Above & Beyond

The 2023 Above & Beyond: Innovators

New Yorkers who are disrupting the status quo and driving transformative change.

City & State presents the 2023 Above & Beyond: Innovators

City & State presents the 2023 Above & Beyond: Innovators Andrey Denisyuk, Moment via Getty Images

Tech entrepreneurs often get plenty of credit for developing better, faster and smarter ways of doing things, but they certainly aren’t the only ones driving innovation in our society. Outside-the-box thinking has opened up unexpected avenues – and improved outcomes – within a wide array of industries and sectors, from education to energy, construction to cannabis, financial services to social services. And innovators are cutting red tape and solving seemingly intractable problems inside government as well, whether it’s adopting smarter investigative methods, rethinking economic development or even revolutionizing how we dispose of our trash.

City & State’s annual Above & Beyond: Innovators list puts a spotlight on the groundbreaking work of 50 innovative New Yorkers in the public, private and nonprofit sectors and the positive impact that they’re having across the state.

Profiles by John Celock, Aliana Jabbary, Erica Scalise & Aaron Short

Keith Algozzine

Founder and Board Chair, UCM Digital Health
Keith Algozzine / UCM Digital Health

Providing 24/7 care to anyone who walks through its doors, “the emergency room is the ultimate problem solver,” says Keith Algozzine, and “emergency medicine – the greatest story never told.”

Algozzine is founder and chair of a virtual emergency room and hospital platform that provides 24/7 telehealth treatment, triage and navigation services for patients' immediate care needs. 

The idea for UCM Digital Health came about when Algozzine and his coworkers saw the need for a better ER vetting and expedition process while he worked as an emergency medicine physician’s assistant.

“We saw a trend of people starting to blame patients,” he says, “so we really felt the need to create a better safety net for them.”

Eight years later with over 650 clients servicing 5 million people, UCM’s insurmountable growth happened largely during the pandemic when patients sought its unique approach to a more cost-effective, integrative medical service. 

While UCM has been able to keep patients out of the ER and hospital at an over 90% rate, Algozzine says the startup is just one successful solution to a suffering health care system that views medicine from a business-centric model. 

“If we could just focus on serving patients, all of the issues facing our health care system could be dramatically improved, but that requires a bottom-up approach instead of our current top-down approach, " he says. “Our mantra is and always will be the reverse of that. We need to be servants to patients like we all went into health care to be.”

– Erica Scalise

John Betts

Assistant Vice President, Program Development and Innovation, Breaking Ground
John Betts / Patrick Bonck, Breaking Ground

Not long after John Betts started his career in theater, he discovered a more fitting pathway through his volunteer experiences. He pivoted to pursue graduate education in social work and began working for a Bronx-based drop-in center serving homeless adults. 

"I really fell in love with the work and have been working with that population ever since," says Betts. 

Betts later transitioned from direct service into program services, which brought him to Breaking Ground in 2020. Betts says the New York City nonprofit adopts a housing-first perspective, emphasizing the importance of stable housing on other social and health factors. 

"The work we are doing is continuing to innovate in moving the city closer toward a true housing-first perspective, which has demonstrated the ability to be the gold standard in solving long-term homelessness," Betts says. Betts' role allows him to work on social services, proposal development and training model development for staff. He focuses on filling gaps in social service silos for unhoused New Yorkers.

Furthering this mission, Breaking Ground partnered with The Street Dog Coalition in creating One Health Clinic, a new model of care integrating human medical services and veterinary care in a single clinic for people experiencing homelessness and their pets. 

"The conversation around homelessness has entered the public discourse in a way that I haven't seen before in my career,” he says. “It's exciting to be doing this work and seeing that people are paying attention and caring about what happens to the most vulnerable New Yorkers."

– Aliana Jabbary

Melissa Cebollero

Assistant Vice President, Community Affairs, Montefiore Health System
Melissa Cebollero / Justin Torres Photography

Melissa Cebollero is a Bronx native who is not afraid to take risks. While taking a sabbatical from her law school education to work in New York City politics, Cebollero discovered that her true passions were public service and community engagement.

While Cebollero did not come from a public health background, she entered the industry with an open mind as director of health and human services for the Bronx borough president. “It was about ensuring the people of the Bronx understood what resources were available and how to access them,” Cebollero says.

Today, Cebollero engages with the Bronx community on a different level. She’s now an assistant vice president of community affairs at Montefiore Health System, one of the largest private employers in the Bronx.

Montefiore is part of a multiorganizational coalition, #Not62, which began in 2009 to move the Bronx out of last place on the ranking of health outcomes in New York’s 62 counties. Tasked with creating innovative community engagement strategies, Cebollero has established an innovative “health fair” model. This includes screening for high blood pressure by registered nurses, while offering to provide further recommendations for care, for example, rather than simply passing out educational pamphlets.

Acknowledging the diverse socioeconomic backgrounds within the Bronx, Cebollero says, “We strive to meet people where they are. … What I have been doing since 2015 is making sure that every single time we are in front of a group of people, that we are making the biggest impact that we can.”

– A.J.

Eleanor Coufos

President, Bronx Science Foundation
Eleanor Coufos / Submitted

Eleanor Coufos was attending Bronx Science’s 75th anniversary celebration in 2013 when she learned about a job opening. Her alma mater had created a position to raise money from alums through its charitable foundation. Coufos, who attended the school in the 1990s, decided to apply. 

She’s had the role ever since. 

“I have one of the most amazing jobs,” she says. “You run this incredible nonprofit that supports these motivated students, many of whom rely on our support because they don’t come from families with means.”

The foundation’s funding has helped provide professional development for faculty to start genetics and computer science courses and a cultural program to take students to museums and performances. Coufos spearheaded an entrepreneur lab to help students develop a business plan, learn marketing and collaborate on their ideas.

But the bulk of Coufos’ work ensures that Bronx Science has state-of-the-art laboratories that allow its student body to do college-level research. A new research facility is set to open on July 5. 

The lab’s offerings will even be open to nearby high schools. The school hired a director of scientific research and students will be eligible for college credit at SUNY. 

Coufos hopes the program becomes a model for how schools can use their facilities to benefit the communities beyond their campuses.

“Bringing a few schools together and sharing that talent, time and connections helps enhance our community and our city as a whole,” she says. “It makes us all stronger together.”

– Aaron Short

Daniel Delehanty

Director of CRA and Fair Lending, Dime Community Bank
Daniel Delehanty / Jim Lennon

There was little indication from Daniel Delehanty’s international childhood that he would spend his career in community banking.

Delehanty grew up overseas, attending international schools in Thailand and Kenya. He started out in microfinance, then returned to the U.S. to join Capital One. But he felt helping small businesses would be more fulfilling and joined Dime Community Bank.

“I really wanted to work locally in the community where I lived,” Delehanty says. “It’s really about relationships. You feel more empowered to make a difference.”

He has led Dime’s community development efforts, which include lending capital at a low rate to financial institutions that can redirect the money to startups that can’t always get traditional bank loans. Last year, the Long Island-headquartered institution disbursed $420 million in community development loans.

Dime also partnered with the Brooklyn Public Library and awarded up to $50,000 in seed capital to primarily Black and Latino entrepreneurs.

“We’re trying to help people from communities that don’t really trust financial institutions or have negative feelings about them,” he says. “If you’re a banker, you want nothing more than help a small business get established.”

His most rewarding work came during the pandemic, when Dime facilitated about $2 billion in Paycheck Protection Program loans that kept many small businesses afloat. Some weren’t even clients.

“We invested a lot of time into this, and we didn’t make a lot of money from those loans but it was the right thing to do,” he says. “It was truly a lifeline for keeping businesses open.”

– A.S.

Nicholas B. Dirks

President and CEO, The New York Academy of Sciences
Nicholas B. Dirks / Thelma Garcia

When his father received a Fulbright to teach in India, Nicholas B. Dirks tagged along, spurring a lifelong interest in the humanities and higher education.

“I found the experience incredibly interesting and began to study the South Indian drum and the Tamil language in college,” he says. 

Dirks studied South Asian history and anthropology, and researched the history of the caste system for his Ph.D. He enjoyed the administrative side of higher education, going on to serve as chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley. Then he was recommended to lead The New York Academy of Sciences. 

Dirks started in the role in June 2020, giving him a front-row seat in discussions about the transmissibility of viruses and the viability of mRNA vaccines. He sought to focus the academy’s work on strengthening the relationship between science and society.

