Under the influence
The year’s 15 most influential people in Greater Madison
From the pages of In Business magazine.
Several members of our 2016 Most Influential class prove that you don’t have to be a big shot to make a difference in fields such as academia, activism, or the arts. Unlike the 2015 class, which was highlighted by people who led the community through a crisis that followed the tragic death of Tony Robinson, this year’s class has largely operated without a spotlight.
Keep in mind that our definition of most influential won’t always be positive in the view of every reader. Our first Most Influential list included Gov. Scott Walker, whose shepherding of Act 10 was certainly influential but not very popular in Dane County.
Readers also may wonder about the absence of several people who are in the formative stages of making significant contributions. One example is the Rev. Alex Gee, who has been instrumental in organizing a response to the racial disparities that undermine our civic process. His efforts will take more time to produce results, and a number of 2016 nominees are in the same situation.
Rest assured that we’re tracking their progress for future Most Influential lists, which acknowledge influence in the past year. With those ground rules, here is our third annual look at the Most Influential people in Greater Madison.
Editor’s note: Nominations for the 2017 Most Influential list should be submitted to Editorial Director Joe Vanden Plas at firstname.lastname@example.org.
John Behling: Tenure Transformer
For their controversial rewrite of faculty tenure policies, this entry could go to the entire University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents, but the person who led the way is John Behling, vice president of the board, who guided the rewrite throughout the drafting process.
Needless to say, the changes haven’t met with the approval of UW–Madison faculty, which passed a resolution of no confidence in the regents and UW System President Ray Cross. Some faculty have left the system, and critics say the changes make the board subservient to the GOP-dominated Wisconsin Legislature, which mandated the review.
While acknowledging that tenure is important to higher education because faculty must be free to express their views, especially controversial ones, Behling contends the previous policy lacked accountability and did not reward performance. The revised policy includes a requirement that tenured faculty be reviewed once every five years and includes a process chancellors must follow in the event a campus program has to be closed for economic reasons.
“I think once people actually read the policy and understand how it is going to be implemented,” he says, “they will agree with the Board’s decisions.”
Shiva Bidar: Instant Impact
Shiva Bidar is one of the freshest faces on the Madison leadership scene, and she hasn’t wasted any time making an impact.Bidar joined the Madison College Board of Trustees in the summer of 2015 and was immediately elected secretary of the board. As the only Madison resident on the board, she was instrumental in the vote to move forward with the South Madison Comprehensive Campus. Supporters of the controversial proposal, especially MATC President Jack E. Daniels III, believe it’s essential for people of color to have better access to a technical college education and an economic development spark for the south side.
Also a city alder, the 2016 Athena Award winner led the effort to create an Ad Hoc Citizen Committee charged with reviewing the policies, training, and culture of the Madison Police Department. Bidar and others want to determine whether there are areas for improvement, especially in racial disparity, use of force, and serving people with mental health or drug problems.
As the director of community partnerships at UW Health, her work in these areas is synergistic with her efforts to promote diversity and inclusion for UW Health and her work as co-chair of the Madison Area Diversity Roundtable.
Michael Gay: Grant Gainer
Michael Gay is the first to say the Madison Region Economic Partnership’s participation in the federal Investing in Manufacturing Communities Partnership is a team effort, but he’s the person who wrote the grant application that helped the Madison region become one of 12 designees in the federal IMCP. The grant award, announced last July, will help 30 local projects in the agriculture, food, and beverage sector and eventually bring to the region a combined $1.2 billion in economic development.
Gay, the senior vice president of economic development for MadREP, has helped the area tap into a multiagency program led by the U.S. Department of Commerce to accelerate the resurgence of manufacturing nationwide. It does so by supporting the development of long-term economic development strategies, boosting designated areas with branding and promotion, and attracting more private investment and partnerships to those areas.
Among the initial high-impact projects slated for funding are the UW Center for Dairy Research’s quest for a state and federal Center of Excellence designation, which could bring more grant money, the proposed Madison Public Market, and the Wisconsin Innovation Kitchen in Mineral Point. Gay, however, expects the best of IMCP “is truly yet to come.”
Otto Gebhardt: Space Traveler
For his never-ending work to develop the East Washington Avenue corridor, Otto Gebhardt of Gebhardt Development is a returning member of our Most Influential group, and we’re wondering what galactic contribution he’ll make next.
