San Jose native Heather Lerner first started on the Happy Hollow Foundation on the board of directors for six years. In 2009, Lerner became the first ever Executive Director in the Foundation’s 54 year history. She has since been working to secure funding to advance Happy Hollow Park & Zoo, a nationally-accredited zoo perceived as one of the top animal facilities in the world involved with conservation efforts around the globe. Lerner was part of the team that brought sculptures done by world-renown artist Tom Otterness to the main entrance of the park and is working to make Happy Hollow a “cultural destination.”

Before her role with Happy Hollow, Lerner taught fine art with San Jose Unified School District and managed Theater Marketing for Children’s Musical Theater San Jose. She describes her transition to the zoo as “a turning point where I discovered that I actually like fundraising, and that I can affect 600 families at one school, or 450,000 visitors to Happy Hollow.”

A mother of two kids, Lerner is also on the board of trustees at Kehillah Jewish High School and board of directors for Los Gatos Youth Theatre. She is an alum of Community Leadership San Jose and a Rotarian at the San Jose Club. Last year, Lerner was awarded Business Journal’s Top Women of Influence in Silicon Valley.

Name: Heather Lerner

Age: 45

Occupation: Executive Director of Happy Hollow Foundation

How long have you lived and worked in San Jose?
I was born and raised in San Jose, I only left for college.

What do you like most about San Jose?
It’s the smallest big town in America. What I mean by that is the people have a small town friendliness to them but we have a thirst for something bigger, and I’m starting to see that finally manifest in the San Jose landscape. There are little indicators of civic pride like the Art Box Project and the Saigon business district. Even with the trails in Almaden, the connectivity is finally starting to happen. The moving of City Hall to Fourth Street was huge, and the arts and theatre scene is picking up steam.  Even the food truck scene is a part of it. We’re just on the verge of popping!

Do you have a favorite part of the zoo?
I can say right now my favorite part is the Crooked House that we’re currently renovating. The blend of the old and the new is an intersection I really love. It’s a beloved vintage structure that’s been closed 2009, but it’ll have fun house mirrors on the top floor and a crooked slide. It’s just a fun, dramatic fantasy feature.

What does a typical work day look like for you?
I don’t think I have such things as a typical day! Some days I’m giving tours of the facility to potential sponsors, collaborators, or donors, or some days I’m writing grants. I’m also a Rotarian so I go to lots of meetings with the Rotary Club. I like to partner with a lot of our nonprofit friends in the valley, so I meet with their leaders as well, and the usual business of fundraising. But I always visit with the animals every day.

Do you have a favorite animal at Happy Hollow?
I probably shouldn’t, but I do. Her name is Chloe the Zebu. She’s personable, she comes when I call her and she’s always happy to see me. She’s really cool. We’ve had her a long time, she just turned 16 this month.

What is the most challenging part of your job?
Fundraising in this climate. Getting people to understand that Happy Hollow is a charity worth supporting. It’s owned and operated by the city of San Jose, but it needs more support now than ever. So the Foundation is called upon to add those bells and whistles that will keep the park growing and thriving, whether it’s with renovating, producing signature events, or anything else that keeps it relevant and on the map.

What is it that keeps you inspired?
The people. The board members, civic leaders and community volunteers, they’re all incredibly dedicated. I hope people understand how hard they work and how strong their passion for animals and children is. It’s those people who are passionate about San Jose.

It’s about San Jose for me, it’s not necessarily all about Happy Hollow. It’s about making a city great. We’re just part of a whole. We have friends at ZERO1 who we partner with, we have friends at the animal shelters. They’re good community partners that understand how to integrate to make San Jose strong.

How do you like to spend your time when you’re not working?
Well work is always on my mind, but my favorite thing is just hanging out in front of a coffee shop with my husband and my best friends drinking coffee and reading the New York Times, talking about issues. I do have two kids and I’m supporting them in their passions as well. I have a son who’s a filmmaker at UCSB and another in high school that loves science and theatre.

What are some of your favorite places in San Jose?
I love Philz, Roy’s, Crema, any independent coffee place. I love hiking in the hills around Quicksilver. I love all the downtown San Jose shopping districts. I’ve lived in Willow Glen for 20 years, it’s a great place to reside. As far as going out, I love The Grill at the Fairmont, it’s awesome. I love downtown. I think it’s under-discovered. I think that people will start to realize Santana Row is very crowded and they’ll start heading downtown more.

If you could change one thing about San Jose, what would it be?
I want the residents to get out of their homes more and participate. I guess in a way I would say we need to raise the collective low self-esteem of the city. We have it all here, the only way to do that is to get out and experience it. We’ve always just been 50 miles south of San Francisco, but the only thing that makes sf cooler is that people up there is that they actually get out and do things!

Who is the most interesting person you’ve met in San Jose?
I’m most intrigued by Bob Kieve. He’s the owner of KRTY and KLIV radio stations. He was a speech writer for Eisenhower. He’s so eloquent and he speaks his mind. He’s just a fascinating person and we’re lucky that he located here in San Jose. He just celebrated his 80th birthday I think, and he’s still incredibly active in the community. I aspire to be that.