In 2021, as we made our way through the second year of a global pandemic, there were amazing people in Orange County who saved lives, raised funds for those in need and educated the county’s future.
We also witnessed incredible creativity and talent. In one case, the only comparison was to a legend who dominated nearly 100 years ago, and even that failed to capture what the Angels’ Shohei Ohtani accomplished. Spoiler alert: He made our list of top influencers.
Ohtani is joined by many other names and faces you’ll know, but the Orange County Register also uses this annual recognition to highlight people who quietly did things that made our lives better, safer or more enjoyable. We gladly were swayed by arguments many of our readers made, so much so that we decided to increase our list from 100 honorees to 125 this year.
And just because some people didn’t make the list this year, that doesn’t mean they’re any less important than in a year when they did. Orange County has 3.2 million people, and we try to mix it up a bit.
Here is our list of the 125 Orange County influencers we thought you should know from 2021:
As one of 14 members of California’s Citizens Redistricting Commission, Linda Akutagawa is overseeing the contentious process of drawing new boundaries for state and federal districts. The independent voter also helps develop local AAPI leaders as president of the nonprofit Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics or LEAP.
Archuleta is the president and CEO of the Jamboree Housing Corp., which launched new affordable developments in Santa Ana, Buena Park and San Ysidro during the past year. Jamboree currently operates more than 96 affordable housing projects with 9,300 units throughout California.
Arvielo is the president and co-founder of the largest Latino-owned private mortgage firm in the nation. A board member of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Orange County, she was the 2021 recipient of the Joel K. Rubenstein award for outstanding service to the community – the first woman to receive the recognition in the 40-year history of the award.
Adeel Asif and Anthony Palmeri
Asif and Palmeri founded Able Coffee Roasters in Huntington Beach with the idea of hiring, mostly, people with disabilities. “I love the customer service. I love the coffee. I love the mission. And I love the welcoming environment,” customer Cathy Mai said. “This sounds corny, but I feel so at home.”
The Fullerton College instructor continues to be a leading voice for OC politics and public policy, a trusted analyst about electoral campaigns and public policy, a pursued thought partner for political and elected officials in Orange County. Balma, who was nominated by a reader, recently was featured on Fox News’ “Special Report with Bret Baier” to discuss the upcoming battleground campaigns in Orange County.
After plans for a veterans cemetery in Irvine got mired in a political fight, Berardino helped refocus efforts on a county-owned site in Anaheim Hills. The idea has won support from every city council in Orange County, as well as a $20 million commitment from the county.
Replacing controversial MMA fighter Tito Ortiz in July, civil rights activist Bolton became the first Black council member in Huntington Beach history. During the appointment process, Bolton endured public comments from residents accusing her of being an “outsider” and a “radical.”
The billionaire real estate developer donated at least $100 million to a Caltech project that aims to generate solar power in space and beam it back to earth. In July, the Southern California News Group learned that Bren had agreed to a 10-year commitment to the Space Solar Power Project at the Pasadena institute. The years-long effort is testing technology that could change how the world creates and distributes electricity.
David O. Carter
The veteran federal judge continued to take the lead in trying to find solutions to homelessness across the region, while also taking on high-profile local cases such as the future of Mary’s Kitchen and the oil spill off the Huntington Beach coast.
This year Heritage Barbecue in San Juan Capistrano was honored with a Michelin Bib Gourmand and it appeared on Eater LA’s “Orange County’s 16 Hottest Restaurants” list. This pitmaster continues to host mini barbecue festivals with local and regional chefs, donating some proceeds to local charities.
The 16-year-old University High student created an online cybersecurity course that focuses on elementary students and includes examples of threats, their definitions and how to protect yourself online if they appear. By last summer, about 250 students had participated in Chan’s course.
The high school senior, who was nominated by a reader, identified an urgent need in public health education in young children whose education does not offer them the knowledge and information needed until a later age. She conducted multiple workshops to teach public health using a book she wrote and published, and piloted an initial curriculum in the Santa Ana unified school district this summer through a $5,000 grant from the Dragon Kim Foundation.
