people who make a difference AGENTS OF CHANGE

Twenty-five people, in unique ways, are helping shape and improve the Capital Region through their leadership

TIM O'BRIEN Staff Writer

Section: Capitaland Quarterly,  Page: CQ18

Date: Sunday, January 6, 2008

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

-- Margaret Mead


  Some are leaders in business, like Vic Abate, bringing in hundreds of jobs in an environmentally friendly field. Others are striving, like Albany NanoCollege Assistant Professor Fatemeh (Shadi) Shahedipour-Sandvik, to encourage young girls to imagine themselves as scientists of the future. And there are those, like Tommy Watkins, using their art to inspire a rebirth in community events.

 Some work to touch lives one at a time, like Andre Lewis at the Arbor Hill Community Center, trying to give young people in the inner city confidence in themselves and hope for the future. What they do differs. What binds them is that they are 25 people making a difference in the Capital Region. And, each in their own way, demonstrating that you can make a difference, too.

Vic Abate

A third-generation graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, Abate is vice president for renewables at GE Energy, a unit of General Electric Co. Over the summer, GE said it would add 150 jobs in Schenectady at a new wind turbine service center in the same city where turbines and generators for traditional power plants are built. GE followed that up in the fall with a second plan for 500 more jobs, many of them again in Abate's realm.

"The industry is growing over 25 percent a year," Abate said. Sales of GE wind turbines have grown from $500 million to $4 billion in the past five years, with sales both globally and in the United States.

"There is enough wind in North Dakota and South Dakota to power the whole country," Abate said. The challenge is to get that power across the country.

Getting permits to accomplish that is difficult in New York state, but Abate said a GE turbine can be found at Jiminy Peak in nearby Massachusetts, where it powers operations at the ski resort.

With the wind blowing in the direction of alternative energy, Abate has placed Schenectady firmly in the direction of growth. And those jokes about the last person to leave GE in Schenectady turning out the lights are being blown away.


Harry Apkarian
A longtime booster of the Capital Region, Apkarian is the co-founder of Mechanical Technology Inc. in Latham and currently heads TransTech Systems Inc. of Schenectady, an innovator in products that help build roads and evaluate the density and content of asphalt, concrete and soil. But Apkarian makes the list for his role as a sought-after adviser to other business leaders. He also served as Union College's first entrepreneur-in-residence to bring his business skills to the next generation of innovators.

"It's something I feel I ought to do," he said. "The system has been very good to me, and it's my way of paying back."

He also serves on the board of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the Albany College of Pharmacy, and he has been on numerous other boards from Albany Medical Center to Russell Sage College to two incubators.


Peter Bauer
For 13 years, Bauer was known as a fighter, a reputation earned as the leader of the Residents' Committee to Protect the Adirondacks. He worked to ban ATVs from the park and to get the state to expand conservation areas.

In mid-October, Bauer moved from Blue Mountain Lake to Lake George and took on a new job as executive director of The Fund for Lake George. Now he is working to protect water quality and preserve the lake's view shed.

The fund is a partner in a project to turn the 12-acre site of the former Gaslight Village amusement park back into a wetland. The fund partnered with the village and town of Lake George, Warren County, the Lake George Conservancy and the Lake George Association to buy the site for $4.1 million.

The environmental groups may have to raise twice that much to do the work. Given Bauer's track record, don't count him out.

Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre
Growing up on a Vermont farm, Eben Bayer spent time making maple syrup and picking mushrooms with his father. Now he and McIntyre, a fellow 2007 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute graduate, are hoping their idea of using mushrooms to create environmentally friendly insulation pays off.

Their efforts came from the same project class that spawned MapInfo Corp., and they hope their Greensulate material - which uses mushroom spores - will be a fast-growing technology that benefits the environment. Their company, Ecovative Design LLC, last month was a winner in the 21st Century Challenge Competition hosted by Oxford University's business school. It currently operates from the RPI incubator.

Kevin Bette
When the news broke that John Hedley was selling his namesake Hedley Park Place along the waterfront in Troy, it seemed like an end to an era.

