Millennials have earned a reputation for seeking jobs rich with meaning. That generational priority is clearly on display in this year's City & State Pennsylvania 40 Under 40 lineup: "Passionate" was a description used by nearly every honoree to describe professional careers in fields from health care to construction, higher education to estate planning, LGBTQ issues and union advocacy. While young, these exemplars of the commonwealth's future each cite strikingly personal motivations for the work they do each day – and the goals they hope to achieve on behalf of their neighbors.
When Brian Balduzzi was 19, an event occurred that altered his future trajectory: His father died, leaving his mother financially adrift and opening Balduzzi’s eyes to the complexities of estate planning.
Now 36, the upstate New York native has devoted his career to helping others navigate succession. He advises families and businesses as a private client services attorney with Faegre Drinker in Philadelphia and teaches tax and estate planning and business law at Elizabethtown College, the University of the People and the University of the Cumberlands.
“I always think about my own family, and wanting to leave my clients and my communities in a better spot,” explained Balduzzi.
Balduzzi earned a JD and a master’s in tax law from Boston University, followed by an MBA from Cornell “to better understand business owners, so I can advocate for them,” he explained. In his pro bono work, Balduzzi is a committed advocate for people who, like him, identify as LGBTQ+ and disabled – and who face particular legal and financial vulnerabilities.
“I want to make the community a better and more equitable place,” explained Balduzzi, a 2023 recipient of the American Bar Association’s Top 40 Young Lawyers award. Above all, he wants to ensure more people don’t end up blindsided financially, as his own family was. “Helping to coordinate those conversations – about values, the importance of getting a plan in place – is really a passion of mine.”
Ted Bordelon is the strategist behind a good deal of recent Democratic momentum, from his native Philadelphia to Michigan, South Carolina and beyond.
Most recently, Bordelon, 32, was responsible for the strategy that yielded Rue Landau’s landmark win in the May primary race for Philadelphia City Council. Landau came in third behind two incumbents in the crowded race for multiple seats – a key step toward making her the first openly LGBTQ+ City Council member.
“It was an honor to make history, and it really helps to have a great candidate,” said Bordelon, who met Landau through political circles like Liberty City LGBTQ, where he is a former board member and endorsement chair. Bordelon’s “unprecedented coalition” of traditional Democrats and progressives yielded another first for LGBTQ+ Philadelphia – he helped elect Greg Yorgey-Girdy, who, in 2021, became the city’s first elected gay Black judge.
Bordelon got into politics as a journalist, working as managing editor of Broad Street Media before earning a master’s in public administration at Penn and launching his own consultancy, Norris Strategies. In 2020, Bordelon marshaled the Michigan AFL-CIO’s membership to elect Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and chalked up numerous wins as communications chief of 314 Action.
He also founded Agenda PAC, whose 2022 fundraising yielded $250,000 to counter anti-LGBTQ+ candidates. “I’m fortunate to have seen actual change through who I’ve been able to help elect,” Bordelon said.
Handling mergers and acquisitions at Jones Day, Zachary Brecheisen combines an engineer’s eye for detail with the team energy of a quarterback (his metaphor; Brecheisen favors sports analogies).
“Everybody wins,” he explained of why he loves his area of law. “Ultimately, somebody walks away with a big pot of money, and somebody walks away with a company they think they can run better. I like building consensus.”
Brecheisen, 38, grew up in North Carolina and originally followed his father into engineering. But after a few years, he was restless and enrolled in law school at Penn State. Looking for “potential synergies” with his engineering background, Brecheisen worked at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
At Jones Day, he thought he’d litigate oil and gas cases. But mergers and acquisitions “appealed to the engineer in me – the process-oriented aspects,” he explained. Over a decade, Brecheisen, now a partner, has worked on more than $10 billion in deals, including this year’s $7 billion sale of Evoqua Water.
He also brings his firm and his community together around LGBTQ+ initiatives. A member of the National LGBTQ+ Bar Association, Brecheisen co-chairs his firm’s LGBTQ+ affinity group and, in 2015, helped make Jones Day the first major law firm to march in Pittsburgh’s Pride Parade. “We’ve made that an annual event,” he said with, well, pride. “It’s a really important DEI initiative that everyone looks forward to.”
After serving two terms in the New Hampshire House of Representatives, where he was Democratic Whip, Michael Brunelle realized he’d rather make change behind the scenes.
During seven years working alongside then-Gov. Tom Wolf, “It was always about Tom Wolf, not about me,” Brunelle recalled. “When I resigned, state Sen. Jake Corman said, ‘90% of the people of Pennsylvania don’t know who he is – and that is why he was good at his job.’ It’s a very deliberate approach to my career.”
Brunelle currently deploys his quietly effective style at GSL Public Strategies Group, where he helped the firm expand into government relations and directs its state and local government consulting practice.
He draws on a wealth of public and private sector experience – most recently at Amazon, where he managed U.S. political affairs. Helping develop the company’s national strategy “was a major learning experience,” Brunelle recalled. “How to create something from nothing. How to scale up, be nimble and innovative.”
Many of those skills were in evidence during his years in Harrisburg. As chief of staff, Brunelle worked alongside Wolf on a farm bill, the health marketplace expansion and Pennsylvania’s COVID-19 response (“a once-in-a-lifetime experience, trying to help save lives,” he recalls).
With a young daughter, Brunelle, 39, now views policy through the lens of parenthood. “Everything I do, every day, is to make the world a little bit better for her,” he said.
You might think that at 27, Austin Cawley is a little young to identify with the senior care providers he represents at LeadingAge PA, where he is director of legislative affairs. But Cawley watched his own family’s 10-year struggle with his grandmother’s Alzheimer’s – and he knows aging touches every generation.
“When someone is sick, it’s the whole family that’s impacted,” he noted.
On behalf of nursing home providers, Cawley led LeadingAge’s recent efforts to secure nearly $300 million in Medicaid reimbursement, as well as an additional $16 million for long-term care facilities in this year’s state budget. He works closely with Pennsylvania’s Department of Education to expand training and has lobbied for apprenticeship reform to address the commonwealth’s health care labor shortage.
