Central Massachusetts is teeming with possibility, and there’s nothing that exemplifies this possibility more than our 2019 People to Watch list. From inventors to bakers, these people are shaking up Central Massachusetts and creating – and doing! – great things.
Co-founder, CEO of Canary
Nick O’Hara, of Shrewsbury, is fearless. In the faces of deep-pocket investors twice his age, he makes his pitch.
“I tell them, ‘Hey, this is what we are doing – if you want to join me, then join me,’” O’Hara said.
O’Hara established his first business in 2013, fixing cracked iPhones. What began as a service to family and friends evolved into a paid gig. This entrepreneurial spirit blossomed and carried him from St. John’s High School in Shrewsbury to Bryant University, a business school in Smithfield, R.I.
As a student at Bryant, O’ Hara explored a number of ventures while receiving the mentorship necessary to take his innovations to the next level.
What came next was a beach chair. But not just any beach chair – one that would keep electronic devices charged throughout the day. O’Hara has explored a number of ideas since.
Recently, an acquaintance from a previous venture, a local Worcester bar owner, presented him with a new idea.
“He told me that booking live music was a pain,” O’Hara said.
A new opportunity arose. O’Hara created an app to manually enable venues, bars and restaurants to find talent.
“Most venues will book the same musicians over and over,” O’ Hara said. “We are helping the musician to be seen while alleviating the hassle of booking gigs for venues.”
He hopes that his new endeavor, Canary, will revitalize the music scene in Worcester and beyond.
While Shark Tank may take him to New York and investor pitches investors to Boston, O’Hara has remained in Central Massachusetts.
“From an entrepreneurial standpoint, it is the best location to get work done – it’s manageable, and people are receptive to new ideas,” he said.
Producer, RYDN Music
Ray Doan began playing piano at the age of four. At 12, he played the viola. Today, Doan works with laptops, interfaces and monitors. He remains behind the scenes, but is still very much involved with music and sound as producer for RYDN music.
“It’s more enjoyable – a different workflow,” Doan said. “I create a sound stage for track. A vocalist will send a demo, and I will take the leap toward a full song – with much experimentation along the way.”
While attending Shrewsbury High School, electronic music grew increasingly popular. Doan cites a Skrillex track that got him invested in the genre. He began to research online and collaborate with friends. While attending UMass Lowell, he was able to record in a studio, refining his technique and learning proper management.
As a producer in Worcester, he has been influenced by a number of genres, including rock and grunge, despite his background in electronic music.
“I learn from all different forms of music. I try to get involved with genres that I don’t normally listen to,” Doan said. “Platforms like Soundcloud are great to discover artists and (genres) while expanding a network and growing as a producer.”
Anyone can upload music to Soundcloud. Doan takes a similar approach to accessing talent. He seeks to make recording easier for everybody with his idea of portable technology.
“I try to keep it minimalist – interface, laptop, microphone and a small set of monitors,” Doan said. “This way anyone can record without the aid of fancy studios.”
Doan recently produced an album, Riedel, by local artist, Anneliese Riedel.
“I want to keep helping others while exploring new facets of sound,” he said.
Rocco’s Doughnut Company
In the small, residential town of Millbury, Rocco’s means doughnuts.
“The logo came before anything,” Vinny Astrella, son of owner Joe Astrella, said. “The brand was created in Rocco’s image.”
The Astrella family used an old photograph of their late grandfather in his apron and chef cap to carry on his legacy – fresh, quality doughnuts, with their own new-school twist.
Thursday through Sunday, Rocco’s Doughnut Company will sell out its assortment of food coma-inducing treats, each one the size of a small cake. That doesn’t stop people from lining up for doughnuts by the dozen.
Despite its emergence as a recognized brand, it remains a family operation. Dom, 18, handles ordering. Vinny, 26, bakes. Their father, Joe, handles the day-to-day needs of a growing business.
“He is chief,” Vinny Astrella said, of the owner and patriarch of the brand.
The family business competes with the likes of Blackbird in Boston amidst an increasingly hipster-inspired pastry era. However, it distinguishes itself with a combination of all the things a doughnut shop should be. Don’t expect to see vegan blueberry ginger as a flavor.
“We want our donuts to look cool, be large and taste good – mass appeal, with ultimate quality,” Vinny Astrella said.
It was last year that the Astrella’s noticed the growth of upscale donut shops in California. They saw an opportunity in Millbury – a “blank slate” – to introduce something similar.
