40 Under 40: 2013
Our honorees help the city to become even more innovative, caring and socially conscious.
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Joe Vennare 
Co-Founder, Hybrid Athlete LLC; Co-Founder, Fittsburgh; Storyteller, TEDxGrandviewAve
Joe Vennare is going to break it down for you: “Everything you think about fitness is wrong, and I mean that in the nicest way possible. It’s not about a gym; it’s not about a diet; it’s not about what you wear; it’s not about a machine.” For Vennare, fitness is greater than all that. It’s about pushing through discomforts to find new abilities. When he was 22, Vennare and his brother Anthony set out to transform local fitness. They opened Hybrid Athlete, a gym with no mirrors and almost no equipment; instead their place offers personal and group training sessions that are designed to encourage growth. Today, TheHybridAthlete.com posts free healthy-living tips and exercise videos to its site. Earlier this year, the Vennare brothers also launched Fittsburgh (GetFitPgh.com), a website that aggregates information about local places where fitness buffs can eat, train and shop. Through this site and the brothers’ free, public pop-up workouts, the Vennares aim to make Pittsburgh the healthiest city in the nation.
Alexis Miller 
Project Analyst, UPMC Health Plan
Alexis Miller’s level of community involvement changed after she bought a vacant house in Polish Hill and started a two-year project to gut and renovate it. “There’s such a sense of satisfaction from having created something and giving new life to the neighborhood,” she says. As she worked on her abode and settled into the rhythms of Polish Hill, the neighborhood and its people increasingly became a part of her life. In 2009, she joined the board of directors of the Polish Hill Civic Association, of which she is now president. She clarifies that this role is more like an acting executive director, as she is responsible for fundraising, grant applications and budgeting, among other duties. Miller also sits on the board of directors for Construction Junction, the advisory board for Highmark First Night Pittsburgh and the Greenroom Committee for City Theatre, which provides young professionals with opportunities to see theater performances at a discounted rate, meet cast members and mingle with other arts fans.
Branden Ballard 
Manager of Recruitment, Public Allies Pittsburgh; President, Urban League of Young Professionals
Branden Ballard commits his time in both professional and volunteer capacities to help develop and retain young professionals in Pittsburgh. By day, he works at Public Allies Pittsburgh, an AmeriCorps program that places young adults with nonprofit organizations to help start their careers. As a manager of recruitment, he works to enroll young people who are dedicated to giving back. He also seeks out organizations that are willing to take on someone who may not have entry-level skills but does have drive and passion to learn. His commitment to young professionals carries over to his service with the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh; he is president of the Urban League of Young Professionals, a philanthropy and service group of people ages 21-39. In Ballard’s words, “It’s all about the cultivation of young talent and making sure that young talent has the platform to do the things they want to do in order to better themselves, their communities and their careers.”
Ken Smythe-Leistico 
Assistant Director, University of Pittsburgh Office of Child Development; Founder, Ready Freddy
Ken Smythe-Leistico’s passion wasn’t always kindergarten. When he graduated college, he ran a group home for delinquent teens, but after witnessing the effects of all of the traumas those kids experienced, he said to himself, “We’ve got to find a way that they don’t end up this far down the road.” Smythe-Leistico says research shows that poor kindergarten attendance is one of the earliest indicators that a person will drop out of high school, so kindergarten became his cause. “We’re sort of trying to raise this banner: ‘Kindergarten is a big damn deal!’ … but we try to tone it down,” he says with a laugh, “because it’s kindergarten, after all.” In his role as assistant director of the University of Pittsburgh Office of Child Development, he tackles all issues surrounding kindergarten attendance — from poor walking paths to overburdened mothers. He created Ready Freddy, an initiative that encourages children and families in low-income neighborhoods to get excited about school through engagement, programs and resources such as its kindergarten club curriculum for both parents and children. “All parents love their children, and they want something more for them,” he says.
