Meet the class of 2021.
Last year, Technical.ly brought you the inaugural RealLIST Connectors, a comprehensive roundup of folks working to build their local tech, entrepreneurship and innovation community by linking others with an eye toward future growth and inclusivity.
That list included around 75 Delaware innovators and the many different initiatives they started and organized, with one common feature: It’s not just about them, but a real investment in their city’s tech and business community, and about leaving it better for future generations. They’re the ones connecting others to help the cycle continue, whether that’s through organizing a meetup, heading an organization or going out of their way to make sure two people know each other.
Unlike our RealLIST Startups and RealLIST Engineers, this list of Connectors builds on the first. The initial list still stands, and this one, only about a quarter of the size, includes nominations from members of the first list, as well as some newsroom picks based on reporting over the last couple of years by Delaware reporter Holly Quinn, with contributions from Editor Julie Zeglen and CEO Chris Wink.
What you see below is a peek into our source book, and a look at some of the hopeful, future-minded work happening in your own backyard.
Jason Aviles and John Naughton
Aviles and Naughton are the founders of mobile juice nonprofit startup Wilmington Green Box, with its outdoor green space and kiosk on Market Street, and the brick-and-mortar Green Box Kitchen and at the DECO food hall in the DuPont Building. Since the very beginning, when it was just a push cart with a cooler used to bring fresh cold press juices into the West Center City food desert, the mission was to support the community, not least of all the youth of the city’s marginalized neighborhoods.
Green Box has a youth workforce development program that employs teens at its locations, and Aviles has been known to look for innovative collaborations to make it as high-impact as possible. The summer of 2019, Green Box collaborated with Strive and Dual School to develop a five-day design thinking-based interactive onboarding process. It’s also collaborated with other local startups like Funderbolt for a crowdfunding campaign.
One big connection win they landed was with Harvest House (now Rosenfeld’s Jewish Delicatessen) and Angela Wagner who contracted with Green Box to sell its juices when it didn’t even have a kitchen of its own. With Wagner eventually joining the team, Green Box would open its popular brick and mortar location.
Beach founded the Developing Artist Collaboration (DAC) in West Rehoboth in 2017 as an entrepreneurial nonprofit that connects artists to opportunities while supporting community development. The organization evolved from its Dewey Sip and Shop events to having four locations where artists from the Beaches can create, connect and find resources. Since the beginning of the pandemic, DAC has helped artists pivot and thrive through its Creative Career Support Program, an intensive career development workshop that gives artists the tools to pivot with professional content creation for marketing and web development.
“Leah and her organization have done a ton of work over the past year trying to keep local artists engaged and sustained during the pandemic,” said her nominator.
If your connection needs involve international trade, Cakiroglu should be in your network. She understands how work environments can differ, having moved to Delaware more than a decade ago from Turkey. She has three master’s degrees from Wilmington University and uses her skills and experience as training and development specialist for World Trade Center Delaware.
“Nesin is the first person anyone meets at World Trade Center Delaware,” said her nominator. “She came to the World Trade Center Delaware as an intern for a year while attending Wilmington University’s graduate College of Business and has never left. Her capabilities and diligence were so outstanding that she was hired to work here while still a student. She advanced to become the director of operations while completing three degrees in business and management. The clock means nothing to Nesrin. She is determined to find exactly the right match for each person who needs international trade services. Nesrin’s generosity extends to all and her cheerful spirit leaves each person confident that they have come to the right person for assistance.”
Green Pesa, the energy audit startup based in Newark, was founded by Ddamulira with the goal to fight climate change by altering the way energy is consumed by commercial businesses.
“They help companies design strategies to reduce their carbon footprint,” said his nominator.
Ddamulira engages with hundreds of businesses in Delaware and beyond with energy audits, including 120 in Newark, where the startup is based, who received free audits as part of the Newark Energy Management Treasure Hunt that has reportedly found more than $50,000 in potential energy savings.
Edens is founder of the Rehoboth Beach digital services startup Lucky Rabbit, a cohort company within the Baltimore-based Hutch incubator. Its services focus on supporting digital services and civic tech companies to transform government with a goal to impact quality of life, economic development, and technology gaps in communities.
In addition to Lucky Rabbit, Edens is also a cofounder of Feed 100,000 Kids.
“Shaun is always willing to connect and share his experience with other entrepreneurs,” said his nominator, “and he is equally as passionate about serving community.”