“It’s inherently multi-disciplinary,” he says. “I think about the future in terms of the past, which is important as one imagines thinking about change in a very big way, so I find historical perspectives quite useful.”

Lately, the emergence of ChatGPT has put the future of artificial intelligence at the forefront. Dirks held the first conference on AI and health care in New York and remains optimistic about science’s ability to solve humanity’s problems.

“We’ll figure it out, but I don’t think it’s going to be easy,” he says. “The kind of distrust of sciences in a way is higher today after the pandemic. By all rights, trust should have increased.”

– A.S.

Tia Dole

Chief 988 Lifeline Officer, Vibrant Emotional Health

Last year, the National Suicide Hotline was consolidated into a simple three-digit emergency number: 988. Now, anyone who is in the midst of a mental health crisis only needs a phone to dial that number and be put in touch with local professionals who can provide quick and compassionate help – professionals like Tia Dole. In a mere 11 months, Dole and her office have expanded the hotline’s text and chat capacity tenfold.

“My goal is really to destigmatize it,” she says. “Suicidal thoughts are what they are, right? They are not something that people have to be afraid of, or ashamed of. Clinicians tend to shy away from them because it means that you have to do something. If someone tells you they’re suicidal, you ask yourself, ‘Do I have to hospitalize this person?’ It’s important to understand that in our society, it’s hard to be a person now and to give folks that grace to be honest about what they’re experiencing.”

Dole has worked tirelessly to ensure that the hotline is accessible to everyone regardless of language, identity or immigration status. Before beginning her work with 988, she was at The Trevor Project negotiating specialized care for LGBTQ+ people in the Suicide Hotline infrastructure. 

Dole has also developed specialized support for veterans, Spanish speakers and Native Americans. “We have to make sure that we can help everyone who calls, no matter who they are,” she says. “One size does not fit all.”

– A.J.

Ralph Fasano

Executive Director, Concern Housing
Ralph Fasano / Submitted

When Ralph Fasano was growing up in Bay Ridge, he had a sister in Willowbrook, the notorious Staten Island psychiatric center. Her experience there guided him toward a career providing housing for people living with mental illnesses.

“I can’t say it was the driving force, but I also can’t say it didn’t mean anything,” he says. “I was really drawn to the impact that high-quality housing with good supportive services has towards changing lives.”

Fasano majored in accounting on a whim, and the training proved useful when he entered the nonprofit world. He added a master’s in counseling and psychology at Columbia University’s Teachers College and joined Concern Housing in 1993.

When Fasano started, the nonprofit organization had 125 units of housing with a $2 million budget. Now, Concern Housing has 1,500 units and a $50 million budget.

Its projects are scattered throughout the city. A 135-unit site, with 82 set aside for formerly homeless veterans, opened in 2019 in Coney Island. A 100-unit complex in the Bronx, opening in September, includes space for St. James Episcopal Church to run a food bank. 

Ensuring that Concern’s residents received the medical care they needed during the coronavirus pandemic was difficult, but the nonprofit did all it could.

“We had to ask our workers to go in every day, take public transportation and be around people, and we’re really proud of the way our staff stepped up,” he says. “There isn’t any work from home when working with people in a 24/7 residence.”

– A.S.

Jonathan Forgash

Co-Founder and Executive Director, Queens Together
Jonathan Forgash / Megan Green

Before the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Jonathan Forgash was a 30-year veteran chef and caterer who had moved into sales but had a dream of starting a multicultural restaurant association in Queens. The pandemic lockdown – and the resulting toll it took on restaurants – pushed the fast-forward button on Forgash’s plans. 

He quickly started raising money on social media and then reached out to restaurants to see if they would be willing to make 50-100 meals that would then be given to front-line hospital workers, with the restaurants being paid and highlighted on social media. Thus, Queens Together was born. 

Queens Together was later asked to help coordinate the distribution of food from a federal program when Queens food pantries could not handle the heavy load.

“We really banded together to take care of ourselves,” Forgash says of his borough. 

Queens Together soon received federal funding, sponsored by then-Rep. Carolyn Maloney, and Forgash formed a nonprofit restaurant association, which is affiliated with the Queens Economic Development Corp. With the pandemic-driven food emergency subsiding, Forgash pivoted to new programs. 

He notes that the group does not charge restaurants to participate in programs, including a restaurant week that had 203 eateries participate. Queens Together is also raising funds to support food pantries, veterans shelters and migrant shelters. Much of the money comes from those eating at participating restaurants during the promotional events.

“The public is always thrilled to help and support a great cause,” he says. 

– John Celock

Elena Garuc

Executive Director, FuzeHub
Elena Garuc / John Schlia

When Elena Garuc left college, she started out working in economic development in Albany but questioned her future.

Her mother told her to stick with it. Two decades later, she’s running her own economic development organization that’s helping the state’s manufacturing industry thrive. 

“We see the companies that are coming to us from all different backgrounds,” she says. “People want to find solutions to solve health problems, people problems or society problems.”

Garuc’s company, FuzeHub, has been working with Empire State Development to fund early stage startups, with her own engineers providing technical expertise. When her team doesn’t know the answer, she taps into her network of university experts for advice. 

Each year, FuzeHub holds a two-day summit bringing together entrepreneurs across different industries. Last year, it held a 550-person event in Buffalo with 50 speakers addressing topics ranging from offshore wind to nutrition.

Since the coronavirus pandemic began, Garuc has seen more biotechnology and medical device companies seek out her expertise, along with health-focused consumer products and food businesses seeking access to commercial kitchens. Sometimes they have sought to correct inequities in the marketplace.

“One of the companies we have been working with is offering specialty hair products for African American men and women, run by a woman who had this need and started it herself,” Garuc says. 

Recently, Garuc even helped fund a company using hemp to make lumber. 

“They’re looking at how they are using materials that are more sustainable for manufacturing and the environment,” she says. 

– A.S.

Anna Gold

Director of Communications and Marketing, JCCA
Anna Gold / JCCA

For over a decade, Anna Gold has utilized her background in political science and experience in graphic design to hone her communications craft at JCCA, a 200-year-old nonprofit providing support to underserved children and families.

“I fell in love with communications in the nonprofit world. It's fun to tell the stories that need to be told – It's always interesting to just transform the messaging to make it understandable to everyone who we're talking to, ” Gold says.

Working on a small team at JCCA, Gold wears many hats. As media and communications continue to evolve, Gold has pioneered new ways to tell JCCA’s story and to be innovative in its communications strategy. This includes bringing all graphic design in-house, which allowed for a more cohesive brand. 

During the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Gold looked for innovative ways for donors to match immediate needs. She created an e-store donation mechanism called “Fill your cart, fill your heart” that allowed donors to purchase items such as groceries and electronics for children in need.

Recently, JCCA has expanded its suite of behavioral health programs to support children across New York City, with family support, behavioral and mental health services. 

“In the midst of a national mental health crisis, it's an exciting opportunity to offer these services to families. Our biggest project right now is making sure that we can reach all the kids who might benefit from our assistance and make sure that our services are known,” she says.

– A.J.

William Goodloe

President and CEO, SEO
William Goodloe / Frank Gutierrez

Under William Goodloe’s leadership at Sponsors for Educational Opportunity, the organization has grown from serving 2,000 students yearly to 7,000, expanded offices outside of New York and quadrupled its number of full-time employees. 

Growing up in Brooklyn in public housing, Goodloe credits his success to the rigorous education he received at Brooklyn Technical High School.

“This was my big break so to speak,” Goodloe says. “My high school education always stayed with me. A lot of folks who are talented and hardworking don’t get opportunities like this. This prepared me to start working in advertising and then I eventually moved into sales.”

For the past 22 years, Goodloe has been at the helm of SEO. Through providing supplemental education programs for high school students and preparing college students to be competitive higher education candidates, the nonprofit achieved 100% scholar acceptance to four-year colleges and universities in 2022, with 80% attending a top-100 ranked school. 

Under Goodloe, SEO went fully remote in the pandemic, spurring the organization’s leaders to creatively reimagine its programs. In 2020, SEO launched Tech Developer, a computer science and engineering summer residency, as well as its robust alum network, the SEO Leadership Institute.

While not every impact is quantifiable, according to Goodloe, it’s about the bigger picture – breaking cycles of poverty. 

He says, “We have to ask ourselves, where do young people need to be? Focus on impact. Focus on results. Focus on metrics because this is why we do this work – to have an impact.”

– E.S.

