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RealLIST Connectors 2021: Meet 20 people changing Philadelphia’s innovation ecosystem for good

It's the second edition of our list spotlighting the people opening doors and bringing others together around the local tech community. This year, we turned to 2020's honorees for nominations, and put a focus on the folks who made an impact during a tough year.

Members of the RealLIST Connectors Class of 2021. (Graphic by Michael Butler)
In a time of distance and division, local innovators are working to bring people together for good.

Last year, set out to create a comprehensive look at who’s connecting the Philly tech community, especially amid a pandemic and widespread societal inequities. RealLIST Connectors was born.

The concept was this: If you’re brand new on the tech scene here in Philly, who are the first people you’d want to be introduced to to help you build, fundraise, learn, connect and grow? For our inaugural list in 2020, we dug deep, asked our community, and came up with the top 100 people building bridges.

The intention in our second year is to build an addendum to that comprehensive list. Many of the same folks who were influential and connective in 2020 are still.

But who, in the last 12 months, has made an impact and been connective in response to continuing and new challenges? Who is widening access to the opportunities of the tech sector, or helping others launch their careers? Who is focusing attention on systemic inequality, or helping Philadelphians better understand how their city’s economy is changing?

To build this year’s RealLIST Connectors, we asked the original honorees for their nominations, and shaped the final rundown from our own reporting. The 2021 list represents different industries, including the government, nonprofit and private sectors. While some of those featured have been in Philly for decades, others have made an impact in a short amount of time. And some are literally saving lives.

The 2021 list was compiled with input from’s newsroom, including reporters Paige Gross and Michael Butler and Editor Julie Zeglen. 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.

Margaret Berger Bradley

  • VP of strategic initiatives for Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Southeastern Pennsylvania
  • Bradley is behind all of the state-backed investing org’s social impact endeavors and is also a member of the board for impact investing advocacy nonprofit ImpactPHL. She started at BFTP five years ago after running Goldman Sachs’ 10,000 Small Businesses Program. “Margaret is a wholly unique nurturing force unto herself, always reinforcing the connections between tech entrepreneurship and social impact,” her nominator wrote.

Margaret Berger Bradley (second-right) on a 2018 impact investing panel. (Photo by Julie Zeglen)

Stephen Brittin

  • VP of growth and strategy for Juno Search Partners
  • The longtime recruiting pro is new to Juno, but has also come on as a venture partner for the firm’s Juno Capital, bringing on potential companies to invest in. The veteran has also served as an advisor and volunteer for entrepreneur network Bunker Labs as well as launched PACT’s Talent Connect program, per LinkedIn. “He is a well-known entity in the startup community in Philadelphia, providing strategic support to help companies figure out talent needs, as well as business support,” writes his nominator.

Stephen Brittin. (Photo via LinkedIn)

John Fazio

Nerd Street Gamers CEO John Fazio. (Courtesy photo)

Rachel Ferguson

  • Chief innovation and global diversity officer at Visit Philadelphia
  • The longtime public affairs pro stepped into her C-suite role in summer 2019 after just a few months as VP of innovation and diverse marketing. “Her work through Visit Philly and the ‘Love + Gritpodcast has been an incredible way to preserve our city’s history, connecting people to each other and resources, and uplift the city’s diverse voices,” especially in a challenging year for tourism, Ferguson’s nominator told us.

Rachel Ferguson. (Photo via LinkedIn)

Anne Gemmell

  • Founder of the FutureWorks Alliance PHL
  • Gemmell works to educate others about the future of work and how professionals can focus on it in the moment, as the pandemic has accelerated many of the changes related to the future of work. “Anne is the go-to person in this region if you want an informative dialogue with actionable ideas on the future of work,” her nominator wrote.

Anne Gemmell presenting at the Future Works Alliance PHL launch event in November 2020. (Screenshot)

Terrill Haigler

  • Sanitation worker and advocate at the Philadelphia Streets Department
  • Through @yafavtrashman, Haigler has used viral Instagram posts to raise awareness for the sanitation department’s lack of personal protective equipment during the pandemic. The public has responded and continues to respond to him, bridging the gap between city services and the Philly community at a critical time. “He’s getting more done than the Streets Department in terms of connecting with residents to clean up trash,” his nominator wrote. His advocacy is why the account was voted Invention of the Year at the 2020 Awards.

Philly sanitation worker Terrill Haigler, aka @yafavtrashman. (Courtesy photo)

Marieke Jackson

  • Co-director of Code For Philly
  • The civic hacking organization has supported volunteer technologists in creating tech solutions to COVID-19 over the past year. Data pro Jackson “has led the organization into a new mode of operating in the pandemic based on deep partnerships with mission-driven nonprofits,” her nominator said including by helping to establish a fellowship for new developers.

Marieke Jackson. (Photo via LinkedIn)

Jabari Jones

  • President of the West Philadelphia Corridor Collaborative
  • Jones has been instrumental in helping local entrepreneurs to rebuild their damaged businesses in the wake of protests following George Floyd’s murder last year. He’s also been outspoken about keeping the reasons for the protests top of mind.

