Doing It for Themselves — and Others

Michelle Goodman Attractions, Current PSL

From left: Victory Grund, Candice Held, Michelle Castillo, Kelly McLean Lewin, Tracy Conrad, and Cynthia H. Breunig.

Each year Palm Springs Life honors Women Who Lead — individuals from the Coachella Valley who benefit the community and serve as role models in business and life. Here’s how this year’s six leaders are rewriting the rules of women’s mentorship.

When you think about the mentor-mentee relationship, you might envision a career veteran doling out morsels of hard-won knowledge to a wet-behind-the-ears assistant. It’s a formal relationship, 
and to the newbie receiving this counsel, perhaps even an intimidating one. 
the six coachella valley women we’re honoring as this year’s trailblazers do not view mentorship this way at all.

They’re not cruel taskmasters like Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada. Rather, they’re patient, benevolent Yodas hoping to give the next generation of leaders the same support they received from teachers and colleagues early in their own professional development.

See related story: Blazing New Trails

“Women traditionally have had less opportunity to be mentored than men,” says Tracy Conrad, chief operating officer of Smoke Tree Ranch. “For men in the corporate workplace, the big boss would pick out a favorite who he saw as his 30-years-younger self, and then he would promote that guy. That never happened for women and still doesn’t happen so often. There are fewer of us in positions of power, and we are taught to compete with each other rather than help each other.”

Business Leader:

Tracy Conrad
COO, Smoke Tree Ranch

What do you like best about living in the Coachella Valley?

Palm Springs is truly a unique town. It is very sophisticated and cosmopolitan because of the people who have gravitated here. At the same time, it is small enough that you can get to know people and feel like part of a community.

What books are you reading?

I just finished reading Michael Lewis’ The Undoing Project. It’s about two brilliant minds working together seamlessly to think about how the human mind works and how it copes with a world of uncertainty.

Who inspires you?

That’s too hard to answer. There are so many intriguing, intelligent, industrious people.

business leader:

Kelly McLean Lewin
Vice President, McLean Company

What do you like best about living in the Coachella Valley?

I love that it is my hometown, where every corner is filled with memories. I love that we have a small-town feel with big-city amenities, like amazing restaurants, nightlife, and experiences.

What books are you reading?

I am nine months pregnant, so I of course have What to Expect When You’re Expecting and many other pregnancy and childhood development books on my Kindle. I also just read Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult and was brought to tears.

Who inspires you?

I truly am inspired by my husband. He’s the first person that comes to mind, and while it sounds corny, he is someone I absolutely admire. He exudes kindness and empathy and constantly challenges me to be a better person.

community/nonprofit leader:

Cynthia H. Breunig
Girl Scouts of San Gorgonio Council

What do you like best about living in the 
Coachella Valley?

It is a place of grace and beauty with warm and friendly people, magnificent and inspiring landscapes, great food, and gorgeous architecture. I never tire of seeing the steep sweep of our huge mountains as they swoop down to the desert floor. We live in my version of paradise.

What books are you reading?

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd and Touchstones: Spiritual Awakenings in Everyday Life by R. Scott Colglazier.

Who inspires you?

Two of the people who have inspired me the most are my dad and Bob Bates, the founder of Inner City Arts in Los Angeles. He always says, “Keep your eyes on the kids — don’t get distracted with the other stuff.” And that matters to me.

Conrad and the other women profiled here want to change that.

Taking a risk on someone who shows potential but needs the guidance to grow is what it’s all about. Conrad credits Steve Maloney, former president of Smoke Tree Ranch, with being “visionary and brave enough” to champion her in 2005 and hire her as one the historic ranch’s top executives.

Conrad and her husband, both emergency room physicians, had purchased and revived The Willows Historic Palm Springs Inn in the ’90s. “I’d restored The Willows; Steve saw what I could do,” Conrad says. “But I’m an ER doctor, and he put me in charge of Smoke Tree Ranch. That was a salient moment in my life.”

In turn, Conrad makes a point to give staffers at Smoke Tree the freedom they need to perform the work she hired them to do. “I try not to micromanage my employees,” she says. “I try to nurture individual development and trust. I think everyone is happier being allowed to do their job to the best of their ability and not be second-guessed.”