Constituent services and policy have been twin passions for Cawley ever since he interned with then-Republican House Whip Bryan Cutler while attending Millersville University. His front-row seat at the legislature opened Cawley’s eyes to “all the unsung heroes – the people who make the system work behind the scenes,” Cawley said.
Now he’s one of those people. The Lehigh Valley native directed government affairs at Associated Builders and Contractors of Pennsylvania before joining LeadingAge in 2021. “Learning in this role, it’s constant,” Cawley said of his fast-growing industry. “I never thought I’d be in aging services. But everyone deserves to age with dignity.”
In Pennsylvania’s policy world, Jane Clements is practically synonymous with Feeding Pennsylvania, the influential nutrition nonprofit she headed for nearly a decade. But even as she’s transitioned to lobbying and expanded her sphere of influence, Clements makes it clear: She remains heavily involved with the commonwealth’s nonprofit and agricultural scenes.
“My strength is connecting the right people to move things forward that I truly believe in,” reflected Clements, who, as of April, is vice president of state government affairs at Commonwealth Strategic Partners.
The Harrisburg heavyweight was a logical recruit when Commonwealth sought to open an office in the capital. “Feeding Pennsylvania was stable and doing well,” reflected Clements of the organization she grew from a $220,000 operation to a $45 million enterprise – and continues to work with. “This was an opportunity to build something.”
The Luzerne County native, 38, draws on her experience managing public relations, fundraising and advocacy at Feeding Pennsylvania. During the COVID-19 emergency, Clements was the chief conduit between the state’s public agencies and food banks. She also built an industry coalition that secured increased state funding for the Pennsylvania Agricultural Surplus System – from $1.5 million in 2020 to $5.5 million in the current budget.
“There’s a lot of great things happening in Pennsylvania,” observed Clements. Her new role “lifts that message up to the people writing policy, supporting constituents and giving them resources to do even more good.”
A string of lucky breaks at critical junctures propelled Erinn Corbett-Wright into a satisfying nonprofit career. The onetime “kid from the Mantua section of West Philadelphia,” as she describes herself, has devoted her career to ensuring others have similar opportunities.
“I sought a career in philanthropy because I have benefited from the sector,” explained Corbett-Wright, now head of workforce development philanthropy at Salesforce. Her first stroke of luck was earning a scholarship to the Agnes Irwin School, where she realized “that everyone has the potential to succeed if they are given access.”
At Temple University, she was “enamored” with the inspirational public service messages she heard in former Mayor John Street’s urban policy class. But a stint as a legislative assistant convinced Corbett-Wright she’d rather make change behind the scenes.
In a dual policy and grantmaking role at the Pew Charitable Trusts, her work resulted in $33 million for Philadelphia’s Rainy Day Fund. At Salesforce, she oversees a $5 million grantmaking portfolio.
Still, Corbett-Wright was troubled by the paucity of “culturally competent support” in high-level philanthropic circles. That led her to launch her own consultancy, Ethos Advisory Services, to advise the city’s social impact sector on inclusive practices.
“Coming from a community whose voices are not at the decision-making tables,” Corbett-Wright said, “helps me to create space for those voices to participate in the conversation.”
“From the foster house to the White House” is how Shavonnia Corbin-Johnson describes her journey.
It could be the title of her future memoir, but Corbin-Johnson, 32, has plenty of chapters yet to write. She grew up poor in York County, bouncing between relatives and foster families before her grandmother took her in. The pair made a ritual of voting: “She grew up in the segregated South and always said, ‘Make sure your voice is heard,’” Corbin-Johnson recalled. “I’d grown up feeling like I never had a voice. That clicked.”
Corbin-Johnson became the first in her family to attend college, earning foreign policy degrees from Georgetown and George Washington universities. By age 26, she ran for Congress; a few years later, while working for Sen. Bob Casey, Corbin-Johnson got a call from the White House, inviting her to serve as then-President Barack Obama’s deputy chief of staff.
“I thought it was a prank call,” she recalls with a laugh, but it was real: At the Office of Management and Budget, Corbin-Johnson helped manage a $3.1 trillion budget and weighed in on matters “from ISIS and Ebola to the D.C. metro.”
Back in Pennsylvania, Corbin-Johnson served as political director for the state Democratic Party, expanding regional activity and spearheading outreach to key constituencies. She left after the 2022 election to become state director at The Impact Project, which supports nonprofits dedicated to democracy and voting rights.
“People still need help,” Corbin-Johnson explained. And as always, there’s another election.
Heidi Crikelair’s first experience with the law made a lasting impression. Her Chester County family hired an attorney to organize legal guardianship for Crikelair’s 18-year-old sister, who was severely brain-injured after being struck by lightning.
“It made me realize that lawyers actually help people,” recalled Crikelair, then 19 and now a partner in the Philadelphia office of Blank Rome. “That having this degree enables you to do things other people can’t do.”
Ever practical, she took the LSAT but decided she’d only go to law school if she got into a top institution. Crikelair did, graduating from NYU and interning at the White House before falling in love with the intellectual variety of litigation.
“You constantly have to learn, to immerse yourself in your client’s world,” explained Crikelair, 34. “If you’ve got a client who makes widgets, you have to know a lot about widgets.”
At Blank Rome, Crikelair was part of the high-profile team that successfully represented Johnson & Johnson in a nationally watched trial over products linked to cancer. She received a Pro Bono Hero award for her work on behalf of Philadelphia families facing eviction, and more recently worked on an asylum application for an Afghan refugee.
“I recognize that when you pass the bar, that comes with privilege,” Crikelair reflected. “It all goes back to that first interaction with a lawyer – someone who came alongside my family in a horrible situation, and was able to help.”
Blayre Holmes Davis has been a community advocate since childhood – when, as the daughter of two Western Pennsylvania pastors, “it was always community service day for us,” she said, recalling church clean-ups and food distributions.
Since January, Davis’ community includes the entire commonwealth: She became the Second Lady of Pennsylvania when her husband, Austin Davis, was elected the state’s first Black lieutenant governor.
