Erie's 40 Under 40: Class of 2019
Community luckier for seventh class
It is one thing to simply be something; it's another to be about something. Certainly, the young men and women we are about to introduce hold a multitude of titles, and represent a remarkable breadth of professional fields. They have attained a great deal of success in their chosen careers and the respect that comes with that. However, our annual 40 Under 40 honors have never been about good jobs, they've been about good people, performing both within and far beyond the scope of their duties. Moreover, they are people that are about something, investing and sharing their passions and talents with the community to help elevate it as a whole.
For the past seven years, we have selected our 40 Under 40 classes based not on resumes, but on the stories you, our readers, have shared with us during the nominations process. Each year, we are wowed anew by both the number of nominees and the ways they are making an impact. Whether it's on the small scale of a classroom or the grand scale of political office, every bit counts. Enthusiasm is contagious, and it comes from being aligned with a purpose and a cause. They are about something that matters to them, something that matters to you, and ultimately something that matters to Erie. And that is why we are about to talk about them as part of Erie's 40 Under 40.
Special thanks to our writers Jonathan Burdick, Aaron Mook, Ben Speggen, Rebecca Styn, Cara Suppa, Matt Swanseger, Nick Warren, and Jim Wertz for their contributions, Jessica Hunter and Nick Warren for their coordinating efforts, and Maitham Basha-Agha for photography this year.
Faisal Aqlan (PhD)
Brianna Curtis, MSW
Aubry Regan DeMarco
Mary Elizabeth Euell
Dr. Elizabeth Harrington
Elvis Andromeda Maryshine
Courtney Nagle (PhD)
Martha "Marty" Nwachukwu
Justine Parker Russell, PharmD
Lourdes Jasso Tellez
Dr. Matthew WhiteBrad Wiertel
Jesse T. Williams
Some folks' resumes read like resumes, and other folks' read like books. We at the Erie Reader mean that in the most complimentary way possible, and we think you'll agree when you glance at the education and accomplishments of Faisal Aqlan, Ph. D. These include, but are not limited to: both a Bachelor and a Master of Industrial Engineering from Jordan University of Science and Technology, a Ph.D. in Industrial and Systems Engineering from State University of New York at Birmingham, an Outstanding Academic Achievement in Graduate Studies from Birmingham University, and a dozen diverse student, vice president, and research awards from varying universities and sources.
There's no questioning Aqlan's work and success, so we're even more interested in his personal life as an Erieite. A husband and a father of two, Aqlan enjoys spending time with his family, as well as students, colleagues, and community members. A senior member of the Institute of Industrial and Systems Engineers who has authored/co-authored over 100 scientific publications, Aqlan would like to continue to draw like-minded individuals to Erie.
"Erie is a great place to live and work," says Aqlan. "I would like to work on more initiatives that transform Erie's education and industry and attract more talents to come and work in Erie."
Rachel Artise wants to "help give the community a new perspective of what a successful business owner looks like," she explained. The Westland, Mich. native recently acquired her second UPS Store, with plans for a third. Her original store, located in the Yorktown Plaza, experienced growth of 25 percent and a 20 percent increase in profitability after she took over; it's also a certified training center for The UPS Store. In the ever-growing online marketplace, a world practically built out of cardboard and packing tape, it seems like a sound investment.
In addition to her business, Artise serves as an ATHENA Powerlink Panel Member, is a member of the ATHENA Circle of Trust (also sponsoring this year's Leadership Luncheon for the organization), and was recently accepted into the Small Business Administration's Emerging Leaders Initiative. She's a member of the Pittsburgh Airport Area Chamber of Commerce and has been involved with the Women's Round Table and the Coffee Club Divas. She serves on the Belle Valley PTA, and volunteers for the McDowell Girls Youth Lacrosse Team.
Always moving forward, Artise wants "to inspire other people to do what they are called to do no matter what others believe. We all have an extraordinary gift we are supposed to share with the world."
Supervising the philanthropic efforts of one of our region's largest employers, Christine Bowen has a long history of giving back to the community. Her story with Saint Vincent began as a deeply personal one. "I've always understood the importance of giving back to be an essential part of growth in a community," she noted, hearkening to her experience with the March of Dimes and the Achievement Center. "But it's my personal experience at Saint Vincent Hospital that led to my passion for philanthropy. Our daughters were born premature and spent months in intensive care," Bowen revealed. "We watched helplessly as an incredible team of caregivers saved their lives. In those moments I understood the connection between a donor and a gift."
After the hospital helped save her twins' lives following a 92-day stay in the NICU, she served as the director of the Children's Miracle Network (CMN) fundraiser, raising more than $1 million for the hospital's pediatric programs. She was later named executive director of development in late 2017. A mother of three, her twin girls now eight and her oldest son 10, Bowen exemplifies the passion needed to make a real, heartfelt change in the community.
Community building comes in all forms and it's no surprise that so many people who engage in that practice do so in the model of their own family. For Jamie Breneman, family is the foundation for the future of Erie. It's personal connections that help her run the Human Resources Department at Mercyhurst University — the youngest person promoted to the position and the first female director in 15 years.
An Erie native, she graduated from Mercyhurst Prep, received her bachelor's degree from Gannon University, and master's degree from Mercyhurst University. Breneman, along with her husband, Jay, and their three children — Elijah, Paige, and Milo — attend St. John the Baptist Church, which she grew up in and where she now serves as a Eucharistic minister. While she humbly considers herself support staff in many of the community efforts that she takes part in, Breneman has taken the lead as a den leader for local Girl Scouts, coached girl's basketball, organized neighborhood and park clean-ups, and works alongside her husband on veteran advocacy in Erie County.
"My dad's family has deep roots here, so continuing that history is important to me," she says. "My children attend the same church I grew up in and that is special to me. My hope is that years down the road when my children are adults, Erie will be a city that they call home."
To most, working for a public school would require an extreme amount of responsibility. Now, imagine working for 16 of them. Such is the life of Janae Butler, a communications specialist for Erie's Public Schools that spends her day managing the district's social media accounts, their websites, and even their mobile app. And that's just the tip of the iceberg; Butler is also responsible for getting daily media coverage, sending out media advisories, and working to design annual publications for staff and students alike, among other things.