For Victory Grund, president and founder of Old Town Artisan Studios, launching the nonprofit art instruction facility in 2011 took a village of advisors, cheerleaders, and benefactors. Her late friend Annette Weyerhaeuser, who’d developed a program teaching art to children at the Tacoma Art Museum in Washington, offered a wealth of programming ideas and encouragement. Another friend offered her Palm Springs home to host a fundraising event. Others were quick to whip out their checkbooks.

“I’ve had all sorts of people come to me and say, ‘I want to see this dream come through for you,’ ” Grund explains. “I think someone saying ‘Let me help you’ is a tangible form of mentorship.”

Grund does her part to pay it forward by hiring art instructors as full-time employees of Old Town. “If more places like ours existed, more of these young people could have a job earning money with their art degree,” she says.

“Generosity” is a word of which this new breed of mentors is fond. Fashion and interior designer Candice Held uses it liberally when recalling an instructor who mentored her at L.A.’s Otis College of Art and Design. A working designer who doubled as a professor on weekends, he shared his techniques with the class, helped Held crystalize her signature retro print style, and taught his students to build a portfolio and look for design work. “The thing that was great about him is that he didn’t see us as his potential competition,” Held says.

Since graduating from the program in 2011, she has approached her design business the same way, sharing job leads with fellow designers whenever possible. “There is room for everybody,” she says. “Some of us have more strength in one area or more of an inclination toward one type of job. And we’re not all available all the time. I think if you hoard opportunities and don’t share them, you’re really hurting yourself.”

That philosophy has paid off. Since moving to Palm Springs in 2013, Held has opened two retail locations for her ever-expanding clothing line and has created two interior collections, both sold at the Los Angeles shop of designer Martyn Lawrence Bullard.

Collaborative mentorship groups among female peers have become more prevalent in recent years, and now Palm Springs has one of its own. Inspired by women’s art collectives like Sister Spit in San Francisco and The Kilroys in Los Angeles, writer and interdisciplinary artist Michelle Castillo founded the Wyld Womxn collective in 2016 to nurture camaraderie, career development, and social activism among young Coachella Valley artists.

community/nonprofit leader:

Victory Grund
Old Town Artisan Studios

What do you like best about living in the Coachella Valley?

I love the life, the sun, and the people. You meet people from all over the world living here. Humans have told their stories through art and culture for thousands of years. I love that many of these cultures blend together here in the valley.

What books are you reading?

The Paris Architect, a novel by Charles Belfoure about an architect who creates hiding spaces for Jews during World War II. I was born during that time, while my dad was overseas fighting the war. That’s why I was named Victory.

Who inspires you?

Kay Henkel, who is 87 and was my first teacher in clay. When we opened Old Town Artisan Studios, she drove to La Quinta each week to be our first instructor. Her commitment and love for teaching were inspirational.

rising star:

Michelle Castillo
Wyld Womxn

What do you like best about living in the Coachella Valley?

There’s something special happening in the desert. It’s not just golf courses and sun 365 days a year. There’s a strong LGBTQ community. There are social justice activists. And there are a lot of artists who’ve been creating a new narrative here over the past few years.

What books are you reading?

I read lots of poetry and feminist theory. Right now I’m reading Feminism Is for Everybody by bell hooks, Michelle Tea’s memoir How to Grow Up, 
and the Jack Spicer poetry collection My Vocabulary Did This to Me.

Who inspires you?

I truly admire all the women in the arts collective I started. I think we’re creating a radical, intersectional feminist space, and I think our combined strength really does bring that presence to the valley.

rising star:

Candice Held
Owner, Candice Held

What do you like best about living in the Coachella Valley?

I love the pace and the scenery and the light. It’s inspiring as an artist. There are more restaurants and hotels opening and more people moving here. It really does have that feeling of a renaissance happening.

What books are you reading?

Florence Broadhurst: Her Secret & Extraordinary Lives by Helen O’Neill. I saw the presentation at Modernism Week about her life and wanted to dive into the book to learn more.

Who inspires you?

I’m really inspired by Diane von Furstenberg. I’ve read all her books and went to her Journey of a Dress exhibit three years ago at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. She’s my ideal design aesthetic and business model.

“I was looking for places where women artists can connect, create sisterhood, and have critical discussions on feminine identity,” says Castillo, who grew up in the valley and recently returned after living in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area during her 20s. The collective of visual artists, writers, and performers, which has grown to two dozen members, hosts monthly full-moon meetings, a supper club, a feminist book club, hiking and biking groups, art shows, performances, and workshops and panels on women in the arts.