But Bette's First Columbia LLC is not only renovating the former shirt factory turned office park, it's making plans for new office and condominium buildings, a hotel and parking garage, and a riverside promenade to remake the city's waterfront in a roughly 25-block area just north of downtown.

And, in a classy move, the whole effort is being named the Hedley Park District.

Already, plans for a $32 million hotel, conference center and parking garage adjacent to Hedley Park Place have been submitted to the city. Full build-out for the district would take years.

Walter Borisenok
You've probably never heard of nutraceuticals, but you've eaten plenty of them. Chances are, some were Borisenok's.

He founded Fortitech Inc. in 1986, and it has grown steadily into one of the world's leaders in the manufacture of premixes, which go into a wide variety of foods, from breakfast cereals, energy bars and sports drinks to candy, flour and even water.

Now Fortitech, based in Schenectady, is planning to build a $4 million warehouse and distribution center in Glenville, kickstarting what county officials hope will become a new technology park on Route 50 adjacent to Schenectady County Airport.

Paul Bray
The civic conscience of the Capital Region, Bray - a monthly contributor to the Times Union's Sunday Perspective section - leads the Albany Roundtable and helped found Albany's Pine Bush Commission. He is editor of Capital Commons Quarterly, which focuses on "the dynamics of aging and our communities," published by the Albany Guardian Society. He's also a lawyer and adjunct professor of planning at the University at Albany.

Dr. Sarah Elmendorf
Ask Elmendorf about her volunteerism in the community, and she's not sure where to start. She's not being immodest, just honest.

An infectious disease specialist and Albany Medical Center Hospital's epidemiologist, Elmendorf is one of six physicians who volunteer at the Poverello Clinic in Albany's Arbor Hill, providing free physicals to adults.

"Most of the people who arrive there are trying to get physicals for their new employers. They can't get hired until they have a physical, and the physical (normally) costs $200," she said.

She also serves on a state Health Department panel seeking to promote wise use of antibiotics to help prevent antibiotic-resistant "superbugs" from gaining strength.

A 1981 graduate of Albany Medical College, she also takes a keen interest in encouraging young women to pursue careers in medicine, mentoring medical students and speaking at local schools.

Maxine Fantroy-Ford
If she were in business, Fantroy-Ford would be known as a turnaround specialist.

As principal of Giffen Elementary School in Albany, she was widely praised for improving a school once tagged as the city's worst. She instituted teacher training programs. She went so far as to knock on parents' doors in the South End neighborhood herself. In 2005, 64 percent of Giffen's fourth-graders passed the state reading exam, compared to 33 percent a year earlier.

Now Fantroy-Ford is bringing her skills to Albany High School. There, she wants to create smaller communities within the school, switching from two houses to four so students feel more closely connected.

"You want it to be a little more personal, to know who the students are," she said. "I am an alumnae of Albany High, and I'll tell you I loved high school. I want our students to be able to enjoy their years at Albany High."

E. Kristen Frederick
President and CEO of The Community Foundation for the Capital Region, Frederick loves her job. She takes money from donors, invests it and shares the proceeds with nonprofits in need.

Since she took the helm in 2004, the Albany charity has seen the amount it manages grow from $28 million to $40 million. Two years ago, Frederick launched The Women's Fund for the Capital Region to help remove barriers to economic self-sufficiency for women. Using $120,000 in private donations as leverage, the foundation gained $17.5 million in federal and state money to address homelessness.

The geographic area the foundation serves has grown under Frederick as well, from four counties to 10. But her most important message is that you don't have to be rich to be generous: "Anybody can have a fund," she said. "I have a fund I started with $5,000. Anybody can be a philanthropist."

If that weren't enough, Frederick also is a trained rescue scuba diver. She hasn't saved anyone yet - except through her work.

Matt Funiciello
Owner of Rock Hill Bake House in South Glens Falls, Funiciello is an entrepreneur with a devotion to green causes, with both a small and a capital G.

Sure, he makes great bread but he also campaigns for a living wage and the Green Party. He said he is trying to use as much locally made grain as possible to reduce the use of fuel in making his products. And he's reducing how far his loaves travel by cutting back on farmers markets in New Jersey and New York City and increasing sales in the Capital Region. Look for a kiosk in Crossgates Mall beginning this month.