Ron Guy

Board Chair, Ryan Health
Ron Guy / Phil Perry

Three decades ago, Ron Guy was running a Harlem nonprofit that assisted homeless families. The nonprofit was mandated to provide education and health care at family residences, but Guy struggled to find the right program.

“I was not satisfied with any of them until I met the Ryan Center,” he says. “They brought comprehensive care of the entire family and I thought, ‘These are the people I want to work with.’”

Ryan Health’s CEO later contacted Guy to join its board because they needed someone who understood the city’s homeless population. His leadership over the past 23 years helped Ryan Health address the needs of New York City’s most vulnerable residents.

“You can’t provide health care for someone who is worried about whether they have a roof over their head tomorrow,” Guy says. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Guy ensured Ryan Health adjusted its hours of operation, changed its site locations and provided workers with personal protective equipment to handle clients. He believes the experience made managers of front-line staff better listeners.

Ryan Health is currently handling a surge of asylum-seekers, many of whom arrive without proper documentation or health records. Guy has asked government officials for more resources to handle the migrants’ needs.

“If we are going to open our arms of services to this immigrant population that’s coming in, we need support,” he says. “We shouldn't be moving anyone out of the shelter system to make room for the new immigrants. We should find room to accommodate both.”

– A.S.

Arana Hankin-Biggers

Co-Founder and President, Union Square Travel Agency
Arana Hankin-Biggers / Vaughn Jefferson

Arana Hankin-Biggers didn’t set out to become a cannabis entrepreneur.

The Union Square Travel Agency co-founder worked with then-state Sen. David Paterson, then oversaw the state’s development of Atlantic Yards and Columbia University’s campus expansion before growing disillusioned with economic development efforts.

She eventually pivoted to cannabis. After all, her grandmother’s cousin was the first Black person in the state to receive a liquor license.

“My family history was complementary to cannabis,” she says. “I understood how valuable it is to be part of a new economy from the beginning to help generational wealth.”

Hankin-Biggers recruited a team of cannabis experts, found hemp cultivators from distressed communities upstate and women-owned brands, and hired 50 “budtenders” from communities of color. She opened her dispensary on 13th Street and Broadway in February. 

Her most important move was partnering with The Doe Fund, which provides work to formerly incarcerated and homeless individuals, as a majority co-owner.

“We wanted to donate a portion of the proceeds of a dispensary to a nonprofit that serves a population affected by the war on drugs,” she says. “We decided to put them in the ownership position, and we’re operating it on their behalf.”

So far, sleep gummies are the most popular product, but Hankin-Biggers says customers are starting to buy more edibles, ounces and flowers, often for managing pain.

“Many people are going in to solve a medical issue, whether it is anxiety, sleep or pain,” she says. “I used to refer to cannabis as akin to alcohol, but it’s not.”

– A.S.

Rick Horan

Executive Director, QueensRail Corp.
Rick Horan / Submitted

Residents of the Rockaways face some of the longest commutes to Manhattan in New York City and Rick Horan wants to do something about that. 

Horan, a mobile computing industry veteran turned executive recruiter, is trying to change all that by converting the old Rockaway Beach Branch rail line into a 3.5-mile subway extension that could transport up to 47,000 commuters a day. 

“I realized I could not sit on the sidelines any more,” Horan says of his decision to create the QueensRail Corp. in 2015. 

Under the proposal – known as QueensLink – pushed by Horan and his colleagues, the old rail line would take the M train and extend it to the Rockaways. The plan includes space for parkland as well. 

Horan has gotten enough traction that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority conducted a study for the proposal, but he disagrees with the findings, saying that the $8.1 billion cost estimate is inflated and that his organization found the cost to be around $5 billion less. 

Horan has been busy trying to raise funds for economic and environmental studies and pushing for government support. He has spoken to aides of Gov. Kathy Hochul, but they have been noncommittal. 

Horan says that with congestion pricing moving forward, he sees new momentum for QueensLink, noting that much of Queens being a transit desert forces many borough residents to drive into Manhattan. 

“Queens motorists will be penalized for using their cars,” he says, “because there are no better options.”

– J.C.

Billy Haugland II

CEO, Haugland Group
Billy Haugland II / Haugland Group

Construction may not come to mind as an innovative industry, but that hasn’t kept Billy Haugland II from taking a groundbreaking approach to his work. 

Haugland in 2010 joined Grace Industries, a highway, bridge and airport construction outfit that – along with Haugland Energy and other affiliates – is part of the 500-employee Haugland Group.

“We’re attached at the hip with each other, and we have a great alignment around workforce development and reaching into communities,” Haugland says of the company’s local union partners and efforts to train students for construction careers that support the expansion of renewable energy infrastructure.

Collaborating with government and labor, Haugland has been working on installing a duct bank system for the offshore South Fork Wind’s transmission line and an on-airport construction support facility at John F. Kennedy International Airport. 

As New York’s first offshore wind farm, the South Fork project is slated to power 70,000 New York homes each year with clean, offshore wind energy and create more than 100 union jobs for Long Island skilled trades workers.

Meanwhile, the $19 billion redevelopment program at JFK will include concrete production, a facility to recycle construction debris and a marine transport facility, all aimed at reducing the impact of airport construction on neighboring communities.

“What’s fueling our mission is the fact that if you look at the state of New York, our payables are more than our receivables,” Haugland says. “There's no way out of this other than getting people to feel the way that we do and that’s passionate.”

– E.S.

Bobby Kennedy

Project Manager, Con Edison
Bobby Kennedy / Submitted

When Bobby Kennedy was growing up in the Bronx, his favorite smell was a newly paved asphalt street. In his adolescence, his family moved to Teaneck, New Jersey, and suddenly he had a house with trees and a backyard.

“It was a huge difference between living where you smell mostly fumes and living in a place that’s mostly green,” he says. “I didn’t know what fresh air really was.”

Kennedy’s father, who worked for Con Edison, taught him how to design a circuit board. After he served in the army, Kennedy interviewed with the utility, which had him draw an electrical circuit. He aced it – and has worked there ever since. 

Now, Kennedy is the project manager on three of Con Edison’s $800 million clean energy projects, including the expansion of two Queens electric substations. A six-mile transmission line connecting them was finished as a peaker plant in Astoria closed recently.

Getting the transmission project running during the coronavirus pandemic wasn’t easy. He spent much of 2020 and 2021 on Microsoft Teams calls across South Korea, Switzerland and Los Angeles to complete the designs. 

“A lot of the challenges were coming up with a plan that allowed us to complete that scale of work in half the time,” he says.

Kennedy relishes working on projects that will reduce New York’s dependence on fossil fuels.

“It really brings me a lot of pride that I’m working on something that will bring cleaner, fresher air to kids in New York,” he says.

– A.S.

Paula Kirby

Managing Director, Plaxall
Paula Kirby / Cameron Krone

As a third-generation thermoforming business, Plaxall started off small in Long Island City and has grown over time into a community pillar, owning and managing over 1 million square feet of property in Long Island City since its 1940 inception. 

Stepping in for her brother following his retirement nearly 10 years ago, Paula Kirby is constantly working on various projects – from manufacturing ventures to activating public spaces with art projects, she finds herself following in the footsteps of her family’s entrepreneurial spirit. 

“Even though I grew up around the family business, it was not always obvious that I would one day be a part of it,” Kirby says. 

Switching gears after years spent as the head of marketing for Prada based in Milan and deputy director of Prada UK, Kirby found her “prior career in fashion initially very exciting, ([but)] found, given its cyclical nature, that the excitement started to wane.”

Now as managing director of Plaxall, no two days are the same for Kirby who led Plaxall through its transition out of plastics manufacturing, into its current, real estate forward business.

Throughout the early pandemic, the company also centered production around face shields and transformed some of its space into COVID-19 testing and vaccination centers – a testament to Plaxall’s successful optimization under Kirby’s leadership. 

“The way I see it is, my cousins and I are always learning from the example set by the generations of family members that came before us,” she says.

– E.S.

Joshua Klein

Vice President of Strategy and Business Operations, New York Psychotherapy and Counseling Center
Joshua Klein / UiPath

As a former manager at PwC, Joshua Klein entered the nonprofit sector with a goal to bring “skills over to the nonprofit world, where cutting-edge technology and innovation is less likely to be utilized.”

Now as vice president of strategy and business operations at the New York Psychotherapy and Counseling Center, Klein implements artificial intelligence technology to keep the center a leader in providing counseling services and mental health education to underserved communities across New York City.

Under Klein’s leadership, NYPCC has been able to save its staff and recipients thousands of hours, optimizing its data tracking and utilizing technology to decrease the amount of time it takes clients to get in the door to see a therapist. 

