From the achievements that line their resumes to the attitudes that guide them through life, the young professional population is a barometer of a city’s present and future. Forty Under 40 honors a generous cross section of that population.

While their roles range from doctors and lawyers to artists and musicians, the honorees are united by an infectious enthusiasm for their professional and creative pursuits. They also share a desire to give something back to the Oklahoma City community, often juggling multiple volunteer commitments at any given time on their busy calendars.

Now is the time to say thanks to those 20- and 30-somethings who are helping ensure the city’s place on the economic and cultural map. Here are their stories.

click to enlarge Oklahoma Gazette's Forty Under 40 Class of 2018 (2)
Photo Alexa Ace
Victor Acosta


The Paper Box Crafts and Designs

Age 31

The business and creative people whose work puts Oklahoma City on the map do not necessarily originate here. Many of the metro’s proudest residents were born in other cities, states or even countries.

Case in point: Victor Acosta, originally from San Luis Potosí, Mexico, now co-owner of The Paper Box Crafts and Designs.

Acosta has lived in Oklahoma City since he was 17 years old. With the help of scholarships, he attended University of Central Oklahoma and earned a degree in graphic design. However, it was not necessarily an easy path.

“English is my second language, and I struggled to learn the language and it has been and continues to be a significant barrier for me, but it does not stop me to reach my goals,” he said.

Acosta worked as a designer and photographer for El Nacional, the largest Hispanic newspaper in Oklahoma City, for two years. But this is only one of the ways in which Acosta’s heritage has informed his career and his involvement in the greater community. Over the last couple of years, he has worked with Dream Action Oklahoma, which lobbies for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients, both as a graphic designer and as an advocate, with visits to Washington, D.C., in 2017 and 2018.

Following graduation from a leadership class hosted by World Experiences Foundation earlier this year, Acosta is in the process of launching his own foundation to help students who have recently arrived in the United States.

“I consider myself an example of a successful, hard-working young professional in a foreign country, and I feel that should make any person proud of being Hispanic,” he said. “My mom and dad are my influence to keep going and always remember where I come from.”

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Katrina Avers

industrial/organizational psychologist and manager

Federal Aviation Administration

Age 37

The aerospace industry depends upon the work of numerous talented people to keep it soaring. One such individual is Dr. Katrina Avers, who works as industrial/organizational psychologist manager for Federal Aviation Administration’s Flight Deck Human Factors Research Laboratory.

Her timely, responsive research enhances the safety and technological capacity of the national aerospace system, garnering international recognition in the process.

“I believe my team has transformed [the lab] from a diamond in the rough into a finely cut diamond that is polished and gleams from every angle,” she said.

With an educational background that includes a Ph.D. in industrial/organizational psychology from University of Oklahoma, Avers was poised for scientific success at a young age. She became an expert in optimizing human performance to make aviation safer and smarter, as evidenced by her authorship of more than 40 articles and book chapters (which have been cited in thousands of research contexts) and her presence on the editorial boards of numerous scientific journals.

Meanwhile, Avers serves on the board of Heart to Heart and is also developing a nonprofit focused on connecting families with volunteer opportunities. And she does it all while raising four children and running a cow-calf operation with her most important partner of all, her husband.

She puts a lot of stock in the ancient proverb, “Where there is a will, there is a way,” reflecting a work ethic that she traces back to her childhood days on the family farm.

“I remember vividly working alongside my parents on projects, whether it be building a barbed wire fence, medicating a cow, fixing a broken water well in freezing temperatures,” she said.

“Regardless of the weather conditions, availability of tools or supplies, giving up was never an option.”

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Mike Beckham

chief executive officer

Simple Modern

Age 39

Mike Beckham is chief executive officer of Simple Modern, a company that sells insulated drinkware at Target and Amazon.

After graduating from University of Oklahoma with his business degree in 2003, Beckham spent several years in a leadership role with the nonprofit Christian ministry Cru. The next turning point came in 2009 when he helped found an online auction business, QuiBids, along with several other enterprises in the burgeoning world of e-commerce — businesses that have since made hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue.

Beckham considers entrepreneurship to be the ultimate creative endeavor.

“It is the process of creating something out of nothing,” he said. “It requires a multitude of skills, human capital, social capital, financial capital and self-confidence.”

This helps explain why Beckham has come full circle by returning to University of Oklahoma’s Price College of Business — this time as its entrepreneur-in-residence, mentoring students who are interested in pursuing a similar path.

“The best and brightest business minds in Oklahoma need to have experienced entrepreneurs who are teaching, coaching and encouraging them toward creating new and amazing businesses,” he said. “For me, I didn’t really feel the self-confidence to even call myself an entrepreneur until I was in my early 30s.”

As for other community involvement, Beckham actively volunteers with Wildwood Community Church, plus several other ministry-based nonprofits. Simple Modern donates at least 10 percent of its annual profits to local and international causes like education and disaster relief.

His belief in the future of his home state reflects an innate optimism.

“I grew up in Oklahoma City, and I have had a front-row seat to the incredible transformation of our city,” he said.

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Jennifer Bell

director of public information

Citizen Potawatomi Nation

Age 33

Oklahoma’s indigenous community remains a culturally vital fixture in the state. Tribal governments are surviving and thriving in 2018 thanks in no small part to the efforts of Oklahomans like Jennifer Bell.

Bell serves as director of public information at Citizen Potawatomi Nation (CPN). Before she came onboard in 2012, the tribe’s department of public information consisted of only one employee who was tasked with publishing a monthly tribal paper.

“The publication of the paper was inconsistent and rarely published monthly,” she said. “At that time, the tribe did little public relations, social media or government relations.”

On Bell’s watch, the department expanded to eight employees.

“Together, we have consistently published a monthly newspaper since 2013,” she said. “We have also established brand standards and guidelines for the tribe and its enterprises.”

Bell and her team see it as their responsibility to document information for current and future generations — both of tribal members and the public at large. She also recently helped facilitate a cultural leadership program, Noek Nmeshomesek, which is based on the Potawatomi “seven grandfathers” teachings.

“We began the program five years ago, and our objectives are to help educate the CPN workforce about tribal sovereignty and Potawatomi culture and to build a networking system for the participants,” she said. “As CPN has grown, it has become increasingly difficult to coordinate across departments and enterprises. This program and the alumni network created because of it aims to create channels of communications for employees.”

Bell’s professional goal is to continue to make people more aware of the tribe and its impact across the local and state community.

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Silapberdi Berdiyev

director of college and career success

Dove Public Charter Schools

Age 33

Dove Science Academy prepares kindergarten through 12th-grade students for college with special emphasis on economically disadvantaged communities. Boasting a college acceptance rate of nearly 100 percent, the 12 public charter schools focus on math, science and computer technology.

As the man who oversees Dove’s academic and counseling programs — and with eight years at the academy under his belt — Silapberdi Berdiyev certainly ranks high among those who deserve credit.

Berdiyev serves as president of Dove Alumni Association, whose members mentor around 40 children between the ages of 6 and 14. Under his leadership, the association also began the Grow Your Own Teachers program, which provides financial assistance to former students seeking to pursue a career in education. Meanwhile, his focus on minority students has derived strength from a successful partnership with Latino Community Development Agency.

Another great example of Berdiyev’s work at the academy is EXCELerate Dove, a program that gives high school juniors and seniors the opportunity to earn an associate degree concurrently with their diplomas at no cost to them. Partnering with OSU-OKC and Boeing, the program is designed to remove financial barriers and, in doing so, ease the burden faced by parents.

