Lea Carpanzano and Tyrae Woodson-Samuels
Meet the 19 under-30 business professionals who are generating change across a spectrum of industries in Westchester County.
By Marisa Iallonardo, Duke Ratliff, and Kevin Zawacki
Photography by Stefan Radtke
Shot on location at Cambria Hotel, White Plains
Social & Digital Media Manager
At just 24, Lea Carpanzano is responsible for all digital and social media at Iona College, including daily content across Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn. She also produces all the video content for the college, from virtual tours to program highlights.
When COVID-19 forced the world to go virtual, Carpanzano helped transform the Iona experience to video platforms. In-person commencement couldn’t happen, so she worked with a professional production company to transform it into a high-quality virtual graduation. Prospective students and families couldn’t visit the campus due to safety restrictions, so tours and live chats had to be done virtually. All the while, social media became paramount to reaching students, and Lea was the main interface across all social platforms for Iona.
“I think, overall, while the need for more video and digital content increased, it felt like a natural progression,” says Carpanzano, who joined Iona in 2019. “Maybe it was exacerbated by the pandemic, but it was going to happen anyway. Part of the world of social media is to keep pushing and moving and innovating, so the pandemic just made me have to do all of that in a different way.”
County Legislator, District 13
Westchester County Legislature
In November, Tyrae Woodson-Samuels was elected as a Westchester County legislator, making him, at 28, the youngest person ever to represent Mount Vernon.
Woodson-Samuels was already known to local sports fans as the quarterback who led Iona Prep to a state championship in 2008. Political watchers knew him as a former aide to Congressman Eliot Engel, for whom he worked with residents and public offficials on issues including immigration, gun safety, military, veteran’s affairs, and healthcare.
All of these activities reveal Woodson-Samuels to be a man of action.
“I like to say that involvement matters,” he says. “You can’t just stand on the sidelines. Helping other people carries with it a reward upon which you can’t place a value.”
Woodson-Samuels is also a legislative committee member of the Westchester Black Democrats, serves as Caucus of Color chair for the Westchester Young Democrats, and has leadership roles with the local chapter of the NAACP. A proud native of Mount Vernon, he is a board member of the Shamoya McKenzie Foundation, Fleetwood Neighborhood Association, and the Community Service Associates Soup Kitchen.
“My phone never stops ringing,” Woodson-Samuels says, “and it’s often cries for help. People are looking for problems to be solved, like only a strong government can do. If we all work together, we can work through this.”
Ginsburg Development Companies
Most county residents are familiar with the work of Ginsburg Development Companies (GDC), whose luxury apartments dot Westchester waterfronts from Yonkers to Peekskill. What many residents don’t know is the outsized role Samara Graca plays in making these developments successful.
Graca, 29, has had a rapid ascent at GDC. In just two years, she’s risen to become the youngest property manager at the firm. She currently oversees Harbor Square, the 188-unit high-rise in Ossining, where she manages 17 employees.
On an average day, Graca takes on enough to keep a small team busy. “I address all comments, complaints, and concerns from staff and residents,” she explains. “I walk the building and the grounds to make sure everything is in tiptop shape. I pay invoices, post checks, and make sure all books and logs are up-to-date.”
As a result, Graca has had a significant impact on the bottom line. She alone leased 60% of the Harbor Square units while increasing revenue for her building between 3% and 6% year over year.
But Graca’s success at GDC hasn’t been limited to Ossining. She played a key role in property acquisitions in White Plains, Mohegan Lake, and Yonkers. Graca was also instrumental in GDC’s ambitious project at Fort Hill in Peekskill, shepherding it from the construction phase to three completed luxury apartment buildings.
Creative Technology Director
Corporate Audio Visual Services
Before COVID hit last year, Ryan Finch was his company’s youngest senior account executive — focusing on sales but also managing the live productions his company is contracted to enact. After the pandemic eliminated person-to-person contact, he was instrumental in helping to reinvent the company’s products and services to focus on virtual-event productions.
In his current role, Finch leads the creative-technology end of dozens of virtual-event productions, designing customized experiences for a wide array of programming. He serves as virtual technical director on many of the productions, working directly with live on-air presenters, including heads of state, industry experts, media personalities, and local powerbrokers.
“I found myself in a much more creative role,” says Finch. “My day-to-day now consists of graphic design, video editing, animation, and digital design for broadcast applications.” He adds that continuous learning, such as attending classes to add to his graphic design and media skills, prepared him for this more creative role.
“You have to continuously develop yourself because you never know where the career opportunities are waiting,” Finch says. “You are either prepared to jump on them or not.”
