Erie's 2018 '40 Under 40'
Sixth class shows no shortage of dedication, talent
A cross cultures and across religions, 40 is a number steeped in symbolic significance. It is the number of years Moses and the Hebrew people wandered the desert before finding the Promised Land. It was the prophet Muhammad's age when he received his first revelation from the angel Gabriel. Forty days is a standard period of fasting in Christianity and Hinduism. Secularly, it is the number of spaces on a Monopoly board, the amount of ounces separating Sublime from freedom, and the highest number ever counted to on Sesame Street.
And since 2013, 40 has been a figure that has figured heavily into the Erie Reader's annual calendar, as the "40 Under 40" feature celebrates the young adults making an impact in the community and keeping Erie's arrow pointed consistently upward. If the multitude of nominations we received is any indication, these are not lean times in terms of our city's longterm outlook. Hundreds of nominations were received, with the finalists carefully selected. From this we've assembled an impressive list of young professionals, entrepreneurs, and activists across an array of disciplines — from lawyers to musicians, from school teachers to head chefs, from hair stylists to gallery owners and more.
There is a saying that "life begins at 40," but these folks are off to one heck of a head start — and as long as they stay on that trajectory, our city and our future stand to be the major beneficiaries.
If you have visited a tattoo parlor and found it clean and safe, you might have Breanna Adams to thank. Her current position as an environmental protection specialist with the Erie County Department of Health has her inspecting everything from restaurants, to pools, to campgrounds, and yes, even body art establishments, and her work has been recognized by the National Network of Public Health Institutes, who awarded her their "Rising Star" honor this past May.
But when she is not "on the job," she is still hard at work for the community, ensuring that everyone maintains their right to basic human dignity with access to good-quality clothing and household items, as the coordinator of the Erie Free Store.
"I want to get people energized and engaged about their community," Adams said.
And with her volunteer role as the culture district coordinator for this year's Celebrate Erie, which aims to broaden our community's exposure to the many vibrant multicultural presences in the area through a marketplace of artisans, merchants and food, close "inspection" reveals Adams is undeniably doing just what she set out to achieve.
Eighteen years ago, Walaa Ahmad moved to the United States from Eritrea. After graduating from East High School, she went on to earn her degree in communications and media studies at Penn State Behrend.
Since graduating, she has enthusiastically advocated for Erie's immigrant community. A former teacher of Ahmad's described her as "tireless," "passionate," and "dedicated" in her pursuit of doing "whatever was necessary" to help new immigrants adjust to their lives in Erie and make her community a better place.
While employed by the Urban Erie Community Development Corporation/E.F. Smith Quality of Life Learning Center, she worked primarily with new Americans, organizing programs, tutoring, coordinating mentoring sessions, helping secure summer employment, and assisting with college, FAFSA, and scholarship applications.
Today, as the assistant director of the Office of Educational Equity and Diversity Programs at Penn State Behrend, Ahmad coordinates mentorship programs and activities for first year students, organizes events that promote social and cultural awareness, and manages community outreach for the university.
"I take my students along with me to volunteer in the Erie community," Ahmad says. "It is a great opportunity for them to serve our community and to connect and network with community members."
She stresses that involving students in the community makes them feel as though they belong in the community — whether working with Erie's youth, walking in the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. March, or participating in the yearly multicultural fair at the Perseus House Charter School of Excellence.
"Erie is a place … with a diverse community, a community that is always striving for excellence," Ahmad adds. "I was provided with support and guidance to continue my education, therefore, I am giving back to my community as much as I can."
Brock Allen is a busy guy.
His company, Tech Tank, has helped innovative businesses design smartphone accessories, cupcake display holders, and trigger-point therapy tools for athletes. Tech Tank has been praised for ensuring companies that "their product will be tested and prototyped properly, adequate market research will be done, and a manufacturing plan will be developed." Allen also works with Everestmedica, where he develops technologies for the orthopedic surgeries market. When that's not keeping him busy, he's either serving up grilled cheese sandwiches inside the Big Cheese Food Truck or overseeing operations at Trinity Lutheran Church, where he serves as president. He's also a father of four (with a fifth on the way) and a licensed pilot.
It's not everyday that you meet someone equally skilled with injection molding and the proper blend of garlic and smoked gouda. And though Allen's multifaceted studies have sent him from Penn State Behrend to UMass to the University of Oxford, he's focused on making change right here by providing technical jobs that encourage our graduates to stay local. His dizzying resume, DIY ethos, and record of accomplishments exemplify what's possible in Erie.
Out of the more interesting job titles a person can have, "pitmaster" has to be near the top. Ryan Atzert, co-owner of Federal Hill Smokehouse is one of those with such a distinction. After opening in the fall of 2016 with his wife Autumn, Federal Hill unarguably earned its place as one of Erie's most successful independent restaurants. In 2017 it won "Best Place to Get Barbecue," "Best New Restaurant (Within Last Two Years)," and the overall "Best New Business (Within Last Two Years)" for the Best of Erie Awards. Whether you refer to it as "Federal Hill" or "Independence Hill," the opening of the restaurant itself served as one of the pivotal points in the resurgence of the small business district around 26th and Peach.
