40 Under 40: Class of 2016
Get to know the state's up-and-comers in the arenas of television, art, business, sports, movies, philanthropy and more, as nominated by friends, family, co-workers, admirers and Connecticut Magazine editors.
NICK FRADIANI, 30, GUILFORD
Why he’s on the list: You could call Fradiani a hometown hero. While he competed on the 14th season of American Idol, local support was everywhere, and he exceeded everyone’s expectations when he was named the winner of the popular competition show in May. Fradiani’s winning song, “Beautiful Life,” could be heard on radio stations across the country, and he headlined the American Idols LIVE! Tour 2015 last summer. Before his solo success on American Idol, Fradiani and his band Beach Avenue appeared on the ninth season of America’s Got Talent, and won Battle of the Bands at Mohegan Sun Resort Casino in 2011.
JASON ALEKSA, 33, FAIRFIELD
Designer and fabricator
Why he’s on the list: Aleksa was raised to work with his hands. As the son and grandson of machinists, it was only natural that he would experiment with building things. His business, Stonehill Design, repurposes antiques into modern lamps and home décor. Aleksa scavenges antique shops and sales for kerosene lamps, cameras, radio speakers, fans and other unique pieces, and then transforms each one into a one-of-a-kind luxury item. Since launching the business in his basement workshop about three years ago, he has developed a significant following with regular appearances at local craft shows and markets, including the Black Rock Artisan Market in Bridgeport.
ERICA HILL, 39, CLINTON
News correspondent, co-anchor
Why she’s on the list: Born and raised in Clinton, Hill has gone on to be one of the most recognizable faces on broadcast news, co-anchoring Weekend Today on NBC since 2012. She also serves as an NBC News national correspondent and has spent time at CNN Headline News and The Early Show at CBS News, among other programs. “Spending my days reading, writing and asking important, tough questions is a dream come true,” says Hill.
MIKE MARQUES, 35, WEST HARTFORD
Photographer and artist
Why he’s on the list: Marques’ photography project “i am a MoSaic” has put a new hyper-localized face to multiple sclerosis, a debilitating disease that affects the central nervous system by disrupting the flow of information between the brain and the body. Marques spent three years taking photos of state residents living with the disease. In collaboration with the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, Connecticut Chapter, he produced a collection of 43 images that have been displayed at different venues around the state.
KRISTEN SKELTON, 35, AVON
Founder of The Nutmeg Collective
Why she’s on the list: After having her children and stepping away from teaching to raise them, Skelton decided she needed a project of her own. She launched Milo and Molly, a line of paper, fabric and felt handmade goodies, based on Etsy in 2011 as a passion project. Searching for answers to her own entrepreneurial questions led her to a group of local crafters on Etsy. She took over that group when the previous organizer stepped down and has transformed it into The Nutmeg Collective, a community of 63 artisans and entrepreneurs who exchange ideas and advice and host craft shows in the state.
KATE SIRIGNANO, 32, SOUTHINGTON
Why she’s on the list: Sirignano launched her Connecticut-based consulting company, Image Marketing Consultants, when she was just 23 years old after working in event marketing for Cadillac in New York City. The boutique firm has grown significantly since 2011 and has expanded into luxury and beauty brands. In 2016, she will add personal executive coaching. Sirignano also began serving as an ambassador family for the local March of Dimes chapter after her son, Anthony, was born four months premature. She chaired the Signature Chefs Auction in October and has participated in other speaking engagements. “It’s a way I can give back,” she says.
RORY (30), CALLIE (33) & ADDY (35) GALE, HARTFORD
Creators and owners, Hartford Prints!
Why they’re on the list: It’s a family affair at Hartford Prints! The three Gale sisters first joined forces in 2012 to create modern and fun letterpress stationery, but the business quickly grew from there. Today, you can also buy handmade wedding invitations, greeting cards, urban streetware and one-of-a-kind gifts from their flagship store in downtown Hartford. These days, the business is largely run by middle sister Callie and younger sister Rory, while older sister Addy takes time out to raise a family, but Hartford Prints! is a true three-way collaboration that has resulted in some of the most fun Connecticut items out there.
