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Photographs by Jennifer Robertson
Raleigh is a young city. Of its population of some 470,000 people, wholly a third of its residents are in their 20s or 30s and the median age is 34. But more than what the numbers say is what you see and feel on the ground; Raleigh, especially its downtown core, buzzes with youthful energy. You’ll see that energy in fields towards which younger folks typically gravitate—in media, in the arts, in the dining, drinks and hospitality scene. But in Raleigh, you’ll also see young people represented in politics, in real estate, in business and, in the best ways possible, in their own communities that they clearly care deeply for. It was hard to choose just thirty Raleighites in their 30s who are making a difference in our city—and, of course, people of all ages are doing many great things—but we wanted to spotlight some of the young professionals who have achieved notable success in their respective fields, in business parlance, or, in other words, the people we think are truly crushing it. Our thanks go to them for getting up each morning and making Raleigh a better city for us all.
From creating art in different mediums to commissioning the spaces to carry it to making sure Raleigh’s artists can live, work and thrive, these 30-somethings are bringing the arts to everyone.
Brandon Cordrey: As executive director of the Visual Art Exchange, Cordrey ensures a diverse group of local artists have a place to call their own, to exhibit their work and gain exposure, and to come together to effect positive change in Raleigh’s creative community.
Jedidiah Gant: A digital urbanist and staunch arts and design advocate, Gant co-created the urban art fund FLIGHT as well as the Raleigh Murals Project to bring dozens of murals to blank walls, sidewalks and other open spaces all over the city.
Zalman “Zali” Raffael: Carolina Ballet’s artistic director brings an innovative vision to the institution, choreographing some of the ballet’s most compelling performances in recent memory and ensuring that the company continues to thrive through teaching and fundraising.
Taylor White: A Raleigh native who lived and worked internationally before returning home, White’s distinctive murals cover walls all over the city. White was selected from 32 artists to create the city’s first public art project for the Raleigh greenway system.
Economic Development and Entrepreneurs
It’s a broad field and each of these folks brings something different to the table. They run their own businesses, help small businesses and provide support for economic development. They’re all taking Raleigh into the future.
Ashley Cagle: The leader of business expansion, recruitment and relocation efforts for Wake County Economic Development, Cagle is in charge of overseeing the county’s efforts to attract and retain talent, with a focus on growing and recruiting highly skilled workers. We have to believe she bears some responsibility for all the Best Of lists that Raleigh and Wake County seem constantly to be landing on!
Patrice Graham: A mentor, a yoga teacher, a spiritual hype woman…that’s how Patrice Graham describes herself. She’s also the owner and founder of Colors of Yoga, an all-inclusive yoga studio and community in downtown Raleigh that focuses on healing, community building, body positivity and acceptance through its various classes and practices.
Bill King: The president & CEO of the nonprofit Downtown Raleigh Alliance, King has a front row seat to the triumphs and challenges Raleigh is experiencing as one of the fastest growing cities in America. Not only is King instrumental in courting businesses to open downtown, he’s also responsible for enticing locals to engage with them—and with virtually everything else that’s happening in Raleigh’s bustling urban core.
David Shaner: Tech entrepreneur Shaner founded letsgetoffline.com (which you may know as Offline Raleigh), a subscription service that gets people “offline” and out into the world to try new things. The concept sounds simple but it was no easy feat to get Offline up and running; it took six years, thousands of hours and four different business models to find the right fit but Shaner never stopped. Now, he’s helping thousands “fall in love with Raleigh.”
Media and Influencers
In a time when how we consume news and information is changing rapidly, these folks have found new and unique ways to include and share more voices, reach more people and create real change. They’re also attracting national attention.
Nation Hahn: The director of growth for EducationNC, a nonprofit that works to expand educational opportunities, Hahn launched and leads Reach NC Voices, an initiative with the goal of “putting the public back in public policy.” Using technology and participatory design strategies, Reach NC Voices surveys residents in real time across the state to understand how they feel about issues students, parents and educators currently face in North Carolina’s diverse communities.
