The Fab 5 awards ceremony will be held at Coltivare, 235 S. Cayuga Street, on Monday, Feb. 27 from 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Ithaca College and Cornell University form a natural magnet for talent from around the country, giving Ithaca four years to make an impression on the young adults as they grow and learn.
The interest for the city, of course, is to receive some return on investment once they move from students to workers. Getting them to Ithaca is the easy part, keeping them here is the current challenge. That’s been the impetus behind the Fab 5 awards, organized to celebrate the accomplishments of five young professionals in the community who are giving back to Ithaca and Tompkins County in a significant way.
The event is the product of Tompkins Connect, a combined effort between the United Way of Tompkins County and the Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce, along with the Tompkins Trust Company. Tompkins Connect was designed to connect and support young professionals, making it easier to sustain a company during potentially tough formative years.
This is the second annual event, including the same categories as last year’s awards: rookie, business leader, non-profit leader, volunteer, and entrepreneur of the years.
Non-profit Leader of the Year
Beverly Stokes has been working with the Ithaca Youth Bureau for about six years, moving her way up the ladder from a temporary summer employment position to program coordinator for Youth Employment Services, or the YES program.
Stokes said YES has been around for about 40 years, helping Tompkins County teens aged 14-20 who are just getting introduced to the workforce. By the time high school students around the age of 16 are starting to apply for jobs, many of them are at a disadvantage since older workers with more experience and more education are applying for some of the same jobs. At its core, YES exists to level the playing field.
“We provide job experience and work readiness training and our basic mission is to prepare teens for job success and prepare them for opportunities,” Stokes said. “We’re helping teens get jobs […] it’s a very wide range of various skills that we’re helping them to develop, and we just try to develop them into successful adults.”
Through a variety of ways, YES deals with 250-300 teenagers each year. For teenagers from lower income families, there is also a subsidized employment program through which the Youth Bureau pays their wages while they work somewhere else. Certain attributes needed for real-world success aren’t taught in schools, Stokes said, which is where YES specializes.
“You can get through school without learning some of the communication and problem solving and personal responsibility skills that are going to make you successful at your job,” she said.
Stokes, who said she became involved with the group after becoming interested in “non-traditional education” while studying music education at Ithaca College, assumed the coordinator position about 18 months ago. She had long wanted to work with students in some capacity that allowed her to provide or coordinate a unique and positive education experience with, hopefully, real-world implications.
“I fell into my role with YES but it was perfect for what I was looking for,” Stokes said. “It was just a happy accident, but it’s been a perfect fit.”
Volunteer of the Year
After a winding road that took him from studying psychology and anthropology in Utah, then to Madagascar and Zambia as part of the Peace Corps, Marshall McCormick ended up back near his hometown of Dryden in 2011, at Cornell pursuing a Master’s degree in city management and planning.
Since then, he has jumped back into the community headfirst, finding a job with Finger Lakes Wealth Management (FLWM), where he now serves as president, and serving on Ithaca’s Board of Zoning Appeals and the Board of Public Works, along with Ithaca Public Education Initiative and the Ithaca Re-Use Centers boards, among others.
McCormick said that while being on so many boards that deal with specific city policies and details gives him a chance to put his Master’s degree to good use, his daily work at the wealth management firm doesn’t differ as much as you might think.
“Much of the critical thinking skills and aspects behind city and regional planning can be applied,” he said. “We’re forecasting, we’re planning for the future, we’re looking at return on investment […] Being on the boards with the city because I have a graduate degree in that, it’s one place where I have an education that I can apply and give back to the city using it.”
Beyond the enjoyment he gets out of the volunteering, McCormick said he has made it an integral value of FLWM to interact with the community. The company registered as a benefit corporation as well, which under New York state law, McCormick said, obliges FLWM to “do right by our community.”
“One of the ways we are able to do that is give back time,” McCormick said. “I do that through volunteer work, but otherwise I do it because I enjoy it. Ithaca is a pretty unique and incredible city, so one of the ways I feel like I can pay it forward, or pay it back even, is to get involved.”