“We wanted to bring something new to the area,” Dominic Astrella said.
“We weren’t sure this would even work,” Vinny Astrella said. “It was an experiment.”
Now, with business booming, they have their eyes set on Westborough.
“We are a lot more confident opening a second location,” Vinny Astrella said. “Millbury has been a great place to start. Eventually, we see a location in Worcester.
“We love that Worcester is being built up. I foresee an influx of people and business models. With the impending arrival of the Paw Sox and the growing popularity of the Worcester airport, it may well become a destination city,” he said.
And when it does, donuts will become part of the destination.
CEO Redemption Rock Brewing
“Light, bright and open.”
That’s how Dani Babineau described the plans for Redemption Rock Brewing, the fifth brewery to open in Worcester.
Babineau, formerly an architecture student, pivoted from her career path six years ago to focus her efforts on the craft of beer – but more importantly, to open a space that serves as a fun, comfortable and welcoming space for the community of Worcester.
“The Worcester community is passionate about creating something,” Babineau said.
Babineau shares this sentiment.
“Being in Boston the last decade, Worcester has the amenities and energy of a city, but I can get involved and make more of an imprint on the city rather than in Boston – you get lost,” Babineau said.
“We made a decision we were doing this and left no Plan B,” she said. “Every obstacle we faced was just something we needed to overcome.”
Finding a location and fine tuning a business plan was no easy task. But, the team knew, it would have to be in Worcester.
With four breweries existing already in Worcester, one may (or may not) question the need for more beer. Babineau introduced the idea of a café, with the space being a “brew pub.”
“At Redemption, you can come in for an 11 a.m. beer and a 10 p.m. coffee,” Babineau said. “The space remains fully functional throughout the day; there is no segregation of coffee and brew.”
The model, down to the selection of beers on draft, is based on inclusiveness of the surrounding community.
“We didn’t want to differentiate on a certain style or alienate anyone,” Babineau said.
Redemption will carry four, year-round beers, including a Kolsch, hefeweizen, IPA and a stout.
Besides providing great brews and great coffee, Redemption seeks to give back beyond the gift of good drink. Redemption Rock Co. is a registered Massachusetts Benefit Corporation (otherwise known as a B Corp).
“It allows (us) to work the mission of a non-profit into a for-profit company,” Babineau said. “As far as corporate classifications go, it’s pretty rad.”
Mfouad Faris completed one year of dental school in his home country of Syria, then was forced to flee.
“I had to come start all over again; I never thought I would finish school,” Faris said.
He compares his first year in the States as living in a prison.
“My first year, through the asylum process, I had no job, no ID and no friends,” Faris said. It took six months alone to receive the paperwork necessary from his former high school in Syria.
Then, in 2015, Faris enrolled in Worcester State University. He studied genetics, comparing genes with the use of a database. To pay for school, he barbacked at the local Buffalo Wild Wings in Shrewsbury. But still, he struggled to find his place as a student.
Now, he attempts to find identity through life on campus: studies, friends and enjoyment of extracurricular activities. However, he acknowledges that he has to continue working double to make up for lost time. He still dreams of attending dental school, as he did at the age of 17.
Meanwhile, he has not forgotten his roots. He seeks to educate the public on conflicts abroad, namely in his home country of Syria.
“Colleges are a perfect platform for this discussion, and Worcester has many of them,” Faris said. “Worcester is open-minded. It is a network of diverse and multiracial people.”
With this presence of various backgrounds, Faris said, Worcester is receptive to new ideas.
“In January 2012, I was asked by my teacher in Syria: ‘Where do you see yourself in the future?’”
It surely wasn’t Worcester.
“Today, I realize I can say many things: I’ll be a dentist; I’ll be working, specially, but that nothing is guaranteed,” Faris said.
Faris hopes to attend Tufts and/or Boston University as he pursues his dental career.
Director of Discover Central Massachusetts
“From a resident’s perspective, momentum is building in Worcester,” Stephanie Ramey said. “I have chosen to raise my family (here) – to expose them to the cuisine, museums and general diversity.”
Having grown up in Worcester, Ramey believes the city has achieved its due recognition, now more than ever. Her role in Discover Central Massachusetts may have something to do with that. As director, she is responsible for attracting and creating new events for Central Massachusetts, including conferences, conventions and meetings.
“We establish Worcester as a premiere destination for visits by building an itinerary for visitors, assisting in navigation and identifying areas of interest,” Ramey said. “We are getting them immersed in the city – visitors will see the Worcester Art Museum, dine on Shrewsbury Street and shop at Crompton Collective.”
