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Class of 2009

Class of 2009 Difference Makers

Founder of GoFIT and Co-founder of Linked to Libraries

Susan Jaye Kaplan, right, with Janet Crimmins, with whom she partnered to create Linked to Libraries.

Susan Jaye Kaplan, right, with Janet Crimmins, with whom she partnered to create Linked to Libraries.

Susan Jaye-Kaplan had been on a first-name basis with Reebok Founder and CEO Paul Fireman, but she had to introduce herself to his successor, Uli Becker.
At least she thought she did.
Kaplan called Becker a few months ago (and several months after Adidas acquired Reebok, prompting changes at the top) because she needed a donation — a big donation — of sneakers for the nonprofit group she founded in 2005 called GoFIT. When she got him on the phone, she started telling him about herself and GoFIT, but quickly stopped. “I told him that, if he needed to, he could go into the files and look me up,” she told BusinessWest, adding that she was informed that such research wasn’t necessary; at that company and many others, the name, the organization, and the mission are well-known.

“I told him I needed 1,000 pairs of running shoes, and gave him specific sizes,” said Kaplan. “All he said was ‘when?’ I told him a week. He said, ‘you’ll have them.’ Not bad for someone he’d never spoken to before.”

Indeed, but then again, few people have ever really said ‘no’ to Kaplan. That’s because, when she calls or writes requesting something, there is good reason and a good cause — or causes — to which she has devoted time, energy, money, and imagination.

All of this, plus a unique ability to inspire others to find and carry out ways to give back to the community, makes her a Difference Maker.

In the case of GoFIT, the cause, as the name suggests, is fitness and introducing young people to that concept. The children are given sneakers, caps, T-shirts, and, more importantly, a game plan and some inspiration for getting into shape and staying in shape, through programs that convince participants that they have to walk before they can run — literally.

Thousands of area young people have taken part in GoFIT programs, which remain popular, despite the fact that many other organizations have borrowed from the concept, in what Kaplan considers the proverbial ‘greatest form of flattery.’

By early last year, the organization’s scope and reach had grown to such an extent that Kaplan considered it necessary to turn the reins over to an entity that had the resources and drive to handle the operation.

She and other board members found one in Square One, the Springfield-based but regional early-childhood education provider, which ‘acquired’ the GoFIT name and assets last year in what has been called a classic win-win scenario.

Kaplan remains active with GoFIT as board member, chief fund-raiser, and liaison to Reebok and other corporate supporters, as detailed earlier. But she apparently had some free time on her hands.

To fill it, she and a friend, Janet Crimmins, partnered to create another program that’s making a difference. It’s called Linked to Libraries, which collects new books and donates them to elementary schools across the region that are populated largely by the children of low-income families.

It all started when she read a story in the local paper about how Springfield’s White Street School in Springfield might have to close for — among other reasons — the fact that there weren’t enough books in the library. “I thought to myself, ‘I can fix this, in some small way,’” said Kaplan, adding that she E-mailed every member of a group she formed called the Good Reads Book Club (an organization for people too busy to join a traditional book club) and asked for donations of specific books — those recommended by Crimmins, a speech and language specialist for the city of Springfield.

“This is no exaggeration … in 11 days I had 51 hard-cover books sent to my house,” she said, adding that she and Crimmins, inspired by this success, expanded the mission. “I thought, this is a no-brainer. I can get people and corporations to donate books and help ease the problem — not solve it, just make it easier to solve.”

The program, which distributes 100 new books twice a month and will expand to three times a month this spring, has caught the attention — and won the support — of area businesses and institutions ranging from a karate school in Suffield, Conn. to Wilbraham Monson Academy; from Meyers Brothers Kalicka to Rediker Software; from Bank of Western Mass. to area high-school key clubs.

Which is good, because the demand for books is great.

“We’ve been inundated with requests from schools,” she explained, listing a number of area communities. “We’re spinning as fast as we can, but we’re not spinning fast enough; there are so many organizations and schools that need books.”