But Butler's career doesn't define her; a traveler, she was born in Dallas and raised in Sacramento before moving to Erie in 2004. She graduated from local institutions Strong Vincent High School and Gannon University with her bachelor's degree in Journalism-Communication. In her free-time, Butler enjoys volunteering and planning events (including fundraisers for Erie Schools), spending time with friends and family, visiting local restaurants and breweries, and power-walking while listening to audiobooks. Butler isn't shy to praise Erie's sense of community, calling it "passionate, ambitious, and creative."
"Every single person in Erie contributes to the diversity and unique character of our city in one way or another, and it's crucial that we continue to build together moving forward," says Butler.
Wellness comes in many forms, and as both a mental health professional and the newly appointed head softball coach for Villa Maria Academy, Briana Curtis is embracing it head-on. As a Student Assistance Program liaison, Curtis addresses students with emotional and behavioral concerns, providing both individual and group therapy as well as connecting students to resources for higher levels of care. During the summer, Curtis acts as the clinical supervisor of the Barber National Institute's Connections Camp, a six-week camp for children with autism. There, students are given the space and encouragement to work on their social skills and build relationships.
Curtis also serves on the board for the RivALZ flag football event held to raise funds and awareness for the Alzheimer's Association. Her penchant for physical activity has led to "Curtis Catching," a name she uses to provide private softball lessons to local athletes. Curtis takes pride in the work she does with students and athletes alike; her goal is to continue to destigmatize mental illness in the local community.
"We need to continue to advocate for more accessible mental health resources," says Curtis. "By changing the conversation and connecting individuals to appropriate services, we foster an environment full of empowerment and support within our community."
Kwame Dankwa has a lot of local interests, from live music and stand-up comedy to mentoring youth in the community — and from the sheer number of nominations he received for this year's feature, it's clear he's doing something right.
A program director and afternoon host on Star 104, Dankwa says his proudest achievement is the station's Marconi Award nomination, a ceremony he describes as "radio's Oscars."
"We had been recognized for all the work we had done in the community, and though we did not win, the things that got us there — helping the Fairview marching band raise money for a trip to play for the troops in Pearl Harbor, and creating those experiences for those students — [were] more valuable than an acceptance speech," says Dankwa, before crediting his co-workers for their hard work at the station. Dankwa also offers some positive insight into the future of our community.
"...Great things are happening, and I can say as a person who has lived in larger cities [that] Erie has a lot going on, and it's a great place to live," Dankwa continues. "The potential is here, and if we all got on the same page...the sky would be the limit."
Erie native Aubry Regan DeMarco favors gratitude over pride. The General McLane grad explains that she has had "the privilege of working on some really awesome initiatives within our community and at various organizations, in both large and small ways, with so many incredible people."
That list, simply put, is exhaustive, including: being a Board Member at Sarah Reed Children's Center and the Film Society of NWPA; the West-County Co-Coordinator for ServErie Saturdays; a Member of the ATHENA Circle of Trust Second Cohort, which she co-founded with Miranda Melquist; a Young Erie Professionals member; member of and former Community Manager of Radius CoWork; a TEDxErie co-host; a Mentor/Volunteer with ATHENA College Connections Program; a volunteer for Junior Achievement and the Presque Isle Partnership; and a 2015 Erie Ambassador grad — all on top of her 9-to-5 gig.
"Being able to make a positive change together makes all the difference," says the Penn State University grad, who earned her bachelor's in Rehabilitation Human Services and went on to get a master's in Integrated Marketing Communications and an additional certificate in Conflict Management from Edinboro University. "I find it motivating to live and invest time and energy into our city and region knowing there are immediate opportunities to be the change we wish to see."
When she's not adding to the already impressive professional list above, she enjoys gardening, camping, hiking, fishing, and kayaking, "especially with my husband (Jon DeMarco, a 2015 40 Under 40 alum) and our dog, Honey."
For nearly a century, the Achievement Center has been serving the children of Northwestern Pennsylvania. Each year over 3,400 children are provided child-centered services based on their individual needs.
It is an enormous, but also enormously important mission that requires a lot of hard work and expertise. With Cassie Dundon, the Achievement Center gets both. In her role as the chief compliance and planning officer, she oversees all aspects of the organization's quality and compliance initiatives, develops programming, writes grants, and manages the implementation of the agency's community impact projects.
Dundon, a Messiah College and Gannon University graduate, is also a licensed professional counselor and is co-chair of the Erie Coalition for a Trauma Informed Community (ECTIC). In this role, she partners with human service providers, universities, school districts, faith-based organizations, local government, businesses, and citizens to promote the organization's goal of reducing the impact of trauma and enhancing resilience throughout the region. She has personally delivered trauma awareness and self-care trainings to over one-thousand educators and administrators across the county.
"[M]ore than 80 percent of Erie has directly experienced a trauma and nearly 100 percent of Erie knows someone who has been impacted by a traumatic event," she explains. "I feel very fortunate to have witnessed many of my counseling clients make tremendous progress and reach their goals."
She is further involved in the community by serving on the Erie County Policy & Planning Council for Children & Family Members, two Community School leadership teams, the System of Care Erie's County Leadership Team, and as a volunteer for the United Way Young Leader Society Communications Committee.
Those who know her describe her as inspirational, fearless, and a fierce advocate. For Dundon though, her enjoyment comes from what she does.
"I genuinely love what I get to do and don't find myself 'working' very often," she says.
Mary Elizabeth Euell has even bigger dreams than simply owning her own business.
The 29-year-old entrepreneur, who founded and runs Barb's Family Learning Daycare, takes what she does to heart; for her, it's not just minding children while their parents are at work.
"I consider all the parents and children, the entire family. I help them with childcare, job searches, enrollment in programs and school, credit repair, and basic needs," Euell said.
This Edinboro University grad, who has received her Early Childhood Education certificate from Mercyhurst North East, has become a force in the community, despite some darker, heavier circumstances in her past.
