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Chamber honors women business leaders

From left, Sonoma Valley Vintners and Growers Alliance Executive Director Maureen Cottingham, La Luz board President Claudia Mendoza and Breathless Sparkling Wines co-founder Sharon Cohn were featured at the Sonoma Valley Chamber of Commerce’s annual “Women in Business” breakfast on Friday.

From left, Sonoma Valley Vintners and Growers Alliance Executive Director Maureen Cottingham, La Luz board President Claudia Mendoza and Breathless Sparkling Wines co-founder Sharon Cohn were featured at the Sonoma Valley Chamber of Commerce’s annual “Women in Business” breakfast on Friday.

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The Sonoma Valley Chamber of Commerce hosted its annual “Women in Business” breakfast Friday morning at Sonoma Golf Club and honored three Sonoma women who were also featured speakers.

The first speaker was Claudia Mendoza, president of the La Luz board of directors and head of MC2, a multicultural communication business. Mendoza, who is a native of Colombia, also spearheads the Latino programs at the Sonoma International Film Festival.

“It’s been quite a journey from (Colombia) to here,” Mendoza said at the start of her speech.

From a young age, Mendoza had to be strong, she said, explaining that her father drowned when she was 9-years-old. Mendoza’s mother became one of the first patients diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in Colombia at the age of 35. Mendoza, who was just 17 and a new high school graduate, went straight to work to support her family. “I became the señor de la casa,” she said, “I never had a chance to think about what I wanted to do.”

Mendoza said her success in business has been a series of “being in the right place at the right time” moments, although her hard work ethic is what made those opportunities last.

She went on to work for UNICEF and as a national news broadcaster for one of the first cable stations in Colombia. “I was working in news in a very dark time for Colombia, when Pablo Escobar (the drug cartel kingpin) was in charge,” Mendoza said.

She met her first husband, a professor at UC Davis, in Colombia and moved with him to Davis in 1991. After she “acculturated” to American life, Mendoza said, she and her husband divorced.

Then she worked for the Sacramento Small Business Exchange and eventually met her current husband Kevin Carruth, who was the undersecretary for the California Youth and Adult Correctional Agency at the time. In 2007, Carruth retired and the two moved to Sonoma.

Mendoza credits Carruth as the driving force behind her achievements. “They say every great man has a great woman behind him, well every great woman has a great man behind her and mine is my husband.”

Mendoza said the highlight of her career has been serving on the board of La Luz because of the direct impact she and the center have on the community. “This freelance life of mine now in Sonoma is all about community involvement,” she said.

The second distinguished woman to speak was Sharon Cohn, who was married to B.R. Cohn Winery owner and founder Bruce Cohn, and was instrumental in launching the company’s olive oil and vinegar lines. Sharon Cohn now owns the local Massage Envy franchise (and one in Santa Rosa) and created a line of sparkling wines with her sisters called Breathless Sparkling Wines.

At the beginning of her speech, Cohn held up a sign that her daughters had given to her for a recent birthday present that read,  “Don’t ever let anyone dull your sparkle.”  Cohn went on to read a list of 20 defining life moments.

Her parents were teachers, she said, and instilled in her and her siblings the urge to be the best they could be. Her fondest memories as a child were summers the family spent traveling and backpacking in the Sierra Nevada.

Cohn joined the Air Force at 17 and trained for law enforcement at a base in North Dakota. “It was at this time that I realized I could help people,” she said, recalling her first night on patrol when she and her partner responded to an incident in which a man shot his wife in the presence of their children.

After leaving the Air Force and working at a Ford Motor plant, Sharon decided to become a dental hygienist. In 1983, she met Bruce in her dental chair.

The couple added two daughters to Bruce’s two children.

In 1990, B.R. Cohn launched a line of olive oils. Sharon recalled how the olive oil company went under and she was given the opportunity to revive the line. “It was a time when I really felt like, if I put my mind to something, I can get it done,” she said.

She is also proud to have been part of the organization of the B.R. Cohn concerts that has raised millions of dollars to support local nonprofits.

In 2005, the Cohns divorced.

A defining moment came shortly thereafter for Sharon, when her heart stopped for 45 seconds. Reluctantly, she had a pacemaker installed.

“I learned that stress can really take a toll on you, and so I wanted to create a place for people to take time for themselves,” she said, explaining how her vision for a Massage Envy franchise came to fruition.

This year, Sharon and her sisters started their line of Breathless Sparkling Wines as a tribute to their late mother and all of the “breathless” moments they had while traveling with her. They recently won a gold medal for their blanc de noirs at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine competition.

The final speaker was Maureen Cottingham, executive director of the Sonoma Valley Vintners and Growers Alliance.

Cottingham grew up on her family’s ranch in Ojai, (Ventura County) and said she owes much of who she is today to the important life lessons her parents taught her – love the land, think differently, be genuine.

From an early age, Cottingham was drawn to both agriculture and leadership roles, active in her local 4-H in leading positions such as secretary and president. “It was there that my inner leadership blossomed,” she said.

Cottingham laughed as she told the crowd how she taught her seventh-grade class how to castrate a horse.

Her role in 4-H and agriculture eventually led her to meet the man who would become her husband at the Ventura County Fair where the two were both showing steers.

Cottingham went to Cal Poly and majored in agricultural business. She took the school’s motto, “Learn by doing,” to heart and created one of the most successful charity events the school had ever seen by raising money to send wheelchairs to Nicaragua. The success of this event led Cottingham to seek a career in event planning and she and her husband moved to Sonoma to work in wine country.

Eight-and-a-half-years ago, Cottingham started working as an intern at SVVGA. Now she has served as the organization’s executive director for nearly three years, where she is instrumental in the success of events like Wine Country Weekend, which will give more than $1 million to charity this year.

“My goal is to continue to evolve,” Cottingham said, “and be creative and fun.”

The key to success, she went on to say, is for people to “come together and lead together to make a difference.” She then called Mendoza and Cohn to join her on the stage and had all of the women in the audience stand, noting the great achievements of all of the women in the community.

At the end of the breakfast, chamber CEO Jennifer Yankovich thanked the speakers and honored retiring chamber office manager Kathy Perry.