The Up and Comers
The Bethesda area is home to lots of movers and shakers who’ve built long careers in politics, business and the arts. But it also has a number of rising stars who are making their mark before they’re even 40.
We celebrate six up-and-comers—from an entrepreneur who’s a technology whiz to a theater director who combines a mind for business with a passion for the stage.
39, producing artistic director at Round House Theatre
Ryan Rilette has high ambitions for Round House Theatre. He aspires to make the nonprofit, with stages in Bethesda and Silver Spring, “as good as anybody in the country, if not better” by broadening its appeal.
Rilette, who took over as producing artistic director last August, knows it will take hard work to win over new audiences, especially young people and immigrant communities eager to see their stories on stage. He plans to find new plays by mining relationships he has cultivated with up-and-coming playwrights during his years leading regional theater companies across the country.
At Marin Theatre Company in California, for example, Rilette produced works by Sharr White and Tarell Alvin McCraney, two hot, emerging playwrights who’ve been fêted from Broadway to London’s West End. Rilette also is a past board president of the National New Play Network, a coalition of nonprofit theaters that fosters the development and production of new plays.
Rilette says he doesn’t intend to abandon Round House’s tradition of producing modern classics. But presenting only established plays means “you are no longer in conversation with the rest of the national theater community,” he says, and not introducing audiences to new voices.
“You can’t be a great theater unless you are developing new works and you’ve got your [finger on the pulse of] the next generation of playwrights,” he says.
Round House Theatre Board of Trustees President Sally Patterson says Rilette is that rare artistic director who’s as adept at managing budgets as he is at producing compelling seasons.
He wowed the board because “he saw possibilities,” she says. “His eagerness to embrace those possibilities and figure out a way to make us grow has consistently been a source of energy and enthusiasm.”
26, co-founder and managing partner of Spartan Companies
Rolling with the punches—whether in the boxing ring or the business world—comes naturally to Ben Wald.
An amateur boxer since he was a teen, he’s now an entrepreneur in the world of technology, a field in which risk-taking can lead to spectacular success or failure.
“A lot of training we do inside the ring has direct applications to…my work ethic and how I think from a strategy perspective,” says Wald, who lives in Chevy Chase with his wife, Alicia. “If I want to get to where I want to go, it’s going to take a lot of scratched knees.”
Wald first made a name for himself in 2008, when he and his business partner, Tyler Jenks, made Businessweek’s list of “America’s Best Young Entrepreneurs” after securing funding for an online education software company.
Wald since has built on that reputation with Spartan Companies, which develops software for consumers and business clients in addition to investing in other high-tech firms. His company, with offices along the East Coast, built software for Bridge, an online platform designed to accelerate medical research through open source collaboration.
Wald realized he wanted to be his own boss after being dissatisfied with several jobs while attending Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He went to Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., for its undergraduate business program, but dropped out after his sophomore year when his online education software company received funding from investors.
Wald’s decision to leave college prompted a “huge discussion in our family,” recalls his mother, Tess Wald, who, like her husband, Andrew, holds an advanced degree. But as small-business owners themselves, the Walds realized that Ben’s decision made sense.
Tess Wald attributes her son’s success to the perseverance that once helped him in the boxing ring. “Nothing is a problem,” she says. “He always sees opportunities.”
37, president/CEO of the Consumer Health Foundation
Yanique Redwood was inspired to pursue a career in public health after learning about a shameful chapter in America’s past. Beginning in 1932, the Tuskegee syphilis experiment followed the disease’s progression in poor, African-American sharecroppers over a 40-year period without ever providing treatment.
“I just couldn’t believe something like that would’ve happened in a medical setting,” says Redwood, who studied the case at Georgia State University.
A tearful Redwood discussed it with her professor, who encouraged her “to use my anger and do something about this injustice.”
Redwood took the advice to heart, building a career first at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, where she investigated disease outbreaks in Africa, and then at the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation, where she worked on improving mental health services for disadvantaged youths.
Today she is president and CEO of the Consumer Health Foundation in Washington, D.C., an organization that focuses on health-equity issues by providing grants and training to regional nonprofits.
“We want to see everyone in this region, regardless of their background…or their socioeconomic position, have the opportunity to live a healthy and dignified life,” says Redwood, who lives in Silver Spring.
The foundation seeks to expand public understanding of health care, she says, by promoting the idea that healthy workplaces and schools, along with safe and affordable housing, can impact health as much as access to doctors.
Foundation board Chairman Christopher King says the nonprofit hired Redwood last fall because of her impeccable communication skills and her strong scientific background.
“She has this gift of communication in a way that’s nonthreatening,” he says. “It allows people to think differently…and reshape their approach [to] working in the community.”
