Wasiullah Mohamed

As we approached our fifth anniversary covering the people and places moving Pittsburgh forward, this milestone got us thinking: What will the next five years look like?

Who are the people who will be breaking new ground, driving positive progress and innovating to build a better and brighter Pittsburgh for all of us?

We turned to our very committed audience of readers and asked: Who will lead change and keep improving this city in the next five years? Who are 25 essential people Pittsburgh cannot live without?

Hundreds of nominations later, we had quite a list: very long, quite diverse and uplifting. “Please,” said one nominator, “if I take the time to do this, will it end up being heads of foundations and political folk?” The selection committee took that to heart and included some superstars but mostly rising stars — people sparking social, cultural, artistic and technological change in Pittsburgh.

Thanks to all who nominated and to those who had the impossible task of selecting. Look for more essential Pittsburghers by sector coming soon!

Damon Young. Photo by Sarah Huny Young.

Damon Young, author, “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker”

“He gives us a lot to think about,” says one nominator. “I love reading his insightful and witty writing and I think so many other Pittsburghers do, too.”

Damon Young started and then sold his immensely popular site Very Smart Brothas (VSB), then wrote the book that is making him a literary star. “So much of the national dialogue about race deals with either terrible trauma or black excellence,” he told The New York Times recently. “I was more interested in the space in between, because that’s where I exist.”

Young also said this to The Times: “In order to write a compelling memoir, I had to tell the truth. And the truth is unflattering. The truth is embarrassing. But that truth is also human. So whenever I have those critiques about toxic masculinity, I am not absolving myself. I am not saying, you guys need to do better, it’s ‘we.’”

“He’s honest,” said a young man who participated in his black youth summit last year. “He crafts his experiences into honest and relatable narratives. He knows the power of his words and uses them to tell a compelling and underrepresented narrative of what it means to be a Pittsburgher.”

Also worth noting is his advice to young writers at the end of his interview with The Times: “Move to Pittsburgh. We need you. It’s a city where you can survive as a working artist. Or marry someone who is rich.”

Duolingo founder Luis von Ahn.

Luis von Ahn, CEO and Founder, Duolingo

“As a MacArthur Genius award winner paired with being a professor at Carnegie Mellon AND a three-time entrepreneur, Guatemalan born Luis could have started his most recent company anywhere but Pittsburgh. Instead, with all venture capital raised from outside of Pittsburgh, Luis built Duolingo right here,” wrote one nominator about von Ahn and his wildly successful and socially impactful language learning company.

“His commitment to building a global company, attracting globally diverse employees, to work on a mission-centric solution to ensure mastering languages is accessible to all people,” they continued. “Most importantly, Luis has put Pittsburgh on the global map. He has attracted investors who have never invested in Pittsburgh companies. Pittsburgh is a better community as a result of Luis.”

Kenny Chen
Kenny Chen.

Kenny Chen, Innovation Director, Ascender; Producer, Thrival Festival; Founder, Pittsburgh AI; Ambassador, XPRIZE

“Kenny Chen is a super connector and it’s all with the aim to make life better, whatever the sector. He is completely generous in that way. He takes his learning global, too, learning from anything and anyone but especially idea-makers and innovators. So, when he talks or leads, he’s worth listening to and following,” wrote one of our readers. We agree.

Through his work at Thrival, Pittsburgh AI, XPRIZE, AI for Good, AI Commons, Techstars, SVP, ILF and the PGH Entrepreneurs Forum, Chen has made an impact advancing social and technological innovation in Pittsburgh. He draws on his experience and education in many sectors to find collaborative solutions to complex issues. His focus is on AI ethics and policy, a highly relevant topic for the region.

Jane Werner. Photo courtesy of Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh.

Jane Werner, Executive Director, Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh

One Pittsburgher wrote in describing Werner as “a true visionary.” She took a cultural gem, Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, and expanded it in myriad ways to make it one of the best in the country. She is a star not only in the world of kids where she is known as a bold innovator but also in the world of community development. With the opening of Museum Lab, she’s building a cultural campus for our kids that’s already being hailed as one of a kind in the country.,

So what’s next? Werner’s multiple nominators are quite sure that more is in store: “No matter what she does next, it will be visionary,” one wrote. And “we would NOT want to lose her to Chicago.”

Betty Cruz.

Betty Cruz, Founder and Project Director, All for All

“Betty is doing amazing work empowering immigrants in the community and raising awareness on why it’s important for Pittsburgh to be open to all. It’s the most important conversation we can be having right now,” says one of our readers.

After her impressive stint at the Mayor’s office, Cruz founded a social enterprise to advance the integration of immigrants in Pittsburgh. Their first big project? All for All — a countywide effort taking the Immigrant Community Blueprint from plan to action. It’s a big, community-led plan to address the needs of immigrants and Latinos in the region, to build a more welcoming community.

Her belief: “If we can work to elevate everyone and do right by our immigrant communities and communities of color, it will enrich our city and the quality of life for everyone.”

Dr. Byron Clayton. Photo courtesy of ARM.

Dr. Byron Clayton, CEO, Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing (ARM)

“Dr. Clayton is a visionary for robotics and workforce innovation in manufacturing. He is leading ARM, a Pittsburgh-based national consortium of the brightest minds in robotics and AI.”