“We are helping them navigate by developing a widget and an app to customize user experience,” Ramey said.
One thing not readily obvious in the urban environment are the variety of green spaces. Ramey notes Elm Park and Green Hill Park as a couple of the spectacular parks.
“Green Hill, with its petting zoo and memorial, is a very chill place overall,” Ramey said.
It’s also kid-friendly. Just as Ramey has chosen to raise her children in this city, many others have as well, due to its thriving nature, which Ramey said, “is fit to invest and buy a home in.” Moreover, Worcester is becoming more walkable with time. Flourishing neighborhoods, Ramey attested, have begun to connect each other.
“Through the Discover Central Massachusetts website social media analytics, we have seen page views growing. People are spending significant time on our page,” Ramey said. “There are also a growing number of events taking place in the city.”
Is Worcester finally getting the attention it deserves? As Boston draws obvious tourism, one could argue it overshadows its smaller sibling.
“But we are not trying to become Boston. We are our own community,” Ramey said.
Chief Diversity Officer, Worcester
“In Texas, civic engagement and community involvement is highly promoted,” Suja Chacko, chief officer of diversity in Worcester, said.
Chacko, born and raised to first-generation immigrants in Houston, decided to bring her civic conscientiousness and skills of business management to the Northeast. She earned her master’s degree in social change at Clark University and immediately took a position in the human resources department of city hall.
“I know firsthand that immigrants, and people of color, have been historically marginalized,” Chacko said. “Our goal is to bring the voices of the underrepresented to local government, who may otherwise not have the social capital to do so.”
This year, Chacko was named chief diversity officer of Worcester, which encompasses ensuring diversity and inclusion in Worcester. This includes training, workshops and opportunities for employees in city government, as laid out in the City’s Equal Employment Opportunity of Diversity and Inclusion Plan. Chacko works to increase the number of people from underrepresented groups who work and volunteer for the city.
“We are conscious, and this is a priority of the city,” Chacko said. “We want all voices to be heard.”
“Worcester is a diverse community – it only takes a look to Main South or Park Ave. We are making sure that our workforce represents our community,” she said.
According to Chacko, this diversity is what makes Worcester such a great place to live, speaking as a resident and community member.
“It draws a lot of people and has the potential to draw more,” Chacko said. “The different languages and ethnicities is the embodiment of the beauty of this diversity.”
Co-founder, CEO Petricore
When Ryan Canuel, a gamer since 11, brought up the idea of a degree in game design to his parents, they were supportive. Good thing, too. The day before his graduation from Becker College, the papers came in, legitimizing his endeavor Petricore – a games development company. Taking the role of CEO at the age of 23 is no game.
“At Becker, I began talking about starting a business, and classmates became interested,” Canuel said. “At the start, we were not sure what Petricore would become.”
Fortunately, Canuel was able to access Worcester program resources for startups. This included access to free mentors, consultations and discounts on services. Moreover, Becker gave his team a place rent-free on campus.
This year marks three-and-a-half years as a business.
“The venture would be difficult in a city like Boston,” Canuel said. “The Worcester community is interconnected, and the access to a small circle of tech leaders is great – and there is an enormous amount of talent working on game development at Becker and WPI.”
According to Canuel, the gaming industry has continuously grown year after year.
“People get older, but the gamer does not stop playing games,” Canuel said. “The average age of a gamer now is 35 to 40 years old.”
We are not just talking about games like Pac Man or Super Mario Bros. As the gaming industry grows, the games become more compelling, and storylines become more complex.
“It creates an experience that not a lot of other mediums can,” Canuel said. “With a movie or a book, you can place yourself in a role, but you cannot make decisions. In a game, you can actually experience and feel the impact of the role.”
Before Petricore, there were 1,000 students actively pursuing game design in Worcester, but there was no large game development company. With the work of Canuel and his team, there is a platform for these students to utilize their talents and to create something new.
Field Director for District Attorney Joe Early Jr.
Mohamed Elmaola understands the importance of a child’s formative years. He grew up with the stress of living during a civil war in his home country of Lebanon. It was tough, but the experience made Elmaola the man he is today.
“Childhood is the first impression of life. If you learn how to overcome problems as a child, you are more fit to face them later in life,” Elmaola said. “I grew up living and breathing grit and hard work, and I see that in the strong middle-class city of Worcester.”
