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Class of 2021

Class of 2021 Cover Story

When BusinessWest launched a program in 2007 to honor young professionals in Western Mass. — not only for their career achievements, but for their service to the community — there was little concern the initial flow of nominations might slow to a trickle years later.

We were right. In fact, 40 Under Forty has become such a coveted honor in the region’s business community that the flow has turned into an annual flood, with almost 200 unique nominations arriving this year — a near-record — making the task of five independent judges tougher than ever.

But it was also an inspiring task, as these nominations testified to the continued vibrancy and dedication of the region’s young professionals, even during a year that has been unusual at the best of times and, for many industries, crushing during the worst.


View this year’s 40 Under Forty digital flipbook here!


As usual, the honorees — 26 women and 14 men — hail from a host of different industries, from law to engineering; from education to healthcare; from energy to media, just to name a few. But there are, as always, some common denominators, including excellence within one’s profession, a commitment to giving back to the community, dedication to family and work/life balance, and a focus on what else they do in each of those realms.

The class of 2021 will be celebrated on Thursday, Sept. 23 at the annual 40 Under Forty Gala at the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House in Holyoke. That gala will also feature the announcement of the winner of the seventh annual Alumni Achievement Award, a recognition program that salutes the 40 Under Forty honoree who has most impressively added to their accomplishments in the workplace and within the community, as chosen by a panel of judges.

Presenting Sponsor

Sponsors

Alumni Achievement Award

When BusinessWest launched its 40 Under Forty program in 2007, it did so to identify rising stars across our region – individuals who were excelling in business and through involvement within the community –and celebrate their accomplishments. In 2015, BusinessWest announced a new award, one that builds on the foundation upon which 40 Under Forty was created. It’s called the Alumni Achievement Award (formerly the Continued Excellence Award). as the name suggests, will be presented to the 40 Under Forty honoree who, in the eyes of an independent panel of judges, has most impressively continued and built upon their track record of accomplishment.

This year’s nominations are CLOSED. Nominate next year’s Alumni Achievement Award recipient HERE.

2021 Alumni Achievement Award Presenting Sponsor

Class of 2021

Attorney, Fitzgerald Attorneys at Law; Age 34

Nick Amanti grew up in a family business where he learned life lessons he still follows.

For 60 years, his family has owned Advance Manufacturing, which provides precision-manufactured parts for a number of industries. Amanti was taught to treat the people who work for Advance like family. Though his career is outside the company, Amanti provides legal services for many different business owners and feels a true connection with them.

“I know how much they care about their business and how much they care about their employees,” he said, adding that it’s an honor to help his business clients. “It takes so much courage to actually start a business and take on the responsibility for yourself, as well as to help others support their families.”

Amanti’s decision to pursue a legal career was the result of a near-tragic event. When he was 18 years old, his father, David, suffered a brain tumor. Many of the people who came to their house were lawyers who worked hard to get all the family’s affairs in order. Amanti called this episode a turning point in his life.

“Watching them, I realized I could help people in their time of need, and I could help businesses through tough times,” he said. “Whether it was my family or other individuals, I felt this is something I could do.”

This story has a happy ending because his father survived the brain tumor, has returned to work, and these days enjoys golfing with his sons.

As an attorney, Amanti provides legal counsel to businesses from inception through all the services they need while they are up and running, to guidance at the end when a company decides to wind down.

He helped local businesses keep their doors open during the worst of COVID-19 by helping them claim federal PPP grants totaling more than $3 million. And when restaurants and taverns were hit hard by loss of business, he appealed to the state licensing board to allow them more time to pay their bills without penalty.

Meanwhile, among his many civic roles, he volunteers with the YMCA of Greater Westfield and bikes in the Pan-Mass Challenge, personally committing to raise a minimum of $5,000 for the Dana-Farber Cancer Center and the Jimmy Fund.

Through all that, his advice for a good life is simple. “Take pride in your work, show respect to others, and enjoy the ride.”

 

—Mark Morris

Class of 2021

Regional Director of Marketing & Communications, Trinity Health of New England; Age 38

Amy Ashford got her start within the healthcare sector not in marketing, but in human resources. It was a chance conversation in the ladies’ room with the CEO of the hospital where she was employed that changed the trajectory of her career.

“She said, “we have a position in marketing, and I think you’d be a really great fit for it; would you consider it?’” Ashford recalled, adding that she had lunch with the director of that department, and … well, that was not only the start of a friendship that continues to this day, but the next important step in a journey that has taken her from a supporting role with a hospital in New Hampshire to her current role as regional director of Marketing & Communications for Trinity Health of New England.

There were steps in between, and all that accumulated knowledge and experience has certainly been needed during what Ashford described as the most difficult test, and in some ways the most rewarding experience, of her career — coordinating the region’s communications efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Those first several months, it was basically crisis communications and trying to keep the community as updated as possible,” she recalled, adding that she and other administrators were hunkered down (safely) in an incident command center. “Things were changing quickly, and it was our duty, and our responsibility, to communicate with people as much as possible.”

While excelling in her field — she recently received the Society for Health Care Strategy and Market Development’s Rising Star Award — Ashford is also active within the community. She has been the second vice president of the board of directors for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Hampden County since 2014, and is also a former board member for Symphony Hall and CityStage.

Returning to her relationship with the woman who first hired her to do marketing, Ashford said she remains a mentor to this day, and the experience has prompted her to seek out opportunities to mentor young people in this profession, which she finds quite rewarding.

“That lesson has really stuck with me, and I take very seriously the opportunity to mentor younger people in the marketing field,” she said. “I enjoy helping them grow and advance their careers.”

 

—George O’Brien

Class of 2021

CEO and Founder, Tech180; Age 39

To borrow a phrase from the industry it serves, Easthampton-based Tech180 has certainly taken off over the past few years.

Indeed, the company, founded by Chris Bakker — one of the true entrepreneurs in the class of 2021 — and now located in the Paragon Arts & Industry building in Easthampton, is gaining altitude in a highly competitive industry through his efforts to modernize and streamline the necessary but inefficient process of testing and certifying flight-worthy vehicles.

As Bakker, who earned his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and computer science at the University of California at Berkeley, explained it, “an aircraft has a lot of different computers on it that handle all sorts of things, like the flight controls, the engines … anything that moves on the aircraft has its own computer. And that computer has software on it that needs to be tested.

“To test that product, you don’t want to just put it on an airplane and then hope it doesn’t crash,” he went on. “You want to be able to test in a laboratory environment and make sure it’s completely vetted and safe before it goes on an aircraft.”

By creating such an environment, or testing system — one that “simulates the airplane” — Bakker and his team have enabled the company he and a few partners started in 2018 to grow to 30 employees and expand its footprint for a third time, adding a large warehouse and more manufacturing capacity to its suite of offices and existing manufacturing space.

In late 2020, the company announced an official partnership with NI (formerly National Instruments) and SET, two companies in the test industry. This partnership has brought Tech180 access to a larger pool of potential clients.

Such access is needed because, while COVID-19 hit every industry hard, it hit aerospace really hard, Bakker said. The company has responded by diversifying and adding military clients — flexibility that should serve it well when the market picks up again, which experts predict it will.

When asked what he does when he’s not working, Bakker joked that he “doesn’t do anything besides work.” What ‘spare’ time he does have is reserved for family — his wife, Rebecca, and daughters Inara and Juno — and also for sustainability and environmental causes.

Indeed, Bakker has served on the board of Grow Food Northampton and is currently involved in efforts to promote solarization, including at the mill buildings where Tech180 and other businesses are located.

 

—George O’Brien

Class of 2021

Program Manager, Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts; Age 35

Samantha Bilal is no stranger to making real, street-level change.

For most of her professional life, she did so with Martin Luther King Jr. Family Services in Springfield, where she gradually progressed from lead camp counselor to director of Operations.

In her 15 years there, Bilal supported prevention initiatives around gang violence, substance abuse, and teen dating violence, while training young people who successfully advocated for the passing of laws raising the legal tobacco-use age to 21. She also implemented youth safe-haven programming, education around domestic and dating violence, and annual community-engagement events.

These days, she’s impacting the community in a different way, managing the Live Well Springfield Coalition, a program of the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts, through which she leads the Climate Change and Health Equity initiative, which aims to create strategies to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, improve health outcomes for those in marginalized communities directly impacted by climate change, and dismantle systemic racism.

She has also led the institute’s Transforming Community initiative, which promotes health equity by targeting issues like nutritious food access and safer streets, and the Age-Friendly City initiative, which focuses on issues of housing, transportation, social services, and health to make Springfield a more livable city for older adults, so they can age in place.

“All these are very different, but they all impact community, and they all engage residents,” Bilal said, emphasizing the social-equity aspects of each. “I’m really passionate about community engagement and making sure residents are uplifted as champions — because we won’t make the biggest changes without their advice and their advocacy.

“I’m always excited to see the fruits of our work manifest into policy changes,” she went on. “That means we’re having a great impact and not just talking about ideas, but finding ways to implement change. That’s my biggest pride at work — seeing the changes in our community over time.”

Away from work, Bilal is the co-founder of A Queen’s Narrative, a personal-enrichment program for women and girls of color, which uses narrative power and storytelling to harness self-empowerment and self-awareness.

“I love youth and empowering young women — there’s so much value in uplifting people and helping them find their voice and making sure they have access to opportunities they normally wouldn’t have gotten,” she said. “When we come together to share these narratives with each other, we find commonality, but also find ways to better collaborate.”

 

—Joseph Bednar

Class of 2021

Assistant General Counsel and Director of Legal Services, Health New England; Age 37

When asked why she became a lawyer, Ashley Bogle started by explaining why, for a long time, she didn’t want to become a lawyer.