When asked what drives her in these various ventures, Kaplan returns to her youth. An orphan, she told BusinessWest that she knows what it’s like to be underprivileged; she was on her own and on the streets before graduating from high school.

She said her life was changed by a mentor named Lippman Hart Geronimus, a bacteriologist at Beth Israel Hospital who gave her a job, but also something ultimately far more valuable — a philosophy to live life by.

“He made me say the same thing every day — that I can do anything and be anything I want to be as long as I remain focused, hard-working, challenged, and honest.”

Those are the traits still propelling her today. And while Kaplan’s various endeavors have enriched the lives of thousands of young people, they’ve also enriched hers as well.

“I’m far from a millionaire, but I feel like I’ve hit the jackpot,” she told BusinessWest. “I have a good life, I’m in good health, and I have an opportunity to give back to the community.”

And while she doesn’t seek out attention or recognition for efforts, she’s reached a point where she’s become one of those individuals who really doesn’t need an introduction — not with Uli Becker, or with most of the business and civic leaders in Western Mass.v

— George O’Brien

Class of 2009 Difference Makers
President and CEO of Peoples Bank
Doug Bowen

Doug Bowen

Carol Katz says Doug Bowen possesses what she calls a “strong moral compass.”

By that, she meant that the president and CEO of PeoplesBank in Holyoke has a sound sense of direction when it comes to giving back to the community and the manner in which those contributions are carried out — by the bank and by Bowen himself.

And, as president of the Holyoke-based Loomis Communities and one who is very active in that city, Katz should know.

Bowen has served on her board for years and was a corporator before that, and she now sits on the bank’s board. Meanwhile, they’ve served together on the board of the Greater Holyoke Chamber of Commerce. Thus, Katz has seen the time, energy, and insight that Bowen brings to a host of nonprofits he serves personally — Holyoke Community College and the Economic Development Council of Western Mass. are on that list, among others. And she’s also seen first-hand the tone he sets at the bank — one that takes a number of forms.

These range from a strong philanthropic platform — the bank ranked 52nd among all state businesses in the Boston Business Journal’s list of largest charitable contributors — to a strong leadership position when it comes to lending to ‘green’ businesses and sustainable-energy-related ventures. And then, there’s simply the direction he’s providing the bank in terms of growth and profitability.

“He has his priorities straight,” said Katz, summing things up neatly and with conviction. “He feels strongly about his responsibilities and the bank’s responsibilities to be a leader within the community — and you don’t always see that among business people and in the banking industry today.”

It’s been this way since Bowen joined PeoplesBank 33 years ago as a teller in its management-development program soon after graduating from college. He remembers working at the High Street main office, cashing checks for hundreds of uniform-clad factory workers and giving them back large sums of cash.

“That was back in the days before direct deposit, ATMs, and debit cards,” he said. “People would just come and cash their checks.”

Holyoke — and the banking industry — have changed considerably over the past three decades, as have the titles on Bowen’s business cards (“I think I’ve had every position in the place”), but his moral compass hasn’t. And that no doubt played a role in his ascension to president two and a half years ago, succeeding Joe Lobello.

“I’ve been very fortunate … I’ve had a number of careers, but all with the same organization,” he said. “I’ve been on the finance side, the lending side, and the retail side. That’s kept it interesting and challenging.”

Bowen’s community-focused business philosophy prevails at the bank, said Katz, as does a management style she says is grounded in the tenets detailed by Jim Collins in his popular business book Good to Great.

“He’s the kind of leader who puts the organization first,” said Katz. “He builds consensus with his team; he respects his team, and the team respects him. He does what’s right.”

Recently, Bowen has steered the bank toward that leadership position with regard to ‘green lending,’ for lack of a better term. There is even something called a green team.