Overseeing the OC Health Care Agency through a second pandemic year, Dr. Chau and his staff helped get more than two-thirds of the county’s 3.1 million residents vaccinated since last December.
Kimberley Chavalas Cripe
CHOC’s president and CEO led the effort to protect children and their families during the pandemic. CHOC operated a free hotline staffed by pediatric experts to help parents with their COVID-19 questions about their children. CHOC also held more than 25 virtual town halls and webinars to educate about the disease and vaccinations.
The Northwood High senior was nominated by a handful of readers, including a former most influential honoree. She has delivered enactments and an analysis of Mendez v. Westminster, the OC-based case decided in 1947 by the Supreme Court that struck a first major blow to school segregation.
As Huntington Beach city manager for only two years, Chi – now headed for Irvine – is credited with leaving behind a budget surplus thanks to negotiations to refinance pension debt.
In March, a couple days after she lost her husband of 57 years, the Korean-American widow received an anonymous letter that spewed hate, saying her husband’s death represented “one less Asian to put up with.” The painful letter became another data point in a wave of anti-Asian hate that swept the country in 2021. By year’s end, lawmakers had approved the California API Equity Fund, setting aside roughly $110 million for organizations aimed at helping victims of Asian-centered hate incidents.
The Santa Ana Unified teacher wrote a children’s story book that his own students could connect with, and it won a top literary award given to a Latino writer whose work best portrays and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in children’s literature.
Orange County-based Brew Ha Ha Productions, owned by Collins, was able to relaunch several of its flagship craft beer events with COVID-19 protocols in place in 2021, while also producing two new local music festivals: Punk in the Park and Silverado Showdown at Oak Canyon Park in Silverado. Collins also became co-owner of the Rad Beer Company with its tasting room in Anaheim and Rad Beer and Kitchen in Dana Point.
For more than 20 years, Colon has been the lifeblood of a medical clinic at the Boys & Girls Club of Santa Ana, a joint operation of the club and CHOC Children’s Hospital. He was given the organization’s DreamMaker Award this year.
Covarrubias is the executive director of the Kennedy Commission, an Orange County affordable housing advocacy group. The Kennedy Commission sued the city of Huntington Beach years before Gov. Gavin Newsom sued the city over its failure to follow state law requiring it to plan for low-income housing. Covarrubias has been a supporter of Santa Ana renters’ efforts to enact rent control.
Cox, CEO of Prjkt Restaurant Group with concessions on Bolsa Chica State Beach, opened The Huntington Beach House, and will open Sahara’s Sandbar soon and California Fork and Spoon next year on Huntington State Beach. She’ll bring restaurants to Goleta Beach in 2022 and was recently ranked on Orange County Business Journal’s OC500.
Cruse, CEO of San Clemente-based USA Surfing, led the four-person USA Surfing team to the sport’s Olympic debut in Tokyo, helping to navigate the uncharted waters. The team earned the first-ever women’s gold medal. Cruse for decades has helped USA Surfing rising stars fine-tune competition skills.
Annee Della Donna
In 2021, the reader-nominated Laguna Beach-based attorney successfully sued the Anaheim Police Department for the wrongful death of a homeless Black man in a case similar to the George Floyd case. She represents the families of the Marines who drowned in their AAV off the coast of Orange County last year. She runs the Orange County Innocence Project out of UC Irvine.
Diaz, a third-grade teacher at Ralph A. Gates Elementary in the Saddleback Valley Unified School District who teaches general education and dual Spanish immersion, will represent California in the national competition for Teacher of the Year. Diaz said she grew out of early life challenges by finding inspiration and motivation from the teachers who guided her as child growing up in Santa Ana.
Dozer, president of Vital Link, rode more than 203 miles on his bicycle to visit every high school district, ROP and community college in Orange County to raise awareness of career education opportunities in the region and to raise money for community college student scholarships. Vital Link successfully raised more than $20,000.