“I thought that all attorneys did was argue — like on Law & Order. I’m not really a fighter, so I really didn’t want to do that,” she explained, adding that she took a different route and became a pre-pharmacy major. She eventually worked in a pharmacy and didn’t enjoy what she was doing, to put it mildly, so she went to work for a law firm as a legal assistant, an experience that changed her perspective — and her career track.

Meanwhile, Bogle found Health New England through a staffing agency in 2010 and, after graduating from UConn School of Law, worked her way up at HNE to the twin duties of assistant general counsel and director of Legal Services. She described her work as a “mixed bag,” everything from reviewing contracts to keeping track of the regulatory filings with respect to maintaining licenses and accreditation.

But there is another important aspect to her work at HNE. Indeed, Bogle co-chairs the company’s diversity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) committee, which guides the organization toward its goals of embedding DEIB into its mission, operations, community outreach, and practices in several areas, including associate engagement, corporate social responsibility, recruitment and retention of diverse talent, advancing health outcomes, and community engagement. Bogle has initiated a diversity and inclusion e-mail inbox to allow associates to share feedback about DEIB within the organization, and regularly shares updates to all HNE associates via biweekly town halls.

“We want to push forward a diversity mindset and an equity mindset,” she explained. “It’s been a lot of work, but it’s been very exciting, and the organization as a whole has been very supportive of these efforts.”

In 2020, Bogle was appointed to represent HNE in the Massachusetts Assoc. of Health Plans’ recently established Racial Disparities Work Group, advancing the work of two important initiatives on behalf of MAHP’s member health plans.

Meanwhile, she is also very active within the community, volunteering for meal service at Friends of the Homeless, taking part in community-service projects through the United Way’s Day of Caring, and fundraising and organizing events for Go Red American Heart Assoc. Heart Walks.

 

—George O’Brien

Class of 2021

Primary-care Physician, Health Services for the Homeless; Age 34

It’s called ‘street outreach.’

That’s what Dr. Jessica Bossie calls the work she does on Thursday afternoons and Fridays, and it’s aptly named.

That’s because she is, quite literally, on the streets — and also under bridges, in homeless camps, and in other locations, bringing needed healthcare directly to the homeless population in Western Mass.

“Sometimes it’s Main Street in Northampton or some of the drags in Springfield — we know where our patients panhandle; we know where they go,” she explained. “If we need to find them for something serious, we’ll go find them — and we do.”

Street outreach is part of an extremely broad set of responsibilities for Bossie, the only primary-care physician working within a Springfield-based but regionally focused program called Health Services for the Homeless.

Others include seeing patients at both the Worthington Street homeless shelter in Springfield on Mondays and Wednesdays, and the homeless shelter in Northampton on Tuesdays and Thursdays; acting as a repository of information for a transient population that crosses many city and county lines; directing a harm-reduction program for the homeless patients who suffer from chronic alcohol abuse; and even overseeing and operating all aspects of an 800-square-foot community vegetable garden in Barre.

Her work is difficult to describe in much detail in this space. Suffice it to say it is 24/7 and involves caring for and advocating for the homeless population in Hampden, Hampshire, and Franklin counties, work that involves both treatment and prevention. This work resonated with the judges for this year’s 40 Under Forty program, as Bossie was the highest scorer among nearly 200 nominees.

A graduate of Boston University School of Medicine and the mother of three young girls, Bossie said she always intended to serve underserved populations, and was specifically interested in substance-abuse treatment. She had some direct exposure to Boston’s highly acclaimed healthcare program for the homeless, and has brought many of its best practices to this region.

When asked what she found most rewarding about her work, she said it’s the “human component,” the relationships she’s made with her patients.

“It’s wonderful to be able to help them in ways they’ve been wanting but haven’t found a way to get before,” she said. “Even after they move on, some of my patients travel hours just to come back and see me. It’s really flattering, and we develop these really amazing, really strong relationships.”

 

—George O’Brien

Class of 2021

Supervisor of Science, Technology, and Engineering, Westfield Public Schools; Age 32

Growing up in Westfield, Lauren Figy Cadigan was interested in pursuing medicine or some other field where she was helping people.

“But I had a knack for science,” she said. “What I enjoyed about it was the inquiry, being excited about figuring things out. So I started doubling up on science in high school, taking as many classes as I could.”

It’s a fervor she shares with other young people today as supervisor of Science, Technology, and Engineering for Westfield Public Schools. “I have a passion for helping people and really encouraging students to go into STEM.”

After graduating from Ohio Wesleyan University and working in the Columbus, Ohio school system, Figy Cadigan returned to her home state and taught at the High School of Commerce in Springfield, then went through a master’s in education program focused on organizational management.

That opened a door to an assistant-principal job in Westfield, and eventually her current role, where she has authored or co-authored successful grant applications including $55,000 in partnership with MassHire to get students interested in healthcare professions and obtain their CNA licenses; $30,000 to create a biomedical career pathway in the public schools; and $97,000 for a pilot program in engineering career pathways.

In all of this, she has sought to expose students to science, medical, and engineering careers they might not have considered before, and to cross-pollinate STEM fields that are traditionally male-dominated and healthcare careers that attract mostly women. “We’re making sure kids are getting a sampling of each, instead of society telling them what bucket they should fit into.”

That also goes for underserved demographics like special-education students and English-language learners. “All students can be successful, and we want these opportunities to be available to them as well.”

Figy Cadigan serves her community in other ways, too, volunteering with the YMCA of Greater Westfield, the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Westfield, Amelia Park Arena, Our House, and an annual Thanksgiving food drive.

But she’s especially gratified by the impact her efforts are having on the future leaders of STEM.

“The best part about being in education is five or six years later, when kids write back to you about what they’re doing now,” she said, adding that she’s especially excited about the future of her own daughter, expected to arrive this summer. “This is the education I want for her.”

 

—Joseph Bednar

Class of 2021

Chief of Operations, West Springfield Mayor’s Office; Age 25

Carly Camossi has grown up in West Springfield — in more ways than one.

Yes, it’s her hometown, but she’s also forged a satisfying, multi-faceted career here, starting as a soccer referee for the Park & Recreation department when she was just 14 years old — with her role quickly expanding over the next few years to office intern, gym supervisor, dance staff member, babysitter training course instructor, and more.

Meanwhile, she was helping care for her younger sister, Corey, who would pass away in 2015 from cerebral palsy at age 17. Carly coordinated a fundraiser for the Special Olympics in honor of her sister, which caught the attention of West Springfield Mayor Will Reichelt.

“He was like, ‘I want her to work for me.’ My involvement in his office just stemmed from there,” she recalled. As his outreach coordinator starting in 2017 — when she was still just 21 — she provided professional assistance and advice, represented the mayor at meetings, and performed a host of other tasks.

Meanwhile, in volunteer roles, such as blood-drive coordinator for the Red Cross, she gained keen insight into the ways local nonprofits can connect with the resources available in town, and work in tandem to benefit residents.

This past February, Camossi was promoted again, to chief of Operations in the mayor’s office, where she oversees certain town projects; investigates problem situations; handles marketing, press activity, and advertising for the town; and acts as a liaison among the mayor, town departments, the Town Council, and state officials, just to name a few roles.

“I think very highly of people who live in the community they work for,” she said. “When I’m in the grocery store, I’ll see someone I know who’ll ask me a question — if taxes are going up, or if they’re looking for a service in the community. It’s awesome to have that personal connection.”

She recognizes the same passion for service in her co-workers as well — especially over this past, very challenging year.

“You don’t always hear good things about municipal employees, but in pandemic times, it’s refreshing that we were able to take everything in stride and figure out how to streamline our processes and run our activities under COVID guidelines,” Camossi said. “Everyone stepped up and played key roles in making sure people’s needs were taken care of. We never skipped a beat.”

 

—Joseph Bednar

 

Class of 2021

Director of Business Systems, Clinical & Support Options Inc.; Age 32

Jes Charette-Fallon’s path to her current career has been a winding one; she originally studied political science and thought about becoming an attorney, and eventually earned a degree in art therapy.

But she then enrolled in a graduate program for mental-health counseling at Springfield College, where her time as a resident director laid bare some common needs. “I was responding to a lot of mental-health crises and got really involved in that; it felt like a natural fit.”

As part of her master’s program, she interned at Clinical & Support Options (CSO) in 2012, then came on board as an employee in 2013. “I loved working with the Springfield population; to be able to work with such a diverse population was incredibly meaningful.”

Charette-Fallon moved up quickly in the organization, first as a clinical supervisor and most recently as director of Business Systems, a senior leadership position created out of a need to have someone with a clinical background handling the administration of electronic health records.

“People questioned my transition from the clinical area because I have such a strong calling, but it really is the best of both worlds,” she said. “I’m able to have an impact on a larger scale, helping clients across all services, and also making the lives of our staff easier.

“We probably spend more time in our electronic health records than we spent with our family and friends,” she went on. “If our experience using that interface is not a positive one, we’re probably not going to deliver the best service to clients.”

At the same time, she keeps her hand in the clinical world at CSO, leading a support group for parents who have experienced trauma, and carrying a small caseload as well. “That keeps me connected to our very, very important mission,” she said, adding that she has advanced-practice certification in trauma-informed care, which is the organization’s treatment model in every program.

In her spare time, Charette-Fallon is an avid runner. “I was significantly overweight, and I lost 100 pounds after I started running,” she said. “I never thought I could run a marathon; then I did, and I kept doing it. It’s been one of the most rewarding and stress-relieving experiences, and I’m really passionate about it. If I can do something that hard, I know I can do anything.”

