Twila True's Heart is in Two Worlds
She grows OC businesses while being a voice for her native people.
Twila True’s preferred way to reach Pine Ridge, the vast, impoverished Sioux territory in South Dakota, is by small chartered plane, enabling her to avoid the commercial airport in Rapid City 90 miles to the north. The approach takes her directly over beautiful rolling countryside. If she arrives in the evening, True enjoys a sense of special treatment as she descends toward the reservation’s tiny landing strip.
“As soon as I call and let them know I’m coming, they turn the lights on and light up the runway,” she says, laughing. “We’re probably the only ones that use it.”
True, an Oglala Sioux whose parents were raised on the reservation, lives a luxurious Newport Beach lifestyle far removed from the widespread unemployment, alcoholism and other entrenched social problems of Native Americans living in one of the poorest places in the country. A co-founder and CEO of Irvine-based True Investments, she also runs a fledgling chain of upscale nail studios dubbed Polished Perfect. True spends much of her scant free time yachting, playing tennis, and enjoying film and fine dining.
Still, she embraces her heritage. Two-year-old Taylor Warrior True, the youngest of her four children, was born at Pine Ridge and adopted soon afterward by True and her husband, Alan.
“Warrior” was the girl’s original last name. “I kept that,” True says, laughing. “If that isn’t an empowering name! I think for a female, she’s got to do something with that name!”
True straddles contrasting worlds, breezing through Orange County’s high-glam corporate culture in her business suits, yet retaining the sensibilities of her people. Along with her dark eyes and flowing dark hair, she has an easy laugh and speaks often of fun. “She’s very soulful and centered,” says Alan True, who met her on a blind date 17 years ago, when a waiter immediately asked if they were married. “Her Native American side gives her a real grounded personality. She’s strong but understated – very, very gentle.”
True’s goal now is to shine whatever light she can on the struggling Sioux nation. At a crowded kick-off reception earlier this year on the Newport Coast, she unveiled the True Sioux Hope Foundation, a nonprofit aimed at calling attention to the tribe and raising money to fight its many social problems – the lack of jobs and adequate housing, alcoholism, drug abuse, despair, suicide.
“Most people here don’t know that Pine Ridge exists,” True says, even though nearly 18,000 Sioux inhabit a swath of 3,500 square miles. The tribe needs a voice, she says. “I can do that – I can be a voice.”
Pine Ridge is perhaps best known as the site of an 1890 massacre of Native Americans near Wounded Knee Creek and a protest there in 1973 in which activists seized control of a small community, creating national headlines but accomplishing little to address the economic plight of the reservation. Many who live at Pine Ridge now, never leaving the reservation, have no running water, electricity or telephones in their homes. A large number do not own cars. “They’re going around on horses,” True says. “You look across these beautiful plains and there are these kids, who resemble me with black hair, long and braided, racing bareback. You can’t help but feel a tribal instinct about that.”
One of True’s hopes is to help the elderly who cannot afford to heat their homes during the brutal South Dakota winters, says Jeffrey Whalen, who grew up at Pine Ridge and now runs the tribe’s employment legal-rights office.
Some homes are jam-packed with 25 people, Whalen says. Unlike other reservations newly rich with gambling dollars, Pine Ridge is too remote from major urban centers to profit much from its one modest casino. The reservation has a single grocery store, Whalen says. When residents collect their food stamps and welfare checks, they make the long drive to Rapid City to go to Wal-Mart, and money leaks beyond the Pine Ridge borders.
Jobs are so hard to get, Whalen says, that after he lost his previous gig, as the tribe’s transportation director, he was forced to live for nine months in a van.
“I damn near died,” he says. “Luckily, one of my cousins let me live in a warehouse, and I used a space heater.” True asked Whalen to provide her with a list of business startups that would make a difference, and Whalen suggested another grocery and a clothing store. “Twila knows it’s a dire situation here,” he says. “Every time I talk to her she’s looking for projects to help. Everybody appreciates what she’s doing.”
Zambia-born videographer Jacek Kropinski, who now lives in Los Angeles, traveled with the Trues to Pine Ridge to film a documentary about conditions there. He says he was horrified by the neglect that the Sioux endure but also impressed by the way they help each other. “Nobody will go without food, nobody will go without shelter,” Kropinski says.