Drake, Walt Disney Imagineering portfolio creative executive, led the team that oversaw the creative development of Avengers Campus at Disney California Adventure. The Marvel-themed land features the Web Slingers interactive dark ride, Doctor Strange magic show, Ant-Man and the Wasp restaurant and Marvel superhero rooftop stunt show. The highlight of Avengers Campus: A Spider-Man stuntronic robot that somersaults and soars 65 feet in the air. Avengers Campus debuted in June at the Anaheim theme park after a nearly year-long delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The superhero-themed land was initially scheduled to open in July 2020.
Despite many obstacles along the way, and additional expenses, developer Dunlap is painstakingly restoring the Bay Theater in Seal Beach to the glory of its post-war splendor with hopes of making it a live theater and music venue.
A Realtor, Dunn has been the front person for a Facebook group, Deliberating Fair Housing, a group that received national recognition for its fight against continued discrimination in housing markets.
For 16 years, Dunn has served as head of the Orange County Business Council, a nonprofit that champions area businesses while working to enhance quality of life for the county’s 3.2 million residents. She’ll retire at the end of this year after helping usher the business community through the most challenging months of her career during the pandemic.
The longtime GOP political consultant played a key role in the statewide push to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom, serving as a chair and spokeswoman for the Rescue California group that helped fund the effort. Though the recall failed, Dunsmore and other insist their efforts have created momentum for the 2022 elections.
In June, Dupuis, who immigrated from Iran in 1984, became the first female city manager in Laguna Beach. She led the city’s response to the oil spill off Huntington Beach and the implementation of the city’s Neighborhood and Environmental Protection Plan.
The teen is believed to be the fourth student in Santa Ana Unified’s history to gain admission to Harvard. She got there thanks to her high GPA and also her essay, which detailed how she helped her dad and two other men in an immigrant detention facility win their freedom. A video of the then-Santa Ana High student’s reaction – and her family’s – upon learning of her college acceptance last December went viral.
Tony Esnault and Yassmin Sarmadi
The power couple who worked together at top Los Angeles restaurants Church & State and Spring, founded Knife Pleat in 2019. It was awarded a Michelin star in 2021 – only the third restaurant in Orange County to be so honored.
The Orange Lutheran High senior was one of six 2021 recipients of the Billie Jean King Youth Leadership Awards, national honors for youths who use the power of sports as a catalyst for change and making a positive impact on society. Eusebio, who was inspired by his brother who is on the autism spectrum, created Serving Advantage to connect on the tennis court with kids who have special needs.
Retired Marine Col. Federico, who is now the mayor of Dana Point, used his military and government connections to help the wife of his former Afghan interpreter – who now lives in OC – get out of the country in the chaos of the American withdrawal.
Felgner is the director of UC Irvine’s Vaccine Research and Development Center and Protein Microarray Laboratory and Training Facility. His painstaking work over the past 35 years laid the groundwork for the mRNA vaccines that are so effective against COVID-19.
Daniel and Delilah Flores
This uncle and niece team won the first season of “Top Chef Family Style,” hosted by celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson and Grammy winner Meghan Trainor, streaming on the Peacock network. Daniel has his own catering business, Delilah drew on family recipes to win $50,000 as part of the grand prize.
After years serving in city council and school board roles, in March Foley beat four opponents to win a spot on the Orange County Board of Supervisors, becoming the first Democratic woman to hold that seat.
Frazier and her family made Thanksgiving dinner this year for hundreds of people who might not have had a meal or just needed to see a friendly face on the holiday. People could drive-thru and pick up a meal, and through the car windows, Frazier said she learned a lot about her community.
This 17-year Anaheim Duck passed several career milestones this fall including becoming the franchise’s all-time leading scorer. The longtime captain has been asked to mentor the team’s flock of youthful up-and-coming stars, and the team has thrived after struggling in recent seasons.