Aside from his professional duties, Finch has worked with the United Way, co-chairing its Special Events and Fundraising Committee.
“We all reap the benefits when a community is properly cared for and tended to by the people living there,” he says.
Administrator, Ambulatory Network Operations & Strategic Planning
Mount Sinai Health System
As an undergrad at Morehouse College, Aaron Hopkins was pre-med and planning to become a physician. After spending a summer working for the vice president of a hospital, he opted for the administrative side. “I wanted to be able to influence strategies that can affect procedures and processes in an arena where I could help impact multiple patients as opposed to treating patients individually,” says the Yonkers resident. “I always knew I wanted to be in healthcare, as it is the center of innovation and compassion.”
Hopkins earned a master’s degree in health services and administration from the University of Michigan, and he took part in Mount Sinai’s Administrative Fellowship program. Today, he’s the administrator for the Mount Sinai Doctors Yonkers site, where he oversees 25 staff members and supports 15 providers. Hopkins handles the financial and business operations, plus helps regional leadership with strategic initiatives, like ensuring supply sufficiency and PPE. “What I love about my career path and my current role is being able to help and empower others,” Hopkins says. “I have the ability to care for and help members of my staff, who have dedicated their lives to caring for and helping our patients.”
Research & Development Associate
“It is every scientist’s dream to see his or her efforts become something greater than their own contributions,” says Stephanie Giordano, a research-and-development associate at Regeneron. “To be able to work on a project and see it from start to finish — from research to clinical drug therapy — is one of the most fulfilling opportunities I’ve ever experienced.”
The experience of the past year is undoubtedly one Giordano will never forget: As the youngest member of Regeneron’s five-person rapid-response team for infectious diseases, she made critical contributions in helping the company develop REGN-COV2, one of only two antibody treatments authorized for emergency use in treating COVID-19.
Giordano kicked off her work in early 2020, when the company became aware of the novel coronavirus. At times working 90-hour weeks, including weekends and late nights, Giordano helped the team screen thousands of antibodies and identify candidates to be used potentially as part of a treatment to fight the virus.
Giordano says she foresaw the direction of her career when she fell in love with the intersection of biology and chemistry as a chemistry major at Fordham University: “In a way, my end goal was to get to Regeneron.”
She adds there are days where her job is incredibly stressful, “but at the end of the day, even on those bad ones, to be able to contribute to a cause so much greater than yourself makes it worth it and more.”
Director, Program Operations
YWCA White Plains & Central Westchester
Ned Corona makes a difference in his community each and every day — and his devotion to the nonprofit sector is personal. “For me, the most exciting and motivating part of working in nonprofit is that my work is linked to our mission, eliminating racism and empowering women,” says Corona, a son of Cuban immigrants who has worked at YWCA since 2011.
Corona’s day-to-day activities revolve around data tracking and management, assisting program leaders, and managing projects. He also helps oversee revenue-generating programs, for which he’s made programmatic decisions that include expanding summer camp and converting the fitness center into childcare space.
When the pandemic hit, Corona added a COVID-screening protocol and created a plan to keep each YWCA program separate to ensure limited exposure. Meanwhile, he helped launch the Distance Learning Program servicing the White Plains School District, a program offering in-person learning to grade school students during their remote days.
Aside from his work at the YWCA, Corona is also the co-chair of a senior health-and-wellness committee through the Westchester County Department of Senior Programs and Services, where he helps seniors gain access to a wide range of public benefits, from housing to transportation.
“We have experienced an increase in our senior population in the last decade,” Corona says, “and it is our responsibility as a community to take care of our seniors.”
Decicco & Sons Events & Cuisine
In charge of DeCicco & Sons’ in-store, private, and corporate events, Brittany Arocho manages a five-person event-planning team for the locally owned grocery chain.
Before the pandemic, Arocho would manage up to 12 weekend events, for which she consulted with clients, curated menus, and oversaw event design and staffing. She also coordinates pickup and deliveries across all nine DeCicco locations.
During COVID, Arocho and her team shifted their focus to support the communities they serve. She organized more than $20,000 in food donations for a variety of groups, including Community Food Pantry of Sleepy Hollow and Tarrytown, Hope Soup Kitchen, County Harvest, Westchester Community College’s Food Pantry, local police departments, hospitals, firefighters, and other first responders.
Additionally, Arocho personally dropped off donations while leading DeCicco’s to be one of the first to partner with Open Table for grocery-shopping reservations. Today, the young executive, who started with DeCicco & Sons in 2017, finds herself in the enviable position of being able to help her community yet build a rewarding career in her chosen industry.