Davis is also the longtime director of community relations for the Pittsburgh Steelers, where she coordinated more than 100 events last year, connecting players with their fans and neighbors. She is especially proud of creating the team’s Social Justice Fund, which has invested $2 million in local organizations since 2018.
Throughout her career, Davis, 34, has been motivated by ensuring “that young women, especially young Black girls, know they have a voice and feel empowered – and that traditionally underrepresented communities feel heard and feel seen.” At Adagio Health, where she previously directed advocacy and outreach, Davis helped open offices focusing on women’s health and organized pop-up reproductive health clinics.
Having a daughter this year has only deepened Davis’ commitment to the issues she has long held dear. As Second Lady, “it’s just great to have a bigger platform to talk about these issues,” she reflected, “and to highlight the organizations that have been doing the work for so long.”
Kate Ellison knows that for a lot of people, health care is the top political issue – “including for me,” she noted. Ellison, UPMC’s senior manager for government advocacy and communications, says that representing Western Pennsylvania’s storied health system through the COVID-19 pandemic only deepened her commitment: “I realized the work I’m doing is helping the people who are actually saving lives.”
Ellison’s relationship with UPMC goes back nearly a decade, to when the Mercer County native began her lobbying career with The Bravo Group – and the health system was her main client. She first got interested in politics in college, when her aunt and uncle encouraged her to intern at their workplace, the U.S. Secret Service. “I just loved that environment – the Air Force One departures and presidential speeches,” she recalled.
Today, Ellison’s work is less international, but arguably no less dynamic. She recently secured state grants totaling nearly $3 million for UPMC’s capital programs; she also brings her English-major finesse to UPMC’s internal communications. “We have 90,000 employees who are potentially ambassadors for the brand, so it’s important they know where we stand on key issues,” noted Ellison, who recently earned a master’s in public policy from the University of Pittsburgh.
After all, Ellison knows the satisfaction that comes from a meaningful job. “As a millennial, I want to know that the place I work is aligned with my values,” she said.
The daughter of a child refugee from Nicaragua’s devastating civil conflict, Signe Espinoza always felt called to social justice. Her direction crystallized when she had an abortion as a student at the University of Oregon.
Now 30, Espinoza heads Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania Advocates, the lobbying arm of the storied reproductive health organization. “I wanted to give back in an area that meant a lot to me – to do something that had impact,” explained the Philadelphia native.
This year, Espinoza celebrated a long-awaited policy win – the end of state funding for self-described crisis pregnancy centers. But PPPA, which Espinoza joined four years ago, still faces headwinds: While there were nearly 150 providers statewide in the 1970s, there are now just 18.
Her new role as parent to a baby daughter lends resonance to Espinoza’s commitment. One of her proudest moments was delivering the commencement speech at her 2019 master’s graduation from Drexel University Dornsife School of Public Health. “Only 4% of Latinas get a master’s degree,” she noted. “To be part of that 4%, I don’t take that lightly.”
As she retools her organization in a post-Roe landscape, Espinoza is focused on the state Supreme Court race. Bringing her lived experience to the work “has made it really clear that this isn’t just a job,” she said. “For me, this feels like more of a calling.”
At KieranTimberlake – the architectural firm behind Philadelphia’s marquee Dilworth Park – Huwayda Fakhry oversees strategy and communications for the projects that shape an evolving cityscape.
Fakhry, a Montgomery County native, is herself an architect. While studying journalism at Temple, she realized her interest lay not in reporting per se, but in telling the stories of the structures that inspired her. “Architecture is comprehensive of so much knowledge and so many areas of design, not just buildings,” she explained.
At KieranTimberlake, Fakhry promotes projects like Philadelphia’s first-ever net-zero-emissions structure – a pavilion that will overlay I-95 on the Delaware River. She is also leading strategy around the firm’s development of Berkeley’s second-tallest building, a University of California student residence.
Public projects like these appeal to Fakhry, a UCLA architecture graduate who previously worked at a boutique Santa Monica firm. While beautiful, the outfit’s high-end developments “were not accessible to most,” explained Fakhry, 38. “I was interested in projects that could be experienced by more people, and subsequently have more impact.”
Back in her native Philly, Fakhry serves on the executive board at Fleisher Art Memorial, a 125-year-old nonprofit arts organization. It’s another way of engaging with the community aesthetics that have long captivated her. “I was always less interested in the details, and more interested in how people express their ideas with images,” she related. “How do we tell this story – and why does it matter?”
When Long Nyquist lobbyist John Gower recalls his first encounter with the state budget process, he sounds as jazzed as a Swiftie who scored Eras Tour tickets. “I got a first-hand view from the Senate leadership office,” enthused Gower, 27, of his college internship with state Sen. Joe Scarnati. “I got to watch so many meetings and see so many things at a young age.”
Gower – now a lobbyist and government consultant – is obviously still young, with a passion for politics that dates to high school in Luzerne County. He became involved with College Republicans at Lock Haven University, eventually serving as executive director of the Pennsylvania Federation of College Republicans.
Gower’s facility with clients owes in part to skills gleaned as deputy district director for U.S. Rep. Dan Meuser, when he worked on constituent issues across nine northeastern counties. At Long Nyquist, he put that experience to work on behalf of People’s Gas, helping pass the Energy Choice bill. He has also worked on skill game regulation, a priority for the Long Nyquist client Pace-O-Matic, which produces wagering games.
“Harrisburg is about relationships – about earning people’s trust and respect,” observed Gower. “You meet new people throughout the Capitol every day. And you develop a level of comfort that allows you to know who to go to on specific issues.”
Last year, when the Pennsylvania legislature enacted the most significant business tax reform in a generation, nobody was more jubilant than Alex Halper. “This was literally decades in the making,” said Halper, who had a significant hand in the accomplishment as government affairs chief for the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry.
The Allentown native lobbies on behalf of 10,000 members in the commonwealth’s largest business advocacy group. Married to his high school sweetheart, Halper is a tireless booster for the potential of his vast, diverse home state: “We’ve got such amazing businesses and regions and local chambers of commerce, and people who just feel very passionately about their communities.”