Glassman quietly and creatively thanked Charles McMillan, a witness to George Floyd’s death, by treating him and his son to a weeklong vacation in Southern California. In his 60s, McMillan had never seen the ocean before.
He modernized the Seal Beach Police Department after taking over two years ago. The changes have included giant improvements in technological infrastructure, social media, community outreach, handling of the pandemic and transparency.
Andrew and Lauren Gruel
The owners of Slapfish, a restaurant with 22 locations nationwide and one in London, the Gruels started a GoFundMe campaign and founded the nonprofit, 86 Struggle this year. Almost $500,000 has been raised for unemployed and underemployed restaurant workers.
Hansburg is the co-founder of People for Housing OC, the local pro-housing YIMBY group, who has been active this year trying to encourage increased housing development while promoting the development of effective “housing elements” to meet RHNA goals.
Hardin uses his love of photography and art deco to create special poster-like pictures for fellow gearheads who have lovingly preserved their classic cars for people to ogle, but rarely get to see themselves with their fancy rides.
The drummer, who grew up in Orange County and attended Laguna Beach High, was inducted with his Foo Fighters bandmates into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame by some guy named Paul McCartney. Foo Fighters returned to touring before many bands did and played to packed houses while following strict COVID-19 precautions.
Earlier this year, she was named the first Latina president of The Lincoln Club of Orange County — a well-heeled donor group that’s been a kingmaker among local Republicans since 1962. She’s long pushed the GOP to reach out to Latino voters and helped lead the local effort to try to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom, citing the story of how her own restaurant struggled during the pandemic as evidence against the governor’s coronavirus safety mandates.
The CEO and founder of Honoring Our Fallen. In the last year Herzog has dealt with more than 20 families of Marines and other military killed. She provides support, drives them to events and works closely with the military to honor those who died.
Read an extended profile on Herzog: When there is a military death, this Garden Grove woman honors the fallen
Ho used to be part of the infamous “Gang of Three” on the Westminster City Council, joining controversial Mayor Tri Ta in majority votes. Last November, she created her own scandal by allowing a fake ballot box outside her business. But early this year she switched sides, making crucial votes on Ta’s favored projects — such as killing a head-scratching and seemingly unnecessary redevelopment of city hall.
The Yorba Linda City Council member helped shepherd Southern California’s massive effort to establish its new Regional Housing Needs Assessment goals. As chair of the RHNA subcommittee for the Southern California Association of Governments, she helped lead the losing fight to reduce the state-imposed goal that the region prepare to build 1.3 million new homes by 2030.
Known as the mother of sea lions, Hunter, who heads up PMMC’s animal services, has been instrumental in the center’s success. As PMMC celebrates 50 years, Hunter has been there for 30.
Her work with refugees through the non-profit she and her mother started and she now serves as executive director, the Tiyya Foundation, earned her this year’s recognition as Outstanding Founder for National Philanthropy Day Orange County.
California Trout’s regional director is out to save Southern California’s endangered steelhead trout, whose ocean-to-freshwater journey to spawn has been interrupted by manmade barriers. A key project in final design is removing structures in the Trabuco Creek tributary to the San Juan Creek, Orange County’s prime waterway to upstream spawning grounds.
During the pandemic, the restaurateur at Campus JAX started JAX Feed The Need Charity Events, raised funds from concert events that fed over 15,000 meals to homeless shelters and women’s shelters in around OC while putting musicians to work.
CHOC’s chief government relations officer helped oversee the hospital’s pandemic response. Jensen soldiered on and assumed the chair of the Orange County Business Council board despite the December 2020 death of her husband and college sweetheart, Jeff Jensen.
Johnson, owner of the “Let’s Go Fishing” store on the Huntington Beach Pier, continues to sell bait and other supplies as she has for a couple decades, but her role is tenuous at best. At one point in 2021, Johnson’s business was slated to be closed, as the city was planning pier redevelopment project. But Johnson was part of a group of residents and business people who successfully convinced the city to consider a redevelopment plan that might skew in favor of locals over tourism.