Atzert has long been a proponent of this part of the city, becoming co-owner of Ink Assassins Tattoos and Piercings next door with Eric Michael Schauffele (who co-founded the shop in 2000 with David Steele). The duo also run Schatzert Properties — a tongue-in-cheek LLC portmanteau of their names. An Iroquois graduate, Atzert went to Penn State Behrend, and has been a longtime fixture of the Erie hardcore scene, as well as a fanatic for Philadelphia's sports teams. Happy with being his own boss, he's "most proud of being able to do what I love and work for myself for all these years."
Kristin Bowers serves as one of Erie's prime connections with county government, with colleagues citing her professionalism and commitment to building a better government. Since the summer of 2016, she has handled communications for departments across our county's government, focusing on things like public relations, social media, and a soon-to-be-unveiled new design for the Erie County website. Bowers claims that her "overarching goal is to help connect the residents of Erie County with the services and programs that are available to them through their county government."
Prior to working for the County, Bowers was a seasoned journalist, designer, and copy editor for the Erie Times-News. She still maintains her connections to journalism by serving as an adviser to The Merciad — Mercyhurst University's student newspaper. Her way with words has been crucial to her work as Public Information Officer, which helped the DuBois native to deepen her roots in Erie. With local connections in mind, she also completed the Jefferson Educational Society's Civic Leadership Academy in 2017. "As someone who wasn't raised here but who chose to make a life in Erie, I can clearly see the many advantages that sometimes get overshadowed by naysayers," says Bowers.
For anyone who has visited the ExpERIEnce Children's Museum, Ainslie Ulmer Brosig is likely a familiar face. Since graduating from Central High School and then Penn State Behrend, Brosig has spent the past five years giving back to the city by bolstering the creativity and imagination of Erie's kids as the museum's executive director.
"Erie is a great place to raise a family," Brosig says. "[And] families that play together, stay together!"
Under her watch, the museum has added numerous hands-on exhibits and opened an impressive interactive outdoor classroom. At the same time, she volunteers for PTO events in support of her own three children and serves on the boards of Visit Erie and the Erie Center for Arts and Technology (ECAT).
She also recently spoke in Raleigh, North Carolina at a national conference on children's museums, explaining how she helped transform Erie's children's museum from an organization that was struggling into a flourishing museum prepared to enter the future.
"After the presentation, several attendees came up to me afterwards and said that our story inspired them and made them feel like they too could turn their own museum around," Brosig says. "It seems surreal," she added.
While many Erie transplants can claim to have taken a long path to the Gem City, it's hard to beat Niken Astari Carpenter's 9,897-mile journey. That's how far this 38-year-old traveled from her hometown of Surabaya, East Java Province in Indonesia to get to Erie.
Twice in her life — and in two countries hemispheres apart — Carpenter has built up a professional career from humble beginnings.
Before coming to America, Carpenter went from selling ice in front of a kindergarten in a slum area of Surabaya to serving as a judge in the Indonesian court system after having studied law at the University of Indonesia. Stateside, Carpenter applied that same can-do attitude to go from shelving books at the local library to serving as the executive assistant to Erie Mayor Joe Schember in an administration where she also serves as the Refugee and Immigrant Liaison for the City of Erie.
When she's not working, eating, praying, and sleeping, this Penn State University grad with a degree in project management volunteers at One Table: Erie's Interfaith and Multicultural Bridge Builders, and serves as the Pennsylvania Governor's Advisory Commissioner on Asian Pacific American Affairs. She also currently serves as the President of the American Association of University Women's Erie Branch.
"I want to make Erie to be a more welcoming place for everyone, especially New Americans," Carpenter says of her continued aspirations and ambitions, adding, "I want to help to build opportunity, restore hope, and transform Erie."
Despite having been born in Southwestern Michigan, Monica Clem has spent the last two-and-a-half decades in Northwestern Pennsylvania. When she settled in Erie in 2008 — after having lived in Oil City, Clarion, and Edinboro — she thought the stay would be temporary.
"Ten years later, I've grown to really appreciate that the Erie area offers strong professional career opportunities and a relatively low cost of living compared to many other metro areas," says the Executive Director for Career Development and Experiential Learning at Edinboro University. "I'm encouraged by the economic growth and revitalization of several key areas of the city, and I feel like I can help contribute to this growth by showing students that they can absolutely find or create a great job and good quality of life here."
Outside of the office, the 37-year-old spends time serving on the Public Relations Committee of the Eastern Association of Colleges and Employers and as an active member of the National Association of Colleges and Employers, where she is one of 40 members of the national "Future of We" task force.
Connecting her volunteering and professional realms, this ATHENA member co-launched a chapter of the ATHENA College Connections leadership program at Edinboro, the university where she earned her bachelor's degree in English literature in 2005 and her MA in communications studies in 2008. She has since completed her doctoral degree coursework in organizational learning at Gannon University and is now working on her dissertation.
"I feel very strongly that skilled, educated talent will help move the city forward and attract more employers," she says, adding, "the local universities can do a lot to prevent the 'brain drain' that has plagued the region for too long."
According to some studies, as many as 15 to 25 percent of recognizable pregnancies end in miscarriage. The grief associated with such as loss has often been referred to as silent and unspoken. On May 30, 2007, Tracy and her husband Bryan suffered the tragic, losing their daughter Emma during her eighth month of pregnancy. Understanding how lonely the grief involved in infant and pregnancy loss can be, Tracy co-founded Emma's Footprints in 2013 with Kristen Banocy. Their goal has been to provide a support community for families grieving a similar loss. The organization now helps over 200 families each year, providing not only emotional support, but also financial assistance for burials, cremations, memorials, and counseling services.