Klein single-handedly pivoted the organization into a remote and hybrid culture in the pandemic and continues to streamline and build processes, using AI technology to ensure patients are getting proper care, specifically concerning communications. The organization is also starting to pilot clinical use cases for AI to see how it can be incorporated into therapy.

The center, which has treated over 24,000 clients – half of whom are children – has partnered with large technology companies, according to Klein. 

“We’ve been able to continue to build on the successes that we’ve had with that,” he says. “I think we’re living in a time where there is so much more opportunity for anyone, even in a small nonprofit or company, to start that journey and really just be open-minded with innovation and automation.”

– E.S.

Wayne Lair Jr.

Partner, Statewide Public Affairs
Wayne Lair Jr. / Celeste Sloman

For Wayne Lair Jr., becoming a partner at Statewide Public Affairs presented a unique opportunity to maintain close relationships with clients during a transformative time in the lobbying industry. Over the past decade, the boutique lobbying firm has grown from approximately 12 to 60 clients. Lair’s firm now represents household names such as Home Depot, Eli Lilly and TikTok.

“Each issue has its own constituency, its own political considerations that need to be factored in,” Lair says. “It's our job to help clients define their issues, in ways that relate to the needs and desires of policymakers and their constituents individually.”

Working alongside a range of stakeholders, Lair takes an equity-focused approach. For instance, he helped run a coalition to legalize electric bikes and electric scooters, engaging with delivery workers, environmental advocates and safe street advocates to ensure the legislation factored in a variety of standards. Engaging with service workers and members from disadvantaged communities, Lair’s firm took a hands-on role in clean transportation legalization. 

He has also been involved in policy development surrounding New York's budding cannabis industry. “We ensured that there were protections in place for communities that had been disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs, as well as companies who had already invested heavily in a state's medical program,” he says.

Lair says his outside-the-box perspective is key when working to further his clients’ goals. He encourages others in the industry to take a multifaceted approach to problem-solving. “There's always going to be alternative routes,” he says.

– A.J.

Linda Lee

Chair, New York City Council Mental Health, Disabilities and Addiction Committee
Linda Lee / William Alatriste

A social worker, Linda Lee is using her position heading the New York City Council Mental Health, Disabilities and Addiction Committee to tackle core mental health issues. This spring, Lee unveiled a Mental Health Roadmap, a collection of policies and proposals to tackle the city’s mental health crisis.

“This is a culmination of a lot of ideas for the community,” the Queens lawmaker says. “I wanted this to be thoughtful, not pie in the sky ideas.”

The roadmap includes more mental health prevention services, pay parity, scholarships and loan forgiveness for social work, law enforcement and court training to better understand mental health issues and tailoring services to address stigmas in many communities across the city. 

Lee notes that several of the issues – and funding increases – will require buy-in from New York City Mayor Eric Adams, Gov. Kathy Hochul and the state Legislature. Lee says she is prepared to push the issue at all levels. City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams has endorsed the plan and stood beside Lee at its unveiling.

The innovations Lee is proposing include streamlining the state’s rigorous social work licensing process to allow social workers from other states to treat New Yorkers via telemedicine. Lee also wants to address how the judiciary can expand use of veterans and mental health treatment court programs. 

Lee says that she and her colleagues cannot take this one step at a time. 

“We need to work on all of these things simultaneously,” she says. 

– J.C.

Elizabeth Macias

Senior Vice President and Chief Information Systems Officer, Ponce Bank
Elizabeth Macias / Ponce Bank

Ponce Bank’s community-centered banking could have faced a severe problem when the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered communities beginning in early 2020. But information technology initiatives spearheaded by Senior Vice President Elizabeth Macias ensured that the financial institution emerged from the crisis stronger than ever. 

A full integration of Ponce Bank’s systems into the cloud, comprehensive heightening of security infrastructure and a revolutionary bank-from-home system across all branches upheld the bank’s commitment to the communities it serves even in the midst of logistical challenges.

“I’ve always had a passion for community banking,” Macias says. “I was born in the Bronx, I live and work in these communities. So I know firsthand the impact of efficient financial technology tools that will help the community.”

She understands the need, in times of crisis, for bank access. “In the past, when there were storms, the banks always had to close down,” she says. “I decided that we were going to change and innovate a way of working securely from home. And so, when it was announced that the bank was going to shut down in March 2020, it gave us the opportunity to continue working without skipping a beat.”

Macias continues to look toward the future. Her commitment to technological innovation and community integration helps bolster “financial literacy and mastery in our communities.” And she plans to migrate Ponce Bank’s operations to a “100% API driven cloud solution” in the coming years, which will equip its systems for newer technologies to come.

– A.J.

Susan Marenoff-Zausner

President, Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum
Susan Marenoff-Zausner / Natan Dvir

Susan Marenoff-Zausner had lost her job managing a women’s professional soccer league when a headhunter pitched a career change – running the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum.

“She said, ‘Your ship is your team. You have to build your infrastructure out, assess the business, build a marketing brand, and increase your visitors,’ correlating the team to what I’ve done before,” Marenoff-Zausner recalls.

Marenoff-Zausner decided to consult for the museum and soon became its executive director. She has since transformed the decommissioned Intrepid vessel into an interactive education center with family-centered programming and a hub for the region’s military veterans.

Her changes started simply by putting the name “Intrepid” on the ship. Then she added Disney-themed kids programming, added a Concorde jet and lured the Space Shuttle Enterprise to the aircraft carrier in 2012. Even episodes like the day they brought the ship out to the Hudson River for renovations and ran aground created buzz.

“We got stuck in the mud,” she says. “We got international recognition with replies about what we should have done. It was the best worst day.”

Marenoff-Zausner and her team have sought to keep future generations interested in history. They scanned the aircraft carrier in 3D providing a virtual blueprint to explore its hidden nooks and have brought in children for STEM programs. The Intrepid is also celebrating its 80th commissioning anniversary in August.

“There’s no place in the Northeast that has the ability to have community for veterans,” Marenoff-Zausner says. “It’s a natural place for them.”

– A.S.

Meridith Maskara

CEO, Girl Scouts of Greater New York
Meridith Maskara / Joe Orrechio

When her eldest daughter couldn’t find a local Girl Scouts troop to join, Meridith Maskara immediately raised her hand to volunteer as a troop leader. As a third-generation Girl Scout and a mom of five Girl Scouts, Maskara always felt herself gravitating toward the nonprofit organization.

After working for 20 years in commercial theater, Maskara rejoined the organization: “I found myself thinking, this is where my heart is. I want to work for something, instead of for someone.” As CEO, Maskara has implemented a collaborative work structure at the Girl Scouts of Greater New York, taking a persistent and action-oriented approach towards its mission.

“Our vision is to create a New York City in which every girl feels empowered to lead within her community, the workplace and the world,” Maskara says.

Under Maskara’s leadership, the group launched Troop 6000 to support girls living within New York City’s shelter systems. Since 2017, they have established a Troop 6000 Transition Initiative supporting families’ transitions into permanent housing, as well as support for asylum and sanctuary seekers.

Maskara has also spearheaded initiatives to encourage Girl Scouts For All, a troop expanding the accessibility of their mission for youth with disabilities, as well as a growing network of Muslim Girl Scouts across the city.

“We’re the only 100% urban-based council, and Girl Scouting looks different here than it does in other places,” she says. “With the number of marginalized and underserved communities in New York, I saw an opportunity to put our values to the test, stand for them and show action.”

– A.J.

Ryan McPherson

Chief Sustainability Officer, University at Buffalo
Ryan McPherson / Stephen Gabris

The University at Buffalo has always had some unique architecture, including a large dormitory complex nicknamed Lego Land. The school’s unique architecture extends to the solar panels installed across its North Campus in suburban Amherst, which are designed to be part of the natural landscape of a campus that borders Ellicott Creek, trails and deer-filled woodlands. 

“We did not want to see fences around the panels,” says Ryan McPherson, the university’s chief sustainability officer. “We wanted to integrate with the landscape. That’s something we’ve done with Solar Strand for the last 10 years.”

People are allowed to walk among the panels, a plan McPherson and the university faced pushback on, as it is not a common practice.

The solar panels reflect UB’s aggressive plan to go carbon neutral by 2030. In addition to the solar panels, the university is working on a solar-powered renewable energy project in nearby Lackawanna and purchasing all nonuniversity generated power from renewable sources. 

