Progressive Thinkers

5 locals on the leading edge

the filmmaker

Mikki Willis

In autumn of 2001, Mikki Willis was, as he says, “just another filmmaker working in Hollywood.” But the clichés about fate or synergy all seem a little empty now, as he describes the life-changing events of September 11, 2001. Certainly, for Willis, 9/11 was a pivotal moment.

“I was in New York making a distribution deal for my first film,” said Willis from his Ojai home. “I was in the World Trade Center on September 10 and I was in the vicinity the next day.” The film deal never went through. But still, Willis’s life changed forever.

He mounted a search and rescue effort with other civilians and, for three days, assisted first responders in searching for survivors in the rubble. Somewhere down there, he first lost and then found himself.

“The things I once thought were so important were so trivial,” Willis said. He began to craft an entirely new vision for filmmaking: “I really changed and reinvented the expression of love for my craft.”

He went to work orchestrating what has become Elevate Films, a company that not only produces films but is changing nearly everything about the film experience. “Every few decades, a new discovery is made that gives a quantum leap to films,” Willis said. “It went from silent to sound, sound to stereo, stereo to Imax, and so on. What we’re doing is bringing in the latest technologies that will add a participatory element to the films,” he said.

“I’ve had some very mysterious and awe-inspiring experiences with people who have reached out to me,” said Willis. “There was a reason for it—and it’s certainly in the realm of spirit. It’s really about energy, to me, and about tapping into that immense human potential that we haven’t tapped into yet.”

Elevate is not just a film company. It encompasses a foundation for charitable work and a series of festivals. The group is building a studio, and there are a dozen members, for lack of a better word, all of them friends and family, working on Elevate and living in four houses on four acres in Ojai. “We’re committed to the whole change in our lives,” said Willis. “We’re growing a sustainable garden and producing our own food; we don’t use cars that often. I found people who are willing to live and work in service to something higher than their identity.”

Though he is unwilling to give away all he is doing, Willis did say that by employing things like vibration technology and even vibration healing, Elevate is making films that go beyond a storyline toward making the audience part of the story—and giving them an opportunity to not just be moved, but to be transformed. Elevate will roll out some of its newest ideas at the Ventura County Fair on October 23 as part of the Harmony Festival, a “conscious music festival” that dates back some 25 years.

The group has also introduced Play it Forward, a web-based viral distribution network for sharing films with as many people as a participant chooses. “We need an outlet for responsible people to talk about what’s right with the world,” Willis said. “There are so many films with important topics that don’t have distribution. What we’re doing is providing the bandwidth to allow people to show their favorite films and send them on to people they care about.

“At the core of humanity is something very good,” Willis said. “When something touches our lives, we want to reach out and share it with people we love and care about.”

More online at and

– By Mark Storer

Photo by James Graca

the conservationist

Florencia Ramirez

Like other stay-at-home moms, Florencia Ramirez juggles daily responsibilities while keeping a watchful eye on her three young children. Anyone who’s been there knows—it’s a full-time job. Every minute is precious. But when the Oxnard wife and mother times her daily shower down to the minute, it’s not so she can get back to work. It’s because she’s committed to resolving a large-scale environmental problem.

Ramirez founded a company called Azul Conservation Products, which sells everything from shower timers (digital and sand) to sink plugs, water saving buckets to low-water seed packs. The mini sand shower timers have been particularly well received, selling hugely and even appearing on the “Oprah Show.” Ramirez parlayed her company’s success into Azul Publishing—turning out books to inspire water conservation—and the Azul Foundation, which donates one percent of all net proceeds to conservation programs around the world.

Using the Internet and telephone, she has managed to build an international business with a global mission—from the comfort of her family home in Oxnard—all the while, raising her children. “I wanted to do something that would grow as my family grew and have a positive impact on the planet,” she says. “At first I thought it was important to sound like I was in an office, but with small children that’s impossible.”

Each week, the Oxnard native, who has a degree in International Relations from San Francisco State University and a Master’s in Public Policy from the University of Chicago, cold calls retail stores, water municipalities, fitness centers, universities, and hotels, urging them to buy her products as a means of encouraging consumers to take personal action to save water. “I never thought twice about it when I turned on the water in my shower every morning,” she recalls, “until … I saw the data and it was staggering.” In the U.S. alone, 1.5 trillion gallons of water—enough to fill up Lake Erie—are used each year for showering.

“We live on a water planet,” says Ramirez. “The Earth is two-thirds water, the same as our bodies … I want to help create a healthier, more vibrant world for my children, and that means getting involved to protect it.”

For water conservation tips and information about Azul Conservation Products, visit

– Photo by Erin Moroney LaBelle

women’s woman

Jodi Womack

For Jodi Womack, the regular eight-hour workday never really felt right. So what did this progressive thinker do? She took her entrepreneurial mindset and embraced it as a lifestyle. In 2007, together with her husband, Jason, she started The Womack Company, a consulting firm dedicated to helping clients manage productivity and what she calls the overwhelm. “We don’t get training on how to handle a thousand emails a day ... and there’s no training ground for managing the level of complexity people face in global companies,” she says. Through presentations, training, and executive coaching, they help clients create custom workplace systems to maximize productivity.

But it is Jodi’s work with her women’s networking group, No More Nylons, created in 2009, that has catapulted her into the realm of networking guru in Ventura County. As a child, Jodi recalls her parents walking in the door from work, and before being ready to help with homework and play, they would say, “Give me 10 minutes to get out of these clothes and into something comfortable.” The nylons, part of her mother’s work wardrobe, have become a metaphor for Jodi’s desire to help women “get out of the work they have to do, and get into what they love.”