"[The purpose is] to continue to walk beside families on their journey after pregnancy and infancy loss and help them get to the other side of grief," Dailey says.
What Emily Dauber saw, when she helped transition the Erie Art Museum Blues and Jazz Festival from a two-day event to a three-day extravaganza, is that a little city like Erie cannot get enough art or music to enrich its parks, streets, halls, and auditoriums.
Now, as the Director of Marketing and Events at the Erie Art Museum, Dauber has the opportunity to "connect and collaborate with community leaders and creatives alike," ensuring that Erie's artistic legacy is one which permeates the city and leaves lasting positivity in its wake.
This Erie native, avid marathon runner, and 2017 graduate of the Jefferson Civic Leadership Academy, who is also currently pursuing an MBA at Penn State Behrend, manages the EAM's entire events calendar, including their enormous summer fundraiser, ARTrageous, and the popular Gallery Night events which must be coordinated all throughout the city.
"Erie is growing by leaps and bounds!" Dauber said. "It is so gratifying to work downtown and see positive changes being made on a daily basis."
All while regularly landing starring roles in Erie's top stage productions, Dominic DelGreco has gained over a decade of teaching experience. An Edinboro University graduate with a love for all things theater (from acting to playwriting and everything in between), DelGreco is a natural storyteller who uses his abilities to spark creativity within the local community, working on behalf of the Playhouse and putting on plays with Sarah Reed Children's Center and even the Barber National Institute.
An actor, director, choreographer and even orchestra member, DelGreco has worked on over 80 different productions for the Playhouse, and over 100 total in the local area. He was also one of the five founding members of Erie's own production company, Dramashop.
"Storytelling can satisfy a thirst for knowledge and offer us an invaluable change in perspective to the world at large," says DelGreco. "It can be a way to expand our understanding by reaching into lives and world views we would have never come into contact with. How could sharing that with a community not improve it?"
You probably know Jennifer Dennehy. She's the one with the hula-hoops, encouraging your kids and your friends' kids (and sometimes you!) to get your body moving at any one of Erie's arts and culture events throughout the year. What you may not know is that those hula-hoops are representative of a much greater repertoire of dance and service to the community. She's developed dance programs for early learners at St. Martin Center for nearly six years, she teaches in the Partners in Dance Program, a collaborative effort between Dafmark Dance and Erie Homes for Children and Adults, and this spring she launched a dance program for people with Parkinson's Disease. These are just a few of the reasons why she was the 2015 recipient of the Bruce Morton Wright Artist of the Year Award from Erie Arts and Culture. Dennehy is a native of North Tonawanda, N.Y., and she's studied psychology at Mercyhurst University and creative dance at Luna Dance Institute in Berkeley, Calif.
Back in 2016, the Erie School District and United Way announced that they were partnering to pilot a new Community School initiative at five city schools, reorganizing district and city resources in a way to better provide for Erie's public school students. The district describes the purpose of the initiative as making schools "become centers of the community, open to everyone, all day, every day, evenings and weekends."
At East Middle School, which is partnered with Hamot Health Foundation and Safe Harbor Behavioral Health of UPMC Hamot, that position went to Jamilia Gates.
"I got the news that I received the position the day before my graduate school graduation," Gates says. "I am just humbled to be able to serve my community in this role."
Gates, a graduate of Collegiate Academy and Marshall and Edinboro universities, is responsible for planning programming for students, parents, and faculty as well as providing resources to the school's surrounding community.
She is also Vice President of the Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc., Rho Sigma Zeta Chapter of Erie Pa., which keeps her active in community service around Erie, and teaches dances to Erie youth on the side. As a community leader, she is particularly passionate about expanding opportunities for minorities and women throughout Erie — and she's off to an impressive start.
If you ever start to feel bleak and dreary, know that there is a vibrant antidote, and it comes in the form of one Emily Lynn George, an Erie native who's kicking butt and bringing the sass.
"I'm just here to turn rust into gold," she said, simultaneously referencing the city's Rust Belt reputation and her creative, playful flair for both shiny and substantially uplifting aesthetics. As the self-proclaimed "boss girl" owner, operator and CEO of Erie's "Best Vintage/Antique Boutique," Pointe Foure (now in its fifth year of operation) over on Independence Hill, George — who has an A. A. in Fashion Merchandising and in Fashion Design — is equal parts entrepreneur, artist, curator and concerned citizen.
When she's not making shop patrons look and feel great, she's doing the same to improve her adopted neighborhood in her role as owner and treasurer of the Independence Hill Collaborative, as well as the wider Erie community, spearheading the publication of the Erie Shopping Guide, promoting and spreading the message of her empowering D.O.L.L. (Dare to Own a Life you Love) project, and volunteering for those less fortunate through the Mercy Center and others with her six-year-old son.
This is what "Keeping Erie Weird" looks like, and Emily Lynn George is here for it.