“Good mentorship isn’t about creating another person just like you,” Castillo says. “It’s guiding people in what they want to do and seeing where their skill set shines. Everyone has something to offer. Not only have I had the opportunity to mentor the women in our collective, but they have also taught me a lot in return.”

Mentorship need not be casual or self-styled to serve women well. Cynthia H. Breunig, CEO and president of the Girl Scouts of San Gorgonio Council, benefitted greatly from formal mentorship programs early in her career, most notably while working at the Autry Museum of the American West, located in Los Angeles. There, museum founders Jackie Autry and Joanne Hale didn’t just put rising stars like Breunig through business and leadership training; they practiced what they preached. Despite running a sizable staff and museum, Hale would take time to work the ticket booth, chat with customers, and pick up trash. And Autry took it upon herself to polish the museum’s silver collections. “They were modeling good, hands-on behavior all the time,” Breunig says.

It’s a testament to how far female mentorship has come that each of these six women was reluctant to name just one person who’d made a profound impact on her career. several named additional people who’d helped them along the way, and many credited family members with teaching them important professional lessons.

That of course is what the Girls Scouts — a mentoring program that, according to Breunig, half of all American women have gone through — aims to do for young women. And it doesn’t end with those cookie sales (which teach girls how to set goals, network, and handle rejection with grace). Guided by supportive adults, Girl Scouts pursue interests — and receive coveted badges — in everything from camping to robotics to philanthropy.

It’s a testament to how far female mentorship has come that each of these six women was reluctant to name just one person who’d made a profound impact on her career. Several named additional people who’d helped them along the way, and many credited family members with teaching them important professional lessons.

Kelly McLean Lewin, who was raised alongside her parents’ property management and home rental business, considers her mother the ultimate mentor. “She always taught me to be confident, prepared, and on time,” says McLean Lewis, vice president of the McLean Company. “She’s a strong woman in the male-dominated industry of real estate, and she’s never been afraid to speak up and speak her mind. I think she passed that on to me.”

Breunig’s father, a naval officer for 40 years, has been a wellspring of management and leadership advice throughout the decades. “To have somebody like that 
who has the patience to talk to you every day, no matter where you are in the world, and asks the right questions to teach you to be your best self — that’s phenomenal guidance,” she says.

“He really emphasized bringing your best character, so that you’re ethical, you’re fair, you tell the truth, you’re measured and thoughtful in your decision-making, and you’re being of service in the world,” Breunig continues. “This is the stuff that you learn from mentors.”

Castillo points to her mother, aunt, grandmother, and female cousins as sources of inspiration. “I grew up in an immigrant household,” she explains. “They were uprooted from their country and came to America and had to navigate that map for themselves. They were creating a sense of home, creating their own stories in a place that wasn’t familiar. They were cooking, dancing, and laughing; they were just so alive. And to me that showed a lot of strength.”

Keynote Speaker:

Trina Turk
Partner/designer, Trina Turk

Trina Turk has been synonymous with Palm Springs style since 2002, when she opened her first boutique in the city. She says she’s inspired by California’s multicultural mix, creativity, craftsmanship, architecture, and landscape — a synergy that permeates her contemporary, colorful aesthetic.

Founded in 1995, her line releases 11 annual collections of chic women’s ready-to-wear and accessories, plus swimwear, activewear, footwear, handbags, jewelry, eyewear, the Mr Turk menswear line, and residential décor and textiles.

Expanding her business over the years from one store to 11 nationwide, Turk has learned the art of management, leadership, and — 
what may be the toughest skill for a hands-on entrepreneur — delegation. She stewards her employees just as she does the architecturally pedigreed homes she restores with loving care — projects she pursues alongside running her eponymous company. Turk is also an active philanthropist who contributes to arts, education, and preservation causes.

Her company, and indeed her lifestyle, is built on respect.


Trina Turk will be the keynote speaker at the Women Who Lead luncheon, May 14 at The Ritz-Carlton, Rancho Mirage, when Palm Springs Life celebrates the six remarkable women featured in this story. For tickets ($90 each or $800 for a table of 10), go to palmspringslife.com/women-who-lead/.