Stephanie Eldridge and Tariq Hook
Code Differently, led by CEO Eldridge and CIO Hook (also one of Technical.ly’s 2020 RealLIST Engineers) are devoted to equitable tech training, especially for the kids and teenagers who are soon to be valuable members of Delaware’s talent pipeline. With the challenges that came into play with the COVID-19 pandemic, and with the help of the CARES ACT-funded Forward Delaware program, the organization launched Return Ready, a workforce training program focused in coding for unemployed and under-employed adults.
“We really want people, especially underrepresented people, to stop thinking that becoming a software developer is too hard,” said Eldridge in an October 2020 interview with Technical.ly. “When it comes to diversity in tech, even mentioning that I’m a Black female in tech, it’s like I’m kind of a ‘unicorn.’ We need to get beyond that narrative.”
The It’s Time Wilmington campaign celebrates the good things Wilmington has to offer, from food to the arts to its small businesses and vibrant communities. Godden leads the campaign, which regularly puts out content about things to do and people to know in the community, like this recent take on Downtown:
The Delaware Prosperity Partnership has lots of impact on economic development in Delaware, so it’s no surprise that its team members come up as Connectors nominees. Gruswitz, its director of innovation, is seemingly everywhere, from DPP’s office at The Mill to the University of Delaware to the Delaware Department of Agriculture in Dover.
“Ariel has been dedicated to enhancing, connecting and impacting the innovation ecosystem in Delaware since she joined DPP in 2018,” her nominator said. “She has accomplished much, including an ongoing effort to gather the various partners monthly to ensure there are fewer silos. She has worked with the state to create a new grant program to support development of lab space for growling lab-based firms and also helped DPP launch our state science and tech advisors group that is working to ensure that Delaware is focused on the right things and putting its best foot forward. She works frequently with the Horn Entrepreneurship program at UD, serves on the Delaware BIO board and is active nationally on these issues with groups like SSTI and others.”
Delaware boasts several well-known and respected chefs. Jester — who won on “Beat Bobby Flay” in 2018 with his shrimp scampi dish — is something of a celebrity chef who comfortably shared the secrets to making a restaurant quality burger on Short Order Productions’ “In the Pantry,” is a regular guest on Delmarva Life and recently gave a TEDxWilmington talk called “Give What You Seek.” The culinary director of High 5 Hospitality, Jester manages the culinary operations of Stone Balloon Ale House and Eggspectation in Newark and Limestone BBQ and Bourbon in Pike Creek. He’s also cofounder of Full Circle Food, a service that delivers healthy prepared meals weekly.
“Robbie does a ton of work with shelters/soup kitchens in addition to having healthy meals delivered,” said his nominator. “He has also done considerable work building culinary arts education and other programming with the local high schools (particularly the vo-tech schools).”
If you don’t know Martin firsthand, you’ve likely been no more than a degree or two away. Martin moves in several spheres, all impactful: He is the telehealth and emerging technologies consultant for Delaware Libraries; cofounder and COO of the startup Carbon Reform; board VP of Wilmington youth-serving nonprofit FourYouth Productions; and outreach assistant at the University of Delaware’s College of Engineering.
Cool thing: In 2018, Martin traveled the country for three months connecting with founders for his podcast Startup My City.
Means, aka the STEM Queen, broke out in her teens as a young entrepreneur from Southbridge with a mission to empower young girls and marginalized youth by making STEM fun and accessible. She started her organization, Wilmington Urban STEM Initiative (WUSI), at 14, hosting girls empowerment STEM events and making appearances at places like the Delaware Children’s Museum, where she demonstrates visually exciting science projects.
Since WUSI began, Means has gained a level of celebrity extending beyond Delaware, having appeared on shows like Access Hollywood, received awards like the T-Mobile Changemaker Grant, and being crowned Miss Delaware’s Outstanding Teen 2019. More recently, she appeared in the reality web series “Essence Girls United” and is a regular on the CBS Saturday morning educational show “Mission Unstoppable.”
“Jacqueline has an impressive skillset that she uses to inspire students and young girls — more than 1,500 — to be excited about STEM education,” said her nominator.
As the founder of The Sold Firm, Oliver is a community and racial justice-minded business woman who connects artists who may have little knowledge of the art world (or what their work is worth) with art buyers looking for impactful art. The gallery, previously Artist’s Avenue Station, is owned by Wilmington Green Box cofounder John Naughton, who previously partnered with Oliver’s son, Nasai, and his then-startup Myster Lemonade. He saw what she was doing as an art dealer without a gallery, and The Sold Firm was born.