"I donate to shelters because I lived in a couple personally," she explained.
Experiencing that type of need in the community first-hand has motivated Euell to be a beacon who lights the way for others, especially while "teaching [the children] that education is key."
Euell, who is turning learning seminar events she has helmed into a nonprofit, insisted, "I would like to encourage all ages. It's never too late, no matter what age bracket you are in. You can always achieve any goal you set your mind to."
As Euell shows us, it's never too early, either.
If you've come across any local media or photography, there's a good chance that at some point you have seen the work of Robert Frank (and probably more often than not). A visual storyteller, Frank has captured the essence of many of Erie's treasures (people and places) through his work.
In 2001, Frank moved to Erie to attend Penn State Behrend University, where he graduated with a B.A. in Communications and Media Studies.
Today, he owns R Frank Photography and R Frank Media, serves as an adjunct lecturer at Penn State Behrend, and volunteers for the United Way (alongside advocating and supporting many other local organizations).
He and his wife Rebecca, an educator at Iroquois Elementary, also have two beautiful young children — Emma and Tyler.
And although his business seems to have a life of its own, one of his crowning achievements is teaching at the university he graduated from. "Being on the other side of the classroom is something I am very proud of." In addition, last year his own organization donated over $4,000 to several charities in Erie including New Blossoms New Life, United Way, and Strings for a Cure.
Much like many of those that come from outside of Erie, Frank fell in love with the Gem City when he moved here for college. "There are so many amazing things to do and see in this region. Erie needs to have a better view of itself and I try to show the beauty of Erie in my work as much as possible."
Work-life balance is sometimes a struggle. But Kristy Gnibus seems to have found the formula for success. She's a cancer survivor and a Supermom who put herself through Mercyhurst University where she earned bachelor's and master's degrees, along with a K-12 Principal Certification from Edinboro University, and is now on her way to completing a Doctorate in Leadership at Gannon University while working two jobs and raising two daughters. In the process she's become an influential force in the community via social media, community engagement, and her work with organizations like Big Brothers Big Sisters of NWPA. "Kristy is an influencer because her voice is real," one nominator explained. "Even more so she speaks as a strong woman who can be looked up to. She is an independent honest voice that resonates."
She shares stories of inspiration and hope on her blog, BeyondKristy.com. With a passionate voice, she covers lifestyle topics like healthy living, parenting, and relationships to evocative topics like teaching in the age of guns and surviving domestic violence.
"I have aspirations to use my struggles, accomplishments, and educational background to continue to make positive changes, specifically in educational and social reform," Gnibus says. "Finding my voice, using my blog and my presence to do so, I hope to be just one of the many people who love, support, and continue to work for the growth of Erie."
There are few things sexier to a foodie than the smell of smoked barbeque wafting down a city street in the midst of summer. Nobody knows that better than quemaster Tim Grow.
For the last four years, Grow's Big Lebowski-themed food truck, "The Que Abides," has been the heart of Erie's mobile culinary scene serving up some of the best smoked meats in Northwestern Pennsylvania. Last year it won the "Best Food Truck" award at the annual Gears and Grub festival, previously held at West Erie Plaza and now scheduled to replace "Roar on the Shore" in Downtown Erie. It captured the same honor in our 2018 Best of Erie Awards.
The emergence of food trucks over the past few years was part of a larger shift in Erie that's literally feeding the cultural needs of a changing social and economic landscape. Grow understands his role.
"I just go out there and do my best to provide a high quality product in both a fun and friendly manner," he says. "I am a firm believer that a city needs a culture and identity to grow, rebuild, and re-establish itself. The arts and culture here grow stronger each day. Our fabulous brewery, music, art, and, of course, our culinary scenes are really starting to stand out."
To that end, Grow has become something of a food truck guru, offering advice and guidance to other food truck operators throughout the community to ensure that Erie's sweet summer air remains full of a variety of savory smells. What can we say? The Dude abides.
Dr. Elizabeth Harrington is a bit of a trailblazer. Being an avid hiker and outdoorswoman, she often frequents the trails of Asbury Woods and Scott Park with her fiancée and their two Siberian huskies, Angus and Sophie. "I am a huge nature lover. The fact that Erie has so many beautiful locations year-round is wonderful. Every single year I appreciate experiencing all four seasons."
Her budding career in pharmacy has taken a more unconventional path. Harrington is one of the first licensed pharmacists involved in the Pennsylvania Medical Marijuana Program, working out of RISE Erie Dispensary on West Eighth Street. Her grandfather piqued an interest in alternative and herbal medicines early on, but she "never, ever imagined" she would be at the forefront of such a new frontier. "I saw this as an opportunity to utilize my passion for alternative medicine and my pharmacy degree [from LECOM] in a whole new way."
The Pa. Medical Marijuana Program requires that a pharmacist, a physician, and physician's assistant or certified nurse practitioner be on-site during all dispensary hours, and during that time she has taken pleasure in getting to know patients on an individual basis, keeping close tabs on their symptoms and needs while following their progress. "Medical marijuana does not work to alleviate symptoms for every single patient, but a lot of patients are able to achieve an improved quality of life."
Between her work at the dispensary and as a volunteer for Community Shelter Services, this Warren native is not green at all when it comes to her track record of compassion.
This Erie native won't shy away from telling you about her humble beginnings. But rather than delve into her own details, she'll tell you why she's returned to Erie to serve the people populating the place she grew up in. "I am from the same community the majority of my clients are from," says this Northwest Pennsylvania Collegiate Academy grad who went on to earn a bachelor's degree in political science from Kent State University and her Juris Doctorate from Capital University Law School. She explains, "I went into this profession aware of the inequities of representation due to lack of wealth. I vowed to provide my indigent clients with excellent representation, even with my heavy caseload and lack of resources."
So why, when deciding to pursue a career as a lawyer, does one decide to become a public defender?
