Petite yet powerful, double the energy of the energizer bunny, endlessly selfless — these are the words used to describe beloved champion of local organizations Iao Katagiri whose resume of community contributions is almost too long to list.

Katagiri, who died from a swift progression of cancer at age 70, will live on through the countless programs, donations and partnerships she enabled in Santa Monica.

Katagiri worked at the RAND Corporation from 1975 to 2016 where she began her career as a researcher and went on to serve for many years as the Director of Community Relations. According to those who knew her, Katagiri seemed to only become busier in retirement, doubling down on her commitments to the many non-profit boards she served on.

“She had a strong moral compass, was tireless in terms of energy level and was really at her best when she was helping other people, particularly people who came from disadvantaged backgrounds or had other obstacles that they were capable of overcoming if only they had help. She prided herself on enabling people like that to succeed,” said Michael D. Rich, president and CEO of the nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization RAND.

It was Katagiri who began the internal push for RAND to become better involved in the Santa Monica community, recognizing both the value the community could provide to RAND and the value RAND could bring to the community. As a result of her persistent advocacy she was appointed as the first Director of Community Relations and used the role to professionally embody her personal commitment to be of service to others.

One of her many accomplishments in this position was successfully securing RAND a vast new campus for its research in Downtown Santa Monica, despite stiff land-use controls and a voter ballot referendum designed to defeat the plan.

“I think without Iao it was very, very possible we would have had to find another home and she provided the staying power and intellectual leadership for us to go through the process, overcome all the political obstacles and we’re just very, very grateful and appreciative that we had her in the position we did,” said Rich.

While at RAND, Katagiri also contributed to one of the organization’s largest ever projects, which focused on a better way to provide affordable housing to low-income households. Additionally, Katagiri helped raise $8 million to launch the Institute for Civil Justice at RAND.

Katagiri became involved in many local organizations through her role as the Director of Community Relations, but it soon became clear that this commitment was driven by a fierce passion and not a job responsibility as she stacked up title upon title.

At the time of her death, Katagiri was chair of the board of directors of Providence Saint John’s Health Center, vice chair of the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce (which she had chaired 2009 to 2010), and co-chair of the Early Childhood District Advisory Committee of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District. She was immediate past president of Connections for Children, and past co-chair of the City of Santa Monica’s Early Childhood Task Force. Katagiri also served on the boards of the Santa Monica College Associates and of WISE & Healthy Aging, where she was vice chair.

“She didn’t acquire those board memberships and leadership positions to just burnish her resume, she was active in each and every organization and I think were you did check with them, you’d hear about the substantive contribution she made to each one,” said Rich.

One organization where Katagiri made an especially significant impact is Santa Monica College. Katagiri played a pivotal role in the opening of SMC’s Early Childhood Lab School and connected the college to an influential donor, Ann Wang, who went on to contribute $1 million to various SMC education and equity initiatives.

“She was someone who was just constantly reaching out in a very selfless way to engage others and always thinking about other people,” said Dr Kathryn E. Jeffrey, SMC superintendent and president. “She was such an amazing person and she will be missed by many, but because we knew her, because we had a chance to engage with her, we will see the benefits of that interaction for many, many years.”

Even in sickness, Katagiri continued to work on a tuition assistance fund named in her honor. The IAO Katagiri fund was titled by Katagiri with the I-A-O intended to stand for Integrity and Optimism. The fund is a project of the Santa Monica College foundation and seeks to raise $100,000 to provide tuition assistance for SMC’s early education lab school.

“For someone who was so petite and powerful at the same time, she found a way to connect those dots, connect the people, make things happen and never for herself. She was always so willing to put in the hard work and the effort to make change happen for people who needed it and didn’t have a voice,” said Kiersten Elliott, SMC dean of community & academic relations.

Katagiri was granted numerous accolades for her community contributions including the Santa Monica Chamber’s Roy E. Naylor Lifetime Achievement Award.

“The board of directors of the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce joins the entire Santa Monica community in mourning Iao’s passing,” said Michael Ricks, Chair of the board of directors and chief executive of Providence Saint John’s Health Center, “Iao was a tireless community leader, children’s advocate, and all-around wonderful person. Her mark on Santa Monica will remain for years to come.

Photo credit RAND Corporation/Diane Baldwin