35, founder and CEO of CertifiKid
When Jamie Ratner was growing up in Rockville, her family never went anywhere without first clipping a deal from the Entertainment Coupon Book, which offered discounts to local shops, restaurants and attractions.
But once she was the mother of two young children herself, Ratner found few local options for deals on kid-friendly activities. So three years ago, she launched CertifiKid, a website and email service that offers daily discounts to Washington-area families.
The company racked up $2 million in advertising sales last year, expanding into the Los Angeles and Chicago markets with the recent acquisition of another discount site, FamilyFINDS.
“I’ve always said: If you’re going to do a business, do something you’re passionate about,” says Ratner, who runs CertifiKid out of the Potomac home she shares with her children and husband, Brian, an attorney.
An early connoisseur of Groupon, a pioneer in daily-deal marketing on the Internet, Ratner developed her business by contacting family-oriented vendors and asking them to advertise discounts on her site. Ratner says she has focused on building long-term relationships with local businesses rather than making the maximum profit from each transaction. Since her site’s debut, she has featured products or services from more than 1,000 area businesses.
“The way we’ve grown, it’s been organic,” Ratner says. “A lot of it has been by word of mouth.”
Dottie Millwater says her North Bethesda photography business has exploded since partnering with CertifiKid in 2011. “Before Jamie, I was just a girl with a photography blog,” she says.
Millwater says she booked 50 new clients within days of CertifiKid advertising a discount on family portraits. She now counts about 500 families as clients, 70 percent of whom found her through the email service.
Ratner “knows what local moms want,” Millwater says.
24, owner of A.I.R. Lawn Care
Rockville native Zack Kline grew up loving the smell of cut grass whenever he mowed lawns, but hating the fumes spewed by gas-powered mowers. So the summer before heading to college, he thought: Why not use machines that are more eco-friendly?
Today, the Salisbury University graduate is the owner of A.I.R. Lawn Care, an electric- and solar-powered lawn care business that serves 20 residential clients in Montgomery County.
Kline was a college junior when he first entered his business plan for A.I.R. (which stands for “atmosphere improvement and renewal”) into a university competition and earned honorable mention.
Delving into market research, he then retooled his projections and re-entered the competition as a senior, this time taking first place.
“The devil’s in the details,” the Rockville resident says. “It’s definitely the little things that matter.”
Kline used the $5,000 prize from the competition for a down payment on a truck, outfitting it with solar panels to charge his battery-powered mower, trimmers and blowers. After graduating in December 2011, he returned to Rockville and successfully applied to become an incubator business at Bethesda Green, a public-private partnership that supports sustainable business practices.
Joseph Chirico, Bethesda Green board treasurer and senior vice president at Capital One Bank, says he was blown away by the level of detail in Kline’s business plan. “At the end of the day, Zack works really hard and provides a service at a price that’s competitive with a gas-powered business,” says Chirico, who’s one of Kline’s clients.
To build his business, Kline has established partnerships with regional manufacturers, including STIHL, a Virginia Beach-based maker of outdoor power tools, which donated some of its products in exchange for greater exposure.
“It’s not what you know or who you know, but who knows you, and how you can help them out,” Kline says.
33, land-use attorney
Heather Dlhopolsky has always taken a practical approach to protecting the environment, starting in high school when she went from classroom to classroom collecting recyclable paper instead of joining the school’s environmental club.
A land-use attorney at Linowes and Blocher in Bethesda, Dlhopolsky adopts that same pragmatic view when representing real estate developers interested in reducing their carbon footprint by building high-density, “smart growth” projects in Montgomery County. Such development, with its proximity to mass transit, also can boost the county’s image by enticing younger adults to settle here, she says.
“I’m not advocating for the environment per se, but people need to live somewhere, and what we’re doing makes a lot of sense for a lot of reasons,” says Dlhopolsky, a North Bethesda resident. “Montgomery County has a great safety net for older folks and disadvantaged people, but you need young people to support that.”
Friends know Dlhopolsky as an overachiever. She prefers the term “super nerd.” She studied government and environmental science and policy at the University of Maryland before earning a law degree and master’s in environmental law from Vermont Law School.
Today, she holds leadership positions in five local service organizations, including vice president of economic development and government affairs for The Greater Bethesda-Chevy Chase Chamber of Commerce and president of CREW Maryland Suburban, a local chapter of a national professional organization for women in commercial real estate. She also serves on the board of directors for the Montgomery County chapter of Habitat for Humanity.
Chamber President and CEO Ginanne Italiano marvels at Dlhopolsky’s ability to seamlessly shift among her multiple commitments, and praises her advocacy on behalf of the chamber.
“When Heather speaks, you listen,” Italiano says. “She’s a very honest person. She will talk about the negatives of an issue as well as the positives.”
Archana Pyati is a writer based in Silver Spring.