LESLYE HEADLAND, 33, WESTPORT
Why she’s on the list: The creative force behind two of the most fun major movies in the last three years, Headland has broken through as one of the coolest directors out there. Her 2012 comedy Bachelorette, which was based on her play by the same name, starred Kirsten Dunst, Isla Fisher and Lizzy Caplan. Her latest work, Sleeping with Other People, stars Jason Sudeikis and Alison Brie, and premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival in January.
ALONDA BAIRD-JUHASZ 31, STRATFORD
Why she’s on the list: “Color and visual aesthetics are what I love,” says Baird-Juhasz, and that’s what drove her from the corporate world into her own business, Designer Dwellings. At once a design-consulting company and an Etsy shop specializing in high-quality, practical but beautiful home décor, Baird-Juhasz’s business has been growing steadily since 2013. She joined The Nutmeg Collective when she was launching her own business, and has now grown into a leadership position with the group to assist other Connecticut artisans and entrepreneurs.
EMILY WOODWARD, 35, WINDSOR
Why she’s on the list: After working in a commercial kitchen in Antarctica, Woodward returned to her hometown and decided to open a bakery that specializes in scratch baking—something she felt was sorely lacking in Windsor. Since opening in 2012, Get Baked Bakery has become a gathering space for the community. From breads to cookies, everything here is made fresh every day and all tips go to the MS Foundation. Over the last four years, they have donated nearly $10,000. Woodward has also created a monthly artisan market called Love Local Market, which just celebrated its first anniversary.
JAKE SULLIVAN, 39, NEW HAVEN
Foreign policy adviser
Why he’s on the list: Sullivan graduated from Yale in 2003 and has returned to his alma mater as a distinguished visiting lecturer in law and national security, but it is how he spends the rest of his time that really secured his spot on this list. Currently, Sullivan serves as a top foreign policy adviser to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 election campaign, having served previously as a national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden. Other illustrious positions include director of policy planning at the U.S. Department of State and deputy chief of staff to Clinton when she was secretary of state.
JESSICA EWUD, 28, REDDING
Executive director of Save-A-Suit
Why she’s on the list: As a founding member of Save-A-Suit, Ewud has been instrumental in shaping the organization, which provides business-professional suits and resources to veterans transitioning back to civilian life and college students moving into the business world. Save-A-Suit has serviced more than 2,500 veterans and students since its inception in 2010. When Ewud is not busy with Save-A-Suit, she also works as an artist painting murals for small businesses and creating home décor.
JONATHAN QUICK, 30, HAMDEN
Why he’s on the list: In his first seven seasons in the NHL, Jonathan Quick—who was born in Milford, grew up in Hamden and played hockey for Avon Old Farms—led the Los Angeles Kings to the playoffs five times and won two Stanley Cups, picking up a Conn Smythe Trophy (for Most Valuable Player of the playoffs). During the two NHL championship runs (in 2012 and 2014), Quick was in net for every postseason win, posting five shutouts along the way.
MARAIAH POPELESKI, 36, WINDHAM
Manager of CLiCK Inc.
Why she’s on the list: CLiCK Inc. is a unique shared-space commercial kitchen and nutritional education center in Windham that is working to change the food culture in central Connecticut. It’s all managed by Popeleski, whose job it is to support entrepreneurs who utilize the space, help them navigate food laws and regulations, oversee daily operations of the kitchen, fundraise and engage with the community. Since joining the CLiCK team, Popeleski has overseen a major kitchen renovation, coordinated community festivities and open houses, and worked with students and volunteers to build a teaching vegetable and herb garden.
DARRYL BRACKEEN, 27, NEW HAVEN
Connecticut state director for Young Elected Officials Network
Why he’s on the list: Brackeen has dedicated his life to public service in his hometown of New Haven. As a graduate of New Haven Public Schools and Fairfield University, he says, “The only way to pay forward all of the great opportunities I was given was to dedicate my life to giving back.” A member of the New Haven Board of Alders since January 2014, Brackeen has been focused on working rights, environmental sustainability, economic justice and youth empowerment. In December, he was named the Connecticut state director for the Young Elected Officials Network, where he will work to support community and young elected officials across the state through progressive policies.