If you look into Roman Glass' occupation, you will find that he is the co-owner of (and a screen-printing artist at) No Dress Code Studios on State Street. But if you ask someone who knows him — a friend, a co-worker, or the person who nominated him for this list — you'll find that he offers his time to numerous organizations within the Erie community. In addition to No Dress Code Studios, Glass holds a position as a weekday receptionist at the Erie Art Museum. He is a "downtown care captain" for the Renaissance District, working with groups including (but not limited to) Erie Arts and Culture, the Erie Philharmonic, Voices for Independence, Make A Wish and the AJO Forever Foundation.
A husband and a father of three, Glass is noted to be a "family man, entrepreneur and true business leader" who prides himself in his work and dedicates his time to these non-profits with the intent to "get Erie on the map and prove that this is a community of hard-working people and entrepreneurs." And, on the rare occasions he catches a break, he's still hard at work as the frontman for ska-punkers (and Rockerie hall-of-famers) OH NO! It's Mustard Gas.
If you've been attending any of the growing number of multicultural events in Erie recently, chances are that Bakul Gokhale has played a part in organizing one of them.
At the Erie Art Museum's recent Taste of Asia festival, she offered dosas, curries, and chutneys from her native India to raise money for the Erie Asian American Pacific Association, where she serves as vice president. In late May, she helped organize the biennial Asian Festival at Rainbow Gardens. The event featured performances of Indian classical dance, cuisines from various Asian nations, and display booths highlighting the cultures of our immigrant communities. Gokhale has also helps organize the Multicultural Asia Day at the ExpERIEnce Children's Museum and recently piloted a series of cultural evenings for our young people at places like the Asbury School.
Professionally, Gokhale became a Project manager at Erie Insurance in 2017. She holds two master's degrees — one in human resources from Mercyhurst University, and one in tourism and hospitality from India's Garware College of Commerce. She was nominated for this list because she has been "instrumental in bringing new events and strategies" to our region, while partnering our immigrant and minority communities with "various schools in the area to encourage the children to recognize and accept our diverse community."
According to the International Institute of Erie, there are an estimated 20,000 immigrants living throughout the city. At the same time, there is a significant lack of attorneys who have expertise in immigration issues practicing in Erie.
Attorney Gregory James Grasinger, who works for SafeNet as well as his own private practice, is helping to fill that void, ensuring that Erie's immigrant population has accessible representation. As an attorney for SafeNet, but on his own dime and time, Grasinger earned his Advanced Certificate in Immigration Law from the City University of New York. He has worked hard with SafeNet to inform the immigrant community that these services exist in confidence.
At the same time, Grasinger also provides representation in areas of child custody, divorce, support, guardianship, and for victims of domestic abuse.
"I would like to see continued community awareness regarding issues both directly and indirectly involved in domestic violence situations," Grasinger says.
He is deeply involved in the community otherwise as well: he participates in his Neighborhood Watch, is a board member of Erie Arts and Culture, is on the Campus Coordinated Response Team for Mercyhurst University, and is a mentor for the AKT Kid Konnection Program.
Few students, from the moment they receive their college diploma, begin to think, "How can I begin giving back?" But that is what Jessica Gray, the Director of Annual Giving at Edinboro University did.
The 2008 EUP graduate, who also volunteers with H.O.P.E. for Erie Animal Wellness and serves as an Erie Ambassador with the Erie Regional Chamber and Growth Partnership, is responsible for planning and implementing fund campaigns and increasing fund support for EUP, engaging with 65,000-plus alumni via events and campaigns, and overseeing multiple student organizations, such as the Student Philanthropy Council. This, along with her leadership at the Edinboro University Phonathon throughout the year — where she oversaw 22 students and raised nearly $150,000 — has given Gray a unique first-hand perspective into what can be achieved when people embrace their charitable side. It drives her to encourage others to participate, for the benefit of all.
Said Gray, "I want to help build and encourage a culture of philanthropy in this region. Giving back is so important … it's how communities stay strong."
You could say Caitlin Handerhan is good at wearing many different — and at times multiple — hats. Whether it's a literal riding helmet — this 27-year-old Mercer native often can be found riding horses and training herself for a 5K run or half marathons when she isn't at the office — or a figurative cranial adornment, Handerhan carries each with passion and poise.
As the Executive Director of the Public Policy Fund at Penn State Behrend, Handerhan, who earned her Master of Public Administration degree from Cornell University in 2015, teaches political science classes, such as Media & Politics; organizes policy-related events, such as panel discussions and debates; and oversees many other things, such as students' political science internships and a grant program that sponsors research on pressing issues facing Erie. She has also taken point on the Council of Academic Advisors, and if that wasn't enough she'll begin serving as the managing editor of the soon-to-be-launched Behrend Policy Review.
Off campus, she serves as a board member of Emerge PA, an organization that helps train women to run for office.
Prior to the classroom, she spent time on the campaign trail, serving as the campaign manager for Erie County Executive Kathy Dahlkemper's successful 2017 re-election bid.
"I hope to contribute research and interdisciplinary perspectives to the policy discussions driving Erie's resurgence," Handerhan says. "This is a place that I have chosen to make my home, and I want as many people as possible to see all of the great things that Erie has to offer."
