I worked in the non-profit sector planning both revenue and non-revenue generating events for over ten years for some of the biggest organizations benefitting children’s causes. I then worked in event management representing popular venues in Los Angeles. Later, I worked as a catering sales manager for one of the largest hotel chains, managing over 20 weddings per year along with other social events. All of these career directions taught me something and helped shape me as a businesswoman. I had both positive and negative experiences but have looked at each in the same way- as opportunities to grow and become a better version of myself. I do feel that everything led me to where I am today and without these opportunities, I wouldn’t have the insight, confidence, experience and knowledge to be carrying out my biggest career dream, being the CEO and Founder of My Little Outfit. Read more>>

Kapena Kea

Aloha! My name is Kāpena Kea. Fun fact Kāpena means Captain in `ōlelo Hawai`i (the Hawaiian language). I was born and raised in Hawai`i but recently moved out here to pursue one of my lifelong dreams – to be a working actor. As a hyperactive child, I was always put in some outlet to release all my energy. You name a sport, and I probably played it. It was fun, but the stage soon called me more than the field. My passion for performing started with the quintessential Disney channel movie, High School Musical. Watching the iconic Sharpay Evans take the stage, I knew at that moment that the arts were “What I’ve been looking for .” So I auditioned for a musical at my church and was cast in my first speaking role. I spoke like two lines, hey, but everyone starts somewhere, right? I continued honing in on singing, dancing, and acting for a few more years. Read more>>

Synleseh Burnett

I got my start at the age of 13 braiding hair in my middle school cafeteria. In the early days while practicing, I would work on friends and family members for free. At around 16, I started helping out in a family friend’s newly open salon on weekends and summer breaks. That’s when the seed was truly planted. After high school, I tried the college route a couple of times but to no avail being that I couldn’t find out what I truly wanted to do with my life. Even through those years and into my corporate life, I would still find myself doing hair and enjoying the feeling that it gave my clients(friends/family) until one day my boyfriend and now husband saw how good I was at my craft and found out that I was doing hair more for the love of doing it and not the money and from there he told me I should start taking it more seriously and charging more of a competitive rate. Read more>>

Dominic Figuro

I was born and raised in the Philippines, and I moved to United States when I was 15. At that time, my mom wanted me to get into the medical field. I spent two long years trying to get into a nursing program then finally decided it was not meant to be. I was a late bloomer when it came to discovering my passion in design. A career as a designer was never an option growing up, it wasn’t even a hobby. It wasn’t until I took my first Photoshop class in college that I started taking interest in design. Once my professor introduced me to stencil art, I started experimenting at home by combining different mediums. I would doodle in Illustrator and try to recreate that using spray paint on poster boards. Read more>>

Lee Quarrie

I’ve been involved in the performing arts all of my life. I started doing community theatre with my mother and sister when I was in elementary school. This blossomed into a love of the craft of acting. I grew up to be a professional actor, touring in musical theatre productions and performing in comedy improv shows and straw hat theaters. After having my daughter, I found myself more and more interested in being behind the camera and eventually found my way into graduate school where I studied theatre and digital media. I now find myself balancing between teaching acting for the camera at a local college and creating content that offers meaningful opportunities for others. Sometimes I’m in front of the camera, and sometimes I’m behind the camera. I’m almost always wearing more than one hat though, as a writer, director, producer and/or actor. Read more>>

Liron Eldar-Ashkenazi

Originally from the middle east, It took blood, sweat and tears to carve my way from the small-town world I grew up in – to arrive at the big city, first Tel Aviv, then New York, now LA. Through it all, four things contributed to my journey: 1 – Curiosity. 2 – Luck. 3 – Hard Work/Discipline. 4 – Talent. I’ve numbered these in order of what I believe was the trajectory of my career. The most important thing about any kind of success, in my opinion, is curiosity; you need to truly be interested in what you do. You need to be egoless enough to always ask questions and accept that there’s always more to learn. Luck is always something I’m so so thankful for. To have parents who supported me always, a husband who’s the best partner, the ability to work through the summers and save enough money to go to one of the best art schools in NYC, School of visual arts. Read more>>

Lex Casciato

The birth of Visitor Records happened in 2020. I had just released my self-produced debut album “Flight Risk” (under the artist name Little Warrior) and performed two of my original songs on screen as a lounge singer in the movie “The Debt Collector 2.” But when I released “Flight Risk,” the world shut down and we shut ourselves inside due to the pandemic. We weren’t playing or listening to music as frequently as we used to because bars, restaurants, & stores had closed and we were driving less. Tours were canceled and live shows stopped. Easiest way to put it – my freshman album was not performing the way I had hoped or planned… What felt like such a disappointment resulted in the start of Visitor Records. During a phone call with my then label Blue Dot Studios, I expressed frustration with the industry and my desire to create music & a genuine music community. It was at that time that Blue Dot Studios gave me the keys to start my own independent, woman-run & artist-driven music label. Read more>>

Paula Velasquez

I was born in Venezuela and since I was a little kid, I was always very creative and extroverted. My family is a family of dancers, and I was always surrounded with that culture. I started performing very young because of that since I was three years old. I loved being on stage, whether it was dancing, singing or theater. It always made me feel so alive and it was a feeling that I couldn’t find anywhere else. My family was always very supportive of me performing, I believe they always knew that I was meant to be an artist, and in my heart I knew it too. I moved to Mexico City when I was seven years old and I started competing more professionally as a dancer with a dance troupe and started doing more theater at the same time. I could not imagine doing anything else. Read more>>