 

—Joseph Bednar

Class of 2021

Special Programs Coordinator, Gateway to College, Holyoke Community College; Age 39

Julissa Colón can certainly relate to those individuals she assists through the Holyoke Community College (HCC) Gateway to College program.

Indeed, when she was 19, she left college when she had her first child. She thought the opportunity to earn a college degree had passed her by.

She was wrong, of course. She now has an associate degree from HCC and a bachelor’s degree in Latin American studies from Smith College, with a minor in history. What she needed to earn those diplomas was some encouragement and a path forward — and that’s exactly what she helps provide to others who have left traditional education.

“These are students who have already left high school or are on the verge of leaving,” Colón said. “They don’t leave because they’re not smart, they don’t leave because they’re not capable; they leave because of life. Some of them have had to go to work; some of them have stayed back so many times they feel too old to be in traditional school; some are homeless; some have had children, or they’re ill, or their parents are ill.

“What they all have in common, though, is that they don’t want to give up — they do want their high-school diploma, they do want to be successful, they do have dreams,” she went on, adding that Gateway exists to build a unique pathway to success for each student.

Colón joined Gateway a decade ago and has been instrumental in transforming the program, according to Vivian Ostrowski, the program’s director, who nominated her for this award. She said Colón is also a big reason why the program now enjoys an 83% graduation rate for those who left traditional school.

While rising in the ranks from clerk to office manager to Special Programs coordinator, she has drawn on her own experiences, and also her mother’s (she came to Holyoke from Puerto Rico) to help her understand and appreciate her students’ experiences, and also to help guide them and keep their dreams alive.

She said students often ask her to describe her role, and her answer is usually something like this: “I’m like your high-school guidance counselor and your college advisor and your auntie and a social worker — I’m all those things wrapped into one.”

She’s something else as well: a tremendous role model.

 

—George O’Brien

Class of 2021

Director of Communications & Development, Community Action Pioneer Valley; Co-owner, F45 Training Hampshire Meadows, F45 Training Riverdale; Age 33

Jessye Deane often asks her kids a simple question: “how are you going to make the world a better place?”

She lives out her own answer in her dual careers, with the anti-poverty agency Community Action Pioneer Valley and two F45 Training franchises. “We strengthen our communities in different ways, but both are impactful.”

Deane has worked at Community Action for 11 years, wearing a number of hats over that time. Currently responsible for all communications and private fundraising efforts for six departments and 40 programs, she has increased private funding more than 16-fold.

“So many mini-miracles happen every day because of our staff,” she said of an organization that serves 30,000 low-income neighbors each year. “I am so honored to work with people I consider to be heroes and get to help them do that work. It’s something I don’t take for granted.”

Meanwhile, she and her husband, Danny (a 40 Under Forty honoree last year), despite both having other careers and three children under age 4, launched F45 Training Hampshire Meadows in Hadley in 2018, and doubled down in 2020 — yes, during the heart of the pandemic — by opening a second location in West Springfield. Jessye oversees all aspects of member relations; recruitment, hiring, and supervision of 18 employees; and marketing and social-media campaigns.

“At the same time Danny and I founded the F45 franchise, my mom was having open-heart surgery, and it really scared me,” she recalled. “But I wanted our kids to see us prioritizing our health and to create a place where everyone felt supported and encouraged to become the healthiest versions of themselves. F45 really does change lives — mine included. Because of F45, I am now someone who wakes up at 3:50 a.m. to work out — and likes it.”

It’s a busy life, she admits. “But having three hilarious kids, coffee, and a minivan really helps.”

What really keeps her going, however, is passion.

“I’m so lucky to be in a position to help people and see the life-changing impacts of our work,” she said. “At F45, we’ve had people lose more than 100 pounds. At Community Action, we have single moms who are no longer homeless. I’m given opportunities where I’m able to help, which is the reason I wake up every morning.”

 

—Joseph Bednar

 

Class of 2021

Associate Director of Diversity Recruitment and Enrollment, UMass Amherst; Age 33

Xiomara Albán DeLobato had to pack up a lot of things for her 40 Under Forty photo shoot. She wanted to tell her story visually and explain what’s important her.

That’s Brody the boxer, her best friend, on the other end of the leash. That’s the Ecuadorian flag to the left; her parents emigrated from there to the U.S. And that’s the LGBTQ flag to the right, which represents who she is and symbolizes a core driver of the work she does.

The pennants? They explain where she works (UMass Amherst), where she worked previously (Elms College, Springfield College, and the University of New Hampshire), and where she’s earned degrees (Elms and UNH). There’s also signage for Girls Inc., which she serves as a board member and Development chair, and also as sponsorship chair of the agency’s annual Spirit of Girls event, as well as for Veritas Prep Charter School, which she’s a trustee, and the Springfield Public Forum, where she sits on the board of directors.

As for the books, they represent some of the reading she’s been doing when it comes to her work, which has also become … a passion.

Indeed, DeLobato is the first person to hold her job title at UMass Amherst — something that speaks volumes about the growing importance of this role — and it’s a title that effectively and succinctly sums up what she does.

Sort of.

There are many responsibilities attached to this position, but she smashed it all down to a simple and powerful sentence. “We want to create a sense of belonging.”

As she explained, “universities are seeing the need for their communities to be inclusive. It does take intentionality — you can’t just say, ‘we’re a diverse place and an inclusive place’ without mindfully and very intentionally creating spaces that are inclusive for all our students. We need to do our very best to make people understand that this is a place where they belong.”

This is the real meaning of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and the foundation of all of her work, which includes everything from developing strategic DEI goals to actively shifting the culture within the enrollment-management division to focus on DEI.

Yes, DeLobato had to pack up the car for her photo shoot. But, by doing so, she helped explain who she is — and why she’s a member of the class of 2021.

 

—George O’Brien

Class of 2021

Director of Nursing, Mercy Medical Center; Age 35

Lindsey Gamble doesn’t have any trouble recalling the time and the circumstances when she first decided she wanted to be a nurse.

She was 12 years old, and her mother was pregnant with her fourth child. Lindsey made up her mind that she wanted to witness the birth of that child, and successfully lobbied those at the hospital for the right to be in the room. She’s very glad she did.

“It was the best day of my life,” she said. “I immediately knew I wanted to become a nurse and hopefully deliver babies at one point — but definitely nursing. It was a really positive experience.”

She used it to propel herself into a career in nursing, one that eventually did include a stint as a labor and delivery nurse before she made the transition to management roles within the Nursing Department at Mercy Medical Center.

Today, Gamble is director of Nursing, a broad role that carries with it many responsibilities, including staffing, budgeting, training, and ongoing education of the nursing staff. And that list became even longer during the past 14 months of COVID-19.

Indeed, at the start of the pandemic, Gamble implemented a daily huddle to keep the day and night shifts up to date on the changing protocols and testing for the virus, while also collaborating with the departments of Respiratory Therapy and Education to cross-train nurses to perform certain duties to relieve the workload for respiratory therapists. She also coordinated ‘resiliency rounds’ to allow frontline staff to decompress and take care of themselves, and worked with the Philanthropy team to coordinate the many food donations and deliveries to frontline workers.

She also played a key role in the opening of Mercy’s Innovation Unit, designed to ensure that families of COVID patients stay connected with the patient and the care team during their hospital stay — a connection that became especially important when the hospital could no longer allow visitors.

Gamble is also active in the community, especially at the school her children attend, Enfield Montessori. There, she’s a volunteer — handling everything from reading in the classroom to teaching gym to working in the cafeteria — and also serves on the advancement committee.

Meanwhile, at Mercy, she has been instrumental in the hospital’s annual holiday campaign to collect hygiene products and clothing items for the homeless.

In other words, she’s a true leader — in all aspects of her life.

 

—George O’Brien

Class of 2021

Assistant Dean of Student Initiatives, Springfield Technical Community College; Age 35

Once Kiyota Garcia walked onto the Springfield Technical Community College (STCC) campus, she never really left.

Her first exposure was taking summer classes there while working toward a bachelor’s degree at Bay Path University. Then, as a graduate student at American International College, she took a job at STCC in the Academic Advising and Transfer Center. She’s been there ever since.

And it’s her job, she said, to make sure STCC has the same sort of drawing power for today’s students.

“I’m trying to come up with new, fun, and interesting ways to keep students engaged, keep them retained, and get them really focused,” she said of her latest role, as assistant dean of Student Initiatives. “We know how to get the students in — now, how can they be successful? We’re don’t just want to retain them — we want to see completion as well.”

That concept doesn’t apply only to graduation, Garcia added, but to all the smaller goals along the way, from passing a class to simply passing a test. After all, small roadblocks to success can snowball into big ones — and she wants to help students smooth their path.

Her background in psychology — she holds a doctorate of education in educational psychology, a master’s degree in clinical psychology, and a bachelor’s degree in psychology — has been helpful in her approach to working with students, but just as important is a commitment to keeping them connected. That might mean personal check-in calls from a professor or coach, or surveys on what kinds of non-academic supports they might need, which have been especially critical during the pandemic.

Through one program, called Survive and Thrive, “we tap into students when they first arrive at STCC and give them the resources they need to be successful, whether it’s financial aid, meeting their adviser, test-taking strategies — really touching the student at whatever level they need.”

Active in the community, Garcia volunteers with the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts and is a board member for Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School of Excellence, among other roles. But her most gratifying is making sure students succeed at STCC.

“It’s a big family on campus,” she said. “People develop personal connections you don’t get everywhere. And I think the culture at STCC has allowed us to do that.”

 

—Joseph Bednar

Class of 2021

Director of Production and Technology, Focus Springfield Community Television; Age 25

When Comcast ceased offering public-access television a decade ago and Focus Springfield Community Television rose up in its wake, Brendon Holland, then a high-school student, was on the scene, helping dismantle the old Comcast studio and create a new one on Main Street.