Membership currently stands at nearly 40 students.

As for honors, Berdiyev said he is expected to receive the President’s Volunteer Service Award from Happy World Foundation, Inc. and the 2018 Human Rights Advocate Award from the Oklahoma Universal Human Rights Alliance.

Berdiyev advises those who wish to succeed in his line of work to persevere in pursuit of their goals.

“Active patience — working hard while leaving the end product to its right time — is a right strategy at our profession,” he said.

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Michelle Bui


Elemental Coffee Roasters

Age 29

Coffee shops have evolved into a key component of urban life for creative and professional people, and most have a favorite spot. For many Oklahoma City residents, that spot is Elemental Coffee Roasters.

Michelle Bui, manager of Elemental, has worked to make the shop an integral part of the community.

“When hiring for the cafe, I make sure the staff knows that we are a family and a team as opposed to just being employees with each other,” she said. “Creating that positive and more family-feeling environment allows for better productivity and much better work ethic in general. Thanks to those changes, we have seen a growth in reviews, sales numbers and consistency with regulars and them bringing friends and family in.”

But Bui’s contributions to the city involve much more than cold brews and French roasts. As an active member of Young Nonprofit Professionals Network, American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma, [Inclusion in Art] and Confidence Con, among other organizations, Bui devotes herself to uplifting the communities around her, often through public speaking engagements.

“I see myself as a civil servant to help any and all who are willing to listen,” she said. “It is extended to women’s rights, civil rights, arts advocacy and everything in between.”

Bui also works as a publicist through her own public relations company.

The most important piece of advice that she has is to immerse oneself in one’s community.

“Don’t just network and hand out business cards,” she said. “Truly become friends with these people. Learn about them, their hobbies, their friends and family. Building true relationships helps you in every way you could imagine.”

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Cindy Cornelsen


Smash Bangles

Age 37

Cindy Cornelsen owns Smash Bangles, which deals in “jewelry, gifts and whimsy on the Paseo.” The jewelry in question is handmade, reflecting Cornelsen’s lifelong affinity for artistic expression in its myriad forms, from her earliest ability to hold a crayon to her current balancing act of multiple creative endeavors.

“Whether it be silversmith work, writing, drawing, painting, performing or running the back-of-house, art elevates everything because it connects us and teaches us how we are more alike than different,” she said. “So often, I find myself wishing more people I connect with could have experienced art in such a way.”

Cornelsen’s talents have taken her to some interesting places — particularly Chicago, where she trained at The Second City school of improvisational comedy and became heavily involved in writing and performing standup comedy.

Her voice can now be heard in everything from local music (as lead singer of Deep Deuce Duo and Choctaw 3) to advertising (for Lawton Kia, for which she also writes copy).

Even those who have never heard Cornelsen might have been personally enriched by her altruistic heart. Along with her fellow Paseo Arts District shop owners, she helped organize Homeless Alliance Supply Drive in the Paseo, running through Nov. 30.

“Working with them all, my eyes were opened to the vast horizon of opportunity before us all,” she said.

Cornelsen’s community memberships include Paseo Arts Association, Paseo Merchants Association, Oklahoma City Business Network and Oklahoma Mineral and Gem Society.

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Rachael Crawford

group and community engagement coordinator

Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma

Age 32

Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma occupies an important place in the city’s performing arts scene. And as group and community engagement coordinator for the theater, Rachael Crawford does a great deal to keep it that way.

Since joining the theater in July 2017, Crawford has managed to increase group sales revenue by 178 percent and group attendance (that is, number of tickets sold) by 202 percent. In doing so, she has ensured that more people experience the type of theater Lyric has to offer.

“I’m really interested in investing my time and resources into advocating for the arts as a tool for growth and improved quality of life here in Oklahoma City,” she said. “I’ve always understood the value of the arts, but when I see how Lyric Theatre has helped transform the Plaza District and, in turn, how that impacts the quality of life for those in and around the Plaza District, it really inspires me to educate others about the socioeconomic impact of the arts.”

Crawford’s civic memberships include 16th Street Plaza District Board of Directors, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Oklahoma and Young Nonprofit Professionals Network of Oklahoma City, among others.

Another feather in Crawford’s cap, The Girl Crush Show, underscores her commitment to inclusion. She founded the monthly event at Partners, 2805 NW 36th St., as a showcase for talent within the local LGBT community, and with crowds as large as 300 people per show, it seems that those talents have reached an appreciative audience.

“I want people to know that if you’re different, it’s okay,” she said. “Don’t let your gender, race, religion, age, orientation or socio-economic status hinder your success. Instead, embrace it as your story.”

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Margaret Creighton

development director

Positive Tomorrows

Age 38

Positive Tomorrows is Oklahoma’s only elementary school that specifically serves homeless children. As development director, Margaret Creighton is responsible for all aspects of the organization’s fundraising department.

Since assuming her role five years ago, Creighton has helped increase Positive Tomorrows’ fundraising budget by more than twofold. She also facilitated the campaign to raise funds for an expanded facility that tripled the school’s student capacity. While the new building requires a larger operating budget, Creighton said the children and their families make it all worthwhile.

“My daily motivation comes from the positive impact I see in our families’ lives,” she said. “I watch children grow and flourish academically and socially while their families receive the support they need to build a supportive and self-sufficient family environment. Students will grow three, sometimes more grade levels per year because of the specific service we are able to provide.”

Creighton’s career in fundraising began in 2003 in New York City, where she worked for Ballet Tech Foundation, setting the stage for her later career as an Oklahoma City-based fundraiser.

Between leaving New York City and starting at Positive Tomorrows, Creighton added Oklahoma Arts Institute, National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum and Oklahoma Contemporary Arts Center to her resume.

“I learned early in my education that I loved learning and the arts, but I had even more of a passion for the background — providing resources for experts to make true change in the world,” she said.

Creighton’s professional advice is to find a cause that you consider important and pursue it fearlessly.

“Be transparent, always,” she said. “Build genuine and honest relationships.”

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Aly Cunningham


Happy Plate Concepts (Sunnyside Diner)

Age 34

The path to professional success is not always paved with graduation dates and degrees. Just ask Aly Cunningham, co-owner of Sunnyside Diner.

“I studied a range of subjects like human anatomy and dissection, every psychology class that existed, marketing and public relations, and after attempting to capture a passion and my academic attention, I realized that I needed to just start working,” she said.

Beginning as a hostess at Applebee’s Grill + Bar in Enid in her teens, Cunningham worked her way up the pyramid of food service to the kitchen at Irma’s Burger Shack, full-time bartending at Iguana Mexican Grill and the original S&B’s Burger Joint location, where she joined as a manager.

As any local aficionado of creatively concocted burgers knows, S&B’s was an entity that could not be confined to one just spot in the metro. Having mastered the art of washing dishes and cooking, Cunningham found herself in the position of facilitating the effective operation of a business, including the opening of new locations.

She credits her rise to “a drive and determination to be at the top.” But there were still new heights to ascend, which led to her business partnership with Shannon Roper and the opening of three Sunnyside Diner locations, with a fourth planned for early 2019.

“I have worked with Shannon for eight years now and have developed our company, Happy Plate Concepts, to create a culture of community, fun and exceptional quality and service,” she said.

The community commitment includes Sunnyside’s partnership with Other Options, Inc., a nonprofit committed to feeding those affected by HIV and AIDS. Other outreach efforts come in the form of regular bag drops of food, water and supplies for the homeless population courtesy of the Sunnyside street team.