“I’ve been passionate about food since I was a child, when my grandfather cooked with me in the kitchen,” Arocho says. “The ability to work with food in so many ways has been very rewarding — and challenging at times. I love a challenge and have always had that as a motivating factor in taking on any new project.”
Frank De Santis
Human Resources Manager
Starting at Stew Leonard’s Yonkers location as a cashier when he was 17, Frank De Santis has risen through the ranks to become human resources manager at the chain’s only Westchester location, which is the sixth-largest employer in Yonkers.
De Santis and his team of four human resources professionals work closely with directors, management, and the 500 frontline employees (more than 700 during the holidays) to partner on all aspects of HR. He oversees hiring, onboarding, training/development, performance management, employee relations, culture initiatives, “and much more,” he says.
His unwavering leadership was an integral part of Stew Leonard’s remaining open and safe as an essential business during the pandemic, says coworker Christie Verschoor. “He helped the team and the store navigate the uncharted territory, maintaining a clean, safe, reassuring place to work and shop, providing essential food, groceries, and supplies to the surrounding community.”
De Santis also represents his company as a member of the Yonkers Workforce Development Board, where he designed and implemented an annual High School Hiring fundraiser program that has offered employment opportunities to more than 500 Westchester-based students.
“I am proud of the many lives I have been able to impact in a positive way,” De Santis says. “It is especially fulfilling for me to watch people around me learn and grow.”
Manager, Professional & Support Services
Westchester Medical Center Health Network
If you took a COVID-19 test at WMCHealth’s Valhalla campus, you may have seen Sokhona Sillah… directing traffic. This activity isn’t part of Sillah’s official job description, but it’s a perfect example of how she has gone above and beyond during the pandemic.
Sillah has been in the center of the storm as a key lead in WMCHealth’s COVID-19 operation. As a manager in the professional and support services department, she’s responsible for the day-to-day management of WMCHealth’s testing facility on its main campus in Valhalla. Since March 2020, this drive-thru testing site has served more than 65,000 people. Sillah is there on a daily basis, scheduling staff, ordering supplies, and coordinating with WMCHealth’s Call Center.
She is also a floor lead for WMCHealth’s vaccine administration program, which operates out of the Westchester County Center, including the allocation and distribution of the vaccine across providers. In both of these roles, Sillah is responsible for ensuring a safe environment for patients and staff.
“Working in healthcare during this global pandemic has allowed me to unlock new levels of myself personally and professionally,” Sillah says. “The most fulfilling moments are when patients express endless gratitude via thank-yous, notes, and cards.”
She began her career at WMCHealth as an administrative assistant in 2015. Says Keri Tone, senior director, ambulatory services, and Sillah’s direct supervisor: “She has grown personally and professionally and has taken on additional responsibilities every step of the way.”
Julia B. Fee Sotheby’s International Realty, Rye Brokerage
In the competitive world of Westchester real estate, marketing is indispensable. Thankfully, Julia B. Fee Sotheby’s International Realty has Jessica Cheng.
Cheng, 29, is the marketing manager at the firm’s Rye brokerage, but the title doesn’t do her justice. She has extensive experience in everything from social media and graphic design to branding and training.
Cheng’s talents are on display at the popular @RyeNyHomes Instagram account, which showcases the region’s poshest homes — from stunning interior shots to vistas on the Sound. “Agents around the world message me on Instagram about New York, expressing how they want to visit our office and how much they enjoy our office’s social media designs and home photography,” Cheng says.
The pandemic turned the real estate market upside down, but Cheng adapted with her signature prowess. “Many forms of advertising switched to a more digital route, but from my perspective, social media was one of the strongest forms of advertising for our agents,” she explains.
During her time at the brokerage, Cheng has amassed impressive engagement numbers — the most important metric of all in the marketing world. “As an office, we experienced a significant, 38 percent increase in closed-dollar volume from 2018 to 2020,” she explains. “In addition, on social media, our two corporate Instagram accounts now have an impressive 56,000 followers.”
Program Manager, Westchester Power
Don’t be fooled by Jasmine Graham’s youthful appearance. As manager of Westchester Power, Graham oversees all aspects of securing clean power for the 28 municipalities that are members of Sustainable Westchester, which administers programs to create economically efficient climate solutions.
At just 25 years old, Jasmine has earned the respect of peers twice her age, through her confidence and poise, says her supervisor, Dan Welsh. “Her mastery of industry-specific knowledge in this new and fast-changing area has ensured both market retention and acquisition for our program,” he says. “Her undeniable passion and dedication have allowed her to become the trusted face of the program.”
