Our latest round-up of Connecticut’s young leaders, innovators, artists and rebels taking our small state to great places.
It’s been a full decade since we debuted our first 40 Under 40 list in 2011. We decided to check back with honorees from the past 10 years to see what their lives have been like since we recognized them.
Justin Elicker — Class of 2011
Elicker was a New Haven alder 10 years ago. Now he’s the mayor of the Elm City. (Read his bio from 2011 here.)
What’s changed in your life? Since 2011, I served another term on the Board of Alders and ran for mayor of New Haven twice: once in 2013 and again in 2019. I also ran the local nonprofit New Haven Land Trust for five years before becoming mayor. I’m married to my wife Natalie and we have two young daughters, Molly and April.
What does the future hold for you? In my inauguration speech I focused on ensuring inclusive economic growth so that everyone in New Haven would have the opportunity to thrive. My goals have not changed. If anything, our experience with COVID-19 has highlighted the inequities that are pervasive throughout New Haven and Connecticut. As mayor I intend to focus on addressing the fundamental causes of these inequities over the coming years.
What advice would you give your younger self? Enjoy the small things more, focus on what you can control, and trust that things will work out. I need to keep reminding myself of these things today as well.
What do you love most about Connecticut? I love the cities. They are incredibly diverse and vibrant. While our state is segregated as a whole, we have the potential of working together and we certainly have the resources to make a meaningful change in issues around income inequality and systemic racism.
Tell us something about yourself we didn’t mention in 2011. I love to play the banjo and guitar. Playing music allows me some moments to relax, reflect and connect with others. My wife, our two young girls and I have “family music night” every Saturday evening before the girls go to bed. It’s my favorite time of the week.
Dan Meiser — Class of 2012
Meiser’s stature in the restaurant industry has only increased since the chef opened Oyster Club in Mystic a decade ago. (Read his bio from 2012 here.)
What’s changed in your life? Since 2012 I’ve been fortunate enough to be a part of the amazing community of Mystic, where we now have four restaurants, known as the 85th Day Food Community. I’m also fortunate to chair the board of the Connecticut Restaurant Association, where I have the opportunity to affect change and offer help to the 8,000-plus restaurants. The last nine months of dealing with the COVID pandemic and its effect on restaurants and hospitality has been the single largest undertaking of my professional life, but I am honored to be in the position I’m in. The biggest change, however, has been finding an amazing partner in my wife Jane, and the birth of my son Levi.
What does the future hold for you? My goal has always been to create something that is much bigger than any single person or even group of people. To have something that will live on and create real impact for good. Good food, job creation, keeping money in our local economy, and responsible growth are all goals of mine.
What advice would you give your younger self? Slow down and keep things in perspective. I’ve spent a lifetime of taking on more professionally than I probably should, and I’ve definitely missed out on friends and family along the way. The restaurant business is a wonderful place to call home, but it can also chew you up and spit you out if you’re not careful. As my Nana used to always say, “Make sure to take time to smell the flowers along the way.”
What do you love most about Connecticut? The community, the tradition and its size. Connecticut is small but mighty, there is tremendous opportunity here, but it’s small enough to feel connected. The diversity of place is important, and it’s proximity to the world. I love being near the ocean and the woods. I love the small-town feel of my home in Stonington, but I also appreciate the proximity to vibrant urban communities as well. With the exception of January and February, there’s no place I’d rather be year round!
Tell us something about yourself we didn’t mention in 2012. That I’ve been fortunate to have amazing teachers and mentors along the way. Any success we have is the result of an extraordinary team effort, and the impact of incredible and generous people along the way.
Jason Guberman-Pfeffer — Class of 2012
The Stratford native has devoted himself bringing greater awareness and access to Jewish historical sites. (Read his bio from 2012 here.)
What’s changed in your life? As a result of Connecticut Magazine, institutions and publications took note of the Diarna Geo-Museum, the project I co-founded to digitally document Middle Eastern and North African Jewish sites and memories. I was chosen for the NY Jewish Week’s “36 under 36,” invited to a Board of Directors meeting of the American Sephardi Federation (which, two years later, made me the youngest executive director at the Center for Jewish History), and became a fellow at Tikvah, termed the “boot camp of Jewish learning.”
The past six years have been a whirlwind of Diarna expeditions, high-profile events, international travel and press, and, most importantly, research results.
What does the future hold for you? Diarna’s development and, indeed, my own journey personally and the American Sephardi Federation owes much more to “serendipity and imagination” than planning and forecasting. The phrase is an observation made by Wellesley College Professor Emerita and Diarna Co-Founder Dr. Frances Malino. I am most grateful to remain on the front lines of preserving Jewish history for future generations and acutely appreciate the stakes: either we document these sites and memories now or they risk being forever lost.