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Hilda De Leon Xavier

bilingual client access specialist

Oklahoma City-County Health Department

Age 38

The growth of Oklahoma City’s Hispanic community is undergirded by contributions of people whose heritage deeply informs their work, including their volunteer efforts.

As a bilingual client access specialist for Oklahoma City-County Health Department, Hilda De Leon Xavier’s background comes into play as part of her day job. However, it is even more evident in the various civic and creative activities with which she is involved.

Born in Guatemala, Xavier came to Oklahoma as a child.

“English was very difficult and the culture very strange,” she said.

Her then-undocumented status closed a lot of educational and professional doors.

“I knew I had a lot of learning and growing to do fast,” she said. “I did not let my situation prevent me from working for nonprofit organizations and participating in cultural activities. Two years ago, I finally gained my permanent residency and was able to visit my home country.”

Xavier volunteers with several organizations that benefit immigrants and the Hispanic community, including Mita’s Foundation, Bethel Foundation, The Dragonfly Home, Dillon International, Latinos Without Borders and Aspiring Americans. She has also worked in active collaboration with Passion Asociación, with which she has helped raise thousands of dollars to benefit volcano victims.

Then there is her love of dance. Xavier belongs to the local Candela Latin Dancers group and leads a children’s dance group called Eterna Primavera.

These are among the more recent expressions of Xavier’s Hispanic roots, which have been on proud display in Oklahoma since the late 1990s, when she worked as a waitress at a Mexican restaurant and a bilingual assistant at Harding Middle School (now Harding Charter Preparatory High School).

Plans for the foreseeable future include starting her own nonprofit to promote multiculturalism.

“I am grateful and blessed every day to be here in the United States,” she said.

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Brian Firestone

ocular oncologist and pathologist

Dean McGee Eye Institute and University of Oklahoma

Age 38

Brian Firestone, MD, is now in his fifth year of practicing ocular oncology and pathology — in other words, caring for people with cancer and other tumors affecting their eyes. He works at Dean McGee Eye Institute and University of Oklahoma.

As a clinical educator, Firestone has earned top rankings in resident evaluations and didactic lectures. Consistent words of praise from residents attest to his undeniable personal and professional investment in bettering the lives of others.

“I have found the old expression, ‘It is better to give than to receive,’ to be entirely true in the practice of medicine, ophthalmology and ocular oncology,” he said. “Any sacrifice that I have made on behalf of patients has been repaid to me many times over through their gratitude and friendship.”

Firestone’s credentials include a bachelor of arts in family psychology from Oklahoma Baptist University in Shawnee, where he graduated with honors, and a doctorate in medicine from University of Oklahoma College of Medicine in Oklahoma City. His professional background includes numerous other honors and activities, including a stint as chief resident at Baylor University’s Scott & White Eye Institute in Dallas, Texas, along with a wide range of lectures, presentations and publications spanning the last several years.

As a Christian and volunteer, Firestone has been involved with medical mission trips to locations such as Huaraz, Peru; Ixtapa, Mexico; and Siteki, Swaziland, between 2005 and 2015.

Firestone’s memberships include American Academy of Ophthalmology, Oklahoma Academy of Ophthalmology and American Medical Association.

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Shannon Fleck

executive director

Oklahoma Conference of Churches

Age 35

Rev. Shannon Fleck has served Oklahoma Conference of Churches (OCC) since 2017. With a membership of some 600,000 people, the group works to get local churches engaged in communities around them.

As OCC executive director since June 2018, Fleck leads 17 Christian denominations in ministry work surrounding matters of social justice, spiritual care and interfaith understanding. The events she oversees tend to reflect current events and politically relevant concerns like Interfaith Alliance’s Muslim Day at the Capitol.

Other recent examples of Fleck’s work include her involvement with Dialogue Institute Oklahoma Advisory Board, Resilience Project with Potts Family Foundation and Oklahoma Coalition for Reproductive Justice.

Last year, Fleck received the Human Rights Award from Church Women United. This year, she was nominated for Women Empowered. Her list of awards and acknowledgements attests to her success, and while her path of socially conscious, church-based work might differ from the rest of the professional world in many ways, her advice applies to almost anyone.

“I think the key to succeeding in the nonprofit world as well as the world of ministry is to have genuine passion about what you’re doing,” she said. “When the passion is there, it tends to be contagious, causing others to join you in the work. The passion and joy you have will also carry you through the challenges you will inevitably face because the work has truly been about your love for it, rather than the reward of it.”

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Elizabeth Forsythe

medical student, University of Oklahoma

fiddler, Tequila Songbirds

Age 28

The practice of medicine and the art of the fiddle generally seem like separate spheres, but Elizabeth Forsythe somehow manages to keep a foot in both worlds.

A fourth-year medical student at University of Oklahoma, Forsythe is pursuing residency in obstetrics and gynecology. Her passion for the subject of women’s health might be best exemplified by her endeavors as an educator in South America.

“The spring before I started medical school, I spent four months teaching women’s health classes in rural Peru using a curriculum I developed myself,” she said. “We workshopped issues like healthy pregnancy, normal cycles of life and domestic violence.”

Forsythe also coordinated a study on autoimmune mechanisms of disease, including postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome and polycystic ovarian syndrome. She has submitted academic papers and delivered presentations on the same subject.

It is, however, accomplishments like these that make her parallel musical career sound almost like the work of a different person altogether. As the fiddle player and sometime vocalist for an all-female country band, Tequila Songbirds, Forsythe has brought sweet sounds to Norman Music Festival, Noble’s Rose Rock Music Festival and Guthrie’s Red Brick Nights series.

Forsythe finds inspiration in Oklahoma’s rich tradition of world-renowned musicians, from Woody Guthrie to The Flaming Lips. But she also looks to the state’s increasing reputation for medical care and research, as exemplified by OU’s Stephenson Cancer Center’s status as a National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center.

“Music and medicine — I am proud to be a part of both of these Oklahoma traditions,” she said.

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Kelley Gann


Freestyle Creative

Age 28

Kelley Gann is president of Freestyle Creative, a full-service marketing agency based in Moore. Her professional background combining creative direction, digital marketing, copywriting and film production has helped her company grow more than tenfold and its revenue increase by 12 times since she assumed her current role.

Freestyle’s diverse client base ranges from Oklahoma State University Medical Center and Chickasaw Nation Department of Health and Population Research to Galleria Furniture and Home Creations — a testament not only to Gann’s strategic vision, but also her ability to implement it.

Like any great advertising executive, Gann began as a copywriter and crawled her way up the ranks of another agency — Ackerman McQueen.

But how did someone who is not yet 30 achieve so much in the business and creative world in so little time? Gann dispenses her professional advice with all the succinct clarity of a true adwoman.

“Work hard, be kind, never stop learning and say yes to opportunities that help you evolve,” she said.

Now, she has her sights set on a strategic growth plan for her agency, which she hopes to position as one of the top places to work in Oklahoma. And having recently been recognized as one of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber’s Metro 50 Fastest-Growing Companies, it seems that Freestyle Creative is already well along the way.

In the meantime, Gann serves as president of Oklahoma City Advertising Club.

“Our mission is to protect, promote and preserve the wellbeing of advertising in our state,” she said. “Our membership encourages professional development, networking opportunities and a forum for idea exchange.”