Seeing Worcester as a reflection of himself may have had something to do with all the time and effort he has invested in the city, especially the city’s youth. In 2015, he established Worcester Soccer House, an organization to provide free soccer clinics to kids. He also made a habit of meeting and speaking with young students about empowerment.
“Some people listen to music; I listen to speeches,” Elmaola said. “I have found the words of Eric Thomas, Steve Harvey, Steve Jobs, Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama (inspiring) regarding life lessons.”
He has chosen to share his own lessons with the young students of Worcester and loves seeing the transformations he attempts to stimulate.
Elmaola sees a progressive and forward-thinking city that’s a mix of people from different backgrounds.
“If we can invest in kids – arts, sports, academics – we won’t see some of the problems that plight urban communities,” he said.
While Elmaola’s ability to communicate, move and persuade plays a part in his current role as field director for Joe Early’s campaign, he will soon be commissioned as a military lieutenant.
“This country gave us opportunity, given the situation in Lebanon, and I would like to repay that debt,” he said. “I am a strong believer in serving and giving back to whatever community you may be part of – and I am excited to make being a solider part of my identity.”
Gregory Dubuisson, 25, and Emmanuel Carboo, 26
Founders of The 4ce 2.0
Gregory Dubuisson grew up in Haiti, while Emmanuel Carboo was raised in Ghana. Through their drive and self-taught sewing skills, they found themselves partnering in The 4ce 2.0 here in Worcester and revitalizing the creative arts scene.
It was never their intention, though. Dubuisson attended Anna Maria College, then Worcester State University, with hopes of becoming a doctor. He tossed that idea when he realized a true passion for fashion.
The events that the pair have put on involve more than fashion – they incorporate music and painting.
“It is tough to combine three (creative outlets) for one event, but there is a need for it – talking to people around here, they wish it would happen more,” Dubuisson said.
The Worcester community has shown its support.
The 4ce 2.0 held a show at the Worcester PopUp downtown, across from city hall. Local businesses, including The Loft and Bull Mansion, agreed to host events.
Their breadth continues to grow. They were invited to City Hall to attend one of the Worcester Culture Coalition meetings. Now, they hope to partner with schools and colleges to access the dormant creativity in the city.
“We wish to empower and motivate the creative youth,” Dubuisson and Carboo said.
Their fashion focuses on high-end streetwear, worn by the likes of Wyclef Jean and Steve Aoiki, names likely to perk the ears of students.
“The 4ce 2.0 can provide guidance. We are representative of the model of pushing forward,” Dubuisson said.
Within the next few years, the pair hopes to see more workshops in the area.
“We are raising awareness. Worcester will be known for its creativity. You don’t have to travel all the way to New York,” Dubuisson said.
Independent work for Worcester youth
“I want the youth to have fun and party, but to do it with a purpose,” Bolaji Ojo, former director of education at the Worcester Boys and Girls Club, said.
“With the at-risk youth in our city, they need more than homework help,” he said. “I draw on the likes and interests of these youth, utilizing social media and pop culture to keep them engaged.”
A recent survey of 9- to 17-year-olds revealed that youth did not feel like there were many area activities geared toward their interests. Ojo’s model incorporates the interests of city youth through different mediums, but ties it to performance in school. As a result, he saw study habits increase.
Ojo took his passion for event planning and put it to its best use, supporting youth in a holistic way and protecting the environment in which they grow. Connecting city services and organically raising funds, he seeks to inspire Worcester youth and ultimately change lives. His events showcase local talent and connect city youth with leadership such as the Worcester Police Department.
One of his events Ojo advertises as a multipurpose event/concert series. A hashtag: #LitYouthEventsMatter draws youth interest. Those students who perform well in school receive discounted tickets.
“By giving entrepreneurial support through showcases and fundraisers, we are able to push excellence – so that later, youth may independently work towards their own partnerships and connections,” Ojo said. “Good things happen to you when you are doing the right thing.”
Instrumental in mentorship and support, Ojo plans to stay in Worcester for a long time. He believes the city is only growing.
“The city is buzzing and full of life – I have an optimistic view for the future of this city,” Ojo said.
Where is he now?
Worcester native and one of Pulse’s 2016 People to Watch, Joyner Lucas has racked up two Grammy nominations in 2018. His viral hit “I’m Not Racist,” which has more than 104 million hits on YouTube, was nominated for Best Rap Video. “Lucky You,” in which Lucas appeared with Eminem, has been nominated for Best Rap Song. The Grammys, which will be held at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, will announce the winners live on Feb. 10.