Alexis Opos and Nazy Maghboli

Alexis and Nazy came together to form the Opos Maghboli Group (OMG) in 2021, having both been in real estate and real estate development individually for many years prior to that. Nazy is a native of The Valley and a product of the local schools and also the local University CSUN. She began her career in the mortgage business and eventually went on to develop real estate in Sherman Oaks and surround areas and working as an interior designer. She thrived in all those endeavors and decided to bring all that experience and knowledge together, becoming a real estate agent in 2017. She has been with Berkshire Hathaway in Sherman Oaks ever since. Alexis was born and raised in California and settled in Los Angeles in 2007 with her husband who is a second-generation native of The Valley! Alexis’ career has always been rooted in real estate from her degrees and training in urban design and landscape architecture. Read more>>

Alex Rose Wiesel

I began my acting career in community musical theatre in my hometown of San Diego, California. I attended the conservatory at AMDA College of the Performing Arts where is I am now an adjunct professor in their acting faculty department. At AMDA, I created a course for graduating seniors called, The Audition Paradigm. Combining career preparation and audition techniques to ready young actors for the professional world (a course I wished I had in college). After graduating from AMDA, I attended The New School University, NY where I received my BFA in Musical Theatre and California State University, Northridge, where I received my MA in Theatre Studies. I quickly developed a love for TV work when I was pulled from a stand in job on Disney’s So Random to a principal contact day-player throughout the show’s first season. From this experience, I continued to work in TV on shows like Brat’s Hotel Du Loone, CBS’ Two and a Half Men and CW’s Hart of Dixie. Read more>>

Nikko Austen Smith

Growing up, I always knew I wanted to tell stories. I loved imagining myself as characters in books I read, in shows I watched, even in scenarios I made up in my head. One thing always remained constant, my love of creating. I studied theatre in high school, doing productions at and outside of the high school, taking dance classes, mainly ballet and tap, as well as voice lessons, while also taking AP classes and working as a hostess to save up for college. I did all of this in order to get accepted into a university BFA Acting program of my dreams. In order to get into a college BFA program, aside from getting into the school academically, you also have to audition to get in. It was an extremely competitive time in my life. I auditioned for 14 programs. Waitlisted at all of my dream schools and rejected from all but one, based in Myrtle Beach, SC. So, I got my degree in BFA Acting, graduated summa cum laude, and top 3 of my class, all while working three jobs and doing productions on campus. Read more>>

Isabella Thatcher

The arts have been such an important part of my life and my identity since the moment I was born. I grew up in a very musical family and have always drawn inspiration from the artists with whom I have been surrounded for my whole life. My grandfather was 9-time Academy Award-winning composer Alfred Newman, and although he died long before I was born, I still feel his presence clearly. He was a giant in his industry and has left behind an enormous legacy for my family. From a young age, I was always listening to his music as well as the music of my other Newman family members – my uncles, film composers Thomas and David Newman; my cousin, singer/songwriter Randy Newman; and my wonderful mother, composer/violinist/violist Maria Newman. Their music, artistry, and dedication to their craft inspired me to pursue my own career in the arts and continue on the Newman legacy in my own unique way. Read more>>

Angela Aprahamian

I started my first business in 2010. I came across an idea in the health care industry that showed a lot of promise and so with the encouragement of my dad and other business mentors, I took the plunge and ventured off on my own to pursue it. I then opened my second business, which is in the travel and entertainment industry, in 2015. My third business is a mail services company (receiving mail on behalf of small businesses and individuals – similar to a PO BOX) that I opened in 2018. Read more>>


I started singing and making little songs since I can remember, it was my most hand way to escape the reality of a very repressive family system. I would make songs about my pets or my experiences and get my friends together to learn and sing my songs with me. As a teenager, I participated in school plays and musicals, I even directed a couple of projects, but I wasn’t allowed to study music so I got scared and discouraged for a long time. I’m from a very traditional and catholic small town in Mexico, where women are expected to get married and have kids at a young age. I fought for the possibility to get out of my hometown and pursue my own expectations, and for a whole decade, I lived in many cities in Mexico and Brazil, learning music informally and doing all kinds of jobs until I finally landed a stable gig as a Latin jazz singer for many years in Puerto Vallarta. Read more>>

Desiree Coles

I’m originally from the far East side of Indianapolis, Indiana. Although I was born in Pittsburgh and lived in New York in my early childhood I was raised and graduated from high school in Indy. I studied Marketing at Howard University and knew I wanted to combine my love for fashion with business. After graduating, I spent several months at home working and saving to move to LA. I came to visit for a month and ended up getting a job as a freelance PR Assistant for Cartier. I started interning and assisting celebrity stylists until I was able to branch out and take on styling jobs of my own. I got my real estate license at the end of 2019 and officially became a realtor in March 2020. It was an interesting time to start my business, to say the least, but the blessing was that I found my niche, leases! I consider myself a leasing specialist and am currently working on ways to educate and empower aspiring homeowners and investors because real estate can be intimidating so it’s my job to demystify the perception that purchasing property is unattainable. Read more>>

Jason Knight

The road I’ve taken to where I am today has been winding. If you were to sit down with me for a meeting, you may notice the half-circle scar on my right cheekbone that was left by a bull from my days in rodeo. As we shake hands, you may feel the callousness that comes with guitar playing and song-writing with an alternative rock band I started when I came to LA, called Javelina. As we start discussing business, you’ll catch a bit of polish in my presentation from thirteen years of working across Brand, Strategic Sales, Strategic Planning, and Data Analytics at Nike INC. And as we wrap up and stand to part ways, you will surely notice that my suit pants are just a bit too tight in the thigh from my time as a competitive distance runner. Read more>>

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