CAROLYN KUAN, Mid-30s, HARTFORD
Hartford Symphony Orchestra music director
Why she’s on the list: Kuan was named the 10th music director of the Hartford Symphony Orchestra in 2012 and has been winning accolades ever since. Her podium presence and expertise in contemporary and Asian music make her a joy to watch. She has enjoyed many successful associations with top-tier orchestras and symphonies, including Baltimore, Detroit, Milwaukee, San Francisco, Seattle, the New York City Ballet, the New York City Opera, and many more. But much to the delight of local music audiences in Connecticut, Kuan signed a new six-year contract with the orchestra this year, which will secure her through May 2022.
JOHN BRENNAN, 31, NEW HAVEN
Why he’s on the list: “Everything from scratch.” That’s the motto of chef John Brennan, the culinary force behind the popular Elm City Social that opened in New Haven last August. Brennan’s calling card is his creativity, which he infuses into a seasonal menu that features new takes on comfort food. “I want people to come and enjoy and be wowed by dishes that were simple,” says Brennan, who also created the hip décor and drink menu. “We want a place where people can come with friends and really enjoy themselves in a great social setting.”
ASHLEY J. (AJ) JOHNSON, 31, HARTFORD
Pastor, community organizer
Why he’s on the list: In 2013, Johnson became pastor of the Urban Hope Refuge Church in the heart of the North End of Hartford. Since taking the job, previously held by his late father, Johnson has dedicated himself to making Greater Hartford a better place. He is founder and CEO of Small Business Night Out, an organization devoted to assisting small business owners and young entrepreneurs advance and stimulate economic development in their local areas. He has also been a vocal proponent of the Fight for $15 movement and the Second Chance Society Bill in Connecticut. “If you care about Hartford, you know AJ,” U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy told the Hartford Courant.
MARCELL DAVIDSEN, 32, LITCHFIELD
Why he’s on the list: Davidsen has only been executive chef at Litchfield’s acclaimed Community Table since last May, but he has already made an impact, sourcing local ingredients for his inspired seasonal menu. A native of Denmark, he studied at HRS Copenhagen and then cooked in Greece for five years before coming to the U.S., where he has refined his craft in such notable eateries as Heirloom and Bespoke in New Haven. His goal is for his creative cuisine to celebrate the bounty of Connecticut.
TIANA V. HERCULES, 33, HARTFORD
Why she’s on the list: As the project manager of Project Longevity, a community and law enforcement initiative dedicated to reducing gun violence, Hercules is deeply involved in improving Hartford, coordinating efforts between law enforcement, social services and the community in terms of engaging with those involved with gun violence, sharing information, organizing events and providing education. She also is on the Northside Institutions Neighborhood Alliance (NINA), the Mutual Housing Association of Greater Hartford and Girls for Technology boards, as well as the outreach ministry of Asylum Hill Congregational Church—all part of her mission to “make a positive impact.”
ALEX SCHWARTZ, 28, NEW FAIRFIELD
Why he’s on the list: Schwartz got his start in the tech world working at his family’s Danbury computer store; today he is the CEO and chief scientist of Austin, Texas-based video game studio Owlchemy Labs. The company is at the crest of the virtual reality (VR) world and is responsible for the BASE-jumping VR game “Aaaaaculus!” and the multiplatform VR launch title “Job Simulator,” as well as smartphone games “Snuggle Truck,” “Jack Lumber” and “Dyscourse.”
STEPHANIE J. COAKLEY, 39, WATERBURY
Director of Education
Why she’s on the list: Since joining the Mattatuck Museum three years ago as director of education, Coakley has made a positive impact on the museum’s community programs. She initiated the “Memories @ The Matt” program, which provides meaningful experiences for those dealing with memory loss and their caregivers, and has expanded offerings for special needs children. Under her leadership, the Mattatuck also received a Connecticut League of History Organizations Award of Merit last year for programs she developed in conjunction with “The Way We Worked,” an exhibition that was part of a statewide Connecticut Humanities effort.
PETER BECKER, 38, WASHINGTON
Why he’s on the list: As the 11th head of school for The Gunnery, a 166-year-old coed college preparatory boarding and day school in Washington, Peter Becker has brought a passion for education that has inspired staff and students alike. He is a board member of the Connecticut Association of Independent Schools and Washington Montessori School, and is also the youngest member of the Executive Committee for the North American Boarding School Initiative, which was founded by The Association of Boarding Schools to develop the association’s advocacy for the value of boarding-school education.