When she's not innovating new compounds to use in rubber-to-metal bonded parts for the LORD Corporation's aerospace division, Casey Hedlund spends much of her time giving back to her community by working with local teens in a variety of initiatives including STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) Day and Math Options for Girls. She also teaches Kindergarten classes at LORD's partnership school McKinley Elementary, helps organize STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fairs, Junior Achievement, and is involved in LORD's School to Industry Program, among other things. This DuBois native and Penn State Behrend graduate has authored peer-reviewed industry publications and was one of 30 women under 30 nationally to receive Women in Manufacturing's STEP Ahead Emerging Leaders Award. "Growing up my parents always said, 'Lead by example,'" she remembers. "I love to share my passion for learning, help show opportunities in STEM fields and beyond, and I hope to provide the youth in Erie with an example of positivity and determination."
Since assuming directorship of the Opportunities for Academic Success in Inclusive Settings (OASIS) Program in 2017, Katie Huba has had little trouble fitting in with its mission — to assist students with intellectual and developmental disabilities to fit into both the classroom and society at large. The OASIS Program was instituted in 2007 to nurture basic academic and social skills, as well as the hard and soft skills essential to obtaining gainful employment. Specifically, OASIS offers proficiency-based certificates in the culinary arts, hospitality, business, and early childhood. Huba has been a passionate advocate for special education since the age of 12.
Huba, a graduate of Penn Hills Senior High School and Edinboro University, received a Master's of Science in Applied Behavioral Analysis from Mercyhurst University last year and has swiftly put that degree to use, growing the program significantly within her short time at the helm. "Expanding the OASIS Program … will increase not only our employment rate in the area, but also provide voices to the population within our community that are often not heard. Since my involvement with the program began, I have met many professionals, families, and students in the area who were unaware of the program and what it can possibly help to do." With Huba's recognition here, hopefully all of Erie will soon be in on the loop.
Few stories better exemplify the growing entrepreneurial spirit in Erie than Kenya Johnson's.
After years of mentoring young people at the Trinity Center, this Edinboro graduate decided to open a child care center in her basement about five years back. Within 18 months, the number of kids under her supervision jumped from eight to 65. In partnership with her husband Sean — and with some financial help from the Erie Urban Entrepreneur Program — the Learning Ladder Early Child Care Center soon moved to a 12,000 square foot commercial facility, employing 13 people. One satisfied parent describes it as "a second home for the children who attend."
Johnson, a former Girl Scout leader, is also the co-owner of a real estate business and an occasional volunteer at schools like Wayne Elementary, where she helps young people improve their reading skills. A mother of three, she prioritizes the needs of children in her personal and professional life, noting that "they are our future, so I know if I lay down a great foundation in the care and the programs that I provide for them, they'll be on their way."
Good food is undeniably an art form unto itself. Offering up skillfully crafted dishes takes dedication, innovation, and talent. Chef Michael Karle has worked to achieve just that. As co-owner of Noosa in North East and Bird in Westfield, New York, Karle continues to raise the bar for local cuisine. In the kitchen nearly around the clock, when Karle gets some cherished free time, he spends it outdoors, fishing, boating or hiking, most often at Presque Isle. An Erie native and Cathedral Prep alum, he went on to the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Chicago. From there he spent time as a sous chef at 1201, where he worked with his future collaborator Dan Kern and earned a reputation as a leader among the new generation of local chefs. Recently featured in Pittsburgh's Table Magazine, Karle is proud to be his own boss and get recognition around the region. "I would like to see more variety and bring different things to the food scene in Erie, and it seems like it's starting to come around now," Karle said hopefully, citing the local proliferation of food trucks. "Along those lines, just broadening people's palates with different things. The health conscious movement is headed our way too," Karle said. Citing an increased awareness, he's happy to be "utilizing the local produce and local farms, bringing some healthy — but delicious menu items."
Matt Lager, the youngest-ever partner at Bernard, Stuczysnki, Barnett & Lager, has made a career of sticking up for those who need it most. The Erie County Bar Association Secretary and Super Lawyers "Rising Star" was the recipient of two pro bono awards (i.e. volunteer legal representation) last year through the Pennsylvania Bar Association and the ECBA/Northwest Legal Services. His focuses are self-described as "people who have been injured, either in car accidents or at work, and can no longer afford to make ends meet, and people who have wrongfully been denied Social Security Disability benefits after losing their jobs due to illness or injury. [Also] the firm's marketing, including our television campaign and our online presence [ErieInjury.com]."
The Penn State Law graduate is a native of Newtown, Pennsylvania, but has quickly become fond of Erie since moving here with his wife (also an attorney): "[We] each saw the opportunity in being a part of this city's resurgence … by providing quality legal representation tho those in our community who are the most vulnerable." Lager's commitment to assisting the weak is strong, as evidenced by his involvement in LAVA (Legal Aid Volunteer Attorneys), the Board of Governors of the Pennsylvania Association for Justice (PAJ), the ECBA's Young Lawyer Leadership Committee, and as a guest lecturer speaking up for the rights of the working class. If justice is blind, Lager is guiding it in the right direction.
Carly Larson is a lot of things — the president and CEO of Grant Larson Productions, a designer, a metal forger — but perhaps before all of that, she is a learner.
"I spend my time learning!" she says enthusiastically in regards to her extracurriculars. "I still attend a ton of certificate programs to continue my personal growth." One look at her educational history proves that this infatuation with learning is nothing new; over eight certificates, including fine woodworking, blacksmithing, metal fabricating, and molding and casting, span more than three programs, in addition to her current UCLA Extension Program for Film Production.