What advice would you give your younger self? Take nothing for granted, always be grateful, and try to follow the great Sephardi economist David Ricardo’s advice (in Peter Drucker’s paraphrase) to “do what you do best and outsource for the rest.”
What do you love most about Connecticut? The Yankee integrity and ingenuity of our people, as well as my home, Stratford, a town for all seasons.
Tell us something about yourself we didn’t mention in 2012. How lucky I was to be a student of Sacred Heart University Professor Emeritus Dr. John Kikoski, who taught and exemplifies the essential values for new knowledge creation in the 21st century: care, respect and trust.
Carolyn Kuan — Class of 2013
The Taiwanese-born Kuan has served as the music director of Hartford Symphony Orchestra since 2011. (Read her bio from 2013 here.)
What’s changed in your life? I met the love of my life in 2014. Since then, not only I have come out and fully embraced who I am, but also I am committed to speaking up about diversity as an immigrant and a queer person. Also, I became a U.S. citizen in 2017, which is especially meaningful since it took place on the HSO stage and was shared with my HSO family. The HSO has since hosted a naturalization ceremony every year to welcome new immigrants on the first weekend of masterworks concerts.
What does the future hold for you? I conducted the world premiere of Stonewall in New York City celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising and am looking forward to working on a new production of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in America. For me, there has never been a more important time to make and share music. In our often divided world, music is a universal language. We have more in common than we realize. Through music, we can sit next to each other and have a shared experience of joy and beauty.
What advice would you give your younger self? Work less and go to more parties and explore the unexpected. It makes life much more interesting and, incidentally, also gives me more depth as an artist and human being.
What do you love most about Connecticut? The people! This year is my 10th as the music director of Hartford Symphony Orchestra and I am so incredibly grateful and in love with the people in our community — their curiosity, appreciation of culture, perseverance and caring for others. I love that we are committed to diversity, equity and inclusion, and remember fondly how welcomed I felt when I came to the U.S. by myself at the age of 14 and as I landed alone at Bradley International Airport.
Tell us something about yourself we didn’t mention in 2013. My first love was ballet and I wanted to be a ballerina.
Javier Colon — Class of 2014
The Stratford product and winner of the inaugural season of NBC’s The Voice in 2011 has been singing in the spotlight ever since. (Read his bio from 2014 here.)
What’s changed in your life? Toward the end of 2014 I started work on a new album, Gravity, which came out in 2016. After that, I continued to tour, here in the U.S. and around the world, until the pandemic hit which shut the entire music industry down. Since I couldn’t travel, I started doing virtual performances on Zoom and Facebook for charitable organizations, corporations and private parties.
What does the future hold for you? I have a feeling that once the pandemic is over, live music will come back in a big way. If that’s the case, I will hopefully be busier than ever. And I’m working on new music that I hope to put out late in 2021.
My goal professionally has always been to provide for my family while doing what I love. I have the dream job I wanted as a kid, so I have been so blessed. As long as I can continue my work as a professional musician, touring, writing and recording music, I will be extremely grateful.
What advice would you give your younger self? I would tell myself to write more, not just for my own albums, but for other musicians. It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time. That, and “Save up for the pandemic!!”
What do you love most about Connecticut? If I have to choose one thing I love most it has to be the people. There were so many who supported me back when I was on The Voice and they made the difference. I only won by 2 percent of the vote in the finale and I always say that it was my people in Connecticut who pulled through for me.
Tell us something about yourself we didn’t mention in 2014. My middle school teacher, Ms. Sandra Spadaccino, was integral in my becoming a professional musician. Without her guidance, I would not be a professional musician today.
Nicole Wagner — Class of 2015
The founder of Farmington-based biotech startup LambdaVision has taken her quest to cure blindness to new heights. (Read her bio from 2015 here.)
What’s changed in your life? LambdaVision has come a long way since 2015. There was a trip to Kennedy Space Center in 2018 to watch our protein-based artificial retina launch to the International Space Station.
Personally, I have become a mother to two amazing daughters, Sophia, 5, and Amelia, 3. Both keep me very busy, and are very much looking forward to going to a rocket launch in the future!
What does the future hold for you? In 2020, we secured about $6 million in funding from NASA to advance the development of the artificial retina, and to explore how production processes in microgravity can be utilized for additional biomedical and technology applications across a number of diverse industries. These new NASA awards will support a series of flights to the International Space Station over the next three years.
What advice would you give your younger self? It seems a little clichéd, but I think one of the biggest things that I have learned over the past several years is to live in the moment and to take things one day at a time. Life is full of ups and downs, and it is very easy to get caught up in the chaos and daily challenges of running a business and raising a family; however, if you break things up into manageable pieces, it allows you to prioritize what is most important.