MIKE ‘MUNCHIE’ SANTINI, 25, RIDGEFIELD
Why he’s on the list: Santini earned his position as development director of the Prospector Theater after rapping his résumé during the job interview at the nonprofit movie theater that is dedicated to providing meaningful employment and job training for people with disabilities. In the two years since getting the position, Santini has successfully employed his passion for rap music as part of a successful fundraising strategy that redefines out-of-the-box thinking, raised close to $3 million in funds and helped to attract the attention of the White House and the New York Yankees, who stopped by the theater this summer for a surprise visit. Santini has also helped grow the Prospector Theater from a start-up to a $4 million operation that employs more than 100 people—70 percent of whom identify with disabilities.
KEN TUCCIO, 33, NORWALK
Why he’s on the list: In 2014, from his home office in Norwalk, Tuccio launched the “Welcome To Connecticut Podcast,” a weekly audio program focusing on casual conversations with unique personalities from across the state. Two years later, the program, which is released every Thursday, has become a regular source of entertainment for all of Connecticut. Along the way, Tuccio has interviewed celebrities like Man v. Food host Adam Richman and Jerry Springer, and has become a well-known champion of the state’s craft beer movement.
KEVON JOHNSON, 18, HARTFORD
Food justice advocate
Why he’s on the list: When Kevon Johnson arrived in Hartford from his native Jamaica, he didn’t like the food served at lunch at his school. Rather than just complain, he began advocating for the healthier, fresher ingredients he had enjoyed in Jamaica. He launched a campaign for better lunch and joined Grow Hartford, a youth program of the Hartford Food System that supports urban farms and pushes for food justice. His work earned him distinction as the youth winner of the 2015 Hartford Community Food Security Award, presented by the city’s Advisory Commission on Food Policy. Johnson is currently a senior at the CREC Academy of Aerospace and Engineering, where he says the “lunch is a lot better.”
KATIE SCOTT, 27, MILFORD
Food policy coordinator
Why she’s on the list: As food policy coordinator for New England at The Humane Society of the United States, the nation’s largest animal welfare organization, Scott works tirelessly with school districts, hospitals, universities, restaurants and other institutions to incorporate and promote more plant-based menu options. Scott believes that reducing meat consumption, even marginally, is an effective and achievable step toward making people healthier while at the same time protecting animals. Because the animal agriculture industry is a leading contributor to greenhouse gases, these efforts also help protect the environment.
LAURIE ACOSTA, 36, CHESHIRE
Why she’s on the list: Long before items from the handcrafted jewelry line she co-founded—Hazel + Harmony—were included as part of 2015’s Oscar Gift Bag, Acosta had a full life’s worth of accomplishments. Born with a desire to help others, she served in the Connecticut Air National Guard and embarked on a career as a registered nurse. In 2013, after a life-changing event resulted in a mild brain injury and spinal cord surgery, she decided to follow her dream and open The Red Owl Jewelry & Gifts in Cheshire. Later she partnered with a local jewelry designer for Hazel + Harmony and continues to give back to the community through a variety of charitable efforts.
SAM KANTROW, 28, EAST HAVEN
Why he’s on the list: Kantrow is a homegrown success who has helped guide Connecticut residents through the wild weather of the past few years as the on-air meteorologist for the weekend editions of News 8’s Good Morning Connecticut. His interest in weather began at a young age, when the tornado that went through Hamden on July 10, 1989, narrowly missed his house. Though Kantrow braves any and all weather to deliver the forecast to his viewers, the Western Connecticut State University graduate is no fan of snow.
MICHAEL SMITH, 36, FARMINGTON
Why he’s on the list: The success of Smith’s ESPN2 show His & Hers, which celebrated its one-year anniversary in November, has earned him and co-host Jemele Hill two invitations to the White House. The football expert also regularly appears on other ESPN programs, including SportsCenter, NFL Live and Sunday NFL Countdown, as an NFL reporter and insider. Prior to becoming a TV personality, he made a name for himself as a beat writer covering the New England Patriots for The Boston Globe.
ROBERT BLANCHARD, 27, MIDDLETOWN
Politician, community organizer
Why he’s on the list: When Blanchard, who grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, first moved to Middletown in 2012, he wasted no time getting involved in the community. He was appointed to the Veterans Memorial Park Renovation Committee and helped to rehabilitate and redesign one of the city’s marquee parks. In November, he became the youngest person in the city’s history to be elected to the Common Council. A rising star in the state’s Democratic party, he has worked on campaigns for Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, and currently serves as chairman of the Middletown Democratic Town Committee. At the same time, he balances a demanding day job as executive assistant to Attorney General George Jepsen.