Matthew Gaston 
Director, Emerging Technology Center, Carnegie Mellon Software Engineering Institute; Co-Founder and Trustee, Awesome Pittsburgh
Is $1,000 enough to make a difference in the life of an individual or group with a project or business idea? Matthew Gaston thinks so. He’s the co-founder of Awesome Pittsburgh, a member of the Awesome Foundation, which awards $1,000 micro-grants to support concepts deemed “awesome” by the board of trustees. “I think there’s something magical about the thousand dollars,” says Gaston, who explains that funds are given with no strings attached and are consistently put to great use. So far, the organization has awarded more than 20 grants and supported such initiatives as a fluoride treatment program for children who can’t afford to see dentists. As the director of the Emerging Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University’s Software Engineering Institute, Gaston defines innovation as “ideas plus execution.” Awesome Pittsburgh is a bridge to bring concept to reality, creating innovation. “The thousand dollars is really a spark,” he says. “And that’s how we think about it. We think about throwing a spark to give people enough of an incentive to go try.”
Julie Sokolow 
Independent Filmmaker, Writer and Musician; Founder and Director, Healthy Artists Series; Director of Feature Documentary, Aspie Seeks Love
Julie Sokolow thinks of herself more as an artist and filmmaker than an activist. But as a blogger for MichaelMoore.com, she recognizes that there’s a social-justice slant to much of her work. Sokolow, who started the filmmaker group Healthy Artists, has been associated with the movement for improved health care since she began volunteering with Healthcare for All PA in 2011. Today, Sokolow shoots a series of short films about young artists and their insurance struggles. She lends her artistic nature to the cause because she says she likes to “collaborate with [activists] and educators and nonprofits to try to cross those boundaries and bring those worlds together.” In the end, though, she’s an artist. At 19, she released her first album, Something About Violins, and she is currently working on her second CD. She’s also putting together a feature-length documentary, Aspie Seeks Love, about a man recently diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome and his quest to find love online.
Dr. Kurt R. Weiss 
Assistant Professor, Orthopedic Surgery, Division of Musculoskeletal Oncology, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and University of Pittsburgh
At age 16, one year after being diagnosed with osteosarcoma, Kurt Weiss’ Make-A-Wish dream came true: He got a new tenor saxophone and played it with the Notre Dame Marching Band at the Orange Bowl on Jan. 1, 1989. “More than anything, it proved to me that my dreams were not all over,” says Weiss, who is now a musculoskeletal oncologist. On the job, he works to fight cancers of the bones and tissues, but his battle doesn’t end in the operating room. Weiss helped to found Pittsburgh Cure Sarcoma, a group that sponsors an annual 5K run/walk that has raised more than $100,000 for sarcoma research. Along with approximately 80 percent of the children Make-A-Wish helped, Weiss survived his life-threatening illness. Unfortunately, many of those children discover years later that their families have spent all of their money trying to keep them alive, leaving little to support them in the pursuit of higher education. For this reason, Make-A-Wish began the Kurt Weiss Scholarship program, which helps recipients continue their schooling.
Kate Stoltzfus 
Digital Strategist, Plumb Media; Founder and Editor, Yinzpiration; Co-pilot, Propelle; Organizer, CreativeMornings/Pittsburgh
When Kate Stoltzfus moved to Pittsburgh, she didn’t know anyone. “There was a time when I really wanted to be a part of stuff but didn’t know how to go about it,” she says. “I’d come home from work and just [put] on yoga pants and watch some TV.” Today, she’s a central figure in the world of networking among young Pittsburgh professionals. It all started through her blog, Yinzpiration, which she created in 2010. Her goal was to interview 100 Pittsburghers in their 20s and 30s by the time she turned 30. Although she didn’t hit her target, she says she has met some great people along the way — including Carrie Nardini and Emily Levenson, her Propelle “co-pilots.” Propelle supports ambitious women through regular networking events and “Mastermind” business-planning sessions. Sprout Fund contacted Stoltzfus earlier this year to organize Pittsburgh’s CreativeMornings series; the “breakfast lecture series for creative people” has a monthly theme that’s interpreted differently by each city, national and international, hosting the event. Nowadays, Stoltzfus isn’t above yoga pants and TV. But when she wants to go out, she has a city full of comrades to see, and she’s helped other people accomplish that, too.