Sarah Day Owen Wiskirchen: Wiskirchen’s newsletter, Raleigh Convergence, delivers a thoughtful, informative look at the people, places and events that make Raleigh Raleigh to our email inboxes several times a week and in January, the Facebook Journalism Project awarded Raleigh Convergence a $20,000 grant to fund content created by locals. Soon, Raleigh Convergence’s New Neighbor Project will publish dispatches from community ambassadors from Knightdale, Cary, Southeast Raleigh and Raleigh at-large, an exciting addition to the local media landscape.
Michelle Blaser: Founder of The Pollinatr, the first-ever advertising strategy newsletter with thousands of subscribers including strategic thinkers from Netflix, YouTube, Conde Nast, Refinery29 and more, Blaser is the local authority on trends happening at the intersection of media, consumer behavior and culture. Currently, Blaser works as the communications strategy director at Raleigh-based multi-disciplinary marketing agency Baldwin&.
Brittany Bell: Locals love watching her on ABC 11 and it’s been a whirlwind year for the station’s weekend evening meteorologist. Bell’s recent appearance on “Good Morning America Weekend” garnered national praise, creating speculation that she may soon have a Times Square office address.
Dining and Hospitality
Raleigh’s young culinary talent is so concentrated right now, we resorted to using third-party accolades as a benchmark to narrow down the field. Among our picks: three James Beard award nominees and the North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association’s Restaurateur of the Year.
Oscar Diaz: A 2019 James Beard award semi-finalist for best chef in the Southeast, Diaz, co-owner of the seafood-focused Cortez, is at the forefront of a trend whereby Southern cuisine is embracing its multi-cultural influences. “Immigrants are adding to what the South is,” Diaz said in a 2018 Time Magazine profile. “I’m repping Raleigh, I’m repping Latino culture and American culture. I’m repping the South.”
Cappie Peete: Her boss is the reigning James Beard best chef and Peete is holding her own as beverage director for AC Restaurants, garnering a 2020 James Beard award nomination for Outstanding Wine Program for Ashley Christensen’s Death and Taxes. Peete, who has been with AC Restaurants for three years, is also certified as an advanced sommelier.
Krystle Swenson: Anyone who’s tried them knows the desserts at Crawford and Son and Jolie are to die for. Swenson, the pastry chef who has worked for Scott Crawford since his days at Standard Foods, is getting her just desserts in the form of a James Beard award nom for Outstanding Pastry Chef.
Michael Thor: A paralyzing motorcycle accident in 2015 may have paused his cooking career but it hasn’t stopped the co-owner of Whiskey Kitchen from making a mark on Raleigh’s hospitality scene. Thor, along with business partner Jeff Mickel, were recently recognized as Restaurateurs of the Year by the NC Restaurant and Lodging Association,
a testament to Thor’s grit and determination to bring a unique restaurant, bar and experience to an old auto-repair shop in downtown Raleigh.
It’s not their day job to advocate for good city policy but that’s where we see these people working the hardest, to make Raleigh better. Whether they’re keeping us in the know about city happenings, encouraging us to vote in municipal elections or advocating for better transit systems or affordable housing, their voices are loud for the greater good.
Lindsay Saunders: A communications and outreach professional, Saunders makes it her mission to advocate for progressive politics that serve the public good. Saunders pushes for ways to engage communities and bring people together to address challenges in education, healthcare, housing, economic development and equality.
Mary Sell: By day, she’s an energy and environment planner for the Triangle J Council of Governments but she doesn’t leave that work at work. Twitter’s @RaleighBikeLady serves on the city’s Bicycle & Pedestrian Advisory Commission, advocating for everything from more bike lanes to better public transit systems to greenway-to-on-street connectivity.
Ashton Smith: She has leveraged her prominent professional role as a program manager at Citrix to push for community assets such as Citrix Cycle and she works with organizations where she can make a difference. Smith is vice chair of the Dix Park Master Plan Advisory Committee and serves on the boards of affordable housing development nonprofit DHIC and the NC Museum of Natural Sciences.
They’re the faces of all that’s good about Raleigh, the helpers, the advocates, the uplifters, the ones who work hard for positive change and to make life better for everyone in the city.
Kia Baker: As executive director of nonprofit Southeast Raleigh Promise, Baker is fulfilling a long-held dream to revitalize under-served parts of the city through education, affordable housing, health and wellness, economic opportunity and leadership development initiatives. With the opening of a joint elementary school and YMCA off of Rock Quarry Road, and affordable housing to come, Baker has helped shape a village that will inspire all who live, work and play there.