TABETHA BOYAJIAN, 36, WOODBRIDGE
Why she’s on the list: A postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Astronomy at Yale University, Dr. Boyajian’s research involves the detection and characterization of planets outside of our solar system, so-called exoplanets. As a core science team member of the Planet Hunters citizen science project, she has involved the general public in the search and discovery of new exoplanets with data from the NASA Kepler Mission. In 2015, she led a paper presenting the discovery of KIC8462852 (eponymously named Tabby’s star), a star with characteristics dissimilar to any known celestial object. Boyajian’s well-researched paper sparked international headlines and even had some overenthusiastic observers speculating that an alien superstructure had been discovered.
TONY PHAM, 30, DANBURY
Why he’s on the list: Ramen and pho noodle mania has become a part of the Connecticut dining scene, and Pham is partially responsible. In 2006, he opened Pho Vietnam in Danbury with his mother, Oanh Pham. The establishment has long been serving hot bowls of pho noodle deliciousness. In 2013, he followed that up by opening Fairfield’s Mecha Noodle Bar with Richard Reyes—Mecha serves both ramen and pho, and Pham and Reyes recently opened a second Mecha Noodle Bar in Norwalk.
PATRICK GANINO, 39, DURHAM
Why he’s on the list: Ganino, a widely acclaimed mural artist, has created custom works for celebrities ranging from Judge Judy to Rosie O’Donnell and has worked with TV shows such as Extreme Home Makeover and Kitchen Nightmares. He is also the owner of Creative Evolution, a full-service decorative painting company, and has produced instructional DVDs, taught classes and authored a book, The Business of Faux. Ganino has also contributed works to various charitable organizations, including the Sudan Peace Project, the Go Pink Project and Rosie’s Theatre Kids.
KRISTEN GRIEST, 27, ORANGE
Why she’s on the list: In August, Army Capt. Griest was one of the first two women—1st Lt. Shaye Haver of Texas was the other— to graduate from the Army’s grueling 62-day Ranger School, designed to forge elite soldiers. Griest and Haver had entered the school with 17 other women, but were the only two to complete it. Their feat of endurance and pure toughness helped lead to an announcement in December by Defense Secretary Ash Carter that the Pentagon would open all combat jobs to women. Griest, a former track and softball star at Amity Regional High School, received scores of interview requests after the accomplishment, but declined most, preferring to let her actions speak for themselves.
KWADWO ADAE, 39, NEW HAVEN
Why he’s on the list: In addition to founding and running the Adae Fine Art Academy—an alternative arts institution specializing in one-on-one art instruction—Adae runs a mobile art studio service for after-school programs and provides instruction for elderly artists with Alzheimer’s and dementia at Brookdale Senior Living in Woodbridge, young adults at the West Haven Mental Health Clinic and residents with mental illness at the Parents’ Foundation. Last September, Adae created a watercolor stop-motion animation movie that raised more than $7,000 via Kickstarter to install a mural at the APV School in Tehri Garwhal in Northern India.
DAVID MCGUIRE, 34, WEST HARTFORD
Why he’s on the list: As staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut for seven years before transitioning into the role of legislative and policy director in 2015, McGuire has long been on the front lines of many of Connecticut’s most important civil rights battles. Over the past two legislative sessions alone, he helped pass a first-in-the-nation Taser safety law, a comprehensive police excessive force law, a law protecting employee personal social media accounts and the widely heralded Second Chance Society law.
DANIEL J. WEISE, 35, MIDDLEBURY
Why he’s on the list: As founder and owner of Weise Choice Tree Services out of Middlebury and a 15-year veteran of the arboricultural industry, it’s fair to say that Daniel Weise has spent a lot of time in trees. A competitive tree climber, Weise has been the top-ranked tree climber in Connecticut and New England (three times each), rising to as high as No. 17 in the world according to the International Society of Arboriculture rankings. Last April, he and his wife Brooke organized an Arbor Day of Service at which he donated his time and skills to prune several trees on the Middlebury green.