25 Under 35 Honorees Teach by Their Example

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Had you asked Lindsay Renea Benton a decade ago whether she today would be teaching dance classes in Youngstown, her answer would have been an unequivocal no.

Upon her return to her hometown after spending years in New York and touring globally with a troupe, family and friends asked her to work with their children.

A year and a half ago, as demand grew, she opened Lindsay Renea Dance Theater on the East Side.

Students in her classes range from ages three to their early 20s and the work, she says, is some of the most rewarding she’s done.

“Kids are the best comedians. They’re great at synthesizing, at simplifying and at providing comedic relief,” Benton says. “There are some that you tell to look down at the floor and they look so far down that they end up looking behind them and flip over.

“It makes me wonder how much further I could go if I could put that much into myself and two other tasks throughout the day.”

Benton is one the honorees in the 2016 25 Under 35 awards.

In this year’s class, whose professions range from engineers to accountants to professors to journalists, more than half dedicate their free time to preparing the Valley’s younger generation.

A few years ago, Youngstown State University graduate Tim Petrey, a certified public accountant and managing principal at HD Davis CPAs, started noticing that YSU graduates didn’t always show the soft skills needed to land a job.

“The university saw that need for development as well. [President James] Tressel mentioned it several times and Pete’s Pride was started, but it wasn’t moving fast enough for us,” Petry says.

So, Petrey and a group of his college friends set out to create a mentoring program that, while it served students in the Williamson College of Business Administration, was separate from the university.

The first session, he reports, had five students. Now, there are 20.

“It’s cool to hear from the students, ‘This helped me take the next step,’ or, ‘ I got a job because of this,’ ” Petry says. “That really motivated me – and us – to keep pushing.”

In addition to providing counsel and answering questions, the mentors advocate for the city itself.

“I’ve watched the exodus of talent and I started to see the ramifications years later,” Petrey says. “What’s going to happen when the next generation decides to leave our workforce? Where will that leave us?”

Kelcie (Witmer) Schiraldi, a CPA at Farmers Trust Co. and a mentor at the Williamson College, says those types of discussions – where students weigh leaving the area – are discussions she always looks forward to.

“A lot of students plan on leaving once they graduate, especially with business careers,” Schiraldi says. “They think you have to go somewhere like Chicago or New York to be successful. There’s great talent at YSU and I’d love to see them work and live here in the Valley.”

Most students are drawn to their mentors because they provide insights on issues their professors and professionals in their fields answer in the most general of terms, such as salaries or quality of life.

“You make contacts with professionals, but there are questions you can’t really ask or certain topics you can’t bring up in that professional setting,” Schiraldi says of her own student experience.

“In our program, all of the mentors are young professionals, just five to 10 years out of college. So the whole process is fresh in our minds.”

Within YSU, professors also try to be mentors. R.J. Thompson, a professor of graphic and interactive design, says he makes it a point to keep his office door open to any student who needs his help.

“In my syllabus, it says to call, text or email for anything. And I’m the same person on social media as I am in my office,” Thompson says. “That ability to communicate with me has been influential. I’ve walked students through applying for internships on Facebook.”

In her dance studio, Benton agrees that it’s up to teachers, whether formal ones such as Thompson and herself or informal such as Petrey and Schiraldi, to nurture the next crop of the Valley’s best and brightest.

“A teacher’s job until a student’s last day of school is to cultivate their talents, encourage them to develop their skills and technique and teach them self-awareness,” Benton says. “But most important is to keep them inspired to the point where they want to pursue higher education and aspire to higher standards.”

Equally as important as providing counsel is setting the Valley’s young people on career paths they want, says Brian Alls, co-founder of Bravura 3D in the Youngstown Business Incubator.

Alls meets regularly with high school students and youth groups such as Junior Achievement and the Boys and Girls Club to discuss entrepreneurship and engineering.

“A lot of kids I’ve encountered have been put in the track of ‘go to school, go to college, get a job,’ ” he says. “While that’s still important, there are some kids that it isn’t the best fit and they’re being pushed along without having another option.”

With the success of organizations such as the business incubator and the growth of cutting-edge technology businesses, the renewed interest of children and teenagers in starting their own businesses is palpable. The issue all too often, Alls notes, is the gap between what students are told they need and the tools they’re given.

At the college level, Thompson has taken strides to help narrow that gap through the creation of programs such as Youngstown Design Works. There, students work with business clients to design new logos and brands.

The processes and reactions are the same as they would be in the real world, Thompson explains, but the classroom setting mitigates the risks.

“When students leave my class and go to freelance, they’re on their own. If they’re not prepared to handle people, they’ll have a hard time,” he says. “Through Design Works, by the time they graduate and make that transition, it’s easier for them because they’re no longer afraid of interviewing and are a little entrepreneurial.”

Through all of their work, the 25 Under 35 nominees are working to better the Mahoning Valley. The dozen or so who work with children, teenagers and college students have confidence that their efforts will pay dividends.

“You’re going to see the Baby Boomers start retiring and this generation is crucial to filling those spots,” Schiraldi says. “I’ve heard people say that this next generation is different, that they’re lazy or don’t work as hard. They sometimes get a bad rap, but I’ve seen what they can do.”

The power to alter Youngstown’s landscape, whether culturally or economically, in new ways is in the hands of the students, Alls posits.

“They have the power of immediate and lasting change. When I talk to kids, I ask what they think of the area and it’s generally a mix. But most don’t see the opportunities that reside in this area,” he says. “I point that out to them and tell them that this is an incredible area, not just to live and work, but also to start a business.”

Whatever opportunities are presented to today’s youth ­– whether through having Schiraldi and Petrey as mentors, teachers such as Thompson and Benton or people showing them potential career pathways like Alls – it’s still up to them to take that first step, a step that could set them on paths similar to this year’s nominees.

“One thing I try to reinforce is that you have to make your own opportunities. Any one of my students can graduate and make their own opportunities here,” Thompson says. “I’m going to open the door and you have to choose to walk through it. If you choose not to, then you’ll dwell in mediocrity.”

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.