First he developed the 220-unit Constellation high rise in the 700 block of East Washington. Then came the mixed-use Galaxie and its Festival Foods grocery store right across the street. And now under development is the Cosmos, the name given for the 140,000-square-foot, mixed-use development directly south of the Galaxie. Taken together they constitute a Milky Way of welcome new development, and Madison has been in need of this kind of space exploration. The $69 million Cosmos redevelopment not only will be the home of the entrepreneurial hub known as StartingBlock, it will feature much-needed professional offices, education and retail spaces, and a 1,500-seat performing venue.
We’re not the only ones who have noticed Gebhardt’s work. The Daily Reporter, a Milwaukee-based construction newspaper, named Gebhardt its 2015 Developer of the Year.
The East Washington corridor is considered a gateway to Madison, but without modern development that gateway looked rusty. Gebhardt is in the process of giving the avenue some real polish.
Valerie Kazamias: Symphonic Fundraiser
Valerie Kazamias is enjoying the summer in Greece, but not before prolific fundraising on behalf of the Madison Symphony Orchestra that would impress a Greek god. Kazamias has been volunteering her time and talents on behalf of the arts in Madison for more than 50 years, and the Madison area has benefitted greatly from her dedication on the MSO’s development, marketing, and nominating committees.
From leading the implementation of the Arts Ball, a fundraiser for both the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Museum of Contemporary Art that has raised $1.5 million, including $75,000 in 2015, to securing sponsors for the MSO Gala and raising $40,000 last year, to helping generate $90,000 in 2015 for Concert on the Green, Kazamias is more than a patron of the performing and visual arts.
In addition to countless hours of volunteering and fundraising, Kazamias and her husband have personally donated more than $25,000 to the MSO. For these efforts, she received the 2015 John DeMain Award for outstanding commitment to music, but she gives much of the credit to the people of Madison. “I have been very fortunate,” she says, “that I have been afforded the opportunity to pursue this love affair in a community that appreciates the arts.”
Sabrina Madison: Progressive Partner
Already a motivational speaker, poet, self-described “socialpreneur,” and the queen of motivating people to live their dreams, Sabrina Madison organized the first Black Women’s Leadership Conference in Madison, aka Hey Miss Progress. The name of the conference also happens to be a take on Sabrina’s nickname — Progress — and it’s well earned.
The inaugural conference, held in May, sold out in a mere eight days and went better than Madison could have asked for. Each woman who purchased a ticket walked away with strategies for personal and professional success. “To have a single space filled wall-to-wall with predominantly black women who were there to learn from each other and also grow with each other was both amazing and inspiring,” she states.
It was so inspiring that next year Madison plans a two-day event that will cap off Black Women’s Leadership Week across the state. While planning to make the second annual conference bigger and better and elevate the community profile of African-American women and their opportunities for leadership, she’ll continue to find ways to spark a dialogue about racial issues and motivate everyone from middle school students to business professionals.
Bob Miller: Mayoral Management
For his leading role in redeveloping Monona’s commercial district, Mayor Bob Miller has demonstrated his influence with projects like the Fairway Glen multifamily housing project, Treysta on the Water, and the Waypoint Public House restaurant. More robust economic development activity in Monona, which started with the multi-year reconstruction of Monona Drive, has been a hallmark of Miller’s tenure as mayor.
With both the Monona Drive and Broadway corridors undergoing long overdue redevelopment, the city of 8,000 residents is thriving like never before. However, with no additional land to annex, the landlocked community has had to be creative with its space and planning, as illustrated by the 7.6-acre Monona Riverfront Project, which will redevelop the Broadway/Bridge Road area.
Part of that creativity stems from Miller’s 30 years of business management experience, which gives him a unique perspective. After executive stints at General Communications, Discover Mediaworks, WKOW-TV, and Dynatech Newstar, he understands the day-to-day experience of people who run Monona’s 500 businesses. With other time served at the Overture Center for the Arts and Aldo Leopold Nature Center, he has an appreciation for the finer things that contribute to a community’s quality of life.