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Madeleine Gregory

marketing coordinator

Thirst Wine Merchants

Age 31

Having spent more than six years with Thirst Wine Merchants, Madeleine Gregory’s responsibilities have varied quite a bit, but her current role might be best described as marketing coordinator.

Gregory helps with web content, social media management, event coordinating and even some tech support, ensuring that the independently owned, Oklahoma-based distributor of fine wines puts its best face forward. This includes two trade events conducted every year over the course of two days as more than 30 representatives from wineries throughout the world converge on Oklahoma City and Tulsa.

This monumentally busy spot on Gregory’s calendar also includes a charity event in Oklahoma City benefitting members of the hospitality industry with severe medical needs. And none of it would be possible without her commitment.

“Each year has proven to be grander than the last, with our team organizing one of the best wine trade events in the country,” she said.

Gregory also puts her social media and marketing skills to use as part of the all-volunteer Woody Guthrie Coalition board of directors, which organizes the annual Woody Guthrie Folk Festival in Okemah. As with her day job, the festival appears to be growing in stature.

“The most recent festival, held July 2018, was heralded as one of the best by community members and Woody Guthrie enthusiasts alike,” she said. “With over 100 musical acts and about 3,000 festival attendees from all over the nation, this year’s festival achievements are incredibly special to me.”

With this valuable experience under her belt, Gregory plans to continue doing her part to improve the event.

“The festival truly takes a village to produce,” she said. “I’m grateful to be a part of that village.”

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Brett Grimes


Robot House Creative

Age 36

Brett Grimes is a partner at Robot House Creative, the brand development firm whose work has helped refine and elevate the marketing messages of several much-loved local businesses.

Grimes describes his job as “hybrid creative director, designer, producer and copywriter.” It can be a demanding role, especially considering the size of the agency — or, more accurately, lack thereof, with Robot House being a three-man small business.

“When I started my career as an entry-level designer at a mid-size advertising agency, I never envisioned myself working for a small firm, much less actually having ownership in one,” he said.

Robot House’s clients have so far included Sunnyside Diner, with its memorable winking sun logo setting the tone for the establishment’s unusually engaging, knowingly retro-inspired visual aesthetic. Other projects have included Barnes Consulting Group, Bitter Sisters Brewing Company, the IPS Research team and the now sadly defunct Hillbilly’s restaurant.

As their client roster grows, so does their subtle imprint on the look of Oklahoma City in the early 21st century.

“At Robot House, we like to think of ourselves as stewards of the visual landscape of Oklahoma City,” Grimes said.

He also conceives of his firm’s greater creative contribution to the community in terms of “giving back to younger designers” by way of Robot House’s internship program.

Grimes credits his wife and daughter as guiding forces in his life.

“My wife Rory is fearless when it comes to trying out new art forms, and she’s a constant inspiration and creative companion,” he said, “which leads me to my daughter Violet, who’s a blossoming artist in her own right and reminds me every day that the true joy of creating is in the process.”

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Eric Grunewald

chief operations officer

Community Beard Championship Foundation

Age 33

Eric Grunewald helped create Community Beard Championship Foundation, and as chief operations officer, he also serves as its second-in-command. The nonprofit began a little less than a year ago as a beard contest organized to increase awareness of the local homeless youth population.

Unusually industrious in nature, Grunewald has launched a total of nine Oklahoma City-based businesses. Manscape & Massage Clinic, for example, offered various hair-removal services in addition to massages, facials, manicures and pedicures.

Grunewald might be a serial entrepreneur, but the academic path that brought him there was anything but traditional. Dropping out of University of Oklahoma’s business program to pursue his own ideas, Grunewald later took steps to fill in the gaps in his education. He completed an online course in social media marketing through Harvard University Extension School. Earlier this year, he was accepted into Wharton School of Business’ Executive Development Program.

His use of online certificate programs and single-class offerings from prestigious academic institutions is tied to his belief that education is a lifelong process.

Grunewald is a member of Homeless Alliance and National Coalition for Homeless Youth (NCHY) — further evidence of his passion for the cause that led to Community Beard Championship Foundation, which remains one of his proudest achievements and shows no sign of stopping.

The second annual beard championship takes place Nov. 17 at Presbyterian Health Foundation Community Room, 600 N. High Ave. It features seven categories and a Game of Thrones-inspired Winter Is Coming theme.

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Stephen Holman

Norman City Council Ward 7 representative

general manager, Friendly Market

Age 34

Norman roots run deep for Stephen Holman, from his childhood in the less economically advantaged part of town to his present status as a fixture of the local civic and business community.

“I am a fourth-generation Norman native and I was raised almost entirely by a single dad,” he said. “I grew up on the east side of Norman and attended what is considered the poorest elementary school in town that also happens to be the most culturally diverse.”

Now in his third term as Ward 7 representative on Norman City Council, Holman credits his early exposure to cultural diversity for making him both a well-rounded person and an effective, impactful councilman.

As for his civic work over the last five years, Holman cites the Norman Forward Quality of Life initiative, which opened a new library this past summer, as a particularly proud achievement. A new, state-of-the-art downtown library is set to open in 2019.

However, Holman’s recent life has been heavily affected by the other side of his career, which led to a different kind of engagement with local authority.

In 2015, he became general manager of Friendly Market. Not long after, Norman police and the Cleveland County District Attorney’s office cracked down on the wellness store and its employees for the sale of glass pipes, which were deemed to be drug paraphernalia. A legal battle ensued, encompassing three jury trials and, ultimately, a decision in the store’s favor by the state’s highest court. Holman was also found not guilty of all charges.

Friendly Market reopened in October 2017.

“The store has become extremely successful since going through that entire ordeal,” he said.

Holman will run for a fourth term on the council this February.

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Rachel Holt

chief operating officer and senior general counsel

Oklahoma Office of Juvenile Affairs

Age 39

Though born in Philadelphia, attorney Rachel Holt proudly calls Oklahoma City her home.

After earning her Juris Doctor from University of Oklahoma College of Law in 2007, along with special recognition for her participation in the school’s Interdisciplinary Training Program on Child Abuse and Neglect, Holt began working as an assistant district attorney in the juvenile division of the Oklahoma County District Attorney’s Office.

Over the past decade, she has balanced the demands of family and work while continuing to establish herself as an expert in the challenging world of juvenile justice.

“It is my professional goal every day to help give the young people of Oklahoma every opportunity to lead a productive, happy life and not let their worst moment define them or their future,” she said.

Since late last year, Holt has served as both chief operating officer and senior general counsel of the Oklahoma Office of Juvenile Affairs (OJA), which provides services for youthful offenders. In her current capacity, she assists the executive director with agency operations and legal advice and addresses judicial conferences and teaches continuing legal education courses on the topic of juvenile justice.

Holt belongs to Junior League of Oklahoma City and serves on the board of Downtown Exchange Club of Oklahoma City. Her community service and civic endeavors include work with Quail Creek Elementary PTA and the Camp Fired Up Gala planning committee.

She is also First Lady of Oklahoma City.

“I love Oklahoma City and want to continue to work to make it a better place, especially for young people,” she said.

click to enlarge Oklahoma Gazette's Forty Under 40 Class of 2018 (22)
Photo Alexa Ace
Taylor Ketchum

director of consumer and digital marketing

Jones PR

Age 29

Sometimes the best way to establish oneself in a company is to identify an area that is not receiving sufficient attention and make a push to take the lead. This is precisely what Taylor Ketchum did at Jones PR when she was 21.