One of those was Halper’s own mother, who worked for a member of Congress and inspired his interest in politics. After earning a political science degree at George Washington University, Halper spent five years learning policy as an aide to the late Sen. Arlen Specter.
At the chamber, which he joined in 2011, Halper is building on bipartisan momentum to further improve the state’s business tax structure. He recently served on Gov. Josh Shapiro’s transition team, and he is now working with the administration to streamline permitting and licensing processes and to address the labor shortage through workforce initiatives.
“To be able to serve in this role – connecting businesses, communities and their representatives in Harrisburg – it’s fun and a real privilege,” noted Halper.
At 30, Sarah Hammond has run for office several times, and she won’t rule out a future run. But for now, Hammond has found her groove as legislative director of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, representing 700,000 union members in locals across all 67 counties.
“My way of reaching out to folks today is very similar to the campaign trail,” explained the Hanover native. “Having those conversations, hearing people’s concerns, finding common ground – and translating that into policy solutions.”
Hammond’s social consciousness was forged in middle school during the Great Recession, when her father’s lumber industry suffered a downturn and local sawmills shuttered. She worked multiple jobs while earning a communications degree at Slippery Rock University and, after graduation, was a machine operator at a garment factory.
She also got involved with the Pennsylvania Young Democrats. Workers’ rights were front and center in her campaigns for the state legislature – which she calls “a steep learning curve” – and Congress. At the AFL-CIO, “I’m working on the same core issues I’ve run on my entire career,” Hammond reflected. She’s especially proud of helming the union’s campaign to extend OSHA protections to 600,000 public employees statewide, a long-stalled measure that recently passed the House of Representatives.
“It’s about the moral compass of putting working people first,” said Hammond of her motivation. “Everything I do comes back to my community – to the 717.”
When former Philadelphia City Councilmember Cherelle Parker called Sinceré Harris last year, asking her to run Parker’s mayoral campaign, “everybody thought I was crazy for accepting,” recalled Harris, who at the time worked at the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs. “Now they think I’m a genius.”
That genius was evident when Harris’ efforts helped catapult Parker to the Democratic nomination, thus positioning her to become the city’s first Black female mayor.
Harris, 39, grew up in a socially conscious Philadelphia family and was drawn to politics early “as a way of having a seat at the table.” Initially set on a business career – she earned an MBA from Penn State – Harris was eventually hired as the Southeast Pennsylvania political director for Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign. She held the same role for Tom Wolf’s 2014 successful gubernatorial campaign, helping notch a historic defeat of an incumbent.
Tapped to run the state’s Democratic party, Harris next engineered sweeping wins in the 2016 and 2018 elections – flipping four congressional seats, sweeping judicial races and securing council majorities in Philadelphia’s strategic suburbs.
Then it was off to Washington, where Harris was a senior adviser for Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign before joining the White House. But when Parker called, Harris couldn’t resist her roots. “I’m a Philly girl,” she laughed. “I couldn’t sit in D.C. when I had the opportunity to help this city realize its potential.”
At the General Building Contractors Association, government affairs chief Erin Dwyer Harvard advocates for constructing not only buildings but also relationships – and a more inclusive society.
“Philadelphia is a majority-minority city – and 50% women,” said Harvard of her hometown. “That our workforce doesn’t reflect this is a disservice to our city. So it’s been rewarding to get more women and people of color into this space.”
Harvard steers GBCA collaborations on diversity initiatives like Everybody Builds and the Carpenters Apprentice Ready Program. She also raised the highest-ever amount in the history of GBCA’s PAC, which contributed significantly to the Democratic primary victory of Philadelphia mayoral candidate Cherelle Parker.
Harvard got her political start as a Philadelphia City Council intern while studying political science at Temple, from which she also earned a master’s in public policy. She headed communications for a City Council member before returning to Temple to coordinate its internship program.
At GBCA, Harvard is working with a union, business and policy coalition to update century-old legislation around the contractor bidding process. And she remains committed to mentoring fellow Temple graduates. “Whether it’s through internships or good legislation,” Harvard said, “I’m trying to make sure the people coming behind me are getting better opportunities than I got. More than any policy, that’s my favorite accomplishment.”
As an award-winning television journalist, Eric Heisler chased stories around the world, from nonprofits in Cameroon to a Penn State athletics tour of Ireland.
But since 2021, Heisler has told a compelling story much closer to home. As communications director for the Pennsylvania Health Care Association, he has been the voice of the commonwealth’s senior and long-term care providers as the industry has come under pandemic-related scrutiny.
“It’s been a privilege to amplify the positive things providers are doing, showing they are valuable assets to all our communities,” reflected Heisler, 38.
The Philadelphia native was certainly in a position to, as he put it, “change the narrative around senior care.” He’d earned 11 regional Emmy awards and honors from the Associated Press over a decade-long journalism career. Once his kids came along, Heisler traded chasing news for communications roles closer to home.
At the PHCA, he helped lead a campaign that was instrumental in securing the state’s first Medicaid reimbursement increase in a decade. Heisler also organized the association’s recent Workforce Summit, convening stakeholders to address the health labor shortage. He’s currently working on an initiative to engage students in health careers, bolstering the professional pipeline.
One way or another, Heisler remains a communicator – “helping make an impact within the community,” he said, “or telling a story that needs to be heard.”
Ten years ago, then-25-year-old Kevin Juliano was recruited to the Pennsylvania Association of Realtors to work on social media. “They needed somebody younger who understood this thing,” he recalled with a laugh.
As it turns out, Juliano understood not only digital media but also the kind of strategy that grows an august organization into a dynamic statewide community. Now the PAR’s chief growth officer, Juliano oversees a membership that has grown by one-third over the past decade and leads a technology strategy that includes data collection, communication platforms and marketing.
To engage his fellow Realtors – especially during the pandemic – Juliano launched a webinar series that attracted 5,000 users in a recent month, growing association involvement exponentially. “We realized we needed to meet our members where they are,” explained Juliano.