When he returned to Springfield after graduating from Brigham Young University — with considerably more production experience under his belt — he started working at Focus Springfield again, as the station was evolving from an old, analog enterprise to a modern, digital media-production facility. He relished the transition.

“At Brigham Young, we had an insane budget for audio-visual equipment, millions of dollars, and we could buy whatever we wanted, top-of-the-line stuff. Back in Springfield, we’ve been able to do high-end production on a smaller budget.”

The station’s impact, however, has been anything but small, especially during the pandemic. Holland designed and maintained the city’s remote municipal meeting system, which helped Springfield become the only community in Massachusetts — out of 351 — to have never stopped any essential municipal business during COVID-19.

Meanwhile, he produced all nine of the city’s virtual high-school graduations last year. During normal years, he helps residents access recordings and streaming of signature events like the Jazz & Roots Festival and the Hoophall Classic. “We put community first and show up when it matters. We’ve really been able to integrate ourselves into a lot of households in the city.”

Two aspects of his job are especially gratifying, he said. “First is when people come into the station to create media and video, when the lightbulb clicks and they understand how all the audio, lighting, video, and editing come together.”

Second, simply put, is providing a community service no one else can. “Without us, no one would hear about some of the positive things happening in Springfield. We’ve been great at changing the perception of a city that needed a facelift, but that I grew up in and love.”

While his wife, Morgan Drewniany Holland (a 40 Under Forty honoree in 2017), is certainly a fan of his work, Brendon is also quick to credit his golden retriever, Cooper.

“I owe pretty much every single thing I do at work to my dog,” he said. “I come up with the best ideas on evening and morning dog walks. When I’m stuck in a rut, I’ll go for a walk, and it totally makes sense.”

 

—Joseph Bednar

Class of 2021

Director of Procurement, Logistics, and Special Projects, Auxiliary Enterprises, UMass Amherst; Age 39

Chris Howland says it was a phone call that ultimately “changed the trajectory of my life’s path.”

It was 2003, and he was a senior at UMass Amherst, working toward a degree in animal science. Looking for some needed pocket money, he made a call to the university’s Auxiliary Enterprises in hopes of getting part-time job. Long story short, he did. But what he really found was a very rewarding career.

“I had aspirations to maybe become a veterinarian or work in a lab,” he told BusinessWest. “But I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. Once I graduated in May, those in Auxiliary Services invited me to stay on through the summer, and then in the fall … I just continued on and kept taking on more responsibilities and moving my way up in the ranks.”

That’s putting it mildly.

Today, he’s director of Procurement, Logistics, and Special Projects for Auxiliary Enterprises, which includes residential and retail dining (the largest and most-awarded collegiate food service on the country; Princeton Review has ranked it number one for ‘Best Campus Food’ for five years running) as well as catering, concessions, food trucks, the University Club in Amherst, conference services, and more. He currently oversees an annual spending budget of more than $30 million (in a normal, non-pandemic year) and a staff of 10 who administer bids, contracts, vendor payments, accounts payable, and much more.

It’s intriguing work, with “a number of moving parts,” as he put it, with one of the more intriguing — and rewarding — being the ability to work directly with many of the farms he worked with, and learned from, as a student majoring in animal science, like Mapleline Farm in Hadley, which provides milk to the university.

“It’s like coming full circle for me to be able to understand their business, help them with sourcing their milk, and telling their story,” Howland said. “And I’ve been able to do that with a lot of different farmers.”

While his work keeps him busy, as in very busy, he says weekends are reserved for family time, and he, his wife Karen, and two daughters, Emma and Violet, are looking forward to the day when loosened pandemic restrictions will allow for more day trips to museums, zoos, aquariums, and other places that blend fun with learning.

 

—George O’Brien

Class of 2021

BSEP Program Coordinator and Mobile Health Bus Project Coordinator, Baystate Medical Center; Age 36

Kelly Lamas has always taken a street-level view of healthcare delivery — in some ways, quite literally.

“I grew up wanting to do something to help people,” she said, and that passion eventually led her into the world of public health, most notably her role with the Baystate Springfield Educational Partnership (BSEP), starting in 2017.

“I run most of the high-school programming for students after school,” she said of the 13-year-old partnership between Baystate and Springfield’s public schools, providing career-exploration courses in medicine, nursing, and allied health.

Lamas brought a public-health perspective to the program at a time when Baystate Health was more broadly embracing a population-based healthcare model and building bridges to public-health initiatives in the community.

“We’re having students really look at health through different lenses, root causes, social determinants of health, and we created a couple of project-based classes,” she explained. Specifically, in partnership with Focus Springfield Community Television, students created PSAs on topics like distracted driving and mental health.

Through BSEP, she also developed partnerships with organizations like Gardening in the Community and the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts, and helped develop a community health worker certificate program at Holyoke Community College.

Now Lamas is shifting gears — again, both literally and figuratively — by leading Baystate’s mobile health unit. TD Bank awarded Baystate Health a $1 million grant to fund, outfit, and operate a mobile health clinic that will improve access to preventive care in underserved urban and rural communities.

“Transportation is the biggest barrier to healthcare for people, whether they live in urban or rural areas. So we started thinking about meeting communities where they are,” she said.

The unit will provide prevention, education, and screening services while offering on-the-ground training for hundreds of nurses, medical students, pharmacists, and other health professionals every year. Many individuals are not currently receiving these needed services because of financial and transportation barriers or a lack of providers in their neighborhoods.

“This is all about meeting people where they are,” said Lamas, who was also recently elected to the Ludlow Board of Health. “We’re changing the way education is delivered, too. The students, who will eventually be doctors, nurses, and pharmacists, are working together and communicating in teams to deliver the best care. They’re seeing the vital role each member of the team brings and moving the needle toward healthier outcomes.”

 

—Joseph Bednar

Class of 2021

Academic Matters Coordinator, Graduate and Professional Programs, Isenberg School of Management, UMass Amherst; Age 32

As a student in UMass Amherst’s sport management program, Matt Kushi harbored dreams of being an athletic director at a small college or high school. Such dreams never came to pass, but Kushi has forged an intriguing and rewarding career nonetheless.

Actually … two of them.

By day, he’s Academic Matters coordinator for the graduate and professional programs at the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst. And by … well, day and night, actually, he operates Kushi Farm and North Hadley Chili Pepper Co., LLC, which, as that name suggests, specializes in hot peppers and hot-pepper products, including jelly.

Both pursuits came about as he was trying to figure out what to do with his life after graduation from UMass in 2010 into a down economy where jobs, especially those in sport management, were scarce.

At Isenberg, Kushi serves as a liaison between his office and faculty and staff for several graduate and professional programs. He also coordinates academic matters such as scheduling courses, classroom technology needs, and course evaluations.

As for the peppers … well, that’s a continuation of a family tradition, and family business, that goes back a century or so, one that Kushi, who also majored in history, discovered while doing some research for Hadley’s 350th birthday. Indeed, his great-grandfather grew tobacco and asparagus (the crop for which Hadley is famous) on land Kushi now tills (and lives on) today.

“I found that very interesting, that I had farming in my blood,” he said, noting that he started dabbling in growing vegetables and giving them to people in 2010. “The next year, I took a 20-by-20 plot in the family garden and started growing a few things like peppers and cucumbers and started selling them to people, and found I could make a few dollars.”

Today, he sells his peppers, which he describes as “middle-hot” jalapenos and hot red cherry peppers, wholesale, mostly to regional distributor Pioneer Valley Growers. It’s a business that’s taken root (pun intended), but is only one of many passions competing for his time.

Kushi is also chair of Amherst’s Agricultural Commission, a member of the Massachusetts Farm Bureau, coordinator of Hadley’s holiday tree-lighting ceremony, and owner and president of the MDK Initiative, which operates a special-projects entity with a focus on disability, diversity, and inclusion, and educational resources for families of individuals with disabilities.

 

—George O’Brien

Class of 2021

Founding Executive Director, Teach Western Mass; Age 39

When two local school districts faced a severe teacher shortage, they called in Pema Latshang.

She began her career as a middle-school teacher in the Bronx and worked her way up as an education administrator. After nearly 10 years, Latshang, a Western Mass. native, returned to the area to live closer to her family and raise her two children where she grew up.

In 2015, she was hired as director of Professional Learning and Educator Leadership for Holyoke’s public schools. “In that role, I worked on professional development with teachers and figuring out how to provide more resources to support educators in Holyoke,” she explained.

In 2016, Springfield and Holyoke schools were both facing huge teacher shortages. Between the two cities, nearly 300 vacancies were emerging every year. On top of that, many of the shortages were in licensed areas such as special education, English as a second language, math, and science.

“Think about what it takes to find that many teachers,” Latshang said. “It was a huge issue that was putting a real strain on the schools.”

Administrators from the two cities formed a collaborative called Teach Western Mass (TWM), but they did not have anyone to run it, so they approached Latshang to be the founding executive director of the organization.

“We founded it with an objective of quantity, quality, and diversity,” she said. “So our aim is for highly capable teachers who represent diverse populations in our cities.”

In addition to recruiting, TWM has a residency program that provides training and licensing in specific areas of teaching. In its first year, the residency program placed 20 new teachers, then followed with 30 the following year and 40 last year.

“We hope to place more than 50 teachers this year from the residency,” she said. “That’s on top of our general recruiting, which can also be up to 50 teachers.”

Latshang knows that schools and communities have the potential to be inclusive places that accept and empower everyone to be their best. In her role with TWM, she works hard to make that potential a reality.

“I believe in seeing the good in people and building on their strengths,” she said. “Everyone is doing their best, so how can we help them achieve their goals?”