McPherson, a former congressional aide, arrived at UB two decades ago to work in government affairs before becoming the university’s first chief sustainability officer in 2011.

McPherson says the university has been credited as a national leader in renewable energy use and that he’s been seeing environmental and business benefits. He says UB is currently saving around $400,000 a year, a figure he says will go up. The savings will be reinvested in renewable energy. 

“We are not losing money to achieve our climate-neutral goals,” he says.

– J.C.

Zachary Meher

Lead Investigator, Oversight and Investigations Division, New York City Council
Zachary Meher / Juan Sebastián Casallas Fula

Zachary Meher would never have become the New York City Council’s top watchdog if it weren’t for his experience digging into oil futures in Chicago.

The River Edge, New Jersey, native moved to Thailand after college, but a friend connected him to the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, where he developed a passion for using data analysis to find wrongdoing in derivatives trading. After working in finance in New York, he had an epiphany one day while riding the subway.

“My bank was pouring tens of millions of dollars finding oversight like a junior banker overspending his meal allowance, but who is doing this type of review for government work at a granular and systemwide level on the operations of agencies,” he says. “I got in my head that government work is where I wanted to be.”

Meher used his training to examine the predatory loans that taxi drivers received and found linkages between the finance companies. He also has mapped out the city’s illicit cannabis shops to help district attorneys pursue nuisance abatement tools.

Lately, he has been monitoring how the city is spending billions of dollars managing the migrant crisis. That involves reviewing contracts from providers to determine where the money is going while also doing field work to ensure asylum-seekers receive their services.

“We’re there to make sure everything is working properly and flag issues that we see,” he says. “We’re not managing the influx (of) migrants but I’m there to make sure we can improve operations on a day-to-day basis.”

– A.S.

Terrance Miller

Regional Sales Manager, CDW-G
Terrance Miller / Crystal Razor-Miller

Terrance Miller’s unwavering dedication to uplifting at-risk youth and families has been a driving force throughout his life, with roots firmly planted in his formative years. His educational background and enduring commitment has been seamlessly integrated into his work at CDW-G for the past 16 years.

Since 2014, Miller has been at the forefront of CDW’s partnership with New York, forging a path toward equitable and sustainable technology solutions to advance tech literacy. Prioritizing partnerships with minority- and women-owned businesses, Miller has successfully laid a strong foundation within the program by implementing deliberate and impactful measures for promoting equity.

“It reinvigorated me because I’ve always managed to find a way to promote diversity in everything I’ve done,” Miller says.

Recognizing the absence of a solid framework, Miller seized the opportunity to bridge the gap. “I looked at what we were doing organically and reached out to other parts of our business on the federal government side. I said, ‘Okay, how is working with minority women-owned businesses impactful? How can we incorporate parts of what they’re doing into a built-out program? Let's create something repeatable,’” he says.

Miller’s approach has given rise to internal processes that were previously nonexistent, fostering new collaborations. CDW has conducted over $360 million in business with nearly 35 MWBEs in New York City to date. Presently, Miller is developing a project to bring CompTIA programming certification programs to residents living in NYCHA housing, aiming to empower even more individuals through accessible education and career opportunities.

– A.J.

Roger Milliner

Chief Growth Officer, MetroPlusHealth
Roger Milliner / MetroPlusHealth

MetroPlusHealth has insured New Yorkers for decades. Roger Milliner has helped grow its membership by 930%, in large part by making sure even the most vulnerable New York City populations can access health care through its policies.

With the recent expiration of the COVID-19 public health emergency, the pause on insurance recertification requirements was lifted as well. MetroPlusHealth and Milliner have been at the forefront of this process: “Hundreds of thousands of people have had to be redetermined and rescreened for continuous coverage,” he says, adding that the team works “with a host of community-based organizations, city agencies and other groups to tackle some of these disparities and inequities in health care.” This includes outreach to groups like ride-hailing drivers, food delivery workers and asylum-seekers that may have limited options for accessing care.

A Brooklyn native, Milliner leads comprehensive media campaigns across New York to help increase awareness of inequities within the health care system. As part of this campaign, he educates medical providers and obstetric caregivers about racial disparities in maternal and infant mortality. These public education initiatives help highlight the impact that accessible medical insurance can have on the most vulnerable groups in the city, while the outreach Milliner does across diverse groups helps insure these people. In Milliner’s words, they “address tough challenges in communities that are underserved.”

– A.J.

Richard Mollot

Executive Director, Long Term Care Community Coalition
Richard Mollot / LTCCC

Richard Mollot was always interested in working in a mission-driven advocacy campaign like improving the quality of care for nursing home residents. But he didn’t plan on staying in the field for two decades.

“I really fell in love with the work,” he says. “Residents in nursing homes are among our most vulnerable citizens, and it has been exciting to work on their behalf.”

Since 2002, Mollot has led the Long Term Care Community Coalition, which researches policies and regulations, and lobbies governments to improve the standard of care in nursing homes. That often puts the nonprofit at odds with the multibillion-dollar nursing home providers industry, which wants fewer requirements and less enforcement of existing rules. 

Mollot has been able to use data and anecdotes from residents to reveal conditions inside facilities, which can sway public opinion.

“We predicate our work on the data so we can come to policymakers and say, ‘Look, this is what is actually happening,’” he says. “It’s not my opinion as an advocate, it’s the individual cries of a constituent.”

Much of Mollot’s work winds its way into the media. He was able to expose antipsychotic drugging rates for nursing homes nationally and supplied the data to New York Times reporters, who wrote about patients receiving false schizophrenia diagnoses and the overreliance on the drugs.

“The Times found this was especially acute in communities of color,” Mollot says. “As a result, CMS changed its practices to do more auditing of those diagnoses.”

– A.S.

Jennifer Montalvo

Executive Vice President and Chief of Staff, New York City Economic Development Corp.
Jennifer Montalvo / NYCEDC

With 20 years of experience in the public sector, Jennifer Montalvo finds that working at the New York City Economic Development Corp. allows her to put equity and innovation at the center of her efforts. Leading staff and serving as chief strategist to the CEO, Montalvo works to advance EDC’s projects to cultivate economic development across the five boroughs.

Before joining the city’s economic development arm, Montalvo worked in intergovernmental affairs at the New York City Housing Authority, directing programs for its 400,000 public housing residents. Having worked with various stakeholders and gained insights into the city’s social and political landscape, Montalvo now takes a community-based approach to project development at EDC.

“What is great under this new administration is making equity the focus of what we are doing,” Montalvo says. She recently led the creation of EDC’s first Community Impact Division, aimed to ensure that projects prioritize engagement with minority- and women-owned firms and focus on equity in the communities they serve.

One example is Montalvo’s work leading stakeholder engagement during land use approvals at Willets Point, with a public-private partnership projected to create 2,500 affordable housing units, the city’s first professional soccer stadium and 16,000 jobs prioritizing Queens community residents.

Montalvo also played an instrumental role in acquiring EDC’s largest federal funding grant for a single project, the Hunts Point Food Distribution Center. The Bronx-based produce market will soon see significant facility changes after funding was secured via a strategic engagement plan with the city, legislators and community organizations.

– A.J.

Molly Morris

President, Equinor Wind US
Molly Morris / Equinor

New York state set a goal to have 70% of the state’s energy come from renewable sources by 2030, something Molly Morris is actively pursuing through offshore wind energy at Equinor Wind US. Focusing on the building and development of offshore wind assets, Morris says, “Everything we're doing is an innovation.”

As an emerging industry in the U.S., offshore wind has the potential to deliver clean energy to coastal cities across the country, and the resource is abundant. “The offshore wind industry is basically brand new in the U.S.,” Morris says. “There's very little capacity that's already built. … These are massive infrastructure projects that have never been done in the United States before.”

In partnership with BP, Equinor is behind the Empire Wind project, part of an expansion of New York’s renewable energy portfolio. Upon completion, the project is expected to power 1 million homes in New York with over 130 wind turbines.

Using knowledge gained in Europe’s renewables industry, Morris is also spearheading a New York-based Innovation Hub, in partnership with BP, New York University and the New York City Economic Development Corp., to pursue new technological solutions to the growing offshore wind industry with emerging startups. 

Continuing its pursuit of innovation in renewables, Morris’ team has also announced the Ecosystem Fund, a $5 million grant program. Aiming to promote small business and workforce development, as well as equitable access for historically underrepresented communities, the grant program will support growth within New York’s renewable energy industry. 

– A.J.