Membership includes virtually every department in the bank, and, from a business perpesctive, efforts range from recently approved loans for small-scale wind-power projects (the bank has by far the largest wind-power portfolio in the region) to a partnership with the Holyoke Gas & Electric Department to develop and expand hydro-electric facilities, and lending to parties working to develop brownfield sites in the region. Internally, the team is working to reduce energy consumption, curb the use of paper, and take other steps that would fall under the category of ‘going green.’

Meanwhile, the tone he’s set has enabled PeoplesBank to move steadily higher on the BBJ’s largest-charitable-contributors list. The institution donated $412,376 in 2007, just one slot below Friendly Ice Cream Corp. In 2008, the number was $700,000, which should move the bank way up on the chart because, while it gave more over the past 12 months, many other businesses scaled back in response to a worsening economy.

“The bank views its contributions to the community as an expression of its core values,” said Bowen. “It’s also part of a strategic business initiative we call ‘community spirit.’ Over the past five years, we’ve given $3 million to charitable and civic organizations, and that doesn’t include the $700,000 we gave last year.”

Beyond the numbers, however, is a commitment to giving in ways that will make the most profound impact on overall quality of life in the Pioneer Valley.

“The charitable giving by the bank is focused on putting dollars where they can help the most people and have the greatest impact on the community,” he explained, citing recent donations (coinciding with expansion in the Springfield market) ranging from Rachel’s Table to the Springfield Falcons; from the Springfield Symphony to American International College.

“My overall vision, or sense, is that a community bank has a responsibility to be a stable financial institution — but also be a trusted neighbor. And as the largest community bank in the region, we take those responsibilities quite seriously.”

The Loomis Communities has a nine-year term limit for board members, said Katz, and Bowen has just a few years left to serve.

Thus, there will be a big leadership void to fill for her organization, but she suspects that Bowen will no doubt fill the void in his schedule when it comes to giving back to the community.

That’s the direction his strong moral compass compels him to take.

— George O’Brien

Class of 2009 Difference Makers
Managing Director of the Springfield Office of the Northwestern Mutual Financial Network
Kate Kane

Kate Kane

Kate Kane was talking about Worcester, and, more specifically, her efforts to help create an extension of the program Dress for Success, which provides a set of clothes to underprivileged women for a job interview or their first day on a new job, in that city.

“It was a huge chore,” said Kane, managing director of the Springfield office of the Northwestern Mutual Financial Network. She was born in the Worcester area and worked there for some time, and her father was a “Worcester boy.” But she still found herself treated like an outsider in this endeavor, which made it hard to get things done.

“It’s a very closed community … people are very suspicious of those who did not grow up there,” she said, proffering the theory that this attitude likely results from that city’s historic competition with Boston. “I was out there for five years trying to start this charity — I was trying to give something away, and they made it so hard.

“It’s a very interesting experience trying to break through in that market, which is not at all like Springfield,” she continued. “Here, from the get-go, it’s been very easy to meet people, very easy to get involved; people welcome your help.”

For persevering in Worcester (that Dress for Success facility is finally slated to open in a few months), and for taking full advantage of the opportunities she’s been given to give back to the community in Western Mass., Kane has been named to the inaugural class of Difference Makers by BusinessWest. And it’s not just the long list of groups she serves — from Dress for Success to the Sisters of Providence Health System; from the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts to the Andrew M. Scibelli Enterprise Center at the Technology Park at STCC — but also the attitude she brings toward that work that has brought her this distinction.

“What I’ve tried to do is have a consistent orientation to the things I do,” she said. “One of those things is a sense of economic justice and helping people who haven’t been given the tools to learn about money and finances, and really try to provide them access to those tools.”

She says that people in her capacity and who possess her skills have a moral responsibility to find ways to utilize those skills to help those less fortunate. She told BusinessWest that she gives — time, energy, and expertise — but also receives back.

“To me, it’s about the gift,” she explained. “I’m giving the gift of my time, but in return for that I’m getting the gift of all these lessons that I get to learn.”