The central Pennsylvania native studied communications at Elizabethtown College before serving as communications director for the Pennsylvania Breast Cancer Coalition, where he worked on landmark legislation mandating screening coverage for dense breasts. “Seeing how lobbying makes a bill become a law helped me understand how organizations can make a difference and play a role in government,” Juliano observed.
At the association, Juliano also brings his policy chops to issues like promoting more housing options throughout the commonwealth. “I’ve worked with our advocacy team to highlight the importance of housing attainability and small businesses to the commonwealth,” he noted.
Penn Community Bank’s motto is “Here We Grow” – and Michael Kirschman knows his employer really means it. Over a decade at the bank, Kirschman has cultivated community – including by helping spearhead the LGBTQ+ employee resource group and serving as a new hire liaison – while cultivating his own potential through educational opportunity (he recently earned a business degree).
“Other places might have said, ‘Well, we want to see a college degree,’” said Kirschman, who earned an associate’s degree from Bucks County Community College through a PCB career-training partnership. “Penn always said, ‘Grow with us.’ It feels really good to work at a place that sees your potential.”
Kirschman, a 33-year-old Quakertown native, says he “fell into banking” after high school. He worked his way up through Penn’s retail branches as well as training, development and operations roles. He is now the bank’s customer success manager and, for the past two years, has served as team captain for the bank’s annual Day of Service, which sends employees to volunteer with local organizations.
Kirschman is especially proud of his role on PCB’s Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Council and co-leading its LGBTQ+ Employee Resource Group. “It’s just a very free environment to learn and grow,” he reflected, a philosophy carried over from his customer service approach: “In community banking, we treat everyone who walks in the door with the same love and respect, no matter who they are.”
Born with confidence and inspired by Gregory Peck’s character in “To Kill A Mockingbird,” Michael Komo knew from childhood that he’d be a lawyer and fight for social justice.
Thanks to “Will and Grace,” he also knew he was gay. At 11, Komo started his school’s gay-straight alliance. At the Erie high school where he was valedictorian, he pioneered prom inclusivity by bringing his boyfriend. And as an attorney at K&L Gates, Komo founded the Pittsburgh LGBTQ+ Employee Resource Group and the firm’s LGBTQ+ subcommittee.
“I’ve always wanted to make institutional change,” he reflected. “Thinking about LGBTQ youth and the world they deserve to live in – that drives almost everything I do.”
Komo also spearheaded his firm’s anti-human trafficking initiative – a pro bono partnership with the FBI – and was part of the team that won Texas’ first revenge-porn lawsuit. He’s a founding member of the Pittsburgh Legal Diversity and Inclusion Coalition and chair emeritus of the Allegheny County Bar Association’s LGBTQ Rights Committee.
But Komo aspires to broader social change – which is why, after the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting, this opera lover co-founded Pittsburgh’s Sports Pride Night series, annual LGBTQ-themed fundraisers in partnership with the Penguins, Pirates and Riverhounds.
“I don’t want to be in an echo chamber,” Komo explained. “In Pittsburgh, sports is the currency.” Pride Nights “have become part of the fabric of our community,” he added – just like gay couples at prom.
Thomas Kutz’s political career launched in third grade, when he ran for student council. The following year, after watching Marine One land at Hershey Park for a presidential rally, Kutz stepped up his networking, initiating a correspondence with then-President George W. Bush.
Nobody who knew him then was surprised last year, when Kutz graduated from law school, passed the bar, got married and was elected to the General Assembly – all by age 28.
In his first year representing Cumberland County, Kutz championed a series of bills aimed at providing relief for home buyers and convened a roundtable to address human trafficking. “If I can do some little thing to make people’s lives easier, that’s the most rewarding thing,” he explained.
For the past three years, Kutz has co-chaired the Pennsylvania Young Republicans. He was also elected to the Lower Allen Township Commission in 2019, serving while in law school and juggling a full-time role as policy director for the Pennsylvania State Senate.
If all this is evidence of what millennial energy can accomplish, Kutz makes a good case for the young people he engages as co-chair of the Pennsylvania Future Caucus. “Every generation should be involved,” he opined. “And what better way to make sure the community is great than having someone who wants to live here not just (for) the next four, but also the next 40 years?”
As trillions of dollars flow from federal coffers into infrastructure jobs, Nikkilia Lu is dedicated to ensuring women and minorities get a piece of the proverbial pie.
“We’re in this incredible moment,” said Lu, the Pittsburgh-based chief of staff at the U.S. Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau, a century-old agency championing women in the workforce. “We have the opportunity to leverage these massive investments to net people who have traditionally been left out of these high-paying jobs – women and people of color.”
In the past year, Lu has celebrated milestone community and regional grants for women’s workforce participation, like $1.4 million for Chicago’s Tradeswomen Building Infrastructure Initiative. She works closely with Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey to “center gender equity and worker voices” at that city’s newly announced White House Workforce Innovation Hub.
The daughter of a Vietnamese refugee who worked in Ohio factories, Lu studied political science and public administration at Washington and Jefferson University and the University of Pittsburgh. After a stint as SEIU’s Western Pennsylvania political director, she worked for the Biden presidential campaign; last year, she returned to the campaign trail as Vice President Kamala Harris’ White House midterm travel detail.
At 34, Lu is finally seeing the change she’d hoped for as a young progressive activist. “I didn’t see a lot of young women or people of color in politics,” she noted. “I really wanted to change that.”
When Amal Mahrouki first arrived at the Capitol to lobby for the American Institute of Architects of Pennsylvania, she discovered that Harrisburg policymakers were largely unaware of the organization.
Mahrouki, AIA PA’s director of legislative affairs since 2017, realized she needed to start with her 3,000 members – architects who were largely disengaged from politics. “We had a lot of work to do highlighting the importance of advocacy, of knowing your legislators,” said Mahrouki, 35.
Fortunately, she knew how to get their attention. The Camp Hill native trained in theater, “which has a lot of transferable skills to politics and lobbying,” she pointed out. “Getting up in front of people, articulating a script, making people understand your perspective.”