Laura Nisenbaum

Executive Director of Drug Development, Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation
Laura Nisenbaum / Submitted

Laura Nisenbaum became familiar with Alzheimer’s disease through her research as a neuroscientist, but it also had a devastating effect on her family. Her mother suffered from dementia and died two years ago.

“It really is a disease that touches so many people through their family and friends,” Nisenbaum says. “My dad was the primary caregiver, but this clearly affected our entire family.”

Nisenbaum’s interest in brain behavior started at an early age. Her parents were psychologists, and she pursued a doctorate in neuroscience at the University of Pittsburgh. 

After several years in academia, Nisenbaum worked for Eli Lilly and helped develop an anti-amyloid therapy that accelerated approval from the FDA. But she wanted to have a broader impact toward curing Alzheimer’s and joined the Alzheimer's Drug Discovery Foundation.

“It was a natural step for me to step outside the for-profit world,” she says, “and working at a nonprofit foundation could catalyze the entire field rather than a specific program for a company.”

Nisenbaum shifted the foundation’s focus from investing in pre-clinical stage programs to clinical trials while also cultivating connections with larger pharmaceutical companies and investors to fund later stage trials. She has also encouraged the foundation to look beyond amyloid plaques and consider other risk factors, such as the biology of aging, inflammation and viruses.

“It’s important to look at the science underlying these hypotheses,” she says. “What we really need are randomized clinical trials to test the idea, so it is a more rigorous test.”

– A.S.

Subrina Oliver

CEO, O-High Technologies LLC
Subrina Oliver / VidcomFilmworks

Subrina Oliver loved fixing engines so much she made a career out of it. But then she wondered why more women weren’t joining the automotive technology industry.

“The entry points are largely repairs or maintenance and not the exposure to the whole industry,” she says. “I started teaching automotive technology to help young girls see us in a different way.”

The Hempstead native became a technology innovator at a Long Island school district and soon a STEM director. Those roles inspired her to launch her own company, O-High Technologies, which helps public-sector clients and manufacturing associations hire more Black and Latino workers.

Oliver has primarily focused on underrepresented teenagers and young adults. She recently paired with Minority Millennials and brought 1,500 Black and Latino students from Long Island to the “We Are the Future Summit.” Her work helped young people realize that the skills they developed in STEM programs can apply to a variety of industries.

“If you’re a diesel mechanic, you can work with generators,” she says. “That transfer of skills is not taught or thought about by employers. You have to connect the dots.”

On Long Island, Oliver has helped Black and Latino mechanics gain access to fast-growing industries like offshore wind. She also pushed manufacturers to support day care centers and flexible hours. 

“Many of our manufacturers who supply medical devices have even smaller parts and tend to need women,” she says. “We’re convincing them how to attract and keep employees across the talent pipeline.”

– A.S.

Sascha Owen

Senior Manager, Government Relations New York, New Jersey and Puerto Rico, DoorDash
Sascha Owen / Submitted

With the proliferation of third-party food delivery services across New York, Sascha Owen says she’s committed to forming beneficial relationships between DoorDash and the communities it serves to strengthen New York’s economy. With a background in government and politics, Owen's policy expertise gives her a unique perspective on improving stakeholder, community, worker and customer relations.

“I joined DoorDash because they have such an interesting and important impact on our local economy,” Owen says, citing the company’s efforts to provide food delivery services in partnership with diverse local restaurants.

For example, Owen played an instrumental role in implementing DoorDash’s Accelerator for Local Restaurants program in the state. Partnering with small-business advocacy organizations, DoorDash operates a grant-application program that offers education and business training resources for recipients wanting to grow their businesses and reach new customers. This program also provides resources to create more eco-friendly business practices, due to the costs associated with proactive sustainability.

Owen has also advocated for the Project Dash initiative, connecting organizations like food banks with DoorDash delivery workers to increase food access within Brooklyn and Queens. This project aims to alleviate food insecurity by connecting communities to social services.

“The way I try to approach this is to think about the biggest needs of the different partners that make up DoorDash,” she says. “I try to understand the core of what these challenges may be, and then see where we can use DoorDash and its platform to meet that need. The challenge is what I'm always focusing on.”

– A.J.

Matthew Petell

Chief Technology Officer, State Office of the Inspector General
Matthew Petell / NYS Offices of the Inspector General

Matthew Petell spent most of his career in the private sector, including eight years with Deloitte in the digital forensics field, before he joined the state inspector general’s office two years ago. The move merged his passion for digital forensics with a desire to work in government. But he hasn’t left his private sector background behind, instead using it to innovate within the government agency. 

“The time that I spent there was invaluable, working with Fortune 500 companies and understanding the technology in the marketplace,” Petell says of Deloitte. 

As the office’s chief technology officer for the past year, Petell has been leading the implementation of new software for electronic records review, which he said has made the office’s work more efficient. He notes that the new technology is part of the innovation agenda that state Inspector General Lucy Lang has outlined for the office. 

Petell says with more records being digital in nature, the ability to use technology has been a key part in allowing investigators to be more efficient.

Petell, a Utica University alum, said the office has also used new technology to embrace the new hybrid workforce. While the hybrid workforce started as a response to the coronavirus pandemic, Petell said the approach is now that new staff who are not in commuting distance to Albany or a regional office can be hired.

“It allows us to focus on bringing on talent that we could not bring on before,” Petell says. 

– J.C.

Rachel Rea

Senior Vice President, Operations, Boingo
Rachel Rea / Boingo

After 13 years deploying thousands of macro towers, small cells and in-building networks at Verizon Wireless, Rachel Rea took the lead on operations at Boingo Wireless almost four years ago.

Rea’s always worked in wireless engineering and operations with a focus on in-building projects. Her leadership in bringing 5G to Newark Liberty International Airport’s new Terminal A is a testament to her lifelong commitment to solving customers' problems.

“Baggage handlers couldn’t scan bags because there was no coverage out of Newark and so we said let’s do this wirelessly,” Rea says. “We basically created Wi-Fi coverage outdoors, wirelessly which got the baggage handlers, iPads and iPhones working in order to scan bags and keep passengers happy.”

Rea’s also invested in the future of 5G, spearheading Boingo’s recent project at Grand Central Madison that built out connectivity for residents, tourists and MTA operations.

As the longest expansion of the LIRR in 112 years, the technology needed a major update and because Grand Central Madison sits 175-feet below the existing Grand Central Station, Rea’s team needed to be creative in its approach to providing access. 

“We had to use fiber underneath the East River, which took a really innovative plan to get launched,” she says.

Rea’s also leading the charge to bring 5G to the World Trade Center. 

“If you look at the networks that we’re deploying across the New York metro area, we’re increasing the customer experience and the passenger experience for millions of people every day.”

– E.S.

Jeanique Riche-Druses

Northeast Head of Global Philanthropy, JPMorgan Chase & Co.
Jeanique Riche-Druses / Submitted

Walking away from a corporate career at the tail end of a recession was not easy for Jeanique Riche-Druses, but the Brooklyn-born powerhouse had to be true to herself and carve her own path.

“I recognized that I have a gift for working with business owners at places like American Express, but I really wanted to do work for underserved communities,” she says.

Riche-Druses’ path has been anything but linear. Starting as an electrical engineer at Verizon and Telecom, she went to business school before starting her own venture, The EIgnite Group, to consult with small and mid-sized businesses. 

While working at the New York City Housing Authority to empower public housing residents through entrepreneurship, Riche-Druses provided access to business building services for over 600,000 people. Following this, she sought a new challenge, nearly seven years ago, when she began working at the philanthropy arm at JPMorgan Chase & Co. 

Through JPMorgan, Riche-Druses is especially proud of her work with SUNY Westchester Community College where she’s built a growing financial coaching program to help increase semester-over-semester attendance and graduation rates.

“I’m really focused on shrinking the racial wealth gap, neighborhood and small-business development, financial health and opening channels for underserved communities that have traditionally been locked out.”

She also leads the regional arm of Ascend Cities Programs, whose goal is to support the award of $1 billion in contracts to businesses owned by people of color by 2025 – a program 37 businesses have graduated from. 

– E.S.

Donald Ruff

President and CEO, The Eagle Academy Foundation
Donald Ruff / Stephen Paul

Donald Ruff did not hesitate to give back to his community after finishing his education. “I dove right in,” he says. 

As a first-generation college graduate and New York native, Ruff has a unique passion. Through his work at The Eagle Academy Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the futures of young men of color within their school and beyond, he empowers young men.