But as of right now, Larson remains committed to overseeing company operations and being an executive producer on all Grant Larson Productions. Two years ago, Larson began bringing active film professionals into Erie and helping local filmmakers flourish. Now, it is an extension of her goal to "create a lucrative film hub in Erie to showcase the city and region in all its splendor as well as providing jobs and tourism."
It's been 10 years since Johnny Matters decided to move to Erie for the explicit purpose of tattooing. In his 13 years of working as an artist, he's done work at tattoo shops like Bay City, Karma, and Midtown before finally opening Wayward Tattoo Studios with his business partner (fellow "40 Under 40" alum Corey Thompson) in September 2013. The studio was so successful that they opened a second location in 2016.
A self-taught artist, Matters is not only proud of the numerous publications he's appeared in and competitions he's won, but also the charitable work attributed to the studio. An annual fundraiser by the name of Toys for Tats allows patrons to donate children's toys or pet food in exchange for a small tattoo design. Last year, Wayward received over 200 donations, with all proceeds benefiting the ARC of Erie County and the ANNA Shelter.
"What i would like to do to make Erie a better place is to continue to support and contribute to local events and charities to help our community," says Matters. "I believe Erie could be a great entertainment and event destination for this part of the country."
Owning your personal style and individual identity is more important than ever these days. For five years now, Moxi Hair Salon has been helping people express themselves in beautiful, unique, and colorful ways. Sara McMillan Guerrein founded the shop in 2013, and almost instantly it began building up its clientele, along with a reputation as one the most inventive new businesses around. Recently certified by Green Circle Salons, Moxi has eliminated business waste by 95 percent, achieving a neutral carbon footprint. She implemented gender neutral pricing, with no discrimination or discrepancy between services. Moxi also takes care to use 100 percent cruelty-free products, something that McMillan has long held dear. A vegetarian since age 10, McMillan has a deep love for animals. She's a mother of two, not to mention a parent to four chickens, a rooster, and two dogs. She's also done volunteer work for the Regional Cancer Center, Because You Care, the Erie Art Museum, and coastal clean-ups at Presque Isle. "I would love to educate fellow business owners on how easy it is to be an environmentally sustainable business," she said.
Finding a place to plant some roots had been eluding Rachel Miller. The 37-year-old moved from place to place, mainly living in the Syracuse, N.Y. area. But four-and-a-half years ago, she settled in Erie, Pennsylvania. She's also planted business roots, launching Elusive Fox Boutique at 1503 State St. in the PACA complex after outgrowing her previous studio space. EFB showcases "every possible form of art" Miller can get her hands on, from ceramics to airbrushing to traditional paints to steampunk jewelry and more, including her own Elusive Fox Lacquer, which is on display at her nail polish bar.
But EFB is more than just a home to unique gifts and pieces of art from regional artists. The space also hosts classrooms and live demonstrations, as well as a Veteran-Caregiver Outreach Program and Lounge. "I want to be an advocate for abused and neglected women and disabled veterans and caregivers and work alongside other local charities and nonprofits to increase awareness and aid," said Miller, who takes pride, too, in winning the Future Writers' Award out of 300-plus students in her graduating class, as well as her opportunity to paint murals at places like Pointe Foure Vintage Boutique and Basement Transmissions.
She adds: "I want to work on projects like my SKATE Project, which uplifts and motivates women to be their best version of Strong, Kindhearted, Authentic, Tenacious, and Empowered, and build a foundation of encouragement, collaboration and support between artists, crafters, entrepreneurs, and established business owners."
When the Erie Reader touched base with multimedia journalist Kristen Nielsen, she was the first to tell us about her so-called "double life."
She described her heroic schedule, noting that she's often a "TV news reporter by day, punk rock bassist and backup vocalist by night," as well as a "mom and wife in between!"
The relationship between Nielsen's passions has caused some mild panic in the past — she refers to herself as a "heavily tattooed misfit" who never expected to land a spot on TV — but sure enough, she's worked her way up from a camera operator at JET 24 to a multimedia journalist who pitches, shoots, writes, and edits her own stories for that station alongside FOX 66 and YourErie.com. Before her work as a journalist, Nielsen donated much of her free time to LadyFest, an event meant to empower women within Erie's art and music scenes, raising money for women and children in need. She hopes the event can return soon, but in the meantime, she is focused on Dysmorphia, an all-female punk band tackling difficult social issues.
In today's educational landscape, how we learn is just as important as what we're learning. Backlit touchscreen notebooks and tablets have come to replace their paper and slate predecessors; classrooms readily fit into bags and satchels. Lecture halls will continue to be around, no doubt, but today's student cannot always be in those seats. If that's because they're slacking, it's no fault of Penn State Behrend's Jessica Resig, who as Director of eLearning Initiatives is doing what previous generations would not have dreamed possible — keeping adult learners engaged in their education without necessarily being physically present in class.
Resig designs instruction for online and hybrid courses both locally at Behrend and through the Penn State World Campus, working in close tandem with both students and faculty to stay on the cutting edge of technological trends and maximize results. Outside of work, she volunteers with the nonprofit Designers for Learning, which provides instructional design support for the creation of free open educational resources with the aim of enhancing the literacy and preparedness of adult learners. In addition to teaching several classes herself, the recently christened Doctor of Instructional Design and Technology is mother to a two-year-old son. While others play hooky, Resig is diligently helping bring Erie's future up to speed.