 

—Mark Morris

Class of 2021

Operations Manager, Office of Multicultural Affairs, Springfield Technical Community College; Age 39

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

That’s a framed quotation in Vonetta Lightfoot’s office at Springfield Technical Community College (STCC). Spoken by the Lorax, a Dr. Seuss character, it’s a guiding principle in her life.

“I keep that quote in my mind to make sure I do my part to inspire people, engage students, and help them be global citizens,” she said.

Last year, as the world reacted to the killing of George Floyd and Black Lives Matters protests gained momentum, Lightfoot wondered aloud to her husband, “how does it feel to be a man of color in the country right now?”

She processed that thought further, discussed it with colleagues, and eventually turned the idea into “Heart of a Man,” a discussion series designed to explore issues that affect men of color.

Lightfoot has expertise in organizing events and bringing people together, but COVID-19 restrictions forced her to quickly learn Zoom and reimagine the series as a virtual discussion.

“The sessions are centered on a main topic with three or four men and a moderator, then we open it to the audience for questions,” she explained. Topics have ranged from healthy masculinity and being a father to police violence.

“Heart of a Man” has received a great response on campus and with community partners. By recording and posting each discussion on YouTube, the series has been viewed more than 4,200 times. Its success has led to a second season of discussions, presentations at other local colleges, and a focus group on campus.

The virtual format turned out more positive — and impactful — than Lightfoot could have imagined. “It’s easier to participate virtually than coming to campus, and with YouTube, we reach more people than we could have with an in-person event.”

An initiative like this is just one reason Lightfoot loves her job at STCC, because it gives her the chance to “dream things up and then make them happen.” After creating “Heart of a Man” in that spirit, she almost echoed the Lorax as she explained why she pursued the idea.

“I feel like, if I don’t care, how will things get done? How is it going to get better?”

 

—Mark Morris

Class of 2021

Author; Associate News Editor for Digital Content, UMass Amherst; Age 32

When Crystal Maldonado was a child, she dreamed of someday writing a book.

“As I got older, I didn’t know if that was possible,” she said. But, even as she began a journalism career, she never let go of that dream. Then, around 2016, “I had this idea for a story that was loosely based on how my husband and I met when we were in high school.”

That idea became her debut novel, Fat Chance, Charlie Vega, a coming-of-age story — and a heavily fictionalized version of her own teen years — published earlier this year by Holiday House Publishing.

“I had never read a story for young adults that featured a fat, Puerto Rican character,” she said. “I wanted, selfishly, to make someone who looks like me the heroine of the story. And I’m really glad I did.”

Recalling her own youth, Maldonado said she faced criticism, shame, and ridicule from her peers and in the media and constantly struggled with her self-image. Over time, however, she learned to come to terms with who she was and to celebrate what makes her … well, her.

“I wrote this story for teens who don’t often see themselves reflected in a lot of media — not just books, but TV and movies, too,” she said. “I want to keep writing stories that often get overlooked by mainstream media, to create stories for teens that are truly relatable and highlight their experience in a way they don’t often see. That’s my big goal — to make people feel seen and heard.”

Meanwhile, in her day job at UMass Amherst, Maldonado manages and executes content, including photography and video, for university accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Spotify, Giphy, and more, dramatically increasing engagement with the university on these channels. She also mentors students, helping them develop their own portfolios and offering guidance on jobs, writing, and photography.

“Honestly, it’s great fun — I get to be really creative, and I love having the chance to talk to the students,” she said. “They’re so intriguing — they all have incredible stories about how they ended up at UMass. And they’re so busy; they’re launching businesses, doing this and that — they do so much more than I did when I was a student. It’s incredible.”

Young people with big goals — Maldonado can relate to that.

 

—Joseph Bednar

Class of 2021

Partner, Alekman DiTusa; Age 32

Laura Mangini is a huge fan of true crime.

Her podcast list is dominated by shows within that genre, and her bookshelves boast several selections from that broad category.

This has been pretty much a lifelong passion, or obsession, she told BusinessWest, adding that she entered Westfield State University’s criminal justice program with the intention of one day joining the FBI as a profiler.

Her career path changed when one of those CJ classes gave her an introduction to, and an appreciation for, the judiciary system. She attended law school at UConn and, upon graduation, soon joined the Springfield-based firm Alekman DiTusa, becoming a partner this past January.

She specializes in personal injury, and also representing victims of crime, sexual abuse, and sexual assault, as well as those taken advantage of by insurance companies. In one recent high-profile case, she obtained a $2.5 million verdict on behalf of a 28-year-old man from the Berkshires who was sexually abused by his mother’s live-in boyfriend as a child.

“I love litigating and the adrenaline that comes along with that,” she said. “But what’s rewarding is doing the work for the clients; especially in the crime-victims area, many of your clients are people who have been pushed aside, or no one has taken them seriously, or no one has stood up for them. The most rewarding part for me is to be that person who stood up for them.”

Mangini is active with a number of professional associations. She is currently co-chair of the Western Mass. Committee of the Women’s Bar Assoc., and has served on the board of the Hampden County Bar Assoc. since 2015. She is also a member of the Massachusetts Academy of Trial Lawyers, the National Crime Victims Bar Assoc., and the American Assoc. of Justice.

In the community, she volunteers her time with both the District Court and Housing Court Lawyer for a Day programs, and frequently participates in the Lawyer on the Line program, in which lawyers volunteer to provide free legal advice via a phone bank set up by the bar association. She is also active in her firm’s community-outreach efforts, volunteering for Revitalize Community Development Corp.’s annual GreenNFit Neighborhood Rebuild day each year.

When not working, she enjoys the outdoors, hiking, mountain biking, kayaking, and hanging out with her chocolate lab.

 

—George O’Brien

Class of 2021

CEO, Secure Energy Solutions; Age 39

A fire wasn’t going to keep Kevin Mattson down.

Not even an electrical fire that destroyed the East Longmeadow headquarters of his company, Secure Energy Solutions, in 2016.

While neighboring Cartamundi offered temporary space, Mattson went to work finding a new home, and eventually bought the former Biolitec building just down the street. But he didn’t just rebuild larger; he decked it out with a veranda for lunches and cookouts, a gourmet kitchen, a free fitness center, and other amenities.

After all, he said, if employees are going to spend 40 or more hours in a place, why not create an environment that keeps them satisfied and focused?

“When team members are happy, they want to do better not only for the company, but for their own success and personal satisfaction,” he said, adding that he encourages employees to think of their jobs not as work, but as training, an opportunity to learn and grow.

There’s plenty to learn in the field of energy management. Since its inception in 2006, Secure Energy Solutions has helped commercial and industrial clients navigate the volatile energy markets and come up with strategies for electricity and natural-gas procurement, solar development, efficiency projects, sustainability planning, and more.

Mattson — who also co-founded a second company, Custom Homes Development, in 2012 — has grown Secure Energy Solutions to more than 50 employees in East Longmeadow and a second office in New Jersey, but says the sky is the limit. “We’re expanding every year, but I feel we haven’t really accomplished anything yet.”

Meanwhile, he quietly helps the community in different ways, such as financing new sod and soil for local ballfields — and rolling up his sleeves to help repair them. “I don’t have a tremendous amount of time, but any time I do have, I like helping kids. They’re our future.”

Mattson got a real scare — and a dose of unlikely inspiration — when his parents survived the B-17 plane crash at Bradley International Airport in 2019 that killed seven of the 13 people on board.

“Both of them survived by jumping out the window; for me, that was the most inspiring thing in the world,” he said. “I try to teach my kids, and the people I work with, that you’ve got to be resilient; you’ve got to be prepared for absolutely everything that might get thrown your way.”

Again, this isn’t someone who backs down from a fire.

 

—Joseph Bednar

Class of 2021

Deputy Chief of Staff for State Sen. Eric Lesser; Chicopee City Councilor; Age 29

Joel McAuliffe can’t remember a time when he wasn’t in public service. Well … he can, but he has to go back to his high-school days, and even then, he was involved in politics and looking for ways to become more so.

He first ran for a seat on the Chicopee School Committee when he was 18 and tried again when he was 20. Neither run was successful, but he was eventually hired as the Communications director for Mayor Richard Kos in 2014, a stint that lasted three years and only served to whet his appetite for public service.

Indeed, he ran for City Council in 2017 against a long-time incumbent. He remembers hearing from supporters that he should “wait for his turn.” But he decided this was his turn, and he triumphed in a hard-fought race. He’s still on the Council, working hard for the residents of Ward 1, near Westover Air Reserve Base, and, overall, to “keep the city affordable.”

Meanwhile, he also serves as deputy chief of staff for State Sen. Eric Lesser, himself a member of the Forty Under 40 class of 2015. That role is the latest McAuliffe has held in a seven-year stint with Lesser, calling himself a “jack of all trades.”

Both jobs keep him quite busy, but he has many other things on his plate as well. He got engaged last August and is currently planning a wedding and house hunting in the city that isn’t just a home, but a passion. He’s currently involved with a project to bring the city’s residents municipal broadband service, one of the many initiatives aimed at improving quality of life in Chicopee and positioning it for growth and vibrancy in the years and decades to come.

“Chicopee is at a crossroads,” McAuliffe said. “We have a tremendous opportunity in front of us … we’re primed for success in a post-COVID world that will be filled with people working remotely and relying on technology.”

When asked about his ultimate ambition when it comes to public service, he gave an answer that speaks volumes about what he’s done already — and what might come next.

“Whatever is it that I do, politically, civically, professional work-wise … I want to be doing something that, in my opinion, gives back to the community and elevates the people who don’t have a voice.”

 

—George O’Brien

Class of 2021

President and CEO, DopaFit Parkinson’s Movement Center; Age 36

When someone who is afflicted with Parkinson’s disease meets Chad Moir, he asks if there is any activity they did before their diagnosis that they wish they could do again.