True embodies that spirit. “Everywhere Twila went there was hope,” Kropinski says, adding: “She has no need to do any of this. She’s a fabulously wealthy and successful woman.”
True, who is 44, is guarded in discussing her childhood but says her own life was touched by the alcoholism so rampant on the reservation. Her parents were moved, as part of a relocation program, to San Gabriel, where Twila grew up. She demonstrated a precocious business acumen at Synthane Taylor, a manufacturer of printed circuit boards, where she rose from the accounting department to become CEO in charge of 300 employees – while still in her 20s. She then sold out to a major nationwide engineering firm.
“I was dating my husband at that time,” True remembers. “I said, ‘Good news, I sold the company to Terradyne, and I have two other job offers. I either get to move to New York or Oregon.’ I was so happy.”
Alan True was anything but pleased, certain that a long-distance relationship was doomed. He proposed a wholly different course – marriage. The wedding took place on a bluff at the Resort at Pelican Hill. Twila made a grand entrance in a horse-drawn buggy guided by men in top hats and tails. Soon afterward, the newlyweds were spending much of their time in China.
Her new husband was a rising business star himself. Alan True, who hailed from tiny Goodland, Kansas, had studied economics at the University of Colorado at Boulder and gone off to seek his fortune in the world’s burgeoning trade colossus – China. He created tabletop games, including a miniature pool table, for Brookstone and Sharper Image. He learned to speak Chinese and set up a company to design and build office chairs for export to the United States.
Licensing the imprints of top manufacturers such as Thomasville, Broyhill and La-Z-Boy, Alan True matched his designs to brand identities and became the kingpin of a global office-chair juggernaut.
“Our goal was to go from concept to cargo in 90 days,” he says. “We used our brands and speed to market to dominate the business.”
During the decade from 2000 to 2010, the Trues continued to build True Innovations while also growing their family. They had a son named Brandon, now 14, followed two years later by Alan Jr., or A.J. Angelina came along five years after that.
Twila also embarked on philanthropy, establishing the True Children’s Home near Alan’s design center in southern China. The home took in orphans with severe or life-threatening medical problems and tried to get them well before placing them with adopting families. If a baby needed surgery, the organization arranged it, Alan True says.
“These children were destined to die in the care of an orphanage. They had little or no hope of survival,” he says. The home’s efforts, thanks to Twila’s determination, probably saved 100 children, he estimates. Upon recovery from their medical problems, the children were moved into foster care until adopting parents could be found. “Children were placed all over the world – Europe and the United States and even in China.”
In 2011, Alan True sold his firm to Hong Kong-based Li & Fung and the children’s home merged with Love Without Boundaries. The Trues returned to California and settled in a large, art-filled European contemporary home at the water’s edge on Harbor Island, where they enjoy the quintessential Newport Beach power-couple lifestyle.
They ply the harbor in a Duffy and cruise on their 53-foot yacht. They dine at Gulfstream and A Restaurant. Twila loves the steak sandwich and the martinis. They take their children to movies at Fashion Island. Besides the kids, they have three dogs and an African grey parrot named Lola, who occasionally accompanies Twila to work.
“She bought the egg and hatched the bird and now the bird is in love with her,” says Alan, who reports that its first words were, “Hi, Lola,” and “Quiet, Lola.” Lola makes a racket when Twila is on the phone. “She has to put people on mute and say, ‘Quiet, Lola,’ ” Alan says, laughing.
For a while, Twila played tennis every day, but business now consumes her. Her company is building a network of rental homes. When she voiced interest in launching another philanthropic project, Alan suggested she reach out to the Sioux at Pine Ridge, a tribe “as desperate as any Third World population.”
As she opens her upscale Polished Perfect nail studios, True hopes to staff them with Native Americans who will learn careers in the trade.
“As a person, I find her incredibly likable, almost instantly,” says one admirer, retired venture capitalist and hedge-fund manager Chuck Martin, who is married to a Twyla and was surprised to meet another one. “She’s an amazing entrepreneur. She always has a smile on her face. For someone who works her derriere off, it’s remarkable. She has great energy. She is a little dynamo.”