“At Eagle, I saw an opportunity to transform our communities,” he says. “You have to engage and challenge the top, move the middle, and inspire the students who are at the bottom, and Eagle, we unapologetically accept everyone.”

Addressing a lack of an “ecosystem” of support beyond 12th grade, Ruff strives to create an environment that empowers young men through their secondary education and beyond, creating an alumni network while offering an annual career pathways expo and financial literacy training for students.

Ruff’s 16 years of experience working at Eagle have helped him succeed in his current role as president and CEO of the organization and as a role model. Throughout his career, Ruff has put his principles into practice, whether that be taking a step back from previous jobs to care for his family or stepping into new roles when he sees the potential for larger systemic changes. Ruff’s ethos is present in everything he does.

“I thought my personal story would resonate even more with young men from similar circumstances at Eagle,” Ruff says.

– A.J.

Alexandra Ruiz

Founder, Poder Capital
Alexandra Ruiz / Stephanie E. Guzman

On a mission to correct Latino wealth loss, Alexandra Ruiz created Poder Capital to narrow the over $60 billion funding gap for Latinx small-business owners.

The Spanish-first platform and fintech company is reimagining business credit worthiness by placing community at the forefront of its clients’ needs.

“As a Latina and an immigrant, a lot of us rely on our own community to lend us money over banks so we’re bringing that to our model so that people can access larger loans to grow their businesses,” she says. “It’s technology-enabled and is a platform that allows people to invest in a loan for a business owner.”

For Ruiz, it’s about being receptive to community needs from the beginning.

“Innovation already exists, so it’s really about asking how you become a catalyst for great ideas that can be generated by people who are most impacted by the problem,” she says.

Ruiz, who recently completed her master’s degree in business administration and management at Brown University, has spent most of her career working in the social sector to address systemic issues including the fight for universal health care and COVID-19 vaccine access.

Ruiz says an estimated $1.4 trillion could be added to the U.S. economy if Latino-owned businesses – which receive funding at less than half the rate of white-owned businesses – achieve revenue parity; Ruiz is leading the charge to bridge this gap.

“I’m working to bring something to life that has the potential to change people’s lives,” she says.

– E.S.

Sophia Shaw

Vice President of Residential and Housing Programs, HeartShare St. Vincent’s Services
Sophia Shaw / Joel Edwards

Sophia Shaw was a paralegal at The Legal Aid Society when she realized she could do more to help young people caught up in the legal system. So she completed a master’s degree in social work and joined HeartShare to provide supportive housing to homeless youths.

“I thought I could be a better advocate working with these youths by having a stronger voice,” she says. “I’m familiar with the court system and the legality around youths to help them navigate it.”

Shaw became a vice president last year and has overseen juveniles in children’s community residences and reception centers as well as adults leaving hospitals and prisons who need housing.

Shaw has hired staff with different skill sets and added training sessions in order to help her team meet her young clients’ needs. That includes motivational interviewing, reunification with families and helping them go back to school and get a GED diploma. 

She found mental health issues and drug abuse surged during the COVID-19 pandemic, so she has sought more in-person interactions.

“The transition from in-person to telehealth for some was not a good implementation,” she says. “It is better to see someone in person and have that human touch.”

Shaw has enjoyed her management role and embraced motivating her staff and clients.

“When you’re in leadership, people look up to you,” she says. “If you’re a leader with a passion, you’ll find people actually will follow through on any suggestions they have and become their best selves.”

– A.S.

MC Spano

Founder and CEO, ForceField
MC Spano / Work With Folks

One night in 2018, MC Spano was in New York City with a friend when she got robbed and assaulted. When she reported the incident, detectives told her the evidence wasn’t solid enough to move ahead.

“I had a video of a video, and the detective would not even investigate the case,” she recalls. “Having been a founder for decades, this seemed like a problem worth solving.”

Spano sought to eliminate errors in evidence by developing a technology that can verify that the recorded images, audio and video clips and the people handling those devices are trustworthy.

“We looked at what happens when humans are involved, and that’s bias, natural human error and malfeasance,” she says. “It causes a downwind problem of how secure this evidence is.”

Her company ForceField uses “Proofmark” technology that works with software platforms and secures the metadata on internet-connected devices creating a copy of whatever is recorded.

“If your incident is shared, there are checks and balances there so police or HR know that nothing was changed, so victims just have to share that data,” she says.

In September, Spano will start production on a project for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to protect critical infrastructure. She hopes to work with the NYPD to secure body camera footage so it can be shared safely.

“I would love to make New York City a safer place,” she says. “While safety is really a construct, we think our technology can add in security that is missing.”

– A.S.

Kevin Swanepoel

CEO, The One Club for Creativity
Kevin Swanepoel / Submitted

An award-winning ad must grab its audience’s attention no matter where it is made.

“We talk about work that is purpose-driven,” Kevin Swanepoel says. “Ads that are funny and humorous and brilliant.”

He would know. Swanepoel’s nonprofit, The One Club for Creativity, manages award shows for advertisement campaigns all over the world. Its most famous award, the Gold Pencil, has been recognizing creative agencies for 50 years. 

Swanepoel has been at the helm for half that time. The South Africa native started his own ad agency before joining Apple. While he was there, he met the CEO of The One Club, who suggested launching an interactive advertising award show. Soon, Swanepoel turned The One Club into a global organization with offices in Spain, China and the U.S. 

Swanepoel has sought to diversify a traditionally exclusive industry.

“All the revenue we generate for our awards we put back into training for people who do not see themselves in this industry,” he says.

During the coronavirus pandemic, The One Club opened five online classes, called the ONE School, to help black creatives get jobs in advertising. Swanepoel is now seeking to establish in-person instruction while also starting a new program to teach talented students over 21 how to hone their skills for a career in advertising or marketing.

“Young people on TikTok are very creative, but don’t realize there’s a high-paying job available to them in advertising,” he says. “It’s pretty astonishing that only 12% of people creating online content are earning more than $50,000 per year.”

– A.S.

Camelia Tepelus

Executive Director, Morris Park Business Improvement District
Camelia Tepelus / MPBID

Camelia Tepelus had never ventured into Morris Park before she was hired as the leader of the neighborhood’s business improvement district.

“It’s in the middle of the village, but there’s no transportation,” she says. “Before having this job, I had no reason to come over here. I drove straight to Orchard Beach.”

The Romanian-born Spuyten Duyvil resident lived in five other countries before moving to the Bronx to join a nonprofit targeting human trafficking. Her extensive travel grew wearying, and she applied for a job to lead the newly formed Morris Park BID.

“When they give you the keys to the room, you have to paint the walls and build a relationship with the community board,” she says. “We were really careful to craft our presence and not solely help the commercial areas.”

Tepelus launched the largest landscaping program in the Bronx, beautifying commercial corridors with $60,000 in new plantings, and one of the city’s largest LED light programs. (This year, they celebrated Ramadan with a new display.) She also turned the BID into a de facto community center by holding movie nights and other events.

But her most significant change was expanding transportation options. The city selected Morris Park Avenue for an electric scooter pilot program that has since been expanded. The street’s configuration also changed, with a new bike lane and traffic calming measures to prevent speeding.

“It’s much better taken care of and calmer than it used to be,” she says. “You see banners, lights, things looking green. It’s very curated.”

– A.S.

Jessica Tisch

Commissioner, New York City Department of Sanitation
Jessica Tisch / New York City Department of Sanitation

Jessica Tisch has been a government innovator, from her start in the New York City Police Department’s information technology division 15 years ago to her current position as the city’s sanitation commissioner, where she is a front-line general in New York City Mayor Eric Adams’ war on rats.

“I am a person who is not afraid to go for it, when I believe it is the right thing to do for New Yorkers,” Tisch says.

Tisch is currently focused on banishing trash bags from the sidewalks of New York; she is making the Sanitation Department’s composting pilot program in Queens a citywide program by the fall of 2024.

“It was a ridiculous, wild success,” Tisch says of the pilot. “We diverted three times the material of previous programs.”

Tisch credits the success of the pilot to running dual bin trucks on regular service time to focus on composting instead of single bin trucks on overtime – plus focusing messaging on the positive effects of composting. 

Getting New Yorkers to place trash in bins instead of bags on the street is Tisch’s latest innovation, along with delaying the time trash goes out and shifting more trash collection to overnight hours, in order to get 44 million pounds of daily trash off of sidewalks quickly. 

Tisch pledges to keep focused on innovation.

“I’m the type of person who rejects the status quo,” Tisch says. “Not to reject it for the sake of rejecting it, but to reject it when it does not work for New Yorkers.” 