What do you love most about Connecticut? I think Connecticut is a great place to live, raise a family, and run a business. There are great schools and colleges, incredibly smart faculty and entrepreneurs, and tremendous talent. I am also fortunate to be living in the “Quiet Corner” of Connecticut and enjoy the beautiful landscapes, parks and state forests.
Tell us something about yourself we didn’t mention in 2015. I would not be where I am today without the support of my family, especially my mother. She continues to lead by example, always working hard, and making sacrifices to ensure that my sisters, brother and I have everything that we need to succeed.
Ken Tuccio — Class of 2016
The Norwalk-based podcast host has taken a spin around the entertainment landscape. (Read his bio from 2016 here.)
What’s changed in your life? I was given 40 Under 40 for my work hosting the Welcome to Connecticut podcast, which later turned into a gig hosting The Local Drinking Show with WTNH News Channel 8, which turned into getting my own morning show, First Thing, on 95.9 The Fox. Since that time I’ve pivoted into entrepreneurship and launched my company, Best Trivia Ever, which has become my main focus. Best Trivia Ever launched in 2018 and has grown into the No. 1 trivia entertainment company in Connecticut.
What does the future hold for you? I want to continue to grow Best Trivia Ever into a more established brand. Ideally we want to expand beyond Connecticut and New York.
What advice would you give your younger self? In 2016 I was so preoccupied with moving forward in the way I wanted that any professional disagreement I had, no matter how small it was, would become a hill for me to die on. At the time, compromise was losing. I now realize that you sometimes have to give a little, and that doesn’t mean you’ve hurt the trajectory of your end goal.
What do you love most about Connecticut? My answer is absolutely really lame, but … the pizza. I know it’s the most stereotypical thing to say about this state, but it’s absolutely the best pizza in the country. I also really like the fact that if I want to lose a ton of money at roulette I just have to drive a few hours in either direction.
Tell us something about yourself we didn’t mention in 2016. The reason I’ve been able to chase the passions I have is because of my wife Maura. She’s always been the rock for me. If she wasn’t as supportive as she has been I never would have gotten 40 Under 40 to begin with, and you definitely wouldn’t be talking to me now.
Mohamad Hafez — Class of 2017
A native of Syria, the New Haven artist and architect brewed up a new role in 2020. (Read his bio from 2017 here.)
What’s changed in your life? I switched gears and went out of the architecture profession to be a full-time artist and an entrepreneur. I established Pistachio Cafe in Westville, which is a coffee shop/pâtisserie/baklava hot spot/cultural salon/gathering place. What the art was doing for me on a miniature scale, I wanted to apply on an architectural scale. It’s been a passion project for about 10 years.
What does the future hold for you? I don’t see my place in society as a corporate architect. What I do in corporate architecture, thousands of architects can do. But how many architects are also Muslim and American, Syrian, immigrant, refugee artists who were born and raised in the Middle East, educated in the Midwest, can build a cultural bridge between East and West during very xenophobic, divided times? I see my goals as a cultural-bridge person who bridges gaps, highlights the common denominator in humanity, and a proud American who is trying to close this gap in our society.
What advice would you give your younger self? Have more courage. I wish I had sprung off at an earlier age. Most people are terrified of jumping off this barge of job security, paycheck security, into the freelance, entrepreneurship world. I feel had I believed in myself a little bit more and had a little bit more courage, while the collateral risk was at a minimum, you would fly further, because you’re young, you don’t have much damage to worry about. It’s very different when you’re in your 40s and you got a mortgage and a couple cars and a family and so on. Do it early while the risk management is very doable and small.
What do you love most about Connecticut? I think Connecticut is a good-kept secret in general, particularly New Haven and Westville. The quality of life that we get living in New Haven, and the diversity that we get compared to many of the neighboring states is quite unique. Not only that, but the nature diversity; if you’re a person of the woods or a person of the sea or a person of wildlife, there’s something for everybody here. And the intensity of the educational institutions that brings about a lot of intense cultural conversations is fairly interesting for somebody like me.
Tell us something about yourself we didn’t mention in 2017. The sexy headline that attracts all the media folks most of the time is the contrast between my day job and my artwork. In fairness, if you focus on my artwork beyond the construction pieces that are now almost eight, nine years old, you see that there’s a lot more hope, a lot more positivity and optimism in my art. It’s not the trauma or the sadness or the loss that moves me, but it’s rather really the optimism and activism beyond that.
Paul Severino — Class of 2018
The Bristol-born play-by-play announcer for the Miami Marlins is still calling a good game. (Read his bio from 2018 here.)
