Creating the future...one frame at a time.

Administrative Staff

ernie merlan
Ernie Merlan, Executive Director
Ernie Merlán is the Executive Director of Exceptional Minds,  a non-profit school and digital media studio serving young adults on the autism spectrum.  With a dedicated team of parents, board members, behaviorist, teachers, support staff and industry professionals Ernie has architected a one of a kind 3yr program that teaches social skills side by side with the technical skills Hollywood is actually looking for.
"In a previous life I had over twenty years of experience in the entertainment industry, 12 years working with Imagineering projects: Indiana Jones, Inventions  and Tokyo Disney Seas. My television and motion picture projects include: Pee Wee's Playhouse,  The Mask of Zorro, and Dance with Me. As CEO of Merlán Creative Studio, I managed top creative talent to produce content for clients like Disney, Universal, and ABC. However, I learn more everyday working with our students than I every did in the entertainment business. When visionaries asked me to help build a school for these Exceptional Minds, that was nowhere on my bucket-list. Today, I can't imagine doing anything else!"
E-Mail: info@exceptionalmindsstudio.org

Yudi Bennett, Co-Founder

Yudi is a Directors Guild of America Frank Capra Lifetime Achievement Award winner and a distinguished member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences with credits in over 30 movies, including  “Broadcast News” and “Kramer vs. Kramer.” She holds a Masters degree in Communication and a certificate from the LEND Program (Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental Disabilities) at USC/Children’s Hospital L.A.  Yudi is a founding member and past president of Foothill Autism Alliance, Inc. (www.foothillautism.org) and currently serves on the FAA Board. Inspired by her son, Noah, a young filmmaker and animator who was diagnosed with ASD in 1997, she is a co-founder of Exceptional Minds and continues to be a driving force behind the school.
E-Mail: info@exceptionalmindsstudio.org

Benjamin Maixner, Principal and Behavior Analyst

Benjamin has been providing behavioral services for both typically developing, those on the autism spectrum as well as other special needs children for the last decade. In addition to behavioral consulting, he has worked with children in a number of other capacities including: grade school teacher, academic tutor, sports coach, theatre instructor and camp counselor.

Lupe Ramos-Silva, Director of Development

A versatile development professional who has served in multiple nonprofit organizations she comes to EM with 20 years of experience. Her nonprofit career begun with ALSAC/St. Jude Children’s where she served as Associate Director for the Pacific Region. As second in command to the Regional Director managing a two office region staff and volunteers fundraising within 10 western states. Overseeing an administrative budget of 4.5 million dollars that produced 7 million of fundraising revenues a year.

Most recently she served as Development Director for SAJE (Strategic Actions For a Just Economy) a social justice non-profit in South LA. She also served as Marketing and Development Director for the Specialty Family Foundation (SFF) in support of inner-city Catholic schools. Prior to SFF she served as the first Corporate Director of Development for Streetlights Production Assistant Program, a job-training program for at-risk youth that promotes diversity and serves the Entertainment Industry. In addition, Lupe served as Director of Corporate events for the American Heart Association, managing a number of special events, where she successfully created cause-related corporate partnerships.

Before her entry into the nonprofit arena, Lupe had a successful career in sales and marketing with the AVON Corporation. She also launched and pioneered the idea of marketing films to the Latino market place with Direct Impact, her own marketing and promotions company that serviced the Entertainment Industry. Lupe and her husband live in Tarzana with pets “Max” and “Tails”.

E-Mail: lupe@exceptionalmindsstudio.org

Suzette Major, Finance and Benefits Manager

Suzette has an extensive record of accomplishment as a finance and accounting professional supporting the business efforts of companies in diverse industries, including real estate, film production, and financial services makes her a strong leader in her field. With extensive expertise in financial management, cost containment, internal controls, and process automation, Major founded The Lambert Paul Group, a successful consulting practice to help her clients establish and maintain effective operations.

Major completed her Bachelor of Science in Economics from the University of California at Los Angeles.  She resides in Glendale, California with her husband and two sons. Major was inspired to work at Exceptional Minds because her oldest son, Asher, has high-functioning Autism.

E-Mail: suzette@exceptionalmindsstudio.org


Tayah Howard, Operations Manager
Tayah has worked internationally as an Animation Production Coordinator, Theatre Instructor, and Team Manager for the British charity: The Westminster Society for People with Learning Disabilities working specifically with children. Due to her wide range of career experience, when she discovered Exceptional Minds, she knew she wanted to become a part of the EM team!
E-Mail: tayah@exceptionalmindsstudio.org

Emily Gale, M.S. BCBA, Behavioral Consultant
Emily graduated from CSUN with her Master's of Science in Behavior Analysis. She has provided behavioral services in home, schools, and clinic settings for developmentally delayed and typically developing children and adults for the past five years. Her strengths include teaching attending skills and increasing focus, teaching activities of daily living skills to increase independence, increasing social skills and functional peer interaction, and decreasing problem behaviors associated with phobias.
E-Mail: emily@exceptionalmindsstudio.org

Jill Davis, Office Manager
Everything I've done in my life has led me to Exceptional Minds. From college where I majored in art history and education to raising my two daughters and being of service in my community.  The opportunity and responsibility I have been given here is  extraordinary.  I take great pride in our students and what we accomplish daily at Exceptional Minds.
E-Mail: jill@exceptionalmindsstudio.org