"It is tough to balance, but worth it for those who need it the most," says the Erie County Bar Association Board member and vice chair of its women's division. Additionally, she serves on the Erie County Convention Center Authority Board; is a member of the Strengthening Police and Community Partnership Council (SPCP); and volunteers as a mentor in the Erie County Bar Association's Attorney and Kids Together (AKT) program, as well as Erie County's Wills for Heroes program, where she drafts wills for military and law enforcement officials.
"Erie is on the precipice of renewal, but we are currently at a fork in the road," says the 2016 Jefferson Civic Leadership Academy grad. "One road leads to progress, while the other leads to ruin. I believe 'intentional' diversity will lead us to progress."
"I'm a very early riser," Kelly Karns said. "I can get a lot done before my children wake up!"
The owner of Erie Food Tours, part-time educator at Mercyhurst University, wife to husband Steve, and mom to two little girls, would have to in order to achieve everything that she has accomplished so far.
Karns began her career in education, teaching within the Millcreek School District, but gradually sought a more flexible schedule that allowed her more time with her family.
"I never, ever thought I would take the leap of becoming an entrepreneur," Karns said. "[But] building a business surrounding three of my favorite things — eating, learning, and Erie — has been exciting and enriching."
Erie Food Tours is now in its fifth year of operation and has expanded its offerings from one tour to three — the "Original" Downtown Erie Food Tour, the "Historic" North East Erie Food Tour, and the "Happy Hour" (or "Happy-Appy") Downtown Erie Food Tour. Each guided tour invites participants to get on their feet and take in their surroundings (as well as a diverse selection of local food and drink) as they walk from venue to venue. It turns out home is more appetizing than some may think.
Beyond stoking physical appetites, Karns fulfills mental appetites through her work in the education sector, where she both instructs and advises young people on their own journeys. On top of that, she is an avid runner with four marathons and over 20 half-marathons to her credit.
Yet for all the many hats Karns wears, she enthused, "most of all, I love being a mom — that is the best job in the world!"
Merriam-Webster describes an oasis as a place "that provides refuge, relief, or pleasant contrast." With The Oasis Market, Faith Kindig has brought all three of those attributes to downtown Erie, opening a business with Jonathan D'Silva that provides fresh and locally-sourced foods to one of the inner city's main food deserts.
Kindig, a graduate of Iroquois High School, worked for three years to get the project off the ground, hitting numerous roadblocks before finally securing 914 State St., part of the old Woolworth's, as the market's location.
"I want to create a space that connects our local producers to our local consumers so we can build a healthier environment for our small business owners as well as members of the community," she says.
She majored in Project and Supply Chain Management at Penn State Behrend while securing a minor in Management Information Systems and a certificate in Enterprise Resource Planning. All certainly bring expertise that has resulted in her success — but friends also highlight her internal drive, persistence, and overall spirit.
She also founded a community garden called Erie Sproutz and volunteers with the Innovation Collaborative in her spare time.
As for The Oasis Market, it continues to grow: cooking classes, nutrition activities, pop-up shops, and poetry readings are only a few of the unique offerings at this wonderful new addition to downtown Erie.
In the Erie music community, Ryan Krysiak is comfortable playing both rhythm and lead. The Harbor Creek High graduate is no stranger to taking center stage, having lent his guitar and vocal talents to several area bands over the years, including Super No. 7, The Cover-Up, Refuge, and Daytona Beach 2000. It is through the founding of Rock School Studios, however, that he has perhaps made the most noise.
A decade ago, Krysiak was giving separate private instruction to a group of elementary school friends and realized he might have the makings of a band. "I had always noticed that traditional one-on-one lessons left a lot of students thinking 'okay, I can play guitar — now what?'" The next step, of course, is to put those skills into context with other musicians. This revelation spawned The Rock School, and its first — and most successful — development project, First To Eleven. "We started with power chords and now we're flying across the country regularly to work with some of the biggest names in the music industry."
First To Eleven has become one of the biggest bands on YouTube, with 300,000 subscribers and 40,000,000 views and counting. While Krysiak's tutelage certainly had something to do with their ascendancy, his talents as a videographer and his belief in streaming media might have been even more instrumental. "There have been single days where our videos have been viewed a quarter of a million times. You could play two sold-out, back-to-back shows at the biggest stadium in the world and not get that kind of exposure."
He is now eager to replicate that success with the six other Rock School bands and individual students he's working with. "I'd like to take the local musical talent Erie has, package it up, and show it off to the rest of the world!"
The Blue Zones Project is a community-based organization that focuses on health and wellness, whether it is bringing awareness to the dangers of smoking, providing information on how to access healthy foods, or providing programming for schools and businesses.
In Corry, the Blue Zones Project is being led by Ashley Lawson, a Mercyhurst Prep graduate who uses her position (and expertise in public administration) to design and communicate advocacy strategies for the Corry community to adopt and implement as policy.
Lawson is actively involved in the Erie community as well. She has volunteered her time at events such as Celebrate Erie and local neighborhood cleanups, as well as at the Erie Free Store. She also serves as secretary and treasurer on the Erie Metropolitan Transit Authority Board of Directors and is president of the Civic Leadership Academy Alumni Network for the Jefferson Education Society. In her spare time, she travels extensively, having been to over 20 countries, and uses those experiences and what she learns to help bring change to the community she loves.
"I want everyone to love Erie as much as I do," Lawson says. "Everyone can and should do something to help transform their community into one that they are passionate about and proud of."
She certainly does her part.
Despite what Tom Wolfe might have said, you can go home again. And, you can return to make a quick impact — just like Annē Lewis.
This North East native attended Penn State University to study communications, served as the Sales Manager at the student-run radio station, and earned the College of Communications' Davis Ethics Award in 2017. She also led Penn State's Alpha Phi chapter to various awards, amongst other impressive accomplishments.
Since returning to the Erie area, she hasn't shown any signs of slowing down.
At Red Letter Hospitality (RLH), this member of Young Erie Professionals handles all social media, media and public relations, community outreach and partnerships, and website and menu design for the group's six restaurants, which include The Cork 1794 (West Erie Plaza), Molly Brannigan's (downtown), The Skunk & Goat Tavern (North East), and three CoreLife Eatery locations outside of Erie. What's more, Lewis lives RLH's spirit of feeding the community beyond what's on plates and in bowls by organizing various charity events, as well as driving a partnership with the Erie Philharmonic to host an outdoor concert series in North East's town square.