Kane was still planning to pursue a career in teaching when, soon after graduating from Vassar, she took a job in the Worcester office of Northwestern Mutual in 1986. But she adjusted her career plans in only a few short months.

She would still become a teacher, in a number of ways, but the setting and the actual work would be much different. She’s in the financial-services sector, not academia, and instead of English literature, she’s teaching sales professionals how to reach their maximum potential. She does so by taking them out of their comfort zone and imploring them to continually seek new and greater and challenges.

This, in a nutshell, is what her predecessor in Springfield, Paul Steffan, did with her several years ago, when he coaxed her into trading her position as ‘field director,’ in which she was quite comfortable, for the managing director’s seat. In that capacity, she recruits, develops talent, mentors rising stars, and sets a tone for the office. She describes herself as an able listener and, ultimately, a “doer.”

And it is these talents that she brings to the many kinds of work she does within the Western Mass. community, and also Hartford and, most recently, Worcester, where she tapped into more than a decade of experience with Dress for Success, which is now a national and international phenomenon. She co-wrote the original business plan for the Western Mass. chapter of Dress for Success — the first one in the Bay State — which now outfits, or ‘suits,’ nearly 500 women a year through a boutique located at the Mass. Career Development Institute in Springfield.

In recent years, she’s broadened the scope of her work to include everything from mentoring young entrepreneurs as they work to reach that proverbial next level to serving at the board at the SPHS and helping steer that system through a time of extreme challenge and uncertainty for all health care providers, to taking a board seat with Friends for the Homeless and assisting that group to find long-term solutions to one of nation’s most perplexing societal issues.

She’s also served as president of the Women’s Partnership, been part of the Affiliated Chambers of Commerce of Greater Springfield, and been a long-time board member and Governance Committee member with the Women’s Fund, which administers a $3 million endowment and donates tens of thousands of dollars each year to area nonprofits.

These groups have different missions, but there are common threads that Kane says appeal to that sense of economic justice she described. Meanwhile, she says each assignment allows her to grow professionally and personally.

“I try not to get stuck just doing the things I’m good at,” she said, referring specifically to her work with the Women’s Fund. “I’m an action person, a ‘do’ person — ‘let’s just do it.’ So it’s been good for me to be on a committee that’s all about process.

“I try to find ways to have the community-service work to teach me things,” she continued. “Such work can not only provide life lessons, but also help you run your businesses better; there’s a lot of things you can learn from the nonprofit environment and take back to your business.”

Returning to the subject of Worcester and trying to do charitable work there, Kane said that if more people had that experience, they would have a greater appreciation for working in Springfield. “It’s like night and day.”

Kane hasn’t merely worked in both cities, she’s broken through in both, and especially in the Pioneer Valley, where’s she’s been a learner and a teacher.

— George O’Brien

Class of 2009 Difference Makers
Executive Director of the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County
Bill Ward

Bill Ward

Woody Allen once joked, “I’m not afraid to die … I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

The quote has been borrowed and bastardized in countless ways over the years, mostly by people addressing the subjects of death and dying.

Bill Ward, executive director of the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County, has put it to a different use.

He summons it when he talks with people about confronting business and societal matters that maybe they don’t want to confront, but must. It takes a definite lack of fear — and generous amounts of determination — to prevail in such situations, he said.

And those are the qualities that have guided Ward through a career in which he has been motivated largely by two other quotes, these from his mother — well, sort of.

“She was always saying that there’s no justice in this world,” said Ward, who told BusinessWest that this annoyed him because he was an idealist. “She always said that justice isn’t something that’s there, that you participate in — it’s something that you have to build.

“She also said that I could be part of the solution or contribute to the problem,” he continued. “And if you’re part of the solution, you must be engaged, and that’s been a philosophy that’s guided my life and my work.”

Indeed, Ward has spent the bulk of his professional life engaged — specifically, he has helped create and carry out solutions — and also working to create some justice, or access, in the form of employment opportunities, especially for groups that have historically encountered hurdles and roadblocks in their attempts to secure meaningful employment. Those constituencies include the minority populations, those lacking basic skills, and the traditionally underemployed.