What’s changed in your life? Not only did I get my dream job, but I’ve been able to live it out for three seasons. And I’m happy to report, it’s everything I could have hoped for and more. Sure, I work like crazy — nearly every day for six straight months — but I also have the other six months to be around my family every day.
What does the future hold for you? I’m so fortunate to have one of these extremely rare jobs. It’s the only thing I dreamt about doing with my life; so I really just want to make sure this present lasts a long time. The hope would be to do a good enough job in my role and connect with the audience enough that I’m able to stay in the Marlins broadcast booth for a while.
What advice would you give your younger self? Part of me wants to tell my younger self to “relax a little, it’s all going to work out the way you want it to.” But in a practical sense, since I know I’ve been able to accomplish so much at a young age, the other part of me wants to say, “work hard, stay focused and don’t veer off your path.”
What do you love most about Connecticut? I love the fact that Connecticut is where it started for me and my family. I met my wife there, our son was born there, my mom still lives there. It will always be home to me. And even though I love being able to play golf in December in Florida, I always miss the change in seasons.
Tell us something about yourself we didn’t mention in 2018. It would have been great if you told the readers that I’m an incredible golfer who’s on the doorstep of joining the PGA Tour and is the favorite to win a Major. That would be a huge lie, but I wish you would have included that.
Juwan Crawley — Class of 2019
After going from Bridgeport to Broadway for a role in Aladdin, the Hartt School grad has been focused on making music. (Read his bio from 2019 here.)
What’s changed in your life? I’ve recently had the chance to expand my team with the addition of [entertainment attorney and consultant] Steven Beer, after releasing my EP in June 2019, and debuting the record at City Winery a month later. Steven has been counsel to many incredible artists including Britney Spears, Hilary Duff, Justin Timberlake and Lady Gaga.
What does the future hold for you? The future for me, in spite of these crazy times, is somehow brighter than ever. My dreams, though bigger, are still rooted in the same desire to bring light, love and authenticity to the world through my art. Recently, in addition to making my next project with the help of my producer and co-writer Dominic Fallacaro, I have also had the absolute honor to write a new song with two heroes I now get to call friends, Anna Rose and Alan Menken. Our song, produced by Fallacaro, is about the change we so desperately need in our laws, hearts and our world.
What advice would you give your younger self? The same thing I try to tell myself now. Fuel that fire burning in you, go passionately and boldly in the way of your heart. Carve your dreams from clouds, harder things have been done, and above all, value the people in your life, family, tribe, friends who lift you up so that you may always feel like you are flying, even when you are falling.
What do you love most about Connecticut? Family and friends aside, Connecticut is truly one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. Sitting at my grandma’s piano overlooking the hill that leads up to our home, with the sun gently shining its light on me — I’ve never felt anything like that, anywhere else I’ve been in the world.
Tell us something about yourself we didn’t mention in 2019. I was so focused on listing my credits I forgot to say I was happy.
Alex Morsanutto — Class of 2020
The Norwalk-based co-founder of Silvermine Productions specializes in film, TV and commercial production. (Read his bio from 2020 here.)
What’s changed in your life? One of the more exciting developments since February is that we have added three new directors to our Silvermine team, which we’re hoping will allow us to grow and produce more content. We’ve partnered with Ethnic Channels Group, the world’s largest ethnic broadcaster that operates 100-plus television channels from around the globe, to develop and create original content. This summer, Silvermine Productions landed a commercial campaign that shot in Norway and Iceland. I collaborated with talent like Manu Bennett (Spartacus, Arrow, The Hobbit) and Hafþór Björnsson (Game of Thrones), which was an amazing experience.
What does the future hold for you? I am hoping that in 2021 I produce one of the larger feature film projects that I have developed during this COVID-19 period. I’m hoping to land an agent or manager for my film/TV career, which I think will happen in due time. As always, I’m looking forward to producing more commercials with great brands. A new goal of mine is to open a physical studio space for creatives to come, collaborate and create exciting content. It’s a “build it and they will come” mentality. I’d love to have that “Medici Effect” on Connecticut.
What advice would you give your younger self? Keep Building: It’s a new motto I’ve adopted since COVID-19 hit. You can apply it to anything in life. Stop Deliberating: I’ve known what I’ve wanted to do for a long time and wish I had spent less time thinking if a project was the right one and instead jumped in head first.
What do you love most about Connecticut? I love the different settings that you can experience within an hour’s drive. You can go into New York City, you can take a hike in the woods, you can run on a beach, or be in an apple orchard.
Tell us something about yourself we didn’t mention in 2020. Here is the bio of the next Walt Disney (insert wink face).