So whom does he like in 2008? Mike Gravel on the left, Ron Paul on the right. But Funiciello is hoping the man he once chauffeured - Ralph Nader - will give it another go.

Bruce Hodge
He built his first computer in eighth grade, had a light-up mortarboard spelling out messages when he graduated from California Polytechnic State University, and now is lining up major contracts with the U.S. military.

The owner of the three-person Tech Valley Technologies Inc. in Greenfield Center, Hodge just landed a five-year, $40 million contract with the Army to produce thermal targets. As a member of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division, Hodge said he realized how crude training was. When a target pops up, he said, "I need to determine whether that's someone I should shoot at or a mother holding a child."

Hodge predicts that within five years Tech Valley Technologies will be a multimillion-dollar company and a major military supplier. Listening to him, you believe it. Right now, he's looking for a CEO.

He'd rather someone else run the business. He wants the time to invent.

Roger Hull
When he retired in 2005 as president of Union College in Schenectady, Hull didn't end his dedication to learning or the community. He launched the Help Yourself Foundation, which looks to link children at a key age - third grade - with after-school programs on college campuses.

So far, three local colleges - The College of Saint Rose, Schenectady County Community College and Albany College of Pharmacy - are involved. The SCCC program, launched in October, brought 24 third-graders from the International Charter School of Schenectady and Girls Inc. of the Greater Capital Region to campus to conduct after-school science experiments and learn from a science-based curriculum.

By engaging at-risk children at an early age, Hull hopes they will become college students a decade later.

Brian Lee
Lee helps ready urban and rural students for careers in the wired world.

CEO of NY Wired for Education, he heard from corporate clients that there was a need for good employees and that 50 percent of urban youth didn't graduate. Lee launched the Career Ready Youth Program five years ago. Teens commit to taking online courses and in return get professional training, mentors and a summer job.

Forty completed the program the first year and were linked to workplaces they desired like hospitals, law firms and architects' offices. "If we can show someone what the future looks like, they might get motivated," Lee said.

Andre Lewis
At age 25, Lewis is already taking on a big task for himself. He is coordinator of the Youth Empowerment and Mentoring Program at the Arbor Hill Community Center in Albany. He runs a peer education program for youths ages 14 to 21. "We're trying to decrease the amount of risky behavior they are engaging in," he said.

That includes everything from preventing kids from contracting HIV to helping them steer clear of gangs and prison. The University at Albany graduate still finds time twice a month to return to serve as youth minister at his church back in Brooklyn, where he grew up.

Dan Liebert
As a social studies teacher at Albany High School, Liebert designed its Essential School program in which students learned through innovative methods. Now, as principal of the new Tech Valley High School, he is in charge of a nontraditional, college-preparatory school where students learn at workstations and the foreign language offered is Chinese.

Forty students are in this year's inaugural class.

Joyce Maddalone
If you think you've got a full life, take a look at Maddalone's. The mother of 13 children is the owner of Maddalone Realty and Property Management, which moved its offices to downtown Schenectady in October.

Besides providing management services for out-of-town property owners, her devotion to her Catholic faith led her to help found the Mother Teresa Academy, a private K-5 school in Clifton Park that opened in September 2006. (It is not associated with the diocese.)

Philip Morris
Do we really have to explain why? Morris, of course, is the CEO who has spent the past three years remaking the State Street block where Proctors Theatre is located.

Now, wait. Make that Proctors' 2,640-seat Mainstage, the 434-seat GE Theatre and the 100-seat 440 Upstairs theater.

In this thrilling revival, Morris is the principal player.

Dr. John Rugge
He cares passionately about health care. Rugge is the CEO of the Glens Falls-based Hudson Headwaters Health Network, which operates community health centers across the Adirondacks that provide primary care to 60,000 patients in an area twice the size of Rhode Island.

Rugge has fought to keep the critically needed centers open, holding a "Boston Tea Party" last summer that drew 100 physicians, health care administrators, government officials and business leaders to Lake George.

He followed up by demanding four major insurers increase how much they reimburse for medical care, which had been up to 30 percent lower than what Medicaid and Medicare pay.