Rookie of the Year
During the last, say, 5 years, America has moved into an era of renewed self-reflection about systematic injustices are perpetrated against the disadvantaged, be it socially, economically, racially or otherwise.
Xavier Rusk, the paralegal aide in the Tompkins County Office of Human Rights, is tasked with manning the front lines of the efforts to guard against any of those inequalities that appear here. His main job is to administer the local, state and federal anti-discrimination code, which currently consists of developing local enforcement at the county level, as well as helping others understand the state and federal regulations.
“What this award means to me is that I’m being recognized for the work I’ve put in and my dedication to social justice work,” Rusk said. “And I hope that it would also encourage other people to become active in the fight for human rights and social justice.”
After being accepted to Cornell in 2007, Rusk said he stayed in the area for the people. Before working with the Office of Human Rights, he had a job at Legal Assistance of Western New York, where he said he found his passion for human rights by dealing with benefit disputes and housing rights.
Rusk said while he relishes his job and the relative anonymity it would normally include, he is honored that his work has made enough of an impact to be rewarded. He said he can get discouraged at times with the community he loves, but that frustration is the very reason he is here; fighting the discrimination that appears in Ithaca, subtle or overt.
Entrepreneur of the Year
Shortly after founding Ursa Space Systems in 2014, Adam Maher decided he was fed up with the stress and expense of living in the San Francisco-Silicon Valley world, opting to pick up his business and head back east to Ithaca, the city of his alma mater Cornell.
It’s not quite as intense as it may sound—Maher’s company had only one other employee at the time, and his business was already relatively mobile. But the move has paid off thus far, with a wealth of talent in the surrounding community to build his team and a healthy start-up environment.
Ursa Space Systems specializes in mining and analyzing satellite data, allowing clients to make decisions and base strategy off of extremely large samples that would normally be difficult to accumulate. Examples on Ursa’s website include monitoring the number of cars in parking lots and the change over time, or as Maher himself cites a recently introduced project that can reliably track China’s oil stocks.
“We take remote sets of data from space and basically make it accessible to average people,” he said.
Since moving to Ithaca, Maher has been able to attract people both fresh out of Cornell or Ithaca College as well as from outside the area as well, filling his team out to 10 employees. The business also secured a spot in the START-UP NY program early in 2016, which provides some tax relief and other benefits to new companies.
“I had actually lived in the Bay Area for a long time, I had definitely built up a lot of friends and connections there,” he said. “But at the same time, I think moving to a place like Ithaca was a great relief to get out of some of the stress and side effects of living in an area like the San Francisco Bay.”
Business Leader of the Year
One of the more visible examples of recent commercial development in downtown Ithaca is Press Bay Alley, the reinvention of the Ithaca Journal’s former storage bay that opened in 2014 and now houses several businesses.
That project, along with several others spanning the western side of the Commons, is part of a renewed focus on development towards other parts of Ithaca, outside of Collegetown, which had seen a rash of growth as the student population continues to climb. John Guttridge has been one of the engines behind this shift, along with his development company Urban Core and business partner David Kuckuk, while also running Brightworks Computer Consulting on West State Street.
Guttridge returned to Ithaca in 2005, dropping out after a successful but unfulfilling year at Northeastern University, and started Brightworks. After his lease expired at his rented office space, he began looking at places around town to expand his business, and ended up collaborating with Kuckuk to form Urban Core and dive into the real estate world in the process.
Guttridge said part of his interest in bringing business to downtown is personal, driven by his desire to help his hometown and create as comfortable a future for Ithaca as possible, a factor amplified by his two children. He said after the colleges, downtown is one of the main attractions to Ithaca and he feels like there are achievable improvements that could help Ithaca thrive more than it has.
“The bottom line of a business is how many dollars they make, but there’s this other bottom line of ‘what does it do for the community and how does it make everywhere a better place?’” Guttridge said. “That’s something that we are very focused on, trying to create an engaging and vibrant downtown area.”