Coming home and giving back | September 8, 2023 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - September 8, 2023

Coming home and giving back

2023 Athena Award winners took similar paths to success

by Sheryl Nonnenberg

Michele Lew, CEO of The Health Trust, and Jesse Ebner, vice president of Premier Properties, might seem to have little, or nothing, in common, as they come from different generations and work in dissimilar fields.

But on both personal and professional levels, Lew and Ebner share many similarities. Both women were born and raised on the Peninsula (Lew in Palo Alto and Ebner in Portola Valley), attended local schools, and then left California to attend Yale University. They were both selected to participate in local leadership programs and worked for elected officials before finding their way to their current positions.

And this year, Lew and Ebner have both been chosen to receive Athena Awards from the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce. Lew is receiving the Athena Leadership Award and Ebner the Athena Emerging Professional Leadership Award.

The awards were established in order to recognize the achievements of exceptional women leaders who "demonstrate the highest level of professional excellence, give back to their communities and, most importantly, assist other women in realizing their full leadership potential," according to the Chamber's press release.

The international award has been bestowed on 6,500 recipients to date in over 500 cities and eight countries.

Lew and Ebner sat down with the Weekly to talk about their challenges, and successes, in largely male-dominated fields.

Michele Lew

Lew's entire professional career has been devoted to improving health and wellness, especially among vulnerable populations. At The Health Trust, a $100 million nonprofit founded in 1996 and based in San Jose, she oversees policy, advocacy and grant-making programs that serve people who are experiencing food insecurity and social isolation.

Lew's early aspiration was to become a doctor, like her father, a cardiologist. She reconsidered that goal her freshman year in college after realizing that chemistry and biology were not her strong points. She became an economics major and, upon graduating, "followed all the Yale econ majors to New York City and Wall Street," she said.

She got a job with Lehman Brothers but soon realized that it was not the right choice.

"Making money was not a fulfilling career. I realized that community service was much more rewarding," Lew said.

Pivoting, she earned a master's degree from Harvard University's Public Policy Program and returned to California.

While participating in Leadership Mid-Peninsula, she attended a lecture by State Assembly member Joe Simitian. She was so impressed by Simitian that she took a position as district director in his office. Although she eventually concluded that politics were not for her, she learned a great deal about government and how it works; this knowledge would serve her well in subsequent positions, she said.

Lew then worked for the AACI (Asian Americans for Community Involvement), an organization that provides health care services for low-income Asian immigrants. While there, she immersed herself in health policy, she said, which led to her next job, as Stanford Health Care's community relations director.

But she felt the need to return to serving vulnerable populations.

The Health Trust affords her the chance to work with low income, unhoused, immigrant and HIV/AIDS populations. One of the largest programs is Meals on Wheels, which serves clients from Palo Alto to Gilroy. This program provides frail, often homebound, older adults with a hot meal and, just as important, a wellness check.

Lew becomes most passionate when talking about this population, sharing how she and her staff frequently step in to help deliver meals when needed.

"It's more than a meal." she said. "Often the driver is their only interaction of the day."

When asked if health care and advocacy is an accessible field for women, Lew laughed.

"It was not easy to get in and it got lonelier as I advanced," she said.

Serving on boards where women were in the minority was difficult but inspiring.

"It opened my eyes to the need to build a circle of support for myself and other women coming up behind me," Lew said.

This situation has improved over time, but there are still things that keep Lew awake at night. Her biggest challenge, she said, is "figuring out how to tackle community needs with limited resources."

Still, "there are so many rewards in the nonprofit sector. There are days that I see that helping just one person makes a difference," she said.

Lew's advice to young women just starting out in their career?

"Try a bunch of stuff. Don't agonize whether it is your dream job. Any experience, good or bad, is valuable."

She also shared her ultimate goal: "At the end of the day, to have no regrets in how I spent my professional life."

Jesse Ebner

Like Lew, Ebner had a number of different job experiences before making her way to commercial real estate. Her role at Premier Properties involves assisting mid- and south-Peninsula landlords with their leasing and marketing strategies. She also works with businesses that are looking for rental space.

She enjoys the amount of personal interaction required in her job as well as the ability to guide clients through what can be a complex process.

Ebner attended public schools in Portola Valley and then Sacred Heart Prep. Education was a high priority in her family, she said, but she also had a passion for athletics.

Her desire to play volleyball in college led her to Yale, where she participated in several Ivy League Championships. She enjoyed her time in New Haven but acknowledged being homesick for California.

Upon her return to the Bay Area, she entered the field of athletic management with a job as director of volleyball operations at Santa Clara University. Although she did not find the administrative aspects of the job satisfying, she loved coaching.

"Involvement with young women and girls really added something to my life; being able to help them get set up for success," Ebner said.

Like Lew, Ebner dabbled in politics, working in a field office for Senator Diane Feinstein. She came to the conclusion that it was interesting but not what she ultimately wanted to do. She tried a few other jobs, including doing research for a think tank and working in the family's lumber yard, before becoming a senior fellow in Leadership Palo Alto.

This experience served as an immersion into the social, governmental and economic sectors of Palo Alto and led to some important connections that paved her way into commercial real estate.

Premier Properties is a small, boutique firm that handles leasing, building and development on the Peninsula. Ebner said that, although she had no prior experience in the field, the two owners of Premier were open to giving her a chance — and she was eager to learn.

Now in her sixth year with the company, she described how the small team works closely together and how she has established herself as one of the few women in this field. But it has not been without its challenges.

"My name is spelled like the boy's name. I put my picture on my email so clients know what to expect," she said. "But some people are still surprised when I walk in."

Luckily, her gender has posed no problem to advancement at Premier where, Ebner said, "They look to me to give answers in an informed way and they recognize my strengths."

Still, she acknowledged that it is easy to be intimidated in a room full of men with "strong voices."

Her advice to other women: "Maintain your self-confidence and trust your own work and knowledge."

Ebner said she has always enjoyed striving for tangible goals, and she achieves that by helping clients find the right office, retail or restaurant space.

"It's so great when a new business opens, it is fully furnished and the new clients are there," she said.

She cited working with the owners of Sweet Maple restaurant, who had to endure a several year wait during the pandemic. Now it's open and thriving.

"The food is delicious. That's another satisfying part, when you enjoy the fruits of the deal," Ebner laughed.

Like many young professionals, Ebner also finds time to give back to the community. She serves on the board of AchieveKids, a school for children with complex educational needs, whose work she admires.

"I was given so many opportunities to be successful: living in Portola Valley, going to Sacred Heart Prep and Yale. It's an immense privilege" to help, she said.

Lew and Ebner both expressed gratitude at being recognized for doing what they love and said they never, ever thought they would be chosen for an Athena Award.

"I am humbled and appreciative and hope the awards shine a light on The Health Trust," Lew said.

Ebner said, "It's a huge honor and a reminder that what you do in your daily life matters and has an impact."

The 37th Annual Athena Awards will take place on Thursday, Oct. 19, from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at the Sheraton Palo Alto. Tickets to the event are now on sale. More information is posted at n


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