More than seven years later, Ketchum is director of consumer and digital marketing for the public relations agency, overseeing a team and managing accounts like Verizon Wireless, Harkins Theatres and Armstrong Auditorium.

Ketchum and her fellow PR experts have garnered several prestigious awards, including a gold Cannes Lion at the 2018 Cannes International Festival of Creativity for their National Down Syndrome Society video, and personal recognition as top social media influencer at Facebook HQ in 2017.

“I do not do what I do for awards, she said, “but it is always amazing to be able to come back to my team and show them what hard work can lead to.”

Her work with National Down Syndrome Society carries some personal significance for Ketchum, as her brother-in-law suffers from the disorder. What began as basic social media work eventually led to involvement in legislative issues.

“In 2015, I helped with aggressive grassroots efforts to get our legislators to pass ABLE [Achieving a Better Life Experience] Act, which allows those with disabilities to start a savings account,” she said.

But this is just one way in which the importance of family manifests itself in Ketchum’s life. As the mother of two daughters under age 2, Ketchum strives to set a strong example.

“I want to show my girls that women can be powerful, make big impacts, demand attention in a room of men and have full lives,” she said.

click to enlarge Oklahoma Gazette's Forty Under 40 Class of 2018 (23)
Photo Alexa Ace
Jace Kirk

dean of students

Santa Fe South High School

Age 36

Some achievements are concrete, specific, easy to identify; others are less tangible and gradually take shape as positive energy and momentum accumulate, leaving indelible imprints on people and places. This describes the work of Jace Kirk, former assistant director of FaithWorks of the Inner City and current dean of students at Santa Fe South High School.

FaithWorks is a nonprofit ministry dedicated to alleviating the plight of inner-city youth in the Shidler-Wheeler area, with Shidler-Wheeler Community Thrift Store existing as a kind of stepping-stone into the workforce for local teenagers — a place for them to develop skills and build resumes before moving on.

“Most of our young people do not have connections or transportation to find employment,” Kirk said. “Our location has provided a gathering place for our regular customers who just need someone to talk to at times. Our teens are learning that we are about more than making a dollar. We are about taking care of our people.”

On a practical level, Kirk’s job involves management of after-school, economic development and housing programs. But practical reality has a way of intersecting with the spiritual and mental outlook of people and their communities. Kirk recognizes the importance of fostering the human spirit in those around him and enabling the kind of inner growth that manifests itself as outward improvement — to the community of Shidler-Wheeler, to the 1,000 students of Santa Fe South High School and, ultimately, to Oklahoma City as a whole.

“The shift is often hard to explain to donors and volunteers,” he said, “but it has been the vital change needed in our neighborhood to see lasting change.”

Kirk’s memberships include the board of Oklahoma City Public Schools, Salt and Light Leadership Training (SALLT), National School Boards Association and Council of Urban Boards of Education (CUBE).

click to enlarge Oklahoma Gazette's Forty Under 40 Class of 2018 (24)
Photo Alexa Ace
Casey Logue


Capital City Safety

Age 36

Casey Logue’s dedication to improving safety standards in the field of construction stretches back more than a decade.

Beginning his career with Timberlake Construction as an assistant project manager in 2007, Logue saw the opportunity to develop a more robust safety program, becoming director of safety by 2009, a brand-new position at the time. At age 26, Logue said he received approval from company management “to start a new safety department basically from scratch.”

But his efforts did not stop there. Another significant promotion — to vice president of safety and risk management — came in 2016, by which point Logue was in a position to see his efforts pay off.

“After seven years in the making, Timberlake Construction became the first contractor in Oklahoma to reach OSHA VPP Mobile Workforce star status,” he said.

In January, Logue launched a safety consulting service, Capital City Safety, of which he is the president. In less than a year, the venture has already taken on multiple clients and gained recognition from Associated General Contractors (AGC) of America and National Safety Council, among others.

“The construction industry is historically slow to adapt, but Capital City Safety changes that narrative,” he said. “We’re building the future of safety in Oklahoma.”

Meanwhile, Logue serves as chairman of the AGC of Oklahoma Education Foundation, a private trust whose support for construction safety includes annual scholarships awarded to students in construction-related degree programs at Oklahoma State University.

Logue’s story is a good example of what can happen when you “do what you love and love what you do.”

“Safety is more than a job,” he said. “It’s a passion.”

click to enlarge Oklahoma Gazette's Forty Under 40 Class of 2018 (25)
Photo Alexa Ace
Paola Christina Lopez

director of student development and community

University of Oklahoma College of Arts and Sciences

Age 30

Paola Cristina Lopez has dedicated her professional life to the pursuit of equity and inclusion in education.

Beginning her career with University of Oklahoma (OU) as an admissions counselor in the early 2010s, Lopez set her sights on the recruitment of racial minorities, including undocumented students, making extensive revisions to the university’s admissions policy in the process.

A few years later, Lopez moved to OU College of Arts and Sciences, where she presently serves as both an adjunct instructor and director of student development and community.

Lopez spearheaded a massive effort to improve college readiness for the state’s growing Spanish-speaking demographic. This was a coordinated effort between various central Oklahoma institutions of learning, churches and community centers.

“Leading this program showed me that the information gap is real and community members were starved for resources and education regarding college readiness,” she said.

Lopez is also involved with a variety of civic groups, ranging from OU Latinx Coalition and National Conference on Race and Ethnicity to Big Brothers Big Sisters of Oklahoma and Salvation Army Central Oklahoma Area Command, of which she also recently became a board member.

Lopez has always encouraged her students to think of their lives in terms of a greater purpose, to ask questions like “Why?” and “Why not?” in search of solutions.

“In this manner, I’ve encouraged my students to find their ‘Why,’ to ask themselves ‘Why not go for that internship, major, postgraduate or job opportunity?’ and if they see something that needs changing … to bring solutions and positive impact,” she said. “I practice this in my day-to-day interactions of calling students, peers and friends to living their potential.”

click to enlarge Oklahoma Gazette's Forty Under 40 Class of 2018 (26)
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Jeff Miles

vice president and director of banking center operations

Republic Bank & Trust

Age 35

As vice president and director of banking center operations at Republic Bank & Trust, Jeff Miles oversees customer experience, equipment, training and staffing of Republic’s banking centers. But he also oversees something more profound: the development of employees’ talents.

“Each new banker or young professional I can help develop only strengthens the outlook of our community,” he said. “I have had the privilege of working with many up-and-coming professionals over the last 15 years. While some of them have stayed at Republic, others have moved on to other organizations, continuing to make our communities better places to live, work and play.”

Not surprisingly, Miles’ civic involvement is fairly extensive, with memberships including Rotary Club of Moore, Moore Education Services Committee, Pioneer Library System Foundation Board of Directors, Moore Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors and Moore Public Schools Foundation.

Of these, Rotary Club of Moore is probably Miles’ biggest source of pride. He was president of the organization in 2013, when a devastating tornado tore through the community and left heartbreaking destruction in its wake.

“The greatest acts of humanity I have ever witnessed came out of this disaster,” he said.

“Rotarians from around the world provided funding, supplies and volunteer manpower to help in the relief efforts.”

Miles helped organize these contributions, making sure volunteers’ efforts were directed into the appropriate channels.

“While our community was temporarily broken, we have been able to come back stronger than ever before,” he said. “I’m honored to have been a part of that journey.”

click to enlarge Oklahoma Gazette's Forty Under 40 Class of 2018 (27)
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James Nghiem


Age 34

The proverbial man of many hats, James Nghiem is an adjunct professor at Rose State College, a plot manager at Lettering Express and a contributing writer for NonDoc.