Outside of work, this participant in the 2019 Jefferson Civic Leadership Academy is active in the North East Chamber of Commerce and loves being out and about, whether it's a yoga class, visiting other restaurants, or spending time with family and friends.
"I want to encourage young leaders to continue to grow and have confidence in Erie," Lewis says. "Right now, the energy throughout Erie is extremely contagious … to make our home an even better place than it already is. Not all change is bad, let's get that out of our heads."
Erie's music scene used to be unquestionably thriving. These days, that seems to be up for debate. One key person who wants to see it flourish again is Elvis Maryshine, and she's not afraid to put in the work to see it happen. The youngest person on this year's list, Elvis is fulfilling an essential role in Erie's cultural landscape. Selling out multiple shows at PACA, Maryshine moved on to a larger space, helping to oversee the opening of The Ballet Haus, a new venue in downtown Erie in the former Lake Erie Ballet space. Elvis' shows have struck a chord with local audiences. Working primarily in the pop-punk/indie rock/alternative sphere, she's helped to bring in artists that actually get fans excited, like popular bands Trash Boat and Mom Jeans. Not content just to make Erie an off-day tour stop for national bands, she actively recruits local bands to join the fold. Among them are local groups she manages hands-on like Real Fake Doors and The Standby, along with Youngstown's The Safest Ledge, through her company, The Andromeda Agency. She's also the East Coast representative for Alex Zarek Art & Design, and volunteers at the Performing Arts Collective Alliance, herself a talented actress and model. In her words, she wants "to open up a few more venues and really build up the local scene and make people want to stay here after college or move here because the music scene here is thriving. It's super doable." She believes that "Erie is a blank slate for the entrepreneur. There's tons of room to create and grow."
Being part of the pipeline between local business and local government, Amy Murdock plays a pivotal role in our community's economic development. Now responsible for voicing the needs of businesses in our region, she is able to voice their concerns to state and local officials. In February, she was named the Director of Government Affairs at the Erie Regional Chamber and Growth Partnership. Prior to her position at the Chamber, Murdock was the director of the Erie County Department of Planning and Community Development (succeeding Kathy Wyrosdick), working closely with Erie County Executive Kathy Dahlkemper.
After graduating from Fort LeBoeuf High School, Murdock went on to study political science, earning a bachelor's degree at Gannon University, later receiving her MBA from Penn State Behrend, and is a proud mother of three. Professionally, she helped to establish public initiatives like the Municipal Stormwater Program, the Erie County Data Center, and the Erie Land Bank. In her previous position as program administrator, she also aided in the Coastal Resources Management Program and the Erie County Greenways Program. "My hope would be to contribute my time and efforts in a way that provides opportunities for people in every corner of our community," Murdock explained, adding that she wants to "help to plant the seeds of opportunity for future generations."
Dr. Courtney Nagle began her college track at Edinboro University (B.A. in Mathematics) and didn't stop there. She would go on to receive her master's degree in the same field and finished with a Ph.D. in Mathematics Education from the State University of New York (SUNY) Buffalo. As a professor at Behrend, she teaches both undergraduate mathematics and mathematics education courses (specializing in calculus and mathematics methods) and also conducts research, providing service to the profession and community relative to her field.
In addition, she serves as secretary of the Pennsylvania Council of Teachers of Mathematics and is a board member for the Pennsylvania Association of Mathematics Teacher Educators. She was integral in securing $1.2 million in funding from the National Science Foundation to develop a High School Mathematics Institute, which will promote interest and career exploration in mathematics and mathematics education. Approximately 100 students from several school districts will be eligible for the program.
She has also been a principal investigator on previous grants. "I am most proud of the grants that my colleagues and I have secured at Behrend. These grants have had lasting impacts on our students and the greater Erie community by allowing for the building of a model secondary mathematics campus in our classroom, establishing the Best Practices in Teaching and Learning and Mathematics Conference for teachers, and providing scholarship money to students who are devoted to teaching mathematics in high-needs school districts."
In addition to her love of math, she has great love for her husband Joe and two sons, Jackson and Benson. She wants to make mathematics education a priority for all Erie students as she believes all students deserve engaging instruction delivered by teachers who are excited about mathematics — and passionate about their students. "When our youth begin to see themselves as capable of doing mathematics, many doors can be opened for them."
Whole Foods Cooperative is Erie's only community-owned grocer. And it is LeAnna Nieratko's job to guide it. This includes overseeing the functions of a multi-million-dollar, multi-unit operation — including marketing, IT, human resources, merchandising, and project management — which by the way, is no small operation. The organization currently boasts over 8,000 member-owners.
Nieratko graduated with a B.A. in Psychology from Gannon University and is currently working on her M.B.A. from Gannon. She is also an elected representative for the National Cooperative Grocers' Eastern Corridor Steering Committee, an Erie Ambassador, and a member of the Athena Circle of Trust (ACT).
One of her most exciting achievements was being an integral part of the launch of the SorcERIE food truck. "It brought the entire staff above a living wage for Erie County in 2016, with continued focus to keep pace with inflation." It also serves as a way to bring organic, healthy options to more people throughout the region and in many ways serves as the outreach arm of the Co-op.
Moreover she feels blessed to have a role where she can nurture others. "I love to have a role where I can facilitate brilliant people getting to do the things they love, so I was thrilled to support the development and creation of the Grow-op (our urban agriculture initiative), as well as creating staff-led committees to focus on our ends as an organization (Erie, Education, Environment)." Through the environment committee, the group reduced their plastic packaging by more than half, becoming a strong force in the "zero waste" movement, pushing the Co-op toward continuous sustainable practices.
To continue to support her community, she wants to continue to cultivate resources "for the vibrant creative people at our Co-op," and provide an outlet for the development of local products, while maintaining a focus on a positive environmental impact. "I also want to continue to speak up on areas of inequity for my neighbors and fellow Erieites so that our city is safe, inclusive, and equitable for all people."
