Meet our Board: Toni Atkins

In recognition of Women’s History Month, we are publishing a series of blogs about the women behind EDC—our fearless leaders, our board members, our executive committee, our guiding lights. Today, we have The Honorable Toni Atkins, CA Senate President Pro Tempore representing the 39th district, San Diego!

Tell us who you are. Why did you choose your career?

At my heart, I would say I am a public servant. And I didn’t choose my career—it chose me!

I grew up in Virginia, the daughter of a seamstress and a coal miner. We were working poor. At the time, I didn’t think that government nor mainstream society saw me or understood me – not until I began studying political science at Emory and Henry College. There, I found my voice, came out as a lesbian, and began to support social justice causes, feminist rights, and the rights of my LGBTQ community.

I arrived in San Diego in 1985 and first worked as Director of Services at Womancare Health Center before my mentor, former Senator and then Councilwoman Christine Kehoe, hired me on her staff. That’s when my love of public service began. I’m so grateful to Chris for giving me the opportunity of a lifetime.

I was elected to succeed her seat on the City Council in 2000. From there, I have had the privilege of serving as Acting Mayor, State Assemblymember, Assembly Speaker, acting Governor twice—the first gay Governor of California, in fact—and now Senate President pro Tempore. I am the first woman, the first member of the LGBTQ community, and the first person in almost 150 years to lead both the Assembly and the Senate. I wish my mother was here to see it all.

What does your involvement in EDC mean to you?

I am honored to serve on EDC’s board of directors. EDC is such a dynamic agency that tells San Diego’s story in so many ways. Sharing San Diego’s tech, biotech, tourism, business, and military related Good News helps raise awareness at the state, national and international level about what our region is doing.

For much of the year, my time is spent between Sacramento and San Diego, but my Special Assistant/District Policy Director Deanna Spehn ensures we stay up to date. I enjoy my annual visit with the board to recap the legislative year and look forward to the next.

This board’s leadership has always been top notch. Mark Cafferty has put together an outstanding staff that produces impactful reports and analyses on what is happening within San Diego’s economy, what it takes to do business in our region, and what the new options are for current and future companies.

EDC always inspires me to think of the possibilities ahead, not only for our region— including Baja, California—but also for our state in terms of how we can continue to grow our economy, even during the COVID-19 pandemic.

I’m so proud to represent the 39th State Senate District, and EDC is a strong partner in amplifying the role San Diego plays.

What role do you see women playing across the San Diego region in the next five years?

There is no lack of talented women in San Diego. Women in leadership is not a new phenomenon. We are mothers, daughters, State Senate leaders, Secretaries of State, Mayors, Council Presidents, non-profit, healthcare and education executives. And our neighboring city of Tijuana, Mexico has its first woman Mayor, The Honorable Karla Ruiz MacFarland.

Together, we are working to bring out the best of our region. In five years, I expect our influence to spread across the State and our nation.

It is through our collaboration with organizations like EDC, who are committed to inclusivity and recognizing of the importance of female leaders, that will allow us to address barriers like underrepresentation in top business roles and pay inequity, that too many women in America face every day.

Share with us your favorite quote.

“Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.” —Martin Luther King Jr.

What advice do you have for women in business?

I would encourage women to continue to find ways to lead and build each other up. I am here because my mentor gave me a chance.

I want to see more women – of all communities, ages and backgrounds – included on boards, planning groups, and leading nonprofits and corporations, which is why in 2018, I served as joint author of SB 826, a bill that promoted equitable and diverse gender representation on corporate boards by requiring every publicly-held corporation in California to add women to their board of directors. Legislation is a critical component to addressing inequity in the business world, but we also need the private sector to actively recruit women and support future generations of women. I hope to do the same in encouraging more women to run for public office.

When women succeed, society succeeds – we all succeed.

Follow along with Senator Atkins on Twitter: @SenToniAtkins