As an actress, Mahrouki was constantly told she was too young for roles she wanted to play. But at AIA, she’s found a receptive audience for her initiatives – like August’s District Days – connecting members with their legislators. She’s also led state efforts to modernize building codes and formalize the field’s continuing education standards.
“The client needs a bill to pass, but that’s so fleeting,” observed Mahrouki. “The benefit of being an association lobbyist is getting to look at my work long-term.”
The stage is also a long-term commitment. As executive director of Harrisburg’s Bare Bones Theatre Ensemble, Mahrouki recently played Mrs. Robinson in a production of “The Graduate.” “I might still be a little young for that,” she joked.
At 26, Sydney Miller has already had more careers than many people twice her age.
She is a military veteran as well as USOA Miss Pennsylvania 2023, having won this year’s United States of America state pageant. She’s a full-time lobbyist with the Ridge Policy Group. And during the pandemic, she created the “Success through Savings” financial planning platform, using her pageant soapbox to promote women’s economic empowerment.
Miller credits her maturity and focus in part to an early stint in the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. At 17, the Wayne County native enlisted and deployed to Poland on a deterrence mission. “They built me physically and mentally tough for any situation,” recalled Miller. “I learned how to work with a team, how not to give up.”
That determination helped her earn a political science degree from Lock Haven University and go into public affairs. At Ridge, Miller specializes in juvenile and criminal justice issues; she’s currently working on a measure allowing youths to speed up parole hearings by earning education credits.
An ardent couponer, Miller – a 2022 graduate of Harrisburg’s Emerging Philanthropist Program – teaches “Success through Savings” budgeting workshops. She’s also a leader with Harrisburg Young Professionals, and is grateful for the myriad opportunities that lobbying affords. “Even though I’m not writing a bill or putting in amendments,” Miller said, “I’m still making a difference to the companies I work with.”
No job is ever just a job for David Misner, who gets personally invested in everything he does.
Growing up in Shippensburg, he wanted to communicate with his Spanish-speaking neighbors. He ended up in Madrid for college, moved briefly to Chile and now writes for La Voz Latina Central, a Spanish-language journal.
After interning at the Australian embassy, he moved to Sydney for graduate school. When he decided to invest in property this year, he became a Realtor himself.
And as external affairs manager for Pennsylvania American Water, Misner, 36, loves joining volunteers to get their hands dirty planting trees on local riverbanks. “We’re all living in this environment together. We all share a watershed,” explained Misner, who also coordinates the water utility’s environmental grant program.
Now, after a career that took him around the world, Misner is happily devoted to the resources – natural and otherwise – that make Central Pennsylvania “such a great place to live,” in his own words.
Case in point is his involvement with the Capital Area Greenbelt Association, where he serves on the board. “When I was living in Harrisburg, I’d walk my dog on the Greenbelt every day,” he said. “It’s not a path that’s just there magically. There are companies giving dollars, volunteers giving their time, to make this a community resource that we can all enjoy.”
For any young lawyer, serving as zoning counsel for some of Philadelphia’s largest and most ambitious development projects would be a thrill.
But for real estate development attorney Katherine Missimer, it’s an especially resonant achievement. “The fact that there haven’t been women involved at that level previously – it’s been very rewarding,” she said.
Last year, Missimer was elected as the first female partner in the Zoning and Land Use Group at Klehr Harrison Harvey Branzburg. She is also one of few women partners practicing this area of law in the Delaware Valley, though she hopes to change that through her work with the Pipeline Real Estate Network of Women.
Among Missimer’s recent projects is a 1,000-apartment Post Brothers mixed-use development near City Hall, as well as Hilco’s Bellwether District, Philadelphia’s largest-ever development project for industrial and life sciences. Missimer is particularly excited about her work on the proposed 76ers arena in Center City, which she calls “a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
The 39-year-old West Chester native enjoys driving her two young sons around Philadelphia, pointing out projects she’s worked on. “I think it’s important to show my boys that my career is just as important” as a man’s, she noted. “It’s nice to see a change in the city skyline that you’ve helped bring about. And selfishly, as a sports fan, I love saying I’m working on that new arena.”
“When I was a kid, I talked a lot. Like, a lot, a lot,” recalled Geoffrey Mock with a laugh. All that talking convinced his South Jersey family he’d be a politician – and he agreed: “I knew I’d be president one day.”
After studying political science at Kutztown University, Mock went to law school because he figured that’s what presidents did. In the end, however, he found his political home in lobbying; he is now director of government relations at Lehigh University. “I realized that although I can be passionate from behind the legislative desk, there’s just so much more outreach you can have in an advocacy role,” Mock explained.
That realization came when, as legislative director for state Sen. Christine Tartaglione, Mock was galvanized by the grassroots fight for a higher state minimum wage. His natural gregariousness came in handy years later, when he was a broke Widener University law student, “trying to forge relationships from thin air and handing everyone my résumé,” Mock recalled.
At Lehigh, Mock has successfully lobbied for increased state funding to help students from economically challenged backgrounds. “I always realize many don’t have the kind of privilege I grew up with – an athletic scholarship, a supportive family, the ability to go to college,” he reflected. “Real change comes from advocacy.”
When you grow up in Central Pennsylvania, as attorney and lobbyist Sarah Moreland did, politics is part of the landscape – and the Capitol is just a field trip away.
But it wasn’t until she took a job at the state House of Representatives that Moreland appreciated what makes Pennsylvania “unique – there’s so much local control,” she reflected. Having previously worked as an election clerk in her native Dauphin County, Moreland concentrated on local government at the House while studying at Widener Law School.
Last year, she joined the regulatory and government affairs practice group at the law firm of Saxton & Stump. A one-time business major at Shippensburg University, Moreland gravitated toward finance and tax law and often works on cases involving taxation, licensing, gaming and utilities. “I enjoyed channeling my experience in the House to get good outcomes for our clients,” she said.
Moreland did that recently when her efforts yielded House passage of legislation reforming state licensing disciplinary proceedings. In addition to her various other efforts to improve educational offerings in her specialty, she has held trainings on budget and tax code changes for Pennsylvania accountants.