Through a partnership with neighbor Theo Parks, owner of Custom Lifestyle branding company, she sells swag along with artwork on the Sold Firm website, which helps support drawing and painting classes for kids.
With shows like Pendulum Swing, which faced the issues police brutality and injustice head on, and STORM, a solo exhibition by incarcerated artist Sakana Walls, Oliver gives voice to many in the community who are often ignored — and she makes sure they get paid.
Another Delaware Prosperity Partnership team member, with a different nominator: Olson is the innovation support manager for DPP, and the coordinator for Startup 302. The pitch competition with a focus on helping fund startups with underrepresented founders recently had its inaugural event, awarding over $200,000 in several startup categories.
To his nominator, his work on Startup 302 is the reason he was nominated.
“Noah works incredibly hard to ensure that every founder in the Delaware innovation ecosystem has access to the people and resources necessary to thrive,” the nominator said. “The inaugural Startup 302 wouldn’t have been such a success without him.”
The chairman of the board for World Trade Center Delaware and VP of business development for Today Media, Tomlinson has a 40-year history in Delaware’s business community.
“Charlie thoughtfully connects people who can help each other to realize their mission, whether for their business, profession, or themselves,” said his nominator. “He helps not for profit organizations tell their story to help them reach the people, companies or even government organizations who can benefit from their services. He promotes Delaware as a place to live and work to people from across the nation and around the world. As chairman of the board of the World Trade Center Delaware, he reaches out to people from across the region and connects them with WTC Delaware to ensure that they receive the international trade services that they need.”
Watkins, founder of Milk and Honey coffee shops, is a relative newcomer to Wilmington. Originally from the South Side of Chicago and drawn to the East Coast to attend Temple University and The Wharton School in Philly, he came to West Side Wilmington and opened the Union Street Milk & Honey just a few months before the pandemic hit. Through it all, Watkins has been devoted to the city and sees vast possibilities for its diverse neighborhoods. Despite the impact of COVID-19, he was able to open of a second location on Market Street (the former home of LOMA Coffee) in 2020.
“People have to work together in order to make the city better for everybody,” Watkins said, in an August 2020 interview with Technical.ly. “I do believe there is a renaissance that’s going to happen next two to three years. I think Wilmington is going to be one of the hottest places to be, if all goes well. I did a project once with Philadelphia mayor [Ed] Rendell when they were doing the Avenue of the Arts on Broad Street, and I saw [change] happen. I see Wilmington being a powerful, hot spot between New York and D.C.”
Marlette Funding, the fintech company behind the popular personal loan app Best Egg, is the kind of company that shows that Delaware has the capacity to grow and thrive as a hub of technology. It’s relatively young compared to the banks that dominate fintech in Delaware, a modern tech company that is growing and keeping its base in Delaware. Last year, the company made a deal with the Buccini Pollin Group to become the anchor tenant at the Concord Plaza multi-use development in North Wilmington that includes The Mill Concord and PayPal Holdings, as well as restaurants, retailers and residences.
Westergen, Marlette Funding’s director of engineering, was nominated not just for his position at the high-impact tech company, but for what he does for other companies in the community.
“Randy is brilliant,” said his nominator. “In his off time, he is a white hat security expert, and frequently advises companies of security risks in their platforms.”
Dr. Dan Young
Young, director of the Doctor of Business Administration Program at Goldey-Beacom College, started an ad-hoc initiative to put 100 new Black business professors in Delaware college and university classrooms by 2025 along with Wilmington University business professor Jason James. Young is also the new organizer of TEDXWilmington and co-organizer of TEDxGoldeyBeacomCollege, TEDxDover and TEDxHarlem.
Young’s very thorough nominator notes that “he is also a big supporter of the cultural initiatives at Goldey-Beacom initiated by colleagues Jocelyn Moses and Tatiana Marshall.” That includes the creation of Black Student Union, “BRAVE Conversations” and a course on “Hip Hop, Society, and Culture,” as well as discussions about the Black Lives Matter movement within academia.
Young is also on the board of local orgs such as the Delaware Theater Company, the Metropolitan Wilmington Urban League Guild, the Western Family YMCA, First Tee of Delaware and the Gamma Theta Lambda Educational Foundation, and he’s the currently president of the board for Theatre N.
And “as a serial entrepreneur,” the nominator wrote, “Dan has founded a number of companies, including the National Tailgating Experience, Maverick Class, Sanqti and Young Consulting Group.”
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