"She's committed to bettering her community and making every space she inhabits more welcoming and inclusive for everyone," one nominator said. Marty Nwachukwu is described as "a quiet leader" who seems to have found her voice in Erie. The soft-spoken Pittsburgh native and Edinboro University graduate moved to Erie to build community consciousness through her work as an organizer with Erie County United, the local arm of PA United, a progressive grassroots political action committee.
"We have 'organized' the voices of activists and community leaders to push the needle on various local issues with more force and impact," she says. "Now more than ever, we see an increase in people attending public meetings, lobbying their representatives, and asking difficult questions."
Nwachukwu envisions an Erie with more diverse, inclusive, and responsive leadership. She believes that through activism and civic engagement young people can help shape the Erie region and she lives that mission as a committee person in the Erie County Democratic Party, the vice chairperson of the Erie County Young Democrats, and a founder of People for a Liveable Erie.
"We have to inspire and engage people throughout the city to step up into leadership and get civically involved," Nwachukwu implored. "Innovation only comes when you have more minds engaged and thinking outside of the box together."
The Sanctuary Model, based on the premise that trauma is a universal subset of the human experience, provides a framework for human services organizations to improve culture through a commitment to nonviolence, emotional intelligence, inquiry and social learning, democracy, open communication, social responsibility, and ongoing growth and change. It informs Davona Pacley's work both as a clinical care specialist at Sarah Reed Children's Center and as an activist; both the teenage girls under her supervision and the City of Erie at large have seen some tough times. Indeed, promoting "self-esteem, self-awareness, mindfulness, and self-empowerment" has broad applications.
Pacley, a graduate of Collegiate Academy and Edinboro University's sociology program, took the wisdom she'd gleaned as a behavior counselor, shift leader, and clinical care staff to the campaign trail in a recent bid for an open City Council Seat. Although she did not win, the member of Erie Young Democrats and Keystone Progress pledges to "continue to be active in the community to fight to make Erie a livable place for all."
Pacley emphasizes "for all" because she belongs to three historically marginalized demographics — women, African-Americans, and the LGBTQIA population. "As a person who believes that representation matters within the leadership of Erie, I felt it was imperative to be the representation that became a part of the solution … I was proud to run a grassroots campaign that focused on forward thinking, female collaboration, and true community input."
When she's not championing the community, you can find her with her wife enjoying the many great events within it, traveling, painting, braiding hair, or modeling clothes for local designer brand E. Adonis. All told, Pacley models all the qualities you'd expect in a 40 Under 40 honoree.
If all the world's a stage, then it certainly doesn't come with a script. Back in 2014, Abigail Paulson had just earned her B.A. in Musical Theatre from Point Park University in Pittsburgh when she became a single mother. It was time to improvise. She let music be her guide — as it always had been — and just kept strumming and humming along. She worked on her Master of Arts in Communication Studies at Edinboro University while raising her son and singing just about anywhere she could — weddings, restaurants, nonprofit concerts, and Elevate Church, through which she performs and volunteers regularly.
Faith means nothing if it is not tested, and both doubts about her career path and the rigors of single motherhood at times tried her spirit. "For so long, I denied myself music. I felt this need to 'conform' to who others thought I should be at a time in my life. The moment I chose to pursue music anyway, God began to open doors. Do not give up on your passions! It is never too late."
Whether or not you personally believe in a higher power, belief in oneself can be the highest form of blessing. Today, Paulson manages two successful bands — the (predominantly) cover band Acoustic Adelaide and the hard rock outfit Scarlett, which is preparing to drop its first EP soon. Meanwhile, she holds a full-time job as an admissions counselor at Mercyhurst North East. Having found her direction, she is eager to help others find theirs. As in musical theater, life runs much more smoothly when everyone is in their right places.
When Brittany Prischak graduated from Mercyhurst University, the Pittsburgh native decided to stay in Erie. A decade later, she is now the Environmental Sustainability Coordinator for the county and oversees Erie County Recycling and Keep Erie County Beautiful, our area's local affiliate of the Keep America Beautiful organization.
In her role as coordinator, she focuses extensively on recycling, energy efficiency, litter, illegal dumping, watersheds, reducing waste, climate change, and beautification across Erie County.
"There were and still are so many local groups, state groups, and non-profits conducting litter or neighborhood cleanups," she explains. "With [Keep Erie County Beautiful], for those groups that want to do a cleanup but don't know where to start or how to get supplies, we can be here to answer their questions and help guide them. It's nice for them to have a local place to come to with questions."
Prischak has been involved or collaborated with many local groups and programs, including Environment Erie, Green Building Alliance, International Coastal Cleanup, the Pennsylvania Sea Grant, local universities, as well as the City of Erie and many surrounding townships.
"Erie already is a great place, but I want people to feel confident in their actions, that what they are doing is right and helpful," she adds. "So, I want to be a resource concerning the environment, to help people feel empowered and knowledgeable in what they are doing, so they can make a great impact."
When referring to her involvement with the Tiger Maple String Band as one of two "fiddling sisters," Justine Parker Russell sounds logical and judicious.
"I am fortunate to be able to do something that I love, that brings out the best in myself and others, while balancing my left-brained career choice," she said.
That "left-brained career choice" — where logic and judiciousness comes in handy — is clinical pharmacy specialist in emergency medicine, at St. Vincent Hospital.
Russell elaborated, explaining that as of six years ago, "It's a role that had not previously existed."
A General McLane and Pitt grad, when Russell isn't working to ensure the proper employment of medication in emergency situations, she is enjoying the adventures of new motherhood (her little one is just a year old) and in the summer can be found volunteering with the Downtown Edinboro Art and Music Festival, which her father founded in 2004, and through which Russell gives her time in operations, marketing, and violin workshops.
Russell counseled, "We are fortunate to have a lot of great people, places, and events in Erie. Be involved, be present, and be a positive source of energy in a world that may sometimes seem too serious."
