10+ local difference makers

From the pages of In Business magazine

Last year, as part of our Most Influential people of Greater Madison program, we began to emphasize people exerting influence under the radar. While there are still some “big shots” as part of our 2018 presentation, we continue to seek out people who don’t always operate in the limelight.

To demonstrate the diversity of people who can make a difference in a community (and beyond), we recognize a controversial governor, several nonprofit impresarios, an education visionary, a strategically focused foundation president, a flooring retailer who has grown to admire his adopted home, the creative director of a business improvement district, a local attorney with a strong passion for justice, and a couple of real smooth operators (of Breese Stevens Field).

As you read their profiles, we know you’ll be impressed by their accomplishments and their commitment to making Madison a better place to live. Even though popularity in Dane County is not a prerequisite for selection — Exhibit A: Gov. Scott Walker — that’s what the Most Influential feature is really about.

Vern Stenman and Conor Caloia

Soccer under the Big Top

For generations, we’ve been told that soccer would take its rightful place as a popular passion of American sports fanatics. For many, that assertion has been the sports equivalent of “the metric system is coming.”

Slowly but surely, however, soccer is gaining a foothold, and two people who are putting down stakes are Vern Stenman and Conor Caloia of Big Top Events. With Big Top Events, they operate Breese Stevens Field in Madison, as well as the Madison Mallards baseball team, and recently they announced the forthcoming arrival of a new tenant: a professional soccer team for Madison.

Now in their third year of operating Breese Stevens Field, they have viewed soccer as a key component of the facility’s best use from the very beginning. “Soccer, especially in the U.S., is in a rapidly growing, transformative phase,” Caloia states. “There are a lot of opportunities for the right fit.”

With forthcoming improvements to the facility, especially food service and standing-space-style bleachers for some fans, they envision a premier facility for outdoor soccer in Wisconsin, one that attracts people on its own merits. Fans should not expect quite the same environment as the Duck Pond, where Mallards Nation frolics in both baseball and non-baseball fun. “We’re going to create our own vision for what soccer in Madison will be like,” Stenman says.

In terms of concerts, legendary acts such as Steely Dan and REO Speedwagon already have performed at Breese Stevens this year. For both Caloia and Stenman, who appreciate the versatility of the venue, there is a special sense of satisfaction connected with appealing to nostalgia. “We seem to have done especially well,” notes Caloia, “with the classic rock acts.”

Becca and Matt Hamilton

Stache-ing goodwill

Photo: Rich Harmer, USA Curling

They were America’s first mixed-doubles curling team to compete in the Olympics. They are also brother and sister and McFarland natives who not many people knew just a few months ago. With their participation in the 2018 Winter Olympics, and the force of their personalities, Matt and Becca Hamilton helped raise the profile of an entire sport.

Since their Olympic success — the mustachioed Matt was part of the gold-medal-winning U.S. men’s team — they’ve been doing the media rounds, appearing on television with the likes of Jimmy Fallon, landing product endorsements, and in Matt’s case, tweeting with celebrities and professional athletes. (Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who is known to sport a mustache during training camp, was quite impressed with Matt’s cookie duster.)

As Matt explained, there is usually a spike in the interest of curling after the Olympics, but this time interest exploded because of social media. Curling clubs nationwide contacted them to offer their thanks for a surge in participation, school children chose curlers on “Dress like your favorite athlete at school day,” and one schoolgirl even depicted Becca in an art project. Her father sent an image of the art to Becca and the girl received a jersey from her favorite Olympian — her tears of joy captured on video and displayed on social media.

“That was the coolest thing for me,” Becca acknowledged.

Even people in the southern U.S. who had never seen a curling competition began to express an interest and remark about how much fun the sport seemed on television. “This time,” Matt notes, “the reaction was just incredible.”

Look for the Hamiltons to continue serving as ambassadors for the sport as they prepare for the 2022 Winter Olympics.



Cristina Bordé

Passion for justice

From her perch at the Wisconsin Innocence Project at the University of Wisconsin Law School, Cristina Bordé poured over the demographics of exonerations and found that Latinos were underrepresented in that population. She would secure a grant and add a new title — director of the Latino Exoneration Program, a two-year initiative funded by the U.S. Department of Justice to provide legal representation to incarcerated Latino inmates for the purpose of obtaining DNA testing to prove their innocence.

The current project is nearing its end and is limited to DNA cases, but it has enabled Bordé to investigate and litigate innocence cases, a process that can take years. “We are in the process of investigating and litigating several of these cases,” she notes.

Bordé would like to expand the work to nationwide, non-DNA cases because 50% of exonerations are based on perjury, and she would like to re-investigate more cases through a nonprofit center. She notes that systematic problems that lead to wrongful convictions include misidentification from eyewitnesses and false confessions, sometimes under extreme duress from interrogators. Cultural differences related to language barriers, interpretation problems, or simply “cultural incompetence” also contribute to wrongful convictions.