Graham’s responsibilities include complex data reporting, preparation of regulatory compliance documentation, and planning and executing outreach communications.
Graham is also working with Yonkers, Mount Vernon, Port Chester, White Plains, Mamaroneck, Ossining, and Peekskill as part of an environmental justice program. She cites things like dilapidated buildings, inefficient heating and cooling systems, and high asthma rates from industrial pollution as problems that need to be addressed.
“These challenges might seem overwhelming, but we are committed to finding the solutions in partnership with those communities,” Graham says. “As a woman of color who has experienced life as an underdog, I’m incredibly proud to fight for the marginalized and the disenfranchised to ensure a resilient future for us all.”
Program Manager, Corporate Social Investment
Emma Housman is many things: a young executive, a volunteer, and a leader. Perhaps the label that most personally describes her, though, is “plogger.” For the uninitiated, plogging is a multitask combination of jogging and picking up litter. This regular activity for Housman best represents how devoted she is to the environment, particularly water quality, and how she leads by example.
“[Plogging is] a really easy way to incorporate a sustainable action into my daily routine. You may get some funny looks, but it’s always worth it when someone sees you and takes inspiration from it,” Housman says. “Leading by example is important, because I’ve found it can lead to a tidal wave of collective action.”
At the Rye Brook-based Xylem, a leading global water-technology company, Housman manages the firm’s corporate social responsibility program, Watermark. This includes managing partnerships with global nonprofit organizations to help provide education and access to safe water.
She also manages Xylem’s employee and stakeholder management volunteer programs, leading her 16,000-plus colleagues in volunteer events around the globe.
“A large part of my role is keeping our colleagues engaged in volunteer opportunities, and since the pandemic has prevented us from gathering in groups, we’ve had to get creative,” Housman says. “We’ve also run a variety of activities where people take action on their own and with family, then share photos, videos, and stories. This has allowed us to stay connected while continuing to make an impact.”
Aqui Es Santa Fe/Nadas NYC
Running a successful restaurant is difficult enough, considering how many shut down before reaching even the one-year mark. Running a restaurant that not only survives a global pandemic but somehow manages to parlay one of its signature dishes into a mass-distributed retail brand is nothing short of remarkable.
Carlos Santos managed to do both before his 30th birthday.
Santos, 27, is the proprietor of Aqui Es Santa Fe, in Port Chester, a Colombian restaurant serving up ceviche, arepas, guacamole, and several other beloved dishes. It has become a hotspot within Westchester’s competitive dining scene, winning praise from the likes of The New York Times and VICE.
Santos’ mother, Olga, opened the restaurant in 2008, after she and Santos had emigrated from Colombia when he was a boy. Santos joined his mother as an owner-operator of the restaurant in 2015, after he graduated from college.
“My vision was to create a level of service that felt white-linen but also familiar,” Santos says.
In pursuing that vision, Santos now does everything from staffing the restaurant to running marketing campaigns to overseeing the restaurant’s charitable food-pantry work.
One of his signature achievements is exporting the kitchen’s most popular item — homemade empanadas — beyond the restaurant’s walls. Dubbed “Nadas,” the rainbow-colored empanadas have found their way to major New York City grocers, like CTown and Key Food.
“Since Nadas’ inception, we have produced and sold close to 1,200 orders — that’s more than 10,000 empanadas,” Santos says.
Strategic Finance Manager
As strategic finance manager at CareMount Medical, Avi Rafalson spends his days working with the organization’s key stakeholders “to drive decision-making on critical strategic initiatives, including corporate development, financial planning and analysis, service line performance, and project management,” he says.
That was before the onset of the pandemic. Since then, Rafalson has added to his responsibilities, working closely with senior leaders to reevaluate and restructure the group’s strategic plan in light of the many problematic issues arising from the coronavirus. “Avi’s analyses and financial perspectives helped leadership create stability for the organization during a time of great uncertainty,” says Dr. Scott Hayworth, CareMount’s president and CEO.
In 2019, Rafalson was the first hire under the organization’s strategic finance function. “Creating a new function in a large organization is never an easy task, but Avi successfully rose to the challenge,” Hayworth says.
Healthcare appealed to Rafalson because it’s a touchpoint for everyone. “I was very attracted to the idea of working in healthcare from the financial side of the house, helping grow and develop a healthcare platform that could improve the patient experience and the way healthcare is delivered.”
As for the future, Rafalson hopes to build a team and work his way up to an executive finance role.
CPC Financial Group
Earning a reputation as a successful and trustworthy financial planner can take several decades. Christopher Calabro has managed to do it in less than 10 years.