As an educator, Julie Skelly has dedicated herself to improving her community by enriching the lives of her students and fellow teachers. This Fairview native has come full circle from her childhood in the Fairview School District and now serves as the assistant principal at Fairview Elementary School, in addition to being involved in Fairview Cares, the Fairview Schools Foundation, the PMEA (Pennsylvania Music Educators Association), the NEA (National Education Association), and the American Red Cross. Along her path she's earned three master's degrees in education and educational leadership and she shares that desire for excellence with the students and teachers in her school. "I am most proud of empowering and celebrating the teachers in my district who continually put students first," Skelly says. "They share their infectious love of learning, and impact the lives of children through their impeccable instruction and passion." The excellence and passion, she believes, can affect the lives of students and families across the community by connecting teachers and administrators throughout Erie County.
As a community activist, environmentalist, and educator, Sarah Stahlman connects community organizations with governmental and non-governmental institutions for environmental resilience and sustainability. But that's just the beginning. She's an accomplished author whose field guides on aquatic invasive species, which are used in more than 20 states and two Canadian provinces, have become the model for such guides among environmental specialists. This Penn State Behrend and Shippensburg University graduate holds bachelor's and master's degrees in biology. She currently serves as the extension leader for Pennsylvania Sea Grant, a Penn State University Program that focuses on science-based research, education, and outreach to promote the sustainability of Pennsylvania's coastal resources by effectively translating scientific information on environmental issues such as water quality, invasive species, harmful algal blooms, and climate change into useful information that helps to educate Pennsylvania stakeholders on these issues so they can make informed management decisions. "My job is to help provide tools in the toolbox for our stakeholders so that they are fully equipped to care for and manage Pennsylvania's unique coastal resources, like Lake Erie and Presque Isle Bay, as we continue to face environmental stressors like pollution, harmful algal blooms, invasive species, microplastics, erosion, and more," Stahlman says.
An artist, musician, and "numbers guy," Erie native and Penn State grad Nick Taylor works to transform the digital media landscape in Erie. Nick and his wife, "40 Under 40" alum Jess Yochim, started Menajerie Studios five years ago and now employ four full-time associates, churning out some of the finest digital audio, photography, and filmmaking on the north shore. In addition to the visual and professional creative spark that Nick contributes to the community, he's a vocalist and guitarist for the award-winning alt-rock band Falling Hollywood. Through Menajerie Studios and his music, Nick is proof that Erie is a "vibrant entrepreneurial community, and a place to start a business and thrive." Says Taylor, "Erie is already changing for the better and I want to show that to everyone."
For Matt Texter, age really is just a number, and something within him drives him from a regular 9-to-5 as the senior graphic artist at Lamar Advertising Co. to late-night gigs as a fixture in Erie's local music scene, typically without pausing for breath. Throw in a young family, including wife Abby and their two boys, and you start to wonder how he manages to do it all.
"I'm willing to run low on energy to do the things that I love," Texter said. "Creating and connecting with people are what makes me feel alive."
On top of his two musical acts, crowd-favorite Bootlegger's Bible Club and new project Bootjack, Texter is also deeply committed to improving the community through volunteer work, protecting women's reproductive rights, and promoting compassionate immigration policies. He's also a dedicated lover of vinyl records, hosting vinyl night dance parties and local record swaps. He was also recently elected as the Erie County Democratic Committeeman for the Sixth Ward, Ninth District.
And when the Erie County Library asked Texter to be their Artist in Residence for this summer, he found the room in both his life and his heart to accept. Without a doubt, Erie is a better place for it.
Jo Theisen has been dancing practically all her life — from kindergarten to Mercyhurst University (as a dual major in Dance and World Languages and Cultures) all the way to the court of law. The balance, grace, and coordination she's derived from ballet and modern dance have also served her well as a family law practitioner. She earned her law degree from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland (while also performing professionally with the Ballet Theatre of Ohio) before returning to Erie to work with a mid-sized firm and ultimately establishing her own practice with partner Andrea Amicangelo in 2017. Says Amicangelo: "Jo is an excellent example of an accomplished woman who balances both the creative and professional worlds in her life. I believe this makes her a more open, insightful forward-thinking, yet disciplined individual."
The Board President of the Erie Contemporary Ballet Theatre and Board Co-President of the Erie Dance Consortium is equally adept at choreographing routines (one of which was selected for the Regional Dance America Northeast Festival in Manchester, N.H. this spring) and resolutions between families embroiled in difficult legal conflicts as a mediator and collaborative practitioner. Theisen serves on the board of directors for the Erie County Bar Association, including as vice-chair of the ECBA Family Law Section. She is also involved with the Erie Women's Fund and ATHENA Circle of Trust. Her objectives for a better Erie include providing "people with a healthier way to resolve their family law issues by offering individualized out-of-court resolution services" and "uniting and strengthening the dance scene in Erie." Nominators agree that Theisen is going through the motions the right way.