There are jobs we do out of necessity, and there are jobs that give us a sense of purpose. When speaking with Emily Smicker, she makes it abundantly clear what event coordinating means to her.
"To me, a successful event is not necessarily based upon numbers, but on the impact it had on the attendees," Smicker says. "It is important to me that every single person walks away with something positive, whether it's a unique experience, a networking connection, learning something new, or simply a happy memory."
Smicker's position at the Erie Zoo didn't come without hours of hard work. Following a stint with local folk-rock band Falling Hollywood (during which she organized a Haunted Mansion Album Release Party at the Watson-Curtze Mansion), Smicker produced Gears and Grub, a wildly popular summer event for local food vendors that ran from 2016 through 2018 at the West Erie Plaza and is moving to downtown this year. Most recently, she contributed to the coordination of 2018's Celebrate Erie — where she also emphasized the importance of local businesses.
Emily received several nominations for working behind-the-scenes to continue to create positive events for our community. In addition to volunteering at the Erie Free Store and being a freelance event coordinator, Smicker enjoys long walks with her dog, Oliver, spending weekends with her family in Waterford, and hosting "creeptastic" Halloween parties.
One of Attorney Drew Smith's favorite movies is the 1992 sports comedy-drama The Mighty Ducks, the story of an underdog pee-wee hockey team's unlikely rise to a Minnesota state championship. It resonates not only because Smith is a hockey fan, but also because like Mighty Ducks coach (and also attorney) Gordon Bombay, he too is making a career of giving the under-equipped and underserved a fighting chance.
At Williams & Jorden, Smith is involved with business law, family law (including divorce, custody, support, and victims of domestic abuse), collaborative law, real estate law, employment law, and general litigation matters. A graduate of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, Smith received the Pro Bono Recognition Award for his dedication to representing those who could not otherwise afford representation. He has maintained that commitment in Erie through his partnership with SafeNet, providing clients with limited funds representation in matters related to domestic abuse. "It's rewarding that as an attorney I can lend my legal background so they can, hopefully, put an end to that cycle."
The next major case Smith wants to be involved in is the development of Erie. "Following law school, I had offers from firms in Buffalo and Pittsburgh, but I chose Erie largely on watching how Erie is transforming. Since I moved back in 2016, it seems the area, particularly downtown, is seeing a complete overhaul. I want to not only witness Erie's growth, but contribute as well." Through his work with local businesses and entrepreneurs, he's got a clear shot at that goal.
"It's Okay to Love Erie." That winkingly self-deprecating saying will likely be forever linked to our community, and we have Erie Apparel to thank for that. The clothing company began in 2014 and was founded by Greg Straub along with his partner Peter DeMichele. From its beginnings as an online shop to its present as a brick-and-mortar Millcreek storefront, the company has been a bastion of clever, sleek designs, and extremely wearable comfort. It's often difficult to articulate what it is to be an Erieite, but Straub and company do it with focus and memorable flair. "Recognizing all the fun, unique and special features around Erie, Greg is spreading a positive vibe around the community," one of his nominators attested.
Straub graduated from McDowell High School and went on to Penn State Behrend, where he earned a degree in marketing. He also coaches the McDowell freshman boys basketball team in his spare time. In his own words, Straub is proud of "being in a position to determine my own livelihood and happiness. I'm proud Erie Apparel has maintained continuous growth for five years and counting under my guidance," he admits, humbly noting that he is "very much reliant on all of the talented people around me."
"Born in Mexico and raised in the inner city of Chicago, my greatest achievement is still the day I received my B.A. in Photography," Lourdes Jasso Tellez said. "I knew then that I was going to be able to change the lives of inner-city youth with the same art form that saved my life from the streets of Chicago."
Tellez took that photography degree from Columbia College Chicago and uses it to transform the way children see the world at the Benedictine Sisters of Erie Inner-City Neighborhood Art House, where inner-city youth experience a variety of artistic mediums, at no cost to their families.
Tellez is also a liaison for the Hooked on Books program, and her ties to the community additionally include her seat on the Erie Democratic Committee as the Committeewoman for the Sixth Ward, Sixth District.
But along with motherhood and striving to "give [her] children the experiences that as a child were unattainable," Tellez has found passion and peace in her love of the monarch butterfly.
"I feel as though the monarch butterfly somehow connects me to my motherland, Mexico. Their story is my story — Ni de aquí ni de allá (Nor from here nor from there)," she said.
Mary Tredway is the executive assistant to arguably the leading urban planner in the world, Bruce Katz. She organizes national events and conferences for the Philadelphia-based consultant from right here in Erie. She joined the Nowak Metro Finance Lab team when it was founded in 2018 to help cities identify and implement innovative strategies to leverage public assets and fund public infrastructure for public benefit, with a focus on supporting inclusive and equitable growth. The nature of Katz's work enables Tredway to remain in Erie, keeping the region connected to a national conversation on metropolitan revitalization.
Prior to 2018, the Erie native and graduate of the history program at Edinboro University found herself working in programming and administration at the Jefferson Educational Society, where she met Katz, who had come to Erie courtesy of the JES to consult on a number of community building initiatives. She credits her time at the Jefferson with embedding in her a love of lifelong learning that has continued through her volunteerism with the organization. Her work with Katz is a natural extension of that foundation.
"I think Erie is on the precipice of a moment when leaders and sectors align to propel the city forward," says Tredway. "I hope to be a small part of keeping Erie on that path by connecting it with some of the greatest minds and practitioners in inclusive economic growth around the country."
"I'm a former journalist," Amber Wellington confided. "[Working for a local paper] is how I found out about Goodell."
Goodell Gardens & Homestead (along with Lake Erie Arboretum at Frontier Park) is one of Erie County's premier arboretum and horticultural centers, a place where Wellington, in her six years on the Goodell staff and now the past year as executive director, not only furthers the nonprofit's mission of education and preservation but has also expanded the scope of its events and fundraising efforts.
"I'm super proud of an event that I founded at Goodell: Botanical Beverages. We pair plants in the Gardens with cocktails that are made with them," Wellington explained. This popular event will celebrate its fifth incarnation in July.