Moir uses exercise programs to help people stop or slow down the progression of Parkinson’s, a neurodegenerative disorder that increasingly robs the body of dopamine, which is released during exercise. Moir chose DopaFit as the name of his company to suggest improving a person’s dopamine fitness.

“Parkinson’s wants to make a person small — crunch down and take small steps,” he said. To counteract that, exercises for his clients are overexaggerated, featuring big body movements. “Applied to someone’s daily life, the exercises we work on in class will correlate to them having a normal walking pattern.”

Moir became involved in the Parkinson’s community when his mother became afflicted with the disorder and eventually died due to complications from the disease. “The love she gave me for many years is the same love I have instituted into DopaFit in helping people with Parkinson’s disease,” he said.

Because high-intensity exercise works so well for Parkinson’s patients, boxing is a centerpiece of the activities at DopaFit.

“Boxing elevates your heart to a rate almost equal to running around the block, without putting the stress on your knees and joints that you would get from running,” Moir said, adding that, in addition to the physical benefits, there are big mental-health payoffs, too. “It’s so cool for our clients to say they’re going to boxing class instead of they’re going to therapy. It really lifts their spirits.”

The most satisfying part of his work is when people can return to activities they enjoyed before being diagnosed with Parkinson’s. For example, one client went skiing for the first time in three years. “Another client who used to be a pilot hadn’t flown in 10 years because of Parkinson’s. We recently got him in the cockpit for the first time, and he was able to fly again.”

Moir — who was also recently honored as one of BusinessWest’s 2021 Difference Makers — said he’s happiest when he is helping others, taking inspiration from the Muhammad Ali quote, “service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.”

In other words, he added, “I just want to leave the earth a little better than when I got here.”

 

—Mark Morris

Class of 2021

Client Relationship Manager, Traffic Manager, Market Mentors, LLC; Age 27

Sarah Murphy went to college just outside Boston — at Lasell University in Auburndale — and was thinking about a summer internship in the Hub between her junior and senior years. But the city is expensive, and she quickly determined it was too expensive, so she opted to come back home to Agawam for summer break.

With some guidance from a friend, Bob Greeley, owner of R.J. Greeley Co., she readjusted her sights for an internship and started by talking with Michelle Abdow, owner of Market Mentors. That talk led — eventually — to the start of a career in the marketing business, and an intriguing job with many moving parts.

That’s eventually, because Murphy later interned in Boston for a large marketing firm and had to make the decision about which side of the state to work in. She chose Springfield, and Market Mentors, and has never looked back.

“In Boston, it felt like I would have been a little fish in a big pond,” she explained. “In coming here, I feel like I’m making more of an impact being with a smaller agency — and that spoke volumes to me.”

That impact, as she called, it, can be seen both in the agency and within the community.

Indeed, Murphy is now relationship manager and ‘traffic manager,’ a new position in which she handles a number of responsibilities and builds on experience gained while working her way up the ladder.

“I’m the liaison between the account executives and the other departments at the agency — I’m the middle person between our AEs and our copy and design, digital, and web departments,” she explained. “And I manage the deadlines for all of our projects. You might say I’m the hub for the agency; all the workflow goes through me.”

As noted, she is also quite active in the community, continuing a pattern that started in college, when she traveled to Uganda for two months with the Shoulder to Shoulder program and assisted seventh-grade school children by teaching science. Today, she’s an involved board member for the Foundation for TJO Animals, which supports the Thomas J. O’Connor Animal Control & Adoption Center.

With TJO, she helps lead many of its fundraising and outreach events, such as the Ride Like an Animal Motorcycle Run and Car Show. She also volunteers additional time at the adoption center, providing companionship to the shelter’s numerous animals.

 

—George O’Brien

Class of 2021

Manager, Audit & Assurance Department, Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C.; Age 31

Like most who venture into the broad realm of accounting, Matt Nash discovered early on that he had an affinity for numbers. But, again, like most of those who join this profession, he discovered this business isn’t really about numbers; it’s about relationships and helping business owners and managers cope with the challenges and opportunities that come their way.

And that was before COVID-19.

The pandemic has merely served to amplify those sentiments, said Nash, manager in the Audit & Assurance Department at Holyoke-based Meyers Brothers Kalicka, who, since joining the company as an intern a decade ago, has risen in the ranks and taken on a host of new responsibilities within the firm, while also becoming quite active within the community as well.

“It’s making it more fun,” he said of the pandemic, with a discernable amount of sarcasm in his voice. Speaking with BusinessWest at the height of tax season, he said the firm is helping clients navigate a host of COVID-related matters, from two rounds of Paycheck Protection Program grants to the Employee Retention Credit, to simply keeping the doors open in the wake of falling revenues. “It keeps it interesting.”

And that phrase applies to much more than accounting and auditing. Indeed, Nash and his wife, Riley, welcomed their first child, Brooks, just a few months after COVID arrived, with the pandemic adding new layers of intrigue to what is always a memorable and challenging time.

“Any time my parents or my wife’s parents wanted to see our son, it was almost like a two-week quarantine for them,” he recalled. “My father-in-law wasn’t able to hold my son for three or four months after he was born. It definitely made things much more difficult.”

As for his work in the community, Nash, a native of West Springfield, said he wants to give back to the region, and the firm not only encourages its employees to do so, it facilitates that process by giving them the time to get involved.

Nash is a board member with Springfield School Volunteers, a member of the Ronald McDonald House golf tournament committee, a mentor for the Westfield State University accounting program, a volunteer for Greater Springfield Habitat for Humanity, and a co-leader of his firm’s community initiative to help ‘stuff the bus’ for the United Way of Pioneer Valley.

 

—George O’Brien

Class of 2021

Attorney, Bulkley Richardson; Age 35

Lauren Ostberg took a winding road to Western Mass. — as one can see from the maps she and her husband and two sons are holding up in the accompanying photo.

Indeed, she’s also lived in Ohio (she grew up there), Vermont, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Montana (“it’s delightful — and cold — there, but there are no speed limits in most places”), and also Argentina for a short time.

She and her husband came to Western Mass. for a variety of reasons, and here, she’s found not only a home, but a professional niche, if you will — one she wasn’t necessarily thinking about when attending law school at Vanderbilt: cybersecurity.

Indeed, Scott Foster, co-chair of Bulkley Richardson’s cybersecurity practice (and a 40 Under Forty honoree in 2011), describes her as the “heart and soul” of that group, and one of the driving forces in its creation.

In this role, she has been instrumental in the launch of a well-respected series, CyberSafe, an in-person seminar turned virtual (because of COVID-19) that focuses on topics like preparation, implementation, and response to ensure that businesses and organizations are aware of their legal obligations; safeguards to stay protected; and what to in the event of a breach.

She has delivered cybersecurity presentations to large groups on a variety of topics, including WISPs (written information security programs), and contributed to articles on this broad subject for publications including BusinessWest.

“It’s a lot of fun, both intellectually and in terms of the work on the ground,” she said of cybersecurity law. It’s fun intellectually because the law and its applicability are always changing — even the definition of ‘personal information’ is constantly changing.

“And you also get some of the adrenaline you get from litigation,” she went on, “in responding to potential breaches for clients, like writing notification letters to attorneys general, crafting notices to consumers, counseling people on whether or not to pay the ransom … it’s all really interesting stuff, and very important.”

When not helping clients keep their businesses safe, Ostberg, who started her career as a freelance journalist and creative writer, is a regular participant in New England Public Media’s Valley Voices, with one of her stories taking the runner-up prize in the 2019 Valley Voices Championship. She is also active in the community, co-managing an annual fundraising campaign for the United Way of Pioneer Valley and also serving on Easthampton’s Cultural Council.

 

—George O’Brien

Class of 2021

Vice President, Pioneer Valley Hotel Group; Age 39

Kishore Parmar takes pride in finding distressed hotel properties and returning them to greatness in the community.

He does so as vice president for Pioneer Valley Hotel Group (PVHG), his family’s business, which manages the largest number of hotel rooms in Western Mass.

For example, nearly a decade ago, Parmar oversaw the revitalization of La Quinta Inn in downtown Springfield, which had suffered years of neglect.

“We always knew La Quinta had good bones and was something we could build on,” he said. “We also saw things were happening in Springfield, so we thought it was the right time and the right place to make the investment.” Since the rehab, La Quinta has been a successful business and received accolades from the state for contributing to Springfield’s economic growth and revitalization.

As a family business, Parmar said the emphasis is on family, which includes the 75-plus employees who work for PVHG.

“We have employees who have worked with us for decades and have dedicated their professional careers to our company, and they are like family to us,” he said. “My family is blessed to have these people, and that’s why we’ve succeeded.”

In 2020, the impact of the pandemic on hospitality and tourism brought the industry to a near-standstill. After robust growth years in 2018 and 2019, PVHG entered what Parmar labeled “the ice age of COVID.” The most heartbreaking impact of this time, he said, was the need to reduce some of the workforce. “As the ice age starts to thaw, I’m looking forward to bringing people back and getting our properties fully staffed again.”

Meanwhile, as an executive board member with the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce, Parmar is helping to lead the effort to start envisioning a post-COVID tourism economy.

“There will be long-term changes in the hospitality industry,” he said. “One area we are studying looks at how to market tourism in our area. I’m looking forward to seeing what we learn.”

The arrival of spring has sent occupancy rates slightly upward, and Parmar remains hopeful the trend will continue into summer, traditionally the busiest months for PVHG.

“We predict some growth this year, but the real momentum will be next year and 2023,” he said. “The foundation is in place for us to really take off in the next few years, so I’m excited.”