So what you find at these now bi-monthly Women’s Business Socials is not your typical networking meeting. The events are open to anyone, including women business owners and those contemplating starting their own business. There’s no dress code, no need to RSVP, no cover charge, and no need to pitch your business with a 30-second commercial. “I wanted to create a networking event that I wanted to attend,” she says. The vibe tends to be more cocktail party than sales pitch, and the emphasis is on cooperation, not competition. As Jodi says, “It’s about being surrounded by people who are people first.”

No More Nylons is about building up your network of girlfriends and connecting with other like-minded professional women. But for Jodi, it has evolved into more. “It has become my legacy, my gift to the community,” she says. On the horizon? Expanding Women’s Business Socials into both New York and London this year.

For more information, including the 2011 Women’s Business Social schedule, visit or call 805-798-1295.

– By Allison Costa

– Photo by Gary and Pierre Silva

the futurist

N. Rao Machiraju

What does a former principal scientist at Apple, a man who serves on the advisory board to the World Centre for New Thinking in Malta, do when thinking globally? If you’re N. Rao Machiraju, the co-founder and CEO of reQall Inc., you act locally.

A Ventura resident for 24 years, Rao sits on the advisory board of Ventura Incubator, which the city established as a way to lure high-tech firms to the beach community. Ventura is also partnering with venture capitalists to seek out tech companies that hold promise, something Rao knows a thing or two about.

He is responsible for the overall strategy and direction of a company that developed a tool rooted in MIT research on memory improvement—a voice-enabled memory aid designed to make forgetting a distant memory. And he has accomplished much of this while keeping a home and raising a family in Ventura over the past two decades.

“The incubator has come a long way,” said Rao. “Now there are 18 companies. It has become the place for engaging in technology start-up conversations.” But he gives a nod to the city council for bringing the incubator about. “When I learned of Rao’s background, I thought he needed to be involved on the advisory side,’’ says Alex Schneider, an associate planner with the city’s economic development division. “From his resume to his ideas to his ties to venture capitalists and entrepreneurs—it was all really impressive. Now he’s becoming instrumental in bringing in people from outside and creating a wider network.”

To be certain, the idea of Silicon Valley in Ventura was, and still is, a visionary prospect. But it’s just this sort of leading edge spirit that drives the man. His reQall company is releasing reQall Rover, a device Rao says will make your cell phone into a truly multi-platform tool. “The idea of the phone always working for you based on your context is a powerful idea,” Rao said. “We are very excited about this. These days I wake up to a reQall Rover summary in the morning, and Rover helps, from surfacing the actions that I need to attend to in my email to all other important things that I would want to know: weather, personalized news, deals, places to eat, Facebook posts, Twitter trends. It all appears on Rover’s ‘Here and Now’ screen.”

The Rover is more than just the latest gadget, too. Rao believes nanotechnology will pave the way for the next generations of digital devices, and while shades of The Terminator are ever-present when he talks about “personal technology,” Rao’s vision of the future isn’t clouded by the nightmares of ‘80s-era filmmakers.

“In the decades ahead, I think self-organizing pervasive systems will be commonplace,” he said. “Our current dependence on things like ‘smart’ cell phones will be completely dwarfed by devices that learn and do a multitude of tasks for us.”

Learn more about reQall online at

– Edited by Mark Storer

– Photo by Gary and Pierre Silva

the realist

Sam Thomas

Sam Thomas will not be found on top of compost heaps announcing the end of the world. No bullhorn for him, thank you. He’s too busy actually making a difference.

Thomas, a professor of religion at California Lutheran University, in Thousand Oaks, is also the founder and co-chair of the university’s sustainability council. Before you mildly applaud the good intentions, consider what the group has done: In the academic year 2009-2010, sustainability efforts yielded a nine percent reduction in energy spending, saving a total of around $100,000.

“I’m not committed to one ideological point of view,” Thomas said. “If we can find ways to solve problems, that’s one step toward sustainability.” The council spearheaded a drive to go “tray-less” in the student cafeteria, for example. “The benefits of that were palpable,” Thomas said. “Less water for washing, students take less food and waste less because they can’t fit as much on their plates, the list is pretty long.”

The council isn’t a group of academics gathering in a room with a plan to save civilization, either. “We’re pretty grass roots,” said Thomas. “We have people from different departments and students, and what we did first was go after the low hanging fruit. It’s part of the university’s mission as a Lutheran institution. We live in responsibility to one another.”

From making sure that students have reusable containers for water and beverages when possible to compostable cups in the cafeteria, Thomas and his sustainability council co-chair, Ryan Van Ommeren, the vice-president of facilities and operations, have seen to it that sustainability becomes a culture at Cal Lutheran.

“The university has always tried to be a good steward,” Thomas said. “That’s not the issue. What was missing is that there was no culture in which these things were being discussed or valued,” he said. That’s why Thomas began the conversation that led to a half-acre student grown and managed garden and incorporating sustainability in the academic curriculum—from philosophy to business classes, religion to physics. Perhaps most telling of the group’s efforts is the university’s new LEED-certified Swenson Behavioral Sciences building, seen in the photo above.

“Sustainability is a big and rich idea,” said Thomas. “It’s related to everything, and you can criticize it in that vein, but it’s a work in progress. It’s about being wise in the way we live our lives.”

More information online at

– By Mark Storer

– Photo by Brian Stethem


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