“In order to be effective in this space, you need to engage in the community with like-minded individuals,” Moreland reflected. “That way, you make the right contacts to move the ball forward.”
For Monica Naim, Cisco isn’t just the company where she’s worked for the past decade. Cisco is “my community, my family, my life,” said Naim, 33.
That might seem surprising until you learn that Naim grew up with precious little community or family. The daughter of an abusive father and a mother with substance addiction, Naim bounced between foster homes and a juvenile holding facility. “My entire life, I was told I was never going to be anything,” she said. “And when you’re told that, you just want to be something.”
On her own at 16, Naim earned her GED and worked her way through community college. She was drawn to technology, and after completing a training program, was recruited to Cisco.
One night, she got the news she’d been expecting all her life: Her mother had overdosed and died. “The first person I called was a colleague at Cisco,” said Naim. Twenty coworkers took the day off to accompany Naim to the funeral; shortly thereafter, the colleague who’d answered the phone walked Naim down the aisle at her wedding.
At Cisco, Naim oversees an East Coast sales team with $130 million in revenue and leads the company’s Global Collaboration Sales Organization Diversity and Inclusion effort. She also volunteers with Covenant House Pennsylvania and ElevateHer Alumni Tech for Good. “I was given a chance, and I just want to get someone else that chance,” Naim explained. “Purpose is our greatest gift in life.”
As a young educator with the Fulbright organization in Colombia and Teach for America in Camden, Danielle Okai realized: “There’s so much potential in all of us,” she recalled. While teaching wasn’t an ideal fit, she knew she wanted to be “a part of helping people realize who they are – empowering them to fulfill their dreams.”
She found that opportunity in government. Currently Pennsylvania’s deputy chief of staff for economic development, Okai, 34, has helped fellow Americans pursue their potential in a series of leadership roles at the White House as well as in Harrisburg.
As the daughter of Liberian immigrants, it’s a mission Okai doesn’t take lightly. Her mother, a teacher, “always talked about education and how it changed the trajectory of her life,” recalled Okai of her public-service role model.
While volunteering with a nonprofit, the Connecticut native got involved with former Gov. Tom Wolf’s 2018 reelection campaign, which led to jobs in his administration – including as executive director of the Pennsylvania Commission for Women. Okai next served as political chief of staff for President Joe Biden’s 2020 campaign and worked on his transition team. At the White House, she held leadership roles in candidate recruitment and public engagement before joining the Shapiro administration.
“I always felt politics is really about bringing people together,” Okai observed. “Whether electing someone or supporting a particular initiative, we’re creating coalitions to achieve a goal.”
At heart, Natalie Parker is a communicator. Sometimes it’s about democracy, which she promotes as lead researcher for the nonprofit Better Civics. By day, it’s about finance, which she parses for clients at Glenmede Trust Company, the private investment management firm where she works on the endowment and foundation investments team.
“I’m a generalist,” explained Parker, “one of those folks who really likes to learn.” That enthusiasm dates to her high school debate team in Kansas, where Parker learned about all manner of political and social topics – and practiced effective communication before diverse audiences. “I use those skills every single day,” she said.
At the University of Kansas, the grassroots exercise of student council “lit a fire in me for super-local government,” Parker recalled. She volunteered on campaigns and interned at the U.S. State Department and the Center for American Progress before earning a master’s in public administration at Penn’s Fels Institute of Government.
In Philadelphia, Parker transitioned into finance. She worked in the city’s budget office and later was a budget analyst at Penn, where she handled a $230 million portfolio.
Her political work continues at Better Civics, a seven-year-old Philly-based organization where she works on local voter guides (currently, it’s for the mayoral election). “There are so many ways to be involved with the issues; you don’t necessarily have to be the person running, or work for a campaign,” Parker reflected. “There’s room out there for everyone.”
A champion of broadband access across rural Pennsylvania, Nate Regotti originally started his career in another medium: radio. Having interviewed state Rep. Pam Snyder on the air, the recent college graduate impulsively applied for a communications job at her office – “and absolutely fell in love with government service,” recalled Regotti, now 31.
Since June, he has served as the Pittsburgh-based lobbyist for McNees Strategic Solutions Group, a Harrisburg-based firm where he works to bring services and opportunity to southwestern Pennsylvania. “I live in the shadow of steel mills, coal mines,” Regotti explained. “Helping these rural, old industrial areas to reach the next step in their economic journey is a passion of mine.”
Originally from Westmoreland County, Regotti worked alongside Snyder for eight years at the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, serving as executive director for the Southwest Democratic delegation. The onetime Waynesburg University communications major shared Snyder’s passion for broadband connectivity; after her retirement, Regotti carried on her legacy at Comcast, where he was senior manager for government and regulatory affairs for the Keystone region.
Regotti still works with Comcast, as well as local businesses, agencies and municipalities throughout the Ohio River Valley. “My heart is in these communities,” he affirmed. “These are my neighbors – and I’m on the ground making sure they have what they need.”
As a young bank teller, Jay Reyes saw “multiple instances of people getting scammed,” he recalled. Seeing injustice solidified his goal: “I knew I wanted to be in fraud and security.”
Today, Reyes, 28, is a watchdog for misdoings and a guardian of financial uprightness at Belco Community Credit Union, where he is a compliance officer. He joined Belco a decade ago, moving into his first fraud and security analyst position a year later. “I just went for it,” he recalled. “I didn’t have any experience, but I was passionate. And they gave me a shot.”
Along the way, while working full-time, Reyes earned a bachelor’s in fraud and financial crime and investigation from Utica University. The more he encountered suspicious activity, the more he sought to increase his regulatory knowledge.
Now a certified financial crimes investigator, Reyes was recently designated by Belco’s board as its Bank Secrecy Act compliance officer. Reyes was also part of a team that implemented the Zelle peer-to-peer platform for credit union members.