In August 2021, Second Harvest Food Bank’s leadership, including chief mission officer Keller, launched the Harvest Solutions Farm on a sprawling 45-acre site to plant and grow nutritious vegetables like cabbage, broccoli and celery. Keller was selected by Cal State Fullerton for its “It Takes A Titan” campaign and sits on the university’s MPA advisory committee.
After overseeing some 85 elections, Orange County’s much-respected Registrar of Voters announced his retirement this year. In December, the Asian Americans Senior Citizens Service Center honored Kelley with its Community Hero Award.
The greatest volleyball player in history – winner of Olympic gold indoor and on the beach – led the Anaheim-based U.S. women’s volleyball team to a gold medal in the Tokyo Olympics. Kiraly’s team dealt with the pandemic-caused delay from 2020, overcame key injuries in the tournament and capped its run with a 3-0 victory over Brazil for the gold.
Kong, her family’s foundation and her personal network supported mobile vaccination clinics run by the Asian American Senior Citizens Service Center. Her investment helped the AASCSC hold more than 200 clinics to vaccinate senior citizens, essential works and, later, eligible kids in areas hardest hit by the pandemic.
Leeds is a longtime activist who helped save Laguna Canyon, fought against other development in Laguna Beach and cheered people’s hearts and souls this year by hanging hearts along many of the seaside town’s streets. She has hung hearts on trees for Valentine’s Day for decades, but this year’s actions elicited even greater response from the community and Laguna visitors.
Director of Jewish Studies at Loyola Marymount University, the Rossmoor resident brought the study of Judaism to a Catholic school 25 years ago. She teaches Jewish literature and leads student trips to Israel.
Sovantevy “Sovey” Long-Latteri
She was one of two Orange County educators (and among five in the state) named California Teacher of the Year. She teaches special education at La Sierra High in the Fullerton Joint Union High School District and is part of the school’s Adult Transition Program, educating people with severe disabilities between the ages 18 and 22.
Lizbeth Loyola Campos
As a case manager for Project Hope Alliance, a nonprofit that works to improve educational outcomes for homeless children, Loyola Campos was the point person for a new partnership between the organization and Santa Ana schools. She has been embedded at Martin R. Heninger Elementary this year, working to connect families to resources and services.
Poseidon Water has been pursuing its vision of a drought-proof desalination plant in Huntington Beach for two decades. Maloni, the company’s vice president of development, has been steadfastly leading the charge through a growing tangle of environmental regulations and considerable opposition by environmentalists. He won the second-to-last permit needed in 2020, putting the project’s finish line in sight.
During the pandemic, Mandel directed a major renovation of the Irvine Barclay Theatre, installing a state-of-the-art filtration system. The venue reopened in June with a performance by opera star Renee Fleming.
The husband of the late Christina Mauser, who was killed in a 2020 helicopter crash along with eight others (including Kobe Bryant and his daughter), started a scholarship fund for female athletes. Mauser, the lead singer of the Tijuana Dogs, also performed on “America’s Got Talent.”
McGuire, the executive director of the Wetlands and Wildlife Care Center in Huntington Beach, guides a non-profit that not only helped rescue animals after the October oil spill, but is the go-to place for virtually any injured coastal wildlife or abandoned baby animals. The center can accommodate as many as 400 critters at a time.
Metz earned Waterman of the Year and had a film about his life released, showing how his real-life adventures inspired the “The Endless Summer” film. Metz, founder of the Surfing Heritage and Culture Center who helped define surf retail decades ago, has had a quiet influence on surfing’s cultural surge.
The superintendent of Orange County schools kept the county at the lead of reopening while also being sensitive to areas hit harder by the pandemic. Mijares moderated a forum about ethnic studies. “There’s been so much confusion and questions about the new ethnic studies model curriculum,” he said. “I want to demystify it, debunk myths, and set the record straight.”