A champion of healthy living, Tyler Travis oversees a key part of one of our region's largest players — the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine. The John M. and Silvia Ferretti LECOM Health and Wellness Center serves as a community conduit, offering world-class facilities, and at the heart of it you can find Travis, the center's director. "As a community," Travis explained, "we can eliminate many diseases such as diabetes and heart disease by moving more, sitting less, and eating sensibly." The 82,000 square foot building is open to the public, and features a full gym, swimming pools, basketball and racquetball courts, as well as classes and health screenings. A graduate of Penn State Behrend and Minnesota State-Mankato, Travis holds certifications from the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), the National Strength and Conditioning Association, and USA Weightlifting. His commitment to staying active rings true even after work — he's also a strength and conditioning coach for Mercyhurst Hockey, an affiliate instructor for the American College of Sports Medicine, and Volunteer Chair for the 2018 American Heart Association Heart Walk. Travis' charming positivity truly shines through from the moment you meet him. He reasons simply that "when it comes to improving health and well-being, it doesn't have to be complex."
If home molds our core values and biases, it's clear that Tom Tredway is Erie through and through. After graduating from Lehigh University, he took a position with Ameriprise Financial in Annapolis, Md. It would not be long, however, before Tredway returned to the town — and the people — that helped make him who he is. The company Tom's father (Phil) founded in the early 1980s, Erie Molded Plastics, had fallen on hard times by 2006, losing nearly half its business in the custom injection molding industry to offshore competition. One might chalk Tredway's homecoming up to a filial sense of duty, but nominators say that is not the case: "Tom didn't need to move to Erie. He chose to because it's his favorite place."
And why not? The natural bounties of the region appeal to him greatly as a triathlete, skier, boater, and husband and father to two daughters. Besides helping to lead the family company back from the brink (Tom heads Erie Molded Plastics' highly successful stock packaging division, EMP Closures), he also has been involved in several community organizations throughout the years, including leadership roles with the Erie Regional Chamber and Growth Partnership, Montessori Regional Charter School, Stairways Behavioral Health, and Manufacturer's Association of Plastics Processors (MAPP).
Says Tredway: "I think that Erie can be what we want it to be. It can be a Rust Belt town with a self-image problem, bad winters and an erosion of well-paying jobs and young talent. Or it can be a community that has optimism, offers a high quality of life, has gorgeous natural assets, four seasons, and individuals and businesses that are committed to investing in our region. I want to do my part to contribute to the second narrative."
At the forefront of Erie's downtown revitalization is Velocity Network (VNET), providing IT services and fiber optic cable to homes and businesses throughout the region. As VNET continues to grow and shape the future of the city (at its new headquarters in the fully renovated Rothrock Building at 121 W. 10th St.), gaining new clients and offering important services, Matt Wiertel, the company's Director of Sales and Marketing is one of the people committed to leading that charge. "Our team is committed to moving the community forward by deploying the advanced infrastructure that the next generation requires," Wiertel explained. The former president and longtime member of Young Erie Professionals met his wife, Shannon (herself a 40 Under 40 honoree), at one of the organization's meetings. With her help, he was set on a course for a healthier lifestyle, losing 50 pounds in the process thanks to a newfound love of running. The two recently welcomed their baby son, Leo, to the family. A graduate of both Mercyhurst Prep and Penn State Behrend (where he now serves on the Political Science Department Advisory Board), he's also currently the Treasurer of the Jefferson Leadership Academy. An Erie native, he cares about the future of our region, describing the urge "to build a better Erie and to encourage more young families to relocate and stay in the community. Erie has the potential but we need the commitment and courage to collaborate to leave a better community for the next generation."
During her first year as director of our public library system, Erin Wincek has worked to ensure that Erie is "not just innovative, but also equitable and visionary." Under her leadership, the Erie County Public Library unveiled its new Idea Lab, which provides curious local innovators with access to 3D printers, recording equipment, video cameras, and sewing machines. "There is tremendous empowerment in being able to design and create things," says Wincek. "Libraries provide access to those abilities to everyone regardless of their current situation in life."
Described as "young and dynamic" by Deborah Fallows of The Atlantic Monthly, Wincek is committed to transforming the role of the library in the 21st century. Being able to "help provide access to maker skills in both rural and urban communities in Pennsylvania through library services, and then witnessing the results that have emerged and are still emerging, has been the most exciting part of my library career," according to Wincek.
When not overseeing operations at our libraries (or riding along with our bookmobile), Wincek is also a member of the Preservation Erie Board of Directors, and the co-chair of the Boulevard Park Neighborhood Association, which works to implement improvements on the lower west side of our city. She believes that "positive change comes through positive action" — and she practices what she preaches.
"Action inspired by creativity is my mantra," says Arpan Yagnik, an assistant professor of advertising at Penn State Behrend. "Instead of our actions being inspired by greed, insecurity, fame, monetary gain or being propelled by fear, I advocate actions inspired by creativity."
And this Ahmedabad, India native should know a thing or two about creativity — he wrote a book on it. Creative Aerobics: Fueling Imagination in the 21st Century, co-authored with Linda Conway Correll, hit bookstores in 2017, a year after he discussed the same topic from the TEDx stage at Penn State Behrend.
The fact that both happened in Erie for Yagnik? "There is something incredible in the air of Erie that motivates and enables," says the 33-year old, who earned his Ph.D. in Media and Communication from Bowling Green State University.
When he's not practicing his creative aerobics with his mind, Yagnik gets his body moving, as an avid fan of badminton, volleyball, racquetball, and dancing. Engaging both his mind and body, he also enjoys playing the tabla, an Indian percussion instrument.
So in principle and in practice, Yagnik's a pretty creative guy.