“We’ve made a lot of progress in identifying the causes of wrongful convictions, and we’re trying to reform the system to prevent the things that we know lead to wrongful convictions,” Bordé states. “It’s an important thing that we should be addressing, not only because someone is spending decades in prison for something they didn’t do, but because the real perpetrator is going free.”

Will Green

Mentor extraordinaire

Will Green, founder of Mentoring Positives, is as aware as anyone of the surge of hope troubled young people get when adults, whether or not they are family members, care enough to reach out. He established Mentoring Positives 14 years ago to help at-risk youth in Madison’s low-income Darbo-Worthington Neighborhood.

Thanks to recent grant awards, Green will be able to help more at-risk kids. In what he characterizes as a “whirlwind” period, Green received the coveted Nan Cheney March for Justice Award from Forward Community Investments, which comes with $15,000. Then he got another $5,000 award the night he accepted the March for Justice award at Monona Terrace. The next morning, he received a call from UW Health and received $10,000 more.

All of that was on top of a $175,000 commitment from the CUNA Mutual Foundation, all to do what he does best — build mentoring relationships, keep promising young people on the right track, and empower people with opportunities to grow economically. Sometimes, that means a college track, as is the case with one young man, Jivonte Lee Davis, who Green has known since Davis was nine years old. Davis, one of about 2,500 kids Mentoring Positives has helped, is now a college student majoring in business, and he recently took to Facebook to post a tribute to Green.

Green is a self-described “old soul” who hails from Gary, Indiana. One of his life’s blessings is there were people willing to mentor him at a young age in an environment of violence and drug abuse, and Mentoring Positives is simply his way of “paying it forward.”



Bob Sorge

Gifted gifter

When you’re known for strategy and value propositions, it comes as no surprise that you’re happiest when implementing a strategy that highlights hometown values. Bob Sorge has applied both, first as executive director of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and more recently as president of the Madison Community Foundation.

To celebrate its 75th anniversary, the Foundation came up with a 12 monthly major gifts concept — a blend of how the Greater Milwaukee Foundation and Chicago Community Foundation observed milestones, with a twist of what’s unique and valuable about Madison.

In all, about $2 million was spent on grants specifically related to the Foundation’s anniversary. Of the 12 major monthly gifts, Sorge is personally most fond of the $65,000 grant to the Office of American Indian Curriculum Services at UW–Madison, a nod to Native American Heritage Tour effigy mounds. “You look at a map showing the density of the effigy mounds in North America, it’s not just Dane County, it’s Madison,” he notes. “That really filled us with pride to know that was a special thing about this place.”

Moving from a chamber orchestra to a community foundation gave Sorge a broader lens when thinking strategically, but one thing did not change — his focus on unique value propositions. He gives much of the credit to the Foundation’s stakeholders and staff, but his concentration on value allows him to be bluntly honest. “I often say to nonprofits that it’s not the fault of the donor or patron if they are not attending your events, it’s your fault. Make your event worth attending, worth the money, and worth the time.”

Aaron Perry

Survival of the fittest

With one brilliant idea, Aaron Perry has done what millions of significant others have been unable to do — get men serious about physical health. Perry, CEO and founder of Rebalanced Life Wellness Association, established a health center in a common gathering place — a local barbershop.

His epiphany has not only drawn upwards of 1,500 African American men to get basic health screenings, it has branched out into the community and is building a brotherhood of men who would prefer to be healthy but don’t have access to basic services or don’t trust the health care system due to past bias.

When it comes to encouraging men to adopt healthier lifestyles, Perry literally walks the walk. A diabetic for the past 26 years, Perry has himself been transformed from an overweight, sedentary person to one who competes in Ironman competitions. In addition to starting a health center in the backroom of JP Hair Design Barbershop, he is collaborating with community partners such as the Urban League for mobile preventive care (blood pressure screenings and oral health screenings), and he’s enlisted Edgewood College nursing students to provide oral health screenings at La Follette High School and educate young African-American males about the health impacts of high blood pressure.

With health-related events and contests that Rebalanced Life Wellness Association puts on, he’s brought out the inner fitness fanatic in formerly sedentary men, and he’s determined to set an example for other diabetics. “I’m going to give my body a fighting chance,” he says, “until a cure is discovered.”



Bob Tobe

Designs on Madison

Perhaps the best advertising for Design for a Difference are the videos contained on the website of FLOOR360, whose Co-Owner and CEO Bob Tobe brought the concept to Madison. The gratitude expressed by nonprofit groups who have had their space transformed by the growing legion of DFAD volunteers — now up to more than 35 interior designers and 100 area businesses — tells you about the value of giving back to the community.

As its name suggests, the program is a design-driven movement that performs interior makeovers free of charge to nonprofit facilities. The beneficiaries of the nonprofit makeovers have reported an increase in visibility that has helped them recruit talented team members and provide services in a more professional way.