“There are a lot of places where we have to create justice,” he said, “and I found mine in jobs.”

As one example, he cited the Minority Employment Program, created in the mid-’80s. “That was the first big initiative we took, raising money from banks, foundations, and other sources; we placed 480 minorities into jobs.”

This was followed some years later by a private-sector summer-jobs program that created opportunities for hundreds of young people across the region. Other success stories have included recent efforts to put more qualified machinists in the pipeline, and a merger of the REB and the Hampden County Employment and Training Consortium, which has streamlined workforce initiatives and saved more than $400,000 in administrative costs.

Not everything has gone smoothly, and some programs haven’t worked as well as their architects might have hoped, but that merely brings to mind another Woody Allen quote: “If you’re not failing now and again, it’s a sign you’re not doing anything innovative.”

There has been plenty of innovation in Ward’s work, especially with regard to the one-stop career centers FutureWorks and CareerPoint, established in 1996 and soon thereafter winning awards and attracting visitors from across the country trying to duplicate their success and uniqueness; they were the first competitively bid one-stops in the nation.

“Over the first four years, people from more than 30 states came to see the design of these one-stops,” he said. “Why? Take the system that existed in the typical unemployment office … it was dysfunctional and not business-friendly; our centers are private, not-profit operations that were designed to replace the government entity. Today, these two centers are still outpacing all other centers across the state in terms of service, etc., and it’s not by accident.”

The latest example of innovation and solution-finding is a broad effort called “Building a Better Workforce — Closing the Skills Gap on the Road to Economic Resurgence.” The REB is a lead player in the initiative, along with the George and Irene Davis Foundation; groups like the National Tooling and Machining Assoc.; institutions such as Square One, the Mass. Career Development Institute, and area community colleges; and a host of employers, including Baystate Health and Mercy Medical Center.

The first steps in the program were announced last year, and they were crafted to achieve some momentum with regard to the workforce plans’ four main strategic goals: establishing universal kindergarten, improving young education proficiency and career awareness, increasing adult literacy education services, and increasing technical training in high-growth/high-demand industry sectors.

As he talked about the REB’s work and its successes, Ward never used the word ‘I,’ always opting instead for ‘we,’ because he noted that the progress made isn’t the result of one person or one organization.

“It’s taken teamwork to achieve all that we’ve done over the years,” he said, adding that he’s been blessed to be able to work with talented individuals — from grant writers to program administrators; from elected leaders to business executives who have not only served on his board but mentored him along the way. “I’ve been very fortunate to have great people to work with on these programs, all of which have been models that have implemented the concept of access and creating that sense of justice that would give a chance to people who might otherwise not have that chance.”

In summary, Ward has never been afraid of trying to bring a little justice to the world, and he’s always been there to make sure it happens.

Which means he’s made a mockery of still another of Woody Allen’s quips: “70% of success in life is just showing up.”

Ward has never just shown up. And for that, his mother would be proud.

— George O’Brien

Class of 2009 Difference Makers
The Young Professionals Society of Greater Springfield

Alyssa Carvalho described it as a “good problem to have.”

She was talking about April 14, and a scheduled ‘CEO Luncheon’ to be hosted by MassMutual Chairman and CEO Stuart Reese. The Young Professionals Society of Greater Springfield (YPS) started the luncheon series last year as another way to carry out its broad mission to “engage, involve, and educate” its members.

The problem? Well, seats to the monthly luncheons are limited in number, said Carvalho, the group’s current president and, during the day, membership manager for the Greater Springfield Conventon & Visitors Bureau. The typical count is 20 to 30, to ensure intimacy and the opportunity for one-on-one dioalogue, but Reese and MassMutual will likely find a way to accommodate many more than that. Still, not everyone will be able to go.