But Calabro isn’t just a certified financial planner. At just 28, he’s also the CEO of CPC Financial Group, in Hawthorne, where he and his team help more than 400 clients plan for retirement, chart investment strategies, and pursue other financial goals.
For Calabro, “each morning begins with the firm’s daily research call, where we get the latest market updates and economic data.” From there, it’s on to client meetings, research, and planning, he explains.
As a CFP, Calabro offers considerable expertise and a customized approach to client services. “We recognize that every client is unique, with different resources and needs,” he says. “By taking the time to listen, we can create strategies tailored to their needs.”
This approach leads to lots of satisfied clients; it also means Calabro and his team don’t need to put much effort into business development. “Our clients are our advocates, with 95 percent of new clients coming from referrals,” Calabro says.
Calabro started in the wealth management business in 2014 and founded CPC about two years ago. Since then, his trajectory has been impressive: He now boasts more than $90 million in assets under management and has brought on two additional advisors and a client relations manager.
There’s no shortage of bakeries in Westchester, which makes it even more impressive when one of them stands out — and Nella DeCarlo’s Beascakes Bakery definitely stands out.
Located in Armonk, Beascakes has earned a delicious reputation, from its signature chocolate-chip cookies and popular cakes to such unique treats as churro bites, homemade Pop Tarts, and the Monster cookie. But Beascakes has also earned a reputation for its familiarity.
“I have great relationships with my customers, and I’m honored that they always choose Beascakes,” DeCarlo says. “It’s awesome to see the growth and changes in their lives, whether it’s making someone’s engagement cake or doing their child’s first birthday party.”
DeCarlo’s own growth as a baker has been swift and impressive. She started her Beascakes journey at 17, working the counter part-time while attending college. “I found that my passion was geared more toward the bakery business and eventually dropped out [of school],” she recalls. “I learned the trade and was able to work full-time in the kitchen.” By age 24, DeCarlo had the opportunity to buy the business and step into a leadership role.
Today, DeCarlo oversees the kitchen, the marketing (which includes an Instagram account, with 10,000 followers), and the entire Beascakes staff. “I’m very proud of the space that has been created,” she explains. “My employees are happy at work, and it’s proven in their performance. In addition, our staff have built lifelong friendships, and I couldn’t be more proud of that.”
Founder and CEO
“What I absolutely love about what I do is the opportunity that my members and clients give me to help change their lives,” says Peekskill resident Alina Pedraza. “The fitness industry is extremely saturated, so I don’t take it lightly when someone chooses to work with me and Fused Fitness.”
Originally housed in a 3,600 sq. ft. facility in Jefferson Valley, the studio featured classes like spin and HIIT and small-group personal training, with approximately 100 members. When COVID hit, the Cortlandt Manor native quickly pivoted to offer online classes and lifestyle and nutrition coaching. Soon after, she made the tough decision to close her brick-and-mortar studio: “It still breaks my heart to this day, but I know I made the right decision,” Pedraza says.
But that’s not stopping her. The SUNY Albany grad pivoted again, and, along with a few online coaching clients, Fused Fitness now focuses on in-person, small-group training sessions out of Iron Health Physical Therapy in Peekskill. She also has plans, with Iron Health Physical Therapy, to open a wellness center in Peekskill in the near future.
“It’s rewarding watching people change their bodies, but the biggest reward comes from the change in confidence and seeing someone literally becoming and feeling more empowered over their health — and really their life,” she says. “It’s inspirational for me to experience that with them.”
Blue Media Project
Alex Acaro was working in advertising when he volunteered with local political campaigns and officials and “began to explore my talents and align my creative passions with my social stances,” says the New Rochelle native and resident, who has a newly minted MBA from Iona College.
In 2017, he began Blue Media Project, which he describes as a “digital creative agency and political consulting firm that helps amplify social causes, progressive figures, and social movements through robust marketing campaigns, photography and videography that capture rare moments, and web design that grabs the viewers’ attention.”
Acaro’s work includes a campaign for newly elected Congressman Mondaire Jones, as well as current projects for races in Mount Vernon, Peekskill, Bedford, and Mount Pleasant. He also helps churches impacted by the pandemic to revitalize their digital presences.
The first member of his family to graduate from college and graduate school, Acaro loves “the flexibility of tackling inspiring projects and experimenting with different emerging technologies,” he says. “I consider inspiring projects those that move people and push for social change in communities. I like knowing that the work I do has a direct, positive impact in the lives of people who share my story and my experiences.
“Building engagement in underrepresented communities,” he adds, “gives me a sense of purpose and hope for the next generation of leaders.”