A Corry native, Wellington is an active member of the Erie County community, serving on three different area committees, and doing so from a place of enamored altruism.
"I am in love with our region, especially during the summer months," Wellington said. "My goal is to make our entire county a place that people want to visit, but also want to live. I think that if we work together, our nonprofit sector, entrepreneurs, creatives, farmers and other food producers, and business people can create a community that thrives."
Amber Whipple is an entrepreneur, currently serving as an independent marketing and social media analyst. Although she is an Erie transplant, and moved here less than two years ago, she has been active and engaged in the community since day one.
Currently, Whipple serves as a member of the Young Erie Professionals and National Association of Professional Women. She is also an active supporter of Monthly Planned Parenthood. "I am so in love with my work that it has always been my hobby." Whipple helped to co-found the recently opened Rise Up Erie, a boutique fitness studio specializing in Barre Fusion, high-intensity interval training (HIIT), flow yoga, and physical therapy.
A few years ago she was selected with 48 other people in the nation to compete in a challenge with Nike. "I got to meet and work with the brand managers and marketing team, and we competed in an outdoor challenge in the middle of winter in Chicago. The loads of free Nike gear was also pretty rad," she adds laughing.
Even after all this, she still finds the energy to volunteer. As an example, this past Christmas season she offered free resume writing services for those in need and personally funded and handed out socks and gloves to individuals throughout the community at bus stops and parks.
Whipple believes Erie deserves more. "More investing, more hard work, more creativity. Erie needs more people willing to get their hands dirty and I am dedicated. I am strong and I see so much value in this community."
In 2019, Dr. Matthew White released Where the Bees Make Honey, the only console game in history ever fully developed and published in the Erie area. The managing director of Whitethorn Digital, LLC, White spearheads all business direction, strategy, and development for Erie's only licensed game developer and publisher.
An Erie transplant, his work with the Erie community mirrors his work discipline — active and engaged. He developed the game program at Penn State Behrend, and received the City of Erie's inaugural Flagship Grant for his business. He currently volunteers his time on the Erie Events Authority Board, serves as the Children's Miracle Network extra life coordinator, and has worked with the Erie Philharmonic, Erie County Convention Center Authority, the Erie Innovation District, the City of Erie, and the Erie Regional Chamber and Growth Partnership, as well as several others.
White received two bachelor's degrees, one in the arts from Cape Breton University, and one in education from Memorial University. He completed his master's at the University of New Brunswick and then went on to receive his Ph.D. from Education Memorial University in Canada. He is also a member of Mensa, where membership requires an IQ in the top two percent of the population. He is married, has a young son, and is a tireless advocate for his community. "I'm going to move heaven and Earth to make sure my company grows and employs people right here in Erie."
"I want to encourage our youth to explore career possibilities in technology right here in Erie," Brad Wiertel says.
Take these youth on a tour of the newly renovated 30,000-square-foot Velocity Network headquarters and see the work they are doing, and it likely won't take much convincing. Wiertel has been a part of VNET for over 20 years now, helping build the company from its modest origins to the region's leading technology company (and overseeing their recent relocation). He also is working hard to expand VNET's fiber-optic network to homes throughout the region. As he sees it, though, he is simply happy to bring jobs to downtown Erie.
"We have a lot to offer here in Erie," Wiertel says. "My goal is to spread the word and keep more of our young talent right here."
This isn't lip-service either. He actively works to do this as the President of the Technology Advisory Council at the Erie County Technical School, advising staff on curriculum and making sure students at ECTS are prepared to enter the constantly evolving field.
Sure, plenty of people see opportunity in Erie and are working to grow more of it. For this Erie native, it's not just in his job description, it's in his title.
At his current gig, this Cathedral Prep grad, who studied business administration at John Carroll University and then earned his M.P.A. at Gannon University, cultivates a diverse and robust portfolio of investment-ready projects in the City of Erie's Opportunity Zones, promoting those projects to a broad network of investors, developers, social-impact organizations, foundations, and other institutions and individuals looking to deploy Opportunity Zone capital — work he grew familiar with as the City of Erie's inaugural business development officer under the Schember administration. There, he became the primary architect and author of the city's first-ever Investment Prospectus, which received national praise and positioned Erie as a thought-leader and best-practices model for cities looking to organize and attract Opportunity Zone capital.
Nowadays, this board member at the Idea Fund; board member at the Urban Oasis Project (Oasis Market); and Erie County Redevelopment Authority Loan Review Committee member endeavors to unlock local capital to support positive social-impact projects throughout the Greater Erie community.
"Making Erie a better place requires showing up every day and giving a damn," says this father of two, who when not building community opportunity enjoys spending time with his family (wife Gretchen and kiddos Harrison and Vivian). "Whether that's being fully committed to your job, to volunteering your time with a nonprofit, or simply taking pride in your home and your neighborhood, Erie will thrive if we all take some accountability in making this place the true gem we know it can be."
"Every morning Mr. Williams will greet students with a song and then an intramural football game after school," one of Jesse T. Williams' nominators wrote. "He's just the kind of young, smart role model I want for my kids."
"He is one of the best young administrators in Erie," another wrote. "The parents and students love him, and he is there to make a difference."
This Worthington, Pennsylvania native got his first assistant principal job at just 26 in Raleigh, North Carolina and then moved to Hampton, Virginia before arriving in Erie in 2015. When he isn't "chasing three small children" (Sid, Troy, and Mason), he's endeavoring to "prepare the next generation to not only respect the past but create a future for Erie," as he puts it.
The George Washington University grad, who went on to obtain a Master of Education at Slippery Rock University, is now a doctoral student at Indiana University of Pennsylvania but spends his elementary school days "working with Erie city youth in all fashions — working with their social, emotional, educational needs every day." He puts emphasis on the familial sense created by the staff for students, noting: "We look at our school as a community that makes every student feel relevant, safe, and in control of their own future."
"The future of Erie 40 Under 40 lies within Erie Public Schools and other surrounding school districts," he adds. "We are training the next doctors, builders, teachers, and reporters, making sure Erie will continue to have a future."