Having grown alongside Belco over a decade, Reyes recently embraced another role – as Culture Committee lead, spearheading a company-wide cohesion plan. “It brought me out of my comfort zone,” Reyes admitted. Still, it’s that culture he appreciates: “What I love most is the ability to collaborate, the sense of community – the fact that we’re all working toward a common goal.”
Flo Scott acknowledges her career – in crisis communications – has a paradoxical aspect. “My job is to prevent crises from occurring,” she explained. “So if I’m doing it right, you’ll never hear about the work I do.”
Even so, Scott has earned a reputation for her prowess in navigating the intersection of corporate public relations, regulatory affairs and policy. As vice president for communications at PNC Bank, she serves as liaison to America’s top business and finance reporters and leads PNC’s community management team; she is also involved with the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce.
Scott’s expansive outlook was shaped by her childhood on a Bay Area military base, where her Philippines-born mother served in the U.S. Air Force and her father, a Samoa native, was in the army. “The concept of public service became a North Star for me,” noted Scott.
After beginning her career in California, Scott came east to oversee communications for Coordinated Health (now part of Lehigh Valley Health Network), creating nationally honored campaigns. She next held that role for the Philadelphia International Airport, promulgating travel regulations during the pandemic and working on the 2022 federal operation to receive military-allied Afghan workers.
At PNC, “I prevent the bad stuff from happening so good guys can do their work,” Scott reflected. “A lot of what I do is around making sure that our company’s promise – moving people forward financially – can occur. And that is really empowering.”
He may not twirl a baton, but Michael Stefan has earned a reputation as one of Penn State’s top cheerleaders. As assistant vice president for state relations, Stefan is the Harrisburg linchpin of a team that lobbies for $400 million in annual state funding.
Stefan is himself an alum, having studied business at Penn State before beginning his political career with the House Democratic Campaign Committee. He earned a law degree at night while working as legislative director for the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, and later oversaw government affairs for the state attorney general’s office.
“I was always interested in laws – how they’re made, how they’re enforced, how they adapt over time,” explained Stefan. Knowing the law “makes you look at things differently.”
If his career is any indication, it also makes you quite effective. Since joining Penn State’s Office of Government and Community Relations in 2017, Stefan successfully secured passage of a pension reform bill that will save the university $350 million. He also spearheaded the Timothy Piazza Anti-Hazing Law, as well as last year’s landmark bill making Pennsylvania the first state to allow compensation for the names and likenesses of college athletes.
“When you’re a student, you don’t really recognize the reach of Penn State,” Stefan observed. Back on campus as a lobbyist, he now appreciates “the impact the university has – not just on students, but really on the whole commonwealth.”
“I’m a Pittsburgher. I bleed black and yellow,” Patriece Thompson proudly declares. “I truly love every community in Western Pennsylvania.”
Thompson, 32, has the résumé to prove it. Over five years as director of investor relations with the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, Thompson brought in $1 million in annual revenue, working closely with the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce and serving as racial equity lead. Last year, she brought her expertise to Turner Construction, where, as community and citizenship manager, she leads efforts to diversify the company’s partners and subcontractors as well as its trainees at Turner’s School of Construction Management.
What drew Thompson to Turner was “being able to uplift an industry and change the narrative – getting more folks involved that look like me, as a Black woman,” she said. Throughout her career, Thompson has also advocated for the LGBTQ community and minority- and veteran-owned businesses.
Thompson holds business degrees from California University of Pennsylvania and Point Park University, where she earned an MBA. “I fell in love with the strategy of business – with how the way you run an organization can change the community,” she said.
This year, Thompson was honored as one of 25 Pennsylvanians to serve on Gov. Josh Shapiro’s African American Affairs Commission. “To be a voice, and add resources and assistance specifically to my community, is a humbling experience,” she acknowledged.
Had Ashley Walkowiak not been drugged, raped and stalked at 17, it’s impossible to say how her life might have turned out. But it’s unlikely that she would have become one of Pennsylvania’s most prominent advocates for violence and trauma victims.
Walkowiak, now 38, is the new director of policy, intergovernmental affairs and mediation at the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, the state’s civil rights enforcement agency. The Mechanicsburg native brings a trauma-informed lens honed during five years at the Pennsylvania Office of Victim Advocate. “We got really creative providing services to crime survivors,” she said, citing her work on reforms to parole and statutes of limitation and the counseling she provided to survivors at Bill Cosby’s sentencing.
Walkowiak was the second generation to find a second chance in Harrisburg. Years ago, a work injury forced her father to quit his mechanic job and return to college, which led to a longtime position at the attorney general’s office. It was he who suggested Walkowiak consider a state job when, paralyzed by trauma, she dropped out of college.
She took his advice, kept getting promoted and never returned to school. But Walkowiak did publish a volume of poetry last year, winning the Simply The Best Harrisburg Award for her community readings and trauma workshops.
“There are so many more avenues to discuss things now,” Walkowiak reflected. “Healing comes from promoting those discussions – giving a platform to our experiences, and creating that pathway for others to do the same.”
In 2012, after a professional basketball career in Germany, Thomas Young found himself back where he’d spent his high school years: the living room sofa of his older brother, Ken Lawrence (now Montgomery County’s first African American commissioner).
“Talking it through with him, I realized that at the end of the day, my bottom line is never dollars, it’s always people – helping where I can,” said Young, 36. So he followed his brother, then a Temple University lobbyist, into politics, working on a mayoral campaign and serving as chief of staff to state Rep. Donna Bullock.
This past August, Young made history when he became the first Black president and CEO of the World Trade Center, Philadelphia – a nonprofit global business connector that is one of 323 World Trade Centers in 92 countries. Young leverages relationships honed most recently as a senior associate at Bellevue Strategies, where he helped secure $27 million in state funding for capital projects, worked on procurement opportunities for a minority-business portfolio and served as liaison to the Delaware River Port Authority.
To grow Philadelphia’s status “as an international gateway to the mid-Atlantic,” Young said he’ll draw on lessons from the basketball court: “Understanding it’s all a team effort, that you can’t do it alone,” he said. “That’s how I’m building the coalition at the World Trade Center.”
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