Sierra Nevada Powerful Woman: For these women, finding their big break took on many different paths

Dr. Elizabeth Austin is CEO and founder of WeatherExtreme Ltd. in Incline Village.

Dr. Elizabeth Austin is CEO and founder of WeatherExtreme Ltd. in Incline Village.

More than three decades ago, a seemingly simple class project that enabled 75 Los Angeles families in need to be fed at Thanksgiving from the profits of items collected and sold by students made the difference for urban planner Cynthia Albright's career path.

The project, which involved exploring social inequities, allowed Albright to become a charter member of a nonprofit called One Voice, the mission of which is to provide goods, services and opportunities to the underprivileged, including everything from crisis intervention to long-term programming designed to lift families out of poverty.

Albright was attending graduate school at UCLA back then (she graduated magna cum laude in 1987), and since her initial involvement, the number of families that received donations has grown into the thousands.

“My big break at that point was getting into planning school and learning that there are people in various sectors who really define and shape communities,” Albright said in an interview with Sierra Nevada Powerful Woman. “… We feel happier when we feel connected to other people, and that doesn't happen by itself — it happens through intentional design.” 


READ MORE IN SIERRA NEVADA POWERFUL WOMAN: This story is adapted from the 2019 edition of Sierra Nevada Powerful Woman, a specialty magazine produced by the Northern Nevada Business View. The newest magazine, the second annual, was inserted in the May 27 monthly edition of the NNBV. Or, you can go here to read the digital version.


Albright's story is one of many when it comes to powerful women across Northern Nevada who long ago identified and nurtured important opportunities to climb the professional ranks. She and others took time recently to reflect not just on what launched them into success and continued professional and personal growth, but also on critical lessons and challenges that have molded them, guided them — and have proven useful for others coming behind them. 

DAPHNE HOOPER — A public servant's heart 

Fernley City Manager Daphne Hooper was appointed to the position in March 2015.

Daphne Hooper has served as Fernley City Manager since March 2015. She grew up in Douglas County, aware of public policy, local issues and generally of what was going on in the world. She eventually attended Shasta College, where she played softball, then finished her political science degree at the University of California, Davis, graduating in 1992.

“I'd just started learning about the public sector and how things worked in government,” she said. “Eventually, I started a family and came back to Nevada.”

Her early career began with the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, working as a partnership development specialist and focusing on the community and youth, but her work was grant funded, so she sought opportunities with the city of Reno. In 2011, she started working under Fred Tournier, who wasworking as Fernley's interim city manager at the time, to become the city's administrative services manager.

As Tournier departed the next year, though, to return to Reno, Hooper said the game-changer for her career came when he asked her about becoming Fernley's acting mayor — but she felt she wasn't ready. Eventually, after other transitions, Fernley would elect current Mayor Roy Edgington to the post, and he eventually would name her the permanent city manager.

“The first thing is to follow your passion,” Hooper said when asked how people should deal with tough career decisions. “If you know you want to work in the public sector, you have to educate yourself and learn what it takes to do those things. Build networks, build friends and relationships … and when those opportunities came, it was easy to reach out, and it was important.”

Her path hasn't come without great consideration and its challenges, however.

“I went through a divorce, and I had two boys to raise. I was trying to put everything into a job to be successful, and so I had to find that balance,” she said. “I think women have to balance a career and finding out what's that's like, because you do have to be there, and working 60 hours a week can be tough.

“My parents are my rock, and they were there to help me, whether it's with my children or bouncing ideas off them. My dad is my mentor. I still talk to him daily, and it's just a place of support.”

Hooper also reads to stay informed and develops an open mind on a number of topics on a local and national scale.

“Every day, somebody's going to come along and say, ‘I don't agree with this,' or, ‘this is why we're doing it this way' … and you have to be able to stand up for what you believe is right,” she said. “It's OK to make mistakes. Everything's fixable, as long as you're not doing anything illegal.”

It's also about taking risks, she said, whether personal or professional, and being able to find support.

“My management style is one of teamwork – I am not a micromanager,” she said. “I expect my staff to work. I think that goes a long way in building good teams.”

Ultimately, Hooper said she hopes to retire in about 10 years and then work as a consultant in the Native American community, supporting local tribes and mentoring younger people or teaching in an adjunct role.

“I love my job, I do. I think public service is a great place to be,” she said. “At the end of the day, it's not about money. It's giving back to the community and getting to see the results of all the hard work we put in.”

MICHELLE REBALEATI — Interacting with creativity

Michelle Rebaleati is a multimedia production specialist at the University of Nevada, Reno.

Michelle Rebaleati is a multimedia production specialist with One Digital Media at the University of Nevada, Reno.

Rebaleati, who's from Eureka in Eastern Nevada, began pursuing a degree at UNR in engineering with a music industry minor. She'd hoped to find work in audio engineering, but quickly realized no such programs existed that easily combined her curiosity for technical and creative skills.

After earning her bachelor's degree in electrical engineering in 2014, eventually, her current position opened at UNR's Mathewson-IGT Knowledge Center, where she now produces content in digital video and audio — and also has a chance to advance technologies in virtual reality.

“It sparked an interest, how this new technology can be used in interactive ways and innovative ways,” she said. “We have a virtual reality lab inside the library, and it is incredible to see how many disciplines are interested in this technology.”

Rebaleati said she and her fellow staff members have been impressed by the number of departments — psychology, English, computer science, behavioral analysis, nursing, art and others — that have inquired about how to apply the lab's recent developments and knowledge to their own curriculum.