This year’s recipient is the East Madison Community Center, but the most recently completed project, 2017 recipient Centro Hispano, is the best illustration of the program’s three-pronged purpose: to improve the space, to give exposure to the nonprofit and its services, and to show the power of design.

The Centro Hispano project was a challenging one that covered 12,000 square feet at a cost of $600,000, but you won’t hear the program’s volunteers complain. In their own words, they are giving an awesome present back to the community, and Tobe views the decision to sponsor Design for a Difference-Madison as one of the best he’s ever made. “What I’m proud of is that we were able to bring this opportunity to support it, energize it, and bring it to the community,” Tobe says. “What has happened is that Madison has become attached to it, and it has just taken off and exploded.”

Tiffany Kenney

Business booster

Tiffany Kenney’s job as executive director of the Madison Central Business Improvement District is to make her many masters happy. Whether they are property owners, business owners, or people who simply enjoy downtown Madison, it’s her job to put smiles on their faces, and with the early success of the Madison Night Market, a showcase of handmade products, local art, and artisan gifts, they’re grinning from ear to ear.

In an era when retailers need a way to sling rocks at the Goliath that is the Amazon Effect, don’t think the work of Kenney and her small staff has gone unnoticed. One measure is the growing ranks of vendors and visitors, while another is the addition of a fourth Night Market event in 2018, and yet another is the presence of pop-up spaces at the very top and bottom of State Street.

Having visitor traffic exceed your original goal by a factor of three can result in adjustments to security and other plans, but that’s fine with Kenney. “One of the goals of the Madison Central Business Improvement District overall is to increase the health and vitality of the downtown area, so we feel good about that,” she states.

For Kenney, whose previous work also focused on marketing for special events, it’s gratifying to know how well retailers, restaurateurs, vendors, and the public have accepted the Madison Night Market. It might also lead to the establishment of other Business Improvement Districts, or BIDs, in Madison. Thus far, the Central BID is Madison’s only one, and Kenney would encourage other areas to consider it. “To have more people understand what a business improvement district does,” she notes, “is good for the downtown.”



Jack E. Daniels III

Driving force

The term “driving force,” like any description, can be overused, but when applied to Madison College President Jack E. Daniels III and his efforts to make the college’s new south campus a reality, it might not be strong enough.

Not only has a $22.8 million capital drive gone exceedingly well, thanks in no small measure to Daniel’s selection of retired CUNA Mutual Group executive Steve Goldberg to serve as gift development specialist, MATC has taken ownership of the site (at the corner of Park Street and Badger Road), demolition of the old building is nearly done, and a groundbreaking was held last month. Construction work on the new building should begin soon, the Wisconsin Technical College System Board unanimously approved the desired curriculum, and things remain on track for an August 2019 opening.

The new, 75,000-square-foot south campus facility will serve the dual purpose of creating degree pathways for economically disadvantaged students and help local health care and technology employers find more workers with the skills they need to grow their organizations. It will replace the existing south campus at Villager Mall, enable Madison College to make profound qualitative improvements in courses and degree offerings, and have a strong STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) focus.

For Daniels, it’s gratifying to see unrelenting progress on a project that he firmly believes will be the latest transformational development in Madison. “It’s been enormous and the pace at which it happened is unprecedented, but we are really looking forward to serving that community and being a catalyst for change in south Madison.”

Scott Walker

Foxy coup

Photo: walker.wi.gov

Most Influential selections don’t have to be popular, and Gov. Scott Walker would be fortunate to get 25% of the vote in Dane County. They must, however, be influential and the Walker administration’s ability (with an assist from President Trump) to lure Taiwan-based Foxconn Technology Group to southeastern Wisconsin, a development that will touch every corner of the state, is the biggest business story of the year.

Wisconsin beat out several other states for Foxconn’s North American facility, but Walker’s critics are quick to note that $3 billion in state tax credits is a very expensive lure. They’ve been doing their best to turn the massive Foxconn project into a political negative and with some success as 49% of state residents think the state is paying more in incentives than Foxconn is worth, according to a recent Marquette Law School Poll.

Yet Foxconn and its contractor recently announced $100 million in contracts with subcontractors and suppliers throughout the state. “Once operational, Foxconn will spend roughly $1.4 billion a year with Wisconsin businesses,” Walker states. “To put that in perspective, Oshkosh Corp., one of our great Wisconsin employers, spends about $300 million each year with Wisconsin companies.”

If there is one thing Walker is likely to emphasize in this fall’s gubernatorial campaign, it’s that Foxconn won’t get the state tax credits unless the company meets specific job and capital goals. People will continue to debate whether Foxconn’s projected 13,000 direct jobs and its supply chain are worth the tax credits, but the presence of LCD manufacturing is likely to be influential for decades to come.

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