In his first year in Sacramento in the California State Senate, Min, a former UC Irvine law professor, pushed hard to get money to help groups fighting hate crimes and spoke out against off-shore oil drilling. He also wrote a piece of legislation that will end gun shows at the OC Fairground and other state-owned properties, starting Jan. 1. Barring a change in that law, the last OC Fairgrounds gun show was held over Thanksgiving weekend.
In February, at only 23, he became the youngest person and the first Indian American to serve as executive director of the Democratic Party of Orange County. He’s now working on programs, policies and candidate recruitment in a politically divided county that’s become a nationally watched battleground for federal and state elections.
The chief executive officer of Mind OC led the effort to open Orange County’s first mental health hub, Be Well OC, in early 2021. There are two other comprehensive sites planned, and at least five mobile Be Well response teams are up and running or under discussion.
Imran Ali Mookhi
In March, Khan Saab restaurant in Fullerton started a “Drive Up” program providing over 15,000 meals to Fullerton’s first responders, local hospitals, schools, churches and mosques. The restaurant also received a Bib Gourmand from the Michelin Guide in September.
Morey, who grew up in Laguna Beach, got to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his invention, the Boogie Board, before his death in October. He got to hear firsthand how the small foam board he created allowed millions of people to enjoy the thrill of the ocean ride as enthusiasts and novices came out to celebrate and thank him for his innovation.
Morton is a World War II veteran who was part of a B-24 bomber task force carrier group as a tail gunner. He volunteered with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department for 26 years before he retired in April.
The Olympian who attended Corona del Mar High was one of the faces of the gold-medal-winning U.S. women’s water polo team. She scored 18 goals in the Olympics, including three in the gold-medal match, and was selected the tournament’s MVP.
As founder of the Tustin-based nonprofits Global Hope 365 and the related California Coalition to End Child Marriages, she’s helped lead the charge on recent state and federal legislation aimed at ending child marriages and guarding against sex trafficking. The Palestinian American also has pushed a growing number of cities to pass their own resolutions this year in support of child marriage bans.
Amy and Aaron Neville
They lost their 14-year-old to fentanyl and have been working to educate kids about the danger. They also are pushing to change how law enforcement approaches such deaths, arguing they’re not overdoses, but poisonings. Some prosecutors are starting to treat dealers of fentanyl more harshly.
Several readers nominated their representative in California’s Assembly and said that she was instrumental in helping them cut through the state’s red tape to resolve their issues with the EDD system. Nguyen is the first Vietnamese American to be elected to serve in both the Assembly and Senate.
The Angels’ two-way star was the unanimous choice as the American League’s Most Valuable Player and also was given the rare Commissioner’s Historic Achievement Award for what he achieved at the plate and on the mound. He was only the 16th person to receive the award and the first since 2014.
Pak, a longtime Orange County resident, stayed persistent and finally found a city, Fullerton, willing to host Orange County’s first Korean War memorial. It was unveiled on Veterans Day and is believed to be the only in the country to list the 36,393 U.S. military members killed in the war.
Palmer is the president of the Orange County Rescue Mission, which has played a vital role during the pandemic. For instance, early in the year, it completed the expansion of its Veterans Outpost (adding 45 beds).
Founder and chief technology officer of Enevate, his company’s goal is to make charging an electric car as quick as a gasoline fill-up. Enevate has a collection of high-name partners including automaker Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi.
Parthasarathy started his non-profit, Zero Waste Initiative, with the aim to rescue food waste and reduce food insecurity while preserving environmental sustainability. Expanding to seven student volunteers, his non-profit has rescued over $100,000 in wholesale value of baked goods, such as bagels and donuts, in just nine months donating to various organizations and shelters.
Pellini is the managing Partner of Section 32, a venture capital fund investing at the frontiers of technology, healthcare and life sciences. He has been instrumental in efforts to create a national COVID-19 testing database.
Well known in Orange County for the portraits of homeless people he paints for his Faces of Santa Ana nonprofit, artist and automotive designer Peterson created two huge murals this year in Los Angeles that featured Kobe Bryant.