West Philadelphia Corridor Collaborative Chief Strategist Diamonique Robinson and President Jabari Jones at the org’s first Technology Repair Pop-Up in fall 2020. (Courtesy photo)

Isabelle Kent

  • Executive director of Philly Startup Leaders
  • The ED joined the entrepreneurship-boosting org in March and brought years of experience being an entrepreneur herself with her; in fact, she came up with the idea for her company Gigsaw while attending a bootcamp with the nonprofit. Kent has taken over virtual programing and events for PSL, stating in her welcome letter to the startup community that she is “committed to unifying the entrepreneurial community in Philadelphia over our goal of inclusive and equitable economic development and innovation.”

Isabelle Kent. (Photo via LinkedIn)

Paul Levy

  • President and CEO of the Center City District
  • Levy is the longtime leader of the economic development org focused on downtown Philadelphia’s well-known corridor of commerce and tourism. He has helped businesses find resources during the pandemic and been instrumental in helping CCD see a way forward through the pandemic.

Paul Levy. (Photo via LinkedIn)

Eric Meyer

  • Partner at FisherBoyles, LLP
  • With his background in employment law, Meyer pivoted to supporting the business community by hosting weekly webinars on how to navigate the new world of work during the pandemic. “During a time when the HR community, and business communities in general, were actively seeking ways to stay on top of legislation that was literally being developed overnight, Eric could absolutely be counted on,” he nominator wrote.

Eric Meyer. (Photo via LinkedIn)

Shannon Morales

  • Founder of Tribaja
  • The work of this 2020 Awards winner for Culture Builder of the Year is centered around building up and getting a more diverse talent pool in front of employers as well as providing resources for tech talent. Tribaja’s Slack presence has recently grown to more than 2,500 users, and the org recently launched the Diversitech Summit.

Tribaja founder Shannon Morales. (Courtesy photo)

Michael O’Bryan

  • Founder of Humanature
  • Also an Innovation Fellow at Drexel University’s Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation, O’Bryan works to change how people understand human development, interaction and performance. This work includes educating founders and professionals about what equity is and why it matters when building a team where everyone has equal footing.

Michael O’Bryan. (Photo via LinkedIn)

Dr. Ala Stanford

  • Founder and director of the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium
  • Stanford pivoted to tackling COVID-19 with widely available testing and vaccinations within the Black community. The advocate earned a nomination for her “extraordinary, tireless and invaluable work making testing and vaccines available to Philadelphia’s black citizens. She connected citizens with health resources in an innovative, creative and effective way.”

Dr. Ala Stanford. (Photo via Twitter)

Aron Starosta and Thom Webster

  • VP of commercialization and new ventures, and OnRamp founder-in-residence, at the University City Science Center
  • Both are involved as program leaders to assorted Science Center programming. Even before being promoted within the STEM and entrepreneurship org in December 2020, Starosta has supported tech startups and commercial activity during a time in which many businesses have been challenged by the pandemic. He also co-hosts “Startup Roundtable,” a live virtual discussion at Venture Café Philadelphia, providing feedback on startup ideas, pitches or presentations.

Aron Starosta. (Photo via LinkedIn)

  • Webster came on as an early advisor to Launch Lane as well as other accelerators, and is the chief mentor for the Science Center’s new OnRamp program, which seeks to increase accessibility to education and opportunities for first-time founders. “Between his work on Launch Lane, the Backstage [Capital] accelerator, [Black & Brown Founders], and now OnRamp, he has been SERIOUSLY leaning in to help our entrepreneurial community,” his nominator wrote. “I have never ended a conversation with him without feeling more charged about what I get the opportunity to do each day.”

Thom Webster. (Photo via the University City Science Center)

Neferteri Strickland

  • Business analyst at McKean Defense
  • With a background in mass communications and cybersecurity, Strickland has made it her life mission to “build and connect markets to ideas and resources to drive positive change,” according to her nominator. She is skilled at helping others understand broader ideas and enacting change, and co-organized the virtual, locally focused TEDxIntrepidAveED event.

Neferteri Strickland. (Photo via

Juliet Fink Yates and Emily Yates Giulioni

  • Digital inclusion fellow and and Smart City director for the City of Philadelphia
  • Fink Yates. (LinkedIn)

    Fink Yates has built a coalition of city government, community orgs and donors to “deliver expansive digital equity programs to residents,” including the 2020-2021 school year’s PHLConnectED program bringing free internet to local families, and digital navigator helplines for navigating challenges with technology and the internet.

  • Yates Giulioni oversees programming like the SmartCityPHL roadmap, and the Pitch & Pilot program that encourages the collaboration between private sector businesses to help aid civic projects (the first project looked at solving waste problems).

Emily Yates Giulioni. (Photo via LinkedIn)

Tiffany Yau

  • Founder and CEO of Fulphil
  • Yau educates high school students and teachers about how social entrepreneurship can help reinvigorate communities and is constantly trying to amplify the positive impact others also are making. She is also an outspoken proponent for the ethical treatment of Asian Americans.

Tiffany Yau. (Photo vis LinkedIn)

Michael Butler is a 2020-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.
Companies: Tribaja / West Philadelphia Corridor Collaborative / Juno Search Partners / Nerd Street / Visit Philadelphia / Ben Franklin Technology Partners / Center City District / City of Philadelphia / Office of Innovation and Technology / Philly Startup Leaders
Series: RealLIST Connectors / Tech for the Common Good Month 2021 / RealLIST

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