Oscar Mireles: Poetry in Notion
If filling a vital educational role wasn’t enough for Oscar Mireles, perhaps filling an artistic one will be. Earlier this year, Mayor Paul Soglin named Mireles, the director of Madison’s Omega School, as Madison’s Poet Laureate, a volunteer position he will hold for two years. Mireles, who is the city’s first Latino poet laureate, is truly honored to be among past Madison poet laureates and fully intends to carry on their quest to make poetry a daily part of life for Madisonians.
A past winner of the Martin Luther King Humanitarian Award, Mireles already contributes to the arts through poetry that expresses the Latino experience. As poet laureate, he will be expected to compose poems for special events and to be an ambassador for poetry. Having written poetry for 30 years, he’s looking forward to assignments such as coordinating quarterly readings by guest poets at City Council meetings and the Metro Bus Lines poetry project, serving as the city’s poet ambassador in the schools, and reading poetry throughout the community.
As executive director and principal of Omega School, his life’s work has been pure poetry for students of all ages looking to complete their high school education and recompose their lives.
Tim Omer: Cheese Champ
Wisconsin is the Dairy State, so when a local cheesemaker takes home an international prize, it’s Gouda news. Consider this to be another organizational recognition, and the champion cheesemaker, Emmi Roth USA of Fitchburg, is led by President and Managing Director Tim Omer.
The cheese that made Emmi Roth famous is Roth Grand Cru Surchoix, an alpine-style cheese that won the World Championship Cheese Contest. As funny as it seems in a state that boasts roughly 700 varieties of cheese, Wisconsin cheeses do not dominate international competitions. Emmi’s entry, which is actually made at its Monroe facility, beat out a record number of 2,995 entries from around the world and bested its two closest competitors — a smear ripened soft cheese from Switzerland and an aged Gouda from the Netherlands.
That’s no small feat when you consider that cheesemakers from Switzerland have won four of the past five world championships, and that an American cheesemaker hasn’t won the top honor since 1988. After finally bringing home the prize, we have a feeling Omer and his staff will be strolling around Green County Cheese Days and other regional events with some championship swagger.
Nick Quint: Taste of Victory
For a businessman, Nick Quint has also been a pretty effective lobbyist. Quint, the owner of Madison’s Yahara Bay Distillery, was instrumental in changing a law in Wisconsin that prohibited distillers such as Yahara Bay from offering product tastings at licensed retailers such as groceries or liquor stores.
When legislation was finally enacted and signed into law, it meant he could actually have store tastings in his home state. To some that might not seem like much of an accomplishment, but in an area where government isn’t always responsive to business needs, it’s more significant than meets the eye.
The law has already made a difference for distillers, which comes as no surprise to Quint. Whenever tastings were held in the Yahara Bay Distillery consumers bought the products, and now they are doing so in other retail venues. With a level playing field for alcohol manufacturers — wine and beer sampling had been allowed for years at Wisconsin retail locations — another wave of business development is possible.
“Craft products have to be tasted because they all cost a little bit more than the big name brands,” says Quint, “and we can’t afford to advertise the way the big brands do.”
Dr. Floyd Rose: SOAR Winner
Income inequality is a fact of American life, but the unacceptably large gap between the richest and poorest Americans will remain unless we do a better job educating children from economically disadvantaged families.
Enter Dr. Floyd Rose, president of 100 Black Men of Madison, which launched Project SOAR (Student Opportunities, Access, and Readiness) to increase graduation rates among young African-American males. In particular, the program seeks to boost the high school graduation rates of 300 male students ages 12 to 17.
According to Rose, 38% of African-American students attending schools in the Madison Metropolitan School District were chronically absent — meaning they missed at least 10% of school days — during a recent school year. 100 Black Men is already at work to reverse this trend with one-on-one mentoring, career exploration through the SOAR Career Academy, and life skills through the SOAR Success Academy.
In the aftermath of recent tragedies, Madison is having an important moment of introspection. Will we be the kind of community that just stands by while people fall short of their potential or the kind that creates new and more successful models for the advancement of everyone? Dr. Rose, the 2014 winner of the Reverend James C. Wright Human Rights Award, prefers the latter.
Henry Sanders: 365 Influence
Henry Sanders launched Madison365, an influential media voice that covers communities of color in Madison, to advocate for lasting solutions to racial disparities. The rationale behind it was that local newsrooms were pretty much devoid of people of color and as a result they weren’t accurately portraying life in communities of color.