Maria Venditti, Development Assistant
Maria has a BA in English Philology (literature and linguistics) and a degree in Spanish-English Translation.  S he has lived in London, Madrid and Buenos Aires  and  has  worked as a part -time  teacher at both secondary  and university - level institutions.  Soon after arriving in th e U.S.,  Maria became part of  the Exceptional  Minds parents'  community when her son, Nico, became a full - time student in 2013 . After working for some months as a volunteer, she  is now part of the  EM Staff.
E-Mail: maria@exceptionalmindsstudio.org

Ronalis Naveo, Program Associate
Ronalis’ love comes from being able to help others and nurturing people’s differences. He is a Columbia College Chicago graduate, where he studied Psychology and Theater performance. He is also a New York City native.
While studying in Chicago, Ronalis worked at the Museum of Broadcast Communications, where he was in charge of the Radio Studio. He combined his study of psychology and theater and turned it into an interdisciplinary major, where he was able to focus in both theater performance art and positive psychology. Through his psychology studies, Ronalis was able to use psychology to develop his characters and the world his characters lived in.
Ronalis moved to LA to pursue his acting career and along his Journey he found Exceptional Minds, which he now considers his LA family. It has been a great two years for him and now, not only is he still pursuing his acting career, but he really wants to make a difference in the lives of people with autism or any other abilities. One thing Ronalis loves to say is that the students at Exceptional Minds are not disabled, they are very able and willing to follow their passions once we nurture their needs. He also loves to say “EVERYTHING IS AWESOME!”
E-Mail: ronalis@exceptionalmindsstudio.org


Teaching Staff

Kat Cutright, Academic Lead Instructor
Kat is a scenic artist and sculptor with 15 years of professional practice. Her current interests explore the social function of visual art and user-interface design. Kat holds a Masters of Fine Art (MFA) in Sculptor from Cranbrook Academy of Art.

Josh Dagg, Instructor

Josh is a visual effects artist and supervisor, graphic artist, digital multimedia creator, and video editor, who has done effects work and supervised student artists’ work for feature films like Golden Globe winner “American Hustle”. Perhaps his best training came from his youngest brother, who was diagnosed with ASD, who has shown him the potential for learning, growth, and artistic expression that people with ASD can possess.



  • Adobe Photoshop CS5 & CS6
  • Adobe Flash Professional CS5 & CS6
  • Adobe Premiere Pro CS5 & CS6
  • Adobe Dreamweaver CS5 & CS6
  • Adobe Illustrator
Email: josh@exceptionalmindsstudio.org

Randi Derakhshani, Instructor
Randi teaches 3D and visual effects at various colleges.  Randi has worked as a digital artist and technical director for games and movie projects with Gizmo Games, RJB Enterprises and Sony Imageworks. Along with production work Randi is also a published author for 3ds Max and Autodesk training manuals and also works closely with Autodesk as an Autodesk Certified Instructor.

Alineh Garbellini - Ghazarian, Instructor
Bio coming soon...


Jessica "Jess" Jerome, Instructor
Jess has had a passion for the animation and film for as long as she can remember. She earned her Bachelor of Science in Media Arts and Animation at the Art Institute of California- Orange County and has had a little over 3 years working in the game industry. She has worked on game titles such as “Hunted: The Demon’s Forge” to the most recent “Wasteland 2”. Not only is she an accomplished Animator but a Caricature Artist and Percussionist as well. She believes that the best way of learning is to be hands on and most importantly have fun with it.
E-Mail: jessica@exceptionalmindsstudio.org


Kristin Kucia, Instructor
Kristin is a published author, former college writing professor, and faculty in the EM Work Readiness Program. Kristin brings her extensive experience, expertise, and knowledge in curriculum development, teaching special populations, and issues related to young adults with Autism to the EM community. She is inspired by her son, Thaddeus Stauder, an animator with Autism.
E-Mail: kristin@exceptionalmindsstudio.org


William Payer, Instructor
William 2015 Graduate from California State University Long Beach with a Bachelor's Degree in Fine Art with an emphasis in Animation / Illustration and a Minor in Marketing.  Since the age of 12 has been educating himself in the field of computer graphics and video game design.  Has attended various art intensive workshop at Pepperdine University (2D Video Game Design), UCLA (3D Video Game), and Digipen University (3D Computer Animation).  Has extensive knowledge in programs like Adobe's Photoshop, Illustrator, Flash, and Autodesk's Maya.  Screen Actors Guild Member since 2003, has extensive experience working in the professional production pipelines. Spends his spare time as a advocate and programs director for the Arthritis Foundation.
E-Mail: william@exceptionalmindsstudio.org

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Eddie Sotomayor, Webmaster, IT, Instructor

Eddie has always been actively involved in the arts. At the young age of seven one of his paintings was featured in a Los Angeles based print publication. He has had a passion for art and design since he was a child and has become rather successful in the creative community. He has earned an associates in Adobe Photoshop and Dreamweaver. Eddie has worked as a graphic and web designer for over 15 years and is also involved in the music industry. As a self taught DJ, he has had the privilege of playing with artist like Paul Oakenfold, Mark Lewis, and Groove Radio's Swedish Eagle. As a jack-of-all-trades, Eddie also has a Degree in Electronic Engineering, an ear for music and a love of design. He has recently joined Exceptional Minds as an Instructor that is bound to encourage and inspire the students.



  • Adobe Photoshop CS
  • Adobe Dreamweaver CS

E-Mail: eddie@exceptionalmindsstudio.org