 

—Mark Morris

Class of 2021

Co-owner, Mellowship Entertainment, LLC; Age 28

Like many Western Mass. natives, Anne-Alise Pietruska always loved the Big E and looked forward to it every year.

So she was thrilled to be able to intern there while in college and later land a full-time gig, splitting her days between marketing — with roles ranging from social-media strategy, copywriting, and website design to community outreach — and coordinating entertainment alongside John Juliano, who has been booking talent at the Big E for more than 30 years.

“JJ at that point was a one-man band and didn’t think he needed me,” Pietruska said. “But soon, he learned about how passionate I was for music and the ideas I had.”

Eventually, she and Juliano began talking about starting their own company. That enterprise, Mellowship Entertainment, launched in 2017. It provides services ranging from program and event management and production to talent buying, consulting, and artist representation.

While the Big E remains a major part of Mellowship’s work, during a typical year, Pietruska and Juliano are also responsible for more than 1,000 shows; one fair might offer 30 events in a single day. They’re also heavily involved in the automotive entertainment industry, not only representing major shows, but establishing their own Collector Car Live brand.

But note that phrase ‘during a typical year.’ Because the past year has been anything but typical.

“It was March 12 or 13, and we were on a plane to Arizona,” she recalled. “We got to our layover, and my phone was blowing up.”

Within hours, cancellations snowballed, and within a matter of days, nothing was booked through June; before long, the entire year — and beyond — was lost to live events. But Pietruska didn’t just retreat; she joined the RESTART initiative to support the live-event industry, and Mellowship is also working with the biodefense company Synsexis, the security and health monitoring system PatriotOne, and the COVID-19 screening program Virified to help relaunch clients’ events in 2021.

The entertainment industry has been battered, she said, but it is resilient, and people will come back.

“I love creating live experiences; some of my best memories are from attending concerts and festivals,” she said. “The thrill of a live show and the communal power of music has had such a lasting impact on me, I want to create those memories for people. That’s why I think I have the best job. It can be stressful, but I love what I do.”

 

—Joseph Bednar

Class of 2021

Project Manager, Tighe & Bond; Age 30

Joe Popielarczyk always liked math and science, and became exposed to the world of engineering in high school and as a student at UMass Amherst. But it was his uncle, a civil and environmental engineer, who helped him narrow his interest.

“I chose civil engineering and enjoyed it right from the beginning,” he said, adding that he interned at Tighe & Bond as an undergrad and joined the firm full-time upon earning his master’s degree.

Since then, his contributions to the region’s quality of life have included design and construction services for water-system improvements along College Highway in Southwick, design of a wastewater treatment plant conversion in Northampton, improvement design for a wastewater pumping station in West Springfield … the list goes on, really, each project building on — and growing — his expertise.

“I’m a total people person,” he said. “I really enjoy personal interactions, whether it’s with clients, co-workers, or regulators. I enjoy the personal aspect of engineering. And in my role at Tighe & Bond, I’m always learning from people.”

Popielarczyk says he’s fortunate to be in a field where he can constantly learn and grow, but he’s especially grateful for the impact his work has on entire communities.

“I love the idea that it’s helping people, even though it’s not something that gets recognized,” he said, adding that people often don’t think about why they have clean water, reliable sewer service, and streets that don’t flood during rainstorms, the same way shoppers buying food in a grocery store don’t often think about the farming, production, and transportation behind getting it there. “We’re not in the public eye, but we do impact a tremendous amount of people.”

His impact extends outside of work as well, including as a mentor to young people considering a career in engineering. After graduating from UMass Amherst, he returned for several years to speak with the student chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers, and he regularly volunteers as a judge at local high-school science fairs, taking time to speak with teenagers about his career and where their STEM interests might take them.

“There’s always something to learn at Tighe & Bond, and a lot of great people willing to pass on their knowledge,” he said. “I take the same perspective with mentoring. It’s an opportunity to pass along what I know and pay it forward.”

 

—Joseph Bednar

 

Class of 2021

Staff Attorney, Central West Justice Center; Age 32

Growing up in Los Angeles, Claudia Quintero saw plenty of disparities — by class, race and ethnicity, gender, and more — and wanted to do something about it.

“But I was undocumented,” she said. “So I didn’t know if I could go to college, much less law school.”

In high school, though, she met a lawyer who helped her attain legal status. “I was so inspired by this attorney — who was also a Latina, and was very kind and very effective in her advocacy — that I wanted to go to law school and do for others what she had done for me.”

That law school was at Western New England University, where she knew she wanted to focus on social-justice work. Fittingly, she landed a job with Central West Justice Center immediately after achieving her juris doctorate. “It seemed like the right fit … like work I was meant to do.”

As a subsidiary of Community Legal Aid, Quintero explained, “we provide legal civil services to indigent clients, people who can’t afford lawyers for things like eviction defense, state and federal benefits law, family law, wage-and-hour claims, immigration … that’s just a smattering of the different projects we have.”

Central West’s migrant seasonal farmworker project, her area of focus, provides holistic legal advocacy to farmworkers across Massachusetts on housing, work conditions, and other protections, while advocating for these workers on the state level. “A lot of farms are located in rural parts of the state where the workers might not even know we exist,” she noted.

The performing and visual arts are a big part of Quintero’s identity; she’s a classically trained pianist, was a Mexican folkorico dancer for 15 years, and is an amateur photographer. The work she performs today at Central West has become a critical part of that identity as well — and a continuing tribute to her journey and those who helped her along the way.

“It’s a really gratifying job. I feel like it’s kind of my responsibility, since I was given such an amazing opportunity getting legal status in the United States,” she explained. “That’s not an easy feat; not everyone is eligible to become a lawyer in the United States, and even to be a legal citizen is such a huge privilege for me. So I know I have to do something worthwhile. I know it’s an opportunity I shouldn’t squander.”

 

—Joseph Bednar

Class of 2021

Owner and President, Clayton Insurance Agency; Age 38

Integrity means a great deal to Michael Regan.

As an insurance professional who had been steadily growing in his career, Regan was ready to pursue his next business goal: to run his own agency. He had heard that Martin Clayton, longtime owner of the Clayton Insurance Agency in Holyoke, was looking for a young person to carry on the legacy of his business.

While he appreciated Regan’s 10-plus years of experience with Goss and McLain Insurance Agency, Clayton was particularly impressed that the Greater Holyoke Chamber of Commerce had honored Regan with the Henry A. Fifeld Award for Voluntary Service to the Chamber.

“It turns out Clayton knew Fifeld and told me, ‘if you won Hank’s award, you must be a pretty good citizen,’” Regan recalled, adding that the conversation was a key step toward eventually acquiring the agency.

Once he settled in as the new owner at Clayton, he admits he felt some pressure to uphold the integrity of the firm and to make sure customers receive the same quality service they always have.

“I gave Martin my word that I would continue the legacy of the agency,” Regan said. “I work very hard to always keep my word.”

He had the option to change the name of the agency or add his name to it, and Clayton even encouraged it. But Regan decided he didn’t need his name on the sign. “The Clayton Insurance Agency has such a good reputation, I didn’t feel the need to mix that up and add my name. It’s not about me, it’s about continuing the agency and taking care of employees and customers.”

Since Regan took the helm in 2019, the agency has grown by just over 30%, a trajectory he hopes to continue for years to come.

“We’re looking to bring on more staff in the next couple of years and to keep the agency moving forward,” he said.

Regan is extremely community-minded, from funding scholarships to running food drives; from collecting donations for youth sports in Granby to volunteering with the First Tee program to teach inner-city kids about golf, a sport he’s also introduced to his four daughters.

Meanwhile, he hopes to continue the legacy of his agency until he’s ready to pass it along. “Fast-forward 50 years, I want to look back the same way Marty did and find a successor who can continue the Clayton Insurance Agency even further.”

 

—Mark Morris

Class of 2021

Assistant Professor of Biology, Undergraduate Science Program Research Coordinator, Bay Path University; Age 35

It may have taken Yadilette Rivera Colón a while to find her passion — but she’s certainly been a force in helping other young women find theirs.

Growing up in Puerto Rico, she first enrolled in a nursing program, but soon decided she’d prefer to become a medical doctor. After a tough first semester of study, she worked at a dental office but found the work tedious.

Then she interviewed for a summer internship with Craig Martin, professor of Chemistry at UMass Amherst. The program was already full, but he saw something in her and brought her on anyway. As it turned out, she recalled, “he had wanted to be a dentist, too, and realized it wasn’t for him, and he thought I should have a backup plan.”

Rivera Colón was hooked when she helped conduct and publish research through the program, experiencing the thrill of sharing new knowledge with the world. “I gave everything else up to go into research,” she said, and eventually earned a doctorate at UMass in molecular and cellular biology.

Her role at Bay Path is multi-faceted, and her impact extends well beyond campus. In addition to helping students navigate a path to careers in science, her outreach in the community, especially in Holyoke, helps young people, especially women of color, discover the possibilities of STEM.

“It’s a leaky pipeline,” she said, partly explaining why women remain underrepresented in the sciences. “They don’t always have the support and resources in place. Or they hear, ‘you’re not good at math,’ or ‘you’re not good at science.’ But it’s a skill — you can get better, and I’m going to show you how.”

Rivera Colón creates bridges in other ways, too. She co-advises the Women in STEM organization at Bay Path and co-organizes its speaker series, and also facilitates training sessions that focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion in the STEM field. Through volunteer work with Girls Inc. of the Valley and the Latino Scholarship Fund of Western Massachusetts, she helps girls pursue their college and career goals. And she has led anti-racism trainings for colleagues and students at Bay Path, as well as for staff at MassHire Holyoke.