But Nghiem’s creative impulses find expression in many ways. He is also an aspiring standup comedian, drummer and art curator.

“I jump between all three of these disciplines every day and every week,” he said. “There’s not a day that passes where I don’t actively contribute to this city’s diverse art community.”

His comedy career began with a local label called Robot Saves City, which has released 13 albums since 2010.

“I’ve always used Robot Saves City to highlight emerging talent within Oklahoma City or around me,” he said. “Our alumni include Leah Kayajanian, Kevin Costello and Pat Regan, artists who’ve made their way onto Comedy Central, Sundance Film Festival and Adult Swim.”

On a more personal note, Nghiem was named funniest person in Oklahoma by The Looney Bin in 2013.

His musical career, in conjunction with his brother in The Nghiems, includes a 2012 music video, “Dum Dum Dah Dah,” with more than 86,000 views on YouTube and a new album this year.

In the local art world, Nghiem has helped organize several successful shows, with proceeds going toward Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma.

He looks forward to new, as-yet unrealized endeavors spanning multiple media.

“A lot of what I do is on a project-to-project basis,” he said. “I think if you love the process and you come into something with the right motive and effort, you can accomplish a lot.”

click to enlarge Oklahoma Gazette's Forty Under 40 Class of 2018 (28)
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Matthew Peacock

principal architect

WPM Design Group

Age 37

Much like 16th Street Plaza District, booming Uptown 23rd District centered along NW 23rd Street represents a flagship area of economic and cultural growth within the urban core of the city. Among the visibly revitalized buildings that have opened (or reopened) their doors recently, the Oklahoma City Community Church building serves as a key example.

The present design of the building was a collaborative effort between church staff and Matthew Peacock, principal architect of WPM Design Group and a member of American Institute of Architects (AIA).

“This project gave me the opportunity to restore life to a discarded building and help activate a long-dead commercial corridor,” he said. “These types of projects are my passion because of the impact that they have on the surrounding community.”

Peacock’s passion for the community can also be seen in his work with several service organizations, including a few for which he serves on the board of the directors: Rotary Club of Norman, Citizens Advisory Board and Friends of the Norman Library. He is also affiliated with Norman Arts Council, Nature Conservancy’s Oklahoma Conservation Leadership Academy, Norman Chamber of Commerce and others.

“Most truly successful people identified passions and causes in the community and put their efforts into making those their realities,” he said. “They created the life that they wanted to see, and their stories back that up. In short, be an advocate for what you believe in, and go get your hands dirty.”

Meanwhile, Peacock’s aesthetic sensibilities are on further display in Relic Revival, 320 Elm Ave., in Yukon, which specializes in midcentury modern furniture and design artifacts. Peacock is the co-owner.

click to enlarge Oklahoma Gazette's Forty Under 40 Class of 2018 (29)
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Alyx Picard Davis

festival coordinator and head of operations

deadCenter Film Festival

Age 32

When Alyx Picard Davis volunteered at deadCenter Film Festival in 2006, it was still a relatively young enterprise. A dozen years later, it has become one of the city’s defining cultural events, and Davis’ relationship with it has grown in proportion.

“Walking into that first special event, I was young, eager and terrified,” she said. “Walking out of it, I was hooked.”

Returning to the festival in 2007, Davis took on the responsibility of archiving its database. With each year that followed, she devoted more and more of her time to the event, until at last, she was hired as a part-time programming coordinator in 2012.

The next year brought full-time deadCenter employment as festival coordinator and head of operations, putting her in the position of day-to-day management, which she holds now.

More recently, Davis’ presence in the local cinematic community has followed a logical progression into creative involvement with the films themselves.

“While I don’t feel necessarily driven to pursue it as a career, I have a passion for assisting other filmmakers in bringing their vision to life,” she said. “By studying screenwriting in college and gaining extensive experience in operations, I’ve acquired a unique perspective on the filmmaking process and love serving as a bridge between creation and execution.”

This year marked the completion of Davis’ first film as a director, Escape, conceived and executed in the span of 48 hours. She continues to consult on ideas, scripts, budgets and other practical realities behind the magical process of moviemaking, and she can’t wait to announce her next project.

click to enlarge Oklahoma Gazette's Forty Under 40 Class of 2018 (30)
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Trent L. Ratterree

legislative and organizing specialist

Oklahoma Education Association

Age 30

Among the events that have defined the past year in Oklahoma, the April 2018 teachers’ walkout occupies a spot at the top. But the national headline-grabbing teacher action would not have been possible without the work of some dedicated people behind the scenes — people like Oklahoma Education Association’s Trent L. Ratterree. As legislative and organizing specialist at OEA, Ratterree was among those who helped organize the action in the first place.

“It was inspiring to work with a group of Oklahomans who stood up for their profession and their students against a state that has continually cut education funding,” he said.

In retrospect, Ratterree also sees the walkout as having positive community-wide effects.

“It showed us how willing and capable the nonprofit community is at building partnerships to support students and families as the teachers were advocating at the Capitol,” he said. “In elections, voters are more strongly considering the effects elections have on core services, such as education and health care.”

Ratterree, a former tight end in University of Oklahoma Sooners football program, is a master of public administration student at University of Central Oklahoma (UCO), where he also serves as president of Pi Alpha Alpha, a national honor society for the MPA program. In this capacity, he was particularly active in displaying public opposition to President Donald Trump’s proposed immigration policies.

“Because of this, we came up with an event called Share the Love,” he said. “The event gave UCO students the opportunity to write, email or share on social media their love for people who have immigrated to the U.S., people of color and the LGBT community.”

click to enlarge Oklahoma Gazette's Forty Under 40 Class of 2018 (31)
Photo Alexa Ace
Kristin Richards

trial attorney

Hammons, Gowens, Hurst and Associates

Age 29

The legal field attracts some of the best and brightest minds in the young professional landscape. Kristin Richards, a trial attorney for the prestigious Hammons, Gowens, Hurst and Associates firm, is a great example. Working in the field of employment law, she assists clients who have been subject to discrimination, harassment or other wrongs by their employers — wrongs that are as much moral as legal.

In her role as associate attorney, Richards assists and advocates for individuals who have been treated unfairly in the workplace due to circumstances beyond their control — characteristics like race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, age or disability.

“Practicing employment law allows me to provide a voice to victims who feel helpless in their workplace environment,” she said. “My goal is to make sure every client I represent understands that I am advocating for their best interests and I am in their corner fighting for them 100 percent of the time.”

Richards’ time is not entirely consumed by the practice of law. She is also active in a variety of causes and organizations, including (but by no means limited to) Institute for Economic Empowerment of Women (IEEW), a nonprofit that helps women grow their businesses, pursue greater entrepreneurial ventures and become active in the advocacy of policy. She is also involved in Junior League of Oklahoma City, Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma, City Rescue Mission and Children’s Hospital Foundation.

Richards serves on the Dean’s Council on Diversity, Equality and Inclusion for Oklahoma City University School of Law, the institution from which she earned her Juris Doctor.

click to enlarge Oklahoma Gazette's Forty Under 40 Class of 2018 (32)
Photo Alexa Ace
Leah Roper

employment attorney

Laird Hammons Laird

Age 31

Leah Roper works as an employment attorney at Laird Hammons Laird, but her resume ranges far beyond her legal career, with a special emphasis on a diverse variety of worthy causes.