ARM’s mission is to increase U.S. global competitiveness in manufacturing by advancing the state of robotics to make it more easily available for all U.S. manufacturers to automate. In November 2017, Mayor Peduto and regional officials announced “the Future of Manufacturing” with the recognition of Mill 19 at Hazelwood Green, which will be ARM’s home.

“At Mill 19, we will be able to demonstrate to the world that Pittsburgh can again be the leader in our next industrial revolution,” this nominator wrote. “Dr. Clayton’s guidance will help put Pittsburgh back on the map as a centerpiece of the future of manufacturing.”

Katharine Eagan Kelleman photo courtesy of the Port Authority.

Katharine Eagan Kelleman, CEO, Port Authority of Allegheny County

“Transit is vital to Pittsburgh’s quality of life; close to a fifth of the city’s residents use it to get to work. Katharine is the first CEO to get that and is reforming an authority long-seen as unwilling to get with the times and unresponsive to riders’ needs, including more diverse middle and senior leadership,” wrote one nominator about Kelleman, who became Port Authority CEO at the start of last year.

“She’s also, finally, getting it to look forward and plan for the future,” they continued. “Ridership is growing, bucking national trends. Uber, Lyft and autonomous vehicles may be changing how mobility is provided, but robust mass transit will always have to be the backbone of any city that intends to be just, equitable, economically viable and human-centered. She understands this and is reforming a once calcified authority to seize the future.”

Jasiri X. Photo by HauteMuslim.

Jasiri X, Founder 1Hood Media, rapper

“Jasiri X is an advocate, big on raising awareness around the importance of race and race relations. He’s also a talented artist and brings more talented artists around the table, using that talent to bring about more awareness of race,” wrote one nominator.

“He uses music as a platform to showcase social justice for a younger generation. His lyrics address such things as the reasoning of why black lives matter, the Occupy movement, bias in advertising, etc.”

Readers also praised Jasiri X’s development of a program called 1Hood Media Academy, “which supports the arts in general and also teaches kids to think critically about media through music. He gives freely of his time and talents to honor others, including a benefit concert to help the family of Antwon Rose.”

Christina Cassotis at the State of the Airport meeting on March 2, 2016.

Christina Cassotis, Executive Director, Airport Authority of Allegheny County

“A dynamo who gets things done, often ahead of schedule, Chris brings people from various sectors across the Pittsburgh region for collaborative success,” wrote one of our readers. When she’s not working to get more flight routes for Pittsburgh, Cassotis is busy transforming the airport with a bold design for downsizing.

A lot is riding on her work and leadership. “It’s critical to our future,” said one nominator, “and so is she.”

Zaheen Hussain.

Zaheen Hussain, Millvale Sustainability Coordinator + Director of Sustainability at New Sun Rising

Zaheen is known for “his groundbreaking work building the Triboro Ecodistrict in Millvale/Sharpsburg/Etna” with the powerhouse team behind New Sun Rising.

“Zaheen is a gem,” one nominator wrote. “Many, many people know him, because he is curious, joyful and optimistic in his quest to make people’s lives better in Pittsburgh. His story — one of a working class, immigrant family — is a familiar one to Pittsburgh’s history and roots, and his commitment to learning and growing communities toward the greater good is an inspiration.”

Joylette Portlock.

Joylette Portlock, Executive Director, Sustainable Pittsburgh

Her mission in her new role is to accelerate sustainability policies and practices in southwestern Pennsylvania. It was Portlock who started a series of short, funny videos called “Don’t Just Sit There – Do Something!”on climate change when she worked at Communitopia, (a nonprofit focused on climate change communication).

A scientist by background — with a biology degree from MIT and a Ph.D. in genetics from Stanford — she has worked on environmental issues at the local, state and federal level with a focus on climate change. “It’s the biggest issue facing us today,” says one nominator. “We need her guidance” in her new position and on the board of the Allegheny County Board of Health and in her many other community roles.

Wasiullah Mohamed.

Wasi Mohamed, Executive Director, Islamic Center of Pittsburgh

Wasi Mohamed acknowledges Pittsburgh is a “phenomenal model” for interfaith cooperation built by generations of leaders of faith, and he continues to work tirelessly to bring people of all faiths together.

After the Tree of Life shooting, as the director of the ICP, he offered to cover funeral costs and medical bills for the victims. ICP ended up raising more than $200,000. “In one of the most moving acts of interfaith solidarity I’ve seen, he went even further and, in order to help the Jewish Community in Pittsburgh, offered that Muslims would stand outside the temple and act as security, go to the grocery store or just to be there. That act alone seemed to create a sense of safety and was deeply comforting at a time of extreme tension, and fear. The offer was quite brave and was sorely needed,” one nominator wrote.

He serves on Mayor Bill Peduto’s Commission on Human Relations and as chair of the Welcoming Pittsburgh Commission which encourages immigrant and refugee inclusion. He also serves on the statewide Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs and he was elected to the ACLU Pennsylvania State Board of Directors as well as being named the Executive Director of Emgage PA, where he coordinates political education and organizing activities throughout the commonwealth.

Leah Lizarondo, CEO and Co-founder, 412 Food Rescue

The staff at NEXTpittsburgh writes about the people driving change in the region and the innovative and cool things happening here.