– J.C.

Liliana Velez

Chief of Staff and Strategic Adviser to the CEO, Union Settlement
Liliana Velez / Submitted

Upon entering the workforce, Liliana Velez knew she wanted to seek out opportunities that would allow her to have the most significant impact possible within her community. “I was never fully driven by one sector, but rather a deep desire to help the human race,” Velez says. “I’ve always pursued opportunities that allowed me to do that.”

Now at Union Settlement, Velez has joined an over 100-year-old organization dedicated to serving East Harlem’s diverse residents, aligning with her identity as a Mexican immigrant.

Since joining the organization late last year, Velez has taken an instrumental role in building strong relationships with stakeholders, such as the New York City Housing Authority, to ensure they can provide high-quality services to their communities. She also manages facilities and operations, ensuring Union Settlement’s various programs can proceed in well-equipped and safe spaces. 

“That’s how I see my work providing a greater impact on the community,” she says. “It’s through helping develop organizations and leading efficiently for the greater good of everyone we serve, including our employees.”

Velez also worked to improve organizational infrastructure and support efforts to centralize record-keeping alongside Union Settlement’s IT department. Strengthening these critical components of the organization allows Velez to ensure programs such as the East Harlem Community Partnership continue.

Bringing various community organizations together, Velez says, “This program is a key to connect the dots within East Harlem. We have become this decentralized location where organizations know that if they want to expand their voice, it’ll be done through Union Settlement.”

– A.J.

Marissa Weidner

Chief Corporate Responsibility Officer, Webster Bank
Marissa Weidner / Webster Bank

As chief corporate responsibility officer at Webster Bank, Marissa Weidner manages community relations functions, including philanthropic, government relations and ESG efforts. Weidner believes this role is the perfect fit: “It brings my economic development background together with working to make an impact in the community, which is something that drives me.”

Since 2022, Weidner has been overseeing the execution of a multiyear $6.5 billion community investment strategy, increasing their community footprint through strategic initiatives and partnerships. One year into the initiative, Webster has launched three financial training labs with nonprofit community partners.

“We’re putting our time and our talent and our money all behind working with some nonprofits to help young people become financially empowered and understand the impacts of any financial decisions they’re going to make along the way and learn how to generate wealth,” she says.

Weidner hired community liaison officers to expand their impact further. These officers are helping low- to moderate-income community members to acquire their first home through financial literacy training and first-time homebuyer workshops.

“We’re mindful of who we are as an organization. We know that we’re a bank; we’re not going to try and pretend that we’re something that we’re not,” Weidner says, elaborating on the importance of nonprofit and community partners in their efforts to support New Yorkers and explaining the coalition building that Webster has done combining their capital and nonprofit expertise to make an impact on the communities they serve.

– A.J.

Jennifer White-Reid

Senior Vice President of Domestic Violence Residential and Legal Services, Urban Resource Institute
Jennifer White-Reid / Urban Resource Institute

Working at Urban Resource Institute allows Jennifer White-Reid to create strategic design and implementation of projects for community collaboration and residential and legal services for families impacted by domestic violence and homelessness.

“I was drawn to Urban Resource Institute because of the opportunity to provide a deeper impact to clients,” White-Reid says.

For the past 20 years, White-Reid has worked on numerous expansion projects to increase support for the communities that Urban Resource Institute serves. Since 2006, she has grown the legal services program for domestic violence victims, providing families entering shelters with services including legal services, counseling, children's services and housing placement. Recognizing the impacts of economic abuse, child custody and immigration status on one’s vulnerability when leaving domestic violence situations, White-Reid has worked hard to expand the Institute’s suite of services.

White-Reid pioneered the People and Animals Living Safely program in 2013, recognizing the need for housing for domestic violence survivors and their pets; the program now covers nine of their 14 shelters.

“It widened the doors in our domestic violence shelters to allow the entire family, including the pets, to seek safety and heal together as a family. This helps individuals going through crises who have experienced multiple levels of trauma to feel safe, supported and respected,” she says.

White-Reid will enter a new role next month as chief of staff and senior adviser to the CEO, expanding her potential for community impact and strategic project growth.

– A.J.

Helena Williams

Project Executive and CEO, JFK Millennium Partners
Helena Williams / JMP

Throughout her career, Helena Williams has proven to be a seasoned infrastructure renewal and operations specialist for buses, trains and, most recently, planes. As a lead partner in the $19 billion redevelopment of John F. Kennedy International Airport, JFK Millennium Partners was chosen to take part in a public-private partnership business model to revitalize the infrastructure and modernize JFK Terminal 6. 

As CEO, Williams is spearheading the project management and operational performance oversight for Terminal 6. “The governor, Port Authority and JFK Millennium partners share a common goal. We want this massive redevelopment of JFK to benefit the surrounding communities,” Williams says.

Williams facilitates this by hosting what she calls “matchmaking events,” connecting subcontractors with MWBE firms and local businesses, and assisting businesses through completing certification forms for construction contracts at Terminal 6. She also oversees the management of JFK's Terminal 7, leading stakeholder relations with crucial community members and local businesses.

In addition to her equity and community focus on these airport revitalization projects, Williams has voiced excitement for the sustainability features JMP is planning in its modern design. Utilizing energy-efficient baggage systems and sustainable building materials such as rooftop solar panels, solar-powered hot water and rainwater collection systems; Williams hopes the terminal will achieve LEED Gold status.

“These are all exciting opportunities to build a building that will last for the future … New York City is a great city. And we’re going to have great airports.”

– A.J.

Noelle Withers

Executive Vice President and Chief Program Officer, Volunteers of America-Greater New York
Noelle Withers / Rochelle Heinrichs

For almost two decades, Noelle Withers has honed her expertise in New York’s supportive housing landscape, now overseeing over 60 programs in New York City.

Withers’ commitment to vulnerable populations shines through her work at Volunteers of America, which has recently focused on two pilot programs: Brain Injury Screening, which addresses potential brain injuries suffered by victims of domestic violence, and Street to Home, which works to innovate support systems for people experiencing homelessness. 

In partnership with Safe Living Space, Withers and her team have set on the path to addressing potential connections between domestic violence victims and traumatic brain injuries. By implementing screening programs in their domestic violence shelters, VOA aims to provide critical medical care while addressing potential connections between long-term homelessness and brain injuries.

Withers explains that survivors often face stigmatization due to symptoms of foggy memory or difficulty regulating emotion, which can stem from a brain injury. “We’re looking at the possibility that this could be keeping people from regaining independence and exiting shelters,” Withers says.

For its other developing pilot program, VOA partnered with the New York City Department of Social Services and the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to devise a new way to address long-term homelessness. The Street to Home pilot bypasses the traditional shelter system by providing direct application support and placement into supportive housing apartments.

“This could be a roadmap for the city in terms of how to link people to housing as quickly as possible,” Withers says.

– A.J.

Allison Ziogas

U.S. Labor Relations Manager, Ørsted
Allison Ziogas / Submitted

Allison Ziogas wanted to work in organized labor since she was a teenager, but she found organizing undocumented workers as a member of the Teamsters during the George W. Bush years challenging.

So she became an electrician apprentice with IBEW Local 3 through a program offering nontraditional employment for women after reading an ad on the subway.

“I never imagined it would amount to anything. It seemed too good to be true, but I got connected to an apprenticeship,” she says. “I found I loved the work.”

Ziogas stayed with IBEW for 17 years, built a net-zero public school in Staten Island and testified before the New York City Council on renewable energy. In February 2020, she joined Ørsted, but was soon cooped up inside helping the offshore wind company shift its operations remotely.

Over that time, she reached a landmark offshore wind agreement with North America’s building trades after 18 months of negotiations.

“Our investment has the potential to provide good middle-class jobs for working Americans,” she says. “Workers have to be front and center in this discussion.”

Ziogas has also helped Ørsted prioritize diversity and equity in hiring for projects along the Long Island Sound and Jersey Shore. She rolled out a pre-hiring training program, Wind Power Ready, to recruit new employees. 

“We really believe having the biggest indicator of success is whether you have a reliable job,” she says, “and you can’t have a real job if you are dealing with food insecurity or other issues.”

– A.S.

Correction - The entry on Helena Williams has been updated to read that the redevelopment project is $19 billion and to clarify the work being done as part of the project. The entry on Rachel Rea was updated with the correct spelling of her name in one sentence. The entry on Kevin Swanepoel was updated to clarify the details of the ONE School project. 

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