“In my career, I work hard to ensure that employees are treated lawfully by their employers across Oklahoma,” she said. “While this work is satisfying, I wanted to give more back to the community.”

To that end, Roper has been a member of 16th Street Plaza District Association since 2014, Oklahoma Women’s Coalition since 2015 and Community Literacy Centers since 2016. Roper has risen to the level of vice president in all three organizations. Not content with mere participation in the causes for which she has a passion, Roper strives for the roles in which it is possible for her to bring about the most change.

For example, the many people who attended and enjoyed this year’s Plaza District Festival have Roper to thank, at least in part. As co-chair of the festival along with Kristen Torkelson, Roper recruited committee members and coordinated all aspects of festival planning — a natural extension of the part she played in organizing the monthly Live! on the Plaza events between 2014 and 2017.

Roper is also heavily involved with Arts Council Oklahoma City, Girl Scouts Western Oklahoma and deadCenter Film Festival.

With such an eclectic collection of community involvements, where might Roper be expected to go from here?

“There are a lot of options I'm exploring for the future, but I'm very interested in getting into public service on either the state or local level,” she said.

click to enlarge Oklahoma Gazette's Forty Under 40 Class of 2018 (33)
Photo Alexa Ace
Staci Sanger

director of marketing and placemaking

Downtown Oklahoma City Partnership

Age 30

No look at the landscape of Oklahoma City — geographical, professional or otherwise — is complete without downtown. Staci Sanger serves as director of marketing and placemaking at Downtown Oklahoma City Partnership, a nonprofit community development and management organization. Sanger oversees the partnership’s events, branding, sponsorships and fundraising, advertising, communications, social media and marketing initiatives.

Though it functions an overarching district in itself, downtown Oklahoma City technically encompasses eight separate districts. These naturally include many underutilized spaces that are ripe for the addition of, in Sanger’s words, “beauty and whimsy.”

“In the past four years at Downtown OKC, I have helped fundraise for, facilitate, implement and install over 15 pieces of public art, with 10 more in the planning phase or currently under construction,” she said. “In addition to public art, I have helped conceptualize and install the first public bocce courts in downtown, the first semi-permanent parklet and an urban beach.”

A few of these pieces include the Midtown Bocce Ball Courts (at Ninth Street and Hudson Avenue), “Nurture” by Beatriz Mayorca (in Hightower Park), “Abstract Passages” by Kris Kanaly (Main Street Underpass from Bricktown to the Central Business District) and #MakeItRainPoems by Short Order Poems (stencils that only appear when it rains downtown).

Sanger’s advice for those hoping to succeed in her field(s) of expertise — marketing, nonprofit work and district management — is to cultivate and foster relationships.

“It doesn’t have to be forced or feel inauthentic; just be kind. That sticks with people,” she said. “These relationships are critical in the workplace, whether it be for building consensus, fundraising or getting community buy-in on projects.”

On the community-service front, Sanger serves as publicity chair for City Care’s The Odyssey Project. She has also served on committees for Chocolate Decadence, deadCenter Film Festival and Taste of OKC, among others.

click to enlarge Oklahoma Gazette's Forty Under 40 Class of 2018 (34)
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Eric Schmid

senior architect

Allford Hall Monaghan Morris

Age 31

Eric Schmid’s job is to, as he puts it, “design interesting buildings for interesting people.” As senior architect in Oklahoma City for London-based Allford Hall Monaghan Morris (AHMM), Schmid has been doing exactly that for the better part of a decade.

“Oklahoma City is a place of burgeoning energy,” he said, “and I have been fortunate to work with ambitious clients that are passionate about developing purposeful buildings in Oklahoma City. Each project is a unique solution to a unique challenge and presents an opportunity to add joy to Oklahoma City.”

A few of these purposeful projects include Oklahoma City Ballet’s Susan E. Brackett Dance Center, 6800 N. Classen Blvd., and Bob Moore Auto Group headquarters, 700 NW Fifth St. In fact, much of Schmid’s work could be considered “repurposing,” as neglected commercial structures are increasingly infused with new life, restoring their economic viability and bolstering the unstoppable growth of areas like Deep Deuce.

“The Bob Moore Auto Group Building reimagined a woefully underused downtown collision center into an engaging office building that anchors development in the neighborhood,” he said.

However, Schmid emphasizes that he is only one part of a talented group of architects, all of whom deserve credit for the success of each project. He and his fellow AHMM team members have helped ensure a steady flow of recognition and awards from groups like American Institute of Architects (AIA) and Urban Land Institute (ULI).

As a volunteer, Schmid lends his time to events organized by AIA and Oklahoma City Foundation for Architecture, like the latter’s Buildings + Brews event. He also runs a boutique architectural photography studio.

click to enlarge Oklahoma Gazette's Forty Under 40 Class of 2018 (35)
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Selena Skorman

executive director

Plaza District Association

Age 28

As anyone who has lived in Oklahoma City for more than a couple of years knows, 16th Street Plaza District has undergone a massive turnaround, demonstrating the effect that the right combination of entrepreneurial vision and aesthetic sensitivity can have on formerly rundown neighborhoods. But if the Plaza is a rising star among city districts, its current success would not be possible without Selena Skorman.

Skorman serves as executive director of Plaza District Association and Plaza Business Alliance. This year’s 16th Street Plaza District Festival was the culmination of extensive behind-the-scenes efforts on her part. Not surprisingly, she considers its success to be a significant business achievement and a proud moment.

“You work and plan and work and plan, and then when it comes to the big day and you see a line of artist tents, hear music from the stages and see all the people come out and enjoy themselves, it’s a dream come true,” she said.

Skorman is quick to credit the help of volunteers and donors in shaping the success of the Plaza, citing Mister Rogers’ quote, “Look for the helpers.” Remember them, she urges.

“You’ll find that you have more people helping you than the other way around,” she said.

Still in her first year as executive director, Skorman hopes to continue to learn and grow with the district. She might have some secret plans up her sleeve to make the festival bigger and better in future iterations.

“For now, I’m focusing on learning how I can best serve the Plaza District and its visitors, business owners, property owners and stakeholders,” she said.

Skorman has also worked with Arts Council Oklahoma City and its downtown Festival of the Arts.

click to enlarge Oklahoma Gazette's Forty Under 40 Class of 2018 (36)
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Zac Smith

reservoir engineering manager

Chesapeake Energy

chief executive officer

Vanessa House Beer Co.

Age 33

The oil and gas industry has long been the fuel that drives the state and local economy. Craft beer, on the other hand, is a relatively recent addition to the Oklahoma City business mix. Thanks to his years at Chesapeake Energy and his ownership of Vanessa House Beer Co., it’s safe to say that Zac Smith knows both.

As reservoir engineering manager, Smith leads a team of seven workers — six engineers and one technician — in the development of the Haynesville and Bossier shales. His formal career began after his 2008 graduation from University of Oklahoma with a B.S. in petroleum engineering.

It was also shortly after college that Smith, along with his brother and three of their friends, became interested in the world of craft beer. However, it was not a case of “love at first taste.”

"Initially, we hated it,” he said. “It had way too much flavor for our novice palates, which had been honed on Keystone in our earlier days. But thanks to the great beers COOP was putting out at the time, we kept at it for a week or two and our taste buds were adjusted and a whole new world of beer was open to us.”

The next step was brewing their own beer, followed by the creation of a production facility complete with a customer-friendly taproom at 118 NW Eighth St. in Automobile Alley, the goal being to help “make Oklahoma a beer tourism destination.”