Orange County is hardly known for producing the state’s leading environmental lawmakers, but the second-term assemblywoman is helping change that – particularly when it comes to coastal issues. Among her successful legislation this year was a law making it easier to restore marine habitat offshore and another easing the bureaucracy involved with addressing sea-level rise. She also won an $8 million grant toward the purchase of undeveloped Banning Ranch in coastal Newport Beach, which will become a public park.
As superintendent of the Los Alamitos Unified School District, Pulver dealt with an organized outcry against “critical race theory” in Orange County. Despite hours of passionate and angry comments by people from around Southern California at meetings, the school board unanimously voted for an ethnic studies elective class.
Roger Repoz and JC Cortez
Repoz, a former Major League Baseball player living in Fullerton, and Cortez, a father of six in Orange, independent of each other have helped others in their communities install American flags at their homes, a small bit of community service that shares the patriotic spirit.
As CEO of the OC Fair & Event Center, Richards helped shepherd the return of the OC Fair during the coronavirus pandemic with several sold-out dates. Even with caps on attendance, the fair turned a profit in 2021.
As a 2011 graduate of Chapman University, he’s working in the school’s Dean of Students’ office on efforts to support Black students on campus in hopes of chipping away at the university’s longstanding struggle to recruit and graduate Black students at the same rates as students of other races.
Amid a rise in domestic violence during the pandemic, Rios-Faust was at the helm of Human Options, one of the most comprehensive domestic violence service providers in Orange County. Her team also trained HR teams and employers to identify signs of abuse among employees, helping them to spot red flags even when leading a remote workforce.
Sam and Mike Robertson
The Robertsons opened a charming independent bookstore in fall of 2020 in Old Town Tustin, the Arvida Book Co., when the coronavirus was shutting down even more established businesses. Somehow, they’ve survived.
Rick “Rockin Fig” Fignetti, was the voice of surfing who reached generations of surfers on the sand and over the KROQ airwaves. Admirers in the surf world and beyond were shocked by the surf shop owner’s passing in July, remembering his upbeat, positive personality that left a void in the community.
At 39 years old, Ross teamed with Alix Klineman to dominate the beach volleyball competition at the Tokyo Olympics and capture the gold medal over a team from Australia. Ross previously had won a silver medal in 2012 and a bronze in 2016 with other partners.
The Assistant Public Defender got a Long Beach man released from prison after he had been overcharged for dropping a stolen stove onto a freeway, indirectly contributing to the traffic death of a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputy. She and colleague Scott Sanders recently persuaded the district attorney’s office to seek a new murder trial for a man convicted 10 years ago of a 1988 killing in Sunset Beach. The reason? Alleged misconduct by sheriff’s deputies.
The reader-nominated Saha showed up to get his COVID-19 vaccine at the Disneyland point of dispensing soon after it opened. After receiving his vaccination, the doctor asked if they could use help. He spent the rest of that day giving out shots. He returned to volunteer again the following and practically every day after that. He was elevated to a medical director of the facility.
In November, he became the spokesperson for Citi’s No Kid Hungry program, talking about growing up poor in the Dominican Republic. He has raised his profile on national television as a judge on “Top Chef” and “Top Chef Family Style” while increasing his work with local charities.
Norberto Santana Jr.
The founder and publisher of the non-profit Voice of OC, Santana recently was named publisher of the year among independent, online newsrooms nationwide by an organization of independent news publishers.
Scaringe, founder and CEO of Rivian, the Irvine-based electric truck startup, rolled out one of the biggest initial public offerings in years, raising nearly $12 billion and valuing the company at more than $77 billion. That means Rivian – which had built just 652 electric pickups and SUVs as of Dec. 15 – surpassed General Motors as the second-most valuable U.S. automaker. The company is already expanding. It announced plans to build a second manufacturing plant in Georgia with a capacity to build 400,000 vehicles a year.
