40 Under 40 Alumni Continue to Show Moxie
Despite challenging year, individuals show no quit
The newest class of Erie's 40 Under 40 has just been inaugurated, but innovation, entrepreneurship and civic engagement in the city never stops. We're delighted to revisit three past recipients: Sara McMillan (2018), Kate Neubert-Lechner (2014), and Matt Texter (2018), all of whom have continued the work of making Erie a better place to live and do business, and all of whom have seen their personal and professional lives disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic in a variety of ways. But they persist; let's learn, and be inspired by, how.
Sara McMillan, 2018
Owner, Moxi Hair Salon
Cara J. Suppa (CJS): Catch us up -- what's new, what's different with you and the Moxi Hair salon since then?
Sara McMillan (SM): I purchased a new location for Moxi at 1722 W. Eighth St. in Nov. 2018. I spent six months renovating it into an updated eco-conscious building and opened it in March 2019! I've grown the team into five diverse and talented stylists. Personally, I recently became engaged and we had our wedding planned for July 3, 2020. Due to COVID-19 we rescheduled it for next July.
CJS: There is no denying how disproportionately difficult the era of COVID has been for service-based businesses. Can you describe what the spring and summer were like for you and the staff at Moxi?
SM: Our last day of operations before the COVID shutdown was March 14. We anticipated being closed for a few weeks, we had no idea it would be 15! I kept in touch with them through daily and weekly check-ins and we attempted a few Zoom meetings to brainstorm ideas for reopening. I created a Facebook community group for local beauty business owners called "Erie Area Beauty Business Owners" — it grew into a wonderful, supportive community.
I spent a lot of time working on my business during those 15 weeks. I took the time to really dig deep into my business and the path of growth I want us to be on. I stayed optimistic by viewing this situation as a great opportunity to grow as a business owner and leader.
CJS: Now that you are able to open up again, have you found any additional difficulties with the new COVID-based regulations in place, while also keeping with the salon's mission of sustainability?
SM: The standards the state board of cosmetology and CDC have set for us are very close to what we have always adhered to. We have altered the layout of the salon so all guests are 10 feet or more apart and we never have more than three clients and three stylists in the building. The clients stay in their chairs the entire length of their visit to help control cross-contamination … but the capacity dictates limit the amount of clients we can accommodate each day.
Some of the new guidelines are very difficult to follow in an environmentally friendly way, unfortunately. Thankfully, our sustainability partner Green Circle Salons has updated their intake process so we can now send them any PPE. So even after all the new protocol, we are still able to divert 95 percent of our waste from landfills and keep our sustainable beauty mission going strong even in a global health pandemic.
Kate Neubert-Lechner, 2014
Executive Director, Erie Playhouse
CJS: When you were part of the class of 2014, it was for your work with the Make-A-Wish Foundation; now, you are the executive director at the Erie Playhouse. Your original write-up cited your ability to inspire and bring joy to people, especially young people and their families, in our area. Do you feel that stepping into your new role at the Playhouse broadened your ability to do this?
Kate Neubert-Lechner (KNL): I absolutely feel like I have been able to expand my ability to reach our community in positive ways! Shortly after being part of the class of 2014, I was hired as the Youtheatre/education director at the Playhouse and was in that position before being hired to serve as the executive director. During my time as Youtheatre director, I was able to develop and administer the PLAYtime program in conjunction with United Way's Imagination Library. My past and current position at the Playhouse have put me in a position to connect with a larger portion of the Erie Community and to partner with many other organizations to work to allow the arts to be an agent of change and growth in our area.
CJS: Obviously we have to address the impact of COVID on a regional theater like the Playhouse. Digital and streaming arts and entertainment got us through quarantine, but live action performances took a huge hit. Simply put, how did you navigate the Playhouse through the spring and summer?
KNL: It has been a tremendously difficult time for all arts organizations across the country and, of course, in our area. We, unfortunately, had to furlough the majority of our staff at the beginning of the quarantine and at this time have only been able to bring back two additional full-time staffers and three part-time, and that is all we'll be able to do for the foreseeable future.
As you mentioned, we focused on pivoting our programming to a strictly virtual platform, as we cannot safely bring patrons and performers into our space at this time. We tried to stay as active as possible on social media platforms to stay engaged with our patrons. One positive of all this is that we have been able to engage patrons and friends from all across the country who were former Erieites that have moved away, but have loved being able to watch performances at the Playhouse again and take classes from our staff!
CJS: The state is now in the green phase, and things are starting to open up again. Even more impressive is how creative organizations have become in delivering their art to the masses, both in-person and online. What can we look forward to from the Playhouse in the coming months?
KNL: At this time, we do not know when we'll be able to open our doors, even as restrictions are loosening. To maintain safety for our patrons, our maximum capacity would be around 20 percent, which is not, at this time, a financially viable option for us, as production costs are significant in our space, no matter how small the production. We are currently working on planning a production in an alternate space for the holidays, but that's all I can tell you at this point … until I have a few more things tied up, we can't make a formal announcement, but I can tell you that we hope it will be a great opportunity for multiple Erie organizations and businesses to work together to provide a COVID-safe holiday event for the entire family.
Matt Texter, 2018
Musician/Graphic Designer, Lamar Advertising
CJS: Catch us up! What's new with you in the two years since you were a recipient?
Matt Texter (MT): I am still working at Lamar Advertising, but not doing live music as much.
CJS: I'm glad you mentioned that, because I noticed you pulled back from music. Did the pandemic have any effect on your decision?
MT: I started pulling back a little bit before the pandemic, but as the pandemic came into full effect, I realized that things weren't the same before and they definitely weren't going to be the same after.
I should say that I do plan on writing more and maybe recording an album, but I don't really plan on playing out too much moving forward, for the foreseeable future.
CJS: Your write-up mentioned your local activism as something you hold near and dear to your heart. It's a huge election year; how have you stayed active in politics while still being safe?
MT: In spite of the pandemic, I've been able to stay relatively active. I am still the Ninth District, Sixth Ward Precinct Democratic committeeman, so we have our monthly meetings via Zoom. I've also been volunteering with a great local organization called Erie United, helping with their text banks. Of course, I have my own political leanings, but it's been good to be working with a great organization to help mobilize people [of either party] to get them out to vote.
CJS: And finally, for all three of you, what is one thing that has gotten you through these tough months of 2020?
SM: My fiancé Phil has been my rock during all of this. He is an Erie Insurance employee, so he had a big transition to working from home and he still found the energy to be supportive during all of this.
There were some really rough days and a lot of really good days. I tried to see the shutdown as a once in a lifetime (hopefully!) opportunity to really spend quality time with my family.
KNL: It has been great to be able to spend more time at home with my daughters, as you can imagine, pre-COVID, we did a lot of running around! I also love horror/sci-fi movies and have been watching all of the older movies that I never saw … it has been highly entertaining to watch all those early campy horror movies like Evil Dead and Friday the 13th and such.
MT: I would say that my handful of close friends, and of course my family. Complete isolation is good for no one, so understand the risks and listen to science; it's a good way to figure out how to still remain in contact with those you care about.
Cara Suppa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org