Through Vanessa House, Smith regularly cooks dinners for OK Kids Korral, which provides housing to families with children with cancer who are in the city for treatment.

click to enlarge Oklahoma Gazette's Forty Under 40 Class of 2018 (37)
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Stephen Tyler

managing partner

Tower Theatre

Age 36

The refurbished Tower Theatre is one of the great success stories of Oklahoma City in the early 21st century — the transformation of an iconic but sadly neglected 1930s movie house into a midsize concert venue that favorably compares with any theater of its kind in any city.

The process that made this possible was certainly collaborative, relying on dedicated individuals and supportive organizations, but it is just as certain that Stephen Tyler, managing partner and “technomancer” at the theater, played a major role.

“From the lack of a simple backstage to the acoustics of a historic curved plastic ceiling, many creative approaches had to be taken to ensure respect was shown to the performance on stage while also maintaining the historical integrity of the building,” he said.

Tyler’s words speak to the twin impulses of creativity and technology that have shaped his life since childhood.

“By the time I reached junior high, I had already been dabbling with building customized computers,” he said, “but it was there that I began my interest in music through joining band and playing clarinet.”

This skillset led to a position as technical coordinator at ACM@UCO between 2009 and 2017.

“During my tenure, I designed, built and maintained the recording and performance facilities as well as the rest of the technology found in a typical higher education institution, while throwing a little creativity in here and there,” he said.

Now, aside from his Tower Theatre involvement, Tyler works as technical coordinator for deadCenter Film Festival and owns a media company, Mostly Harmless Media. It’s an impressive resume by any standard, but Tyler is quick to give credit to his carefully assembled support structure for “raising the tide” with which ships like Tower were raised in turn.

click to enlarge Oklahoma Gazette's Forty Under 40 Class of 2018 (38)
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Brian West


BKD CPAs & Advisors

Age 38

As a partner at BKD CPAs & Advisors, Brian West brings well over a decade of accounting experience to bear for his firm.

West has been providing audit and consulting services to clients in multiple industries for more than 13 years. This includes working with clients on U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filings and compliance issues. He is also an instructor for BKD’s firmwide training programs for young professionals.

In June 2014, West received the employee-nominated BKD Pride Award, honoring his commitment to the firm’s foundational values. It remains his proudest business achievement.

But West’s community service endeavors are easily as impressive as his accounting career. In fact, they are practically a career unto themselves.

West has recently served as board president of Mental Health Association Oklahoma, where he not only led board meetings but also assisted with fundraising and promotion of mental health awareness throughout the state. His tenure marked a geographical transition for the previously Tulsa-based nonprofit.

“Being a new nonprofit in Oklahoma City, we had to ensure that we did not upset other nonprofits in the area who had been established for years,” he said. “I have learned during this experience that a leader’s priority is bringing everyone together to focus on the end goal. Everyone’s goal in Oklahoma City is to help those with mental illness, and we’re off to a great start through a focus on collaboratively identifying potential solutions.”

West’s accomplishments in this capacity include overseeing the opening of Oklahoma City’s first housing complex for individuals with mental illness and housing more than 100 people who were previously homeless.

West also volunteers for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Oklahoma.

click to enlarge Oklahoma Gazette's Forty Under 40 Class of 2018 (39)
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Jabee Williams


Age 35

Like so many of his inspirations, from Tupac to El-P, it would be overly simplistic to label Jabee Williams as merely a hip-hop musician. As an artistic and entrepreneurial presence, his influence looms increasingly large over his city of residence.

For one thing, Williams is breaking into acting, with a handful of recent movie and TV credits to his name, including this year’s Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer and The Last Defense series. However, he remains somewhat modest about this aspect of his career.

“I don’t like to consider myself an actor,” he said. “People live and die for that.”

Another area of professional involvement for Williams is music education, most recently at ACM@UCO, where he teaches hip-hop studies.

As a community leader, Williams helped organize the 60th anniversary of the Katz Drug Store sit-in and participates in numerous events to benefit the homeless — a subject that is especially near to him, as he experienced a period of homelessness during his middle school years. He was also appointed to Oklahoma Arts Commission last year, giving him the opportunity to assist in approving various art projects for the city.

Williams is a Tower Theatre partner, but his business aspirations do not stop there. His plans for 2019 include the opening of two restaurants on the northeast side where he grew up, joining what appears to be a coming wave of economic growth.

“The cool thing about it is that we have the opportunity to have black businesses on the east side and employ black people on the east side, so I’m excited about that,” he said.

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Kristine Wise

senior manager

Eide Bailly

Age 31

As tax season draws near, it’s a good time to honor the work of truly dedicated professionals like Kristine Wise. As senior manager at Eide Bailly, Wise is putting her associate, bachelor’s and master’s degrees in accounting and her Certified Public Accountant (CPA) certification to their best use possible.

“Earning the CPA designation has unlocked many doors in my career, helped me flourish in my role at Eide Bailly and grow as a person in general,” she said. “I wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t studied for many hours and given it my all to pass the CPA exam, even after failing one part of the exam multiple times.”

This is an inspiring point in Wise’s story because it is exactly where others might have given up. The portion of the exam in question required a passing score of 75. Wise failed first with a 71, then another 71 and then a 74. At this point, she took stock of her situation and, with the encouragement of her parents, resolved to keep trying — only to fail again with a 68.

But she persisted and ultimately succeeded, an experience that she said helped increase her confidence in herself.

“When you hear keynote speakers discuss failures and how to learn from them, I think you have to have your own failures to understand what it takes to actually learn from experiences,” she said.

Wise’s work ethic can also be seen in her dedication to serving the nonprofit Christmas Connection, Inc., as its treasurer. Doing business under the name Sharing Tree, the store allows families in need to do their Christmas shopping at no cost.

click to enlarge Oklahoma Gazette's Forty Under 40 Class of 2018 (41)
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Desiree Yearby

public relations specialist/founder

Age 28

Though she works in e-commerce for an Edmond-based consumer electronics distributor by day, Desiree Yearby has another identity. She is “the queen of Oklahoma hip-hop.”

The title was bestowed on her after years of public relations work for the local community. A proud product of Oklahoma City’s east side, Yearby entered the local cultural scene at the tender age of 16, joining the Puzzle People creative collective. She has gone on to produce fashion shows, host musical events, manage social media accounts and serve as a consultant to numerous influential creatives.

Yearby, who often goes by “Dezz” or “DezzGotSteeze,” runs a blog, Got Steeze? The site has become a significant hip-hop platform, putting her in a better position to collaborate with other businesses and media outlets to ensure recognition for talent that might otherwise fly under the radar.

“Creating has been able to open doors for me, women around me and the artists I write about,” she said.

As a freelance PR specialist and event coordinator, Yearby has worked with a long list of artists and businesses, including Tower Theatre, Jabee Williams, Oklahoma Contemporary Arts Center, Oklahoma Arts Council, 16th Street Plaza District, Debate Night OKC, Steph Simon, Jaiye Farrell, 51st Street Speakeasy and more.

Yearby also serves on the board of The Lifelines Initiative, a nonprofit that focuses on art programs in underfunded public schools with emphasis on music career counseling.

“Our youth need more positive and relevant role models that can help to guide them towards a productive and well-adjusted lifestyle,” said local hip-hop artist and Lifelines executive director Jim Conway. “Desiree is helping to make that vision a reality.”

It seems that Yearby always has a new project underway, the latest being a music marketing seminar that she’s teaching at ACM@UCO.

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