Schroeder is a strong advocate for Orange County United Way’s United to End Homelessness initiative and encourages other property owners to join him in the effort. He has helped nearly 100 Orange County households who were experiencing homelessness find permanent housing thanks to the apartments he committed to the Welcome Home OC program.
A longtime public defender, Schwarz in 2021 was officially named head of the Orange County Public Defender’s Office, an agency that has played a key role in recent years bringing to light controversies in local law enforcement.
Serrao, president of Southern California-based indie label Fearless Records and owner of the all-ages music venue Chain Reaction in Anaheim, rallied patrons and bands to help save the 250-capacity concert space from permanent closure during the pandemic. In 2021, Chain Reaction was able to reopen its doors and is back to consistently booking shows.
As a case manager for Access California Services, she has played a key role in helping to welcome and settle Afghan refugees arriving in Orange County. Sidiqi was a refugee herself when she came to the United States from Afghanistan five years ago, and she’s been sharing her painful story to advocate for more support from local leaders.
Fred Smoller and Mike Moodian
One of this year’s honorees nominated the Chapman University researchers. “We at the Health Care Agency as well as others have implemented projects as well as policies to better serve our communities based on their findings,” Dr. Clayton Chau wrote. Smoller and Moodian, who co-direct the Orange County Annual Survey, also received a $5 million grant to organize the Orange County Sustainability Decathlon that will be held in 2023.
Souleles is the director of the COVID-19 Response Team at UC Irvine. He is also the director of the Masters in Public Health Program and Practice for the UCI Program in Public Health. Souleles’ team had been working son the on-site contact tracing program at UCI, operating under agreement with the OC Health Care Agency to provide the services for the university’s students, faculty and staff. Throughout the pandemic, Souleles became the university’s main point of contact for all things COVID.
As vice president of Disneyland, Theiler oversees the day-to-day operations of the park, which in pre-pandemic days attracted 18 million visitors annually and employed 32,000. The past year brought the biggest challenge of her career as she reopened Disneyland after a 412-day closure and managed ever-evolving COVID-19 protocols.
Elizabeth Van Lierde
With 184,000 Instagram followers and an award-winning blog, Van Lierde, 28, of Santa Ana, has been an influencer on how to cook and entertain. This year she reached even more readers with a book titled “Everyday Entertaining: 110+ Recipes for Going All Out When You’re Staying In.”
Annette M. Walker
Despite the pandemic, the president of City of Hope Orange County kept the project on track to open its campus in Irvine in 2022. In March, Walker and City of Hope secured a $50 million donation from Lennar – the second-largest gift in City of Hope’s 108-year history – and in August, Walker oversaw the addition of Pacific Medical Group into the City of Hope fold.
Vivian and May Wang
The sisters have grown an international nonprofit, Linens N Love, that gets hotel chains to donate their still useable linens to local chapters they have helped build at high schools and colleges.The chapters then work with shelters, pet rescues and other organizations that can give the supplies a second useful life.
The founder and CEO of TV maker Vizio, like many importers, battled supply-chain issues in 2021. That nudged his company to set up a program to help his suppliers hire staff.
As the chief economist for Newport Beach-based Zonda, she has been tasked with deciphering and explaining a wild market for homebuilders who juggle unexpected high demand for their products and unprecedented shortages of supplies and labor.
Young became the fourth quarterback from Orange County and third from Mater Dei High to win the Heisman Trophy, which is awarded to college football’s top player. He is scheduled to lead top-ranked Alabama in the championship semifinals Friday, Dec. 31 against Cincinnati.
The Ducks’ 20-year-old center is putting up impressive numbers and is a strong candidate to win the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie – he qualifies since he only played 24 games last season. But, let’s face it, he’s known outside of hockey circles for one spectacular play when he delivered a jaw-dropping pass over the goal to teammate Sonny Milano that went viral. “I don’t normally watch hockey but this is incredible,” actor Michael B. Jordan posted on social media.