For rural patients, Rugge's outspoken activism on their behalf is just what the doctor ordered.

Judith Saidel
Bringing people together to make a difference is what Saidel does. Executive director of the University at Albany's Center for Women in Government & Civil Society, she was the driving force behind the first Tech Valley Civic Forum held in September.

"We've been sifting through notes to see what makes the most sense as action items," she said.

As coauthor of the 2006 report "High-Tech Growth and Community Well-Being: Lessons Learned from Austin," Saidel also examined the impact the high-tech boom had on the Texas city - and how low-skilled workers, many of them black and Hispanic, were left behind.

As the Capital Region develops into a center for technological innovation and business, as Austin did, Saidel wants to make sure everyone's voice is heard.

Fatemeh (Shadi) Shahedipour Sandvik
An assistant professor and scientist at the University at Albany's College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering, Sandvik not only has a great mind of her own, but she also is encouraging young girls to use theirs in the sciences.

As vice president of the Albany chapter of the Alliance of Technology and Women, she works with its "Great Minds" program to introduce middle-schoolers to career fields they might not otherwise consider. (Sandvik's specialty is optoelectronics, devices that can be used in high temperatures and at higher wattages, like heat sensors in jet engines or long-lasting traffic lights.)

"The hope is we get girls excited about science, and they not only see what wonderful opportunities we have for them, they see women who are role models doing this work," she said.

Those would be, of course, women like her.

Lloyd Stewart
After attending 1995's Million Man March, where he took one son and ran into another, Stewart, then head of the Urban League of Northeastern New York, was inspired to go to Africa.

After traveling for three months to Egypt, Ghana and Zimbabwe, Stewart was so inspired he decided to move to Africa. He got a job as director of economic development for the township of Midrand.

"The disparity in terms of the income and the lifestyles, the way people were dressed, the education, was atrocious," he said. "You could tell the economic status of children based on what they had on their feet."

Stewart returned home to get some affairs in order with every intention of resuming work as Midrand's managing director. Instead, he became ill.

During his recovery, he traced his family history back 300 years and wrote the book "A Far Cry From Freedom: Gradual Abolition 1799 to 1827." With the subtitle "New York State's Crimes Against Humanity," the book "illustrates the depth and breadth of racism in New York state," he said.

Last summer, Stewart was chosen to lead Catholic Charities of Rensselaer County. He serves on the board of the Albany Convention Center Authority, where he often stresses the need to include minority businesses in the work. And he still retains a consulting business that aids minority business operators.

Edward Tick
A psychotherapist and author, Tick is an expert on helping soldiers cope with post-traumatic stress disorder.

He leads A Soldier's Heart, a nonprofit dedicated to helping soldiers cope with their psychological and spiritual needs upon their return from the battlefront. He also leads veterans, former war protesters and others on trips to Vietnam, where he said openness to soldiers' experiences leads to little or no PTSD.

One veteran patient describes most people's reactions to a tour of duty as "drive-by caring." They ask how the vet is, but then swiftly change the subject or end the conversation if he answers honestly.

Tick is working to end the disconnect between soldiers and civilians and to create communities nationwide that understand the need to listen to veterans.

Tommy Watkins
The death of a Lark Street clothing store helped lead a revival of the downtown arts scene.

Watkins and fellow artists Chip Fasciana and Mark Gregory used the dying boutique for a show, and their collaboration led to Albany Underground Artists. Shows in vacant spaces followed, turning into regular arts happenings and the "Night Out" celebrations that are now a mainstay of several Capital Region communities.

"It became this big phenomenon and started attracting thousands of people," Watkins said.

Deborah Williams-Muhammad
A shovel has yet to hit the ground, but there is at least one payoff from the proposed Albany Convention Center: Williams-Muhammad has been working as a consultant to compile a list of minority and women contractors.

Her diligence already has connected minority business owners to other work. A former, and perhaps future, member of the Albany Library Board, Williams-Muhammad is equally known for connecting people with the help they need, whether it's an activist who needs health insurance or a disabled person who needs assistance with a landlord.

"I tell people I am really a human rights activist," she said.

Tim O'Brien can be reached at 454-5092 or by e-mail at