She hopes to one day obtain a master's degree, but for now, she's satisfied with knowing her big break came from having produced a documentary, “Walking With Reality.”

The film looked at the life of one UNR student, Evan Gadda, who has cerebral palsy and wanted to attend Burning Man. To help prevent any wear and tear on Gadda's body with his asthma or his use of a wheelchair, Rebaleati and a team used a virtual reality headset and 360-video to immerse Gadda in the Black Rock Desert.

Rebaleati said the technology has also been used to help Gadda feel the thrill of skiing again — all the while, the documentary records his responses.

“That was a big eye-opening experience … and it triggered a drive in me to help other people with accessibility issues around us,” she said.

And while she's been proud to explore new avenues to use virtual reality, in addition to other technological and STEM advancements, she regrets others haven't plunged in to discover all the potential.

“Throughout the industry, even with CEOs, there's been a very refreshing way to look at females. There's a balance of creative and technical around the world,” she said. “… It makes me uneasy just thinking that women don't feel comfortable enough to do this … but I would encourage any woman to go for science or technology, because women have different perspectives, and it's great.”

Rebaleati said she welcomes whatever lies ahead, especially as her field is expected to evolve. She often tells her peers and those coming up behind her not to allow discouragement to overtake them as they tackle problems.

“There will always be challenges you might not even know about,” she said. “You're going into a creative way of thinking, but not giving up teaches you about what you want to do in the world.

“And for the other girls who are interested in math and science, it's OK to be a nerd. We need new ways of thinking. I love Nevada. It's a really great place to be and to explore nature and be free.”

DR. ELIZABETH AUSTIN — ‘The sky's the limit'

Dr. Elizabeth Austin is CEO and founder of WeatherExtreme Ltd. in Incline Village.

Reading course descriptions in a thick college catalogue several years ago piqued Dr. Elizabeth Austin's curiosity about atmospheric science, and it soon turned into a path toward a unique field that's called upon her expertise through environmental disasters — and in the courtroom.

Austin studied during the mid-80s at UCLA and the University of Wyoming, where she learned about physics and other sciences that weren't quite as interesting to her.

But during graduate school at UNR, while working with the Desert Research Institute, Austin spoke with a fellow graduate student who introduced her to forensic meteorology, and she instantly perked up.

“I thought, that's what I want to do,” she said. “I thought, how can you make a living doing this and that?”

Austin earned her doctorate in 1993 from UNR, and despite some deadline issues, she pressed on, starting her own company, WeatherExtreme Ltd., in 1994 and teaching at Sierra Nevada College in Incline Village.

In 2016, she published her book, “Treading on Thin Air,” a part memoir that “takes us on a journey in the world of weather and climate and how they directly impact our lives,” according to the book's website.

Looking back, the New York-born Austin said she doesn't specifically identify just one event as her “big break,” but one moment that sticks out was when she was called to investigate the Korean Air Flight 801 crash that happened amid heavy rain on Aug. 6, 1997, in Guam, killing 228 of 254 people on board.

“From then on, it was word of mouth in forensic aviation,” she said. “I've been all over the globe. We have 12 more people who are diversified experts. They're all over the globe in Africa, Europe, China, the middle of the Fiji, everywhere we've had aviation accidents.

“Once you get to trial, you're testifying on what happened. It's also quite a bit of theater. Where I am in the Midwest, where it's very conservative, it's not too much jewelry, no bright red, nail polish.”

As of late, Austin and her team have been running computer models of the California wildfires to determine patterns and the climate's effect and, ultimately, the impact on neighboring Nevada.

“It's just a cycle with fires, flooding, rain, the Pineapple Express, and the same cycles keep repeating, but we know the climate's changing with extreme weather events, and that's impacting things,” she said. “People joke, ‘California's on fire and then it's flooding.' In Nevada, we get the impact of that.”

CYNTHIA ALBRIGHT — A million ways to go 

Cynthia Albright is an Urban Planning and Design principal of Stantec in Reno.

As a Reno-based urban planner, Albright sees a community a little different than most, from the way streets are lit to where glass is used in buildings for decorative and functional purposes.

She focuses on illuminating and designing cities as a whole, she says, to create engaging, thriving and welcoming economies.

“When you have a team — a specialist in landscape architecture, a street or roadway engineer … a hydrologist — you all share your knowledge, and all of those pieces are part of a great space,” she said. “It's not one individual. It's really sharing your knowledge and experience with other people so they can understand why they haven't been exposed to any of that (community design) yet.”

One of her recent major projects was working in 2017 with the Tahoe Transportation District and Tahoe Regional Planning Agency to track visitors to Lake Tahoe from California, Nevada or beyond and their frequency and travel habits by mining their cellphone data.

Albright said her team spent three months using spatial and computer software to inventory an actual population count and other data.

“Because it used cutting-edge technology, I'm invited to speak all over,” she said. “I'm a believer in the type of data you get. It's only as limiting as our imaginations.”

She said she's spent 20 years with the same team, whom she credits for accomplishing much of her work.

“We finish each other's sentences; we're family,” she said. “… I work with an amazing group of women, and I have a very supportive husband who lets me work all hours, cooks dinner… I'm so grateful that I have good health and I have a good group of women.”

She's also a self-proclaimed lifelong learner, always in pursuit of figuring out what works and what doesn't, she said.

“Like I've told our daughter, don't worry about pursing a career because you think it makes money — pursue something you think makes your heart feel full,” she said, adding, “If you love what you do, it's not work. It's cliché, but it's true.

“Constantly change to be better, to find what really makes you tick.”

Jessica Garcia is a reporter for the Nevada Appeal newspaper in Carson City. 


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