Nick Neptune: Before its owners knew Transfer Company would be a food hall, they wanted to ensure it would be a place to foster relationships. Enter Neptune, a longtime community advocate and Transfer Co.’s general manager, whose genial personality and generous spirit makes him the ideal ambassador to bring together Raleigh’s disparate communities around two universal passions: fun and food.
Amber Smith: Following a life changing trip through 20 states to perform random acts of kindness, Smith, the co-founder of Activate Good, has made it her mission to facilitate the connections local people need to get good work done. Through its website, Activate Good connects volunteers with charitable causes all over the Triangle and instills in young people the value of community service through its Youth Volunteer Program.
Joselle Torres: She helps homebound older adults and people with disabilities in Wake County maintain their independence while reducing their isolation and helping them avoid institutionalization. As the development officer of Meals on Wheels, Torres works tirelessly to raise funds to ensure these Wake County residents can live their lives to the fullest.
One of Raleigh’s strengths is the degree to which its young people are politically active and engaged. Because we can’t feature them all, we chose to feature some recently elected to our City Council—they appear here as a bloc—and two who hold county office seats and, this fall, are running for office at the state level.
Patrick Buffkin, Jonathan Melton, Nicole Stewart: Last year, Raleigh voters elected two politically engaged attorneys in their 30s—Patrick Buffkin (District A) and Jonathan Melton (at-large)—to its City Council, joining at-large member Nicole Stewart, the development director for the NC Conservation Network, for her second term. On council, all three members are working towards the shared goals of creating more affordable housing, improving the city’s transit systems and mobility, and maintaining Raleigh’s reputation as a leading city in the realms of innovation and sustainability. Saige Martin, the council’s youngest newly elected member, garners an honorable mention on this list—he’s only 29.
Jessica Holmes: A Wake County commissioner and employment law attorney, Holmes is running to become the state’s next Commissioner of Labor. During her tenure, Wake commissioners increased access to early childhood development programs, increased education funding, implemented a paid parental leave policy and a fair chance hiring ordinance. Holmes personally led a campaign to increase funding for Wake Tech and spearheaded initiatives to ensure students in Wake County schools aren’t going hungry.
Jenna Wadsworth: As a 21-year old NC State student, Wadsworth, who grew up on a farm in Johnston County, was elected to the Wake County Soil and Water Conservation District’s Board of Supervisors, the youngest woman ever elected to public office in North Carolina. She served for two terms on the board and was re-elected in 2018. This fall, Wadsworth is challenging the incumbent state Commissioner of Agriculture, Steve Troxler, for his long-held seat.
Real Estate and Development
From planning and undertaking exciting new projects to creating amazing and engaging community spaces, to using their professional resources and voices to give back, we recognize these 30-somethings for their work in the fields of commercial real estate and development.
David Meeker: His Carpenter Development Group has created some of Raleigh’s most beloved commercial gathering spaces, including all the Trophys, State of Beer and the upcoming SoHi RLGH, the city’s next creative district. Meeker also lends his voice to various civic initiatives locally, including as an advocate for preventing gun violence, for ending gerrymandering and for making riding city buses free for all.
Bryan Kane: Despite his locally famous last name, this Kane is making his own mark on Raleigh rather than riding coattails. Kane’s Company, SLI Capital, is redeveloping an industrial site off Whitaker Mill Road, east of Five Points. The trendy new destination dubbed East End Market is likely the first of many interesting redevelopment projects for the city.
Kimarie Ankenbrand: Ankenbrand leads the commercial real estate and property investment office in Raleigh for JLL, the second-largest company of its kind in the world. In her professional role, Ankenbrand works with companies to solve complex business challenges, enable cultural and organizational change and achieve sustainable financial results while charting the future of the brokerage business and developing and mentoring young talent. She’s one of the first women to hold this leadership role.
Merritt Atkins: A Raleigh native, Atkins has worked in community outreach and business development for more than a decade. The current marketing lead for the Holt Brothers, Atkins is a tireless proponent of the Holt Brothers Foundation’s efforts to help families and kids impacted by cancer, heading the Foundation’s numerous give-back initiatives.
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