“And everyone will want to go,” she told BusinessWest, adding that she and other officers will have to contrive some method of determining which members will be able to circle that date on their calendars. As she said, that’s a good problem to have, and it’s a scenario that shows just how far this organization has come in two years.

From quasi-humble beginnings, YPS has grown to more than 200 members, expanded and diversified its program offerings, and garnered enough respect to prompt Reese to donate a few hours of his precious time to impart some “words of wisdom,” as Carvalho called them, to this young, diverse audience.

“We worked very hard to get him, and we’re thrilled that he would take the time to speak to our group and open it up to more people than we would normally have,” she said. “Our members are excited about the chance to be sitting in the same room with that caliber of speaker; the fact that he’s willing to do so speaks to the importance of our work — these are the emerging leaders in the community.”

This higher profile has earned YPS a place in this first class of Difference Makers, along with some sky-high expectations for the future — which Carvalho and other officers are determined to meet in what might be considered another good problem to have.

“We’ve done very well so far,” she said, “but we know we have to keep building, doing more in the community, and providing more value for our members.”

YPS got its start in Springfield in late 2006, when a small group of younger professionals — all graduates of the Leadership Institute, a partnership between the ACCGS and Western New England College to teach mid- and upper-level managers the skills needed to become effective leaders — conceptualized a group that could handle a number of assignments. They would range from giving people something to do to providing programs on professional development; from helping to educate members on the issues of the day to providing some reasons for young professionals to stay in the Pioneer Valley and become valuable contributors to its progress and livelihood.

The overriding goal, said Carvalho, is to help members “plant roots,” and develop lasting connections to the region and its business community.

While the group’s founders were ambitious and had lofty expectations, even they might be surprised by how quickly and profoundly the group has become a real force in the community. In addition to the 200 members, there are 900 ‘subscribers,’ those who have a connection to the group and attend some of its events.

Since its start, the organization — which takes a name similar to other groups in the region, including young-professional societies in Northampton, the Berkshires, and Hartford, but is different from these groups because it is independent — has been consistently adding programs, forming collaborative partnerships with other groups, and, in general, making its presence and influence felt.

It’s making a difference.

In addition to the CEO lunches, which have featured leaders and business owners ranging from ACCGS President Russell Denver to Springfield Falcons General Manager and co-owner Bruce Landon, the group has staged monthly networking events called Third Thursdays. It has become involved with the Division II college basketball tournament staged in Springfield each March, and last fall it partnered with Rock the Vote and other groups to encourage young people to register to vote and understand the issues involved with the presidential election.

YPS also conducted a number of events and programs to connect young people with the arts, promote mentoring, and facilitate efforts to give back to the community. It even created an award — the Young Professionals Society of Greater Springfield’s Excellence in Leadership Award — which is given to a graduate of the Leadership Institute who has distinguished him or herself through community involvement, civic leadership, and professional excellence. The first winner was Elizabeth Cordona, director of Gov. Patrick’s office in Springfield.

For 2009, the goal is simply to build on the momentum created over the past two years by continually looking for new ways to meet and expand the group’s mission, as expressed in one of its slogans: ‘live, work, play, and stay,’ said Carvalho, who told BusinessWest that her work as president has become what she called “a second full-time job.”

“I’m putting in maybe 30 or 40 hours a week toward this,” she said, adding quickly that other officers are logging similar time handling YPS affairs. “And I need to, because there’s so much happening and so much to do.”

Sounds like another one of those good problems to have.

— George O’Brien

Class of 2009 Cover Story Difference Makers
They lead — and inspire


Their contributions vary, from helping to improve the quality and diversity of the region’s workforce to providing books for local school libraries; from donating time, energy, and know-how to area nonprofit agencies to spearheading efforts to engage, involve, and educate the Valley’s young professionals. The common denominator is that these individuals are all making a difference in Western Mass. They’re not the only ones, certainly, but their stories reflect the work of countless others to make this a better region in which to live, work, and run a business.