Sanders isn’t interested in merely highlighting societal challenges. He wants to forge genuine, lasting solutions now and in the future, and one of Madison365’s first initiatives is a journalistic training program to teach high school and college students the craft of covering the news, especially in communities of color.
It’s one of several promising community initiatives that will attack racial disparities head on, but to stay on the attack Madison365 needs committed community partners. For its journalistic training program, the organization recently secured $80,000 in commitments from the likes of the American Family Insurance Dream Foundation, Madison Community Foundation, and CUNA Mutual Foundation.
This month, in conjunction with the Boys and Girls Clubs of Dane County, Madison365 will begin the 365 Academy, a three-week journalism boot camp. It will provide hands-on experiences and mentoring to help aspiring journalists shape the local dialogue at Madison365 and other newsrooms.
Vern Stenman: Master Showman
By day, Madison Mallards fans can be mild-mannered accountants. By night, they are free — encouraged, actually — to show their wild side by enjoying the baseball game that breaks out during a carnival.
While businesspeople worry about the customer experience, Mallards President Vern Stenman continuously shapes and reshapes the ballpark experience. For baseball purists, the sporting experience is just fine, as top college baseball players put a fine product on the field, but for the casual fan a visit to the Duck Pond at Warner Park might include an innovative theme night, promotional giveaways, party packages, and other family amusement and bemusement.
This year’s highlights figure to be a Chris Farley bobblehead giveaway, an ’80s Night tribute to the late artist who will always be known as Prince, and Star Wars night, when the Mallards sport Darth Vader-themed jerseys.
Stenman has enjoyed bringing fun back to baseball, and the Mallards are all about fun in the broader community, too, which is why the club is joining Festival Foods to sponsor Shake the Lake and new events at Breese Stevens Field.
Note: A previous version of this story identified Stenman as the owner of the Mallards. Steve Schmitt owns the Mallards and Stenman is the president.
Neil Stechschulte: Community Builder
Mayors and city councils may come and go but one thing that has remained constant in Sun Prairie is robust economic development. The city’s continuing development, as illustrated by signature projects like the Marcus Palace Cinema, Woodman’s, and the Colony Brands fulfillment center, is partially attributable to the efforts of Neil Stechschulte, the city’s director of economic development.
Sun Prairie is one of the fastest-growing communities in Wisconsin; with a population approaching 32,000, it is the second largest city in Dane County. Stechschulte is quick to credit a great location, excellent infrastructure, and a strong regional economy, and even though he deserves some of the credit he’s quick to note that city leaders must take advantage of these assets. “Nothing that Sun Prairie has experienced would have been possible without good local developers and supportive elected officials,” he states.
He’s also quick to point out there still is plenty of work to be done — expanding the business park, redeveloping Main Street, diversifying transportation and housing options, expanding locally owned, high-speed internet, and completing a new brewery project. “It’s enough to keep us busy for the foreseeable future,” he notes, “but we’re always ready for the next project that wants to be in Sun Prairie.”
Steve Stricker: Hometown Champ
Nobody is more responsible for bringing professional golf back to Wisconsin on an annual basis than Madison native Steve Stricker, who is Wisconsin’s best professional golfer since Andy North. The American Family Insurance Championship is a delightful replacement for the U.S. Bank Championship (formerly the Greater Milwaukee Open), which ended in 2009 after a history of unattractive purses and dates. The GMO often was held the weekend before the British Open, when most tour professionals would rather be traveling to England for the PGA Tour’s only overseas major.
The new event, part of the Champions Tour, is for the 50-and-older set. The tour features players that golf fans are nostalgic about, and many of the top-tier seniors came to Madison’s University Ridge and put on a good show. The field included 58-year-old Bernhard Langer, who impressed at this year’s Masters and now dominates the Champions Tour. Langer will be getting stiffer competition next year when both Stricker and Jerry Kelly, another local favorite, are eligible to compete.
Stricker’s modesty compels him to say the American Family tournament was an easy sell, but part of the salesmanship is the respect he has among the players that will make up its legendary field.
Editor's note: A previous version of the story identified Vern Stenman as the owner of the Mallards. He is the president of the Mallards and Steve Schmitt is the owner.
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