In short, she’s passionate, and it all started with finding that initial spark. “I tell girls, ‘if you decide to pursue a career in science, you’ll never be bored.’”

 

—Joseph Bednar

Class of 2021

Litigation Paralegal, MassMutual; Age 30

When Victoria Ann Rodriguez says she likes to stay busy, she’s not kidding.

In addition to her work as a litigation paralegal for MassMutual, she chairs the Puerto Rican Parade Committee, serves on the board of the Springfield YWCA, and on nights and weekends helps clients find their dream homes as a part-time real-estate agent.

Back when she was looking into colleges, Rodriguez considered majoring in criminal justice with the hope of eventually becoming an FBI agent.

“Once I realized there was blood and other things involved, I was no longer interested in the FBI,” she said with a laugh. Instead, she decided to pursue legal studies and has just begun studying for the LSAT exam. “I love the law, and I hope to one day become an attorney.”

Passionate about giving back, she formerly chaired the community responsibility subcommittee for the Assoc. of Latinos at MassMutual and Allies, and she’s heavily active with the Girl Scouts as a decorated alumna, troop leader, and tireless advocate. Before COVID-19, she served as a mentor to students from her alma mater, the High School of Commerce, in weekly sessions at MassMutual.

“We taught them skills such as budgeting, how to prepare for an interview, and how to draft a résumé,” she recalled. “I enjoyed the sessions because I saw myself when I was in high school and would have loved to be part of this type of program.”

The Rodriguez family has always been civically active. In fact, two decades ago, Victoria’s mother was chair of the Puerto Rican Parade Committee.

“I remember helping out my mom when I was younger, and now here I am, 20 years later, as the chair of the parade committee, so it’s come full circle,” she said.

With the pandemic still lingering, the committee is weighing its options for the next parade, always with the safety of the community in mind. But she can hardly wait to step off once again. “The parade draws folks from all ethnicities, and everyone is so excited on that day. I just love it.”

The idea of persistence motivates Rodriguez; when times get tough, she calls on her courage and strength to keep “leveling up.” And through it all, she still appreciates the journey.

“Sometimes I can’t believe I’m here,” she said. “I have my own place, my own car, I even have my own dog. I’ve grown up. It’s crazy.”

 

—Mark Morris

Class of 2021

Project Manager and Estimator, Chicopee Industrial Contractors Inc.; Age 32

Liz Sauer says she’s getting used to it. Sort of. At least in some respects.

She’s referring to her responsibilities in a field — rigging, moving machinery, and related work — still heavily dominated by men, and, more specifically, to the annoying questions she gets, almost exclusively from men.

“They’ll ask how long I’ve been doing this kind of work,” said Sauer, adding that the implication is that she hasn’t been doing it very long, and thus her credentials are in question. “And they’ll ask if my father owns the company.”

Sauer says she never wants to appear fazed or upset with those questions, and has worked overtime to make sure she isn’t. Better still, she has developed an intriguing response mechanism, one that essentially turns the tables on those questioning her.

Indeed, while she says she hasn’t become “sassy enough” to ask any of her inquisitors if their father owns the company they work for, she will ask them how long they’ve been doing what they’re doing.

“The responses often lead to lively conversations and relationship building in a business — and industry — where that’s very important,” said Sauer, who is now a proud member of an all-female leadership team at Chicopee Industrial Contractors, one that has steered the company through the many challenges presented by COVID-19.

But there is much more to her résumé than her duties at CIC. Indeed, Sauer is the founder of Route to Rise Yoga and currently offers classes at a Windsor, Conn.-based studio called Wabi Sabi Yoga & Wellness Center. She also advocates for yoga and wellness in the workplace at the Eversource Health and Wellness Fair, and facilitates small-group active workplace chair yoga for the Commonwealth Care Alliance.

Sauer, who holds a master’s degree in fine arts from the University of Florida, is also a mixed-media artist with a strong emphasis on fiber arts, sculpture, and figure drawing. Meanwhile, dance has been a constant passion throughout her life, and, with her partner, Gregg Todd, she offers workshops involving yoga, dance, and couples connectivity through shared movement. Both professional dancers, the duo perform a fusion of Latin-inspired modern dance.

When asked how she finds time for all that, she said she makes time — somehow — while also saving a few moments to offer a defiant ‘no’ when asked if her father owns the company.

 

—George O’Brien

Class of 2021

Chief, U.S. Attorney’s Office, Springfield; Age 39

Deepika Shukla always savors the moment in court when she states her name and declares her representation of the United States of America.

“I don’t just rattle off my name because for someone like me to stand up and represent the United States is a real honor,” she said.

A naturalized citizen who was born in Canada and lived in Chelmsford before moving to Western Mass., Shukla is chief of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Springfield — the first woman of color to run the Springfield office and the youngest to attain the chief’s position.

In a normal legal setting, a lawyer’s job is to always try to win a judgment for the client. Working for the Department of Justice had a strong appeal to Shukla because a U.S. attorney takes a different approach to the law.

“At the DOJ, your objective is to pursue justice,” she said. “It’s not about winning, it’s about doing the right thing.”

Shukla oversees eight U.S. attorneys and five staff members in the Springfield office, which covers the four counties of Western Mass. While many cases involve prosecuting federal crimes, the Springfield office also brings civil-rights actions against various entities. Shukla takes a special interest in these cases.

“I have experienced discrimination in my life, and I feel that’s an important perspective to bring to the job,” she said, adding that she has also successfully prosecuted hate-crime cases.

While in college, Shukla became a U.S. citizen, calling it one of the greatest days of her life. The day was September 6, 2001, when she and a roomful of people all rejoiced in becoming Americans. The sense of elation was short-lived when, five days later, the tragic events of 9/11 took place.

“Suddenly, I found that people who look like me and my family were being targeted as victims of hate crimes because of the way we looked and just for being ourselves,” she said — an experience that motivated her to give a voice to people who are not often heard from in the justice system.

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” Martin Luther King Jr. once declared, a quote that resonates strongly with Shukla.

“Wherever we see injustice, it’s our job to correct it,” she said. “If we let it go, it becomes a threat to our whole justice system.”

 

—Mark Morris

Class of 2021

Owner, Filmmaker, and Director, Chris Teebo Films; Age 38

“His camera was his paintbrush, and his canvas his screen.”

That’s how Judy Matt, president of the Spirit of Springfield, chose to sum up the life and work of Chris Thibault, who created some stunning videos for the agency and its Bright Nights holiday lighting display in Forest Park. As she did so, one could sense the pain of having to use the past tense — a pain felt by all who came to know him, even if only for a short while.

Thibault is BusinessWest’s first posthumous 40 Under Forty honoree. He passed away in February, during the nomination period, and the many who nominated him felt firmly that, because of his body of work, his professionalism, the manner in which he touched those he worked with and for, and the way in which he took a long and difficult cancer battle public and inspired countless people in the process, he earned a place within the class of 2021.

And they’re right.

Thibault was an entrepreneur, launching his production company, T-Bo Productions, in 2004. But while he was a businessman, he was, to most, an artist — one who took ideas and goals and turned them into video works of art. Over the years, he worked with a number of area clients, including Spirit of Springfield, Big Y, Mercedes-Benz of Springfield, the Greater Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau, Health New England, and many others.

There were no small projects in his mind, said his wife, Missy, and he approached every project with passion and energy.

“Some people can immerse themselves in their work, and it can have a negative effect — like it was too much,” she explained. “With him, it seemed like a very natural balance. He put everything he had into each and every project. That’s how he did things.”

He kept doing things that way even as cancer ate away at his body and made it more difficult to work and create, and this was just one of the many ways he inspired others. Another was the way he and Missy shared their cancer battle with the world.

“That just came naturally to us because we love to document,” she explained. “He always said, ‘the story is king,’ and he had a story of his own that he felt he had a responsibility to tell.”

By telling it, he took his already-considerable talents as an artist to an even higher level.

 

—George O’Brien

Class of 2021

Vice President, Chief Financial Officer, and Treasurer, North Brookfield Savings Bank; Age 34

“There’s no place like home” is more than a sentiment for John Thomasian. The North Brookfield native was 3 years old when his parents opened a savings account with North Brookfield Savings Bank. Back then, no one could have predicted he would return someday as the bank’s chief financial officer.

Representing the fifth generation of his family to live in town, Thomasian joined North Brookfield Savings last March. “The opportunity to come back to my hometown savings bank was just too good to ignore,” he said.

During his career, Thomasian appreciates what he’s learned from working closely with successful CEOs, but his biggest inspiration comes from days spent with his late grandfather, longtime North Brookfield Chief of Police Harbig Thomasian.

“I remember driving around with him and seeing how everyone liked and respected him,” he said. “I thought I could carry on his legacy and the family name by coming back to town.”

The return to his hometown is not simply nostalgia, but, rather, a look ahead. After a decade in the financial industry in roles of ever-increasing responsibility, Thomasian understands that banking business models of the past will not work going forward, so he has brought a data-driven approach to North Brookfield Savings.

“Since joining the bank, I’ve implemented several new strategies that will put us in a position to succeed in the future,” he said.

Along with innovative approaches, he also understands the importance of the personal touch. “I’ve had the chance to reacquaint myself with lots of old friends. That’s good for the bank because people like to do business with someone they know and can trust.”

Thomasian also made clear there are no limits to his ‘banker’s hours.’

“My cell-phone number is on my business card, and I tell people they can call me personally any time of day,” he said. “If a customer has an issue with any of our products or services, I want to be the first to know.”

It’s always a good situation for a bank when its customers are, literally, friends and neighbors, Thomasian said, adding that returning to his hometown is more than just business — it’s personal. “North Brookfield has always had a special place in my heart.”

 

—Mark Morris