Page 14 - BusinessWest 40 Under Forty 2024
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    They call it the Dream Maker Award.
It’s presented by Girls Inc. of the Valley to individuals who make a commitment to working with young women in the community to help make their dreams become reality.
And it’s just one of many awards and accolades that Nikai Fondon has earned over the past few years. Others include everything from first place in a pitch contest for a podcast that she conceived called “She Did That,” which highlights young professional women of color locally and across the country, to
a BEST Award from the National Assoc. of Multi- ethnicity in Communications.
Because of these and many other accomplishments, she’ll soon have another award — a Forty Under 40 plaque. It’s been earned partly for her current work at Berkshire Bank, but mostly for a host of accomplishments and initiatives within and for the community, including, but certainly not limited to:
• Serving Girls Inc. as a board member, clerk, and, now, vice chair;
• Starting the first-ever DEI committee for the Young Professional Society of Greater Springfield; • Creating the region’s first virtual co-working
space for young professional women of color during the pandem ic;
• Facilitating leadership workshops through the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts, Maine Community Foundation, Bay Path University, UMass Amherst, and other entities starting at age 16;
• Teaching classes at Westfield State University
and the YWCA of Greater Springfield;
• Speaking before more than a dozen youth
groups across the region about entrepreneurship, leadership, and personal branding; and
• Facilitating the Springfield partnership between the Young Women’s Initiative and the Women’s Fund.
Until recently, Fondon, a graduate of UMass Amherst with a degree in business and marketing, was Financial Inclusion & Entrepreneurship community liaison at Berkshire Bank, where her work included building programs for financial literacy, workshops, and “opportunities to build trust in the community and provide educational opportunities within the community on financial matters.
“We want to make sure that the underbanked find a home at a bank in general, but, hopefully, our bank because of the work we do in the community,” she added, noting that Berkshire supports many nonprofit groups and initiatives across the region, and she has been involved with many of those efforts.
On the entrepreneurship side, she was also involved with a Berkshire Bank loan program called the Futures Fund, which has lower barriers to entry than typical loans and provides easier access to capital.
All this explains why Forty Under 40 isn’t the first award that she’s earned, and it almost certainly
Nikai Fondon
Founder and Host, She Did That! Podcast: Age 28
won’t be the last. BW
— George O’Brien
 During his 12 years playing guitar and banjo in a band called Parsonsfield, Chris Freeman recalled the outfit play-
ing the third-ever show at the Parlor Room in Northampton and putting out a few records on Signature Sounds, the label associated with that venue.
After the band dissolved in the COVID years, Freeman took a job with the Parlor Room, booking shows and gradually moving into a leadership role there, before evolving the operation into a nonprofit model called the Parlor Room Collective.
“It always had a mission-based vibe to it, so the transition to nonprofit was pretty easy,” he said. “It’s a really special place, and I was so excited to continue its legacy.”
He also had a vision concerning another music club just a few hundred feet away
— the Iron Horse Music Hall — after that venerable room was shuttered during the pandemic. “I knew it should come back, and the energy was clearly there. I started talking to different people, and there was definitely a lot of support.”
So the Parlor Room Collective purchased the Iron Horse and has raised close to $500,000
to renovate it, maintaining its intimate feel but improving facets that definitely needed improving, like its famously inadequate
green room and restrooms, while expanding
into adjoining space for a dedicated bar and community events. While more than $250,000 remains to be raised, the venue will reopen on May 15 with a robust lineup of concerts to follow.
“The community has been rallying around us from the start. They care about live music,” Freeman said. “We still have hundreds of thousands of dollars to raise, to pay off all
the construction bills. But now we’re going to have shows on sale, people buying tickets, and the bands are coming back.”
It’s all part of an effort to re-establish Northampton as a small town that has long punched above its weight class, as Freeman put it, when one compares its population to the caliber of acts that have played here — and soon will again.
“This place has always been, in some ways, rough around the edges, but it pulls you in and makes you feel at home, and it’s been built up by the arts,” he said. “I live here, and part of the reason Northampton has become a great food scene and a great downtown culture
is the arts. I’ve made it my life’s mission to make sure that never goes away, and we can bring back the glory days of such a legendary venue.” BW
—Joseph Bednar
 A14 2024
Chris Freeman
Executive Director, the Parlor Room Collective: Age 39

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